Archive | Gaming RSS feed for this section

Minecraft Skins

14 Jun

I love Minecraft as many people do. One of my favorite things to do, oddly enough is make character skins. I thought it would be fun to share my creations with all of you. Feel free to use them but if someone compliments you on the skin, please give me credit since I’m rather proud of my work. For now, I think all my Minecraft skins will be shown here. To use a skin, just save the right hand image out of each pair.

Agrias and the 11th Doctor are two of my favorites but I think the other two are good as well. This post will be updated with more skins as I finish them.


I Like Final Fantasy 13 and You Might Too

30 Apr

Reasons why I enjoyed one of the most hated Final Fantasy games and reason to give it a try if you haven’t yet.

I know this will get me a lot of flack but I like Final Fantasy 13. I like it a lot. It is probably in my top five favorite JRPGs ever. Even worse, many of the reasons I like it are commonly mentioned as reasons why others hate it. I know for a fact that my love of Final Fantasy 13 was spurned on by my ever growing hatred of many of the classic features of the JRPG genre. The one I played right before it was nearly the straw that broke the camels back. It was Suikoden 4 and it was one of the worst games I’ve ever played. (Note: This one is a bit long because I explain why many of the negative arguments about FF13 are wrong or didn’t bother me while stating its positive features. For a quick summary of why you should try the game, check the end of the article.)

Many classic JRPG features were poorly executed in Suikoden 4. One of these was open explorable world. The setting was composed of bland cities and large stretches of ocean. While each city had its own theme, block by block each city looked the same. Forgot exactly where the weapon shop is? Well feel free to wander aimlessly through this maze of boring brown walls. The towns were tied together with a terribly sailing system. The controls were awkward and sailing anywhere spawned random encounters. Due to that combo it sometimes took me up to twenty minutes to get from one island to another nearby island. An open world that was both a pain to explore and not worth the effort softened me up for Final Fantasy 13.

Yes, Final Fantasy 13 is just a chain of long pretty corridors and yes, the shops are just a list of menus you can access at any save point. That doesn’t bother me. Aside from being sick of poorly implemented exploration, two other genres I like might explain why losing the ability to wander didn’t bother me: Tactical JRPGs and Shooters. In Tactical JRPGs, all shops are just menus which are available at towns and movement from location to location is as easy as selecting it from a list or clicking on the locations icon on the map. And as for shooters, they can often be corridor after corridor of guys to shoot and if the shooting is good or the plot is interesting, I won’t even notice until someone points it out. If exploration is done well, I don’t mind it but I definitely don’t miss it when its gone.

My favorite part of all of Final Fantasy 13 is the combat. Some JRPGs have good turned-based combat like Persona 3 which actually requires strategy but most just require you to use your biggest attacks as often as possible and remember to heal periodically. FF13 has rapid combat that requires strategic thinking to succeed and get a good score. Each enemy has its own elemental strengths and weakness. As well as paying attention to those as you select your abilities, the best way to hurt any mob though is to get them staggered. Enemies become staggered once you have filled their combo bar. To build a combo you need to use both of the two types of damaging classes. Ravagers build up combos fast but the combo points they generate fade rapidly. Commandos generate less combo points but they keep the Ravager’s combo points from fading. Aside from Commandos and Ravagers there are classic classes like Tank, Healer, Buffer and Debuffer. Each of the characters can be several of these classes and you can switch their class actively in battle which you will need to do often to keep up your combo while keeping your party alive. I hear it is possible to use a tank, a healer and a ravager and slowly grid your way through each fight. Not only will this not give you a good score on the fight but it is not any fun. The combat of Final Fantasy 13 when done correctly is strategic and some of the most fun I’ve ever had in JRPG combat.

Another positive thing about the combat is that none of the fights are random. Similarly to Persona 3, you can see all the fights in your path. Also like Persona 3, not only can sneaking up on the enemies give you an advantage in the fight versus them but if you try, you can avoid certain fights all together. Random encounters don’t allow you to attempt to get a strategic edge and they force you to load the whole fight before it will allow you to run away to avoid that particular fight. Well implemented visible encounters can add a lot to JRPG combat, forcing you to pay attention and plan ahead as you cross the terrain.

