Monday, August 20, 2012

What I've Been Playing #4

I don't usually like to play online with strangers, but Microsoft had switched on Xbox Live Gold for free for all users over the past weekend, and, since the service is ordinarily $60/year, I figured it behooved me to take advantage and get as much out of the weekend as I could. As it happened, the only 360 game that my brother and I both owned and could play online together was Red Dead Redemption, which I coincidentally had only started playing in single-player a few days earlier.

Red Dead Redemption is a two-year-old game at this point, and, even at the peak of its popularity, I don't imagine it was ever a title to sell on the merit of its multiplayer. Meanwhile, I hadn't done any competitive online gaming since I last tried out one of those military shooter games, which I left after one session with a (perhaps too hasty?) negative opinion of. Alas, although I may have hoped for a different and better experience, Red Dead Redemption's online was, right off the bat, exactly what I expected.

In the past, I've broadly compared all online shooters to "the wild wild West" (not the Will Smith movie, nor the earlier TV series), a lawless frontier that brings out its denizens' most vile and destructive tendencies. You might think that an especially apt analogy in the case of Red Dead Redemption, but actually "wild wild West" has never come close to capturing the untamable savagery of the online arena. That said, Red Dead Redemption is indeed worse in some ways than even a typical round of FPS team deathmatch. In the default "Free Roam" mode, less a gameplay type in and of itself than what this game offers in place of a lobby--the central hub where players can connect to form teams and match up with other players--you're tossed, without any directives or guidance, into a severely depopulated version of the complete open world of the single-player game. You'll see other players running around, and you can propose a match or posse up and roam the land together. But it's more likely that the first person you approach will just try to shoot you. You see, even though Free Roam contains no real scoring system or victory conditions of its own, in practice it nevertheless manages to become just a never-ending battle royale of everybody shooting everybody, even though nobody stays dead and none of it gains anybody anything. Basically, people don't even need to be incentivized to start shooting without prejudice; it's just their instinctive go-to. No AI game master governing with rules, calling time and declaring winners, the only law is the gun and a fight everybody loses. You can try to avoid this by choosing to enter a "friendly" version of Free Roam, where player-killing is turned off. But, guess what, even that doesn't make people any friendlier; instead, if they can't shoot you, they'll shoot and kill your horse instead. Seriously, it's an incessant stream of notifications that some guy killed so-and-so's mount, etc. I wonder why these horse-killers don't just stay in the non-friendly rooms, or why they don't go into actual versus games, instead of attacking people in the lobby.

I thought I'd have better luck in the cooperative mission mode, "Outlaws to the End," consisting of a handful of four-player stages, which mostly involve exterminating groups of AI bad guys while getting from point A to B. The action is usually so hairy in these stages as to be almost unmanageable without a full team of four working together. So, not only are you not supposed to attack the other players, but, for very practical reasons, you're strongly encouraged against it if you want to survive. Why was I shocked and appalled when people still didn't play along?

The very first group of players I was matched up with was tasked with laying siege to a fort, retrieving the kidnapped girl within, then escaping together via four-horse coach. This was maybe the third mission I'd taken on with this group, and, although we had yet to complete a mission together, nothing too crazy had happened; the enemies had just overwhelmed us. This time, after we cleared the fort of enemies, three of us waited by the coach while the fourth player went to escort the girl over. While we waited, one of my teammates started shooting the horses harnessed to the coach. At first, it didn't even register to me what he was doing, because a civilized human being's mind isn't rigged to understand that kind of sociopathy, which goes against all sense and sensibility. I mean, I've seen some sick stuff in games, but I can honestly say that I never expected to see this. Folks, you can't script this stuff.

Thus, three of the horses were already dead or dying by the time my brother thought to try to stop him. I don't know if this guy was crazy or what, because there was never any communication, but, whatever the case, with one horse left living by the time the last player and kidnapped girl joined us, this maniac relented and took the driver's seat. I said hell no and pulled him off, then started whipping that last horse to carry us as far from that creep and toward our objective as possible. We got pretty far, but it was really quite hopeless. With enemy riders harassing us the whole way, that one-horse coach never stood a chance. Once that last horse inevitably went down, it was automatic game over.

