Archive for January, 2008

QfG5: Initial Impressions

I haven’t put in a lot of time on this game yet, so just a few comments on how it begins. Quest for Glory IV ended with the hero yanked away from the scene of victory by mysterious forces. Said forces turn out to be a wizard you met in the first game, who wants you to do some heroing over in Silmaria. It’s pretty well established by this time that every major region in this fantasy world is based on some piece of real geography and/or folklore. Silmaria is loosely based on ancient Greece and its mythology.

I’ve been spending most of my time so far just talking to NPCs in the main city, picking up plot threads and quests for later reference. It seems like the majority of the inhabitants of Silmaria are characters from the previous games, who seem to have just somehow coincidentally converged on this one spot from all around the globe while the hero was wandering. It’s the Mediterranean weather, no doubt. Even the owner of the bank turns out to have been a beggar from QfG1. Also, a substantial fraction of the NPCs are furries of one kind or another.

Playing this game years after the first four probably diminishes the impact of re-meeting these half-forgotten characters. And really, that was the case on its initial release, too, given how much it was delayed. But I suppose it’s all supposed to bring things full circle and summarize the entire five-game arc. It also lets you see how much the hero improved everyone’s lives. Some of them even help you in return. One of the first assignments you get in the game is to provide 1000 drachmas as an entry fee into the Rites of Rulership, the contest that will determine the next king of Silmaria. Well, a couple of NPCs from previous games front you half of that just for showing up. This sort of thing is usually unheard of in RPGs, but then, this isn’t exactly an RPG.

Anyway, talking to everyone about every possible conversation topic sometimes yields Experience Points. The thing is, I don’t know what Experience Points are for. They can’t be for gaining levels, as there are are no experience levels; as with the rest of the series, each individual skill and attribute is improved independently through practice. The manual seems to indicate that experience points in this game are just a measure of how much improvement you’ve made, but if so, how did I manage to get 160 XP while only raising one stat by one point? The game also has an adventure-game score, called “puzzle points”. The manual states that there’s a maximum of 1000 puzzle points in the game, but it doesn’t mention a limit for XP. I think I’ll be paying more attention to the score that’s completable.

Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire

The poll results are as follows:

  • Genre: Adventure, with RPG a close second.
  • Release date: 1986-2002, due to a tie.
  • Middling obscurity. Adventures skew obscure, so this essentially means the least obscure titles I have left.
  • No strong expectations as to quality.

qfg5-marketDragon Fire seems like it fits the bill pretty well. It’s the final episode of a prominent series of adventure/RPG hybrids from Sierra. It’s also one of the final generation of Sierra games, when they tried to stave off the reaper with experiments in 3D. Unlike their 2D games (ironically designated “3D animated adventures”), Sierra’s 3D adventures all seem to have had different engines and user interfaces: King’s Quest 8 was kind of Tomb Raider-like. Gabriel Knight 3 seems to be a first-person clue-hunting game reminiscent of the Tex Murphy games. Quest for Glory V is actually pretty close to the traditional 2D games; it uses 3D models for the characters, but it’s otherwise basically a point-and-click adventure game.

The Quest for Glory series was originally planned as a four-part story, with a system of correspondences to the elements and the cardinal directions and so forth, although the authors broke this by inserting an unplanned episode after the second. After episode 4, the series was cancelled, leaving the story without its planned ending. I was disappointed at this development at the time, but I got over it. So over it, in fact, that when they decided, years later, to do the fifth game after all, I didn’t have the same enthusiasm for the series. I bought it in due course, and tried it out just enough to be put off by the voice acting and the need to learn a new and non-obvious UI, and now here it is almost ten years later. This kind of thing is the reason I have the Stack in the first place.

