GameFan Journalism

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As the games-journalism debate of consumer evaluations vs. artistic critiques continues, it’s almost refreshing to look back on the sordid history of GameFan Magazine.

DieHard GameFan Magazine was an unabashedly fanboy-ish publication that spawned in the backroom of a videogame store. It started off as a catalogue promoting Western and import titles, but quickly grew to a widely syndicated magazine that competed with the likes of EGM and GamePro. It was filled with hyperboles, factual errors and made-up rumours, but it also had lovingly arranged layouts, superior print quality and a contagious enthusiasm for the medium.

I fondly recall pouring over GameFan’s spreads of popular games like Earthworm Jim and Street Fighter Alpha, and lesser known titles — which I didn’t hear much about in other publications but was pleased to discover — such as Dark Savior and Lucienne’s Quest. Like many young videogame enthusiasts, I eagerly awaited the treasure trove of text and colour that came with each issue, but I was oblivious to the magazine’s crazy behind-the-scenes antics:

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The layouts of GameFan Magazine were fantastic, often incorporating a title's concept art and overall visual style.

It’s hard to defend GameFan after reading the above, and the magazine itself was as far from real journalism as videogame publications got, but for many it was also a labour of love. As such, it still stands heads and shoulders above all the other fanzines, and its tumultuous history is rich enough to fill a book.

If it ever does, I’d sure like to read it.

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Localizing Exclamations

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“Gnhhh!”

“Whhhhaaaah!”

“Bah….ah….gahhhhhh…”

“Hmmmf!”

“Ehiehhh…”

“Mhaemm!”

These grunts, sighs, squeals and miscellaneous other vocalizations compose roughly 1/4 of the dialogues in the early hours of Final Fantasy XIII.

One one hand, they’re to be expected. Japan is known for its plethora of exclamations and onomatopoeiae. On the other — at least when translated literally — they make for a poor localization.

These sounds are often louder and longer than their English counterparts, or they simply have no equivalents. As such, they’re difficult to remove or replace and are usually left untouched. They’ve even become something of an accepted “quirk” among the more dedicated fans of Japanese media, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be handled in a more global-friendly fashion.

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I think the localization team for FFXIII wanted to give Vanille a unique voice — much like the Björk-esque Fran in FFXII — but the voice actress’ performance is a bit of a mess.

As things stand, vocalizations often come across as alien and awkward. They break the flow of conversation and the suspension of disbelief, and can leave a new audience feeling put off.

Sure, one can always argue for the purity and cultural authenticity of any given product, but that’s being a bit of a stick in the mud. Literal translations lack context and social nuances, and those fully familiar with them might as well experience the original versions. In order to make the products more palatable to a different audience, some things need to change. FF XIII in particular is a title Square Enix wanted to be a global blockbuster, not just a Japanese game released to a niche audience outside of its home country, so it stands to reason that they’d want to iron out these kinks.

So how can this be done?

A couple of points:

  • If possible, simply remove the exclamations altogether. The ones that could easily be cut are left in to keep things consistent, but getting rid of them shouldn’t be an insurmountable issue.
  • Use local equivalents of the vocalizations if available. For example, make a character surprised by a hand on his shoulder utter a short “Huh?” instead of the original, “Mwwwnnhaaa?”
  • Use actual words or sentences for sounds that have no local counterparts. A character crying out “Gwahhhhhhhhhhhh!” for three seconds after witnessing a car crash could easily be replaced with a quick “Oh my god!”
  • Meld the exclamations into the speech itself. I’m not an expert, but I noticed many of the vocalizations were isolated within the dialogue, whereas in English they’d part of it, e.g., “Mmmm, I don’t know about thaaaaaaaat.”
  • Finally, keep these points in mind when developing the game, and provide the team(s) with the tools necessary to port it. Automated lip-synching is already widely used, but I’m sure other functionality or just the permission to alter the in-game cutscenes would be appreciated.

Of course there are more issues to consider as well — perhaps toning down on the dramatic, clenched-fist poses with characters uttering such phrases as “I’ll do my best!” — but those are a whole other topic…

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Design Roundup #4

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  • The Psychology of Randomness – People tend to be terrible at accepting randomness for what it is, and it’s a very important trait to accommodate for in game design.
  • Testosterone and Competitive Play – Danc’s essay on playing against friends, playing against strangers, the perception of luck and skill, and pro-social/pro-dominance tendencies.
  • Groundhog Day and Video Games – Groundhog Day is a fantastic movie with a surprisingly wide-spread appeal, and I always thought its concepts were perfect for a videogame.

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Nelson Tethers – Puzzle Agent Bits

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Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent cribs quite liberally from Professor Layton, and relies heavily on its art style, but it’s still my favourite of Telltale’s episodic games to date.

The bits:

— Obviously the most noticeable thing about Puzzle Agent is its offbeat, crayon-drawn art style. What’s interesting here is that the game relies on stop-motion like animations reminiscent of old, low-budget cartoons. The effect is actually quite good and and the choppy movements are consistently utilized even when smooth animations could have easily replaced them  (e.g., a snowmobile driving in a straight line).

The system made me wonder if other art styles not conducive to animation could successfully adopt a similar approach.

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Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent is quite a cinematic game that uses lots of different framing techniques for both its interactive and non-interactive sequences.

