Retrospective

So here I am. Standing on the edge of tomorrow. (Live and learn!) It’s been eight months since I started this thing up, and since then I’ve written 10 of these posts, including this one. I’ve shared my views some of my favorite games, and talked a great deal about topics like character development, story progression, and the role of the player. I actually have much more I’d like to talk about, but this is where I have to stop. I have to move on.

I’m not terribly satisfied with how this blog went. Although I definitely had some quality posts (the Wonderful World of Text Boxes and the analysis of OneShot are my personal favorites)  the majority of my articles felt rushed, because that’s what they were. Each time I narrowly finished a post I promised to myself that I’d focus on writing the next, but unfortunately life never ceased to get in the way. I’m frankly disappointed in myself that I never managed to write a post that wasn’t down-to-the-wire. There were a great number of ideas that never came to fruition, and even though I’m stopping here I’m not too content with my work. I’ve represented some of these neglected titles by the screenshots you see scattered about this page.

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I’ve talked a lot about Phoenix Wright, but I’ve rarely said anything about Shu Takumi’s other masterpiece, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective. It’s awesome. You should play it.

I think that the majority of my disappointment of this blog stems from the subject that gives it its name: Storytelling in Video Games. It’s pretty obvious at this point, but I have a passion for video game storytelling, and believe that video games have just as much potential to express complex ideas as books and movies and other forms of media. They’re often-neglected and dismissed because many people see them just as playthings. Sure, there’s a ton of games that are just meant to be fun, and nothing else, but there’s also many that strive to tell stories and actually mean something. The reason I started this blog wasn’t just to improve my skills in analysis. It was to hopefully show the world that video games can be powerful experiences. I essentially turned myself into a representative of all my favorite video games, so I stressed out about my ability to communicate my thoughts on them effectively. I worried that I wasn’t able to properly express my ideas and that my writing seemed underdeveloped and childish. It was kind of heartbreaking to feel as if I hadn’t done justice to the thing I want to pursue as a career.

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The Stanley Parable is a very important and interesting game about the concept of player choice, but it’s so darn meta that I doubt I would have been able to write a decent post about it if I had all the time in the world. I don’t even have much to say about it right now, it’s just kind of confusing.

 

If there’s anything I’ve realized over these past few years, it’s that, much like writing a blog post, making video games is actually really, really hard. There’s a lot of different elements that go into a video game. None of these are remotely easy, and in order for a game to be successful, they need to properly flow together. It’s not like every other medium, where the audience is forced to remain in their seats, unable to influence the story. A game designer needs to be able to anticipate the actions that different people take as they go through a game. It’s also quite difficult at times to integrate gameplay and story, if this blog is any indication of that. You can’t just come up with an idea and shove it into a video game, even if it is a “good one”. You have to meticulously consider every possible flaw in your concept, smooth it out, and repeat until it cooperates with all the others.

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This might seem unlikely given some of the things I’ve mentioned so far, but I believe Middens has the honor of being the weirdest (or at least, most “unhinged”) game I’ve ever played. This bizarre adventure, which follows a Nomad’s journey through a surreal wonderland known as the “Rift”, deals with themes of senseless violence due to player boredom in a very different way than Undertale’s infamous Genocide route. It would have been an interesting counterpoint to a lot of other games I’ve discussed here.

But I think the complexity of video game design is exactly what intrigues me the most. I’ve developed an immense amount of appreciation for those who make them, especially if that person carries the burden mostly by themselves. Most of my heroes fall under this category. Using an ancient version of Blender that didn’t even have an undo button, Daniel Remar worked for four years on Iji, a game of which I am very attached to. Shu Takumi developed a unique style different from that of his colleagues, and wrote games that blurred the line between story and gameplay despite working in the action-oriented environment. Toby Fox, a musician by day, used everything he learned from his close proximity to Homestuck and created my favorite game of all time, the game that I wanted to make. I look up to these people, and sometimes get envious and discouraged, but other times I remember that they’re human like me. They probably felt the same kind of doubts I’m feeling now, and there were definitely times when they struggled.

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I was eventually going to do a post on horror games, a topic that I’m strangely interested in despite being too scared to play them myself most of the time. Because I was sure that searching for pictures from these games wouldn’t be a fun time at all, I was going to draw events from them by memory! This is a screenshot from the hilariously named “Spooky’s House of Jumpscares”, which was one of the core games used in my argument. 

But they came through. Despite all of the stress that comes with the game industry, they remained determined and worked to fulfill their dreams. They refused to give up even when it seemed all hope was lost. But of course, the classic theme of “believing in yourself” isn’t the only reason they became successful. It often feels like those people are just naturally talented, and that my skills at drawing, writing, programming, and making music are grossly inferior to theirs. The only thing I have truly complete confidence in is my burning passion for video game storytelling.

It’s true that passion alone doesn’t make you a game designer.  However, it’s this passion that can lead anyone, my seemingly untouchable rivals included, to greatness. They used their passion constructively to improve themselves, and I believe I can too. I think I’ve learned that part of being a good creative individual is letting go of your emotions and not worrying too much. After all, even if it was soul-crushing, and I didn’t feel completely satisfied about my work, I came through and wrote an extensive essay on text boxes with over a thousand words! That’s an accomplishment if I’ve ever saw one. The final product may not be what you had originally wanted it to be, but chances are somehow will appreciate it. And even if no one does, at least you made something, and ignored all of the negative thoughts would have dissuaded others from even attempting it in the first place. It reminds me of a quote from Phoenix Wright. “The only time a lawyer can cry is when it’s all over.”

So that’s why I’m putting an end to this odyssey of introspection and regret. Regardless of whether it’s “good” or not, I need to walk away and move on to bigger things. I need to remember that it’s never too late to start seriously learning how to program and draw. Heck, it’s possible that some of my favorite game designers didn’t even have video games when they were young. The information I need to improve myself is out there, somewhere, and I have greater access to it then they did. I just need to figure out how to find what I’m looking for.

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Aww man. For April Fool’s, I was going to write about MacGyver, the famous action-packed TV show that I absolutely loathe but watch anyway. I’m generally pretty tolerant of other people’s opinions, but if any people say that MacGyver was an awesome show they are lying to themselves. I could have an entire blog dedicated to explaining just how mediocre MacGyver is.