There were some installation problems: the Quicktime 3 cutscenes didn’t work until I installed a fan-made patch. Thank goodness for fans who care enough to make patches! Even then, I had some problems with the sound popping, as if the software was breaking the audio data into pieces and then starting each piece a fraction of a second too soon. A forum suggested adjusting my sound card’s acceleration, and that worked. I’ll have to remember that solution; I have other old games that have the same problem. The graphics have the rough look of early 3D, the days of 640×480 software mode with no antialiasing. Distant objects are noticably distorted by the size of their pixels, but I’ll get used to it.

More on plot and gameplay tomorrow.

Portal (the other one)

portal-beginningOK, enough smart-aleckry. I really did want to try Portal (Activision, 1986), and I could easily make another post or two about its content, but let’s talk about Portal (Valve, 2007). It’s a real gamer’s game, impossible to do in any other medium. I’m going to skip over the basics here, because they seem to have become an unavoidable part of geek culture just now. Something Awful and xkcd have riffed on the game, and “The cake is a lie” has become almost as oft-quoted a catchphrase as the intro to Zero Wing was a few years back.

And there’s a big lesson right there. Six months ago, if you asked anyone who paid any attention to the game industry what the defining game of the year was going to be, there’s a good chance that they would have said Halo 3. It had the big marketing push, the tie-in products, the article in Wired about their innovative development process. Microsoft positioned it as the Xbox 360’s killer app, and tried to make its launch into as major an event as the release of the final Harry Potter book. And they sold a squillion copies, because obviously everyone with an Xbox 360 had to have it, if only because nothing else of note was being released for the Xbox 360. But once they bought it, it just seemed to sink out of sight. No one talked about it — what was there to talk about? No, the game that people are actually still talking about is one created as an extra for an anthology package. I suppose that the folks at Valve felt that this was a relatively safe place to experiment, as there was essentially no money riding on Portal‘s success. In that regard it resembles an indie title, but thanks to its tie to Half-Life, it got a lot of polish and a wide release. The best of both worlds.

One of the most obvious ways this affected the game is that the developers didn’t feel it necessary to pad it out to the length that people expect of a major release. There isn’t a lot of repetition in the puzzles, and when an element is repeated, it’s generally to expose a new twist on the idea. This is generally a good thing, but I did feel that the puzzle elements had some unexplored potential. For example, the game never really takes advantage of the portals’ ability to reorient the player, apart from turning vertical momentum into horizontal momentum. But maybe there are some fan-made levels by now that do this sort of thing. That seems to be what fan levels are for: exploiting every detail.

Since Portal‘s memes are in the air and hard to avoid, I knew a fair amount about what to expect going in, including some things, such as the fate of the Weighted Companion Cube, that it would probably have been better not to know in advance. But there were still surprises. I’m going to get a little spoilery, so if you haven’t played the game yet, for goodness sake do so now. If you don’t want to spring for the entire Orange Box, you can get Portal individually via Steam for $20. This may seem like a lot for a game that takes about four hours to finish, but it’s a very high-quality four hours, and no more expensive than going to a cinema and watching two two-hour movies. And the movies wouldn’t even have bonus levels afterward.

Somewhat perversely, I had played the fan-made 2D Flash version before playing the original game. As a result, I was somewhat taken aback by how much tutorial the original has (especially given its length), and the way that it doles out the portal-making capabilities piece by piece. The Flash version gets started a lot faster, and actually does better job, in some ways, of exploring the puzzle potential of the basic concept. But it has a very different nature: it’s just a straightforward series of puzzles, culminating in cake (no lie).

Whereas Portal itself subverts exactly this structure beautifully. You have a set sequence of 19 puzzle-based levels to complete, as you’re reminded by the helpful signs at the beginning of each test area, and the last of those 19 levels is exactly what we’ve come to expect of final levels in puzzle-based games: it’s a kind of a final exam of all the techniques you’ve learned over the course of the game. The thing is, the game is only about half over at that point. Afterward, the narrative goes off the rails. Just the narrative, mind you. The gameplay is just as linear and level-based as ever. But for me, at least, escaping into the guts of the complex provoked a stronger sense of panic than anything else in the game. At one point early in that section, I was convinced that GLaDOS had sent something to chase me, on the basis of a couple of triggered motions and some ambiguity about the source of the sound effects, and I hurried to get someplace that could only be reached by portals. I think I was wrong about that — nothing of the sort happened in the game before or afterward. But it was a plausible development: I had broken the rules, so GLaDOS could break them too.

