Sunday, July 31, 2016

The legacy of D&D, part 1

Let's talk about the original RPG.

For the two of you living under rocks, it was the pair of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson who helped give birth to the cultural juggernaut that is Dungeons & Dragons. D&D itself was primarily inspired by two major set of novels. The first, obviously, was Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, but the second is the slightly more obscure Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series of fantasy novels by Fritz Leiber.

Of course, this is mainly a video game blog, so why bring this up? Well, because video games have been drawing on D&D for influence from the very beginning.

It starts with Wizardry, the classic series of computer RPGs. The first came out in 1981, and proved to be a fair success...but in Japan, calling it that would be an understatement. It was huge, and all of the JRPG genre resulted from game producers over there trying to copy what Wizardry. This led to the birth of the hugely popular Dragon Quest series.

Another such attempt came at the hands of a company on the verge of bankruptcy, who decided to give it an appropriate title for their final product. In doing so, Squaresoft blatantly ignored copyright laws and ripped every idea they could from D&D to create their Final Fantasy. (Even the trio of mage classes - White Mage, Red Mage, Black Mage - came from the D&D Dragonlance setting.) Which, of course, saved the company, and now you can look up news about the impending release of Final Fantasy XV.

Meanwhile, the western sphere was both producing new RPG series like Ultima and Might & Magic, as well as official licensed D&D games, referred to as the Gold Box games because of boxes. (We're real imaginative, can you tell?) These were followed up by the Eye of the Beholder trilogy (some call these Silver Box games, but I just ignore that) and their spinoff Dungeon Hack.

Meanwhile meanwhile, other people had been busy creating their own tabletop systems, including Steve Jackson's GURPS. A company named Black Isle attempted to acquire the rights to use GURPS for their own post-apocalyptic video game, but that fell through. As a result, they developed their own SPECIAL system...and the result was the romp known as Fallout.

While RPGs waned in popularity in the later 90s, a new company, founded by a pair of medical doctors, acquired the rights to make a new D&D game. Black Isle (sounds familiar?) agreed to publish this game. The result was Baldur's Gate, and the company Bioware has become a fixture of RPG making since.

I could keep going, but you get the point. D&D's fingerprints are all over video games, to the point where studying their history without acknowledging the work of Gygax and Arneson is basically pointless. I don't want people to buy into historical inaccuracies, we are.

Of course, there's another side to this, the cultural legacy that extends from D&D. And unfortunately, this isn't quite as pretty as just a list of games that wouldn't exist without it. But since this blog post is a little long as is, come back next week for the second part, where I'll dig into that matter...and the problems that came with it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Looking back: System Shock 2

Well, number 3 is coming out, and the first game is getting a remake, but what about the game that sits in between the two?

System Shock 2 was released in 1999, which put it up against the original Half-Life. While critics praised it, it was heavily overshadowed by this other FPS, leading to it never escalating beyond cult hit status during its normal sales run. However, its influence goes well beyond that.

This game has been wide touted as one of the scariest games ever made. The thing to realize here is that it relies on a different brand of scariness than modern horror games, which make heavy use of jumpscares and extremely limited lighting to freak the player out at specific points.

2 leans more on a sense of overall tension; while the enemies aren't that scary (at least, not unless you stop and think about what they are), the music, atmosphere, and limited resources put players constantly on edge, with limited breathing room. Of course, the reason this isn't popular is that it's too easy (by some views) to paint yourself into a corner by using too much ammo or healing items. The difficulty (which was fairly hard, even by standards back then) did not help matters.

While it took years for an official sequel, many games were influenced by it. The Bioshock series began as a direct spiritual sequel to the game, and circumstantial evidence indicates that the first Dead Space game may have started development as a sequel. More directly, it helped blend the FPS and RPG genres, in a way that would be echoed (although not copied) by later series like Borderlands.

Oh, and SHODAN. Many, many video game AIs have taken cues from SHODAN and her brand of insanity. From Halo's Cortana to Portal's GLaDOS (note the use of capital letters) to Angel from the aforementioned Borderlands, female AIs have become surprisingly standard since this game's release. A trope, if you will, that goes back to "L-l-look at you, hacker..."

The final coda is the legal rights snafu that was the main reason it took so long for ''3'' to come out, due to the rights being divided among several different companies. Trying to sum up just how those rights were divided over the years would be very complicated, so I'll settle for just saying that the sequel rights, the distribution rights, and the trademark rights have changed hands multiple times. (At least it's in a better position than No One Lives Forever...)

Either way, it's another piece of gaming history that deserves to be highlighted. SHODAN's glory may not quite be what she wants, but in terms of being the center of a memorable game, she's earned a fair amount of respect, right?


Oh, no one asked you, Goggles.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Japan vs. the world

Let's be honest, video games would not be where they are now if it weren't for the Japanese companies who made them. Nintendo alone basically ensured that gaming would not be PC only (we'd be in a very different world if the NES hadn't happened).

Well, as usual, you have to know the "but" lurks in there. The fact is, Japanese companies in the past few years have kind of fallen off the wagon here. Everyone knows how Konami kind of just turned into a laughingstock, Nintendo made us all cringe with their "explanation" of how Link can't be female, and so on. But enough bashing companies.

What we're looking at here is actually Japanese business culture becoming more conservative, which isn't surprising, given that's an overall trend in AAA game development the world over. The big studios don't want to take any chances, and that mentality means they will play it safe, as unfortunate as it is for us gamers.

The twist here is that Japanese culture makes a huge point about distinguishing itself from...well, everyone else. Getting into the specifics of how and why this is would take too long, but it's an attitude that colors everything from tourism to politics to creating fiction, including video games. So what happens when these factors come together?

You get a scenario where games are made mainly for the Japanese market, with few (if any) considerations for international audiences. Which, outside the giant mobile market in Japan, is the biggest audience they can reach. The failure of these companies to keep doing so is pretty clear evidence that reaching these people is not high on their priority list.

Obviously, there are exceptions, like Square Enix, which has the advantage of specifically buying out Western companies and their IPs, like Tomb Raider and Deus Ex. Nintendo still has its fans, and at least they are trying some new things with their mobile push...oh wait, no, that's still Japan-based. Well, at the very least Zelda is going to be open-world, so...whee?

No one from Japan is probably going to read this blog post, let alone take it into consideration. After all, thousands of fans have clamored and argued against what has happened over the past few years, but it hasn't accomplished much. Japanese gaming will continue to focus on developing for their home market first - and fall into irrelevance elsewhere.

It's kind of sad really. So, I propose a toast - to the great games that came out of Japan in the past. While a few more may still come, it will never be the same. So crank them up - that old Final Fantasy, that classic Castlevania, that amazing Mega Man - one more time, for memories' sake. Because while there may be other games of their ilk...most won't be made by Japanese companies. (Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night possibly being the one exception I'm aware of.)