Thursday, September 11, 2014

One of my favorite gaming experiences of 2014: Okami HD (PS3)

100 years ago, the white wolf Shiranui died defeating the evil 8-headed serpent lord to save the village of Kamiki and all of Nippon...Here comes Amaterasu, the Japanese sun goddess who was resurrected as a white wolf to do the very same thing. Okami is a Japanese homophone that could be understood as "wolf" or "great/big god," and the title's cleverness is not the only pun in the 30+ hour epic story.

Freeze battle to use your Celestial Brush Slash - cut the enemy in half!

There is a lot of comedy, voiced by your flea-sized companion, Issun, who handles all of the brush-work and incorrectly voices your mute hero's decisions. Issun constantly chides Okami Amaterasu and makes greasy comments about the game's various attractive women, but he's not the only hilarious character. The other heroes, based on Japanese legends often make asses of themselves, and the game is mostly light-hearted, until it's really time to kick ass. You are a wolf, after all.

A bull-oni

This game drips with Japanese mythology and Ainu folklore that exposed me to more content than my confusing semester in East Asian studies, which I dropped as a major. The enemies you fight are different kinds of oni, Japanese devils, and you randomly collect cultural products (vases, traditional dishes) and artifacts (like Zodiac animal statues) to sell to buy other things for your quest.

Graphically, the game looks like the ukiyo-e (woodblock printing) painted on shoji (paper scrolls).

The artistic buck doesn't stop there; a massive feature of the game is that you can pause at almost any time, and use your Celestial Brush to paint missing or broken things into existence, slice enemies, and call various weather patterns and attacks as you acquire them. Each time you meet one of the gods, they are introduced in some kind of comical fashion, and half the time they'll try to kill you, or Amaterasu gets pissed off and tries to kill them. The game's score has lots of use of flutes, taiko drums and koto leaving no doubt that this game is 200% Japanese.

I was 8 years late to play this game, but I really understand why Clover Studios pushed this game through 2 rebuilds on 2 more consoles. It is badass, fun, culturally rich, hilarious, and incredibly gorgeous to both look at and listen to.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Voice acting

    I just started a game with a decent story, fun battle mechanics, and a good sense of progression. However, this three-year-old game (Tales of Xilia) still suffers from bad voice acting. I know it isn't as easy as it looks. I feel like good dialogue scenes have a couple components that can cause you to skip through the scenes or watch them: translation, lip-syncing, and context. The translation these days is quite amazing, but at times, I miss text-only dialogue because the other two aspects just aren't met.

I never understood why programmers can't write an algorithm for dynamic lip-synching. This would shape the characters' mouths to their words as they say them, instead of just flapping like games quite often do. A lot of newer games motion-cap the faces, and the voice actor is also the basic model for the character. This method produces cutscenes like this:

started at the 2:00 mark. No, it's not a sex scene!

This Californian game studio, Naughty Dog, has the absolute highest quality of games I've ever played. Every cutscene drives the story, is incredibly well-done, and is flawlessly animated. The characters point to the spots on maps that they're talking about. It's almost like they wrote a long movie, kept half of it in scenes, and drew the rest out of climbing, shooting, and artifact-collecting goodness. Very few studios make games like this, but that's not the standard I'm asking for, either.

For some reason, it's always decided that Japanese games need to be translated and voiced in English. We're often left with these bland scenes, done by actors who probably don't even play the game. Not only that, but a voice actor's talent has a chance of being thwarted by poor lip-syncing, or otherwise poor timing, like the characters giving WAY TOO MUCH room between lines of dialogue, or characters standing almost completely still while talking.

These dudes are a bit over-the top, but it fits the context of the game. Regardless, the timing is much better, though the lips still move to the original language. The characters are animated to do stuff, and sometimes the voice relfects that (like the straining of voice for the wounded guy at ~50sec).

Sometimes, it's quite obvious that the new voice talents don't understand the context of their lines and it really bothers me that this is still a persistent problem in video games. In a story-driven game that's over 30 hours long, the main character better be tolerable. Finally, there are also terrible scenes in general (I'm looking at you, Final Fantasy 10 [2min in for the climax])

Staying with an immigrant host family? No Problem!

I've heard it a billion times, usually with a sigh or huff of disappointment, My host family is from the Philippines*. I want a "real" American family. My host mother's English is hard to understand! I can understand the initial confusion when someone arrives to their host who doesn't look like the people we see in most movies from Hollywood. The popular stuff that makes it overseas can really distort the reality of how diverse the US is, and international students expecting a white (or black, I'll dole out the benefit of the doubt) American family are in for a surprise, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing.

*Over the 4 years at my school that found host families, the most common immigrant hosts were families from the Philippines. I'm not trying to disrespect our friends from the Philippines, just reporting the comments I actually heard.

I think these students are missing out on the fact that these host families who immigrated have experience similar to the students themselves. This is extremely valuable! If you find yourself paired up with an immigrant host family, you can ask questions like, "What made you decide to stay?" or "How difficult is it to get into the workforce (after university) as a foreigner?" and very relevant questions that the "real" American probably can't help you with.

Of course, students who are visiting for their first time may not be considered with making a long-term life in the US. Some people write off parts of their town as 'touristy' and will use their intimate knowledge of the city happenings as substitute. I took a 'Ride the Ducks' tour of Seattle after living there for more than 20 years and still learned stuff about my city! My family did this to welcome our newest member, who's from Cameroon.

Your native hosts will know routes and restaurant recommendations, but might not know about how to get around without a car. Some of my friends wrinkle their noses at the mention of taking the bus somewhere! How many foreign students enter the US with a car?

Ultimately, a good host family will be ready to give personal tours and explanations whatever generation of American they are. This is part of the agreement of hosting. However, an immigrant family's empathy can go a long way.

At work and in your personal life, how many accounts do you have that require a login?

Dudes. Chicks. Calm that consumer rush. This is a hard one, cause I try harder than the average Joe to be frugal and not financially wast...