One of the biggest complaints I hear about Final Fantasy 13 is that the characters unrealistic and drama queens. For a prime example of unrealistic character reactions, all I need to do is refer back to Suikoden 4. Near the very beginning of the game, a horrible accident occurs which kills the protagonist’s mentor/father figure. One of the other characters interrogates the main character to see if he killed his mentor. Sadly, Suikoden 4’s main character is a silent protagonist so it goes something like this.
Other Character- “Hey you there, you just killed your surrogate father figure, didn’t you?”
Protagonist- *blank monkey-faced stare*
OC- “I can’t believe you would do that. If you didn’t kill him, just say something.”
Protagonist- *Blink Blink*
OC- “Well since you don’t object…For your horrible and unforgivable crimes which we’d exonerate you of if you’d just say it wasn’t you, we will banish you from the only home you know and love.”
Protagonist- *blank monkey-faced stare*
It is hard to feel sorry for a guy who won’t speak up to keep himself from a lonely existence of eternal banishment. Though an extreme example, this is what unrealistic character reactions to tragedy look like.

When people say that Final Fantasy 13’s characters are overreacting to everything, I feel that most people don’t understand the seriousness of the events that occur at the beginning of the game. To say it in the most basic terms, they have become their cultures equivalent of demons. Specifically, they are banished from their homeland after being cursed to follow the orders of a deity of an opposing nation which is often referred to as hell. All of the events of the game happen within hours after this traumatic and life changing experience occurring. On top of this, one character just lost his mother, one lost his girlfriend, one lost her sister and one thinks he will soon lose his son. If you expect them to react calmly, then you have no concept of how grief effects a person. The characters of Final Fantasy 13 are just dealing with their recent tragedies in a natural and human way.

Though the characters of Final Fantasy 13 start out as standard JRPG stereotypes, each of them grows and changes, resulting is better characters then many JRPGs offer. I’ll focus on the three most hated characters and quickly without spoiling anything explain why they are better characters then most people give them credit for. I’ll start with Hope, my personal least favorite character. Hope begins the game as a weak and sniveling whiner. I often joked that Vanille was holding his testicles for him since she was always trying to help him stand up for himself. Over the course of the game though, Hope changes from a pussy to being on a vengeful rampage to coming to terms with all that has occurred and growing up a little. Even though early on Hope made me want to choke him, the fact that he grew and changed as a person made him a better character then I expected.

Snow is another widely hated character but I liked him the instant I met him. For one, instead of being the classic Cloud-angsty-and-too-cool-to-care-about-anyone, he is deeply devoted to his girlfriend much as the main female character of JRPGs often is to their boyfriend/love interest. Seeing a male character who really loves his girlfriend instead of thinking of her as disposable is a nice change of pace for any type of male character let alone the angsty world of JRPGs. He also is an optimist. I feel this is where he got on most people’s nerves but it was apparent at least to me that he was pretending to believe everything would be alright so as to bring hope to himself and the rest of the team. Snow belongs to the school of thought of “fake it until you make it”. His frequent declarations of how he is a hero so there is no way anything bad can happen scream of a positive mantra repeated so as to hopefully make it true. Snow did sometimes annoy me but his willful positive attitude and love of his girlfriend helped him stick out from the classic JRPG male stereotypes.

My favorite character and another of the most hated is Vanille. Based on the reviews I read before playing Final Fantasy 13, I expected her to be the classic Zany character, always doing or saying something silly to the point of being annoying. Instead I found her immediately likeable. While Vanille does say some odd things from time to time, it becomes increasingly apparent as the story progresses that she say them because she struggling with her own problems while lying to the rest of the group about them. She doesn’t want them to worry about her but she also doesn’t want them to figure out her secret. This causes her to react to questions in odd ways or pause momentarily before she says certain things, particularly when she is lying or trying to make the others feel better. Vanille is a character whose depth gets revealed as you continue through the story, saving her from being just that annoying zany character.