GLaDOS really steals the show, by the way. She reminds me a lot of SHODAN from the System Shock games, but less gothic and more childish. Somehow, the way she keeps repeating lies that have already been exposed, apparently unable to comprehend that you might not trust her, manages to keep being delightful. And her closing song, “Still Alive”, has managed to replace “Invisible Musical Friend” (the Skullmonkeys bonus room theme) as best videogame song of all time. I honestly don’t know if the game would have been able to find its way into everyone’s hearts without her setting the tone. It would still have the gameplay and the puzzles, of course, and Valve managed a similar sort of sardonic deadpan humor without her in Half-Life, but it’s not really the same.

Portal

Portal is a game I’ve been wanting to play for a while. Despite a low-profile release, all the critics had a lot to say about it, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a very experimental work, as novel in content as it is in gameplay. What we have here is a very dark vision of the future, but unlike the usual videogame dystopia, this darkness is not used as a pretext for wanton violence. Not only is there no support for violence in the user interface, there isn’t even anyone to commit violence against — the only other character you have any dealings with is the artificial intelligence that sets you on your path and urges you on.

Like any true experiment, Portal has its origin in an argument. A programmer made the perhaps obvious assertion that computer games require interactive content — that “the player has to have a direct impact on what’s happening”. Note that this is not necessarily a property of games in general: in some children’s games, such as Chutes and Ladders, the outcome is entirely up to chance and the players are only required to fulfill mechanical duties, like rolling dice and moving tokens. But in a computer game, automatic chores of this sort are naturally left to the computer, which leaves the player nothing to do except exercise agency. This seems like a pretty solid argument to me, but Brad Fregger, Portal‘s producer, felt otherwise.

As a proof-by-example of Fregger’s thesis, Portal fails in two seemingly contradictory ways. To explain this, I’ll have to describe its gameplay a little. The player’s window on the gameworld is a terminal to a global data network. Because the game was written in 1986, the designer’s idea of a global data network doen’t look much like the Web, with its anarchy of links. Instead, it’s a hierarchical structure, with a main interface that gives you access to twelve “data sources”, including your AI helper, a raconteur program called HOMER which specializes in turning data into stories. Each data source has its own list of documents on different topics, and reading some topics (or groups of topics?) will cause new topics to appear. Sometimes you’re told outright about a causal link, as when HOMER tells you that he’s persuaded the History node to release new information. Sometimes you can infer it, as when the text mentions a disease you haven’t heard of and you look it up in the Medical database. Sometimes you just have to guess where the new information is. As you go along, HOMER accumulates more and more story until you have an entire novella answering the game’s central mystery: the fate of the human population of now-abandoned Earth.

So, does the player “have an impact”? Unsurprisingly, you can’t have an impact on the revealed backstory: it’s already set in stone. This is presumably what Fregger was thinking about. However, the player’s actions do change the state of the game. When you choose what to read, you make new topics available: that’s a change. The order in which topics become available can vary from playthrough to playthrough, even though the set of topics you have to go through to reach the end is unvarying. It’s not much of an impact, gameplay-wise, but it’s an impact nonetheless.

(Interestingly, the player’s actions have more of an impact within the story. There are really two levels of narrative: there’s the story that HOMER is putting together — the backstory, with a protagonist named Peter Devore — and there’s the story of finding that story, with HOMER as its protagonist. (No, not the player. The player is just the story’s Dr. Watson, except that Watson at least got to narrate.) These stories come together in the end, when HOMER uses what you’ve learned to contact the missing humans and provide them with the “anchor” they need to come home. HOMER can’t reach that point without the player: part of the premise is that there’s some data that HOMER can’t access without human approval. So within the fiction of the story, the player’s actions help bring the humans back. But that’s just a literary device, roughly equivalent to Grover complaining about the reader turning pages, and just as irrelevant to questions of interactivity.)

