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Posts Tagged ‘Tactics Ogre’

Wii Virtual Console 2006-2012

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

With the lifecycle of the Wii coming to a close and Nintendo concentrating their Virtual Console releases more and more on the newer 3DS it’s a good opportunity to look at how well the classic game download service did on Wii in Japan. I used the Wii Shopping Channel and the Nintendo Channel to count games, publishers and genres, as well as play time statistics to calculate minimum download numbers.

These are only displayed for games which get a certain amount of usage by enough users, and only by users who allowed Nintendo to use their data for statistics in the Nintendo Channel. This means they only indicate a minimum number, real download numbers might be even higher. I found the games which display these play time statistics to have at least 3000 confirmed downloads, so the missing titles should have sold less than that.

Nine different vintage platforms have been supported on Wii so far with 636 titles released:

Systems

System Current # Alltime # Best supporter Games # Percentage
FC: 148 148 Nintendo 44 29,73%
SFC: 101 103 Nintendo 27 26,21%
N64: 20 20 Nintendo 19 95,00%
PC-Engine: 111 122 Hudson/Konami 55 45,08%
MD: 89 92 Sega 68 73,91%
NG: 64 64 D4 Entertainment 64 100,00%
SMS: 13 15 Sega 14 93,33%
VCA: 77 77 Bandai Namco 50 64,94%
MSX: 13 15 Konami 13 86,67%
636 656
Games removed: 20

Not surprisingly Nintendo and Sega are the top supporters of their respective old hardware platforms. The PC-Engine got a lot of love from Hudson back in the day, which also shows here (Konami now holds the rights to the Hudson catalogue, but also contributed some titles of their own). Some minor platforms with limited success are almost exclusively represented by one company, like the Master System by Sega or the N64 by Nintendo.

D4 Entertainment has the rights to all the old SNK software on VC and ends up being the sole supporter of the NeoGeo, which has an impressive number of releases but none sold all too well (i. e. below 3000). The MSX seems to be the favorite vintage platform for Konami, who contribute all remaining titles available. Two games by D4 Entertainment for MSX, ALESTE and EGGY, were removed again. All in all 20 games which were once available were removed again.

The Virtual Console Arcade, which was added last, is mainly supported by the companies who dominated this field in the pre-Famicom age. Notably missing are Konami and Nintendo, who as opposed to Capcom, Sega and Namco haven’t even released the arcade versions of their Famicom hits like Gradius or Donkey Kong. The latter three did this with games like Ghost ‘n’ Goblins, Puyo Puyo and Xevious. Similar to the NeoGeo, downloads for VCA have remained underwhelming. This means that despite having released 86 games (50 of which for VCA), almost as many games as Nintendo and more than Sega, Bandai Namco’s success on VC was quite limited.

Publishers

Publisher Games Percentage Publisher Games Percentage
Arc System Works: 16 2,52% D4 Entertainment: 65 10,22%
Artdink: 3 0,47% Tecmo: 11 1,73%
Activision: 1 0,16% Tozai: 1 0,16%
Atlus: 6 0,94% naxat soft: 9 1,42%
Interplay: 2 0,31% Natsume: 1 0,16%
Enterbrain: 4 0,63% Nihon Computer System: 5 0,79%
Capcom: 30 4,72% Nihon Falcom: 8 1,26%
Koei: 5 0,79% Nintendo: 90 14,15%
Konami: 43 6,76% Netfarm: 2 0,31%
Sunsoft: 10 1,57% Paon: 3 0,47%
G-Mode: 2 0,31% Hudson: 69 10,85%
Square-Enix: 21 3,30% Hamster: 18 2,83%
Spike: 3 0,47% Hal Laboratories: 1 0,16%
Sega: 86 13,52% Bandai Namco: 86 13,52%
Taito: 26 4,09% Pony Canyon: 2 0,31%
Takara Tomy: 2 0,31% Marvelous: 1 0,16%
Chunsoft: 3 0,47% UPI Soft: 1 0,16%
All: 636

Maybe the number of titles adds up in sales for Namco, as they probably do for D4.