I will say it loud and say it proud, I enjoyed Final Fantasy 13. The combat was some of the best JRPG combat I’ve ever experienced, I grew to like all of the characters who were neither as shallow nor as irrational as some people said they were and I didn’t mind the corridor structure of the areas you cut through. I hope that this article convinces a few people who disregarded FF13 due to all the negative hype to give it a chance.

In summary, play Final Fantasy 13 if you:
-Like your combat strategic and fast
-Don’t mind running down corridors for most of the game
-Hate random battles and like to be able to avoid entire encounters before they even start
-Are sick of many of the standard JRPG features, especially due to experiencing them done poorly recently

And don’t play Final Fantasy 13 if you:
-Want to tape down X to win all your fights
-Are unwilling to comprehend that tragedy effects characters’ reactions
-Love every JRPG as long as it is filled with your old standbys of turn-based combat, open world setting, a must-save-the-world plot and angsty teens with lots of buckles no matter how poorly any of these features are executed


16 Apr

NoBrandCon is Eau Claire’s premiere anime convention. It has everything a con needs: anime, gaming, cosplayers, a vendor room and most importantly, interesting people to meet. I have worked the con two years in the past as a volunteer and I loved it. This year I am excited and honored to have a table featuring my crafts in the Artist’s Alley. In lieu of a nicely written blog entry, I just going to post photos of the stuff I have for sale at the con.

If you happen to be in the area, swing by and say Hi!

The Adventures of Bitch Shepard Begin plus Miracle of Sound

1 Apr

-Bitch Shepard

I’m naturally a kind person. I hold open doors for strangers, smile at those who pass me by and do favors for my friends. Therefore when I play Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, I naturally lean towards Paragon. Some people might tell you that paragon is “good” while renegade is “evil”. This is not the truth. Both alignments of Shepard are trying to save the galaxy. They are both looking out for the greater good. The difference is how they go about it. Paragon Shepard is kind, friendly, trusting of strangers, idealistic, overall follows the law and treats all races as equals. This results in sometime is a Shepard which gets duped, sounds high and mighty from time to time and earns less money from not dealing with shady characters.

Renegade Shepard, on the other hand is an awkward mix of pragmatism, professionalism, badass-ness, racism, and being a jerk. The first three traits work fine together but with the racism and being a jerk thrown in there, it results in a Shepard who acts highly unpredictably. If you are seeking to develop a consistent Shepard in your mind, renegade playthroughs can make that hard. Also, wavering on which alignment you choose can have some negative implications since having a high renegade or paragon score are required to select some of the most powerful conversation options. So if you want to be kind to your crew but a son of a bitch to strangers, you’ll see your lack of single-minded character development harm you in the long run.

Though not a perfect solution, I think I have figured a way to make Shepard come across as less crazy. It involves using a feature added to the radial dialogue system in Dragon Age 2. When you hover over a dialogue choice, a picture is displayed in the center of the radial. The picture hints at what the nature of your response will be such as a heart for flirting. If the pragmatic and professional aspects could get a symbol (let’s say a pistol) and the racism and being a general ass had another (like a fist), you could avoid the aspects of renegade you dislike and form a much more consistent character. Of course a similar set of symbols would be implemented for paragon so to help those who’d like to be kind without being taken for a chump. While not a perfect system since it requires learning a set of symbols, it would help clarify Shepard’s intent while still allowing the ability to continue to navigate the dialogue quickly. Without such cues, either Shepard but particularly renegade Shepard comes across as a rather inconsistent character.

The difficulty of realistically characterizing a renegade Shepard more then any other reason has dissuaded me from doing a renegade playthrough until just recently. Well-developed characters are one of my favorite things in the world. While Shepard is probably one of the least interesting characters in the Mass Effect trilogy, they are the gateway through which the player interacts with the world and therefore it detracts from the experience if Shepard is too inconsistent to be considered a real character. To get through the experience of a renegade playthrough, I vowed to myself that I would not attempt to mentally characterize this Shepard and instead am treating her has an exercise in hyperbole. I will play this Shepard as renegade as possible to see where those choices lead as well as to laugh at how schizophrenic she comes across. I mentally refer to her as Bitch Shepard as I play.

