Friday, April 19, 2013


I do not usually write all that much about game plots. Yet I find myself compelled to write my thoughts about Nier's story. I totally dismissed this game at the time it came out because on the surface it looked like a very mediocre action rpg, and I wasn't such a big fan of Square-Enix at that time either. Much more recently I picked the name up from this article after deeming the list quite credible since it featured Valkyria Chronicles (a marvelous game I have played) and Trails in the Sky plus Radiant Historia (games I was planning to play at the time anyway - I have now started Trails in the Sky). Nier's description promised interesting story and dialogue - both valid reasons to play games for me.

So let's get a few thing out of the way: as a game Nier is not very interesting. Its battle system is a poor imitation of games like God of War and among all the spells in the game I ended up using mostly three. The game is also ridiculously easy on normal difficulty and very frustrating on hard because encounters with normal enemies last a better half of an eternity. Boss fights are quite cool so there's that and the game is at least quite tightly packed. Gameplay is not very inspiring, but it also doesn't get in the way. The game also features a magnificent soundtrack that manages to pour a lot of emotion into different environments. Finally: this post will contain spoilers that will most likely destroy the entire experience for you. There is a reason the writers want you to experience the latter half of the game twice to get the whole picture.

So if you think you will ever be playing this game, do yourself a favor and don't read this post. Let's just say that the game comes with my full recommendations - I hope that's enough for you to pick it up.

1. It is all about the characters (again)

One goal for the creators of Nier was to create a more adult RPG story. Surprisingly they have succeeded in their goal, although the attire of Kainé might suggest otherwise...

I mean we talked about this, right? Kainé is prancing around in her underwear pretty much literally - even other characters in the game comment on this. It does seem quite contradictory to the game's goal but actually, because of the game's sometimes rather strange sense of humor, I am going to put this one down as parody. Kainé is nothing like your typical female companion. This is one angry woman, and has a mouth fouler than any other character in games as far as I recall. I bet her voice actress has had a blast - I also thought she sounded kinda familiar and was absolutely flabbergasted to find out I had previously heard her as Serah in FFXIII(-2) - talk about contrast! Kainé also has a whole lot of resemblance with Annah from possibly the most applauded RPG story ever written: Planescape Torment.

I took Kainé here as an example because the game is pretty much driven by its three defining characters: the protagonist, Kainé and Grimoire Weiss. There is a great sense of bonding between this odd group of rather strong personalities. Most importantly, the game doesn't fail to capitalize on this. Most of the dialogue serves only one purpose: to portray the dynamics of this group to the player. The game wants you to like its characters and care about them. It certainly doesn't hurt that it has some of the best dialogue that's been written for games. I am actually just going to place it in the hall of fame in the company of the likes of Planescape: Torment and Persona 3/4. One important lesson to learn from Nier is that these characters comment on pretty much everything, That is actually the best reason to do sidequests in Nier: to hear Weiss complaing about the pointlessness of the effort.

None of the characters are quite normal. Well, the protagonist maybe but even he is very set on rescuing his daughter. Then there's Kainé and a floating, talking, sarcastic book. Finally we have a boy whose gaze petrifies living things (spoiler: he gets weirder than that). Most of the chatter also takes place during gameplay while the player is making their way towards the next objective. This is something that was already mentioned in my last post. It is a technique that I simply would like to see a lot more. The only complaint I have is placing some key dialogue into boss fights. It works on the first playthough just fine, but on the second there is a high risk of actually killing the boss before the dialogue ends. Which means the player will just run around in circles until talking is definitely done. It doesn't help that there is much more dialogue during boss fights on the second time around.

2. And now with the spoilers

On the surface Nier is about a man facing monsters called shades while desperately trying to rescue his daughter from a deadly sickness. Aided by his weird companions, he eventually encounters Shadowlord, and finally defeats him. This is most of the experience you will get on your first playthrough of Nier. The game does hint at various things and drops a lot of unanswered questions but doesn't really reveal its hand until the very last dungeon in the game. So far so boring. After the true nature of shades has been revealed and the game completed, the player is encouraged to start the game from halfway through to experience another level of the story. On this second playthough, the game contains more dialogue and additional scenes that let the player experience the story with the knowledge they received at the very end.

