Neo-Retro Gaming

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A comment on  my last Sunday post reminded me that there’s a lot about game design concepts that I take for granted. I took it for granted that Megaman 4 Minus Infinity was clearly a large-scale transformation of the original material. The response was “looks like Megaman to me,” which is both extremely right, but also extremely wrong. For reasons that will probably have to wait until I specifically address rom hacks.

For now, we’ll touch on a larger, more prominent field: Retro Gaming.

At this point, it’s worth noting that there is no clear definition of “retro” gaming. In a general sense, it’s getting to the point where even Playstation 2 is considered retro. “Retro Gaming” as a concept is generally restricted to the 2D era, particularly what is considered the “golden age,” ranging from the NES up through 2D Playstation games. This is further divided into “soft” retro – the 16 bit up through the 32 bit – and “hard” retro – 8 bit and earlier

The simplest form or Retro Gaming is hooking up an old console and playing old games. For a fine arts comparison, this is looking at classical works – Greek and Roman sculpture, architecture, etc.

More prominent have been what would be called a sort of Neo-Retro gaming, which comes in various flavors.

The most obvious is the field of low-res gaming. These are modern games made in the visual/audio style of old games. They look like the retro games, but play like modern games. Meat Boy is a low-res game. The visuals are low-res pixel art, but the game play is fast-paced, fluid, and works on principles unique to more modern gaming. Fez is another example, making use of concepts which simply can not be done in actual old games. This would be the NeoClassical school of art – it looks like the Greek and Roman art, but the similarities are really on a superficial level. They are built with modern tools and techniques to perform modern tasks.

A style that is slightly harder to pin down is the field of Old-School gameplay. These are ostensibly modern games, with modern visuals and aesthetic, but their core game structure is like something out of the ’80s. In this case, it’s worth noting that the architecture is modern, but the rules are old. These are modern cars with manual transmissions, as opposed to a manual transmission built in the ’50s. Nostalgia and, to perhaps a lesser extent, Etrian Odyssey are examples of Old-School gameplay. They look modern, but they play like old games. In the fine art analogy, this is making use of Classical elements, like the circular arch, or the golden ratio. Admittedly, this is where the analogy starts creaking a bit.

Then we have Throwback gaming. This is when the system limitations of the retro era are applied – slowdown and/or vanishing objects when the screen gets too crowded, limited display palette (not to be confused with color palette), restricted control scheme, limited control responsiveness, etc. There is an appeal to these games, because hard and fast limitations can be a seed of creativity. For various reasons, it tends to be difficult to find a modern game that works as a throwback. On the other hand, they often appear as rom hacks, under the reasoning that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. The fine art equivalent is someone using the tools available to the Greeks and Romans to make works int he style of the Greeks and Romans.

Finally, we have what I would call Post-Retro Gaming. This is very similar to the throwback, but uses modern game design concepts or philosophy. Retro Game Challenge is an excellent example of this school.  In RCG, we have a collection of classic-style games ostensibly played on a Famicom (NES): a Galaga clone with power ups and combos; the most badass pre-k educational game ever; a racing game with power slides; a shoot-em-up (SHMUP) that includes an integrated unlimited shield counterattack and multi-use power-ups; a Dragon Quest/Warrior II clone with recruitable monsters and weapons that use a slot-machine reel to determine accuracy, adding an element of timing; and a Ninja Gaiden clone with a rudimentary inventory/equipment system and resource management. Arguably, this is also the mark aimed for by Megaman 9 and Megaman 10, though some would argue that they gave up and simply made low-res games. Again, the metaphor breaks down. I guess using Greek and Roman tools to make post-modernist art?

The appeal of  retro gaming differs by the flavors.

Vanilla retro gaming is one part nostalgia and one part appreciation of the classic games. Some games stay with us because the nightmares will never go away, others stay with use because they were timeless.

Low-Res gaming is practical, as it allows for a small team, a low budget, and using what’s on hand. Additionally, there is an appeal to the low-res visual and audio style (among a select audience, at least).

Old-School gaming generally argues that we’ve gone soft. Doing poorly used to have consequences, and you had to earn progress.

