Issac was still on the road this week. So we didn’t have anyone to edit our podcast. So we didn’t record one. So you get this instead. He’s on his way home as I write this, so we should be back to our usual schedule next week.
The mailbag is getting a bit out of hand, so I’m going to dig through the questions and see if there are any that I can answer alone.
But first let’s talk about what I did this week…
Final Fantasy Twelve
I’m still working on my play-through of Final Fantasy XII. I think I’m going to write about the game eventually and I don’t want to spoil any of the major points I want to make about it. But I’d like to shoot from the hip and offer up a quick gripe: I think the game is too long in proportion to the amount of story it has to tell. More than once I found myself stomping through some godforsaken wasteland thinking:
Uhhhhhh? What’s my goal again? The map says I’m supposed to head for $LOCATION_NAME, but I can’t remember why I’m going there or how this journey helps in my struggle against the Empire. And hang on, don’t I own an airship? Why am I hiking across a continent? I’m sure someone offered an excuse a few cutscenes ago, but that was literally three days ago in the actual real world and the details are all fuzzy by now.
Shit, I need to set an alarm to remind me to take the drugs that keep me alive. If I need help remembering that, then I have no idea how I’m supposed to remember what excuse Balthier shat out last Monday to explain why I need to walk across three different climates to reach a city I can’t remember in service of a goal the game hasn’t talked about in the last two play sessions.
Maybe the story is too spaced out to keep me engaged, but it’s also possible that I’d have an easier time remembering things if my party didn’t consist of a bunch of bored mopes that hate making decisions. Maybe this would be easier to follow if I cared more. So I don’t know. Normally I answer these sorts of questions by playing through a game multiple times. That helps me fill in blanks and gives me a sense of perspective. But the thought of doing two FFXII play-throughs back-to-back is daunting.
You might remember the retrospective I did on Final Fantasy X back in 2016. My memory of that game is that while all Final Fantasy games are pretty long when compared to other AAA fare, number ten is short and breezy compared to twelve. They came out just five years apart, and both belong to the same console generation. But in terms of hours played, X feels brief and XII feels ponderous.
So I decided to take a break from XII to see if I was viewing X through rose-tinted glasses.
That was the plan, anyway. But then I got distracted. I started wondering about the leveling and character-building mechanics, and I suddenly got it in my head that I wanted to use Cheat Engine to fiddle around with different aspects of the game. I saw the layout of some things in memory and how the game worked behind the scenes, which made me more curious, which led to more experimenting. Pretty soon I got lost in this project and forgot all about the idea of comparing the two games side-by-side.
I might write about my Cheat Engine adventures later this week. In any case, I can’t trust my own numbers regarding pacing and game length. So let’s crowdsource this. I have no idea what I’m going to get here, but let’s see how long the cutscenes are and compare it to the overall gameplay and see what we find. This is going to be sloppy and filled with approximations, but they’ll be filled with other people’s approximations.
For Final Fantasy X, let’s see what’s on YouTube…
Final Fantasy X HD Remaster – FULL MOVIE / ALL CUTSCENES is 9.5 hours long.
Final Fantasy X HD Remaster – The Movie – Marathon Edition (All Cutscenes/Story) is a little over 11 hours.
Erm. Let’s just average these for 10.3 hours of total “movie”. According to HowLongtoBeat.com, Final Fantasy X takes about 70.5 hours for your middle-of-the-road playthrough. A completionist run is almost double that and a minimal run is just over half that, but let’s go with the middle number.
That means that Final Fantasy X is roughly 14% cutscenes? I guess?
On YouTube, this “movie” of Final Fantasy XII comes in at about six and a half hours, and it even includes little snippets of gameplay for context. Meanwhile, HLTB claims that FFXII takes a whopping 93 hours for a middle-of-the-road playthrough.
If these numbers are to be trusted, then Final Fantasy XII is roughly 6% cutscenes.
