Categories
Retro gaming

The narrative landscape of Panzer Dragoon Saga

If I ever needed a reminder of the indelible quality of video games, then Panzer Dragoon Saga served nicely.

I have started Panzer Dragoon Saga at least once before this occasion where I actually completed it – this time the nostalgia from a mere two years ago was enough to propel me through the game.

Ironically, I last time I attempted to play Saga was in a period of recovery following surgery, my recollection then was that it was compelling game, worthy of the praise I had seen piled on it for many years, but something was missing. Tired from surgery, wracked with pain, it wasn’t the game I needed, it was too subtle, too gentle in persuading me to continue.

Understatement as power

The real message of Panzer Dragoon Saga is nuance, that is perhaps why it is so difficult to really appreciate over a decade after it’s original release. Unlike it’s contemporaries (such as Final Fantasy VII) Saga is a game of understatement, and that’s no bad thing.

Most of the game is spent exploring the game world on the back of your dragon. The gameworld is quiet and brooding, mottled with splashes of pale colour, and dotted with surrealist landscapes, all complimented by the game’s quietly powerful soundtrack.

One thing you notice immediately is the apparent lack of people. As such the game feels very lonely, and this is a deliberate choice on the part of Team Andromeda. The sense of excitement you experience when discovering another person in Saga’s beautiful but painfully barren world is palpable. This experience really lends itself to this RPG experience only lent to Panzer Dragoon once. So each NPC feels more important, more necessary to the story. I found myself hanging on their every word unlike any other RPG.

Flying up to the massive ship called Mel Kava.An example map screen.

Gentle pacing

Panzer Dragoon Saga’s theme of isolation, combined with this rarity strikes the perfect tone. Playing it all these years after its release at a time when everyone was focused on the New Year period felt as though I had walked far off the beaten track. That I had a link with all the people that has sought this game out like myself and stuck with it far past it’s quiet opening, far past its moments of visual grandeur, which does still have the power to impress.

Saga sets a deliberate pace that might be too slow for some, but this is only so it can catch you out with the payoff towards the end of the game. I haven’t enjoyed an ending so thoroughly  since completing Xenoblade Chronicles. The very best gaming endings aren’t just the pay off of the story, but actually linger with you weeks after the game has been completed, and it tinges me with sadness that many people won’t be able to experience Saga’s spectacular finish.

A beautiful battle screen, highlighted in sunset.Your dragon is our salvation.

Saga’s powerful themes

It’s rare that I find the inspiration to continue with a RPG that still employs a random battle system. This is one of the moments (other than moments when Edge is on foot) that hints at the games age. However the battle system goes immediately changes from competent to endlessly enjoyable, as you experiment with completing battles quickly for better ratings, experience and items, and determining the best position for your dragon to move in real time around your enemies.

The bond that you build up with your dragon is worth a mention too. As your longest companion through the game (starting with your ability to name him). This games starts as a story of friendship, but belies something more powerful.

The sense that this is something you have experienced before – particularly if you have played the two previous Saturn Panzer Dragoon games is palpable. This is folded into the narrative by the indelible dream-like quality of the game, a sort of hazy sentiment that carries through each carefully crafted scene and landscape. The pacing of this game also nods of a lucid dream particularly through the freedom of flight.

This is supported by the ending of the game too, which reveals a richer thread to the narrative that makes your subsequent memory of the game more humbling as you spin through each exciting realisation in turn.

The dragon and rider highlighted in blue.Exploring the brightly lit rooms of the Tower.

Gliding over landscapes

So is Panzer Dragoon Saga deserving of all the high praise it has received in the years following its release? In all probability yes – if viewed through the careful lens of the time it was made. Looking back it is an extremely revolutionary game, it left an impression on me for another reason though.

I am now five years into a chronic illness. The optimism from that promising surgery back when I last attempted Saga is mere vapour. I am more tired than ever, and the fatigue has an odd effect on my brain.

Each time I sit down to play or write about a game, I left its finishing screen feeling empty-headed. Sometimes games can take us back to a moment in time, through their gameplay, their music. Their quality. And Saga did this, it took me back to that moment of recovery back in 2010, when I still had hope about my illness.

