Team Star Fox

The hype around Starlink: Battle for Atlas has put me in a bit of a Star Fox mood. I’m somewhat surprised to find on checking now that I’ve apparently only mentioned the Star Fox franchise on here twice before–both times in passing. Not that there have been very many relevant opportunities as of late!

I’m pretty sure that Starlink will be my next game purchase. It looks fun, and what little I’ve read has consistently supported the idea that the Star Fox team is well-used in the Switch version.

I don’t actually remember how I first encountered Star Fox. I never owned any of the games as a child, though I suppose that Fox McCloud did feature heavily in even the original Super Smash Bros. But I do remember somehow playing it, then rediscovering it in my adolescence at the game room of my church’s youth group after services. I bonded with a socially awkward kid there who loved the game; we’d often engage in virtual dogfights together. Since college, I’ve slowly collected many of the Star Fox titles, though not all. I’ve never played the original SNES game. I’m not a hardcore fan. But there’s a lot of nostalgia and genuine affection invested in the franchise for me. When people my age think back fondly on the N64 era, they might focus especially on Ocarina of Time, but my special nostalgic title is Star Fox 64 (though it’s in constant competition in my thoughts alongside Super Smash Bros., Super Mario 64Star Wars Episode I RacerDiddy Kong Racing, and the multiplayer in Conker’s Bad Fur Day).

It’s not just nostalgia, though! It’s a fun game franchise! The arcade-style dog-fighting was the perfect Nintendo take on aerial combat. The characters popped with personality, and the presence of Fox, Slippy, Peppy, and Falco in each new release is almost as comforting as the familiar gameplay. Plus, the plot and setting and style pull hard from Star Wars and Top Gun and a whole slew of animated films featuring anthropomorphized animals. It’s weird and cool–and I can’t help but notice similarities in basic premise and style between Star Fox and Beyond Good & Evil, another game I love, even though the actual gameplay is markedly different. Okay, actually, it may not be all that different when Star Fox Adventures, the Zelda-like action-adventure title, is taken into account. No, that’s not a game that I want swept under the rug; I loved it, inserting the characters into a radically different situation, playing with the universe a little more, taking Fox away from his greatest strength (and adding dinosaurs).

I’d like to see future games do more things like Star Fox Adventures. Not Adventures exactly; a Star Fox game is space-combat-focused and should remain as such. But slight iterations on previous gameplay, rehashing the same plot over and over, are getting stale. In contrast, I liked the experimentation with additional gameplay features in Assault, and the fact that it wasn’t just another copy of the original game’s plot, though it was probably still a little too familiar and safe. It still focused on arcade-style starfighter combat, but it at least wasn’t just the same game with prettier graphics yet again.

At this point, I’d like a new story, but I wouldn’t mind a recap of the original game if it gave more depth to that tired narrative, especially if that relatively short game experience represented only the first act of a new effort. Star Fox 2 seemed especially innovative in form and progression of story, and with its release finally happening on the SNES Classic, I wonder if we could see that developed into a current-gen remake. Meanwhile, the franchise obviously affords the opportunity to deepen characters and lore, even if the games rarely take advantage of this; the opening cinematic to the critically panned and fan-derided (and personally ignored) Star Fox Zero suggested those possibilities, and in fan project circles, there’s the hilarious and endearing A Fox in Space.

In fact, Star Fox has an unfulfilled promise of depth that causes a rare itch in me, the urge to actually write fan fiction. I rarely write fiction at all anymore, and fan fic is really low down on the priority list for me, but if I were to write it, my attentions would be divided between Star FoxStar WarsThe Elder Scrolls, and Jurassic Park. All of those franchises offer areas of lore, or off-screen events, or underused characters, or just blank spaces for wild extrapolations that I’d like to see explored more.

But the bottom line is that I’d just really like to see more Star Fox.

Arena, Part XIV: Exiting the Labyrinth

It may be hard–even nearly impossible–to believe, but I’ve at last returned to Arena. I never really intended to be away for that long. Days turned to weeks and then months. In the back of my mind, I always felt compelled to return, but I always found something else to do when I had enough free time to get back to it.

I returned to find myself completely lost in the middle of Labyrinthian. Before long, I’d adjusted settings back to how I liked them, and I was plowing through all sorts of monsters and getting more and more lost and genuinely having fun.

