GameSpotting: Stealth Kill

This week's GameSpotting is indisputable proof that the folks who work here are not actually human beings, but rather the results of some botched experiment where someone attempted to fuse a human with an Atari Jaguar or something.

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This week's GameSpotting is indisputable proof that the folks who work here are not actually human beings, but rather the results of some botched experiment where someone attempted to fuse a human with an Atari Jaguar or something. They're always talking about games. This week's seemingly nongaming subjects include fan fiction, horror movies, and food--but don't be fooled. These are just clever excuses to talk about games some more. If you too would like to talk about games, there are plenty of folks with that same passion in our forums. Or, if you feel you have something really important to say about games, go ahead and say it with a GuestSpotting column submission.

Fall in, Fall out
Tor Thorsen/Assistant Editor, News
"The dark clouds gathering over Black Isle Studios could mean Fallout 3 never hits PCs. That would be a tragedy."

Is Horror Horrible?
Bethany Massimilla/Community Manager
"Let me get this out of the way first and say that zombies aren't scary. They're not."


Just Desserts
Brad Shoemaker/Associate Editor
"I put this question to the development community at large with all sincerity: When are you going to make a game based on food?"

Shock Value
Greg Kasavin/Executive Editor
"After a while, we start to get all comfy with our favorite games. What better time for them to take us for a spin, leaving our heads spinning?"

Nostalgia Ain't What It Used to Be
Jason Ocampo/Associate Editor
"And as I was sorting through all my old games, it hit me: It was time to let go. I was like the guy who shows up to his high school reunion still wearing his letterman's jacket."

Xbox Life
Justin Calvert/Associate Editor
"Xbox Live isn't just something I play with friends; it's actually become our primary means of keeping in touch with one another."

Random Encounters Aren't That Bad (and Chrono Trigger Sucks)
Nathan Anderson/GuestSpotter
Reviewers roll their eyes and act like this mechanic should have gone the way of the four-letter character name.

Where Gamers Go to Mouth Off
Number One Donkey Kong Jr. Math Fan/GuestSpotter
Anyone can hop on a forum and declare Donkey Kong Jr. Math the greatest game ever conceived, but it takes strong writing chops to make people want to read such an insane diatribe. If you think you have what it takes, read our GuestSpotting FAQ, and submit your own column for possible publication in this glorious feature.

Tor Thorsen
Assistant Editor, News

Now Playing: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Xbox), Rainbow Six 3 (Xbox), Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge (Xbox), Civilization III: Conquests (PC), Dungeon Siege: Legends of Aranna (PC)
Would steal old ladies' dentures to play: Deus Ex: Invisible War (Xbox)

Fall in, Fall out

Journalists are supposed to be objective, but the departure of J.E. Sawyer from Black Isle Studios got this reporter downright depressed. It wasn't just that J.E. was one of the more talented and interesting figures in the development game. (By "interesting" I mean slightly nuts, like most top-quality creative types are.) More importantly, the speed of his departure points to something going very wrong behind the scenes of "Van Buren," the official code name for Fallout 3.

Anybody who's perused the Interplay forums recently knows the studio is in trouble. Its forthcoming Dungeons & Dragons title, code-named "Jefferson," was canned earlier this year, reportedly a casualty of a legal tangle with Atari. A host of top-quality talent has fled the studio, including legendary producer Feargus Urqhart. Even worse, Black Isle's parent, Interplay, is hemorrhaging money, having lost over $20 million so far this year.

Black Isle Studios redirected our inquiries to its helpful PR rep.
Black Isle Studios redirected our inquiries to its helpful PR rep.

With Black Isle's bank account and staff shrinking at an alarming rate, there's more than a small chance that Fallout 3 will never make it to a PC near you. For me, that would be a personal tragedy. Although Greg Kasavin already gave it the maddest props possible in his Greatest Games piece, the first Fallout and its more expansive sequel, Fallout 2, rank alongside Knights of the Old Republic and Deus Ex as my favorite sci-fi RPGs. In other words, they're two of my top games, period.