— Aside from the visual style itself, PA is a very atmospheric title in the vein of the old LucasArts adventure games. The characters are bizarre and expressive, the Fargo-esque setting is unique (at least for a videogame), and the great music and voice acting enrich the overall experience.

— PA was clearly designed with the iPhone/iPad in mind. The player never walks his avatar around the screen, and clicking most places sends out a helper-shockwave. As this shockwave expands, it highlights any points of interest that can be clicked on to initiate conversations, puzzles, scene transitions, etc.

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These icons briefly pop-up whenever the player clicks on any close-by, non-interactive areas.

— The actual puzzles in PA are a bit of a letdown. This is due to two main reasons: lack of instructions, and the inability to jot down notes in-game.

A lot of the puzzles are quite obtuse, sometimes to the point where a hint needs to be purchased just to figure out what the game wants the player to do. Unfortunately this seems like a concession to the game’s hint system (all puzzles must contain 3 individual hints) as some cases actually contains an additional screen that explains the controls and the goals of the minigame.

The secondary complaint deals with the nature of the puzzles themselves. Many of them are common math/logic problems that are meant to be solved in a series of steps. However, the player is often forced to visualize and work through them without any in-game aids. This artificially inflates their difficulty, especially when compared to the visual jigsaw puzzles.

These points certainly don’t ruin the game, but do I hope the various minigames are improved in future episodes.

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Unfortunately most of the other puzzles are not described in nearly as much detail.

– Many puzzles are completely optional and make exploring the world feel more like a non-linear, interactive experience.

– The actual hint system is quite clever. The game starts off with the protagonist trying to solve a crossword, and, having some problems with it, eventually reaching over for some gum to help him concentrate. As we soon learn, the town he visits is experiencing a gum shortage. This forces the player to pick up old, discarded pieces of gum to aid Agent Tethers in his puzzle solving endeavours. Yes, it’s quite gross, but perfectly fits the mood of the game and gives the designers a great excuse to sprinkle virtually all parts of the environment with a useful collectible.

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Agent Tethers comes face-to-face with Mike “The Lobster” Lobb.

Old gum also seems to be a reusable resource, reappearing in new spots as the Agent Tethers travels around town. This provides the player with an unlimited source of hints and prevents him from getting stuck on any one puzzle.

– As a nice little touch, the time of day on the title screen changes up periodically while the camera slowly scrolls around the Scoggins eraser factory.

– The UI of the game is very flashy but intuitive, with lots of animating widgets composed of labels and icons. The unskipable puzzle submission is a tad long, but the overall interface is a joy to use (especially when compared to many other adventure games).

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My favourite scene with the creepy gnomes had one of them invade my puzzle in the middle of me trying to solve it! The sequence worked very well since the puzzles (at least up to that point) were a separate, uninterruptible segment only exposed to the player.

– Agent Tethers uses a tape recorder throughout the game to narrate his experiences. This provides extra personality and context while clearly outlining what must be done going forward.

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Dungeons & Dragons – Tower of Doom Bits

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In the 90’s, Capcom produced a plethora of side-scrolling beat-‘em-ups. They were all pretty fun, but my favourite was an unlikely-branded D&D title, Tower of Doom.

The TSR/Capcom partnership actually spawned two individual games, but here are the notable bits for the first one:

— The most famous feature of ToD is the branching path structure. Periodically, the player is presented with 2-3 options of how to proceed, with each choice leading to a different area and boss. All these paths converge fairly quickly, but the extra choices are a nice feature and encourage multiple playthroughs.

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Options, options…

— ToD’s overall structure is very similar to a typical beat-‘em-up, but the game also contains lots of streamlined D&D/P&P RPG elements. Characters gain experience and grow stronger by leveling up, keys (or a thief character) are needed to open some chests, traps are virtually everywhere, there’s lots of treasure to collect, etc. There’s even a troll boss that needs to be burned once his health is depleted or he’ll simply regenerate.

— There are very few health-recovery items in the levels themselves, but the player can heal by collecting loot and purchasing health potions in shops. The shops appear in between levels and also allow the player to restock on usable items such as daggers and arrows.

— ToD contains lots of nice, little touches: the characters start the levels with their weapons sheathed (and the player can walk around unarmed until he presses the attack button), enemies can be damaged by traps, an extra victory animation accompanies a boss’ defeat, and all major stages and events are framed using unique illustrations. The game even contains some unique “Game Over” pop-ups that — if triggered during a boss fight — have the player’s enemy openly mocking him.

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Upholding the D&D tradition, Cloudkill is useless against the undead.

— Magic spells execute a flashy animation while pausing the gameplay, and their effects occasionally carry on once the game has been unpaused. This works fine for the most part, but due to the rule of only-one-spell-at-a-time, it’s occasionally possible to not be able to cast a spell while walking around without having a clear idea as to why it’s not working.

— Like many other beat-‘em-ups, ToD’s attacks are accompanied by hit-flashes that indicate successful hits and mask collision issues. However, unlike most other titles in the genre, the player can attack downed enemies, but can’t actually grab or throw them.

— If timed properly, it’s possible to slash projectiles out of the air with a basic attack.

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How could they break — the Beholder isn’t even touching them?!

— Non-usable/equipable items are fairly rare, but they do provide passive bonuses such as extra attack and defense boosts. These items don’t usually last very long, though, as they get “broken” or “lost” if the player gets hit a couple of times.

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