Now, I’m not going to try and convince you that one of these is objectively better than the other. There are lots of people who would rightly insist that more game and less movie is a good thing, and I can’t really argue with them. On the other hand, some people would say that Final Fantasy games are by their nature story-heavy and it’s totally reasonable to expect them to deliver lots of extravagant cutscene content. (And either way, having “more movie” can be seen as a very bad thing if the movie is terrible. I’m not saying that’s the case for FFXII, I’m just saying that all cutscenes are not created equal.)
But these numbers do support my gut feeling that Final Fantasy XII has a lot more space between its story beats, and maybe this explains why I keep losing track of the plot. I’m only playing an hour or two at a time, and I think Final Fantasy XII requires bigger individual blocks of time to really work well.
That, and the value of reminders shouldn’t be underestimated:
Final Fantasy X:
Okay, we’re going to go through the Moonflow to Guadosalam. But first we have to pray at the Djose Temple!
Here we are at the Djose Temple. Next we head for the Moonflow to Guadosalam.
This is the Moonflow. Next up is Guadosalam.
Here we are at Guadosalam. Let’s take a break, do some cutscenes, do a little shopping, and engage in a little personal drama before we begin the next leg of our journey.
Final Fantasy XII:
We need to head through the Moshoran Highwaste, to the Salikawood, to the Phon Coast, to reach the Tchita Uplands, and from there we can go to Archades. If you’re feeling like a badass we can stop in the Necrohol of Nabudis. Anyway, I hope you remember all that. Okay byeeeee! See you in four hours.
Again, you can make the case that this is a good thing. But as someone who was already struggling to keep track of all the nouns, the game really lost me at a few places. This plot feels more complex. There are more sides to the conflict, more characters to keep track of, and more locations to visit, yet the dialog scenes are fewer and farther between.
Prey Challenge Modes
Next, let’s do some mailbag questions that would otherwise involve me talking Paul’s ear off. If you’re disappointed that your email is getting answered here instead of on the show proper, I apologize. If it makes you feel any better, the mailbag is overflowing. These Shamus–only questions would be the first ones to get cut if we found ourselves with too many questions.
Anyway. First up:
I’m replaying Prey and having already beaten Nightmare mode I’m looking for some self-imposed challenges to make the game more interesting. Do you have any thoughts on how to spice up the experience?
“No Combat Focus” is an obvious rule because that ability is way too strong but after that I’m not sure where to go. Once you get the hang of it the wrench feels like it’s a little too good at costlessly clearing trash mobs (even without neuromods), but I can’t think of a rule to nerf it and the game doesn’t give you enough ammo for a wrenchless run to consist of anything but sprinting past every combat encounter.
Oh, and Ninety-Three added a little extra. I’d skip over this on the show, but it’s really interesting and worth including here:
PS: Notes on game mechanics, feel free to leave out of Diecast.
I’ve been experimenting with exactly how enemies work and there are some interesting properties the game does not make clear.
Phantoms will fall down if you hit them with two wrench power attacks and if you start attacking as soon as they start standing back up you can stunlock them to death.
If you gloo a mimic while it’s in object form it becomes permanently trapped (unless it’s one of the game’s special mimics with a fixed location scripted to jump out at you no matter what when you enter its trigger volume).
Speaking of scripting, the game cheats like mad and features a number of fixed encounters where mimics will spawn from thin air to attack you, aggro with a wider range than normal, or be placed by the level designer in a form that violates the normal rule of “mimics only copy nearby objects”, which feels like a cheap gotcha. I hope your series talks about the game’s encounter design, they clearly put time into it and the mix of scripted and procedural encounters is interesting.
If leaving out Combat FocusIt’s a temporary “bullet time” ability. counts as a challenge run, then I’ve done that one. CF always felt like a bit of a cheat to me and doesn’t quite mesh with my image of Morgan as an engineer / science nerd.