Together, the first two Fallouts had more story than the whole Mad Max film trilogy combined. Yes, the graphics weren't the greatest, but their narratives were winding and twisting, like a novel--if that novel had multiple endings and hidden chapters. The games brimmed with thought-provoking concepts like neoprimitivism and man-machine symbiosis, and they had a cheery, antiestablishment skepticism I wish more people shared (especially nowadays). Plus, Fallout and Fallout 2 also had some of the coolest side quests in memory. How many games let you be a postapocalyptic porn star who shoots beach-ball-sized holes into opponents with the .223 pistol from Blade Runner? Not many. Certainly not Fallout Tactics, the franchise's squad-combat bastard stepchild.

When it finally ships for the Xbox and PS2, the Snowblind-engine-based Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel should make a nice action RPG cousin to the first two Fallouts, just as Dark Alliance was to the Baldur's Gate games. (Although having a ghoul as one of the three playable BOS characters seems like a serious mistake.) But there's no way it will match their dramatic depth--that task was to, er, fall to Fallout 3.

Seeing how the game may now never see the light of day, I can't help fantasizing about what might have been. So, if you'll excuse the shameless fan fiction, here are a few possible scenarios that would have been fun to see in the sequel. (Cue harp flashback music, start wobbly video dissolve.)

Marcus needs a home! He's friendly and housebroken and can fieldstrip a rocket launcher.
Marcus needs a home! He's friendly and housebroken and can fieldstrip a rocket launcher.

Fallout 3: Mojave Mob--One of the endings in Fallout 2 had the Chosen One siring an illegitimate son with a New Reno crime boss's wife. That boy went on to unify the four families in New Reno and become the capo ti tutti capi alberino-nucleare. This sequel's story picks up with the Chosen One's grandson, now a mob scion, and his quest to expand the postnuclear rackets. With a multispecies crew of thugs, he muscles into the underworlds of the Den, Redding, and now-decadent Vault City. But he comes up against some stiff competition in the form of the Mutant Mafia, a group of incredibly burly criminals led by an intelligent deathclaw named, appropriately, Spike.

Fallout 3: Radioactive Jihad--One hundred years after the end of Fallout 2, the Chosen One's tribal descents have multiplied, absorbing other isolated vault-dwelling communities. The result is a fragmented, deeply religious desert civilization much like Dune's Fremen. While powerful in numbers, the tribes lack a leader and are being picked off one community at a time by a newly resurgent, racist-dominated New California Republic. The only thing that unifies them is a prophecy--that one of their own will retrieve a "weapon of light" from a "mountain of fire." The "weapon" is a remote control for a still-functioning laser-cannon satellite (think the Sol platform in Akira) hidden in a bunker at the now volcanically active Mount Rainier base outside Seattle. Guarding the control are some rather disagreeable cyborgs. The borgs' biological components are the pickled, psychotic brains of rich software tycoons who had their heads cryogenically frozen when the bombs started dropping. For bodies, the cyborgs have lumbering power-armor exoskeletons that make the Enclave troopers look like sensitivity trainers.

Stealing ideas from the past and claiming them as your own--it's the American way!
Stealing ideas from the past and claiming them as your own--it's the American way!

Fallout 3: East Is West--Borrowing a page from Frederik Pohl's classic novel Black Star Rising, this game sees an expeditionary force from China--whose nuclear war with the United States fricasseed the planet before the first Fallout--occupying San Francisco and rebooting the president-mainframe of the Shi, which becomes their leader. Under the president-mainframe's guidance, the Chinese begin to expand eastward, installing governor-servers in every town they conquer. Forced to flee, the Chosen One's descendents travel to the Rocky Mountains. There, they encounter a variety of strange alpine communities dominated by their own cybernetic governor--a supercomputer in the former NORAD fortress in Colorado Springs, Colorado. They must convince the supercomputer to give them access to its vast arsenal of shiny new power weapons so they can reclaim their homeland.

Of course, as fun as it is to toy with a game's possibilities in your own mind, it's much more fun to actually play it. Hopefully, Fallout 3 will be more than just another RPG freak's fantasy. Games are like Coke-- there ain't nothing like the real thing.