This is pretty much where the game just pulls the rug right out. Although the knowledge of what is truly going on is shocking in its own right, the game really pushes boundaries by encouraging the player to experience it again with all-new eyes. This is mostly achieved by allowing the player to hear the words of Tyrann - the shade that has possessed Kainé and is giving her strength. Furthermore, because Tyrann understands what the shades are saying, their words are now also shown to the player. Even on the first playthrough there is a point where the protagonist seems to be too far gone. Although he goes on about how it is important to help people it is made rather clear that when it comes to choosing between his daughter and the lives of an entire village, he could not care less about innocent lives.

On the second round of the game, the player is very explicitly shown that the protagonist's heroic actions against shades are in truth sheer mass murder of sentient beings. On the first time through the player is implied this when the full truth is revealed. However, it is an entirely different matter to know in retrospect that you have been murdering innocents than it is to fight them with full knowledge of what is truly going on. When you swing a sword at what you as the player know to be nothing but small children, the chilling effect is quite overwhelming. You will do it, because you are willing to see how far the tragedy reaches - but you will not be happy about it. This power of portraying tragedy is unique to games. Much like the shocking revelation in Brenda Romero's Train, you are forced to face the fact that you are not the good guy.

In a sense this is not the protagonist's tragedy though, because he remains oblivious to the plight of his victims. Instead it is Kainé we should really be looking at. The fact that the second round is called "Kainé's story" does hint that we are experiencing the events from her point of view. This leads me to believe that Kainé can also hear what Tyrann is saying and also what the shades are saying. Therefore she is fully content with murdering them. After all, Tyrann did not just possess her, they struck a bargain: Kainé will be allowed to control her body as long as she keeps brutally murdering shades and pretty much anything else. Although Tyrann is portrayed as the murderer, it is Kainé who chooses to take on his bloodlust in exchange for a chance at revenge. Furthermore we don't see her fighting reluctantly - it is more the opposite. While the protagonist thinks he is slaying monsters, Kainé knows the truth from the start.

It is delightful to see that the writers have not chickened out. There is no redeeming factor at the end - you have simply climbed a mountain of corpses to reunite one man with his daughter. None of the monsters were truly your enemies but rather just bystanders in the rivalry between the protagonist and the Shadowlord.

3. Artistic finishing touch

One last thing to talk about in Nier is its fourth ending. Although it does feel a bit tacked on, this ending is one of the most powerful ones in gaming history. Once again it is also something that only games can really do. There is a choice for the player in the very end of the third round (a bit excessive, including this in the second one would have been enough in my opinion), and one of them is the rather usual "sacrifice yourself" choice - only Nier does it with much more flavor. The option is not just for the protagonist to die: it is for him to be fully erased from existence - history included. What happens in the ending is the interesting part: the game will literally erase your character by removing every saved game associated with that character. Upon choosing the option, the game starts erasing your items from your inventory, one by one. Every tab in your menu gets cleared item by item until only a black screen remains.

Although the effect sounds like at technicality, it once again has a lot more meaning to the player. It tears down the wall between the player and their character, effectively implying that the character is even being erased from the player's "memory". Nothing remains on your hard drive, the character is just gone. It can also be considered as some kind of solace because it allows you to erase that extension of yourself who you used to commit mass murder. All evidence is gone, but of course in your mind the memory is very likely to remain. This ending is pretty much the perfect way to put a game like Nier to rest. What the ending is saying is that the experience was so strong that you will never need to go back to it. This describes Nier perfectly.

Still, I have to complain about this ending because it does seem a bit like an afterthought. The choice is kinda just tacked on. Unless I seriously missed something, nothing during the game hints at such a choice might come around. Much like the final boss in Final Fantasy IX, it just pops right at you when you thought the game was done. I still think it is a great thing to have, but I cannot give it full points because of its disconnectedness.