As such it has been my immense pleasure to play, despite all the pomp and noise from other games, it was this quiet, almost sombre experience that reminded me exactly why I was so inspired to start discussing video games back in 2009 upon completing this website.

Saga’s patient, impassive glides over landscapes, water and its breathtaking technicality reminded me to walk off the beaten track a little more often, to find joy from experiences that many others have moved on from. To enjoy the rich tapestry of our gaming history rather than just our gaming present.

Categories
Video games

A plea for more online cross region play

I am an advocate of local co-operative gaming. I’ve talked about how important it is numerous times before. Ironically it is this way to play multiplayer games that has undoubtedly led to the decisions surrounding Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate’s online play being region locked.

This is because the primary audience for Monster Hunter in Japan play plays completes most of their hunting sessions locally. I’d agree that is the optimum way to play that particular game, but not everyone gets that opportunity.

Online play was touted on the Wii U version as a bit of an afterthought, a concession to a Western audience who had become used to playing the series online since the popularity of Monster Hunter Tri (and the original Monster Hunter on the PS2 long before that).

My hopes were not high about Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate having region-free online play (particularly since Monster Hunter Tri didn’t), but it has led me to question the culture of region-locked online play when it’s considered an industry standard on any other hardware.

Supposed technical limitations

No reasons have been given about why cross-region play has been avoided for this version of Monster Hunter, but I suspect the following it’s due to a combination of connection speed and the culture of communication.

Monster Hunter is a game requiring precise movement and reaction, timing is indeed key, and particularly at higher levels can mean life or death. A good connection is important but certainly not the to the degree needed for a competitive FPS game. Contrary to some hunters I have spent an extensive amount of time playing Monster Hunter Portable 3rd with the Japanese Monster Hunter community, connection speed has seldom been a problem.

I propose then that this decision may have been made to make the issue of communication between different regions that much easier.

Not only would cross-region play need more robust servers able to make numerous connections from hundreds of different locations, but this sort of online play would need some communication tools. Auto translate features that a Japanese audience wouldn’t need and wouldn’t be considered for their local version.

Incorporating these features would mean localisation for several different languages needed to be inherent in all versions of the game, in order to allow people to collaborate easily. This is before looking at the issue of voice chat, which is increasingly common.

If auto translate and communication between regions is to be taken seriously, it needs to be considered from the ground up as part of a games inception. Sounds too much like hard work? I’d like to propose another option.

Waiting around after a completed hunt.All dressed up and ready to hunt.

How global play games can work without communication

Being a gamer in Europe, many of the games I have played online over the years have been with people I cannot understand. Be it in French, German, Spanish, Italian or Japanese. Has this hampered my gaming experience? If anything experiencing a game with a completely different audience has broadened it.

The closest sensation I can equate it to is playing Journey – when normal communication methods are removed, people find other ways to display or describe what they want to say. Be it singing notes in a pattern or drawing hearts in the snow.

Gamers generally in my experience don’t mind someone who cannot communicate or understand their language. This is overpowered by the intrinsic need to play. People only mind if you are competent at your chosen game, and if you make an effort to gesture to thank someone or praise them at the right time, and most of these concepts can be covered by in-game gestures, simple English or emoticons.

Play a game you love with someone else you cannot speak a word to and gamers find a way to use their own in-built knowledge of the game to make anyone who cannot speak their native tongue feel included.

Isn’t the entire point of the internet to connect people? Boxing us into historical gaming regions breaks up those of us who have connected with people outside of our own country. Perversely we find ourselves in situations where we can talk together entirely freely online, but cannot experience certain video games together.

A 3 player game in Phantasy Star Online.Buying items from the Final Fantasy XI auction house, with added auto translate.

Cross region collaborative games can work

I’ve spent a good amount of time experiencing the very best examples of cross-region and auto translate support. Phantasy Star Online is the yardstick by which all my other collaborative games are judged against and sadly for Capcom it managed cross-region support, collaborative play and auto-translate back in 2000 and on dial-up no less.

