Monday, February 25, 2013

Pokemon According to my Dad

I'm not the first to do this, and I won't be the last, but I'm just going to go ahead and do it anyway. 

I showed my parents pictures of the Pokemon from the first generation and asked them to name the ones they knew, if any, and guess or make up names for those they didn't. My mom dropped out of the challenge almost immediately. Here's what my dad came up with after thinking way too hard about each one and taking half of forever:
I don't know about you, but I learned several things today. According to my dad, [word] + "a" + [word] = Pokemon, "Peakachu" has three evolutions, and far more Pokemon are dinosaurs than I had previously realized.

Thanks dad, for taking the time to do this, even with super fun stuff on TV like racing. 

<< Postcards from Pokéarth

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Playstation 4 first reveal coverage

The rumors were true and the PS4 has officially been announced. So what's new, you ask? Well let me tell you...

The Controller
The PS4's controller looks much like previous Dualshock controllers. The one shown in the event seemed to be very similar to the one leaked in pictures recently. The D-Pad is closer together, there's a headphone jack, and the shoulder buttons and rumble are improved, but the biggest changes are the share button, touch pad, and light bar. The light bar works with a sensor bar to track the controller's location. The touch pad seems to function simply as another form of input. The share button is part of the Playstation 4's huge focus on social gaming, which deserves its own section.

The Console
Unlike Nintendo, Sony revealed many details about the system specs from the get go. In fact, they rattled them off so fast that I didn't manage to record them, though admittedly I wouldn't have understood their true meaning even if I had. But from what I gather, the hardware is pretty good. The Unreal 4 engine rendered quite nicely in real time and the demoed games all looked impressive. It will not natively play PS3 games (boo!), but presumably will eventually via cloud gaming and Gaikai, recently acquired by Sony. [Update: PSN games from the PS3 also will not be compatible with the PS4 because screw the customer.] Once again, the biggest deal is the console's streaming and social capabilities, and once again I'll put off detailing that for another section.

Apart from the social aspects, there were a few other neat features. You'll be able to suspend your gameplay with the power button and essentially pause and save long-term, anywhere in the game. Games can update and download in the background while you play. There will be demos for almost every PS4 game that you can play very quickly. Downloaded games will actually be playable as they download. Also, it'll be possible to stream PS4 games from the console to the Vita in much the same way as the Wii U can, though it seems this may not be available for every game.

The PS4 will track your gaming habits and use this information to try to predict which games you might be interested in. Based on this, the store will display ads for games that it thinks you want (much to the chagrin of privacy activists, I'm sure), and it will even pre-download games based on these predictions, so that before you even buy a game, it may already have been downloaded. While this sounds like a handy feature, I'm sure that it'll get a lot of flack for the same reasons as Facebook's targeted ads do.

Social Gaming
The console has a built in, always-on, video compression and decompression system that will record your gameplay as you play. If you do something worth sharing, you can press the share button and review your recent gameplay, cut, and upload it. Even better, you can stream your gameplay live to friends or publicly to UStream. Friends can send comments to you while you play and developers may even allow them to directly influence your game while you play. You'll also be able to take give control over to someone watching so they can help you through difficult areas or show you tricks.

It seems that there will be a big focus on making this functionality into a gaming-centric social network. Judging from the popularity of gameplay videos and Let's Plays on Youtube, and the rapidly increasing popularity of livestreaming on, the ability to record and stream video from all PS4 games seems like it will be one of the console's most successful features.

There was also talk of having games from all Playstation systems playable on a wide variety of platforms including tablets and smartphones, though it seemed that this would still be a while off.

Of course, all this technology is meaningless without games backing it up (isn't that right, Nintendo?). Luckily, several cool games were shown, with the promise of more throughout the year. It's still unclear whether or not most of them will make the launch window, but what was shown looks good.