I don't know if this piece was actually useful for anyone. If you read it and have not played the game, I have pretty much now ruined the experience for you. If you had played the game, you probably know all that. Still, I do enjoy reading similar pieces by other people, so there's that. I also think it is important to highlight the awesomeness of Nier because it breaks free of a lot of stereotypes - a very strong feat indeed in the JRPG genre. The gameplay is still crappy, but the story simply would not have worked so well in any other medium. For an RPG it's not actually that long or huge, I think you can get the whole experience in about twenty hours (that is, two rounds of the second half). It's also an important reminder that artistic games with a lot to say are not always made by indies.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Sleeping Dogs

Sleeping Dogs was initially one of those games that I just picked up because I had finished one game and the next titles were still on their way in the mail. Ultimately it turned out to be quite a bit more than just a snack. For those not in the know, Sleeping Dogs is a GTA-like that was initially supposed to be a part of the True Crime series. For some unknown reason the original publisher rejected the game, thus the name change and another publisher. Because I have not written about any GTA yet, I am going to include some wider points from the genre's conventions.

1. Backstory matters in gameplay - to an extent!

Sleeping Dogs features one important backstory difference to GTA games: the protagonist is not a criminal. He is an undercover cop who has been tasked with infiltrating a triad in Hong Kong. This sets a different tone to the entire game. Although the mechanical punishments for driving over civilians are quite small, they bear much larger emotional impact on the player if they identify with the protagonist's dual identity. Although I am not particularly happy about killing bystanders in any of these games, Sleeping Dogs puts a lot more emphasis on the ethics of the player's actions. In GTA I hijack cars for leisure with no second thoughts but in Sleeping Dogs I found myself wanting a really pressing need before I could even think about hijacking a car.

There is no in-game punishment for breaking the law, unless the player is on a mission (and then it just lowers their cop score a bit). The mechanic, and also the reaction of the car's original owner are exactly the same in both GTA and Sleeping Dogs. The only difference is the protagonist's identity. Protagonist identity has its limits though, as is also evidenced by Sleeping Dogs: when asked (by a criminal contact) to hijack a specific car, hijacking the car actually feels less bad. This may be because the player can push the responsibility for their actions onto the game. After all, the game gave them the goal to hijack a car - even though they were responsible for taking the mission in the first place (hijack missions are optional)!

This is actually a fairly common ethical conflict in games: the conflict between in-game rewards and the ethical concerns of an action. Game characters do indeed do all sorts of nasty things under the player's control. This picture highlights this particular issue (in a rather parodical way - but it does get a point across). Typically gameplay incentives override any ethical concerns the player might have about the action - especially if the game does not confront the player about their actions. Therefore, although they are supposed to be the ideal hero, players controlling Link in various Zelda games will happily hack away at civilian property. This happens in part because no one cares in the game world. Thus the game is not actively confronting the player.

In Sleeping Dogs repercussions for actions are situational (score is only counted during missions). Even then they still somewhat reinforce the protagonist's identity's ability to control player actions. Furthermore, the rewards for hijacking cars at random are also quite low: garages where the protagonist can summon their own car are quite common. Later in the game they even get the ability to have a valet deliver a to them. Therefore it is not that necessary to hijack cars in order to get some wheels. This design decision is sound; if the game had actually forced the player to hijack cars just to get around, it would have a much harder time to get anything out of the protagonist's dual identity. Of course we can argue that the ridiculous bodycount also conflicts with this identity. However, this is once again a case where the game is forcing the player's hand. It also has its limits; just like I did in L.A. Noire, regardless of crashing into traffic and other property I usually did not choose to control my speeding.

The dual role of the protagonist is also present in the game's structure. The storyline consists of both triad and police missions, all of which need to be completed to advance in the story. All in all this play on identities does distinguish the game's story from a bunch of competitors to its advantage. It also makes it "easier" for the writers to create a more complex and conflicted protagonist. Easier in the sense that certain amount of complexity is already present in the character concept and game structure.