Crucially it’s symbol chat experience allowed people to create their own ways to celebrate or warn people by using cards and sounds to display concepts or help. Interestingly it also had optional region-based servers for people who preferred to play with people from their country, or in their own language.

For the most part though people mingled, for the short time the Dreamcast and later Gamecube versions were really alive it really felt like a universal game, a melting pot of language and play.

Final Fantasy XI took things a step further, as a party of six adventurers were always needed to complete missions or defeat monsters. Auto translate in this game was robust enough for you to have simple conversations with someone, highlighted to show you were using this option, and automatically translated into the language of all the other players around you. It was this system that allowed me to not only party, but understand and thank the numerous Japanese players I partied with over the years in the game.

Perhaps next time?

With Capcom working with Nintendo to host the online play for this game, either party could have made the decision to allow cross region play in Monster Hunter for the first time, they could have done this easily by setting aside a few ships specifically for multi region play, but for whatever reason they didn’t. I only hope this is a mistake they don’t make again.

Categories
Retro gaming

The impact of my first experiences with gaming

I was very young when I first played a video game – around two or three years old. It remains one of my oldest memories, one of my first, formative thoughts of the world.

Many children my age had favourite toys, or imaginary friends. Things they adored, that came alive with their own unique understanding.

As a girl growing up with rapidly emerging technology in the 80s, video games were mine.

Those early days

Games back then required more than a little imagination. Those hazy shapes on the screen that were meant to represent people, or vast buildings, or the tiniest item. Not everything was particularly clear. You bought lots of second hand games, you traded games with friends, you didn’t always have the manual or the context for the game you were playing. Picking up a video game then required a little lateral thinking, as few things were obvious.

The only thing that was verbatim was the sense to experiment and discover, to share, compare and learn by doing. These old, almost nostalgic gaming traits are the biggest gift that gaming has given me. They are the tools I have carried with me into adulthood. As a child I saw a beautiful magic in gaming, as I got older I wanted to understand how my consoles and computers worked, how they were made. Video games were the first things to ignite a spark of imagination in my very young mind. Many things came after, but it was that first, very powerful feeling that forged me through the years to come.

Even back then I remember being enraptured by the interactively gaming posed, the promise of what would only improve and get better. I became even more fascinated when I realised that not everyone shared this view – that my parents and siblings found the process confusing or bewildering. This same galvanising feeling of inspiration protected me each time my love of video games was misunderstood, or each time I failed in a game. Video games did look basic back then, but they were also much more difficult. Both of these concepts developed my youthful patience.

I have and always will find it liberating for this reason. As a child video games were profoundly personal experience, a puzzle, an oddity, a secret. It was always seen in that way by others, but never by me.

those-early-days-gaming-1those-early-days-gaming-2

Gaming and how it’s shaped my identity

What’s telling then is how little has changed from my origins with gaming. I face many of the game prejudices from my peers about my decision to play games. Back then this a moral panic about a young child playing games that might be violent or deemed a waste of time. Secondarily I faced criticism for spending time on what was deemed to be very much a male past-time, rather than the more obvious activities expected from my gender.

These are still subjects I am grappling to improve awareness and understanding of as an adult.

Crucially back then gaming was relegated very much to those young minds who has the patience and energy to bear with this new interactive medium. My parents and other adults complained back then that gaming was too hard for them to understand, the barriers to entry too high. They still use this same argument many years later. Interestingly it was with a young, and open mind that I first turned to gaming. Free from the worries and prejudices of those around me. No one taught me, I found a way because I wanted to.

As such I’ll never really understand the argument that gaming is hard, and it really isn’t that much easier for young mind to learn, it was just easier for my younger self to be engaged by video games as a medium rather than terrified by it. I now find myself with the means and knowledge to verbalise that epiphany I had all those years ago. Something new isn’t something to be afraid of, and that certainly applies to video games.

those-early-days-gaming-3those-early-days-gaming-4

Gaming gave me confidence

So gaming inspired a life-long turn against the tide. The streak of my personality that asked questions. It encouraged a young mind not to rot, but to think more creatively and experiment.

