30 October 2012

An Unscary Post

Since it's nearly Hallowe'en, I thought I'd take a moment to discuss horror and being scared.

Not too long ago in an article at BBC, Tim Burton said he'd never made a scary movie. The writer may perhaps seem slightly sceptical about this, but I totally agree. Very few of Burton's movies even qualify as 'horror', in my mind, they inhabit a dark, but beautiful, region of their own. But that's beside the point. Mostly I don't think they're scary because I simply don't find fiction scary. And this applies equally to actual horror movies.

I love the horror genre. However, I don't watch/read/play horror to be scared. Because I never really am. Like any sub-genre of fantasy, I enjoy it for interesting stories and 'flights of fancy'. The use of imagination is one of the things I appreciate most in life, and the horror genre often features some of the most imaginative creatures around.

A well written, psychological tale of horror can be quite suspenseful, of course, but that's not the same as being scared. I really enjoy surprising plot twists and feeling slightly mystified, but an action thriller might well cause similar feelings. The genre is simply a question of aesthetics.

Sudden shock effects are a matter of their own. They can give you a delightful jolt of adrenaline, but again I don't think being surprised is the same as being scared. And once the moment is over, things soon get back to normal.

Excessive violence or gore can likewise cause a momentary 'ick' reaction, but again that quickly passes. Gore rarely bothers me much, and the more over-the-top it is, the less it does (gore movies tend to be more comedy than real horror, anyway). It's very realistic violence that probably affects me most, but that's not really the stuff of horror stories, in my mind.

So, whether suspense, shocks or gore, afterwards I have no problem switching the lights off and going to sleep. I almost never have nightmares (as I've written before), and while real life problems might occasionally keep me awake, I don't think fiction has ever done so.

There are some things that can make me feel... uncomfortable, for lack of a better word, but these are not the stuff of horror. Bigotry and totalitarian regimes, for one. Or illness and disease, for another. Essentially, real threats, not the stuff of imagination. And though the realms of fact and fiction do occasionally mingle (you can't write a story without it having some roots in the real world, nor would the real world be worth much if it didn't have so many glorious stories in it), there is a divide between the two.

To be perfectly honest, people who say they're unable to watch horror movies puzzle me. I guess many people's brains are just wired differently from mine. Occasionally I wonder what it would be like to actually be scared by a story. It's like I'm almost missing out on a whole aspect of the genre. But I'm willing to take what I can, and continue to appreciate a good horror story.

So, whether you're a fan of horror or not, have yourself a happy Hallowe'en!

28 October 2012

Addendum to Previous Post, Concerning the World Just Destroyed

I just wrote a blog post about how the party in my Pathfinder game just destroyed the world. One or two more thoughts just came to my mind that I thought were worthy of their own post rather than a quick edit.

I set my game in Paizo's official Pathfinder setting, a world called Golarion. In the beginning this was, perhaps, largely a matter of convenience, seeing as the source books were naturally fully compatible with the rules (which wasn't necessarily the case with other D&D 3.5 products I considered, like Eberron) and I wasn't keen on going through the trouble of creating an original world for a game which was, admittedly, very much based on clichés. I've grown quite fond of the setting since then, though.

I call Golarion the 'land of a thousand clichés'. Because it is, really. I think the design philosophy at Paizo has been, more or less, 'Let's throw in everything we can possible think of!' And this is exactly what makes it such a great RPG setting. There is a little bit of everything in there, and possibilities for very different styles of adventure. But throughout there's something of an air of pulp adventure, which is also much to my liking. The geography and cultures are largely influenced by our own world (the setting of most adventures, the so-called 'Inner Sea Region', being basically equivalent to Europe and Africa), which is actually quite convenient. And there are literally dozens of nations and regions introduced in the setting book, from northern Viking lands to southern jungles...

So it is actually a slight shame to destroy the world at this point. We've really only scratched its surface so far. But of course we may yet return to it. It might not be the exact same world, but it may yet be rediscovered, in some way or other...

How to Destroy the World with a 5th Level Party

So, here's something that I, as Game Master, don't get to say very often: I think my players just destroyed the world.

This is my Pathfinder campaign I'm talking about. We've been playing for a little over a year now (though intervening Real Life made a longish break there recently).

The details of the destruction remain to be revealed, we ended today's session in a cliffhanger. But something big will definitely happen, that much I can say without it being a huge spoiler for my players. Some of you may wonder, though, how the protagonists of a roleplaying game end up destroying the world, anyway? Well, let's see... It all actually comes down to a couple little coincidences that happened early on.

Firstly, there was our character creation session. I basically gave the players free hands with regards to their character builds. So they opted for (mostly) evil alignments. I figured, what the hell, this could be an interesting change of pace. And it was, and is. Though it is also quite difficult for a GM, since the players' actions are even more difficult to predict than usual...

Secondly, for the first few sessions I decided to use ready adventures, because we were all new to Pathfinder (both the rules and the setting). As it happened, one of these adventures sent the characters on a quest for one piece of an ancient artefact. An artefact, which, if all pieces were brought together, as the characters would discover during the adventure, was capable of destroying the world.

Given the fact that the party was essentially lead by a chaotic evil wizard, it is perhaps not so surprising that the idea of destroying the world was taken not so much as a threat than an intriguing proposition. So they kept the piece of the artefact for themselves, and decided to keep an eye out for the rest.

I'm pretty sure this was not actually the intent of the original adventure's writer. But as GM I figured there was actually some interesting potential in the characters' endeavours. Once I moved from ready adventures to original material, I started dropping hints about the possible location of other pieces of the artefact, until today the last one was actually in their hands... I wasn't 100% sure if they would, in the end, actually activate the thing. But it came as no surprise when they did.