It should be pointed out that, despite Portal‘s failure on this point, there is at least one example of a computer game that has no interactivity whatever. But it’s arguable whether that really should be classified as a “game”, rather than a “joke” or a “screensaver”.

Which brings me to my second objection: Is Portal really a game? That’s a harder question to answer, but it seems to me that even if it meets some definition of “game”, it violates at least one major expectation of computer games: there is no challenge to it. OK, there’s the small matter of finding new text snippets to read, but that can be easily accomplished by just cycling through all twelve data sources. (Or, really, only eight: four of the nodes are devoted to displaying inscrutable medical charts and the like about all the characters, and seem to be useless for revealing the story.) Although Activision packaged and sold it like a game, they hedged somewhat on whether it actually was one, preferring to call it “interactive literature”. Even that designation is questionable: although the interface to the story is interactive (in the sense that you can affect its state), the story itself is not. It’s composed of the same events, with the same descriptions, in the same in-story chronological order, no matter what you do; the only thing you can alter is the order in which you read about them. This is the kind of borderline case for which the term “ergodic literature” was coined.

But enough about the strange notions behind its creation. How is Portal as an ergodic novella?

Well, as a novella, it’s not bad. It’s potboiler sci-fi, and I’ve certainly read worse potboiler sci-fi. We start with the idea that you’ve been away from Earth for more than a century, and that gives the author an excuse to bring you up to date on a hundred years of social and technological developments: the Unisex movement, the colonization of Antarctica, neurophagic weapons, and so forth. Devore is a Heinleinian supercompetent hero struggling against a world government that (rightly) sees his scientific investigations as a threat to the status quo. The ending is mystical and apocalyptic and campy all at once. I felt it bogged down in the middle, though, when Devore and his associates went on the lam. I suppose that’s supposed to be the exciting part, but the sudden travelogue seems like a distraction from the questions that HOMER and I were supposed to be investigating. We were on the verge of learning the significance of the Psion Equations! I don’t care what ruse the heroes used to slip past ENC security for the fifth time in a row!

That’s just one example of how the story doesn’t fit its context very well. More troubling is that HOMER treats Devore as the story’s hero from the beginning, when all we really know is that he’s somehow responsible for the depopulation of the planet. It would be fine for an omniscient narrator to do this, but HOMER is very specifically not omniscient, and starts off nearly as ignorant as the player. There’s a bit where HOMER repeatedly says “I am a liar”, upset by the amount of extrapolation from scanty evidence that’s been necessary to tell the story. This almost made me expect a twist where Devore’s story is suddenly radically reinterpreted, but no.

And ultimately, I’m just kind of disappointed in Portal‘s use of its format. It bills itself as nonlinear, but that’s only true to a small degree: no matter what you do, you’re going to get Devore’s story in mostly chronological order. I can imagine using the same engine to tell a story with multiple threads that can be explored independently (or semi-independently), but here, even when we get scenes about secondary characters, they’re pinned to Devore’s chronology.

Still, Portal was a significant experiment. In a way, it prefigured the modern Alternate-Reality Game. The text of the game was later published, with some additional framing material, as an actual book, and now I find it’s been put on the web as well, which is probably the best way to experience the content. You’d get the structure of the original game in a more obvious way, and it would be even more nonlinear, and have a better UI. Plus, it more or less settles the “Is it a game?” question: put it on the web as static HTML, and it’s clearly classified as hyperfiction.

Final Fantasy V: Ending

Not only have I triumphed over my xyloid adversary, I managed it on my first attempt and with no casualties. Honestly, X-Death (and his ghastly chimeric alternate form, Neo X-Death) isn’t the toughest boss in the game. There are several optional bosses as extra challenges for those who want them. The toughest of them all is Shinryu, a dragon found inside a chest near the end of the final dungeon. The first time I opened that box, Shinryu wiped out my entire party with a single tidal wave; the second time, I was prepared for that, but only lasted slightly longer. But after some more spectacular failures, I managed to defeat Shinryu by exploiting Mimes.