2. The Hong Kong experience

I love GTA titles - Vice City in particular - but there is one major and commonly accepted defect in the entire series: action is typically effing lame, and further destroyed by bad controls. This is commonly forgiven because Rockstar has a tendency to do a marvelous job on every other front. GTA V might not get away so easily though, because Sleeping Dogs has shown how things can be with proper effort. The game takes its inspiration from Hong Kong action movies - a genre of action movies famous for their insane stunts. The illusion would really break with GTA style static combat. Fortunately action sequences in the game are far more diverse. The game puts less emphasis on gunfights for starters. It includes close quarters combat all the way until the end of the game.

Adding more variety is just icing on the cake though. Both types of combat have been made simply a lot better than in any competitors I have played. Hand-to-hand takes its influences from games like Arkham Asylum and Yakuza, and the system is actually very functional. Winning fights against multiple opponents doesn't come down to just one strategy and most combos and other moves have their uses. Some have  been thrown in just for flair of course, but they succeed in creating more diversity. Shortly put, combat stays interesting throughout the game. Gunfights are also more dynamic than usual. The addition of bullet time while vaulting over obstacles gives the player a lot of incentive to stay on the move. It is also easy to switch to close combat at any time - the player can even disarm opponents through grappling.

Hong Kong action wouldn't be Hong Kong action without more dynamic movement. Parkouring is quite easy in Sleeping Dogs but it gives the player better movement range. In particular it makes chase scenes on foor a lot more interesting. If there is one weaker category in terms of game controls it is cars. They behave somewhat weirdly in Sleeping Dogs, and car controls are a bit shaky. However, the driving experience is also enhanced with some Hong Kong flair. The player can ram cars on either side more effectively. The coolest trick in car driving is action hijack, where the protagonist jumps from one car on another to hijack it while it's moving. While this feature is not very commonly used, it adds an important bit of flavor to the game.

In addition to enriching the game's action quite a bit, Hong Kong also acts as a superb setting to the game. Although the game is technically (very) poor on PS3, the city looks impressive and - more importantly - very different from American cities often seen in games. It made me actually wish that there would have been even longer distances to drive just looking at the scenery and listening to the radio. The radio has some weird asian stuff on some channels which is a plus.

3. Travel experience and dialogue

In my last post about Journey, I talked about how simply traveling can be a powerful gaming experience. Journey had a very silent and elegant way of creating that experience. Sleeping Dogs also achieves good traveling experiences but through different means. This is something that I noticed quite a while ago when playing GTA IV (or maybe Vice City even) but haven't written about it yet. The experience of driving changes drastically as soon as the player gets a passenger in their car - not because a companion is present but because they are actually talking. I swear I could play a game of this genre where the only thing the player ever did was drive interesting companions around the place while dialogue is going on. Then again, this is coming from a guy who drove around in circles in Vice City when a good song was playing instead of going straight for the objective.

In a way using dialog in this way during transition draws the player's attention from the fact that they are just doing a transition from point A to point B. In GTA-like games the transition is typically more fun than some other games (such as RPGs where you just walk) but the player still speeds through as fast as possible - unless their avatar is having a conversation with another person. The feeling of there being another person in the car changes the way I drive in these games. Although there's no punishment (other than the occasional shriek of terror) for reckless driving, the presence of a virtual person somehow makes me drive way more carefully. In games where transition is boring by nature, having virtual company makes the experience feel more like a journey. I liked this in Nier for instance where NPCs commented on side quests while I was making my way towards quest objectives.

The reason I think this is important is that it goes to show how story content can change the gameplay experience. Thus it reinforces my stance that prewritten story content should not be treated simply as content that can be separated from gameplay. Disruptive ways of including story content such as cutscenes are kind of so-so, but injection story elements into gameplay parts - like conversations while driving - does affect the perceived gameplay experience. It does nothing to the mechanics but it changes the environment in which gameplay takes place. I think this is something that is not easily achievable without voice acting because text tends to be too disruptive.