So far it has been pretty funny, though I’m not very far yet. My favorite moment that has happened so far was when I knocked out Manuel, the slightly crazy assistant of a scientist I found in the area where the player is first introduced to husks. My Shepard first said “Night Night, Manuel” in a creepy voice and then punched him so hard he passed out. The scientist freaked out at my treatment of her assistant and I calmly and pragmatically explain that he was unstable, unpredictable, and could have hurt someone at any moment. Sound like anyone you know, eh Shepard? I hope to recount the funniest or most thought-provoking bits of my experience with my renegade in a reoccurring segment I’ll call The Adventures of Bitch Shepard. Tune in from time to time to see more hilarious hijinks and thoughtful in-game character development commentary.

-Miracle of Sound

This next bit is slightly Mass Effect related but mostly just a quick recommendation I wanted to get out there. Miracle of Sound is a musician best known probably for his original song, “Commander Shepard “

It doesn’t matter if you haven’t played Mass Effect, this song is dangerously fun, catchy and rocks quite a bit more then most people would expect a song about a video game to rock. And just this week, The Escapist, my favorite nerd lifestyle website, started featuring his music. His newest song, Age of the Dragon, is one his best yet with its earworm refrain and driving guitar. I haven’t even played Dragon Age 2 (which it is about) and I already downloaded the song from iTunes because I enjoyed it so much. It is always exciting to see someone with this much talent and creativity get rewarded for their efforts, but since I was already a fan and he is getting featured on one of my favorite websites, I’m doubly excited. Aside from the two songs I mentioned above, he has two other songs I really like: Gordon Freeman Saved My Life about Half-Life and I Suck at Call Of Duty. Sure his lyrics can be silly and his hooks are considered cheesy by certain people but hopefully some of you will give him a listen and discover that music about video games can rock. He will be uploading a new song that can be found at the Escapist ever two weeks of so on Wednesdays.

Half-Life 2

11 Mar

Silent Protagonists and Controlled Storytelling

I know I’m a bit behind the curve, but I just played Half-Life 2 and I loved it to death. Aside from great shooter game play, it also feature a well-told story. One of the stories most interesting features is its use of the silent protagonist. Silent protagonists have two main purposes: to allow immersion in the story and to allow the player to project themselves onto the silent character. Gordon Freeman is very successful at one of these but fails terribly at the other.

When the main character doesn’t talk, this normally allows people to see the character as themselves. A game where both purposes of the silent protagonist work great is Portal. Aside from the fact that the player can see Chell, there is little to distinguish her from the player. Though Glados talks at her, Glados’ treatment of Chell seems based on her current actions not on who Chell is as a person. When I played Portal, I never thought about what Chell was thinking or what kind of person she was. I was able to see myself as her and was therefore thoroughly immersed in my Aperture science experience.

Gordon Freeman is also a silent protagonist but he is not a blank slate. He is a distinct character with a past, character traits and relationships apart from the player. Some may argue that by not talking, Gordon loses all chance to define himself. This ignores Valve’s clever story telling techniques. One of the main ways Gordon’s character is defined is by the interactions with his friends from his life previous to the Black Mesa incident. Barney, Eli and Kleiner each reveal a little about him. They talk about his job, his education and their personal experiences with him. These tidbits are one of the main ways Gordon is fleshed out.

