Peace and Love on the Planet Earth

Happy New Year, everyone! Now that we’ve hit 2017, we should really start thinking about a rapidly approaching decision – Will “the 20’s” will refer to the 1920’s or the 2020’s?

Irrelevant slang aside, 2016 was a really tough year. Even for those of us who escaped 2016 personally unscathed, the events of the year still dealt a heavy blow to any remaining optimism we had in reserve. (And for those of you who couldn’t care less about the events of 2016 because of a personal tragedy that blacked out everything else… I have no words.)

Because 2016 was so trying, it seems like a good time to reflect and re-center ourselves. Toward that end, I’d like to suggest a certain animated show that I binged over the course of 2016, that always manages to make me smile and rekindle a bit of the hope that 2016 nearly snuffed out. That show is not:

This show is not the subject of this post.

Yeah, holy crap, no, it’s not Bojack. Also an amazing show, but WOW is it depressing. Not today. I’ll cover Bojack later. Rather, today I want to talk about:

They’ll always save the day! (And if you think they can’t, they’ll always find a way!)

Steven Universe! A Cartoon Network show I first started watching on my way home from Thailand at Ethan’s suggestion (thanks, Ethan!) that I have only become more obsessed with over time.

In short, the show centers around the titular character Steven, at center in the above image. In the most abstract sense, the show is about Steven growing up and learning about himself as a half-human, half-non-organic-alien (Gem) hybrid. The three beings around Steven (from left to right: Pearl, Garnet, and Amythest) are three Gems that make up Steven’s family and live peacefully among humanity as its self-appointed protectors.

Before I go any further, I know what you’re thinking: “Gems? Aliens? Cartoon Network? Really? So it’s a kids show and it only makes you smile because it’s simplistic, preachy, and sugar-coated”. In fact, you (the hypothetical you, anyways) couldn’t be more wrong. It would be a dire mistake to judge Steven Universe by its cover. Underneath that bright, saturated and lovably-rounded exterior, the show has:

  • An intense sci-fi plotline spanning the entire show, which is currently midway through its fourth season
  • A cast of deep and real characters, each struggling with their own personal demons
  • A cast that is, in terms of the voice actors for the main characters, majority female and majority non-white
  • Blunt and empathetic discussions about real issues that have no simple solutions, like colonialism and healthy relationships

Even while tackling depressing and difficult issues, Steven Universe remains positive and upbeat. The essential moral lesson of the show as a whole is that the right combination of empathy, patience, determination and self-value can overcome any challenge. In the face of insurmountable odds or a crisis of faith, you still have control over yourself and who you want to be. As 2016 showed us, the world can sometimes be terrifying, chaotic, and downright depressing. Even with the worst that can possibly be thrown at you, you can still try to be better than you were yesterday, to believe in yourself and those around you. Not because doing so will grant you magical anime powers to accomplish the impossible, but because if there’s a change to be made in the world around you, it has to start with you.

Really, watch the show. Episodes are only ~11 minutes long (with two fitting in a standard half-hour TV block) and the show starts to get good even within the first ten episodes, so think of it as if I were suggesting that you watch one episode of an hour long show. I’m going to end with a long quote from the season two episode “It Could’ve Been Great”, in which one character tries to convey this sense of optimism, despite everything, to another. Take from it what you will, and happy 2017!

1: Working hard is important, but feeling good is important too

2: What are you talking about? (Presses trigger of electric drill)

1: Hey! Bzzzz… What is that, a C? (Plays a C on their ukelele)

2: The drill? (Presses faster speed of electric drill, playing a G)

1: Oh my gosh, now it’s music!

2: Music?

1: Well yeah, it’s music. Like.. this. (playing) Do re me fa so la ti do! (Plays a chord)

2: Do me so do

1: (Plays a chord) Isn’t it pretty?

2: That’s exceedingly simple

1: (Plays a chord)

2: Do me so ti

1: (Plays a chord) We’re making music!

2: What is the point?

1: (Starts playing a song)

2: You’re not making anything

1: Well if it isn’t anything, then why does it sound so good?

2: I guess it’s just interest, do me so do, devoid of substance or purpose, a hypothetical pattern, do me so ti, for the satisfaction of bringing it to completion!

1: Sure!

2: Interest without meaning, solutions without problems…

1: And then you just add words. Here’s one I’ve been working on..

Life and death and love and birth,
And peace and war on the planet Earth.
Is there anything that’s worth more
Than peace and love on the planet Earth

Evil Knife Hands. EVIL KNIFE HANDS!

The short version, for the video game enthusiast on the go: blah blah blah Steam summer sale blah blah best game ever blah blah Castlevania blah blah Zelda blah blah blah blah!!