Arena can be a tedious experience. There are a lot of narrow streets in towns, and there are a lot of narrow halls in dungeons. Responsiveness to your player actions isn’t great. The visuals and sound effects and music quickly become repetitious–as do the random fetch quests and the general experiences to be found in any particular dungeon. The open world outside of cities and dungeons stretches on endlessly and pointlessly. Arena is tedious because it tried to offer a world of possibilities but then didn’t have all that much to do. It was ahead of its time, with ideas about first-person open-world gaming that couldn’t be matched in implementation yet. So you could do a lot but it all boils down to the same sort of experiences repeated over and over. This can be freeing or frustrating, and I keep swinging back and forth between the two mental states.

I always have a lot of fun after a break from the game, though, because I’m coming back to it fresher. The game can’t feel so tedious if taken in little chunks with distance in between.

My play session on return felt productive, even though I didn’t really do anything to advance the story. I guess I advanced my story, and I was able to check off my own personal objectives.

My last check-in with the game was over six months ago (wow), so as a reminder, I’d planned to escape the dungeon of Labyrinthian and return to town to rest, restock potions, repair/replace equipment, and learn a new spell. I accomplished those simple objectives. It felt like a bigger deal because Labyrinthian is so winding, and I’d been away so long that I had no idea of the general direction to even start heading in to get out.

The enemies on my escape were varied but not too challenging. I ran into a wraith over a lava pit, but because I was at an elevation, I could snipe it with fire spells until it was defeated.

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I slew several spiders, goblins, wolves, and hell hounds with my trusty saber. I took out ghouls from range with magic and bow.

And I discovered another new enemy! As I was walking down a hall, this message appeared:

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Troll is regenerating? I didn’t even know that there was a troll around at all! Then, as I turned down another hallway, I heard a bloodthirsty saurian roar. I tried to get away, but the roar repeated, again and again. I hoped I could just run away, but I took a wrong turn and failed to make a jump to a higher passage. I was hit from behind and turned to defend myself. And there stood the troll!

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Much to my joy and relief, I was able to subdue the beast fairly easily. I do appreciate the increasing variety of monsters in the game, and I still love how you can tell what type of monsters you might be facing soon based on their unique calls.

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Eventually, I found a way to a green mark on my map–which I vaguely remembered indicated not just a door but an exit, either to another floor or to the outside world. The first exit I came across took me to the main floor. And once on the main floor, I was able to easily find my way back to the main entrance.

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I headed to the town of Dunpar Wall. In town, I went to an inn (the Haunted Wolf, a somewhat perplexing name) and tried to get a room for the night, but I was approached with a small fetch quest.

Since it wasn’t due until the following day, I still rented a room and slept until morning. Once done, I tracked down the Order of the Knights of Hope with the holy item.

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Since that took me near the Mages Guild and an equipment store, I went ahead and identified magic items and purchased potions at the Guild, then sold off all my gear and purchased fresh armor and a couple new weapons at the equipment store. While at the Guild, I also bought a couple new spells, including Lightning, so I feel a little more prepared to deal with any iron golems I might come across next time.

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Finally, I returned to the inn to complete the quest.

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While exploring Dunpar Wall, I found a homeless beggar who initially greeted me by saying he was too busy to talk. When I pushed him for more details, he answered:

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Is he delusional or sarcastic? Hard to say.

I also got some juicy (though vague) gossip from the bartender at the Haunted Wolf:

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And that same barkeep sold me a beverage with a pretty ridiculous name:

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It’s obviously just a fantasy-themed version of the gin and tonic! Gin by itself is already a juniper-flavored drink (we’ll learn in game five, of course, that juniper berries are found in Skyrim and used to flavor mead), it’s been enjoyed since the Middle Ages, and it’s associated with the Europeans! It would’ve been pretty appropriate to just have gin present, right? And djinn are genies, associated with Arabian folklore, so what’s this doing in a Nordic-influenced country? So many questions! And no answers (I suspect the answer truly is that whoever named the drinks was trying to be cute).

I’ve returned to the village gates. The next session will find me back in Labyrinthian. We’ll see when that happens…but this time around was fun, and I was glad to return to the game after all.