After that fiasco, my brother and I were resolved that, as soon as the next mission started, we were going to shoot that horse-killer dead before he could sabotage us again. It was his turn to be shocked as we both started opening fire on him from behind. By the time he realized we were serious, it was too late for him to do anything but die. I don't know what was going through the mind of the fourth player as all this was happening, but clearly it was time for him to pick a side. Unfortunately, when my brother and I were shortly thereafter felled by AI enemies, the fourth guy chose to revive the horse-killer, whereupon they both left us for dead.

Now, if only this horse-killer had been a singular lunatic, a good time might still have been had, but, no, nearly every team I played with featured at least one asshole. At one point, as we were sharing a raft and fighting against enemies standing on the shore, the guy behind me just shot me in the head for no reason. On another occasion, same stage and well into it, a different guy decided to start hurling firebombs on the raft, knowing that it was too cramped for us, his teammates and the only ones aboard, to avoid getting set on fire. Then there was the guy who, shortly into a mission, decided to blow up everyone with dynamite before logging himself off, as if that had been the only thing he had wanted out of the game all along. This kind of rampant team-killing--the lowest of the low--is usually indicative of a game gone completely to hell. As offensive as some Call of Duty players may be, at least you don't generally have to go into a match worrying that your own teammates might stab you in the back.

As easy as it is to blame cretinous jerks for ruining everybody's fun, I do have to say that the game itself doesn't exactly help matters. On more than one occasion, when it was time for our four-man team to get on the coach together, I would get up along the side of the carriage and press the button to try to get in through one of the doors, but instead I would end up accidentally pulling the coachman off and taking his seat a la Grand Theft Auto. It was completely unintentional, but, since we weren't sharing a line on voice chat, I had no way of telling the other player that. And so, over an honest mistake, the trust would be broken, and all hell would break loose as it became every man for himself. A part of me wonders if that's how it all began, if the first shot fired wasn't actually an accident, but thereafter nobody could stop shooting anymore and trying to take back what they thought was theirs. Or maybe it's just that I was playing on a Thursday with a bunch of twelve-year-olds at a time of day when any responsible adult would be at work instead of playing Xbox Live. Maybe.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Whisper of the Heart

Whisper of the Heart (1995) was Studio Ghibli's first theatrical feature directed by someone other than Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. Based on a manga by Aoi Hiragi, with a screenplay by Miyazaki, it was the directorial debut for Yoshifumi Kondo, who had previously worked as an animator and character designer on a number of Miyazaki and Takahata's projects. Tragically, this would be the only film Kondo would ever direct, as he died just a few years later of an aneurysm said to have been brought on by overwork. If the beginnings seen in Whisper of the Heart are any indication, then Studio Ghibli and the world lost a tremendous talent.

Set in then-present-day Tokyo—in fact, it's the same Tama Hills area, just a generation later, as depicted previously in Pom PokoWhisper of the Heart follows Shizuku, a 14-year-old junior high student, as she prepares for the transition to high school and, perhaps, the rest of her life. The premise is more straightforward than previous Ghibli films, although this is also, in many ways, a story distinctly concerned with Japanese society. If you've been around anime for a while, then a lot of this movie's "peculiarities" that probably shouldn't jibe with your own junior high experience may not even register as anything out of the ordinary. If, on the other hand, you're one of those viewers wondering why the female students are all wearing sailor outfits, then perhaps some cultural notes are in order.

The key thing you really need to understand is that, in Japan, although most students continue from junior high into high school, it is not compulsory, and there is actually a lot of competition and complicated admissions procedures to get into higher-ranked schools. When anime and manga characters are stressed out over "exams," this is usually referring to high school entrance exams. The process is vaguely similar to getting into university for those of us in the US. Meanwhile, in Japan, what high school you end up in often predetermines what university you attend, or whether you proceed to higher education at all; students not on track for college typically go from junior high to vocational high schools that prepare them for jobs instead. Thus, the transition from junior high to high school is a pivotal moment in the Japanese student's education, as it may well dictate how they spend the rest of their life. Oh, and those sailor outfits? I don't know why either, but that's just the standard uniform in Japan for some reason.