Bethany Massimilla
Community Manager


Now Playing: Fatal Frame (again), Fire Emblem, Ratchet & Clank, Mario & Luigi (not quite yet, but hopefully soon!)

Is Horror Horrible?

I hate horror movies. I don't hate them because they're spooky or because they're gory. I hate them because to me, they've always fundamentally failed at what I believe they mean to do: scare me. I can never manage to achieve the suspension of disbelief necessary to be drawn into these films, and I actually end up seeing most of them as comedies. The overwrought acting, ridiculous amounts of blood, and absurd situations present in most horror features go in the complete opposite direction of frightening for me. When I first started to play survival horror games, therefore, I never had high expectations for chills and thrills. Has playing these games changed my opinion? In some instances, yes, but it depends entirely on the substance of the game in question.

Know what's scary about this picture? Those stains will never come out of that suit!
Know what's scary about this picture? Those stains will never come out of that suit!

Let me get this out of the way first and say that zombies aren't scary. They're not. They're never scary. Show me the standard lumbering humanoid form in tattered clothes with bits rotting off, and I'll be happy to search through my inventory and find a creative way to dispatch it, but they don't inspire dread. Not even if they're zombie dogs. Everyone jumps in Resident Evil the first time you're walking down a hallway that used to be safe and something crashes through a window in front of you, but once you know to expect enemies from that direction, the impact is lessened considerably. I like the danger-lurking-around-every-corner aspect of the Resident Evil games, but I would not say that they ever truly frightened me. Enemies in just about every survival horror game usually serve to complete the atmosphere, but it's rare that you encounter any that truly freak you out. I have a healthy respect for the tall, mysterious, and, above all, highly deadly Pyramid Head creature from Silent Hill 2, but most of the time your foes in and of themselves are not enough to draw a good scare.

Don't open that door! It's Jason! He's here!
Don't open that door! It's Jason! He's here!

It's only with atmosphere and the interactivity of gaming that survival horror games can really touch me. I can't always get involved watching someone exploring a dark room in a movie, but when I have control of the person doing the exploring, it's a different situation. Games like Silent Hill and Fatal Frame that give me a flashlight and dark, deserted locales to investigate are great, because with eerie ambient sound and almost-total darkness, I generate my own scares. What was that noise over there? What was that indistinct shape I saw out of the corner of my eye? Wasn't there just a figure standing at that window? The more I can rely on my imagination to provide individualized shape to my dangers, the more involved in the experience I become. The brilliance that is Eternal Darkness' sanity effects is something that needs to be more fully realized in the horror genre, too. It's expected that your onscreen persona is going to start flipping out as he or she encounters increasingly horrible things. But to extend that to screwing around with the player and including things like the false ending, the controller error message, and the random character death when entering a room is really nifty.

In fact, I really like it when horror titles try to mess with my head; that, in addition to their disturbing storylines, is what keeps me coming back. It's not the grotesque enemies floating after me calling, "My eyes, my eyes." It's when an object rolls off a previously static shelf during a tense moment, or when you start down a normal-looking staircase that turns out to go on almost forever. Games take me there in a way that movies just haven't been able to, and it just makes me appreciate games all the more.

Brad Shoemaker
Associate Editor

Now Playing: Final Fantasy X-2, Metal Arms: Glitch in the System, Sword of Mana
Forgotten the Existence of: Half-Life 2, Doom 3

Just Desserts

If I can't eat it, I might as well play it.
If I can't eat it, I might as well play it.

Does it ever seem like they're making games based on just about anything these days? It does to me. When I started playing video games in the early '80s and for years afterward, there were just a few things you'd do, or even want to do, in a game--shoot things, jump onto platforms, shoot things, drive a car, fly a spaceship, and, oh yes, shoot things. But nowadays there are game genres popping up that take all kinds of real-world stuff into consideration. Just a few years ago, I sure didn't expect to ever see a video game that used a toy guitar as a controller or that let you play as a mosquito with the very appropriate objectives of sucking blood and avoiding a terminal swatting. Amazingly, these very things are now available for our gaming pleasure. Who'd a thunk it?