The Mime job is the last one acquired in the game, and is itself optional. Like many things in the game, it’s not obvious at first glance why it’s worthwhile: its sole special ability is the Mime command, which just repeats the action of another player character in combat. So it quite specifically doesn’t let you do anything new. Its big advantage is that miming costs no mana, even when it duplicates spell effects. So, I made a party entirely out of Mimes. By combining Red Mage and Summoner abilities, one of them could summon Bahamut, the strongest summonable in the game, twice in one turn. This was a very expensive cast, but once it was cast once, everyone just passed it along, resulting in eight Bahamut summons in every magically-accelerated combat round. Even facing this much damage, Shinryu managed to wipe out half my party before dying. There may well have been more efficient ways to win that fight, but this was my way, and it worked. It also worked beautifully on X-Death, who barely managed to scratch me at all before deresolving.

Let this be the epitaph of he who would dare control the terrible power of the Void: “Here Lies X-Death, Slaughtered by Mimes. He was a tree.” Not that there would be a grave to inscribe this on or anything. We can’t even put up a commemorative plaque at his place of death, as the fight took place in an extradimensional void.

After victory comes the longest ending sequence since The Return of the King. First there’s the denouement: the the party is escorted out of the Void by the spirits of the Dawn Warriors (“Your work is not yet finished…”), and there are assorted scenes of the world restoring itself, the crystals reforming, the various towns and castles that X-Death cast into the Void during chapter 3 reappearing, and so forth. Then there’s an epilogue set a year later, wherein we learn what the player characters have been doing, and get sepia-toned replays of scenes from the game. Apparently any party members who died in the last battle and were left behind in the Void get resurrected at this point, just in time to ride chocobos around behind the triumphant credits. When the credits are over, the final stats of each player character are displayed one by one, with a scrolling list of all the job abilities they learned. And when that’s finished scrolling, there’s another montage, presumably added for the Playstation version: it consists of scenes from the game re-created as pre-rendered FMV, using 3D models of the characters that look nothing at all like they do in the actual game.

ff5-farisIn fact, they look a lot like the original concept art by Yoshitaka Amano, which also doesn’t look much like what’s in the game. There’s a phenomenon here that I don’t really understand. Amano, the chief character designer for the Final Fantasy series from its inception, does all these vaguely-Pre-Raphaelite-influenced ink-brush drawings of slender people with delicate facial features and elaborate costumes, and then someone has to try to squash that design into a pixellated super-deformed version that fits inside a single map tile. The first six installments of the series were like this, so it’s not as if he didn’t know what was going to happen.

Anyway, I’m done with it all now, and I’m glad I played it, even though I’ll probably have the battle theme going through my head for weeks. It’s definitely one of the best games in the series (of those I’ve played), and it’s all due to the story not strangling the gameplay for once. Tomorrow, Portal! I suspect that it will not take quite as long.

[23 January] Did I say “tomorrow”? Obviously I meant “next week”.

Final Fantasy V: Almost Finished, For Real This Time

I’ll be brief. No, I haven’t finished the game. I’ve reached X-Death’s hideout in the void, where, confronted, he transforms back into his original form: a tree. Yes, a tree. No, this wasn’t a surprise. This gets into the pre-backstory: long ago, someone sealed another evil sorcerer’s soul in this tree, and over the centuries it corrupted and transformed it into the baddie we know. I’ve mentioned how the Dawn Warriors seemed to be the previous generation’s iteration of the same quest the player characters are on, but it seems that variations on the cycle have been going on for a long time. I expect that the final cutscene will contain hints that the evil still isn’t gone for good, and that future generations will face their own version of the story, making the title ironic in a new way.