In Whisper of the Heart, we catch Shizuku coming up on that pivotal moment, but, whereas more ambitious students are stressed out over whether they will make it into the high school of their choice, Shizuku doesn't seem to have a clue what she wants for her future. A voracious reader, she is, however, sufficiently distracted by her books that she is not initially too worried, not even to the extent that her situation probably warrants. Instead of studying for exams, she reads fiction, checking out book after book from the library. And, apparently, she's not the only one. Looking over the checkout cards in her books, she notices that every book has been checked out previously by some guy named Seiji Amasawa.

If you were born after this movie was made, you may not even know what the deal is with these "checkout cards," since most libraries just keep digital records nowadays. But this is obviously the setup for a romance, perhaps of the fairytale sort found in Shizuku's books, and, although it is not as contrived as it first sounds, Shizuku does end up meeting and falling for Seiji, a fellow student in the same year but a different class.

The heart of the film, which truly emerges after they begin their relationship, is Shizuku's struggle to define herself. In Seiji, Shizuku is confronted with someone who knows exactly what he wants out of life. His dream is an eccentric one—he wants to be a professional luthier (maker of stringed instruments)—but he's already invested a good deal more thought and effort into it than Shizuku has in any plans for herself. This is not a story about "finding" yourself in someone else, but, for Shizuku, meeting Seiji becomes a sort of catalyst for her to work seriously at figuring out what she's going to make of herself. Because she loves stories, her first thought is to become a writer, which she quickly learns is hard work, as difficult, in its own way, as any other trial a Ghibli protagonist has ever gone through. Like most budding young artists, she grapples with feelings of inadequacy, knowing that her work is her very soul and yet still she must assess it critically as unsatisfactory. Such are the setbacks and disappointments one faces on the road to becoming oneself. You wonder where you're headed, question whether or not you can really get there, perhaps change your mind several times along the way to where you finally end up, if it's anywhere at all. Maybe some people are born knowing exactly what they want to do with their lives, but I would consider them the lucky ones. That has not been my experience, and so I can totally identify with Shizuku's struggle, which is depicted almost crushingly true-to-life.

Whisper of the Heart is perhaps not altogether Ghibli's most profound work. It is still an anime about junior high students and not able to escape all the attendant cliches, such as a subplot that has Shizuku unwittingly drawn into a love quadrangle, which instead becomes a comedy of errors because these Japanese students must be so indirect in expressing their intentions. That one is a facepalm-inducing subplot that has precious little to do with the main story, but Whisper of the Heart is filled with many other minor digressions that flesh out the characters in subtle ways. Shizuku's family, for instance, is, first of all, not only present and active in her life, but her parents and sister actually come across as complete people unto themselves, as opposed to just plot devices. We learn from dialogue here and there that the mother is attending school as a grad student. Meanwhile, the older sister, in college and also working, is ready to move out of their cramped apartment, where she shares a room with Shizuku. Later on, we see that Shizuku has the room to herself. The movie does not dwell on these details, but they make conversations sound more convincingly real and provide a sense that there is more going on in this world than a single teenager dealing with her angst. One of my favorite such bits comes when Shizuku visits her best friend, who, as they head to her room, casually whispers, "I'm having a fight with my father. I'm not talking to him." This is never followed up on, and the father in question, perfectly affable, gives no indication that there is any such fight. It's just a silly inclusion, as believable as it is insignificant.

Among Ghibli films, Whisper of the Heart has most in common with Kiki's Delivery Service and Only Yesterday, both of them similarly more subdued stories of young females wrestling with questions of personal identity. If Kondo was not yet so accomplished as his predecessors in the Studio Ghibli director's chair, exhibiting not quite the flair of Miyazaki nor the depth of Takahata, nevertheless his Whisper of the Heart was possessed of an earnestness and sincerity that have made it a personal favorite of mine.

Friday, August 17, 2012

I am not a Slytherin

Have you tried Pottermore, the new official website of the Harry Potter books, which invites visitors to explore the stories "in a whole new way and discover exclusive new writing from J.K. Rowling"? Well, I have, and I can tell you it's complete rubbish.