That's all well and good, but I feel like certain real-world experiences are being neglected by the gaming community. Actually, there's just one I have in mind: food. When is someone going to step up to the plate and create that most magical piece of entertainment that marries two of my greatest interests, gaming and eating? I put this question to the development community at large with all sincerity: When are you going to make a game based on food?

This is definitely not how I want a food game to turn out.
This is definitely not how I want a food game to turn out.

Please don't misunderstand--I'm not looking for games in existing genres with some food-related motif tacked on. Don't give me a shooter where I'm flying a carrot and firing salad dressing at waves of evil rhubarbs and beets, nor any kind of adventure or fighting game with fighting fried chickens or something dumb like that. Definitely no food RPGs--it's already been done. Simply taking existing gameplay concepts and mapping food onto them just ain't gonna cut it, thanks. What I've got in mind is much more ambitious and, dare I say it, delicious.

In the same way that PaRappa the Rapper came out of nowhere and totally defined the rhythm action genre, I think it would only take one good food game to make my dreams real. Though I haven't thought this out yet, I know that the seminal food action game should somehow focus on a cooking mechanic. Surely the same crazy imaginations that came up with a game like PaRappa would have little trouble finding a way to make cooking work in game form. I envision an interface that gives you access to an oven and stove, as well as an array of knives and other implements like a blender and grater. You could even compete against AI chefs to make the tastiest dish, Iron Chef-style. I'm sure there are a hundred entertaining minigames that could be made out of food preparation. The linchpin of the whole game would be the way you could process and combine basic ingredients to make a meal. Maybe you'd take random ingredients and come up with your own delicious dish in some kind of freestyle mode? Problems with this whole idea: First, I'm no game designer, and I haven't worked out any of the specifics. Second, you're only playing the game, not eating it; what to do when you win and you're still hungry?

These guys need to branch out.
These guys need to branch out.

I know there was an Iron Chef game released for the Saturn in Japan a long time back, although apparently it's just a basic tour of Kitchen Stadium--no weird cooking game mechanics involved. But once the food genre has been established, the door is open for all kinds of tasty possibilities. Why not a game based on In-N-Out, home of the greatest fast-food hamburger ever conceived? I bet there are all sorts of game ideas hiding in pizza alone. Whatever the great connoisseurs of gaming and eating come up with (if they ever do come up with anything), I'll have my bib at the ready. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to take my pants out a couple of sizes to prepare for Thanksgiving.

Shock Value

We're inherently more connected to games than we are to the movies or shows we just get to sit back and watch. This connection between the player and the game opens up a world of yet-untapped potential--a world in which game designers can, and I think should, routinely try to mess with our heads.

Forget slasher flicks. Games are the future of shock value for the sake of entertainment. We all understand what makes games different from everything else--we get to control the action onscreen, which in a way makes us become a part of what's happening in the world of the game. It helps that games are relatively time-consuming. After a while, we start to get all comfy with our favorite games. None of the bad guys can stop us. None of the cars can pass us. What better time for the game to take us for a spin, leaving us reeling?

Eternal Darkness kept me guessing from start to finish. Bravo.
Eternal Darkness kept me guessing from start to finish. Bravo.

Let me put it another way: What's one of the best feelings you can get from a game? The feeling that you've yet to see everything the game has to offer. The feeling that, if you keep on playing, you'll keep seeing something new. Back when I was much more seriously into playing various fighting games, this was one of the chief reasons I was so interested in them. I'd constantly be finding (or find myself on the receiving end of) new combos, tactics, and strategies. These games had real depth. But, games that are set up to occasionally shock the player are more likely to provide this feeling than most other games.

Last year's Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem is probably the best, most obvious example of a game that goes for pure shock value. I don't mean "pure shock value" here in a horror-movie kind of way; I mean Eternal Darkness does a great job of throwing surprises at you and keeping you on your toes. The fact that it's a horror-themed game is purely incidental. Some weeks ago, Andrew and I were talking about our favorite examples of the game's "sanity effects"--surprising little moments that, in the context of a game about characters worried that they're going crazy, are supposed to make you, the player, wonder if maybe you aren't going a little batty yourself.

