Two Minute Game Crit – Metro: Last Light or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the World

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Transcript:

Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit, and I’m Stephen Beirne.

When we talk about a game’s first level, it’s usually to note it as an entry-point to the game’s mechanical design–how to move, what to collect and what to avoid.

Less often do we consider it in terms of narrative design, in a broader sense than just what we learn mechanically. This is what a first level does, as well – it introduces a world and a story which we have to understand and relate to, rather than merely operate in.

Look at Metro: Last Light.

At the start of the first level we’re woken from our bed by this happy chap, who quickly gives us some exposition and our first objective – “go to Point A”. The second he leaves we’re taken to the table to pick up our stuff, and another, different conversation kicks in.

The instinctive thing is to go look for who’s talking, and in any other game we’d be allowed to, but here you only gain control after he’s finished. Straight away this puts us off a bit, since it goes against the way we feel things should be.

Once we have control, it’s fun to spend a few minutes just skirting around the bedroom for some environmental storytelling, to get into our character’s head. See what kind of music he likes. Check out his guitar, to which the game responds…

[Footage of screen briefly brightening and the sound of distant chimes.]

Whatever that means.

So we leave the room and yet another conversation starts up with these two lads in the far corner, and at the same time a tutorial box opens. So which do we focus on?

Everywhere you go, there’s this constant overlapping of things begging for your attention. It’s in how you manage your resources, figure your way through a level, and just whenever you enter a new room.

This narrative noise, and our ability to wade through it, is a key dramatic point all throughout Metro. The story here is about how fear and cynicism have destroyed humanity, and how we can repair the damage by opening our hearts to everything around us.

We may not realise it at the time, but what we’re being taught here is to choose how we see the world of Metro from the onset. Is the clutter a source of hostility and frustration? Or are you willing to filter through it and find the sense within?


Video description:  Continue reading

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Two Minute Game Crit – The Role of a Menu

 

This video is community funded. To support my work and help me make more of these, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

Transcript:

Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit and I’m Stephen Beirne.

I mentioned before when talking about Vagrant Story, how menus work as a form of introspection, since a menu always represents something internal to the character you’re playing. You can learn a lot by looking at what menus occupy your time and interest.

Persona 3’s a good example because its menus are very pretty, which helps when you spend so much time in them, and also, usefully, they’re quite poignant.

So, what are the menus where you spend, or I should say where I spent most of my time? You have:

  1. The social links menu, showing all the people you can hang out with and when in the week they’re available.
  2. The persona fusion menu, which is a recipe book for mixing persona.
  3. And the battle menu, where you select the attack options of persona you have equipped.

Each of these menus connect back to your use of persona, obviously, but notably they also represent the planning of these relationships across different frames of time: the long-term, when plotting out your week of social activities, the medium-term, when mixing up which persona to bring with you tonight, and the short-term, when strategising with persona in battle now.

It’s clear that time is a big theme in persona 3—clocks, calendars, the Dark Hour—but what about the mental act of planning? Well, planning is important because of NEETs.

In Persona 3 there’s an epidemic of something called Apathy Syndrome, which makes people so apathetic they stop attending school or work and just fall out of society. When you’re using your Persona to fight monsters, you’re doing it to combat Apathy Syndrome, the jeopardy of which relates the growing concern in Japan over the rise of NEETs and Hikikomori, terms used to identify a category of mostly young people who are falling through society’s cracks.

Some do so unwillingly for economic reasons, while others are disenfranchised with what they see as the oppressive, career-led lifestyle that’s socially expected.

Many Japanese games emphasise community and legacy to touch into this sentiment and rouse interest in social participation, and Persona 3’s no different. It wants you invested in planning for the future by asking you to get active in thinking about an allegorical long-term social crisis. In Japan it’s a population crisis and irresolvable pension schemes and collapsing industry.  In the game it‘s Nyx coming along and eating everyone’s souls.

And the first step to combating this, is by opening your menu and getting involved.

 


 

Video description

Stephen Beirne talks for two minutes on how Persona 3’s menu system links the fictional epidemic of Apathy Syndrome to Japan’s real life youth crisis.

If you like this video, help Stephen make another one by becoming a patron and tossing a few quid his way: https://www.patreon.com/stephenbeirne:

Music: Blind Alley
Composed By: Shoji Meguro, Kenichi Tsuchiya
From: Persona 3

Footage courtesy of:
TaD6644AuxiliatrixieDrawer-samaMoogleBossXxDeadlyViperxXVisualOtakuStudiosAP ArchiveReuters

Further reading:
A LONELY LOCKDOWN: THE HIKIKOMORI PHENOMENON, Post Bubble Culture, March 2011

JAPAN’S POPULATION PROBLEM, Forbes, June 2010

YOUNG PEOPLE AND WORK IN JAPAN: FREETERS, NEETS, TEMPORARY WORKERS AND SHY ABOUT WORKING ABROAD, Facts and Details, March 2012

SHUTTING THEMSELVES IN, The New York Times, January 2006

Two Minute Game Crit – Competing Ideologies


This video is community funded. To support my work and help me make more of these, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

Transcript:

Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit and I’m Stephen Beirne.

So, here’s a simple and useful way to look at videogame narrative.

If a game has a story, a good thing to check for is how the ideology of the protagonist meshes with those of the villain and the player. If they resonate or clash, the character interactions will probably be more interesting and satisfying.

The Assassin’s Creed games do this blatantly in these lovely soft moments after a kill. Stabby Man will have a chat with Dying Man where they briefly discuss their ideologies. He’ll either say ‘your ideology is stupid and I hate you’, or ‘I like your beliefs but you’re a bit of a prick.’