It's an interactive website that is intended to enhance one's reading of the books. Each chapter of each book (right now, only the first book and parts of the second are ready) is done up in Flash, users encouraged to click around to uncover bits of writing from J.K. Rowling, ranging from encyclopedia entries to behind-the-scenes info. In practice, it feels like it just summarizes the books. I haven't read them in a few years, but I remember the stories well enough that slowly trudging through this buggy website chapter-by-chapter (and Pottermore forces you to go in order; you can't jump around to whichever parts might interest you) feels pointlessly redundant, adding nothing of value to my appreciation of the fiction. If you were actually reading the books alongside the website, maybe it would be more fun, but, on the contrary, I have to imagine it would feel even more redundant, not to mention cumbersome, having to switch back and forth between book and website all the time. It might work better if the Pottermore content were directly integrated into digital versions of the novels, so that you could click around to explore further as highlighted terms catch your interest during your reading. Still, although that works for Wikipedia, I don't think that's any way to read a novel. I don't even like interrupting myself to read the footnotes in annotated editions.

Pottermore also features a social network game component. As you read along through the chapters, you also progress through your own journey at Hogwarts, eventually opening things up for you to compete against other users in . . . I don't know what, because I didn't get that far. To start, you have to select from one of a handful of usernames that the site makes up for you. My options were uniformly stupid. I suppose users are not permitted to create their own names because Pottermore needs to be kid-friendly, and they certainly wouldn't want kids exposed to perverts with all manner of wiener names. Anyway, after that comes the "fun stuff," as you eventually receive your own wand and get sorted into one of the four houses at Hogwarts. The site determines these according to a bunch of personality quizzes. For example, during the sorting, you may be asked, "How would you like to be known to history: The Wise, The Good, The Great, or The Bold?" In this particular case, it's totally transparent which house each choice represents, so if you wanted to increase your odds of getting into Gryffindor, you would of course choose "The Bold." But other questions are less obvious or one-to-one, and, in any case, I tried to answer every question honestly. In this case, I chose "The Good," obviously corresponding to Hufflepuff, even though I would personally be embarrassed to end up in Hufflepuff. A lot of the questions I did not have immediate responses to (because I didn't particularly care one way or another), and I might well have chosen differently were I asked again. For example, asked whether I preferred "Dawn" or "Dusk," I chose "Dusk" simply because the sun has been way too hot lately.

After over an hour of slogging my way through Pottermore, including one instance of the site locking up my computer, to finally reach the sorting ceremony in chapter 7, I was ultimately informed that I belonged to Slytherin.


Along with getting your wand, getting to find out your house is the only remotely exciting part of Pottermore. And after all that buildup, my waiting patiently, playing by their infantile rules, having to read through summaries of stories that I already knew all too well, finally my reward for all that was to be told that I was a bad person. And this from a website obviously aimed primarily at kids! Why is Slytherin even a possibility? What devoted Harry Potter reader would ever dream of getting sorted into the house for jerks? You might as well tell them they've been sorted into hell.

For a moment there, I was tempted to open up a second Pottermore account, so that I could retake the sorting quiz, gaming it so it would let me into Gryffindor. But then sense took back hold of me, as I realized what madness that would have been. Pottermore had already taken so much from me. I was not about to let it take any more. Nice try, talking hat, but you don't get to tell me where I belong.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

On Joysticks

The hype surrounding Persona 4 Arena's release temporarily reignited my passion for fighting games such that I felt compelled to mod my Xbox 360 MadCatz Tournament Edition "S" FightStick to be compatible with the PS3 as well. It was a fairly straightforward job, as I just purchased an already assembled PS3 controller circuit board, which I then had to install into my 360 stick. Looking back, I'm not sure why I ever had a 360 stick to begin with, seeing as how all my fighting games (including Persona 4 Arena) are on the PS3. Also, since I already had a PS3 stick, you might wonder why I had to mod my 360 stick to turn it into a second PS3-compatible stick. I don't intend to make a hobby of this, but I suppose it was something kind of fun to do, which also kept me busy for a day while unemployed.

When I was younger and more passionate about fighting games, I once thought to myself that, one day when I found the time, I would build my own joystick. Eventually, so I imagined, I would even study up on all the necessary skills and labor to put together a complete arcade cabinet, once I had the funds and a place of my own to keep it.