(more…)

The Relevance of Choice in Computer Game Narratives

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Interactivity, as the word activity implies, is what distinguishes games from passively received media. Non-linearity, which means giving players different choices in paths to follow, is what promises more freedom in comparison to linear narratives. Many approaches to other narrative media can be applied to games as well but both of these features of games have to be carefully considered when dealing with game stories. In regard to choice there are several aspects as to how it affects the nature of the story.

What kind of choices are present in computer games?

There’s action choices and dialog choices. Action choices might take the form of what part of the game world to interact with and what events to trigger by doing so. Or as part of an event there could be a multiple choice menu giving a set of action descriptions from which the player can choose one. This kind of action choice is almost identical to dialog choices, which can also be viewed as a special type of action, namely speaking. By means of microphone-based voice detection or certain words and phrases being mapped to button presses like other actions are, dialog choices have the potential to take the same form of free interaction (without menus) as more standardized actions but this potential is only beginning to be realized in adventure games like Hey you, Pikachu! (1998, 2000) or raising simulations like Wonder Project J (1994).

Are choices in computer games really free? Can the choice be escaped?

Of course the player can only make meaningful choices in regards to the narrative when the writer of this narrative has foreseen that the player might want to make this choice or planned to allow the player to make it. Thus the freedom is necessarily limited by what is feasible in including in the narrative without making production time and man power explode. It is further limited by what the game creator wants to allow to the player.

Also, if the player doesn’t want to choose they could just press the button to confirm whatever choice is preselected. Devil Survivor (2008) by Atlus is a rare case of a game that avoids this by not preselecting any option at all. The player has to press a direction button first before an option becomes selected and thus confirmable and the player can enter the ordered list from top or bottom, so the order doesn’t favor either one option by making it more quickly selectable than all others.

Initiating the predetermined1 Section added 22.01.2011

As mentioned above, apart from forced choices that take the form of menus where a selection has to be made to go back to the uninterrupted gameplay there’s also choices in free interaction screens, what parts of the game world to interact with and when. This can be treasures to be procured or information gained by talking to NPCs or observing certain parts of the world. In terms of dialog a considerable amount of in-game text is acquired this way, the player has to seek out the people who can tell them what they need to know about the setting of the narrative. Some of these interactions are necessary to progress in the game but many of them are optional and only enhance the gameplay experience. The player is in this way free to dictate pace and level of detail of the narrative to some degree.

In-game dialog is largely predetermined and little of it dynamically changing with players’ choices. The options the player has are often reduced to who and when to talk to, but even here there is room to create better player involvement. In early games talking to a NPC would always result in the same text said over and over again. If the narrative progressed beyond a certain point dialog for this NPC might also change but at any one point in the game conversation would be severely limited. This is not a problem per se, in the same way as a reader of a novel is allowed to browse back to a previous page and reread dialog or a movie viewer to rewind and rewatch a scene, this makes sure the player can ask for crucial information again they might have missed the first time.

But by splitting long dialog parts into several smaller bits where the player has to repeatedly talk to a NPC to get all the information, sympathy and interest towards a certain NPC can be expressed, creating another layer of choice. In recent games most NPCs have several things to say and the player will get new dialog at least for three or so tries, the actual amount varying by game and character. To get all out of a NPC the player actively has to initiate conversation again and again, and although they can’t control what to say themselves2 Most of the time the protagonist is mute (see Playing the role: Defined characters versus blank slate avatars) in this kind of conversation, regardless of his status in other situations. the choice how often to initiate conversation is meaningful.

Prince of Persia (2009) is an example where this choice of when and how much to talk is utilized very effectively. There’s only one character to talk to but since she is always by the protagonist’s side dialog can be initiated almost anytime, by pressing a dedicated button and without interrupting the action game play. While dialog text is displayed and voice overs are heard the player can go on interacting with and advancing in the game world. Dialog depends on the surroundings, is informative in regards of the game world but also characterizes the two characters having the conversation. Both length of dialog bits and their amount is high, giving interested players lots to listen to but without forcing them to do so. It’s an unintrusive way of mixing text and action.

The opposite example would be when a NPC conversation is unexpectedly long, interrupting the game flow until it’s over. Sometimes this kind of NPC (like Maechen in Final Fantasy X) might warn the player that their tale is a long one and ask them if they really want to hear it. It might be so long that the NPC will ask the player midway through if they should go on with their tale. The choice is the same as in the above cases, is the player patient and interested enough to listen to everything. But the way the choice is accentuated is different. In the above cases the player actively has to keep the conversation going, in this case they have to actively decide to turn it down or stop it.