Let’s look at a less obvious example, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

Like many Japanese games, there’s a big thing in the Ace Attorney series about building a positive legacy for future generations. Phoenix Wright is symbolic of this in how he fosters an extended family of apprentices and kids who’ve been neglected by fate. Throughout the game, he puts stock in the importance of community to the point where he’ll operate purely on blind faith in his client. Usually, his investigations reveal some tragic moment in the past that must be respected and remembered for us to be able to move on.

On the other hand, Manfred von Karma is driven by pride and vanity. He’s manipulative and selfish to the point of enacting revenge on the son for a slight caused by the father.

If we extend these as ideologies, Von Karma, who is shown as westernised, would be a classical liberal: egoistic, self-governing and individualistic. Whereas Phoenix is more communitarian: a reformist, communally responsible, and with values for tradition.

This is why von Karma makes for a good villain: antithetical to Phoenix, he sees himself as above the law and exploits the system to enhance his reputation. To some extent, all the villains in Ace Attorney hold positions of power or place themselves outside of society.

So, how are we, as players, involved in all this?

Puzzle solving in Ace Attorney is all about finding the hidden relationships of objects and people, or of people and events, in order to discover their history. It’s highly focused on building these connections to lead you first down the wrong path and then down the right one.

Like Phoenix we solve each case by delving into the past, even 15 years into the past, to receive the future with an optimistic note. We have to trust there’s a solution to each puzzle which means we have to trust our client is innocent. And because it’s linear we have to depend on Phoenix’s rambling to get us there in the end.

Two Minute Game Crit – The Games of Sophie Houlden

 

This video is community funded. To support my work and help me make more of these, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

Transcript:

Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit, and I’m Stephen Beirne

Happy International Women’s Day! To celebrate, we’re going to be looking at the games of a specific developer, Sophie Houlden.

Sophie’s a one-woman indie machine, carving out these absolutely gorgeous, beautifully designed games by the dozen. Let’s look at just three from her catalogue which I think lend you a good idea of what she’s about.

Sophie has made a ton of puzzle games, my favourite being BOXGAME. You move around the faces of a box and you have to trick the camera into giving you a new direction of gravity so you can kind of… fall the right way.

Sophie’s a wizard at designing these genius mechanics that are simple to grasp but hard to master. Where you intuit solutions by playing around rather than through planning.

It’s good, so, that she’s also an incredible animator.Even just moving your wan around in BOXGAME gives this sense of elegance in motion.

This is partly why I love TheLinearRPG. It’s a stripped down mock-up of a lot of modern RPGs. You run along the line to make the mechanics happen, meanwhile the story unfolds rather detachedly as a backdrop.

The crisp aesthetic is a veneer of polish over this skeletal frame, which can be interpreted as a mockery of design priorities in the industry. But, what fascinates me most this is how it uses abstraction of form to convey its point, given it’s not actually an RPG.

When she wants to, Sophie has some hand at spinning narrative through form, as is the case in Runcible Sky, with its hub-and-branches structure.

It focuses on inspiration in one’s mortal life and the disbelief of life after death. Each vignette is a snapshot of your wan’s past, and on viewing them, the final moments in her fading life slowly gain their substance.

“Runcible” is an inkblot word, it has no meaning other than what we infer from it. And likewise, we can search each vignette for some great authorial design, but maybe we’re better off taking what we got from them and accepting that as our meaning.

Sophie’s games are many and varied, you can find most them by visiting her site. The best are on her shop though so be sure to pick something up for just a few bob.

 

Two Minute Game Crit – Drama and Composition

This video is community funded. To support my work and help me make more of these, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

Transcript:

Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit and I am Stephen Beirne.

Final Fantasy VII was a masterclass in storytelling. We’ve no shortage of dramatic, epic, expensive games these days, so the fact that a game might have Themes isn’t so unusual now as it was in 1997.

But what makes Final Fantasy VII so impressive, even by today’s standards, is how it related the drama through its broader composition, such as: its recurring motifs of a combined heaven and earth; the use of space and geometry to differentiate wealth from poverty; and the precariously attuned relationship of nature and technology.

One of my favourite things about it, though, is how it ties in themes of identity and existentialism.

There’s tons of scenes we could use to sample this but the best is probably this one here, during Cloud’s flashback to the Nibelheim Incident. Sephiroth‘s having a crisis of identity, and he locks himself in the library of the Shinra mansion while he researches his origins.

The way this scene is shot tells us that the farther he goes through the corridor, the deeper he delves into his past, and the more it affects his perception of his identity. Even though he’s kept centred on-screen, his stature diminishes, and he’s obscured by all the books piling after him.

When Cloud returns to check on Sephiroth, his whole demeanour has changed. The shot of the library’s corridor is repeated but now with reversed connotations. He strides right up to the camera, and takes a dominant position in the foreground, making good use of the Futch angle. There’s nothing this time to clutter him from view, and his trajectory brings him out from the diminished place of his existential crisis to this point here, large and emboldened.

The symmetry tells us a lot about his dramatic change in character, so this shot serves as a nice reference for when Sephiroth became a villain.

This is also matched in other structural ways on either side of the scene, like changes in his speech patterns and combat behaviour. Whereas before he used to revive people, after leaving the Shinra mansion…

[flames]

There’s no doubt he’s a villain at this point.

So the next time you come across a story-focused game, have a think about its composition and how it reflects its drama.