Anyway, the reason I haven’t plunged ahead into the final battle (or, I suspect, final uninterrupted series of battles) is that it’s so tempting to just keep mastering jobs. It’s so easy now! New job levels come so fast in the end zone. In fact, I was so keen on getting job experience that I didn’t even notice that the encounters in this area don’t yield any normal experience points at all: if you enter with a party of level 50 characters, they’ll still be level 50 after they’ve mastered every job in the game. This strikes me as a clever compromise. In a well-balanced CRPG, it takes about as long to get through the story as it takes to get enough XP for the final battle. But there’s always some danger that the player will decide to spend more time on that treadmill, rendering the mid-game boring and the endgame too easy. Extra character experience comes at the price of a diminished player experience. My singleminded pursuit of job mastery could have easily led me down that road, but for this XP-free zone. Mastering all the jobs in the game mainly just makes your characters more versatile, not more powerful.

Except that versatility yields power. Some job skills allow for extremely potent combos. Give the Ninja’s dual-wield capability to the Berserker, and you get a character who can hold a warhammer in each hand.

Final Fantasy V: Bosses

I honestly thought I would reach the end of the game this weekend, but the last bits have been taking longer than I expected, largely due to a whole slew of trick bosses. Generally speaking, there’s an approach that makes each boss easy to beat, but it’s different for each boss. Maybe it’s vulnerable to a particular kind of elemental damage; maybe it’s invulnerable to spells and has to be taken down entirely through melee attacks, or vice versa; maybe it has an attack that can wipe out your entire party in one round if you’re not prepared with specific defensive magic. The number of possible gimmicks increases as your capabilities increase over the course of the game.

The scariest boss I’ve encountered so far is definitely Atomos, the final guardian of that force field generator back in world 2. This is one of those monsters that’s so freakish it doesn’t even look like a monster. It looks like a gateway to the swirling void, its frame irregularly decorated with spikes and fins and things. Its modus operandi is to bombard you with the Comet spell more or less constantly until someone dies, at which point it starts slowly drawing the corpse toward itself. Things don’t usually move around during combat, so it took me a while to notice that this was happening, and to convince myself that I wasn’t imagining it. When I did, I freaked out. The natural reaction here is to immediately resurrect the fallen as they fall, lest they disappear into Atomos’ inky maw. It’s also exactly the wrong thing to do. As long as Atomos is drawing someone in, it isn’t attacking. If you just concentrate on doing damage to Atomos, you can kill it before your comrade disappears, or, if that doesn’t work, distract it by deliberately killing another party member before resurrecting the guy who’s about to disappear.

The most unusual gimmick boss is Gogo, a jester-like entity who guards the crystal shard from which you learn the Mime job. Gogo insists that he’ll only step aside for a master of mimicry like himself. In combat mode, Gogo waits for you to do something, and then replies in kind: if you hit him, he hits you back for 9999 damage, and if you cast a spell — even a defensive or healing spell — he casts some heavy-duty attack spell. The key here is to take what he says seriously: he wants you to prove that you’re a master of mimicry. If you don’t attack him, he stands there and does nothing, so you have to do the same. After a minute or so of just standing there, he declares that you imitated him perfectly and leaves. This strikes me as very much a late-game gimmick — the designers’ way of saying “OK, so, by now you’ve proved that you can fight. So let’s try something else.” (I understand that some people actually have managed to kill Gogo by conventional means, but that would take more insanity than I can spare.)

Most of the summonables in this game are bosses first, and become summonable when you defeat them. In fact, this game is fairly explicit about the idea that things become summonable by dying. There are two dragons in the game who are friendly with the party, die plot-related deaths, and become summonables in the process; one of them sacrifices its life specifically for that reason. Even weirder, there’s a couple of bosses in this game who show up as summonables in later games. Atomos is one, although I haven’t yet played the games where you can summon it. The other is Gilgamesh, X-Death’s incompetent right-hand man, who runs away from the first few battles (making him the first boss in the series that you have to fight multiple times) and ultimately gets banished to the Void by X-Death. I first saw Gilgamesh in FF8, and was baffled: he just showed up out of the blue, replacing Odin as the guy who randomly appears and ends battles for you. But at least Odin looked like the Norse god; what did this guy in the ridiculous puffy red outfit have to do with the hero of Sumeria? I’m pleased to now know where he really came from.