 

Maybe someday I’ll go back and revise a few posts that I feel are weak.  But for now, I’m going to focus on moving forward, and I’ll try my absolute hardest to make something I feel proud about. I’ll learn to deal with the emotions that come when something doesn’t go as planned, and instead see every mistake as a necessary part of becoming a better person. You can extract meaning and beauty from everything, even those mistakes. That’s the great thing about art. You don’t need to be perfect—nobody is—for your work to make people happy.  You just need to take the first step and make something.

Thank you.

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One of the final moments from Iji, which is notable in being the video game responsible for inspiring me to make my own someday. In the end I only talked about how god-awful its text boxes were. Oh well.

(Photo credits: rpgfan.com, stanleyparable.com, imgur.com, rockpapershotgun.com, listal.com spriters-resource.com)

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A Word on Silent Protagonists

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Ever thought about just how many video games have main characters that are somehow unable to speak? Portal, Pokemon, Half-life, the Legend of Zelda, Chrono Trigger, Minecraft… Heck, Undertale’s one of my favorite examples of storytelling in video games and yet still it’s got a protagonist that doesn’t even talk beyond a few dialogue options. Why are all these characters silent?

The most important thing to understand about video game protagonists is that they serve as an extension of the player into the game environment. More often then not, the player’s influence is limited to that of this player character, and uses them to indirectly affect and play out events in the game. This should be obvious to anyone’s that’s ever picked up a controller before, but this simple idea has huge implications when writing a game’s story.

Because of this relationship, the player character effectively represents the player themselves. That’s why terms like “RPG” exist– the player assumes the role of the protagonist while playing the game. They aren’t watching the character struggle throughout the plot like in other forms of media. Instead, they are the character, and deal with the game’s events themselves. Technically (and I know I’m going to get crucified for this, as video game genre definitions are a serious debate for some reason) all video games are RPGs in a sense. It doesn’t matter if the character was created by the player themselves, if they were clearly designed by the developers, or even when games like Oneshot and Off explicitly separate the protagonist from the one with the controller. The player subconsciously becomes the player character.

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When talking about a game (let’s just say FFX) with a friend, no one ever says “Gee, Tidus sure had a tough time fighting Seymour!” They always say “I had a tough time fighting Seymour.” Even though Tidus does have a more concrete albeit still simplistic personality than some protagonists (he gets really hungry, enjoys playing the sport Blitzball, and hates his father, Jecht) the player often forgets the character is not actually him during gameplay sequences such as a boss fight. This is because the player assumes control of Tidus during those sequences. Strangely, when people complain about Tidus’ horrible excuse for a laugh in a particular infamous scene (pictured above) they refer to him and not themselves. This is because that event happens in a cut-scene, when control is taken away from the player. The player feels no responsibility for “their actions” anymore, because the game is essentially playing itself, and they had no input.

It should come as no surprise that story and gameplay are frequently segregated, due to it generally being easier to design. This often creates a strange “tag in, tag out” scenario, where the protagonist’s identity flip-flops between the player’s and the one written for the game. Most of the time this isn’t noticeable. It’s in those moments when the game’s narrative and player interaction converges that results in a bizarre problem.

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I’ve talked about the Phoenix Wright series numerous times throughout the course of this blog, but I’ve yet to mention the titular rookie attorney himself. Since it would be incredibly difficult to design a video game that is affected by the player’s exact speech when pointing out contradictions, Phoenix Wright serves as sort of a middleman between the player and the game. When the player figures out the problem with a testimony (for instance, the victim didn’t write their dying message with their right hand) they select their answer and Phoenix Wright proceeds to word that information into a reasonable manner. Shu Takumi is generally very good at making his protagonists’ train of thought follow the player’s. However, due to the fact that Phoenix Wright is still a distinct character, an odd disconnect often occurs during some of these courtroom scenes. It can sometimes feel like Phoenix is serving as an interpreter for the player (which is absolutely correct), which shatters their immersion and takes them out of the story. Suddenly, they aren’t the young attorney desperate to protect his friends from unjust accusations. They are just watching this lawyer fight his battles, occasionally helping him by pointing to various things. I sincerely doubt that’s what Takumi wanted to do with Phoenix Wright, as it makes no reference to it unlike games such as Off and Oneshot.

But silent protagonists mitigate this problem almost entirely. They are essentially a blank slate for the player to project themselves onto, with no characteristics whatsoever to “get in the way” of the player’s own. The character’s personality completely reflects the player’s behavior. The main character of Pokemon Red can be a hot-headed youngster dreaming of becoming champion, a patient and methodical person desiring to catalog every kind of Pokemon in the world, or even a hopeless kid who doesn’t know the first thing about type match-ups and grinds his single Pokemon far beyond necessary. And that’s why Undertale, a game heavily centered around the player’s actions and choices, has a silent protagonist. The player can feel a strong connection to the game’s world because they are exploring it “as themselves”, forgetting that they’re actually piloting another person through it. In doing so, the player accepts full responsibility for their actions, which leads to such heart-wrenching and intense guilt trips as the previously mentioned Genocide Run. It’s a simple way to preserve a player’s suspension of disbelief.

(Photo Credits: eastyy.blogspot.com, kotaku.com.au, zabij10prasat.cz)

 

Back For More: What is Replay Value?

So you just beat a game. You’ve won the championship, slain the ultimate evil, completed your sacred mission, exposed the killer, escaped the testing facility, and saved Earth from being obliterated by alien laser attacks. The results screen has come and gone, the end credits have long since rolled off and faded away, and you’re left staring the title screen wondering what to do next.

Although it would probably be a good idea to just move on with our lives, many people in that situation (such as myself) would slam that new game button and play the game all over again.

The question is, why are we compelled to do this? Why do we feel the need  to return to something we’ve already experienced before?  The various reasons why someone would want to replay a video game is known as its “replay value”. Replay value can be loosely organized into 3 different categories.

Challenge

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Achievement screen from Shovel Knight.