Mind you, this was around the early 2000s. In those days, your only options for arcade-quality joysticks for PS1/PS2 were to 1) build it yourself, 2) order one from MAS Systems, or 3) pay someone advertising on the newsgroups/forums to build one custom for you. No matter which route you went, if you wanted real arcade parts and quality construction, you would be looking at spending $100 minimum (usually closer to $200). Anything you could find in stores from MadCatz, Pelican, Nuby, etc. would be complete junk.

As the fighting game community grew online, and fewer and fewer members of it remembered or cared what the local arcade experience was, the rugged American-style sticks peddled by MAS and other small operators fell out of favor. Japanese sticks by Ascii and especially Hori started to become more sought after. Online fighting game "professors" were able to break down the science of why lighter, looser stick levers and convex buttons were the way to go if you wanted to achieve your full potential. When Hori released its "Real Arcade Pro" controller for the PS2, sporting a genuine Sanwa JLF stick straight out of the Japanese arcade cabinets, it quickly became lauded by importers as the new standard in home joysticks, never mind that the buttons were still not Sanwa but merely Hori knockoffs.

Many American console players finally got their first chance to see what joysticks were all about in 2005, when Namco bundled Tekken 5 for the PS2 with a Hori stick. Although both the buttons and stick were cheaper Hori parts, rather than genuine Sanwa, the build was otherwise the same as the Real Arcade Pro, making it perhaps the first fairly high-quality joystick widely available in the US. By this time, Hori had released the Real Arcade Pro 2 in Japan, which featured Sanwa buttons and stick, and anything less was soon being declared garbage by joystick aficionados. Nevertheless, pretty much every casual-to-semi-competitive player I knew in the US was using the Tekken 5 Hori stick.

Things changed in a big way, however, when Street Fighter IV came out in 2009, accompanied by the official Tournament Edition FightStick from MadCatz. Selling for about what you would expect to pay for a custom-built joystick, it was the first domestic, mass-market stick to feature a full complement of the highest-quality Sanwa parts. Its success pushed Hori to finally pursue the US market more aggressively with new premium joysticks.

With these recent developments, my old dream of one day building my own stick has been abandoned, not because I've realized it's unrealistic (as has been the case with so many other dreams), but because it has become obsolete. There's no longer any need to build a custom stick in order to compete or capture the "authentic arcade experience." Nowadays, you can easily (though still not cheaply) get a domestic, licensed-by-Sony/Microsoft stick from MadCatz or Hori, and it will be as good as any stick that you could build yourself. In fact, I have two of these MadCatz sticks for some reason. And I don't even play or enjoy fighting games nearly as much as I used to!

Well, I suppose it might still be fun to try to build an American-style stick with a bat top. Or maybe a "left-handed" joystick (I used to think it made more sense, as a right-handed person, to have the stick on the right side and the buttons on the left). Or maybe one day I'll even build that arcade cabinet.

What I've Been Playing #3: Persona 4 Arena

I never played Persona 4, so some of the fanservice appeal of this game is probably lost on me. The only Persona 3 characters are Mitsuru, Akihiko, Aigis, and Elizabeth. I wouldn't be surprised if Atlus released more characters via DLC or in an updated version of the game.

The story mode is done as a visual novel. It's time-consuming but not actually very comprehensive, and it's largely non-interactive. Most of your time "playing" is really spent reading your selected character's text narration atop static backgrounds and character portraits. Seems pretty mind-numbing to me. The story itself is supposed to be a sequel to Persona 4 (which, again, doesn't mean much to me, since I never played that game), but, from what I've seen of it, it seems to be a typical fighting game story, as characters just run into and start fighting each other for fairly contrived reasons.

The fighting engine is a Guilty Gear derivative, also in the same vein as other "anime fighters," such as BlazBlueMelty Blood, and Arcana Heart. Not sure how this came to be its own distinctly identifiable sub-genre, but it's much faster and looser than Street Fighter or King of Fighters, and it's got the usual air-dashes, double-jumps, and all manner of systems and sub-systems. Frankly, fighting games these days are just getting too convoluted for me.