Now, the endgame is basically a very long dungeon with a boss fight approximately every other room, and sometimes multiple boss fights in the same room. Most of them aren’t too gimmicky, and can be finished with general-purpose equipment and job assignments, but still, any boss fight I’m not expecting has the potential for an instant TPK. This makes for nervous exploration. I find myself running back to the save points a lot. But that’s okay, because that just means more ordinary random encounters, and in this area, ordinary random encounters yield grossly disproportionate amounts of job experience. This is the last chance to master jobs for the final battle, so the designers help the player along a little.

Final Fantasy V: In Comparison to its Contemporaries

Final Fantasy V was released in 1992 in Japan, but didn’t get a North American release until 1999, when Final Fantasy VIII was already out. As such, Americans didn’t see it as a new release, or even as a nostalgia item. Its main audience may well have been completists like myself. Eventually the publishers would start pandering to completists even more, adding features to track what percentage of the treasures in the game you had collected and suchlike. (And really, without that 100% treasure-collection rate to aim for, very few of the treasure chests in the game are worth opening. Most of them yield things that you can buy from a shop with the proceeds from a single encounter.) Such things were included in the later remakes of the earlier games, but not in the version of FF5 that I’m playing.

So there are really two contexts for this game: Japan in 1992 and the West in 1999. In 1999, the big RPG titles in America were Baldur’s Gate and first wave of MMO’s, like Everquest and Asheron’s Call. Diablo was a couple of years old, and its influence was still strong: the emphasis in the RPGs of the day was on realtime action, with no hard separation between exploration and combat modes. Also, support for multiplayer play over the Internet was rapidly becoming a mandatory bullet point, even in games really not suited for it.

I haven’t played a lot of Japanese RPGs, but it seems to me that they were developing quite differently at that point. FF8 did a lot of experiments with gameplay (some of them unsuccessful), but still used essentially the same ATB system as FF5, modulo changing camera angles. Pokémon came out very close to this time, and has mechanics very similar to an early turn-based Final Fantasy. Pretty much the only thing separating FF5 from other Japanese RPGs circa 1999 was the SNESy graphics.

So it seems like FF5, at the time of its American release and Japanese re-release, would have seemed more retro in America than in Japan. Indeed, the trends I speak of in Western RPGs were already starting at the time of FF5‘s original release in 1992, the year that saw Ultima VII put combat and exploration in a unified realtime environment (which Dungeon Master did five years earlier).

But then, it kind of depends on how you define “RPG”. I noted before a bit in Metal Gear Solid 2 where the game refers to itself as “a kind of role-playing game”. I’ve seen the Zelda series classified as RPGs; if that counts, then they’ve been doing realtime integrated stuff since 1986, a year before Dungeon Master. I wouldn’t classify either of these things as an RPG — to me, the term basically means “imitates the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons“, which is to say, stats and experience points and levels and so forth, and everything determined by die rolls modified by these figures. Notably, my notion of “RPG” has nothing at all to do with playing a role. And to the Japanese, who speak an entirely different language — well, who can say?

Final Fantasy V: ATB

FF5 does not actually have a monster called AAA.  It does, however, have one called ????.Combat in Final Fantasy V is handled through a system called “Active Time Battle”, or ATB. Introduced in FF4, it’s somewhere between realtime and turn-based systems. It has a Wizardry-like abstractness, in that there’s no tactical movement on a battle grid or anything like that. The monsters and the party are displayed graphically (usually with the PC’s on the right side facing the monsters on the left, because that’s the direction that seems like forward to people who read Japanese), but this is basically just a more visually interesting way of presenting a list of creatures. That much was true of the FF combat interface before ATB. The distinctive part, the thing that makes it ATB, is the realtime bit, wherein each combatant has a timer that governs when they can take an action. Each player character’s timer is represented on-screen by a gauge that fills up at a rate governed by the character’s Speed rating. When it’s full, you get to select something from a small menu that pops up at the bottom of the screen, typically including the options “fight”, “item”, and, if relevant, “magic” (although the Job system adds complications to this). But while you’re making your selection, the clock is still ticking. If you’re not fast, the monsters can get in an attack while you’re making up your mind. (This is another reason why it can be good for your tanks to be berserk: that way the game doesn’t waste time asking you what they should do.)