Did I make it too easy for them to actually destroy the world? Possible slightly, yes. They're still relatively low level, after all. But there have also been hints of some other, unknown power pushing them towards their objective... The campaign won't end here, of course. The end of the world is by no means a problem, but an opportunity. I have some ideas already about where we might be heading in future sessions. It is a multiverse, after all...

20 October 2012

Figaro Castle or Bust

So I begun playing Final Fantasy VI. Again. With emphasis on 'begun'.

I first played it sometime near the end of the 90's, I think, on a PC SNES emulator. (I never owned an actual SNES, alas.) I got relatively far in the game, as I recall, but then got sidetracked by something else, and eventually lost the save files and, well, that was that.

When a port of the game came out for the PlayStation, I naturally bought it right away. Over the years I've started playing it again at least a couple times. But I've never got more than a few hours into the game, for whatever reasons.

It really is a game I want to play, and finally beat, though. It is the pinnacle of pre-PlayStation console RPG's (whereas Final Fantasy VII is undoubtedly the pinnacle of the PlayStation era, and still stands unrivalled by later games). The graphics in the game are close to as good as the SNES could do, and Nobuo Uematsu's classic soundtrack is top notch. The story and setting are also quite cool, and pretty original for the era. Where previous titles in the series had taken a somewhat more straightforward fantasy approach, FFVI took a step towards steampunk and science fiction, stylistic elements that would continue in later games. Throw in a large selection of characters and some of the most elaborate gameplay mechanics the series had seen thus far, and what you have is a true classic of the genre.

So yeah, I hope I can actually stick with it this time and not be too distracted by other games. Maybe that's one reason I wrote this little post; it's a little easier to stick with things once you've announced them in public.

One final thought: I miss the analogue sticks! How did people cope with just the directional pad in the old days?!

19 October 2012

The Long Overdue Skyrim Review Post

It's getting close to a year already since The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was released. I got it, and begun playing, on release day. I always intended to write a review for my website, but wanted to at least beat the main story of the game first. Well, it took a little time, and I've had some long breaks in playing, but I'm finally at a point where I can sit down and write about the game. In the meantime, I've discontinued my review section, so it'll just be in the form of a rambling blog post.

In case someone doesn't already know, The Elder Scrolls is a series of first person 'open world' fantasy action roleplaying games. All the titles in the series have been set in the same world, but in different regions. Skyrim is the continent's northernmost province, and (perhaps unsurprisingly) has taken much of its influence from Viking culture. You can freely explore the game's world and find quests to take on by talking to its people. There's a main storyline, and side stories based around various factions, plus numerous independent side quests.

(I should mention at this point that, while I played a little of the previous title, Oblivion, I never got very far in it. This was largely due to the fact that by the time I discovered the series, having focused more on Japanese games for many years, Skyrim's release was already drawing near, and I didn't wish to sate myself too much playing a similar game.)

So last night I finally finished the main story. At this point I had been playing for nearly 120 hours, according to the game's clock. This is easily the longest I've ever spent on a single playthrough in any game. (I think the longest before have been some JRPG's, in the vicinity of 70 hours or so.) And there's still entire questlines I haven't played.

This is perhaps the most important thing to say about Skyrim. There is just so much to do! There's tons of quests to complete. And new, intriguing quests have a habit of falling in your lap even when you're not looking for any, sidetracking you from the ones you were already on. The world is pretty big, with many towns and villages with plentiful inhabitants, and dozens of dungeons to explore. OK, so after 120 hours naturally there's some repetitiveness. A lot of the gameplay involves venturing into a dungeon (most frequently inhabited by undead creatures) to retrieve some item. But there's still enough variety in quests, encounters and locations to keep me entertained.

There are glitches. There are crashes. There are load times. But given the sheer scale of this game all that just fades away. The world looks very pretty, in my opinion (and probably would look even prettier on a state-of-the-art PC than it does on my PS3, but I have no complaints). The views from the high mountains are inspiring, there is a nice variety of terrains ranging from harsh tundra to beautiful forests, and each of the major cities has unique, and frequently impressive, architecture.

Oh, and did I mention dragons? Dragons! They look cool. They are cool to fight. Watching a dragon swoop down on a village and perch on a rooftop, breathing fire, while the villagers react, is just an... experience, for lack of better word. That being said, I would have liked to see a little more variety in the game's monsters. One of the main causes of repetitiveness in dungeon exploring is the fact that they tend to be inhabited by a relatively small selection of different creature archetypes.

A word about voice acting. There's a lot of dialogue in the game, and a large number of actors (a few big names as well). And a lot of it is pretty good. However, there are also voices that apparently are trying to do a Scandinavian accent, but instead end up sounding like a bad Schwarzenegger parody... The guards (ubiquitous in every city) are often among the more annoying examples, and their lines also soon get very repetitive. (Need I mention knees and arrows?)

Game mechanics have been streamlined a little from the previous title, which I think is good. Some pesky stuff, like having to repair equipment and the stupid persuasion system, has been removed entirely, and you have even more freedom in regards to character development, with no class selection to limit you. And there's many ways you can play, focusing on melee, archery, magic, stealth, crafting etc.

So, yeah, overall, Skyrim is, honestly, one of the most impressive and immersive games I've ever played. It's easy to forget yourself for hours just exploring the world and doing quests. In many ways I think the province of Skyrim feels like the closest thing to a living, breathing fantasy world that I've encountered in video games to date. It's not the most original fantasy world I've encountered, with its heavy Viking influence and somewhat clichéd, D&D-ish feel, but it's a fun world to spend some time in, anyway.

I'm unsure whether I should continue with the remaining quests using the same character, or save them for trying out a different character build sometime. Now, however, I think I'm in the mood for something completely different again. I've had a slight itch for some classic Final Fantasy, but we'll see...