Just because a player beat a game doesn’t mean it’s over. There are usually still tons of achievements to unlock, and records to beat. Many of these achievements require the player to have a very thorough understanding of the game that they simply wouldn’t possess during their first playthrough. Yeah, you might have got to the end of Shovel Knight, but can you win without dying a single time? (I know I can’t!) It takes a lot of effort and patience to complete a game “for real”, and to do so demonstrates one’s appreciation for that game. Understandably, making some of these challenges nearly impossible might turn some players away, so it’s important to find a good difficulty level even for the non-required stuff.

Some people just like to challenge themselves regardless if there’s any in-game incentive for it. Speedrunners replay games over and over again in order to improve themselves and be able to beat the game as fast as possible. People who follow self-imposed rules such as the Pokemon Nuzlocke Challenge and the 3-Heart Run not only increase the difficulty of the game, but also make it feel different, which brings us to our next topic…

Variety

The spice of life. If there’s one advantage video games have other other pieces of media, it’s their ability to be different experiences each time one plays them.

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Stage select screen from Mega Man 2.

The simplest example I can think of that illustrates this is from the Mega Man series. In all of the games, the player has the ability to choose which Robot Master they’re going to take on. After they defeat a Robot Master, they gain their power, and can use it in the other stages. This system offers a lot more freedom to the player, and even though they travel through the exact same stages, the circumstances in which they do it are different. Stage selects and a list of characters are just some of the ways developers make their games different across multiple playthroughs.

Sometimes the most basic of changes can encourage the player to return. In numerous video games, the player can earn rewards that alter minor things like the game’s aesthetics or the music. Although pretty much no one wants to play The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker again just because of the unlockable option to go adventuring in their pajamas, it’s nice to have some small differences between playthroughs. My personal favorite of these trivial bonuses is the Scrambler: a secret item from Iji that corrupts everyone’s dialogue into incomprehensible nonsense such as below:

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Uhh..I’m sorry, what was that?

The Scrambler is provides a refreshing change of atmosphere from Iji’s usual bleak and depressing storyline.  It’s probably not the greatest reason to replay the game on its own, but combined with Iji’s insane amount of secrets and stat distribution variability, I consider it a fun little addition rather than a gimmick.

Story

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A flowchart showing The Stanley Parable’s absurd amount of endings.

Finally, a player might come back for reasons similar to other types of media: the story. Unlike most other mediums, video games are interactive, and sometimes take advantage of this to give the player some influence over the narrative. By including variable story elements, the player isn’t forced to sit through the same story every time they restart. Interactive stories are frequently based around player choice. Some games, such as Undertale, utilizes a kind of “morality system” that changes the story based on one’s playstyle. If you can choose to play as different characters, they often have different stories associated with them. The problem is that the player might feel like they’re just “checking off boxes” trying to go through each path and experiencing everything a game has to offer, but that’s a topic for another day.

People also sometimes play through a game again much like one for would a book or a movie: to experience the story from a different perspective. They’ll be able to pick up on all of the foreshadowing before the “big reveal”, and be able to appreciate the setting and characters more because of their understanding. Or perhaps they never understood the story and are trying to make sense of it to begin with.

 

So, those are the basic pillars of what makes a game worth playing more than once: challenge, variety, and story. However, you can’t just throw some achievements and secrets into a game and expect people to keep coming back.

One of the most well-known things that unintentionally discourages replayablity is the dreaded unskippable cutscene. I like to think I’m pretty patient when playing games, but I know that there’s always people who just want who get angry when a game takes control from them and forces them to watch something instead allowing them to play the game. It’s even worse when the player is forbidden to skip some boring exposition that they’re already aware of after the first time. I think pretty much everyone can agree that cutscenes should always be skippable at least on the second run-through of a game.

But sometimes it’s not just easily removable, non-interactive scenes that impede the player. Sometimes the problem is more ingrained in the gameplay and narrative itself, and takes a lot more effort to seek out and remove. For example, Pokemon Sun is probably one of my top 3 favorite Pokemon games because of its decent storyline and surprising difficulty level compared to some of the more recent titles. Like every Pokemon game, there’s good reason to replay it due to the staggering variety of partners one can catch and train. But even though I really appreciate it, I find it very difficult to pick up again because it has an incredibly slow start. Getting introduced to the characters and doing tutorial stuff like spending time at the Trainer’s School is fine on the first playthrough, but it can get a little grating having to sit through all of it again the second time when you already know what’s happening. It takes forever for the game to stop holding your hand, and I unfortunately stopped playing long before then. It’s a good game ruined by just a little too much exposition and instruction early on.

It should be noted, of course, that games don’t necessarily have to have replay value in the first place. I love the series, but I’d say that Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney has almost no replay value whatsoever. It would defeat the game’s purpose to play through it again. The player would be able to coast through the game effortlessly because they already know all the answers, and won’t be able to get that same sense of satisfaction they got the first time. Replaying Phoenix Wright is the equivalent of rereading a book, where the player fully understands that they can’t change anything.

But in general, games that have a high amount of replay value are usually more memorable and engrossing than ones without. Having lots of challenges to conquer and secrets to discover encourages the player to keep playing and hopefully fall in love with the game’s depth instead of forgetting all about it and moving on to the next one. Undertale might have been a fairly short game of about six hours, but the sheer amount of secrets that are revealed through its multiple endings made it stay relevant for quite a long time.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to replay Risk of Rain for like the hundredth time. I still have to drown twenty whorls!

(Photo Credits: ign.com, hiimmaxiwrite.com, myself, thestanleyparable.wikia.com)

Miles Edgeworth is the Greatest

Great Scott, the last few posts were heavy. I feel like I need to lighten the mood before this blog descends into an abyss of negativity. Space Funeral and Yume Nikki can wait, because we’re jumping into the exciting world of LEGAL PROCEEDINGS.

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AWWWWWW YEAHHHH

The Ace Attorney series remains as one of my favorite game franchises of all time. As rookie defense attorney Phoenix Wright, the player must save their clients from being convicted of murders they didn’t commit. To do so, they must present evidence that contradicts the witness’s testimonies. Despite the serious subject matter, the games are surprisingly light and entertaining. It’s not a particularly accurate legal simulation, but the franchise has become quite popular due to its eclectic cast, over-the-top courtroom battles, and Shu Takumi’s ability to make all of the details just “fit”.