How is the narrative affected by these choices?

Some choices only flag minor events, changing small details in an otherwise fixed narrative. In this case the non-linearity, i. e. the branching paths, are short lived, keeping the overall plot manageable for the writer. Other choices more immediately and drastically affect story development, with longer chains of events only available depending on what choices the player makes. Structurally this distinction is purely based on quantity or length and amount of branching paths. But for the player to experience the non-linearity as freedom high amounts and longer deviations are preferable. They are also what makes the plot increasingly harder to manage in terms of consistency. Traditional narrative concepts as derived from other media and playful freedom are thus two opposing poles in governing what form the game narrative should take.

Giving the player moral choices

One of the first systematical approaches to shape and guide player choice dates back to even before computer games. Dungeons & Dragons, the first pen and paper role-playing game, used a two axis moral alignment system to define how the character the player creates should act when faced with moral choices in the narrative conceived by the group of game master (the main narrator) and role players (the narrators or actors of one individual character in the story). One axis reflected the notion of good and evil, the other of lawfully governed order or random chaos. D&D already acknowledged that the ideas of good and evil were dependent on the society in which the character lived and the second axis reflected concepts like duty/reliability opposed to whim/fancy. A lawfully evil character would maraud and abuse without fail, whereas a chaotically good character might save the damsel in distress only if he was in the mood for it.

In computer games both this alignment system and the idea of moral choice were adapted, many recent Western games like Fable stress the freedom to play an either good or evil character, however in many cases little affecting the core narrative. This is actually true of older Japanese examples like Shin Megami Tensei as well which uses an law-chaos moral alignment axis. But when moral choice is given to the player another question arises. Are these choices judged, meaning that the game encourages one choice over the other, maybe even penalizing the opposite one?

An example for a judged moral choice

In Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993) for Gameboy instead of using a menu to select what to buy in the local shop players can pick up goods and carry them to the cashier to select them for purchase. If the player tries to carry it straight to the door and leave without paying the shop owner will scold them and disallow leaving. But the shop owner randomly looks the other way creating the opportunity to leave without paying. The creator actively leaves room for the player to decide to steal and also does this by utilizing standardized actions like item pick up and walking, making it feel much more intuitive and player initiated than a menu option which more explicitly alarms the player to both possibility and importance of the choice. In fact this is a brilliant inclusion of moral choice in game play.

It is also heavily judgmental, since on return to the shop the player will be killed by the shop owner (which in terms of the game’s rules is less gruesome than it sounds because the player has unlimited lives) and branded Thief which substitutes the name they inputted at the beginning. The player will then be reminded by every non-player character (or NPC for short) addressing him by his (now changed) name of his action and also denied the perfect play-through and its ending available to players who beat the game without dying. The choice is thus an example for a small scale alteration of the narrative affecting only some details, although sticking out by being so over the top.

And although it is judgmental the fact that this option is even there in a game appealing to all age groups including children is a refreshing taste of Eden’s apple in the most effective way this kind of experience can be created in games. Stealing is also an action that’s hard to escape consensus on its moral status, no matter what society. Although the penalty considered appropriate will vary. In the case of the Zelda Gameboy title the penalty happens to be the most drastic one imaginable.

The moral dilemma

In Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (1995) for Super Famicom the player has to make choices in a war situation, fighting for the freedom of his ethnic group. When the populace of a village enslaved by the leading ethnic group is freed but unwilling to go to battle to fight for their ethnicity’s cause, the leader of the army the player’s character is a member of commands him to kill all villagers and blame the other side, as to better persuade other civilians to make the “right” choice in the future, the right one being the one favored by the leaders of their army.

Depending on if the player carries out this order or opposes it they choose one of two very long branching paths, heavily affecting two out of four chapters in the game narrative. The law path, where the player followed this order, determines both next chapters, the chaos path initiated by opposing the order allows for another branching changing the alignment to neutral. While common moral notions would seem to judge the law path as evil and the chaos one as good the dialog reflects that utilitarian and political interpretations, in other words adult considerations, justify this path. The chaotic player on the other hand, while having a clear conscious, is considered childish and unable to join the grown ups in their ability to make the “right” decisions.

