Exploring Abandoned Research Facilities for Skill Points and Relaxation

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System Shock 2 is one of my favorite games. This late 90’s PC game, is a mix of low-key cyberpunk and the alright movie Event Horizon. It further combines survival-based combat with a focus on RPG style skill trees and paths created its own distinct subgenre of video game, often labeled “System Shock 2 like”. Dracula’s castle from Castlevania: Symphonia of the Night was metroidvania’s mother (father…adopted gay mom?), and System Shock 2’s spooky mega-corporation owned space ship, the Von Braun, create an iconic setting within a subgenre it unintentionally created. What sets apart, and realistically limits the amount of games given the moniker “System Shock 2-like” compared to the relatively swamped subgenre of metroidvanias is, a necessary bigger budget. Additionally, these game require an almost constant reliance on utilizing some of the original System Shock 2 staff. As if metroidvanias like Hollow Knight, Dust: An Elysian Tail, and Quacamelee! would have to invite Castlevania’s real life Dracula, creative director Koji Igarashi, to consult on each game as a show of authenticity.

System Shock 2-likes” feel as if they have at least one big hand print of System Shock 2, like a Urah-kai’s mark of Saruman, over the design document. The legacy of System Shock 2 is so impactful, that even a later game like Void Bastards is marketed front and center with the tag line “from the development director of System Shock 2 and Bioshock”. This shared creative staff creates an odd familiarity for these games set, sometimes only partially, in isolated abandoned research facilities, including Bioshock 1 and 2, Prey (2017), and the distant cousin Soma.

Active exploration is big in “System Shock 2-likes”, where certain key areas are returned to over and over. Prey protagonist Morgan Yu’s office being refitted into a home base comes to mind, similar to the frequent backtracking in metroidvanias. That compulsive need to open every drawer, filing cabinet, or bathroom stall, common in story-focused walking simulators like Gone Home, is encouraged. It’s rather amusing that a subgenre of games so fixated on creative methods for dispatching grotesque monsters or armor-plated robots feels best when every enemy is simply ignored because you are only returning to Engineering because you just remembered there was a hidden unopened safe. Screw progressing the overarching plot to find answers as to why the research facility is abandon and why everyone is dead. You have audio logs detailing how much Margret in Hydroponics dislikes Brendon from Neuromod Division because his last White Elephant gift was something shitty, like an expensive bag of whiskey stones. Soma’s safe mode even removes all direct combat with its instant death undersea monstrosities, letting the player scatter papers and coffee cups in relative peace.

The solo journey of the “System Shock 2-like” is great for providing a creepy atmosphere, where often the only non-monster met are recently-deceased crewmate set pieces. Explore a lab in System Shock 2, find a hanged researcher. Explore a train corridor in Soma, find a technician being barely kept alive by a respirator AI. Go literally anywhere in Prey, find a staff member dried of their energy by the Typhon so they now look like a tar-covered mummy. It invokes this great feeling, like in the original Alien, that while you are scurrying to  survive, creatures bigger and scarier than you are also keeping busy.

Prey found body

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Why We Need Okage: Shadow King To Keep Us Humble

okage A few months ago I was amusing myself with an early PS2 game called Okage: Shadow King, a delightfully goofy game that doesn’t bother to take itself seriously for eighty-five percent of the story. Okage is the kind of game that at first sight, seems purely crafted for goofy entertainment, a fair bit of foreshadowing and clues that let you get  the deeper nature of the game’s world. But ultimately, you will remember Okage because it makes you laugh, snicker and chuckle.It is the kind of game that makes talking in Pig Latin a terrible curse, our protagonist the prize winner for “most overshadowed character”, and includes such bosses as the Sewer Evil King, the Company President Evil King, and the Idol Evil King. I feel comedy focused games are missing nowadays, leaving only games that take themselves too seriously.

As much as I enjoy a poignant narrative, such as: that of Radiant Historia, a story of loss and how time travel will not necessarily solve everything; and Xenoblade, a tale of revenge and how easy it makes it for others to use you as their pawn, great stories, but they have a fill of plot devices we have all seen before. I know that anyone with a true love for games and their favorite genre knows that they all have trappings, traditions, and weird habits that deserve the occasional mocking.

I present to you, the Sewer Evil King.

I present to you, the Sewer Evil King.

I appreciate games such as Disgaea and other titles that NIS publishes that love to use goofy characters ( with outrageous level caps) that make fun of anime and game clichés, to say nothing of obliterating the fourth wall. But even these goofy characters have their share of drama and heavy themes that become more pronounced as the game progresses. I mean, two plots about demon children wanting to overthrow their overlord fathers is enough, okay? I feel like they stand in more as buffers (chemistry humor, yes?). But I feel they do not go far enough into the comedy to get anywhere near Okage. Continue reading

Can Gender Selected Characters Ever Be Growing Characters?