The definition of a 'surprise twist' is that you shouldn't see it coming.
The definition of a 'surprise twist' is that you shouldn't see it coming.

Some of the sanity effects in Eternal Darkness were goofy. Early in a game, you could get a "To be continued!" screen, making you think that the adventure was already over when it was just hardly getting started. The game would occasionally crash to a Windows 95-style "blue screen of death." Even though Eternal Darkness was a very grim game, and even though I wasn't tricked by the vast majority of these and other sanity effects, I found this stuff to be incredibly funny and creative, if nothing else.

The game did get me once. I went to save my progress...but rather than save my progress, the game reported to me that my saved games had been deleted. This was maybe three quarters of the way through the game. For a moment, I freaked out. Then, of course, I realized what was going on. Har, har.

But, you know what? Of all the thousands of hours I spent playing games last year, that's one of only a relative few specific moments that I can vividly remember. And, as much as I enjoyed most things about Eternal Darkness, it was that specific moment that made me feel so rewarded for having played that game. No other game has ever given me that particular feeling before. Except for maybe a few PC games in which my saves actually did get deleted, but that's another story.

The problem with games is that, for the most part, you can learn them front to back in much less time than it takes to actually finish them. Sure, there's a lot to be said for making a game as accessible as possible. As I so like to prattle on about, there's nothing especially fun about having to learn the mechanics of a game, if they're complicated. No matter whether we prefer deep, complicated role-playing games or pick-up-and-play action games, we ultimately all prefer for games to do a good job of allowing us to figure out all the elements of play at our own pace.

Manhunt's creepy, cryptic atmosphere is infectious.
Manhunt's creepy, cryptic atmosphere is infectious.

But I'm not talking about accessibility here. I think more games should save a little unpredictable something for the end, for the middle, for when you load up your saved game, whenever. Make me wonder who the main character really is. Make me wonder what, exactly, it is that I'm accomplishing with my actions. Later, make me realize what I've done. Then, make me realize I was mistaken. The recent Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, an excellent game in every way, offers a very satisfying conclusion that clears a few things up. Right at this moment, I'm in the middle of playing Rockstar North's violent stealth action game, Manhunt, which had me very intrigued from the very beginning, along these lines. Who am I and what am I doing? I have no idea, right now, how Manhunt will pan out. It might end up leaving a lasting impression on me, but it has certainly made a great first impression.

Nostalgia Ain't What It Used to Be

I'll admit it: I'm a pack rat. Maybe it's because I have a degree in history, but I place a lot of nostalgic value in things, especially games. I have trouble throwing games out because I tell myself there may be a day when I'll want to play EF2000 again, or there's going to be a moment when I'll want to load up the original Age of Empires. So, I figure it's better to hold on to them now instead of having to buy them back at a ridiculously high price on eBay later.

Then something happens in life that forces you to revaluate everything you've hoarded. My cathartic experience was moving...literally. I recently moved from Seattle to San Francisco to take this job at GameSpot. Since everything had to fit in my car, I went through my own personal judgment day that caused me to get rid of a lot of my belongings. It's an eye-opening experience, because you never realize just how much stuff you have until you're forced to part with it.

For instance, I practically had the entire collection of Jane's flight sims, from Jane's AH-64D Longbow all the way to Jane's World War II Fighters, all in their original boxes. And for some odd reason, I had about four separate copies of SWAT 3: Close Quarters Battle. Even better, I had six different versions of Falcon 4.0, including three copies of the original three-ring binder edition, two regular boxed editions, and even a Mac edition! How or why I ended up with that many, I don't know. I had literally dozens and dozens of games, and it took me the good part of a day to go through them all.

I ended up selling most of them at a used-book store/software store. It wasn't an easy thing to do, but, in retrospect, it was the right thing. There's no scientific data to back this up, but I suspect that a lot of computer and video game players are pack rats like me. We hold on tight to games, especially the ones we like. After all, there's nothing better on a dark winter's day than to boot up a classic game that you love.