And now, your feature presentation.

As per usual, I grabbed an armload of games during the Steam Summer Sale a couple months back. This time, my haul included:

  • Antichamber, a portal-like first-person-puzzle game that makes relying on the laws of reality quite difficult
  • Crypt of the Necrodancer, an amazingly innovative rhythm-based dungeon crawler that features some of the best dance songs I’ve heard in a while
  • Tales of Maj’Eyal, not yet opened
  • The Talos Principle, not yet opened

And, the feature of today’s post,

  • Dust, an Elysian Tail

I just finished Dust; I am literally writing this five minutes after watching the credits roll. I knew I would like the game from the first hour or two, but after finishing the game it is now one of my all time favorites. Dust does just about everything well. I’m having a hard time figuring out something that I don’t like about it. Let’s break it down a little.

Dust is a Castlevania-style RPG. Jump & swing. All of the combat is based off of one weapon, and three attack buttons. So right off the bat there isn’t a whole lot complexity-wise. Fortunately the game recognizes different sequences of the two main attack buttons for some powerful combos, both in the air and on the ground. In the heat of battle there is a lot to think about as you try to execute combos but also dodge enemy attacks. Furthermore, the emphasis on combos is multiplied ten-fold by the experience system. You level up (increasing in one of four stats, just barely enough to give you some degree of flexibility but also makes sure that there is no wrong choice) by killing enemies, but more so by executing combos of hits – any series of connected hits. Thus while the game gives you pre-programed sequences of two to five moves to do a real “combo”, you have to string those combos and other singular hits together in order to build up to combos of 100, 200, 500, or more hits. Finally, if you get hit at any point, you lose the combo and don’t get any of the combo experience you would have earned. As the reward of the combo experience rises faster than linearly with more hits, the risk of getting hit and losing (or rather not gaining) that chunk of experience grows as well. It’s a wonderful system that very intuitively fits into the hack-n-slash combat system and rewards the player for wanting to look cool.

I could go on and on just about the combat system. How the energy system forces you to use your projectiles and mobility bursts wisely, while incentivizing risky (but awesome) parrying. How the power of Dust storm and Dust Tornado are equalized by their lack of mobility and fixed trajectory, respectively. Etc. All of that would be well and good if Dust were only valuable for its combat. While that’s what got me hooked, it’s not what kept me coming back. For that, I needed the story.

Story-wise, Dust is very Zelda, minus the titular princess. We have a guy with an annoying companion and a magical sword trying to rid the world of evil guy. We journey around the world, helping people out of the lurch the evil guy put them in, grow morally, and eventually save the world. Normally, this would really annoy me. It’s an extremely formulaic story pattern that I grew tired of five years ago.

But it doesn’t. Not at all.

Dust kept my attention from the first moment to the ending cutscene because I liked every. single. character. Coming off of recently playing LOZ: Link between Worlds (a great game in its own right), I was struck by the character depth that Dust achieves without substantially changing the story format. First of all, the whole “let’s not give the main character dialogue because it makes him/her too hard to identify with” thing is played out, and I’m really glad Dust doesn’t subscribe to it. Dust (the titular character) talks plenty throughout the game, and has an actual personality to boot. This is actually a requirement, given the plot of the game, but it turns out quite well.

Fidget, Dust’s traditional back-sassing flying annoyance, serves as comic relief and fourth-wall-breaker, but also shows a surprising amount of emotion at the most trying moments of the story. She’s one of the first companions I’ve actually enjoyed having on an adventure game, one who made the story better than it would have been in her absence. One big reason for Fidget’s ranking well above the likes of Fi and Navi is that she only interrupts you to talk when it’s absolutely necessary. All of the mundane notifications (there’s treasure here/you’re low on health/you’re out of energy, etc) are handled with only a small symbol above her head and a brief but noticeable chime.

Magical talking sword Arrah rounds out Dust’s crew, taking the role of secretive wizard-like person who knows what’s going on but can’t tell Dust because of reasons that become clear near the end of the game. This would be frustrating to a real person, and amazingly, it’s frustrating to Dust as well. Dust gets mad at Arrah frequently throughout the game, whenever Arrah tells him to do something with little to no rationale behind it. The party size of three leads to some interesting argument resolutions throughout the game, where two parties agree against the wishes of the third. There are a few extended cut scenes, but they are all near the end of the game at which point I was 100% invested in the plot of the game. Finally, though I really can’t go into much detail, the fully unrolled plot is very interesting features some very unusual details, and also leaves copious amounts of room for a sequel, if there isn’t one already.

