Category Archives: Games

Do Hacks Dream of Electric Sheep?

Yoshihisa Hirano (Obviously I just copied that from Wikipedia. Hackery!)

This is a story of a guy. Some would call him a hack. Together with another hack, Masashi Hamauzu, they made something awesome no one will care about. This makes me smile.

Masashi Hamauzu just quit Square Enix. This may have been because they assigned him games everyone hated (except me, sometimes). Then they made him write four CDs of music for a game about zippers.

Anyway, this other guy is a “real” composer. He went to Juilliard. Now, among other things, he orchestrates video games.

Today we will be discussing his work in the aforementioned zipper game, Final Fantasy XIII, which also features a kid named Hope saying serious things about conforming to Japanese society and loving peace while summoning Motorcycle Transformer Shiva so you can press buttons and kill things.

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Flower, Sun and Rain – Stay Awhile

“As the sun appeared over the eastern horizon, a man arrived from over the seas, carrying a box made of metal. The man looked over the praying people with a wordless smile, … then began circling the tower.”

Where we came from

It doesn’t matter that game designer Suda 51 has probably never met retired game designer Shigesato Itoi. It would be nice if they met. Itoi a real-life copy editor, Suda one in spirit, they consider words and pictures and sounds and thoughts to be disposable, but they treat their arrangement as sacred all the same. What matters, though, is that one learned how to be a good person (hint: making video games for a giant corporation was not the answer), and the other is still learning. As enlightenment is not very interesting, let’s concern ourselves with the one on the path.

You have most likely come across Suda 51 on one of two paths: You have either heard of Killer 7, or you have played No More Heroes. These are sensational(ist) adventure games dressed up as action figures. That people finally have been tricked by this and have started buying Suda’s art* in moderate quantities is a great thing: Buy both of these entertainment softwares about finding meaning in an era in which American and Japanese imperialism have turned their sights on consumption.

Today, however, we will discuss the game that has come the closest to looking itself in the mirror and stepping away unashamed. (As such, it’s far more tedious than the rest of Suda’s work, which people already hotly debate on Internet forums re: their fun level.)

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Mother 3: Theatre of The Absurd, With A Moral

by Tim Williams – A&SB Contributor

In the theater world, which is a lot like our own but with more petticoats, there is the singular phenomenon called the “problem play.” Why only plays, and not other narrative mediums, are allowed identity crises is only a mystery to those who have never taken part in one. I said in my first column (which hopefully piqued your interest enough to read several hundred more words about a video game) that Mother 3 was a Shavian tragicomedy. Specifically, it’s Heartbreak House, one you won’t find in many anthologies. Mother 3, too, is about smiling at the apocalypse.

“Willing suspension of disbelief” is easily invoked when people question why the titular character can talk on the moon in Le Petit Prince. But when you have to walk the talk yourself, the giant gaping details that come from a writer’s universe, not honed like ours to mundane absurdity over billions of years, suddenly seem infinite. It is in that infinite, however, in the irrational, that we can enjoy art as art.

We are much less lenient of papier mache coconut trees in the films we watch, perhaps because a photograph can be mistaken for life. Or perhaps because our collective conscience demands, in return for the horrific expense incurred in making a movie, at the least, consistent coffee cup levels. In Mother 3, you can ride a coffee table.

Many people mistakenly compare video games to films, because of the erroneous belief that one day video games will look “realistic” enough to suppress disbelief like film. They say, if video games could take the game out of their name and start garnering decent writers and directors, there’s no reason interactive fiction won’t eventually replace film.

This is silly in many ways, but mainly because the video game that comes closest to craft, if not art, does so by hewing strictly to the conventions of theater. The art is simple and cartoonish, but the sprite animation is Jim Henson at his best. Similarly, the broad character strokes and paper-thin, fantasy archetype plot belie the insightful dialogue and wildly creative sets (much of one of the dungeons is a series of bathrooms). Most of all, Mother 3 rarely lets you forget that you, as the audience, are playing a role, both as a character and as a player. You are at certain intervals asked for your name, not just whatever silly name you gave the character who does things when you press buttons. Frequent asides keep you at just the right distance from the action, enough to let your guard down so the game can suddenly reach out, pull your heartstrings and call you by name.

