To a lot of you, the stuff I’m about to say will seem obvious. Still, I think it’s a good idea to put obvious things into words every so often, just to re-affirm them for myself.
It’s impossible to view a work as an island. Everyone’s perspective of everything is defined by innumerable factors which are woven in a rich tapestry. It can be difficult to look at a thing and say, “the main contributing factors to why I like this are as follows,” and then make a list of those factors; but sometimes it’s doable to an extent, and that’s always an exciting experience.
One of the most immediate factors determining how we perceive a work is our personal tapestry of other works we’ve consumed. On a large scale: every book, show, and movie we watch effects the way we look at every manga, essay, and game we play. On a more immediate scale: every action-RPG we play effects the way we look at every other action-RPG we play.
Recently, I completed the short, very popular indie game Bastion on the PC (part of Steam’s Humble Indie Bundle V). In spite of some very strong aspects, I found it mostly disappointing. While I was able to put the reasons why into words, it was only after my next game that I gained true context into why I wasn’t able to enjoy Bastion.
Before I get into that, let me point out the importance of what I just said. It’s one thing to analyze, “what I didn’t like about a game,” but it’s a somewhat different thing to analyze, “why I didn’t like it.” It’s the difference between, “what the work had,” and, “what the work didn’t have.” Deciphering the latter is only possible with context.
Here’s an example using an extreme amount of context. Say you’re watching the first Berserk movie, having never seen any other incarnations of the series. You don’t like it very much. You thought the ideas driving the characters were potentially interesting, but you didn’t connect with the movie. You identify problems such as how it skipped around too much, or how you didn’t have time to get into the characters, or how the CGI always stood right on the edge of the uncanny valley. You know what’s *wrong* with the movie.
Then you read the manga, and you realize *what was missing.* You realize how it could’ve been better. Now you know that if you’d had more time to spend with the characters and gotten to know them at a better-adjusted pace, you would’ve cared about them more. You know that the series would’ve worked really well with more rough, fantastical artwork.
There’s something magical about this. I feel as though knowing what’s bad doesn’t necessarily teach you what’s good. You have to learn them both separately, and see them side by side to get the whole picture. This is how you learn the difference between being constructive and being destructive. The difference between complaining about all the bad things, and suggesting how to make good things.
Coming away from Bastion, I knew that there was something wrong with the game’s world. Bastion’s biggest strength is the driving narration which describes everything the player does in the game, while informing about many aspects of the world around them. However, only the narration was actually impressive, and it didn’t sell me on the world it described.
I knew while playing it that the level design was bland. Each place had a loose visual theme to it–not enough to create a solid identity. It was all just floating linear levels in space without much variety or interesting ways to interact with them. There were a shitload of levels (probably something like twenty-five) and all of them were way too short to be memorable (I played through the whole game in about six hours).
If I took this knowledge and set out to make a stronger video game world, I would only be going on what I know not to do (short, similar, multitudinous levels); but that wouldn’t instruct me on what to do instead.
That’s where Soul Blazer comes in. Like Bastion, it’s an action-RPG, but it succeeds in the places where Bastion fails. I cared about the world in Soul Blazer because it felt big, dense, interesting, and memorable. There were six big areas, and all of them were totally unique from one-another and even had unique areas within themselves. The visual differences were huge between areas, making the most of the incredibly weak and low-budget graphics that the game had to offer. It speaks volumes that the world which looked like something I made in RPG Maker when I was fourteen was more interesting to me than the lusciously hand-painted world of Bastion.
Instead of sending me off to disjointed levels in space, Soul Blazer had different level-like areas that all flowed into one-another, and which could be easily traversed with teleporters and passageways that I opened up, leading me back home (a lot like Dark Souls). The level designs were cyclical so that the end would put you close to the beginning, and therefore you can travel anywhere in the world with as much ease as Bastion’s level-select screen, without having to be taken out of the game world.
Soul Blazer does have moments where it pulls you out to an area-select between the six big areas of the game, but all of these areas are part of a clear geographical map that shows you where they’re located in relation to one-another; unlike the levels in Bastion, which seemed to be randomly superimposed onto non-specific locations on a vague map in the background.
There’s a whole lot more to how Soul Blazer builds an interesting world, as well as other ways that it gives context to Bastion’s failures (namely in the combat department), but I won’t get into all of that here. My point’s been made. Bastion shows me what I wouldn’t want to do if I was to make a video game. Soul Blazer shows me what I would want to do.
And if I’m going to go around critiquing things, this is very important. Over the years, I was often confused at the way reviewers would talk down a work’s faults in a review, but never talk about what it was they wanted to see as an alternative. A review shouldn’t try to be an island judgement of a work, but a framing of the work within the grand narrative of it’s medium, or even of all works in general.
Here’s a truly exciting moment I had reading a review. I’m an avid fan of Roger Ebert. In his review of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, he makes a special mention of Rob Roy, a movie which I’d never seen. The context was his decry of the terrible sword-fighting in Pirates, which is something that had also bothered me when I saw the second movie years ago. After reading Ebert’s review, I watched Rob Roy, and yeah, it was pretty much the best sword fight I’ve ever seen in a live-action movie. Not only did I learn something important about how to appreciate film as a result of this review, but I also got to see a amazing film. What more could I ask from a review?