Another way Gordon’s character is revealed to the player is when there should be a choice the player can make but none is offered. A good example of his happens after he escapes Ravenholm. Through much of the game, Gordon is running for his life with little chance to catch his breath let alone decided where he is trying to go. This makes the general lack of choice available in the game make sense because the getting away is more important then where he is getting away to. Things should be different when he finally gets out of Ravenholm. Gordon in theory is free to go where ever he pleases having finally gotten out of both City 17 and the zombie-filled ghost town. Instead of choosing where to continue his flight from the Combine though, Alyx tells him that Eli Vance has been taken to Nova Prospekt. Gordon then charges off to save his friend, heading in to more danger instead of continuing his escape. By not allowing the player to choose whether they will save Eli or not, the game is having Gordon himself make a choice. It doesn’t matter if the player doesn’t want to save Eli, Gordon does so that is where you go.

Though some of the above evidence may not have you convinced, there is one aspect of Half-Life 2 which I feel beyond a doubt reveals some of the distinct character traits that Gordon Freeman possesses. This aspect is the game play itself. To complete the game, the player solves physics puzzles grounded in reality and fights through waves of combine soldiers, headcrab zombies and antlions. I personally died quite a bit particularly at points where the two challenges of the game were present at the same time. In the canon plot of Half-Life 2 though, Gordon doesn’t ever die which is why (aside from it being a horribly punishing way to design a game) each death results in you getting to try again. Gordon, unlike (most) players, clears every challenge in the game in one go. To be able to successfully do that, a person would have to be smart and a good shot. Gordon’s intelligence and skill with a gun is revealed through the game play of Half-Life 2.

Though Gordon is a distinct character which makes him different then many other silent protagonists, he still succeeds at being immersive. This is done through Half-Life 2’s controlled storytelling. The Half-Life 2 story is nothing if not a carefully controlled experience. If Valve wants to make sure you look at something cool, they have a combine solider shoot at you so you’ll be looking the right way as it passes by. This amount of control over the story even goes down to the emotional level. When you help citizens fight in City 17 is a good example of this. Ever group of citizens you meet is excited to meet you. They all treat you as if you are their savior, even referring to you as “the one free man” and other messianic terms. Invariably though as you work your way across City 17, these citizens die. My own reaction was to feel guilty and uncomfortable. In fact, I frequently through of myself as the worst Gordon Freeman ever. The citizens had though of me as some kind of hero and I had let them down. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that everyone who plays has some citizens die on them and that this is another part of the controlled experience. Unlike many FPS main characters, Gordon is a theoretical physicist first and an ass-kicker second. He was not born or even trained for this experience. He is flying by the seat of his pants. Yes, he does kick a lot of ass but he is just human and he can’t save everyone. Gordon feels guilty when the citizens die and uncomfortable with their praise of him and so the player is made to feel similarly. Carefully controlled emotions tie the player to the Half-Life 2 story causing immersion.

This emotional control is also present in the players experiences with Alyx. Alyx is suppose to be a character you like. Valve spent a lot to time play testing to make she she was helpful and never annoying. There are two reasons for this: 1. if she was annoying, it would have a negative effect on the game as whole and 2. Valve wants you to feel what Gordon is feeling. A romantic relationship between Alyx and Gordon is carefully formed over the course of the game and it’s following episodes. It is obvious on her side that she is falling for him but how does this play out from Gordon’s side? The player’s own emotional attachment to her. I know when I played Half-life 2, I was surprised to realize that I loved Alyx. Even though she could take a lot of damage, I found myself purposely standing in front of her to block her from being hit by bullets. I’d apologize when she’d get afraid in the dark and smile stupidly back at her she she said something funny. While I’m sure my reaction was a bit on the extreme side, coming to care for Alyx is a part of the carefully controlled Half-Life 2 experience. Feeling what Gordon would be feeling is the main cause of immersion in the game and Valve controls this without ever controlling your immediate actions.

Half-Life 2 is one of the best reviewed games of all time and I can see why. The game play is some of the best I have ever experienced and not just for a FPS. It is challenging but not punishing and it changes the mode of play often enough not to get stale. The topper for this awesome cake for me is the excellent way the story is told and the characters are fleshed out. By telling Gordon’s tale through a completely unhindered first person view, they made their storytelling process difficult. Despite and perhaps even because of these challenges though, Half-Life 2 stands out as a marvel of video game storytelling.