Sometime back around 2000 or 2001, my mom bought me the Game Boy Color remake edition of Dragon Quest 3. This was a big event for me: it was my first exposure to Dragon Quest, one of my favorite RPG series, and it was my first “T” rated game, were I was first exposed to saucy subject matter like Akira Toriyama’s love of girls in bunny suits (which DQ3 practically had as an entire job class devoted to, called a Gadabout) and the fan revered “puff puff” service. Yet the biggest aspect of DQ3 on the GBC for me was unintentionally picking a female lead. See, the probably seven year old me thought that I was picking my weight class, misinterpreting “M” as medium instead of male and “F” as fat instead of female.  So here I was, at party with a beefy warrior, a stocky fighter, a pretty thief, all male, who dwarfed their female hero leader by a foot.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned my character was female, a concept I found cool as I was playing this small woman who commanded orders to these three big male adventures; empowering if you think about it.

Anyone could see my confusion when pretty men like Yuri from Tales of Vesperia are such common RPG protagonists.

Let’s talk about gender selection in videogames, as I’ve got something on my mind.

Character gender selection to me has its strongest ties to RPGs, with simulation games coming in second. Since the main character is usual meant to represent the player’s avatar, a player’s gender is an important means of visual distinction. Often, gender selection is simply aesthetic, like my earlier example with DQ3, its sequel DQ4, and most of the Pokémon games. A pre-construct male or female choice where your silent-protagonist self-insert has little bearing on the story but to play along (well, unless you are like me where playing DQ4 as a girl changed the narrative to “How High Fantasy Lunch from Dragon Ball Saved the World from Evil”).

Further character customization, even going far enough to choose different species, still often only speaks to the aesthetics. I don’t remember Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic ever hinting at the beginning of character creation that making Revan a foxy lady meant getting a stat boost to force lightening and toxic resistance. For a solely fighting game example, the character customization in the later Soul Calibur games did let me make a short and skinny lady who fought with Nightmare’s behemoth Soul Edge. Awesome yes, but it was at the expense of the series’ historically minded 16th-17th realistic setting… a setting that thought it necessary to let that alien thing Necrid exist. In fact, since character creation works on its own plane of wish-fulfillment, it’s hard for it to have any real bearing on the world around it.

Wait a second. This Saint Seiya character was alive in the 80’s. How am I suppose to take her in Soul Calibur seriously when the only thing I can think of is 80’s leg warmers?

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Garr and Yasha in “When You Doubt Your Seemingly Corrupt Leader”

I originally planned on writing this article on the many ways Japanese games represent different world religions, and while I might try again in the future, the only thing that came to mind was how the Catholic church was either a great place to save your game, like in the Dragon Quest games, or a headquarters for the cartoony evil initial villains, like in the Tales of games (Tales of the Abyss even made their Catholic church music themed with evil maestros and everything). I then decided to write about video games that go through religious doubt, but that’s far too complicated. Finally I decided “why not write about two different video game characters that followed similar character arcs to that of Final Fantasy IV’s Cecil Harvey?” In other words, characters whose doubt eventually caused them to refute their leaders’ plans when they decided that they no longer morally agreed.

Warning: Serious plot spoilers for both Breath of Fire 3 (BF3) and Asura’s Wrath (well, statutes of limitation on BF3, as I reserve the right to spoil a PS1 game that is old enough to drive in all 50 U.S. states). 

Garr is one of the four Holy Guardians created by the head goddess of the Urukian tribe (similar to Mayan people) who revere Garr with respect, demonstrated by how they act completely unfazed by his large demonic appearance. Originally created centuries ago to start the Brood War, a conflict against a perceived world threating group of half dragon humans named Broods; Garr spends his semi-immortal life as the reigning champion of an underground fighting competition called the Contest of Champions. I see Garr’s role in Breath of Fire 3 as a world-worn guide for the main character, the once centuries dormant and perceived last living Brood descendent Ryu. Garr’s a perpetually crossed-armed reminder that he’s been around Breath of Fire 3’s post-apocalyptic fantasy block.

Garr, found in his natural habitat.

During the first half, when Garr brought Ryu to Angel’s Tower, a Brood graveyard, Garr secretly planned on killing Ryu. Conflicted about his role in life, Garr often struggled with what was more important: fulfilling his duty to enact his God’s wishes by destroying the Brood; or letting Ryu live. Garr felt doubtful of the Brood after they intentionally didn’t resist Garr and the other Guardians.  Leaving Garr to doubt his actions, but at this point still goes through with his God’s plan.

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