Ultimately it was gaming that inspired a life-long love of computing and technology and my career in web development. Gaming helped me to appreciate that it was a hobby every bit as valid as any other way to spend time. A progressive and social medium. It’s not perfect and we certainly have a long way to go as a community, but it’s helped me to develop a way of thinking and adapting to change that few other hobbies could have.

Above all though it’s made me happy. Gaming has given me more pleasure and joy than anything else I have tried, and all from a flippant decision all those years ago to try out something society had told my young mind I wasn’t allowed, or wasn’t for me.

This post was written for the Critical Distance Blogs of the Round Table. This months theme was origins.

Categories
Video games

Sometimes gaming is too much like hard work

I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days where I detest video games. Days where the idea of playing something seems like too much like hard work. Lots of gamers like to pretend this feeling doesn’t happen, that gaming encourages overwhelming positive emotions and feelings every single day in a completely unending wave.

The days where this normally happens now are on days where I’m tired, swamped with commitments, and sometimes (just sometimes) an interactive medium seems too much like hard work. On days like this video games becomes another mountain to climb rather than an avenue to let me unwind.

It is very much a symptom of adulthood, not only finding the time to play games, but sometimes it goes as far as finding the energy to be inspired by them.

Days where I lack focus

I can’t dabble with games in the way I used to when I was a child. I’m simply unable to indulge in wiling away hours playing and experimenting in excited calm (like I used to). Often my gaming sessions now are very short and very focused, towards the end of the day when I am most tired and have the least patience.

As such the limited time I have to play games has a greater chance to frustrate me in some small way. The time limit renders me unable to make a great deal of progress with a game that needs more care, attention and time that I can perhaps provide that day.

I almost always turn the corner on feelings like this, but it’s important to talk about those days where no game seems to sate me. I’ve used Tombi as an example to illustrate this update. Not because it’s a bad game (it’s actually a favourite of mine). Although this month of gaming indifference has morphed it from a source of total joy and into one of frustration. As such it sums up the dangerous result of my temporary exhaustion with gaming nicely.

Tombi is a game I was highly excited to finally own a proper copy of, a games whose arrival I anticipated for years, whose genius has been partially ruined by my temporary (and perhaps) seasonal disinterest in games.

This feeling will pass and I’ll find a reason to get excited about gaming again (in a few weeks or less) but in the meantime I am pushing onwards through the game hoping the spark will leap back soon. I am certain it will because it is a game I have had the pleasure of playing at least once before.

Getting beaten up in the jungle.Attempting to bag a pig boss.

A tired frustration

It seems almost too easy to blame the games we play on days like this for our lack of focus and commitment. However we are equally responsible for the discontent, and the lack of focus. It’s also really easy for others to dismiss such feelings away by encouraging ourselves to try another game.

I personally find when I feel like this that I carry this feeling into every game I attempt to play. Turning even the most precious and appreciated game against me like some sort of horrible mirror.

So a vicious circle builds where I can’t progress past these feelings. I’m fearful to leave games on a bad moment as this makes it harder to return and try again. During these “push on through” moments, my precious gaming time instead becomes a frustrating exercise in time lost and lack of progression.

While I often have a reason to be frustrated about an aspect of my time with video games, I’m frequently reminded of how beguiling gaming is, how quickly it can change my mood, swing me back and forth between adoration and scorn. I take my (rare) moments of disinterest in gaming as one of the few negatives I identify with the pastime.

Part of this is down to the wealth of games we have now, a lack of time and patience from the pressures of adult life, but also how spoilt we can be as gamers. Demanding a good experience as if it were a right rather than a privilege.

I’ve talked about how chronic illness has forced me to use video games as a coping mechanism, now it seems apt to talk how it’s building a sense of resentment on the days where I am sick and video games provide no respite. There are days I resent games for not helping me to escape from illness. However I do feel guilty for expecting them to do this, as I start to use them to cover up my own poor health and inadequacies.

More often than not though these feelings are an indication that I need to take a break from gaming for a couple of weeks and come back to it bright-faced, because games will always excite me and this temporary loss of how they do, just serves to remind me.

