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August 11, 2012

Kingdom Hearts 2! But First, "The Two Ps"

I’ve been thinking about Kingdom Hearts a fair bit.  The games that I’ve played -- a whopping two -- and the games that I haven’t; make no mistake that in spite of all my nitpicks and qualms, I still like this franchise a whole lot.  It’s got potential and character; plus, I think that we need it (i.e. Kingdom Hearts 3) now more than ever.  At least, the KH3 I envision, and the one fans deserve -- not something created with Squeenix's current mindset, but with the Squaresoft sensibilities that drew us all into the universe into the first place.

Why the sudden revelation?  Because you see, a new issue of GameInformer came in yesterday.  Apparently, EA is gearing up to release Another Goddamn Shooter Army of Two: Cartel of Shadows The Devil’s Cartel. 

Sigh.  Here we go again.

The sheer amount of disdain and weariness I felt at seeing two gritty masked gunmen on yet another cover of GameInformer almost made me throw the magazine in the corner of my room and condemn it as “a slow month”.  Seriously, EA?  Seriously?  Another one?  You’re not content with Battlefield 3, Dead Space 3, Crysis 3, Medal of Honor, and two other Army of Two games?  And this in spite of the avalanche of shooters still on the way?  But I decided to humor them and read on about the game; apparently the idea is to replace series mainstays Salem and Rios (who many know as gung-ho gun nuts who’ll fist-bump in the middle of a firefight) with the creatively-named Alpha and Bravo.  The plan is to make the game more serious and meaningful, and take out those groan-worthy elements.  Essentially, they’ll inject a bit of realism into this shooter to make it more modern, and show the effects of warfare, albeit with a focus on the gritty world of drug trafficking. 

Excuse me, I need to go smoke a barge-load of cigarettes.

Okay, maybe I’m being a little (emphasis on little) unfair to the game.  A lot of effort, time, work, and money go into making one, and of course nobody wants to make a bad game; there are just issues that end up screwing the end product.  Even though I give Final Fantasy 13 a lot of trouble, I know that there were issues with its production as well -- an inability to stick to a schedule, the unexpected cost and work that had to go into it, pulling team members from Versus 13 to lend a hand, coming up with the actual story and gameplay unusually late into production…the list goes on, I bet. 

A major problem I have with shooters is that functionally speaking, they’re impossible to screw up -- and because of it, they’re open to stagnation well beyond the current-gen oversaturation.  With the exception of a fair number of titles -- Duke Nukem Forever well among them -- I’d argue that making a bad shooter is harder than making a bad RPG.  FF13 had to create new characters, a new world, and a new battle system essentially from scratch, and it had to do so without relying on any of the conventions of its twelve older brothers.  Did any of those elements work?  No, but hilariously incompetent as the game might have been, at least it tried.  At least those things might have worked in theory.  At least they did something different. 

With shooters, a huge number of them have controls and mechanics that are largely interchangeable.  Right trigger to shoot.  B for melee attacks.  Machine gun, shotgun, rocket launcher.  HNNNNNNNNNNNGexplosions!  In fact, it seems like every time a shooter DOES try to introduce new mechanics -- Inversion, Dark Void, MindJack, Fracture, Brink, Red Faction Armageddon -- they end up being unnecessary at best and counterproductive at worst.  (The gold star goes to Red Faction Armageddon for going BACKWARDS in terms of creativity; whereas I could play Red Faction Guerilla’s demo for hours just running around and busting up Mars with my hammer like Thor, Armageddon relegated the gleeful destruction to a few minor areas.  Riveting.)

There are ways to avert being “just another shooter” of course.  You could have a game like Portal or Quantum Conundrum that uses first-person gunning, but for a completely different measure.  You could take the Team Fortress 2 route and inject an insane amount of style into the product.  Or you could be like Bioshock (or more recently, Spec Ops: The Line) and make your story do something that gamers might not expect from Runnin’ and Gunnin’ 8 -- you could make your story matter.  A shooter doesn’t have to be a string of set-pieces and multimillion dollar shooting galleries at the state fair...but it’s so much easier to make them that way. 