(View trailer)
By the maker of Crash Bandicoot, Knack has a cartoony vibe, but looks to be action-oriented with a potentially deep story as well. Hardly any gameplay was shown at all, but what was shown, demonstrated how it could be streamed to and played on a Vita. The rest looked to be cutscenes showing off the story.

Killzone: Shadowfall (View trailer)
The graphics look amazing, and that's about all you can tell about it so far. Seriously though, it's like playing in a CG movie.

Driveclub (View presentation footage)
There are cars with an incredible attention to detail. Hopefully that attention to detail carries over to the gameplay as well.

inFamous: Second Son (View trailer)
The buildup to this game talked of the government's overbearing encroachment upon its citizens' privacy, with cameras and other monitoring. I thought they were going to address the PS4's tracking of your gameplay habits, but in fact they were introducing the next inFamous game in which people with powers rise up against an oppressive government. Looks pretty cool.

The Witness
(View trailer)
By the maker of Braid, is The Witness. It looks to play something like Myst and also seems to be the most beautiful game I've seen since Journey. It takes place on an island and is apparently focused on condensed content, no filler, and solid puzzle-based gameplay. Of all the games shown, this is the one I'm most hyped about. It will be exclusive to the PS4 at launch, though based on the wording it seems that it will later be available on other platforms.

In addition to these games, some third parties also announced a few games that look to have potential, including Bungie's upcoming game, Destiny. Once again, it's hard to say how much of this will be available at launch, but at least it seems more promising than the Wii U reveal at E3 last year did (thankfully, Nintendo has managed to reveal a bit more through Nintendo Direct since then). No word yet on price or release date, but what I've seen so far looks promising.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Depression Quest

Do you know someone who is clinically depressed? Have you ever wanted to know what it was like to be clinically depressed? Do you know someone who you want to know what it's like to be depressed? Well stop talking to your screen, because I can't hear you either way. Instead, check out Depression Quest, an online interactive fiction game in which you take on the role of a depressed character and are tasked with making their decisions to get them through every day events.

The game is built on the interactive fiction platform provided by and is the second such game I've encountered after hearing about the site a week or so ago.

The purpose of the game, as stated in its introduction, is to provide an accurate representation of what it is like to be depressed so that those who aren't can understand it, and to give comfort to people suffering from depression so that they know they aren't alone in their struggle.

The game consists of reading through different situations and the character's depressed thought processes and then making choices at key points. These decisions affect how the story plays out. Depending on whether you seek treatment or not, certain options may be unavailable to you as well. While the game is primarily plain text, there are also images and music that change according to the scenario and your state of mind.

As someone who suffers from depression myself, I can easily identify with many of the thoughts and situations that Depression Quest's character experiences. As the game itself admits, everyone's experience is different, and mine certainly has some key differences as well. But I did find that the game's representation of depression was generally very accurate, to the point that I stopped playing before I finished. I found myself thinking "I'm already living this, why would I want to think about it more?" I'm fortunate enough that my friends and family are understanding of my situation and supportive of my [continually unsuccessful] search for treatment, so I don't really have anyone who I feel the need to share this with either. Nor do I feel particularly alone in my struggle. (In fact, I find it hard to believe in the existence of people who genuinely aren't depressed.)
I know that feel, bro.
So while I can certainly identify with the character, I wonder if playing Depression Quest would really help those who don't understand depression to understand, or if would frustrate them just as much as observing a depressed person in real life would. I fear that the difference in thinking between the character and the player, as well as the limited available choices, might create a disconnect too great for non-depressed players to be able to relate at all. Furthermore, the sort of people who would even consider playing a game like Depression Quest seem likely to be the sort of people who would be understanding without it. 

But I can only provide my own experience with the game. I would be interested in hearing the opinions of others who can relate to Depression Quest in different ways, so I invite you to leave some comments below if you try it out. As for me, I think I'll be better off without finishing it for now.