Categories
Video games

Revisiting old places – the art of location nostalgia

I recently completed my first playthrough of Borderlands 2. I steeped high praise on the first game and greatly anticipated its second outing. The moments I enjoyed the most from Borderlands 2 though were it’s knowing nods to the first title.

Both Borderlands 1 and 2 succeed in creating a very well-realised sense of place. Borderlands 2 builds on this idea, by creating memorable and heartfelt links back to the first games setting, allowing the player to go back and explore how the game world has changed.

I call the feeling this provokes, location nostalgia.

A memorable example

There’s something really special about returning to locations from previous games. Particularly where a significant amount of in-game time has passed. The times where this is most effective is when a number of real life years have passed also. Say the difference in time between the original game and its successor. The most memorable experience I have of this revolutionary location nostalgia is inadvertently discovering the ruins of Nupraptor’s Retreat in Soul Reaver.

Nupraptor's Retreat as featured in Blood Omen.The large, fallen skull in Soul Reaver.

The retreat itself is a very memorable building. Unmistakable to any old fans of the Legacy of Kain series. In Blood Omen Nupraptor resides in a huge skull resting at the top of a waterfall. It’s an awe-inspiring moment in the game, as you reach the jawbone of this massive skull (while playing as the vampire Kain) peering out of the enormous glass windows that are its eyes. You go there to seek revenge for Kain from one of the Guardians of the pillars who requested the murder that led to Kain’s damnation.

What makes this location even more impressive is finding the fallen ruins of this skull many hundreds of years later in the sequel – Soul Reaver. The skull has fallen from the resplendent perch it once sat at, and is the perfect metaphor for the decline of the world of Nosgoth under Kain’s rule. The malevolent rule that you perhaps encouraged through your playthrough of the first title.

Including Nupraptor’s retreat in Soul Reaver was a master stroke. A simple location device which had a broader and massive significance to those lucky enough to experience Blood Omen’s remarkable story at the time. It was just as impressive playing the game in reverse order – with Soul Reaver being the first Legacy of Kain game that many of us played. I remember the beautiful epiphany I had upon reaching Nupraptor’s Retreat in Blood Omen and realising what it would become. I had seen the future of this game world, seen the devastation my decisions in Blood Omen would reap upon the world, and upon the character of Raziel.

The view looking out towards the gate to Fyrestone.A closed up shop.

Examples in Borderlands 2

The location reuse in Borderlands 2 was far more subtle, but just as effective. Five years have passed in the game world, and three years since we had played the series for the first time. We’re reminded of what came before partly through interacting with the cast of the last game, but also from the settings of the games last quarter, where you return to the places where your original adventure began.

Borderlands 2 rewards those lucky to have experienced the first game fully by easing them back into the starting areas of the first game – including the Arid Badlands and Fyrestone. Veterans of the series can see how these areas have deteriorated or changed under Hyperion rule.

You see Piss Wash Gully where you first grabbed a vehicle, and did your first vehicle jump (now surrounded by a purple slag lake). You return to the site of the Fyrestone shops (now closed and abandoned). You return to T.K Baha’s house to find out more about his background (and find some secrets). You find the original town sign and gate where you defended the original Claptrap from your very first wave of enemies.

The jump at Piss Wash Gully.The entrance gate to Fyrestone.

It’s a wonderful, nostalgic moment in gaming for anyone who appreciated the first game hugely, and crucially it’s reverence is not completely lost on new audiences. You’re informed of the events of the previous games, by playful nods to 2.0 versions of the bosses that were fought there, or echo transmissions which explain the context of the location.

It’s a perfectly pitched moment, and a fitting conclusion to the narrative ties of the first game. It’s a swan song to both the adventure you’re having now (by its inclusion late in the game) and the adventure you had before. These are the hallmarks of really successful location design, they lodge in the memory and inspire a particular feeling. This feeling is improved by the future and successive nods to those past, great locations.

I’m always impressed by game designers that decide to use this technique, its a nice treat to your existing fanbase, and an encouragement to those new to the series to go back and better understand the references for themselves.