Devoted fans of this series are probably, at this very moment, vociferously defending on Internet forums their 9.2/10 rating of the game, for reasons that show they have never read a book or seen a play not required for class. For one, they shout, you can only carry 20 items for large portions of the game. Sometimes, you’ll have to drop things you might need later on. What’s an RPG without mad loot? Who made this game, Trotsky?

No, but the Marxism rings so loud in the first few chapters (which are more like really long scenes than chapters, given that each one ends with a deliberately ham-fisted monologue) that you’ll rightly question whether this a parody of social commentary. There is a town store, but you can’t buy anything, only take what’s given you. When money arrives, in a money bag, the town newcomer Fassad hides it in a well. Your proscribed town role in that chapter is the Thief. You can take the bag, but the game will make you put it back. What would you buy with it anyway?

This is both the greatest strength and failing of Mother 3: It was rewritten after its would-be incarnation 10 years ago as a Nintendo 64 game. Thus the beginning pulls no punches, but otherwise the game accepts that an entertainment software product is probably not the best format for a straight-laced treatise against mass consumption and environmental desecration.

Not that the social commentary goes away, or that more didacticism would be desirable. It’s to Itoi’s credit that he doesn’t make the characters slaves to his message; the idyllic small town easily crumbles only because it’s a place we only wish existed. To the end, the villagers are never truly corrupted by greed, only too self-absorbed to see that the world is sliding into ruin. But it is a shame that nothing past the first chapter makes you feel bad for wanting to enjoy a video game.
Why the shift in tone? When asked by the Japanese magazine Nintendo Dream, writer Shigesato Itoi said he made large portions of game funnier because, well, “I guess I became a good person.” (Read the entire interview with Itoi if you want to know more about how to be a good person.)

The remnants of Itoi’s stated initial goal to “betray the player” are about as subtle as the flamboyant hermaphrodite fairies that guide Lucas in his and your quest to stop capitalism from ruining his village. (Just wait until one of the said fairies corners you in a hot spring.)

For one thing, someone important is unceremoniously killed off in the first chapter. “Unceremoniously” is too charitable; there is a certain dialogue line and an ironic but still cheap videogamey reward for the death that makes you question if Itoi has any emotions himself, despite managing to create a profoundly empathetic video game. (Even to the player: At several points in the adventure, you may say, “Damn.” Then around the corner will be a present with exactly what you need.)

The bad taste left in your mouth is instantly washed away, though, when the next chapter shortly begins. You are introduced to your new role in a minigame you can’t win (a running theme that grows to an ingenious climax in a fixed game show you are forced to participate in)—you play a monkey someone is making dance.

This is the more typical video game subversion that awaits to delight anyone who has even a vague idea of how absurd the conventions of video games are. These moments are mostly entirely dependent on context, but I’ll try to capture the spirit. At one point you stop at an arcade. If you put 10 DP in a game, you will be unable to move for a full minute, only to watch Lucas’s back and listen to nostalgic game sound effects repeat incessantly. When he’s finished, he faces the screen, red-faced, with the text: “In one sense, you feel completely satisfied.”

The highest compliment I can give this game is you will rarely, if ever, feel embarrassed while playing Mother 3 around other people, even people who deeply mistrust anyone who could enjoy a video game that requires emotional engagement. In the Japanese television spot for this “funny, strange and heartrending” game, the first two of those qualities, which make up 90 percent of the game, are nowhere to be seen. Instead, the ad shows a woman , who tries and fails to put into words the feeling the game invokes. There are tears in her eyes.

After playing Mother 3, when Itoi says she is not acting, I believe him. Find your seat, sit through the first act, and you just might, too.

It May Not Be Literature, But It’s Edited Better: Mother 3

by Tim Williams – A&SB Contributor

If you want to experience the sequel (“sequel” is too crass a word; Mother 3 makes everything that came before it look like a basement experiment) to the beloved SNES game Earthbound, you’ll have to work a little, although you won’t have to leave your computer. (See the bottom of this column for instructions). This is a shame, because once you start playing Mother 3, it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Do you remember the first time you played a video game, in your own living room? Although, if you’re of the Playstation generation, maybe this seems as ordinary as your cell phone being your alarm clock.

Let’s start over. This is not about video games. This is not about nostalgia. But I want you to remember the first piece of art (lowercase) that seized you by the throat, and said: “This! This is what it means to be alive.”