Again, the choice and its consequences are extreme, but the empowering sense of freedom is also very evident for exactly this reason, affirming or shaking the moral ideas the player might have had before.

Playing the role: Defined characters versus blank slate avatars

Most choices in games are not really moral ones though and some are even considered right or wrong in a non-moral sense.3 Footnote preview: In Computer Games have Words, Too: Dialogue Conventions in Final Fantasy VII Greg M. Smith assesses game text by comparing it to previous text narrative media, where he naturally has to deal with the opposing poles of linear narrative and playful freedom mentioned above. Unfortunately he misses many peculiarities of the new narrative medium, too quickly applying concepts that don’t quite fit... In Final Fantasy VI (1994) a girl named Terra was controlled by an evil empire to carry out their orders using her magical talent. Freed from the slave crown controlling her she is helped by a group of people who are members of the Returners and oppose the evil empire. Terra is characterized as scared and feeling guilty over using her magic for evil. When she and her new found friends reach the base of the Returners they ask for her help in fighting the evil empire. The player is given the choice to either answer their request or politely turn it down.

This seems like one of the many non-choices present in games where only one will really advance the game plot and the player has to come back to it to make the “correct” choice this time. But in fact this choice can only be made once, and by the game’s evaluation turning down the request is even the better option, rewarding the player with some extra items to procure from Returner members trying to still convince her and new dialog by each of them expressing their understanding for her reluctance to join their fight. In fact, by interpreting Terra’s motives correctly the player can make a decision that better fits with her character as established by previous events.4 Footnote preview: So instead of making a moral decision (if it were a moral one then joining the Returners should always beat remaining passive) the player has to stay consistent with the story, another aspect Smith correctly identifies when dealing with FFVI‘s sequel but incorrectly applies. He writes: Often it offers two separate possible responses, only one of which is truly enticing or plausible. When giv... She does join them afterwards anyway, and the players taking the more obvious but misleading choice miss a part of the narrative that actually makes sense in the context of the story.

There’s really two approaches to role playing, either acting the role given to the player or the player being able to define their role themselves. The latter approach is hampered by the difficulty in granting the player enough freedom to really do this. The easiest way to somehow pull it off is to characterize the player character as little as possible and not involve him in the details of the story too much, leaving the actual characterization to the player’s imagination. In most cases such a player character will have no dialog at all and is referred to as a mute hero for that reason. Player freedom is pushed out of the scope of game play and into their imagination in this case, similar to linear narratives, like reader imposed characteristics on a character in a book for example.

Even if the hero is not mute, this type is very different from a strongly defined character like Terra, where the player has to act her role. Cloud in Final Fantasy VII (1997) is a mixture of defined and mute character and by giving him frequent dialog choices the player can bring some of their own personality to the narrative.

Relationships between characters

Most decisions in Final Fantasy VII lead up to a dating event and they involve distribution of information (being openly sincere or holding back information), trying to impress or alienate others, in general how to interact with fellow party members. This raises or lowers sympathy for Cloud in these fellow party members and determines who he will go out on a date with later.5 See Fergusson, FF7 ‘date’ mechanics, 1999~2009. In other games like the Star Ocean series (first game released in 1996) it might affect how well the characters interact in battle and allow for useful actions triggered by strong emotional reactions based on deep relationships.  Or simply open up or block paths to certain events, the most extreme being who to marry and have a child with, which will become the next player character, something first tried out in Phantasy Star III (1990). As opposed to the above example with Terra all options are equally valid since the rude choices fit his previous characterization but deviating from his rudeness can always be interpreted as affection for a certain character or more generally speaking growing into a more caring individual, thus allowing for player controlled character development inside the boundary of the fixed broader narrative which after the dating event cannot really be altered anymore, only parts of it missed.

This again is an example of small scale freedom by giving a high amount of very short branching paths. The earlier Shin Megami Tensei and Star Ocean games also follow this pattern of letting the player shape minor details, which add up to one big event with multiple versions, but instead of midway through the game as in FFVII‘s dating event this event is the final one, the ending. SMT uses it to show how the player’s alignment changes the world he helped rebuild, Star Ocean shows how character relationships end up depending on the player’s behavior during the game.6 See Welch, Ending/Relationships FAQ, and Feral, Star Ocean 2nd Story ending compendium, both 1999.