Speaking of characters, part of what makes the games so dramatic and intense is the prosecutors the player has to duel with. They will typically do anything to get a guilty verdict. They’re all pretty cool in their own ways (Godot stands out in particular) but none of them compare to the main prosecutor introduced in the first game, Miles Edgeworth.

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So dignified!

Known by many as “the Demon Attorney”, Miles Edgeworth has been Phoenix’s rival from the very beginning. He’s an excellent example of a character that goes through a lot of development, and the way he’s explored through the first game is the reason why it’s my favorite out of the series. Let’s discuss him, shall we?

If you have no objections to massive spoilers, go ahead and click the link to proceed.

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The Batter’s Sacred Mission: How A Relationship Can Define A Character

Caution – It is possible that certain scenes in this post are shocking to an unwarned public. Or maybe not…

(There’s also spoilers)

Since I mentioned Off in the last post, I feel like this is a good time to talk about it, at least for a little bit. I unfortunately don’t have a lot of time, so let’s just get started!

Off is a weird, weird game. A French RPG, it’s the story of a baseball player, known simply as “the Batter”, on his quest to purify the world. While the actual gameplay isn’t too interesting to be perfectly honest, the game’s surreal and disturbing atmosphere, bizarre plot and character designs, and fantastic soundtrack make Off worth playing.

The Batter himself currently has the honor of being my favorite video game protagonist. (though Niko has recently shown to be a strong contender.) Here he is purifying some spectres in an early promotional comic drawn by the developer:

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I think this comic does a decent job of showing who the Batter is. A stoic man who speaks as much as necessary, he takes every opportunity he can to eliminate the spectres that terrorize the world’s inhabitants. No amount of demons or bedsheet ghosts will stop him from cleansing the world of evil with his holy baseball bat. In other words, he’s like a ghostbuster that plays baseball.

(The weird masked man with the heart shirt is Zacharie, the fan favorite fourth wall-breaking merchant. I’m not sure what he’s even doing here, actually.)

However, this comic only shows who the Batter is on the surface. As the game progresses, it’s slowly revealed that his intentions are not as noble as they seem. The depths of the Batter’s personality can be properly explored through interactions with another character: the ever-smiling cat known as the Judge.

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The Judge is the first character that the Batter encounters, and decides to assist with what the Batter calls his “sacred mission”. In direct contrast to the Batter’s simple, straightforward speech, the Judge is absurdly eloquent, and frequently describes clear and obvious concepts in a needlessly complex manner. For example, here he is basically saying “level up so you can win fights”. With the Judge’s support and guidance, the Batter makes it through Zone 1 and defeats its reviled Guardian Dedan, purifying it.

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It’s in Zone 2 where the Batter’s intentions begin to be called into question. The Judge tells the player that he has a brother, named Valerie, who went mad and started calling himself Japhet, the Guardian of Zone 2. Once they reach the top of the Great Library where Valerie resides, the Judge tries to persuade him to come home with him to Zone 0. However, it’s revealed that Valerie had eaten Japhet, and because he was  “too nice to chew through a little bird”, he became controlled from the inside. For the first time in the game, the Judge is speechless.  What does the Batter think about this bizarre turn of events?

He literally says “whatever” before mercilessly slaying the beast. Even though Valerie is most likely already dead at this point, he makes no attempt to rescue him, or offer any kind of sympathy for the Judge. He just does his job and “purifies” the Guardian like usual. Unlike Dedan, who was designed solely so that the player would want to kill him, Japhet’s fight seems much less justified. This moment really emphasizes that “purification” is the only thing that the Batter cares about. He’s not defeating the spectres out of any desire for heroism, but because eliminating them aligns with his own mysterious agenda.

The particularly interesting thing about this twist is that the Batter never actually lied about his mission. Because he says so little, it’s never brought up exactly what he’s doing or why. The player just assumes that since he’s the protagonist, the Batter must be doing the right thing.

In reality, whenever the Batter purifies a Zone by defeating its Guardian, he’s actually cleansing it of all life. The Zones become a silent, desolate landscape devoid of color. The only inhabitants are the Secretaries, unsettling baby-like abominations that screech math terms at you. (I’m not kidding. Their attacks are named stuff like “Natural Logarithm” and “Oblique Asymptote”.) And for some reason that is never directly stated in the game, this is likely the world the Batter wants to create.

If the player decides to return to one of these charming places after killing Japhet, they can find the Judge at the top of the Great Library:

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Although I could go on and explain what happens in Zone 3, where the game really descends into madness, I’m going to put OFF this discussion for a later date. Until then!

(Photo Credits: uboachan.net, forum.starmen.net, pathofpins.wordpress.com, offgame.wikia.com)

OneShot, One Choice

Alright. I need to talk about this. Ever since I bought and played this game a couple of days ago, it’s basically been the only thing on my mind. No game before, not even Undertale, had made me question and analyze everything I played so soon after I had finished it. I felt so compelled to share my thoughts that I decided to scrap the earlier post I was working on in favor of what you’re reading right now. So here we go!

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If you haven’t guessed already, I’m referring to OneShot, a fantastic game that essentially got a remake on Steam about a month ago. A puzzle/adventure game, where the main gameplay feature is using and combining items in order to progress, OneShot takes place in a dying world. A child, named Niko, wakes up in a strange, unfamiliar house and finds a lightbulb, which is actually the sun. The player must help them deliver the lightbulb to the Tower in order to save the world, and to figure out how Niko can return home.

I strongly suggest that you support the developers and play this game on your own, as it’s best experienced yourself, but if you simply can’t be bothered, you can go ahead and click below to see what I have to say.

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Undertale Genocide: What’s up with Mettaton NEO?!?

Note: Like pretty much everything on this blog, this post contains major spoilers. (Even though you might know this stuff already)

Hey! It’s me, your best friend. I’ve busy playing the HECK out of Pokemon Sun. It’s actually different and sort of a challenge this time, so I’ve been really enjoying it so far.

But for some strange reason, my thoughts drift to genocide.