The whole system is very strongly associated with Final Fantasy in my mind. Fight/Magic/Item is as emblematic of Final Fantasy combat as Name/Job/Bye is of Ultima conversations. And the only game I’ve ever seen that even tried to do something similar to ATB was Grandia 2, another Japanese console RPG, which places an ATB-like action timer (albeit with a different user interface) in a system with less abstraction and more running around the battlefield. Presumably the patent 1Be sure to click on the “more” link where that page displays the diagrams. They’re really the best part. prevents a direct imitation, but given the popularity of the Final Fantasy games, you might expect more outfits to try to create similar gameplay.

But gameplay is not perceived as the Final Fantasy‘s strong point. Ask the fans what they like about the series, and they’ll talk about the stories, the characters, the worlds. It’s strange, then, that in FF5 I’m finding the gameplay (mastering the Jobs system) more engaging than the storyline (defeat the one-dimensional Bwa-ha-ha villain).

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1. Be sure to click on the “more” link where that page displays the diagrams. They’re really the best part.

Poll

Let’s try something here. Let’s play a little game. As I said before, I’ll probably wrap up Final Fantasy V soon. I want to do Portal afterwards, but that shouldn’t take long. As I hinted, I’d like to give the readers of this blog the opportunity to choose what I play after that. I still don’t want to post the contents of the Stack just yet, though. Instead, I’d like to know what kind of game commentary you want in general. I’ll try to pick the best fit from the Stack, and also bear the results in mind in future choices.

First, let’s choose the genre. You can select more than one option in this one, and there’s a certain amount of overlap. I’ve listed them in order of how many there are on the Stack.
Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

Second, how old a game should I play?

What release date?

  • 1986-1995 (the DOS age) (36%, 10 Votes)
  • 1996-2002 (people start designing games for CD-ROMs, hardware 3D acceleration, and Windows 95) (36%, 10 Votes)
  • 2003-2006 (up to five years ago; reasonably modern) (21%, 6 Votes)
  • 1985 and earlier (the dawn of time) (4%, 1 Votes)
  • 2007-2008 (released after I started this blog) (3%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 28

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Do you want me to talk about something you’re likely to have heard of, or something likely to be new to you? (Note: None of the examples listed here are actually on the Stack.)

How obscure?

  • Things that I'd expect fans of their specific genres to know about, but wouldn't be surprised if others didn't (No One Lives Forever, Maniac Mansion, Lode Runner) (65%, 17 Votes)
  • Things I wouldn't expect you to have heard of, but it wouldn't surprise me if you had (ZPC, Amerzone, Claw) (23%, 6 Votes)
  • I'd be surprised if you had heard of it (Ken's Labyrinth, Symbiocom, Mimi and the Mites) (8%, 2 Votes)
  • Canonical works that even non-gamers have heard of (Doom, Adventure, Super Mario Brothers) (4%, 1 Votes)
  • Big titles that you probably know about if you're a gamer, even if you don't follow their genre, because they got a lot of coverage in the gaming press (Halo, Myst, Prince of Persia) (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 26

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Finally, what kind of soul do you have?

Should I play a game that I expect to be good or a game that I expect to be bad?

  • Choose something where you don't have strong expectations yet. (54%, 14 Votes)
  • Good. I want analysis of what works and why. (46%, 12 Votes)
  • Bad. I just want to see you amusingly rip into a game's deficiencies. (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 26

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