The problem is that you tend to accumulate a lot of these games, and as the years pass, you just don't realize how dated they've become. Those Jane's sims, for instance, were made to run on 3dfx Voodoo-based video cards. But 3dfx went out of business years ago. And most of those other games were built to run on much slower hardware, with ancient versions of DirectX.

Now there are ways to tweak Windows XP's compatibility mode so it can run old games, and I used to spend hours researching on the Internet, downloading the latest Glide wrapper and figuring out ways to trick a game into thinking my 2GHz Athlon XP was actually a 133MHz Pentium. But after this effort, I'd usually get a game up and running only to discover that my memory was a lot kinder than reality.

And as I was sorting through all my old games, it hit me: It was time to let go. I was like the guy who shows up to his high school reunion still wearing his letterman's jacket. There are so many great new games out there, and I was stuck in the past. Seriously, what were the chances I would load up the original Age of Empires again when there's the seriously great Rise of Nations? Or when am I actually going to play EF2000, a 1997-era flight sim that runs in 640x480 with no 3D acceleration, when Lock On: Modern Air Combat is jaw-droppingly gorgeous?

So I let go and sold them all for a bargain price. I realize I could have probably made out like a small bandit on eBay, but that would have required more time and effort than I could afford. Not to mention, one of the little joys in life is when you're browsing at a used-book store and make an amazing find. Hopefully those games will find some new owners who will enjoy them as much as I did.

If you're a pack rat like me, do yourself a favor and empty out the closet. It's time to move on.

Xbox Life

So did you guys watch the football last night?
So did you guys watch the football last night?

A couple of months ago I got myself back onto Xbox Live, which, since moving house earlier this year, I'd not really felt compelled to do until the day it struck me that the release of Rainbow Six 3 wasn't far off. I'd forgotten just how cool Xbox Live really is, and after spending the few remaining days before the arrival of Rainbow Six 3 playing through the additional Splinter Cell missions I downloaded, I've been logging on as often as my schedule allows. I personally don't think that Rainbow Six 3 is a game that lends itself to deathmatch "sharpshooter" play, and so the majority of my time online is spent in cooperative missions and terrorist hunts with close friends--call me peculiar, but I'm just not comfortable playing that game cooperatively with anyone who hasn't earned my trust through years of friendship. I won't deny that we've all been guilty of a little friendly fire from time to time, but at least if I'm taken out of the game by a dropped grenade or a stray sniper shot, I know that I'll get an apology and, if I'm lucky, a pint bought for me the next time we meet up. Last night, though, something awful happened. After turning on my Xbox and seeing that I'd been invited to join a terrorist hunt with three of my friends, my console refused to load the game and then added insult to injury by suggesting that I check the disc I'd inserted to make sure it was an Xbox game, a DVD movie, or an audio CD--as opposed to a disc with PlayStation 2 written on it or a microwave pizza, presumably. Worse still, my Xbox is experiencing similar problems with all of my games now, and it has even started to crash in the middle of FIFA Soccer 2004 matches after making 20 attempts to get the game loaded in the first place.

2-0 up, Xbox crashes, frustration ensues...
2-0 up, Xbox crashes, frustration ensues...

It pains me to say it, but my Xbox console appears to be in need of surgery. I guess I've just been fortunate in the past, but I've actually never had a game console fail on me in this way, and now that it's happened it's made me realize just how big a part of my life game consoles, and my Xbox in particular, have become. Now that most of my gaming friends live in different locations all over the UK, Xbox Live isn't just something we play; it's actually become our primary means of keeping in touch with one another--talking about the same everyday kind of stuff as we travel the world carrying out the same covert missions that we would have when we were at college or working on magazines together.

Is it just me, or do the palms seem unnecessary?
Is it just me, or do the palms seem unnecessary?