In case you didn't catch it, here's the link again to Depression Quest.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Why Linearity Isn't a Bad Thing

For a while now I've been hearing gamers and game reviewers throwing around "linearity" as a reason why certain games are bad. Most people just seem to be regurgitating this negative buzzword that they heard in a review or forum somewhere. It's so widespread now that everyone knows that linear games are bad by now, right? Well let me stop you right there bucko, because I have some important news for you:

There's nothing inherently wrong with linearity in games.

That's right, linearity isn't the problem. Now, if you just don't like linear games, that's fine and understandable; they're different after all. But don't go saying they're bad because of that. If the game actually is bad, it's usually due to poor level design or gameplay; and no, linear levels do not equal poor level design. In fact, linearity makes good level design easier. Linearity means that the game designer knows exactly where the player will be and can plan the enemies and obstacles accordingly to present just the right amount of difficulty, problem solving, and instruction. It might not seem like it to you, but if the game is good, everything is in its particular place for a reason.

That "scripted" goomba is just so boring, right?
I've heard people whining about Half-Life 2 just being a bunch of scripted events. Boo hoo. How about that scripted goomba in Super Mario Bros.? It's always there in the same place every time you play! How boring and predictable, right? Wrong, doofus! That goomba is there to teach you the sacred art of jumping right off the bat. A better example is the tutorial level of Megaman X, which presents you with an enemy you can jump over, then one you can't and have to shoot, then some you have to shoot while jumping, and then there's this "terrible" scripted event that breaks the bridge and makes you fall into a pit that teaches you how to wall jump out of. Oh, and all this doesn't even need to use on-screen instructions to teach you. All these enemies are the same every time you play and are designed with a specific solution in mind in order to teach you how to play the game.

By the way, every game is made up of scripted events; that's what programming is. Maybe what you mean by "scripted event" is "mini-cutscene" or "Quick Time Event (QTE)"?

"Alright, fine," I hear you say, "Teaching stuff is all well and good, but what about scripted events mid-game?" Well riddle me this, Batman: what if well-placed "scripted events" also made the game more cinematic, epic, and cool? Just because they're overused and often misused, doesn't mean that they are inherently bad. If done right, they can actually make the game more fun.
Uncharted uses scripted events to make you feel like you're in an action movie.
"Yeah, but modern FPS games are just walking down pretty hallways and shooting stuff." That may be true, but you're still presupposing that this is a bad thing. Liking a maze-like FPS more than a linear one is purely a matter of personal preference. Half-Life 2 is not Doom and it is not supposed to be. Linearity can define sub-genres [also just because you have to backtrack to find a key doesn't make something nonlinear]. Linearity gives you two general kinds of FPS games as mentioned, it gives you the difference between Skyrim and modern Final Fantasy, and the difference between Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy. None of these are better or worse than the other simply because of their linearity. Liking one over the other just because one is more open or has more choices is simply a matter of taste.

Let's focus on storytelling in games for a sec. I hear you guys complaining about linear modern JRPGs, but you know what else is linear? Books and movies. In "Video games are better than books", I said that one of the advantages of games is that you can have branching storylines. The important word here is "can". Letting the player do whatever they want is an option open to developers, but it is not necessary and there are plenty of benefits to limiting the story to one main path. The argument for a "linear" story is much the same as that for linear level design: with complete control over the story, the author can exactly what they want, precisely when they want in order to evoke a particular emotion or drive home a particular point. Maybe you don't have side quests available at certain points in an RPG because it wouldn't make sense for the characters to be doing side quests at that point. There is a place for RPGs where you are the character and you can do whatever you want (Skyrim), but I find that if you want to tell a story, a more controlled environment and more defined character works better. Being able to slaughter innocents as the hero of legend just wouldn't make sense and would take you out of the story that the game was intended to tell. Once again, the differences are there because the games serve different purposes and different tastes.