Also, I consider the various traumas (broken bones, burns, bleeds, rad sickness) to be a “must have” for a proper play-through. I think I had them turned off for my screenshot playthroughI tend to play games on easy when gathering up screenshots, so I can stand in stupid places and tank damage trying to get up-close pictures of the enemies. You do NOT want to be playing on hard mode when you’re trying to capture glamor shots of space demons in the middle of a fight., but when I’m playing on my own I always have them on.
I usually despise weapon degradation in games where the combat is supposed to be fun and empowering. I don’t think DOOM would be improved if John Doomguy had to stop every couple of rooms to clean his shotgun. But in games like System Shock and Prey, I really enjoy needing to take care of my gear. So I tend to have weapon degradation turned on for Prey.
I also enable the feature where your oxygen reserves will slowly deplete if you get a tear in your suit, but the game is so generous with suit repair kits that it’s never been a problem.
I totally get the desire for a challenge mode to freshen up the game. For me, I find myself wishing they had a built-in randomizer. After a few playthroughs, you know where all the good weapons and goodies are. You know which containers are worth resources to open and which aren’t. I’d love a feature that could randomize all the monster positions and loot locations. Obviously this would introduce a large element of luck to the game. You might get the shotgun hours sooner or later, depending on which side of a door it ends up on. But that sort of chaos is what you want for your Nth playthrough.
As for suggestions? I’m afraid I don’t really do “challenge runs” so much as “novelty runs”. My goal isn’t to make the game harder per se, but just to break out of habitual behavior and push myself to do things differently. With that in mind:
- I’ve been considering a no-shotgun run. I actually have the preorder bonus shotgun, which appears in Morgan’s office. That’s simply WAY too early in the game to get your hands on such a powerful weapon. (Particularly one in top condition!) I literally get it before the pistol. So I’ve been considering a run where I just disassemble or recycle all the shotguns I find.
- Another idea I’ve been toying with is to not reclaim the main elevator and instead get around through the GUTS, or by going on spacewalks. I literally never see the GUTS after our first trip through those tunnels, and I wonder if they get repopulated as the game progresses.
- A no-hacking run. This barely qualifies as a “novelty run”, much less a “challenge run”. Some players decide they hate the hacking minigameThis genre is somewhat infamous for having lame hacking minigames. and choose to skip that. But I suffer from an obsessive need to LOOT ALL THE THINGS, even when I know from experience that the container in front of me doesn’t have anything worth my time. So a no-hacking run would really force me out of my rut.
- A really constrained inventory run might be interesting. Don’t take any inventory upgrades, and fill the last two columns with trash / food items to prevent them from being occupied by useful stuff.
I realize these are pretty tame by challenge mode standards. Most players attempt crazy stuff like “wrench only” or “turn off my monitor outside of combat”, but I’m not adventurous enough for that sort of thing.
Have you played the PS2 game ICO? I recently played it and later found a critique of it by some one named PeterEliot. This is a large literary analysis of the game’s narrative, which tries to understand the themes and ideas of the game, as well as examine it in relation to folk and fairy tales, books of romanticist movement and various other classical works. It reminded me a lot of your treatise on Mass Effect, and I thought you might like to read it too.
If you haven’t played it, I can easily recommend ICO, as well as its more well known cousin Shadow of the Colossus. The same team also worked on The Last Guardian that I haven’t played yet, though it is probably just as good, considering their pedigree.
I played Shadow of the Colossus back in the day. I loved it in a thematic sense. I loved the barebones and mostly-inferred story. I loved the brilliant art design. I loved the overall mood of the piece.
The problem is, I hated the gameplay. It was irritating and inescapably punishing. I mean, when you fall off a giant sky bird, there’s no way to have another go at it except to repeat all the steps to get on its back again. There’s no good way to give the player a mulligan here. It HAS to be punishing or the mechanics don’t make any sense.
So not only do I find the gameplay mechanics to be tedious, but failure causes massive setbacks. I complain about the setbacks in Dark Souls, but a death in Dark Souls is nothing compared to the pain of falling off a colossus mid-atrocity.