Undertale is a fantastic game. For reasons that I can’t possibly convey even in the expanse of a blog post, it makes me so, so jealous. Put simply, it’s got really fun and memorable characters, unique boss fights, and incredible music that cannot be overstated. One of my favorite things about Undertale is how even though the game is relatively friendly and benign, it has a lot of darkness and mystery hiding under the surface. This dark side is perfectly exemplified a type of playthrough known by fans as “the Genocide Run”.

The Genocide Run is aptly named, as involves you basically killing everyone in the game. You don’t just attack when given an option to spare, no sir. You have to ACTIVELY SEEK OUT monsters to raise your LV (also known as LOVE, also known as Level of Violence) until there is literally no one left. It’s a huge departure from the mostly cute Pacifist Run that the game “expects” to go on, and is a brutal deconstruction of typical RPG gameplay. It’s like you betrayed all of the friends you made, and the game tries to make you feel as miserable as possible. And at the end, the save file is tainted with a permanent reminder that you can never take back what you did.

But if the run is so tedious and awful, why would any one ever want to go on one? Most people are not bloodthirsty or have some sort of problem or anything like that. The primary reason is that people are just curious. They don’t really want to hurt anyone, but they do it anyway because they want to see what happens. It’s like a horror movie, where you don’t want to know what’s behind the door, but it’s so exciting that you can’t look away.

The other reason that people experience the Genocide run is that has exactly two really, really good boss fights. Most of the bosses that you meet are killed instantly, but Undyne the Undying and Sans manage to deliver some the most challenging and memorable fights in the game. Undyne ascends from death by sheer determination, and heroically battles you in her final form for the fate of the entire world. Sans, the lazy skeleton comedian (who’s hilariously labeled as “the easiest enemy), gets around his measly  1 Attack and Defense by exploiting the game itself, such as dodging your attacks instead of just standing there and damaging you while you go through the menu, all while Toby’s hit song “Megalovania” plays in the background. By no means are these the hardest boss fights in the history of video games, but they compel a lot of people to go on Genocide runs just to enjoy their difficulty.

I played the Genocide run months ago for the second reason. After I beat True Pacifist, I swore to never kill another monster, but I failed to resist the urge of 100% completion and those awesome boss fights. Because I was convinced I wasn’t ever going to do one anyway, I had done some serious research on the subject, so I walked into this basically knowing everything that was going to happen anyway. And you know what, I actually succeeded in having a good time. Sans and Undyne really are worth it.

But there was one part of the Genocide run that seriously bugged me.  A certain character, that felt like he should be something more.

It’s this guy, Mettaton NEO. Similar to how Undyne transformed into Undyne the Undying, this is the powered-up version of the glamorous performance robot Mettaton. He might look cool with his new laser wings and Megaman arm cannon, but his form does nothing against the fearsome Attack stat you have gained and is killed instantly like practically everything else. It’s really anticlimactic, and I, like the rest of the world, was seriously disappointed that there wasn’t another awesome fight with him like Sans or Undyne.

Some people think it’s a joke. Others think that Toby Fox is just lazy and didn’t want to design another boss fight. I think that there has to be a good reason for this incarnation of a character to exist in the first place, and I’m going to show you why. Toby is really good at using gameplay (or lack thereof) to support the story, and this fact is particular evident if you examine how the players feel about fighting the two most crucial characters before Mettaton: Papyrus and Undyne.

Oh, Papyrus. For most people (myself included) this is the hardest kill to make in the game. He’s just so innocent and naive, and doesn’t even attack you. He just waits there, expectantly, waiting for you to put down your weapon and leap into his embrace. However, although I’ve heard stories of people abandoning their run right then and there, most people kill him. After all, they’ve killed so many people before. How could they truly undo the damage they’ve done? They feel it’s better to just get the run over with. I recognize this moment as a significant turning point in the Genocide run, because after you kill Papyrus, there is no going back.

Then, you get to Undyne, who is important for different reasons. Because the player have been killing everything they encounter in one hit, the fact that she survives can be more than a little jarring for the player. The fight is already a challenge to begin with, but it’s made more difficult due to the player’s skill at dodging things having atrophied, not to mention that she uses her “green soul” mechanic that’s not seen in the rest of the game anyway. As a result, this battle is a major hurdle for players, and unlike Papyrus, this is a one of skill rather than emotions. Once players struggle through all of her attacks, and deal the final blow, they’re filled with a sense of victory and relief rather than sadness and guilt. After all, Undyne gave them what they wanted. It feels like an RPG again, not a tedious grind with no real challenge. It’s at this point when the Genocide run starts to truly become somewhat of an enjoyable experience.

After that the player is actually excited about what’s to come. What about Alphys and Mettaton? Are they going to fight back, too? What’s going to happen with Sans and Asgore?

After trekking through Hotland, MTT resort (which is pictured here because I didn’t feel I needed to show Mettaton again), and the CORE, the player finally meets the star in battle. It’s worth noting that since Mettaton is a robot who only seems concerned about his ego, this kill is easier to make than the kind old lady, the goofy skeleton, or even the brave warrior with a heart of gold that all came before him. The player is prepared for another volley of difficult attacks and braces themselves for an hour or so of dying repeatedly, but their expectations are shattered, leaving them slightly confused and unsatisfied.

This might seem like a horrible decision for Toby to make, but if you take into account what happens after his boss fight it actually makes a great deal of sense. Mettaton NEO is located very close to the end of the game, and what immediately follows him is the walk through New Home, the section where Flowey, the main antagonist, tells you the story of how he became a murderer. He describes how found himself unable to feel anything and then basically killed everyone out of boredom-just like the player. And after that is the climactic fight with Sans, who you tries to frustrate the player as much as possible so that they’ll quit the game and never come back, because beyond that point they’ll destroy the fabric of existence.

Think about what would happen if we did have an awesome fight against Mettaton NEO. I’d imagine that the player would be so pumped with adrenaline that they wouldn’t take Flowey’s monologue that seriously. They just had a great battle against a robot with fabulous legs, so who cares if a talking flower tries to make them feel bad about it! They had fun! But without a good fight the player remembers the same emptiness they had at the beginning of the game. They come down from that high after fighting Undyne and begin to feel a sense of misery and dread again. Expecting a challenge and than having Flowey almost mock them for their greed is very personal and makes them feel more guilty, tying together the theme of how their power is gained by detachment. Additionally, I don’t think that Sans would be so dramatic and intense if there was another difficult boss fight directly before him.