Keeping the peace in an open-world game

I’ve been reading about open-world games recently, and it’s got me thinking about the failings of a certain type of open-world game. Too often, it feels like a game becomes open-world because it’s a feature to try to sell people on the title, regardless of whether it actually adds any value to the experience. Just for one example, this appears to be what happened with Mafia III. (“At first, it was envisioned as a straightforward revenge tale, but 2K boss Christoph Hartmann wanted Mafia III to compete with Rockstar . . . . He wanted districts, empire-building, and a massive open world.”)

One game type that seems particularly unsuited for the open-world concept, despite being routinely drafted in this way, is the law-enforcement game.

There are many types of stories that can be told about the police: some can portray peace officers in a positive or heroic way, some can present crooked or abusive or outright corrupt and villainous cops, and many are mixed and complicated. And there have been some pretty good crime drama stories to come to video games. Two prominent examples are L.A. Noire and Sleeping Dogs. But both games suffer from an open world that seems to exist mainly to just give the players the option of doing something else, even if there’s not much to do with the feature.

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L.A. Noire in particular tells a complicated and gritty noir story, with each chapter diced between increasingly gruesome and unexplainable murders. The player’s investigation of crime scenes and attempts to tease out the truth in tense interviews with witnesses and suspects make up the bulk of the main form of gameplay. Over the course of the game, I suspect that just about any player questions whether they’re making the right call–and, without giving up too much for those who haven’t played, the end of the game reveals that the whole truth was more complicated than we could imagine for many of these cases.

But in between these tense and disturbing criminal investigation scenes, and the occasional obligatory shootout mission, we have long stretches of just driving around. There’s not all that much to do, apart from hunting down useless collectibles, seeking out 1940’s Los Angeles landmarks, and participating in a series of twitchy and repetitive street enforcement missions. The little side missions in particular feel like an effort to give a greater range of ways to interact with the game, but they all boil down to distracting radio calls to drive halfway across the city just to participate in the same repetitive mixture of shoot-outs, chases, and twitchy hostage-rescue shots.

The map is big, but there’s very little to organically draw the player in. This is probably at least in part a product of shifting design decisions, but when one is on the straight-and-narrow as an upstanding law enforcement officer, the crazy high jinks that typically make open-world games so entertaining have to be reined in. In place of rampaging through the city, the distractions that are inserted feel very gamey indeed and quickly grow tedious. And the player can even choose to skip from destination to destination, having their partner drive instead. The game very much so feels like a fairly linear, structured game arbitrarily mounted onto an open-world framework.

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Similarly, Sleeping Dogs is a cool story about an undercover cop trying to bust gangs in Hong Kong. Where L.A. Noire obviously draws on the film noir genre, Sleeping Dogs pulls from martial arts films and contemporary cop dramas. While one could commit criminal acts, there was a certain incentive to continue to operate largely within the scope of the law within the overworld map. Even if one were to go on a rampage, it would detract from the story being told.

And that story is pretty well-told! But it’s a story that relies heavily on cinematic scenes and fast-paced martial arts action sequences. By adding another fairly restrained open world, with fairly limited interactivity (another round of landmarks and collectibles), the world feels less organic and more a maze of lengthy car rides between missions.

Open-world games excel when story is more in the background. The focus should be on exploring the world, and it should be packed with fun things to do. The ability to cause chaos and see how effects radiate out from that chaos is often a big source of fun. Unpredictable playing experiences in true sandbox games allow for dynamic, organic stories that can do away with scripted storytelling altogether. The highlights of an Elder Scrolls game or a Grand Theft Auto game very rarely have to deal with the main plot, after all (or at least have more to do with cleverly designed missions in that main plot that take advantage of the open-world systems in the game).

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Either the open world is bland and gets in the way of the main story, or the main story feels like a railroaded obligation amid all the other fun to be had. I think that the Grand Theft Auto series demonstrates this rather well. Grand Theft Auto IV might have had the most original story in the franchise and seemed to have a lot to say in its dark and decaying world where the American dream is an illusion always just out of reach. But that story was somewhat defeated by the wanton chaos players could get up to between missions and by the easy ability to earn more and more money, and so much of that story was wasted on driving from point to point on the map. Other games have felt a lot more derivative, but they’ve focused more on the open world and benefited from it (especially Vice City with its introduction of investment properties, San Andreas with its huge world packed full of things to discover and weird people and beautiful environments and an exponential multiplication of activities and jobs, or Grand Theft Auto V with its three characters to rotate through to keep the fun going and a bank-heist-centered plot that focused on channeling the chaotic entertainment of the main game rather than burning out in an over-long drag).