While (bad) linear games are more susceptible to a feeling of lack of freedom, nonlinear games have their own common problems. When the player is free to go where they want and do whatever they want, it is easy for the level design to become bland and uninspired. This is for the same reason that linear games ought to make level design easier; when the developer has to account for such a wide range of player positions and abilities, it's hard to make an adequate design. Nonlinear games also tend to be more susceptible to the "jack of all trades, master of none" syndrome. With so many options and so much variety, it is hard to keep the quality of everything high, to keep gameplay balanced, and to keep the story meaningful.

Perhaps the times that linearity in games makes people so upset are when it comes contrary to expectations. Making a linear game in an otherwise nonlinear game series is an unexpected and drastic change, so it's easy to understand why fans wouldn't like such a game. But in such a case, it's likely that some other linear-preferring fanbase would like the game.
FFXIII wasn't as open as fans of the series expected.
Both linear and nonlinear games have their pros and cons that can be accounted for with good design. Beyond that, it's all just a matter of preference. If you don't like linear games, fine, but don't call them "bad". If the game really is bad, point your finger elsewhere; linearity is neutral.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Boku no Natsuyasumi 3 - Animal Crossing for Japanophiles

Right off, that title might be a bit misleading as the Japan-exclusive Boku no Natsuyasumi 3 (My Summer Vacation 3) wasn't targeted at Japanophiles at all, nor does it feature sentient animals. Rather, it's aimed at Japanese people, young and old, who want to experience the nostalgia of a summer vacation in rural Hokkaido or experience it for the first time. Its resemblance to Animal Crossing comes in because of its laid back, do-what-you-want-in-every day-life style.
Everything you'll need for bug collecting.

In Boku no Natsuyasumi, things are simple. There aren't any obvious goals and no matter what you do, time will pass and the days will go by until the summer vacation is over. There are various events that always occur on certain days, but for the most part you're free to explore the farm and surrounding area to do what you want. You can collect bottle caps and bugs, some of which you can have fight your friends' bugs. You can help out on the farm by milking cows and collecting eggs or you can go swimming or sliding down hills on a cardboard box. You'll make friends with other kids, play games, and explore. Whatever you do, you'll write about it in your picture diary at the end of the day. You could say that the goal of the game is to have the best summer vacation ever.

Perhaps the biggest draw of this game is how atmospheric it is. The beautiful and detailed hand drawn backgrounds for each area are a convincing representation of a rural Japanese house and farm. The attention to detail is impressive, with little things like a dirty clothes hamper or storage boxes in the basement adding up to the feeling that this is a real house with real people. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the house and surrounding area is in fact based on a real place, because it is incredibly convincing. 
A bit of clutter helps the house feel real.
To the same end, instead of background music, there are only the sounds of nature or whatever other ambient sounds are in the area. The characters are similarly convincing, and talk like you'd expect people to talk: about everyday things, not forcing a story down your throat. It's all there to give the player the same experience a young Japanese boy might have visiting his uncle's farm in rural Hokkaido. Perhaps some playing this game have had such an experience in their childhood and would like to relive it, or perhaps they grew up and were never able to experience a vacation like this. Either way, short of flying to Japan and getting a family to let you stay with them, playing Boku no Natsuyasumi is the best way to experience rural Japan for yourself, and from the perspective of a child to whom everyday things are filled with adventure and wonder.

If that sounds like your kind of game, you might want to give it a try. This game in the series is for PS3, which is region-free so you won't have any trouble playing it in that regard. However, if you don't know any Japanese, it might be a bit difficult and not quite as enjoyable. Since I don't expect many non-Japanese gamers to take the plunge and import this game based solely on my recommendation, I've recorded (and translated!) the first day of Boku's vacation so you can experience it for yourself. Boku no Natsuyasumi is a beautiful and unique series that deserves more recognition outside of Japan. I hope you enjoy the video as much as I enjoyed making it.

UPDATE: I've now recorded and translated the second day of Boku's summer vacation! It should give you an even better idea of what playing the game is like. So take a look and don't let my many unpaid hours go to waste:

UPDATE: I've continued this series yet again. For future videos check out my Youtube channel or this playlist.
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