If you squint a little, you might find that again in Mother 3, a George Bernard Shaw tragicomedy masquerading as an RPG.

It’s unfortunate that untidy number has to follow such a refreshingly simple Japanese video game title. Right now, for the XBOX 360 Video Game Console, you can buy a Role-Playing Game called “Infinite Undiscovery.” It features Hours of Real-Time Strategic Gameplay and an Orchestrated Soundtrack by a guy who listened to a jam band he thought was a prog rock band once and decided that was all he needed to know about music.

Not incidentally, the music of Mother 3 is the worst thing about it, besides that there are numbers in its name and in its battles. (Note to self: Make an RPG without numbers.) That it’s still really good, and on a Game Boy Advance cartridge no less, tells you something. Once, far too long ago, there was a game called Mother 2. Non-moon-speaking audiences may know it as Earthbound. It had a good-sized budget, but, gloriously, it was all spent on the design, not the graphics. And the music. Oh gods, the music. Polyrhythmic, switching genres at every turn, at once parodic and heartfelt, it was something only someone who loves music, not video game music, could have done. Sadly, Keiichi Suzuki quickly moved on to better things, and we got stuck with Nintendo’s best video game composer.

But even I can’t like a game only for its music (although Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked comes close). Earthbound is almost a masterpiece because it was written and directed by Shigesato Itoi.

Itoi (before he wrote a short story collection with Japan’s most beloved contemporary novelist, Haruki Murakami) was a really, really, ridiculously good copy editor. These days, copy editors don’t get a whole lot to do besides argue semantic versus grammatical punctuation. But in the days when newspapers were king, meaning was all about artful arrangement of the disparate, arbitrating what headlines and snippets the lazy reader’s eye were most likely to fall on, and in which order.

What 99 percent of video games lack is an editor. I don’t want to play another 20 hours of a game if it’s going to involve hunting the 101 Dalmatians. That Earthbound was a masterpiece of editing (if not coherent plotting) is something every astute player feels intuitively, although many probably don’t even notice the perfect pacing. I must admit I only realized Itoi’s sheer genius after I read this review. In some circles, Tim Rogers is considered a pretentious asshole. That may be true, but that’s exactly what video game criticism needs right now: an antidote to the consumer reports that pass as game journalism.

Itoi is to video game writing what Rogers is to video game criticism. (Except, of course, that Rogers is in desperate need of an editor.) Here comes the tragedy of Mother 3: You can’t play it in its original language. For a while, it looked like you wouldn’t be able to play it at all if you don’t know Japanese. Nintendo has not shed, not one iota, its business model from the days, over 100 years ago (really), when it was a playing cards vendor. Mother 3 was only made because Itoi was friends with Satoru Iwata, the current Nintendo president.

The current Nintendo of America president is a former Pizza Hut executive. This is what he has said, when asked about the Mother series: “It’s something I’m trying get smart on.” Tim Rogers claims the developers of Mother 3 paid for translations of the game into English and the required other European languages to speed its U.S. approval. Giving producers something they can read is always a bad idea. The game was called “too dark” to have cartoon graphics. But I bet if it had been the exact same game with a useless touch screen map for the DS, it would have been greenlit and sold 200,000 copies.

Why I have not started reviewing the actual game yet? Because, 1) I believe in the importance of history, and 2) The unofficial translation came out today, and I’m not going to review it until I finish it.

I can tell you I will walk, drive, fly or swim to your home and poke one of your eyes out if you don’t smile twice before the end of the first chapter. The editor of the translation, because he didn’t believe in history, dropped out, and it shows in parts. But a diamond in the rough is a diamond nonetheless.

Also, I’m on an airplane, and I forgot my headphones. Shogo Sakai may be no Keiichi Suzuki, but the battles are rhythm-based, with no onscreen indicators. If you want to do more damage, you have no choice but to listen to the carefully arranged soundtrack. Now that is genius.

*If you want to play Mother 3 (and you do), you’ll need an emulator (available at http://vba.ngemu.com/) and a ROM of the import. Sadly, it’s out of print, so your only options are: 1) Ebay, 2) Find a friend in Japan and get him or her to buy it in a pawn shop, or 3) Use the illegal powers of Google. You’ll also need the translation, (see http://mother3.fobby.net). If you have any trouble, just email me at trwilliams2 at google mail. I swear it’s all worth it.