Finally, Dust is a visual and audio masterpiece. Every three-stage background, every enemy, and every animation is cut from the same vibrantly colored and flowing cloth.

300 hit combos are infinitely more satisfying because it looks like the whole thing was choreographed. A friend of mine watched me play for a good ten minutes, and at the end asked if it was scripted. It feels a bit like what Bastion would look like if every background was filled in with sweeping hills and towering mountains. Sound-wise, I felt like I was listening to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Powerful symphonic movements accompany Dust through his journeys, combining symbiotically with the landscapes and punctuating key moments. The only thing I can find wrong with Dust (and this is the smallest of nitpicks) is that the blending of foreground to mid-ground to background sometimes makes it difficult to determine what is walkable terrain. But it’s a trade I’ll gladly make for the seamlessness of the whole world.

Overall, to say that I loved Dust is an understatement. It sets a precedent for every adventure and RPG games that I will ever play, in just about every judicable category. I played it on the Tough difficulty, which was just right for me, and took about the right amount of time for a small adventure game (12 hrs). I can’t even deride it for being too easy, as there is a hardcore difficulty above tough that I’m sure would kick the crap out of me and most players. If you like Adventure games, RPGs, or Hack-n-slashes, Dust is an absolutely must buy. If not, I would still say give it a shot as the paragon of its genres.

The End of the World (Part 1)

"Proper story's supposed to start at the beginning. Ain't so simple with this one...."

—-> Extremely brief aside: A lot of the time I’m going to want to talk from the view of the player. Sometimes that involves the use of pronouns. I’m going to use “he” exclusively here. I know, love, and constantly support the fact that girls play video games too. In the interest of clarity and brevity, however, I’m going to stick to “he”. Feel free to mentally replace “he” with whatever pronoun makes you most comfortable were you the one playing the game. SMOKEBOMB <—-

Winter break last year found me with a newly-earned Musical Director position and a lot of time on my hands. Between arranging new music and the various holidays I needed to find something to distract myself. The answer to my problem was fairly simple and may even be already evident to some – Gamer + Too Much Time + Winter Break = Steam Winter Sale! For an unbelievably low price I acquired the full Bioshock series, an in-development game called Particulars, Tower Wars, and one other game. A game that I purchased for $2.99, and that is now in my favorite games of all time.

That game is Bastion.

A friend recommended Bastion to me, but I never could have known just how much of an impact it would have on me. Not only is Bastion an amazing game and enjoyable experience, but the story is more complex and thought provoking than most books I read throughout high school. Despite the narrator’s haunting warning that opens the game, I’ll try to start at my beginning with Bastion.

After waiting for my sluggish internet to download the game, I immediately sat myself down with a mug of hot chocolate and booted it up. My first impression was of the art – Bastion is beautiful.

Bastion's Menu Screen

The art style uses a bright palate to paint exquisite texture throughout the scene, but mist encroaching at the borders gives a sense of mystery and intrigue. The pail and lantern in the foreground imply a setting somewhere between the medieval and the renaissance eras. The font is bold but has many interesting twists and branches off of the main letters. Finally, you may not have noticed, but the arch on which the title structure is supported is floating in mid air – its support pillars are not attached to anything. Other islands float in the background, solidifying the fact that, in the world of Bastion, things are for some reason floating. I assumed from the title sequence this implied the existence of magic, of some sort. I was wrong.

So press any key, start a new game. Here’s the first 15 minutes of the game (which I can show without fear of spoiling things because of how deep the game goes). Watch as far as you care to, though for the sake of things I’m going to discuss watch at least through the first two minutes.

My impression of Bastion as a joyous, magical setting was shattered from the very first low, discordant chord. The gritty narrator continues the feel with a quote that sets a mysterious and frightening undertone. Let’s break down that opening quote a little.

“Proper story’s supposed to start with the beginning. Ain’t so simple with this one… “

So we learn a couple things: The narrator is (or believes he is) an experienced storyteller, this story isn’t any old story, nor will its recalling start at the beginning. Already we’re being thrown into a setting where the player is aware that there are details kept from him, to be filled in on the narrator’s whim.

“… Now here’s a kid whose whole world got all twisted, leaving him stranded on a rock in the sky.”