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Being able to truly do anything, story (and morals) be damned, seems key to a really fun open-world game that will keep pulling the player back. While Red Dead Redemption has a story that is arguably about law enforcement (since you’re playing an against-his-will bounty hunter), the protagonist’s antagonism toward the federal government and the setting in the Wild West allow for a lot of less-than-virtuous gunplay and no-good deeds that don’t feel too far out of character or inappropriate. Plus, there are a lot of random encounters and side jobs and weird things to get up to while moseying across the plans or into towns. And despite the above, I think that the game suffers by having an overly long and dreary linear story, much like Grand Theft Auto IV.

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As a final example, the original Crackdown, despite ostensibly being about a law enforcement super-agent meant to take down out-of-control gangs, is really about causing as much devastation as possible across the map. The absurd power fantasy is front and center, and while your interactivity with the world is mainly limited to fighting bad guys and scaling the environment for collectibles, the game succeeds (to the extent that it does) by keeping the focus on chaos and player experience rather than a soggy story. (Not a law enforcement-focused game, but Mercenaries had a pretty similar model.)

In summary, games about law enforcement typically have dramatic stories that they want to tell. To the extent that an open world is involved, it often gets in the way of that story, either by being thematically dissonant or by simply disrupting the story with a lot of padding. And even where the open world might otherwise work, the hindrance of presenting an open world that requires a more constrained hand by the player (or more invisible walls on conduct) defeats the purpose of having that open world in the first place.

Arena, Part XIII: Lost in the Labyrinth

I’ve made progress through Labyrinthian, albeit in intermittent bursts.

I encountered zombies for the first time, and in several groups. After one hit, which was not lethal but was nonetheless quite damaging, I learned to keep my distance. There are plenty of little tunnels weaving just above the floor line, which I can jump up to but which monsters can’t get into; it’s easy to rain down spells and arrows on my enemies. I’ve also made better use of my invisibility spell to set up attacks and evade enemies; the extra magic reserves over several level increases since whenever it was I learned the spell have certainly helped.

With the combination of tactics, I was able to get through a good portion of the dungeon with very little risk, even when facing off against tougher enemies. The raised passages are often long enough stretches, and the labyrinth is well-lit enough, that I can even use the very dangerous Fireball spell; it takes down enemies quick, and it has a broad area of effect, but the problem is that its area of effect is so broad that I used to get caught in it often (and its magic drain used to hurt me more in the past).

In addition to zombies, there have been several hell hounds, of all things, some ghouls, and lots and lots of spiders, among other low-level enemies. I’m getting used to dealing with the powerful but often self-destructive hell hounds.

My major progress in the dungeon was finding and clearing the path for Kanen the Elder. A riddle was of course involved.

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Arena is obsessed with riddles. It feels very much so like a product of the renewed interest in LOTR with the surge in popularity of D&D. At least none of the riddles are as bad as “What have I got in my pocket?” I guessed “hourglass” for this riddle, which was apparently correct.

There was a wraith or ghost behind a locked door, and I suspect I’d have to have fought it if I guessed incorrectly. It’s likely that the ghost is intended to be Kanen’s spirit, as indicated by the game text.

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But while my dungeon map had been filled in enough for me to know where to go next, I hit a bit of a wall in exploring the second area. The enemies were a lot tougher down this other area, for one thing; whereas I escaped death for the entire first part, I wasn’t nearly as lucky in the other portion. I wasted a lot of resources trying to take down some new type of atronach, but I didn’t make a dent. I’m guessing I might need a lightning spell, something I don’t have, to penetrate its metal armor and hide. (I’ve since looked this up; it’s an iron golem, with a large amount of health, and while I didn’t see any mention of weakness to electricity, a new spell and more potions won’t hurt.)

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While I could escape with the aid of invisibility and side tunnels, I was soon after eliminated by a ghost.

And that’s where I’m at, stuck in the labyrinth, dreading ghosts and atronachs. My plan to move forward is another run to town to rest, restock, repair and replace, and (probably most importantly) learn a new spell.

Arena, Part XII: Beginning the Labyrinth

Well, I do have an update, though a small one. I’ve entered Labyrinthian.