I guess what I’m trying to communicate is that each character serves a purpose. They’re not just funny or sad or whatever, well-written characters also propel the story along. In retrospect, Mettaton is a lot more like Papyrus than he is Undyne. All of them, however signal shifts in the emotional state of the player and have a profound effect on the overall experience, from guilty to excited to guilty again. I hope you remember that sometimes there’s a point to having something be disappointing.

(Photo Credits: undertale.wikia.com, steamcommunity.com, vsbattles.wikia.com, sureisdusty.tumblr.com, gamefaqs.com, bogleech.com)

A Casual Discussion about Kid Icarus: Uprising

This week, I was originally planning to do some HARD-HITTING investigation on The Fall, a game I’ve still yet to play that’s intrigued me for a while. Unfortunately, I’ve been incredibly busy lately and I haven’t had any time to play it, much less focus and analyse it. So in an attempt to give me something fun to do in my free time, I’ve been busy replaying an old favorite from my past, a little game known as Kid Icarus: Uprising. And it’s still really good!

Kid Icarus: Uprising was released for the 3DS in 2012, 25 years after the original one for the NES. It stars Pit, an unusually-named angel who is guided by the goddess of light, Palutena, and battles the underworld armies of Medusa.This game was received very positively, which wasn’t too much of a surprise considering it was made by Masahiro Sakurai, the creator of the popular Super Smash Bros. series. Although it came out a couple of years ago, I played it for the first time last year, and I remembered enjoying it a great deal, but now that I’m playing through it again, I think it’s even better than I thought it was!

I think the main reason that I’ve fallen in love with this game again is that everything about seems almost tailor-made for the life situation I’m currently in. The fast-paced but simple action reminds me a lot of an arcade game, and it’s the perfect thing to play casually once you get a grip on the somewhat awkward controls. The game is split up into several chapters, which each consist of two different stages of gameplay followed by a boss fight at the end. Those two stages are known as Air and Land battles. Air Battles are simple rail shooters where you’re guided along a set path. They typically last no more than 5 minutes, with an in-story explanation that if Pit flies for too long, his wings will burn up. Land battles obviously take place on land, take a little longer to complete, and are much more like a typical action game with the ability to strafe and dash around your enemies. While I certainly admire the latter, I’m going to focus on the Air Battles, and describe why they’re so good from both a gameplay and narrative standpoint.

Before I go any further, I need to explain how this game’s story is told. As you progress through the levels, characters talk to each other (with voice-acting) on the bottom screen. Those conversations typically either involve Palutena giving advice on how to defeat an enemy, or banter between Pit and the boss of the chapter that he’ll eventually face. The dialogue is very casual and lighthearted, befitting the gameplay. The characters are surprisingly quirky and fun compared to the “Greek Fantasy” setting, and the voice-acting, while certainly not the most convincing I’ve ever seen, adds a lot of personality and charm. Pit himself is a particularly great character for this sort of game, as he’s really enthusiastic and makes a lot of jokes and one-liners.

But snappy comebacks alone aren’t what really make this game enjoyable. It’s the combination of the witty writing along with the game’s sheer amount of effort and variety. This game is really, really good at mixing things up to avoid it getting stale and repetitive. Practically every single chapter introduces a new enemy, character, or game mechanic. It seriously feels like an adventure during those Air Battles, because although the basic formula is the same, there’s always different STUFF happening. You soar over towns under attack, dodge the laser eyesight of Reapers, part the seas and go underwater, fight aliens in space, explore a creepy pocket dimension, and defeat a god’s heart inside his body, all in one game! These scenarios are further improved by the fact that because the Air Battles last a certain amount of time, the game designers have the freedom to make wild enemy patterns, stunning landscapes and powerful musical cues to heighten the experience.

Anyway, I just think it’s really great to fly through the sky, chilling out and shooting enemies, while the quips of the characters wash over you, making you chuckle every once and a while. It’s certainly not a literary masterpiece, but the story is entertaining enough that it keeps you coming back for more.

There’s actually more I want to say, (As I’ve said before, this game has so much stuff) but I think I’m going to end this post right here out of respect for my sanity. I’ll might return to this discussion and clear some things up once I have more free time. However, I think at this present moment:

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(Photo credits: zeldainformer.com, cheatcc.com, Flickr)

(that’s the game over screen to the original Kid Icarus by the way, ha ha, do you get it?)

The Wonderful World of Text Boxes

After the last post, I felt like I went a little too big. I learned that it’s incredibly difficult to write about a massive franchise if you’re someone like me who wants to talk about every single game in the series and is forced to generalize. So this time, I decided to tackle something much, much smaller. And I’ve ended up basically writing a novel somehow. About text boxes.

If you’ve ever played a typical RPG, you definitely know what these things are.  Text boxes are used to convey dialogue and narration in video games, kind of like speech bubbles in comic books.  I can guess what you’re thinking. “Why are you devoting your sweet time to analyzing something so insignificant? Text boxes are just a U.I. element! It’s like you’re doing a post just on health bars!”

WRONG. Text boxes totally DO matter when conveying a video game narrative. A good text box can dramatically improve the story’s “readability”, which we’ll explore later. I like to compare text boxes to blocking in theater. Let’s say two different directors get the same script, the same actors, and the same props as each other to run the same production. Everything else might be the same, but if one director is bad at his job, with his actors constantly getting in each other’s way and with his lead incomprehensible because he’s standing way too far in the back that production is going to end up a lot worse. Likewise, the other director might become a success if he knows how to place and choreograph his actors like a professional.

So how does one make the perfect text box? In order to find that answer, we need to learn what the different parts of the box do. To help with that, I drew a fantastic diagram of a generic RPG text box. Check it out!

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(Just to clarify, I’ll only be discussing text boxes present in games without voice-acting. Subtitles are entirely different and much more complicated.)

1) Text Window

The box in which the writing is contained. The box is usually located at the bottom of the screen. Some RPGs (such as Earthbound and Pokemon) allow you to change the box’s color or shape.