The prospect of being without my Xbox even for the week or so that I anticipate it might take to get it repaired is not something that I relish, but with access to other consoles and as-yet-unopened copies of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and SSX 3, I guess everything will be OK. I've also recently been introduced to a PC snooker game, which, while it doesn't sound like something that could fill the void left by the absence of Xbox Live, I've found to be both entertaining and challenging. The free-to-download iSnooker game boasts a friendly community of players, gameplay that's as realistic as any of the retail snooker games I've played, plus an ELO rankings system and weekly tournaments for registered players. I'd recommend it to anyone who's even remotely interested in snooker as a sport and who doesn't feel the need for Pool Paradise-style desert island locales and oddly shaped tables. And hey, if any of you decide to register and feel like winning a few easy points, I'm not terribly good at it yet and will inevitably be playing a fair bit--at least until my Xbox is repaired.

Random Encounters Aren't That Bad (and Chrono Trigger Sucks)

The statement I'm about to make is sure to get me flamed by the RPG elite, akin to telling the otaku that Akira was "OK."

I don't mind random encounters.

Let me get one thing straight: I don't prefer random encounters. To tell you the truth, I don't care either way. I'm just tired of seeing message boards light up when it's revealed that the next Final Fantasy/Golden Sun/Suikoden-whatever "still" includes random encounters. Reviewers roll their eyes and act like this mechanic should have gone the way of the four-letter character name.

The most common charge is that random battles are "unrealistic." To this I counter that the RPG experience is inherently unrealistic. I'm not just talking about the swords-and-sorcery or science fiction settings either. When was the last time you put on your clothes with a menu system or used a floating hand to pick your target? The truth of the matter is, controlling multiple characters is unrealistic, as is the fact that, with a few exceptions (FFVIII, Xenogears), your party doesn't follow you around onscreen. When Cloud talks, we all know that there's not really a little blue box above his head. It's simply a representation. Similarly, when Tidus is attacked, I don't assume that fiends materialized out of thin air. The battle music and screen transitions are representations for what's "really" going on in my imagination. The fact that a sprite didn't collide with mine doesn't pull me out of the action. Finally, to all of the advocates for "realism" in RPGs, note this: In Xenosaga, a single gnosis attacks me in the field. In the battle screen, there could be anywhere between one and five enemies on the screen. Where did the other four come from?

A more valid argument is that random battles "pad" gameplay. I'm not going to argue with this, but I am going to say that RPGs need that padding. When you break down any Final Fantasy, you get about four components: exploration, minigames, plot, and battles. Advocates for eliminating much of the "battle" component would like to think that programmers would fill 30-plus hours of game time with something else. Exploration wouldn't work. Running from empty screen to empty screen, no matter how beautifully rendered, is going to get old real fast. Minigames won't cut it either. Blitzball was a blast, but after blowing a few hours I was eager to return to that whole saving-the-world thing. Those card games aren't really that fun, are they? Plot is unquestionably the meat of these games, and my favorite part of any game. However, story development is inherently noninteractive. Without the battle component, without the interaction, you might as well be reading a book or watching a movie (although Advent Children does look cool).

With battles cut out, there isn't really anything to fill the gameplay void. While I hate excessive leveling-up as much as the next guy, I'd rather do that than spend $60 on a 10-hour game (which is all that most RPGs would be without random encounters "padding" them). Furthermore, all battles not directly related to plot, whether you can see the enemy on the screen or not, could be accused of padding. Chrono is beset by all manner of goblins and mutants who don't care about Magus or Lavos.

The final point is the one that I'm most likely to concede, that it's simply annoying to be assaulted by all manner of enemies when you simply want to make it to the next town, save the game, and turn it off. I'm not against avoidable encounters, but there are numerous ways to do this. Moogle charms/no encounter ability/riding a chocobo have always sped up gameplay. We've all played those games (FFIX) where the encounter rate is simply too high. Adjustable rates or ways to abbreviate battles, especially with radically weaker adversaries, would be one way to speed things up.

To conclude, I'm not against seeing your enemies on the screen. Xenosaga and Chrono Cross are great games, but so are Final Fantasy and Xenogears. Finally, for all of my RPG brethren (and sisteren) who are afraid to say it: Chrono Trigger sucks.

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