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The entry halls prompted some interesting though so far rather vague flavor text in the form of clues etched into the walls and floors:

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I haven’t even solved the mysteries of door number one yet, though. I’ve only been slowly probing Labyrinthian. It’ll probably continue to be slow going–I might plug away a little bit at a time, and even a month from now I might not have a huge update. But it’s going. So far the enemies haven’t been too challenging for the most part–mostly spiders and wolves. I did encounter a room with snow wolves, and one room with hell hounds. The snow wolf room was challenging. The hell hound room was laughably easy: I fell from a high space into a hole, the hell hounds were in the room above the hole, and one of the hell hounds fired a fireball spell that eradicated them both. I didn’t have to do anything at all.

I’ve also encountered an interesting glitch. I used Passwall to get through to some stairs leading to another level. I could go through the wall and go up the stairs, but at that point I could not move except to turn around and go back down the stairs. Once back downstairs, I could not move except to turn around and go back up the stairs. I could not break free even with jumping and levitating. I lost some progress loading an earlier save. I won’t try to break a shortcut into stairs again. They basically function as a portal to take me to another dungeon layout, after all. Maybe entering backwards breaks something.

This reminds me that I encountered another big glitch back in August. I don’t think I mentioned it then. It was the Insufficient Memory error, which forced a crash to desktop. Loading resolved the issue. It’s not exactly an unknown issue with the game, either. Game-crashing bugs: now that’s classic Elder Scrolls.

Khajiit and other cat people

No Arena play this week. I did think a little about The Elder Scrolls, though. My favorite races in the games are the Khajiit, the Argonians, the Dunmer, and the Orcs. All are somewhat outcasts.

The Khajiit and Argonians are viewed as Others by most of the races of Tamriel, beast folk compared to Men or Mer. They have had histories of oppression, with many of their people enslaved especially by the Dunmer. And the Khajiit and the Argonians have genuinely different, unique cultures. Khajiit birth morphology and Argonian Hist rituals seem (to me at least) like rather bizarre fantasy concepts.

The Dunmer, meanwhile, have clashing cultures, torn between tribalism, a powerful theocratic clan-based society, and influence of the Empire. The religious zealotry of the Tribunal Temple and their fierce defense of slavery as a cultural practice show that they are flawed people, and yet they face their own sort of oppression in the face of the grinding of Imperial homogeneity and suppression by the Imperial military. And their history among the other Elves is that of outsiders. They are, in short, more complex than the typically Evil Dark Elves of D&D and the like.

Then the Orcs, though they are likely Mer, are treated somewhat like beast people. They are viewed as brutal savages, but they have their own rich cultural traditions. And those who have not been scattered throughout the Empire as part of an Orc Diaspora struggle to retain a political identity in the homeland of Orsinium, sandwiched between other, often hostile, lands.

Parallels to real-world cultures are obvious, and I don’t intend to elaborate on them here. But what I’ve been thinking about, just a little bit, is how many of the most fascinating of these fantasy races are “beast” races. When comparisons to real-world ethnic groups can be made, the “bestial” connection can be disturbing, uncomfortable, and maybe just downright racist. At the same time, the physical manifestation of “bestial” traits often appears to figuratively represent how other cultures look down on these minority ethnic groups, viewing them as lesser-than and even subhuman. Meanwhile, these “beast” races often have some of the most elaborate cultures, the most egalitarian ideas, and some of the most human motivations and emotions.

Of course, anthropomorphized animals are not limited to The Elder Scrolls. The bestial orcs (and often-related goblins) are everywhere, from Warcraft and Warhammer to The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons. Cat folk and lizard folk are common fantasy tropes, and part of a much-larger group of anthropomorphized beings. A good portion of Disney films, after all, make use of these human-like animals. More personally, many of my favorite video games involve these sorts of characters: The Elder ScrollsBeyond Good & EvilStar FoxSonic the Hedgehog, and even a sandbox title like Spore.

I suspect there’s a considerable deal of writing on the subject, though I’m not familiar with most of it. Why exactly do we so often return to these tropes? I think part of it is that it is easy to ascribe broad human personality traits to a particular type of animal. Dogs are extroverted, energetic, and a bit ditsy. Cats are introverted, jealous, and moody. And so on. Plus, animals often express emotions in broad ways–bared teeth, flattened ears, raised fur. It is easy to exaggerate and plainly communicate emotion with these types. Regardless, use of these figures certainly has a longstanding history, tracing back to our earliest mythologies.