After quickly inferring that the kid mentioned is the only human on screen (and probably the main playable character of the game), the player immediately sympathizes with the kid. He’s asleep on a bed, a small piece of solid ground surrounded by a lucid, vast abyss. The kid doesn’t seem to know any more than us about why the world is this way, where he is or what happened. Setting the scene in this way does something very important for the game. Explaining what important idea this accomplishes requires a game design tangent. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to Bastion

Game Design Key Point – Main Character Empathy – One key thing to do when opening a game is make sure your main character is someone the player wants to be or to see progress (depending on the point of view). One example where this doesn’t go well is in Metroid Prime. [Disclaimer: I love Metroid Prime and will probably gush about it in a future post. This, however, is one of its few rough spots.] Very quickly after meeting Samus Aran, the infamous bounty hunter, we watch her stand still for a good three seconds while a bridge explodes behind her. This hurls you against a wall and causes you to lose all of your powerups. I (at age 14) was quite literally shaking the controller and yelling “MOVE” at the TV during this cutscene. This is a character who (supposedly) has lightning reflexes, has survived hundreds of near-death encounters and will go on to survive a thousand more. The idea that she can’t move out of the way of a slowly advancing series of explosions is forced and unconvincing, and a lame way to lose all of your abilities. It makes the player lose interest in Samus’ plight, and thus the plot of the game.

Notably, this is a challenge that games have to face that other entertainment mediums (books, movies) don’t. Even if you don’t like the main character in a novel, you can’t re-write his or her dialog. The very best you can do is put the book down and give up. You can’t re-write the scripted plot of a video game either, but you feel that you are the one leading it. When you have a book in your hand, the plot is set out for you the reader in a very visible fashion. Were you to flip to the final page, you would read the end of the plot, no questions asked. From the very moment you pick up the book its progression is set. In good, non-open-world games, the player moves the main character through the plot in a way that should feel natural and justified. He should feel as though he as the main character is leading the plot, not a hopeless puppet who is straining against his boundaries at every turn. Good luck convincing your player to advance the plot by playing your game (a task that may take quite a lot of effort on the player’s part) if they don’t like where it’s going.

Bastion, however, hits this nail right on the head. From the very first time the player meets the kid, you need to see him succeed because you share a common goal: to understand. Both the player and the kid need to know why the world is a mess of floating pieces of earth and stone. In only two narrated sentences, Bastion forges a bond through the fourth wall that persists through the entire game. You, the player, are the kid. With all of his desires, fears, and determinations.

Back to the game! If you watched the video, you’ve noticed that there’s a few seconds where nothing happens. Though the narrator has fallen silent, the music continues playing. This is because, though the player hasn’t realized it yet, the cutscene has ended, seamlessly transitioning into the game itself. Nothing will happen until the player hits any of the arrow keys, at which point the narrator continues…

“He gets up. Sets off for the Bastion, where everyone agreed to go in case of trouble”

Looks are deceiving: This isn’t a cutscene. The narrator is continuing to narrate, even though the game has begun. He’ll continue to narrate the kid’s actions throughout the game, occasionally adding his own input. To my knowledge, no game before Bastion has ever been narrated in this continual and complete fashion. One more thing that makes Bastion unique.

As the player begins to move to the right – there’s nowhere else to go – ground shoots up from the bottom of the screen to form a pathway. The narrator acknowledges this, showing that it’s a real part of the universe, not just a design style. Continuing along the path nets the player the Cael Hammer, the first iconic weapon of the game. The swing animations do a wonderful job of showing off the hammer’s weight and unwieldiness, but also its brutal power. A little further in, and we get two key pieces of plot information from the narrator:

“He sees what’s left of the Rippling Walls – years of work undone in an instant… In the Calamity”

The first isn’t shocking, given that the name of the current location was briefly floated over the screen at the start of the game. These are, apparently, the rippling walls. Even that, though, deserves study. Walls are only built when there is need to keep something, or someone, out. Our kid is on top of the wall – thus likely a member of the society that built, maintained, and enforced it. It was a long and hard task to build the wall, and now it’s in shambles.

Because of the Calamity.

For some reason, something somewhere went seriously seriously wrong. Wrong enough that massive wall built over the course of years is now floating chunks of stone in the sky. Wrong enough that the kid, a occupant of that very wall, is left alone on its remnants with not another soul, living or dead, in sight.

How? Why? If you weren’t empathizing with the kid’s need to know, to understand, to seek an explanation: You are now.

I want to stop here for a couple reasons, chief among them being length. I also want to give anyone who is interested a chance to play the game for themselves. I can analyze all I like about my love for Bastion, but the greatest beauty of a video game is that you can only truly experience it if you play it for yourself. It’s available on Steam right now for all major computer operating systems and has mild hardware requirements. I’ll resume in The End of the World Part 2 some time this week. Unlike this analysis, in part 2 I’ll be taking a more broad look on how the narration, music, and level design define the feel of the game and are intertwined with the plot. I won’t be giving any more plot past this opening sequence because I don’t want to spoil anything at all for would-be players.

All I’ll say is that the end of the game involves two choices. The weight of the world rests on the kid’s and your shoulders.