As far as I know, Threads of Fate is a game that’s known for many different things at once. It’s known for its two parallel stories united by a desire to obtain a powerful MacGuffin; for the humorous execution of those stories; for its fusion of platforming and role-playing sensibilities; and for its distinct, highly expressive visuals, which may have been a reaction against the Dreamcast to show what the PlayStation was capable of.
Having played Threads of Fate for myself, I’m not in a position to deny any of these approaches to the game, Although some are definitely worth considering, they’re not what sticks out to me, or at least not what immediately sticks out to me regarding this game. No, what catches my attention are the various connections this game shares with Square’s previous work. In fact, they stick out so strongly for me that I would characterize the game as one made by and for the people behind its very production, albeit not to the exclusion of anybody else.
Before I even started playing Lost Word of Jenny, the game was a series of mysteries that refused to resolve themselves. It had been sitting in my computer for the better part of two years before I realized it was there, so I’m still uncertain as to how I came across this game or why it captured my interest. The experiences to follow didn’t help, either. What I encountered were a series of explanations and contexts refusing one another, the refusal itself providing no justification for its being there. Perhaps that why unlike so many other games I write about, I can’t read anything of value into Jenny’s refusal to become a cohesive whole. This isn’t the same as Battle Golfer Yui, where the semblance of internal cohesion gives me something to work with, laugh at, and presumably arrive at a deeper understanding of. With Jenny, I’m stuck with my initial confusion about what the game even is.
The first thing you’re likely to notice about Socket’s title screen is probably going to be the background. A mosaic of warped clocks Salvador Dali style, it’s clear that the artists are communicating a basic time travel motif. However, anything beyond this fact refuses to make itself known. We can’t know how time travel will inform the game to follow because those facts aren’t apparent and the game refuses to offer any kind of explanation. Instead, it continues bombarding us with symbols that refuse to connect: a duck, an electrical outlet, the title itself (Time Dominator 1st in Japan), etc. What we end up with is a chaotic soup of imagery, one that disorients us and frustrates any attempt to make sense of all this noise.
Musashi no Ken serves as the perfect contrast to last week’s Runbow. Both are minor games that represent dominant design trends of their respective eras. Runbow, like a lot of modern indie games, ostensibly sought to emulate classical games from the 80s and 90s, but its preoccupation with techniques and game enthusiast sensibilities about what makes a game good resulted in a mess of a game.
The irony of this is that those older games became classics in part because they were unconcerned with appealing to that specific demographic. They clung tightly to the same principles Runbow used, to be sure, but even today, their expressive power remains strong. They were able to communicate a lot with very little, and even if they stuck to the same set of moods in practice (heroism, campy fun, etc.), they would convey those moods in a subtle but effective fashion. should go without saying that Musashi no Ken isn’t all that different from its peers. If Runbow represents the worst case scenario for by-the-book game design, then Musashi no Ken at least demonstrates how to put that kind of game design to good use.
Something I’ve found myself interested in recently (recently meaning “since I started writing this article”) is the variety of ways one can approach difficulty in games. For one, there’s the many ways difficulty can manifest in a game. Even in a single video game, the multitude of ways you’re expected to interact with the world around you translate into a multitude of difficulties a developer can modify at any given time (EG Silent Hill scaling combat and puzzle difficulties separately). However, what’s captured my interest more is the variety of purposes difficulty can serve players. Even something specific like masocore games demonstrates that variety.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about how we (the video game community at large) think about our own past. Because any time we do so, we represent that history through the known hits that we’ve cherry picked to a certain degree. I’m certain you’re familiar with them already: Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, Final Fantasy, Earthbound, etc. Thinking about the history of video games solely through examples like this paints a very neat, very optimistic picture where aesthetic refinement becomes the status quo. Rough games and sort-of-successes are hidden from view. The only games represented in this history are those that advanced the medium in some important and noticeable way, implying that the only experiments worth paying attention to are those which were immediately vindicated as critical or commercial successes.
The first thing most people learn when they find out about Tonic Trouble is its production history: Ubisoft wanted to find out how Rayman-style gameplay would work if given a third dimension, so they made this game as a sort of safe experiment. That way, they could prepare themselves for a real 3D Rayman game without potentially tarnishing the series’ reputation. It’s not a hard angle to read into the game (the protagonist already bears a striking resemblance to Rayman), but just introducing the game like this is enough to make a part of me feel guilty. Not only have I devalued the game by tying it to this other, largely irrelevant title, but by framing Tonic Trouble as Ubisoft’s experiment for Rayman 2, I suggest that the game has no inherent value of its own.
As much as I lament seeing a game confined to a Japan only release, I understand why that happens. Some games are released too close to the start of a new console generation, and would thus encounter problems trying to attract an audience. (Not to mention how beefy (and thus costly to translate) those games tend to be.) Others deal with subject matter so specific that Japanese players are the only people who can relate to it. And still others don’t venture too far outside generic conventions, meaning they’d blend in too much with their peers.
I see Tryrush Deppy falling into the third category, albeit for different reasons. It’s not that the game is too comfortable within its own genre; it’s that the game is trying to cover too much ground within that genre. Does Deppy want to be a meditative platformer? Or is it more interested in being the loud and gaudy game that would interest a five year old? Maybe it’s pursuing the older crowd, given the emphasis on speed and personality. There’s nothing wrong with each individual approach, and the game would have worked fine if it chose just one or two. But not all three. The only thing appealing to all three at once achieves is tripping over your own feet.
I don’t know how helpful the following words will be, but I feel the need to say them, anyway: we need to look at games as unified wholes. Not just when analyzing them, but when creating them, too. No single part of a game exists in isolation. It both affects and is affected by every other part of the game surrounding it. We can see what this means for a game by looking at one that fails to realize this: Lady Sia. On first glance, it looks like an unremarkable platformer, but that’s only because it is. Despite its relative simplicity, pieces of the game feel like they were thrown randomly together with no thought given as to how they’ll relate to one another. This results in an experience that lacks purpose, direction, or even any discernible character.
Sonic R wasn’t Sonic’s first foray into the racing genre. However, it might as well have been, given how little people remember of the Sonic Drift games on Game Gear. Besides, where those games were essentially vanilla racing games with Sonic characters dropped in, Sonic R tries to bring the Sonic series’ platforming sensibilities to the world of racing games. Unfortunately, this is why the game fails. The two genres only ever pull away at each other, as neither one figures out how to accommodate the other. What should be an elegant mix of two game types is instead a clumsy mess of a game.