At its core, Sleeping Dogs is yet another GTA clone. However, through clever decisions in both story concept and gameplay design, it in many ways surpasses the original. The biggest issues in the game are quite minor. The biggest problem the game had was its framerate on the PS3. It was simply abyssal during cutscenes. Fortunately it stayed quite good during actual gameplay. The game also had some hilarious bugs. My favorite has to be the bus trap: I got into a bus by accident and, opting to cancel instead of choosing my destination, was trapped inside with no way out! I actually left the game running for quite some time and when I came back, I was still in the bus. There were also some (quite common) oversights. It is cool and all that the protagonist's clothes get soaked and bloody. It is however quite less credible when no one reacts to it. Case in point: putting on good clothes to get onto a casino boat - I just couldn't get into a boat to get there without taking a little dip. Of course no one questioned my entirely soaked expensive suit. This oversight is very common in games but somehow I found it much more hilarious in Sleeping Dogs than usual.

Anyway. If you like the genre, play this game.

Friday, April 5, 2013


My ability to put off playing certain games is sometimes amazing. Considering how much I liked Flower and Flow, it is pretty much a miracle that I took this long to play Journey. I actually intended to play it as soon as it was published but ultimately I just didn't. There is this thing with me and artistic experiences - including games, movies and music - that I really do very often enjoy them a lot, but still never seem to find "the right time" to do so. We didn't come here for my self-reflection though - we had enough of that a few posts back - so let's talk about Journey.

I spend a lot of time talking about game mechanics and different systems in games. It might feel that there is not much space for such discussion in Journey. However, Journey is a spectacular example of one particular design principle: consistency. In part, its unwavering consistency is what allows the rest of the experience to exist. This consistency is created by theming every action in the game world similarly: pieces of cloth that are clearly distinct from anything else. Their significance to the player is clearly shown by including one such piece on the player character model. They do a variety of things in the game but because of their consistent design the player does not need any tutorials to figure them out. The familiar design theme of these gameplay elements is an invitation to interact and see what happens. As a journey, the game is ultimately about moving forward. The reason this sensation is so marvelously achieved is precisely this: the player does not need to scratch their head searching for interactive elements.

Journey is entirely about movement through enchanting landscapes. Although visual design is also a large part of its appeal, the sensation of different forms of movement is at least equally important. The player gets to frequently fly though the air and slide down sand dunes; they also get to drift in a stream of sand and to fight against a chilling wind. The atmosphere in the game shifts through both visual cues and gameplay. The biting chill of a snowstorm towards the end of the game is possibly the most powerful experience of weather in any game I have played. Although the player is simply moving through spaces, the continuous discovery of new landscapes and new forms of movement keeps the game fresh. By creating powerful emotion through gameplay mechanics, Journey is a central game in the "games as art" debate - to be truly recognized as an art form, games need to be artistic through what they have that other art forms do not: gameplay.

A post about Journey would feel rather inadequate without mentioning its multiplayer component. The mechanic bears some similarities with Demon's/Dark Souls because the player has no control over meeting other players. They will simply occasionally bump into others during their journey. What makes these encounters spectacular is that they serve no actual purpose in the game - it can be finished entirely without any help. Other players are there simply as traveling companions - and they are silent. Meeting others is just another piece of the Journey experience, sharing some of the digital miles with a stranger. It is a mere chance encounter of two travelers headed for the same destination. Although entirely meaningles and even void of communication, these encounters invoke similar experiences as chance encounters do in real life. The entire encounter is defined by its unpredictable nature.

Journey is a magical journey through mysterious landscapes but at the same time it is very much like a real journey. The game does not get in the way of the journey because of its transparent nature. Instead, the various gameplay elements enhance the game's artistic impression. In some ways it is the equivalent of The Straight Story - a surprisingly ordinary film about one man's journey - only Journey is about the player's journey. Instead of creating atmosphere through words, Journey creates it through actions. The person traveling through landscapes and meeting strangers is you. Games that truly create the experience of being on a journey are few and far between. A lot of times the experience drowns in a mound of side quests and endless action/puzzles - all of which distract the player from feeling the journey.

I recommend playing Journey and preferably doing so in one sitting as to not distract yourself from the experience. It is a short game - about the length of a movie - so this is entirely doable.