Effort is put in, but I feel as if that effort is going to all the wrong places.  My biggest example would have to be Gears of War 3 -- a game that makes me positively bilious.  Not having read any of the expanded universe materials, I can’t say I’m the biggest Gears fan out there; however, I HAVE played Gears 1, 2, and 3 to completion.  I have to say that in spite of the stigma with the series for its macho-man jamboree and explode-o-manias, it’s actually not too painful.  Is it deep and affecting?  No, of course not -- but I can see the appeal.  It’s as functionally sound as you’d expect from a shooter, and I’d be lying if I said the firefights didn’t regularly inspire excitement during them and relief afterwards.  And I’d also be lying if I said the story didn’t have some strong moments, Tai’s suicide in the second game being well among them.  But Gears 3 performed the proverbial “shitting of the bed”; the characters, once inoffensive at worst, became positively grating within minutes of their reintroductions.  The gameplay became a muddled, ear-busting mess of explosions and annoying enemies (and zombies, because if you don’t have that in a game nowadays you might as well not even make one).  One character sacrifices himself “nobly” (urrrrrrrrrrrgh), and is quickly replaced by characters who, while introduced in expanded universe materials, haven’t appeared in the game proper.  It’s an endearing effort to try catering to the superfans’ tastes, but putting a strain on Gears’ already wafer-thin narrative by including a slew of new guys is about as smart as sticking your marinated arm inside a liger’s mouth.

But as I understand it, Gears of War 3 sold like gangbusters.

The major problem with shooters these days -- if you’ll let me make a conjecture -- is that there’s a massive focus on pandering.  Developers pretty much have to give gamers what they want, or they don’t make enough money to survive.  So what do they do?  They turn the power fantasy element of games up to eleven.  They offer violence that caters to carnal desires, and pass it off as fun, or challenge, or as a proof of skill.  Their answer to “how do wemake a better game?” is to add more -- more guns, more explosions, more ways to kill.  They’re content with only making slight deviations to accepted formulas because that’s “what gamers want.”  Monstrous preorder records and day-one sales speak far louder than any group of distressed, shooter-weary gamers ever could -- and thus, the cycle continues.

I find it paradoxical that the millions that big-budget, AAA developers have limits what they can do.  Rather than sticking to their own guns -- their creativity and vision, because I REFUSE to believe that every company wants to just make shooters -- they have no choice but to give people what they want…and because of that, the industry is in the situation that it’s in.

It’d be easy for me to blame all of our gaming woes on shooters and shooters alone, but that’s not the case.  You could easily argue that every generation of games has had a problem with pandering; if not for Sonic the Hedgehog burning up the track on the Sega Genesis, we wouldn’t have had clones like Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel, Awesome Possum, and Busby trying to cash in on the “critters with ‘tude” movement.  Street Fighter inspired no small number of clones, some successful, and others…not so much.  And the less said about the moe pandering that’s…shall we say, afflicted a number of Japanese games, the happier we’ll all be.

And just in case you think that I’m using this post to pick on western developers, think again.  I want to talk a bit about eastern developers and one of the other problems the industry faces: proselytizing.  I know the word itself has more of a religious context, but I think it applies here (mostly because it starts with a “p” as well).  Whereas pandering has developers make their game with little more than the gamers’ perceived interests in mind, proselytizing sits at the opposite end of the spectrum; it shows an inability of a developer to consider anything but its own creative vision and ideas, with little thought of the gamer’s well-being.  Or, you know, if the game is actually good. 

To put it simply, here’s the mindset behind pandering: “People will love this game because it has everything they love!  With our market-tested, sales-approved approach, we WILL be raking in the money!  With actual rakes!”

And here’s the mindset behind proselytizing: “People will love this game because it has everything I love!  With my brilliant ideas, I’m God’s gift to art!  Everyone will love me!  Van Gogh’s a chump compared to me; I didn’t even have to cut my ear off!”

The perceived problem with a lot of JRPGs is that they’re all incredibly clichéd.  While that’s certainly not always the case (coughcoughhackDEVILSURVIVOR2coughphleghmcough), there’s plenty of fuel for the naysayers’ fire.  Arguably, JRPGs have a problem with pandering and proselytizing.  It’s important to believe that your creation has some merit, no matter your true level of skill, prestige, or medium -- the problem comes when you try to force your “genius” on the populace, especially if it’s not all that great.  JRPGs are especially vulnerable because, for some inexplicable reason, too many developers are content with making a “story” out of a load of clichés and passing it off as a full-priced game.

The gold star in this case has to go to Magnacarta 2, which is undoubtedly the most clichéd game I’ve ever played; it’s proselytizing at its finest.  The main character is a sleepy-headed, dim-witted but good-hearted young man with amnesia living on a peaceful island with his surrogate sister…that is, until war breaks out, his hometown is destroyed, his sister is killed, he meets a princess, discovers a hidden power within himself, and embarks on a journey to take revenge and defeat a power-hungry (yet undeniably handsome) villain.  Oh, and the hero’s actually a clone/superweapon.  That’s about fifteen clichés, and most of those come in the first hour or so of the game.  But to its credit, the game does have two original ideas: ten-year-old elf girls that look like this…

And my favorite thing in the whole wide world: tons of overwrought monologues!