2) Text

The actual line or lines of dialogue/narration. A game could have text that just appears immediately once you advance the conversation, but most games have text that fades or scrolls somewhat quickly across the screen. Some games give you options to determine how fast it scrolls. Often-times “voice beeps” play as the text is scrolling to make it seem more like the characters are speaking.

3) Character Portrait

While certainly not a standard in every video game, a lot of them, especially old-school RPGs, have a sprite or animated model to represent the character. This is so the player can get a better view of the person’s expression and attributes that can’t be portrayed in the often-simplified “overworld” perspective that you see and control during regular gameplay. Because of this, character portraits are not usually not displayed during elaborate cutscenes where you can clearly see the character already, or games with more detailed graphics. Also, they tend to not appear for narration (“Jennifer flipped the switch”), and for unimportant NPCs (non-player characters) that are too generic to bother making some new art for them. These portraits can be fully animated or static, but since the entire purpose of them is to show emotion, it’s generally a good idea to have it change expressions. The location and shape of the portrait wildly varies from game to game.

4) Name

The name or title of whoever is speaking. Usually not given to unimportant characters or narration. If the character’s name is unknown and they play a role in the story, their name is usually written as “???” until they get fully introduced.

5) “Continue?”Arrow

Most RPGs possess an icon of some sort that indicates when the line of text has finished scrolling, and you can press a button or click to proceed through the conversation. Typically this icon is an arrow, but it could also be a line, a circle, or a miscellaneous symbol that’s significant to the story.

6) Additional options (fast forward, rewind…)

Usually confined to the “visual novel” genre, these extra options can help make the experience smoother. The ability to fast forward to choices you haven’t made yet is important to quickly explore multiple endings, and the rewind option allows you to take back your choices. However, while helpful, these utilities can often severely disconnect you from the game. On occasion, some games have a “chat log” that you can check and refer to if you missed something earlier in the conversation.

Now that all of these basic components are explained,  I’ll demonstrate how they work in 3 of my favorite games. We’ll take a thorough look at these specific examples to determine what makes a good text box.

Ghost Trick

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We’ll begin with Ghost Trick, a game by Shu Takumi, who created the more well-known series Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. I was originally planning to focus on analyzing the other game, and talk about Ghost Trick  on the side, but after I stared at at this screenshot for a couple of minutes I learned there was a lot more to this text box than I had originally thought. I decided that since I couldn’t find a quality image of Phoenix Wright’s somehow (and I was way scared to dig too deep for fear of spoilers), I would use Ghost Trick to talk about both. So here I am, doing that. Anyway!

Ghost Trick and Phoenix Wright share a lot of similar qualities. Their text boxes are roughly the same size, shake if a character is shouting, and highlight important words or phrases that the player should remember later. However, they have a number of differences that exemplify how text boxes are designed to fit each game. For example, Ghost Trick, unlike Phoenix Wright, doesn’t possess character names. In Phoenix Wright, showing names make perfect sense you need to keep track of every single detail during a case. However, it would be more awkward for Ghost Trick because most of the characters stay nameless for most of the game and the story would be ruined if their names were revealed too early. Ghost Trick also has a “chat log”, which Phoenix Wright does not. The power to go back and look for clues or foreshadowing in previous conversations would make the game too easy and remove a lot of the tension and mystery.

Ghost Trick also is a good example of a text box that fits the game’s art style. The way everything is drawn, with bright colors, thick, black lines, and simple shading looks like something out of a comic book. To fit this design, the box is white with rounded corners to give it the impression of a speech bubble.

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Final thought: One my favorite things that I like about Ghost Trick is that if a character is shouting, the words are twice the size they usually are instead of just being in all-caps.

Iji

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Before I rip this text box to shreds, let me just say that I absolutely love this game. Iji is probably the reason that I became interested in video game design in the first place. It’s one of those games that I love so much that I constantly obsess of all of its flaws, one of them being its text boxes. I HAVE THINGS TO SAY ABOUT THEM.

The main the reason why I think this box is horrible is that the text doesn’t scroll. Instead of scrolling left to right across the screen like everyone else, Dan Remar (the creator of Iji, I truly adore him) decided that he wanted his text box to quickly slide up from the bottom of the screen, all in one motion. This makes dialogue seem tedious and boring at times because huge walls of text show up all at once. It certainly doesn’t help the that the font is kind of small, and a lot of words are crammed into 1 page. All this can seriously overwhelm the player. It’s a shame, because I think Iji’s story is actually really good, but its poor design when it comes to managing that story might make some people ignore it altogether.

On the plus side, the fact that the text comes up all at once means you can quickly skip cutscenes with ease if you just want to get to the next level or boss, unlike games such as Cave Story, which make it feel like a chore because you have to wait for the text to scroll. It also feels a little bit more natural when reading things like logbooks, because those things were written, not spoken.

Undertale

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As you’ll quickly learn throughout the course of this blog, this game makes me so, so jealous. Just…everything is perfect. Even the text boxes.

The first thing I’d like to point out is that there’s no character name. That’s not a problem, though, because names like “Flowey” and “Sans” are pretty easy to remember anyway. Since the character portrait takes up some space, Toby Fox probably wanted to make room for more text.

Making room for text is especially important because of how big the font is. It’s large and easy to read! Lines of dialogue are constructed in such a way that they usually don’t have to split long sentences across multiple boxes. The writing is simple but effective, not only to make its plot more accessible but also to keep the text from looking too complicated or boring to read. Contrast this with Iji, who slams you with paragraphs of information and lore covered in a thick veil of technobabble, making it hard to digest. The story’s there, it’s just hard to get to, and to some people it might not seem worth the effort. (I’m sorry, I can never miss an opportunity to fuss about Iji.)

The other reason why this text box is perfect is how it helps portray characters. The text scrolls appear at a fairly slow, but comfortable pace. It’s slow enough that the characters can seem like they’re actually speaking (and have good comedic timing) and fast enough that you don’t have to sit there and wait for the text to slowly advance. The pace of the text reminds me a little bit of Animal Crossing.

Another thing that reminds me of Animal Crossing is the “text beeps”, which are different for every major character. For example, the comedian Sans sounds like he’s chuckling all the time, while the killer robot Mettaton talks with electronic beeps and screeches. This effect, combined with the scrolling text, helps characters feel more like real people.