Bad or premature endings

One way of giving the player freedom without convoluting the narrative are dead ends. The player can frequently make decisions but one is clearly wrong, resulting in an undesirable ending. The player then has to go back to before this decision and take the “correct” path this time to go on with the canonical narrative. Not all of these premature endings are disappointing or straight out bad, in Chrono Trigger the game can be beat early at any time in the narrative, with the resulting ending focusing on the events the player was experiencing right before they beat the game, often hinting at the events that would have followed if they hadn’t prematurely ended the game.7 See Pringle, Chrono Trigger Endings, 2007~2009

Also, inside of the big narrative there are many little narratives dealing with a specific character. If that character is allowed to die by the rules of the game, their part of the narrative will also end prematurely and all of their personal story will be missed in the rest of the game. This is only the case for certain characters in most games8 Cid and Shadow in FFVI being prime examples. Shadow can be saved if the player decides to wait for their ally in face of great danger, Cid can be saved by feeding him with healthy fish when he’s lying on his sick bed. If the player fails to take these chances they will die, complete with dramatic scenes reflecting their loss. but in many strategy RPGs like the above mentioned Tactics Ogre any character but the one representing the player can die without ending the game as a whole.9 Footnote preview: The Fire Emblem series, which started this genre of strategy RPGs, is also the one most representative of this mortal game characters concept. In Fire Emblem: Genealogy of Holy-War the series also incorporated the opposite concept of lovers having children. Like in the above mentioned Phantasy Star III (1990) and after it also in Dragon Quest V (1992) characters in this FE game could fall in love ...

Dynamically shaping the narrative

Little choices adding up later are the most frequent type and there’s also fake-choices that don’t affect anything and only draw the player’s attention to their own behavior but the most powerful ones are still those that have immediate and lasting consequences, like the ones in the above mentioned Tactics Ogre. This game relies heavily on explicit menu choices that are less frequent in number and less intuitive than free input actions which the player doesn’t even notice they are choices at first, but TO manages to also include little choices into the equation by basing alignment and sympathy towards the player character also on battle performance. Basically each time a character is killed or saved from death this adds up and affects the ending,10 See the section dealing with the chaos frame in TO at the end of this article over at http://luct.tacticsogre.com/. as in some other games mentioned above. But even though these are small scale details because of the subject matter (death) and the increasing difficulty having to fight without a potentially valuable ally they have a more lasting effect than other small scale choices, because they are more strongly interwoven into game play, linking it more strongly to the narrative. Player triggered dialog by choice of party members gets a lot of variation out of the seemingly formalized game play.

A good balance of small scale and large scale choices, appropriate usage of obvious menu options and naturally played out action events and a complex statistical evaluation of alignment and relationships between characters, as well as linking game play and player strength to events in the narrative, with each one of these techniques utilized further layers of free narration are brought to the game. When skillfully applied and combined they can even enhance the narrative rather than hinder its natural development.

  1. Section added 22.01.2011 []
  2. Most of the time the protagonist is mute (see Playing the role: Defined characters versus blank slate avatars) in this kind of conversation, regardless of his status in other situations. []
  3. In Computer Games have Words, Too: Dialogue Conventions in Final Fantasy VII Greg M. Smith assesses game text by comparing it to previous text narrative media, where he naturally has to deal with the opposing poles of linear narrative and playful freedom mentioned above. Unfortunately he misses many peculiarities of the new narrative medium, too quickly applying concepts that don’t quite fit his subject. The points he raises on character moral alignment hold true when he discusses the characters other than the protagonist because they match the conventions he is used to from film, but when he discusses the multiple choice options he doesn’t seem to notice that the examples he gives aren’t actually moral choices, which are in fact mostly absent from the game he discusses. He writes:

    One significant way that this moral evaluation differs between games and film is that we occasionally have options to choose conversational responses in Final Fantasy VII. By choosing to deny vehemently a romantic attraction to Tifa (the “no way” response), we take a different kind of ownership of the character’s moral stance. If we are allied with a film character who then does an action we morally disapprove of, we can more easily detach ourselves from this allegiance. After all, the character has made the choice, not us. But when we choose for Cloud to behave gallantly or badly, we are complicit in a more complicated involvement. Final Fantasy VII does not allow totally free choice in these “interactive” dialogue situations.