So as much as I admire Shadow of the Colossus from an artistic standpoint, I’m never getting near it again. And so it would be crazy for me to tackle ICO, which looks incredibly similar: Fussy, frustrating gameplay where failure creates enormous setbacks for the player.
These are cool games, but they’re very much not for me. Although that critique you linked looks pretty cool. I might read that. Thank goodness for the Wayback Machine, since this blog evidently vanished six years ago. Alas for link rot.
The previous person added a bonus question to their email:
Some time ago, you sent me a key to the game Overload (the spiritual successor of Descent). And while its 6DOF thrills were just as heart-pounding as ever, I found it’s over-reliance of particle effects, post-processing, debris and numerous other graphical knick-knacks very irritating. It was hard to tell what was in foreground and what was useless background, what to focus on and what to ignore; to quote videogamedunkey, “Is that a bad guy, or a lens flare?”.
As someone who has been working on game and rendering technology since back in the 90s, when and why do you think this apparent over-reliance on visual gimmicks instead of solid art design started to take place? Is this a reaction to the jokes made on the expense of the brown gritty graphics of the late aughts? Have we inadvertently built a monument to our own sins? Do we need to repent; and if yes, to whom?
I had the same complaint about Overload. The particles, bloom lighting, and other post-processing cluttered up the frame. The original Descent was, by virtue of being an early 90s product, incredibly minimalist in its presentation. The enemies were simple shapes with clear lines and strong colors to differentiate them. The lighting model was kind of weird, and tended to render foes at full brightness, even in dark environments. You could tell the robots apart from one another, and they stood out from the environment.
In Overload, the more realistic lighting means that robots are often just a noisy dark silhouette in the distance. You can see there’s a robot there, but not what kind of robot you’re seeing. And then you start shooting, and your lasers generate huge clouds of particle effects that completely obscure your target. When the fight is over, you probably have no idea what you just killed. Also, it’s hard to see return fire coming out of the clouds of particles, which makes the game frustrating. It also gave me a lot of eye strain.
(It’s not just the number of particles that’s the problem. It’s also how long they persist. Some of the wisps of flame can linger for several seconds. You could maybe get away with some of these particles if they vanished more quickly.)
To answer the question: Why do developers do this?
I think it’s the same reason that so many movies embrace the teal and orange color grading, even in films where it doesn’t make any sense and works against the intended mood. It’s something that’s effortless to add, and in isolation it makes the image more striking. In a modern game engine, particle effects and bloom lighting are completely turnkey: Just crank the sliders up to get more of both.
(Also, the two effects exacerbate each other. Adding bloom to a wall of particles tends to create intense bloom that’s hard to see through. A tiny bit of bloom can make an image a little dreamy, while lots of bloom just makes it blurry. Also, you need to think about your setting. Bloom roughly simulates what happens when bright lights pass through humid air. The suspended water vapor gets backlit by the light and seems to glow a bit, adding this subtle aura to light sources. It’s a neat effect, but you need to ask yourself if it makes any sense. If your game takes place in somewhere hot, dry, or in a vacuum, then you shouldn’t be using bloom.)
You can imagine how tempting this is for a movie editor. You click on a checkbox and BOOM! Suddenly your footage pops. It makes the image in front of you more exciting to look at, but it might not be suitable for the work in question. If the scene takes place in a stark, sterile, clinical setting and we want the world to feel cold and indifferent, then having warm skin tones is the opposite of the mood you’re going for.
Game developers can fall for the same trap. All you need to do is click a button to make sexier screenshots, but you need to take a step back and ask if you’re making the screenshots look better at the expense of the work as a whole.
That’s it for this text-only podcast. Next week we should be back to normal.
 It’s a temporary “bullet time” ability.
 I tend to play games on easy when gathering up screenshots, so I can stand in stupid places and tank damage trying to get up-close pictures of the enemies. You do NOT want to be playing on hard mode when you’re trying to capture glamor shots of space demons in the middle of a fight.
 This genre is somewhat infamous for having lame hacking minigames.
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