Finally, there’s  a weird “*” at the beginning of each line of dialogue. Quite frankly, I have no idea what this thing is  supposed to do. It’s probably to make it resemble Earthbound, a game which it is heavily inspired from, but other than that, I got nothing.

 

And there we have it. Two quality text boxes from three quality games. It’s been a long journey, but let’s review what we learned. Here’s a list of my guidelines to good text box design:

  1. Remember, communication of basic gameplay features comes first. If there’s a tutorial and the player can’t decipher what button is “jump” or how to go into the inventory, then something is horribly wrong with your text box.
  2. Make the text easy to read. I can’t stress this enough. That means it should be big as possible (within reason) and be in a neat, legible font.
  3. Don’t be flashy or distracting. Your text box is not a fireworks show. The best kinds of text boxes are the ones you don’t even think about, and silently do their job.
  4. However, don’t be afraid to experiment with different ways of conveying emotion. (like Ghost Trick)
  5. Don’t be like Iji, just scroll your text. Being confronted with a wall of text all at once is actually very different from the box “filling out” quickly, however insignificant it may seem. Scrolling text helps build suspense while making dialogue flow more naturally.
  6. Try to theme your text box to fit the purpose (Phoenix Wright’s is plain and logical because of all the evidence and testimony you need to deal with) as well as the general aesthetic of the game (Ghost Trick’s comic book style). You don’t want it to have a “medieval scroll” sort of look if your game is about fighting aliens in outer space.
  7. Although that this wasn’t really an issue in any of these examples, remember to be cautious of the size of the box as well as where it is so that it doesn’t potentially interfere with gameplay.
  8. Not a requirement, but it’s good to have different types of text/noises for different characters, to make each of them feel more unique.
  9. Finally, never forget that the actual writing is the most important part. A really good format and presentation cannot save an fundamentally bad story.

I hope you now understand that no matter how meaningless a game element or U.I. design might appear to be, it still ultimately contributes to how the player perceives the story. Take care!

(Photo credits: me, nintendo.co.uk, lparchive.org, me, avclub.com)

First Post: What Makes a Pokemon Game?

Hello there. Welcome to my blog! Since I’m new to this sort of thing, this post will probably be shorter and less well written than the others, but I’m sure I’m going to improve through experience. I might have to follow up or edit this post later, but for now, LET’S TALK ABOUT POKEMON.

It’s no secret that Pokemon is a wildly successful franchise. It’s probably one of the first video games I’ve ever played, and I still love it today. I like the battle system, the music, and of course, the Pokemon themselves. But I think one of the things I like the most about Pokemon is the story.

Here’s a simple summary of the plot in every Pokemon game:

  1. After getting lectured about how “trainers and Pokemon live together” and the adventure “should make you grow as a person” by the Pokemon professor, the hat-wearing silent protagonist begins the game in their bedroom.choosingstarter
  2. The future Pokemon trainer then chooses between three Starter Pokemon. and afterwards is challenged to a battle by a rival character almost immediately after receiving it. (I have so much to say about rivals that I just need to shut up and save it for a future post)8badges
  3. The player says goodbye to their mom, and then begins their quest to complete the Pokedex (catch em’ all) and earn 8 gym badges from defeated “gym leaders” across the world. The player traverses all sorts of different climates with their Pokemon, while battling other Pokemon trainers and their rival.48395_pkmn_plat_tg_ambitions2
  4. One of my favorites aspects of Pokemon is the evil team that the player encounters periodically throughout their adventure. I think it’s kind of hilarious that even though they cause trouble and do bad stuff, stopping them isn’t the true focus of the game like in most RPGs. The player just sort of detours from their main quest sometimes to prevent them from executing their evil schemes. The team usually tries to harness the energy of a powerful legendary Pokemon to accomplish some task, which never goes well. The player often has a final confrontation with their boss/leader close to the end of the game.52
  5. After finally earning all eight badges, the player then proceeds to the Pokemon League, battling their rival one final time on the way there. In order to secure entry into the Hall of Fame, and win the game, they must defeat the all of the members of the Elite Four, followed by the Champion.

That’s about it. Pokemon in a nutshell. A painfully simple, yet delicious nutshell.

For reasons I can’t really explain, I find the story of Pokemon fascinating. I like the idea of the player trying to be the very best, like no one ever was, in a world where others are trying to do the same thing. I like travelling to different cities and landmarks across the world. I like tangentially stopping the villains!

Unfortunately, this plot has barely changed at all for 20 years. People say all the time that Pokemon is “getting stale” or that they’re “running out of ideas”, and I agree with them. While I admire their story from a thematic perspective they never really seem to do anything with it, and  each game just feels like an updated, fancier version with slightly different characters in the same positions they always have. Pokemon is becoming very predictable, and they need to do something about that.

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Portal 2 (which is a game I’ll definitely be talking about later) is a fantastic example of a sequel that does what Pokemon should be doing- changing things up and experimenting with their story. The first game had you using your Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device to solve puzzles and escape from GlaDOS, a malevolent AI that forces you to go through test chambers. In the sequel, which takes place many years after the first, GlaDOS is revived and makes you solve puzzles again in revenge for killing her. However, at some point in the game the facility is taken over by a new, unexpected antagonist. GlaDOS’ mind is transported into a potato battery, and you actually have to work together with her to defeat the new threat.

Portal 2 demonstrates that a game can still vary the plot without removing the things that make it iconic. Both games involve you solving puzzles designed by a robot, but there are different circumstances to those events in each of them.Similarly Pokemon should keep on exploring its core themes such as adventuring to become the strongest and catching Pokemon, instead of focusing on more specific things such as gym leaders or even the champion.

What I’m trying to say is that the story of Pokemon has a lot of untapped potential. While I perfectly understand from a business perspective why Pokemon games play it safe and do the same thing each time, I can guarantee that the fans (myself included) would appreciate it if they at least tried something new. In fact, my wish might already be granted, because I’ve actually heard rumors that the new one in the series (Pokemon Sun and Moon) is going to be different from the others, and I’m really excited! Maybe this time Pokemon will finally be born anew. Or something.

(Photo credits: bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net, serebii.net, derekwheatley.files.wordpress.com, and ngohq.com)