    If the player has romantic feelings for Tifa they want to reflect in their choices or decide to either admit or deny something for their player character isn’t a moral decision in any way. There can’t be moral consensus on what individual to have feelings for. So it escapes the notion of morality altogether. Regarding decisions on how to make Cloud behave, again this is etiquette rather than morals and the significance of these choices lies in shaping relationships, more on which I write in section Relationships between characters. []

  4. So instead of making a moral decision (if it were a moral one then joining the Returners should always beat remaining passive) the player has to stay consistent with the story, another aspect Smith correctly identifies when dealing with FFVI‘s sequel but incorrectly applies. He writes:

    Often it offers two separate possible responses, only one of which is truly enticing or plausible. When given the choice of making sweet feminine Aeris a flower seller or the town drunk, only one choice maintains any kind of narrative consistency.

    In fact, the choice being present (though inconsequential) hints at Cloud’s memory being fuzzy, foreshadowing a majot plot detail, Cloud being amnesiac and impersonating his dead friend without even being aware of it. The player doesn’t notice it yet but whatever they choose it will end up being consistent with the narrative.

    Smith also talks about non-choices that make the player drop out of the narrative, but ironically in this case to stay consistent they have to make the decision that is easily mistaken for a non-choice or drop out. The examples of drop outs Smith gives are from a different game but also in fact viable choices. He writes:

    Frequently we are given a choice between doing something that advances the plot or doing nothing (“No thanks,” “I don’t care”), providing the appearance of choice while allowing the game to continue its story arc. To make such a “non-choice” is to drop outside the game.

    Again, Smith seems to be too quick to assume that a bias formed in encountering previous games will apply in his examples as well. Although he previously acknowledges how protagonist Cloud is characterized in the game, being a non-caring mercenary, he dismisses these choices as drop outs even though they allow the player to act the role staying true to previous characterization. This is where the notion of consistency, which he misused earlier, actually applies. The “non-drop out” choices would be the player trying to change Cloud’s previously established characteristics, a process that will be advanced by the plot even if the player doesn’t take these earlier chances to advance it. He goes on stating this about decision making in games:

    Final Fantasy VII loads the dice to induce us to make the right choice. We inhabit the characters’ behavior more fully partly because we choose that behavior, even when that choice is rigged. One of the many ideas implicit in the concept of “interactivity” is this more complex notion of moral judgment that is no longer as externalizable as it is in film.

    I very much agree with Smith stating that judgment isn’t as externalizable anymore as it is in film, but as I pointed out above not all or even most of this judgment is of the moral kind. Instead the notion of the “right” decision refers to consistency, if the player is supposed to act out a defined character, or to what the player feels to be the right choice in developing their player character, if they have the opportunity to shape the character.

    Also the choices aren’t rigged as they do affect the narrative or illuminate details of it, a fact Smith ignores completely. []

  5. See Fergusson, FF7 ‘date’ mechanics, 1999~2009. []
  6. See Welch, Ending/Relationships FAQ, and Feral, Star Ocean 2nd Story ending compendium, both 1999. []
  7. See Pringle, Chrono Trigger Endings, 2007~2009 []
  8. Cid and Shadow in FFVI being prime examples. Shadow can be saved if the player decides to wait for their ally in face of great danger, Cid can be saved by feeding him with healthy fish when he’s lying on his sick bed. If the player fails to take these chances they will die, complete with dramatic scenes reflecting their loss. []
  9. The Fire Emblem series, which started this genre of strategy RPGs, is also the one most representative of this mortal game characters concept. In Fire Emblem: Genealogy of Holy-War the series also incorporated the opposite concept of lovers having children. Like in the above mentioned Phantasy Star III (1990) and after it also in Dragon Quest V (1992) characters in this FE game could fall in love and have children, only this time it wasn’t limited to just the main character anymore. []
  10. See the section dealing with the chaos frame in TO at the end of this article over at http://luct.tacticsogre.com/. []