As much as love a good JRPG (my intent is to one day talk in great depth about the Tales series), the operative phrase here is “good”.  I have a hard time believing that an entire team of developers couldn’t come up with an even vaguely original story, one that wouldn’t be trite at best in 1998.  I’m guessing that the idea was that the gameplay would be original and exciting enough to warrant a purchase, but fetch quests and a slightly-embellished battle system do not automatically make a game fantastic.  But of course, there was a belief that the game was fine (or at least good enough); that people would want to buy it because it had art by a popular artist, or to experience the power of the Xbox 360, or be a part of the riveting tale of BWAHAHAHAHA no, just kidding.  My point is that there’s enough overconfidence in JRPG developers as a whole to make me more than a little nervous.  While some might think that blowing their game’s budget and crippling its in-game framerate is worth it to render things like this, others -- the audience they’re trying to impress -- might not respond to their “genius.”  Though I suppose the included bath house minigames (including Playstation Move-powered rub-downs) are meant to dull our senses with pandering fanservice moments offer up a strong argument for being Game of the Year.

All right, I’m two thousand words into this thing -- what does any of this have to do with Kingdom Hearts?  Oh, not much -- just that the original KH, in my opinion, managed to succeed because it kept the pandering and proselytizing to a minimum.  (Case in point: to my knowledge, there's no official art depicting Sora as an angelic/messianic figure until KH2 started gearing up.  Hmmm...)

“Are you completely out of your mind?” you shout, slamming a fist onto your desk.  “The whole basis for the game was fanservice for the east and west!  Final Fantasy meets Disney!  Cloud meets Goofy!  You can’t get any more pandering than that!”  To answer the first question, I’ve been completely out of my mind since I was eleven.  And to answer the second not-question, I say yes, that fusion is the backbone of the series…and that’s all the pandering you got

KH1 succeeded because it kept a leash around its creative processes; the trade-off for getting your favorite childhood characters thrown into the same universe was letting Squaresoft use them as they saw fit.  They wanted to entertain you, of course, but they’d do it their way, and not just cater to fan expectations.  Creative liberties allowed the developers to be free; they didn’t have to make the Alice in Wonderland a one-to-one reproduction of the half-century-old movie, because they wanted to give you their own functional interpretation.  They couldn’t have cared less if the King of Hearts was MIA, or all those trippy-ass creatures in the forest during Alice’s darkest hour didn’t break into tears in glorious 3D.  And because of it, they could deliver their own experience.

In retrospect, I wouldn’t say that KH1 strikes a balance, per se; given that the FF characters make up less than ten percent of the cast (and most of them try to ram their swords through Sora’s stomach), it’s hard to believe that they’re even remotely integral to the plot.  But then again, they aren’t supposed to be.  FF characters have a bad habit of eventually becoming lesser gods by their games’ end, so keeping them out of the picture keeps the defeat of the villain on a smaller scale.  Moreover, Sora -- in spite of eventually getting stronger -- is still a weak, stupid kid with massive feet who’s out of his element.  He’s someone you can identify with, but not someone crafted solely for vicarious living. 

As all stories should, KH1 had a specific goal in mind: capture the Disney magic with a JRPG-shaped net.  It worked because it kept an eye on that goal, but never got to overwrought with its own ideas and themes.  There’s loads of talk about hearts and darkness and light and friendship, but those are all largely in the context of creating a Disney-style experience.  Progressing through the adventure and “learning the lesson” took precedence over laying the foundation for sequels, existential crises, drama-bombs, and original characters.  There were emotions without histrionics.  There was -- there is a sense of humility to KH1 that breeds earnestness, and with it credibility.  “Hey, you wanna tree-surf with Tarzan?” KH1 asked.  “Well now you can!  Have fun!”  Even if that minigame and plenty others sucked, it was a straightforward attempt to offer you the thrills you thought were only possible in the movies.  And even though the game is ultimately a product made to keep a business afloat, it’s also a love-filled endeavor that offers a common ground for a creator and an audience.  It is, undeniably, a simple and clean game.

And of course, Kingdom Hearts 2 goes and fucks it all up.

How, you ask?  Well, I’ll be sure to discuss it in detail over the coming days (hint: everything about Roxas) -- but for now, I’ll let you all go.  This post is long enough, and there is a lot I want to talk about.  So…yeah.  The Kingdom Hearts 2 Retrospective is about to begin.

See you guys soon.  I, uh…I need to go for a walk or something.

…When you walk away, you don’t hear me say, please…oh baby…don’t go…