Throwbacks seek to capture the magic of the old games while presenting new settings. All the familiar rules and visuals of vanilla retro, but with new layouts. They want to recapture the magic of the Turbo Tunnel, but sadly, that infamous level is written into their muscle memory.

Post-Retro is an attempt to have it all. You have the Low-Res aesthetic, Old-School rules (perhaps softened a little), and the verisimilitude of a throwback, all with the lessons learned of modern game design. Post-Retro comes from a fantasy world in which the old systems never really retired. Games made for a bygone era, they are a lament for what could have been.

There is good to come from each of the Neo-Retro styles. They each have something unique to add. They are specialized tools, designed to highlight certain aspects of the Art of Games.

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Narrative Structures

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Time for a change in pace.  Narrative Structure, in the sense used in this post, refers to the flow and progression of the story.  Arguably, the narrative structures mentioned here are more prominent in interactive media, but they can just as easily appear in books or movies.

Linear

This is the simplest and most straightforward structure.  You start at the beginning and continue forward until you reach the end.  Strictly speaking, Linear structure tends to be the superstructure of any narrative, but there are rare cases where there is no sense of Linearity.

Branching

This is a slight variation from Linear.  In a Branching narrative, there are side paths, but they return to the core narrative while retaining the status quo.  A filler arc in a television show is a Branch.  A scene in a movie that provides no contribution to the plot is a Branch.  In dungeons in RPGs, Branches manifest as “go the wrong way for more treasure.”  Branches aren’t always bad; they aren’t always detrimental to the narrative.  For example, a Branch can provide characterization of other insights into the narrative or interpretation, without actually pushing the plot forward.  Arguably, Citizen Kane‘s narrative is a reporter trying to figure out what “Rosebud” means.  90% of the movie, then, is Branches.

Multipath

Another variation of linear.  Multipath is like branching, but the branch rejoins the story at a different point than the departure, allowing two routes through the narrative.  This is easier to see in video games, where one path takes you over the mountain, while another takes you through the mountain.  At the end, you’ve arrived at the same point, but you took different routes to get there.  Super Mario Bros. is on the surface Linear, but secret pipes, beanstalks, and warp zones reveal the hidden Multipath aspects.  Super Mario Bros. 2 (Japan)(AKA The Lost Levels)  added reverse warp zones, making the narrative recursive, but still a Linear Multipath.

Forking

Unlike Branching and Multipath, a Forking structure never returns to the source.  Most Choose Your Own Adventure books used a Forking structure, with the occasional instance of Multipath.  The movie Clue was presented in theatres in a forking structure, with three different endings, randomly chosen.  The DVD version presents a choice at the beginning, between the theatrical random ending and the VHS all three endings.  Therefore, the DVD version actually has two Forks – one at the beginning, and one at the end of the former path.

Network

A Network is, in its purest sense, at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Linear structure.  In a Networked narrative, there are several Nodes, or points of interest, and paths between the Nodes, connecting many – but not necessarily all – to each other.  There are few examples of a pure Network narrative, but, in fairness, there are few pure Linear narratives as well.  Memento is probably an effective example of a Network used in a non-interactive medium – there are several points of interest throughout the presentation, but they are not presented in a Linear manner.

Gated Network

A Gated Network is essentially a Network with a mild Linear superstructure.  There is something necessary to progress the plot forward, but there is no narrative compulsion to achieve that goal at any specific point.  The Legend of Zelda is a simple Gated Network – you have freedom of movement among nodes, but need some items to bypass obstacles (soft gates), and need to complete narrative goals to reach the final dungeon (hard gate).

Putting it Together

Any specific example is likely to use many of these structures in a nested format.  The Megaman series is a gated network with a hard gate (defeat all the robot masters) leading to a linear second half.  In the earlier games, the Network is a Linear Network, as each node can only be visited (completed) once.  Each node within the Network (as well as the post-Network levels) is itself a Linear narrative, generally with Branches and the occasional Multipath.  Later games even experiemented with Forks in the sub-nodes.  Mass Effect 2 presents Linear interpersonal narratives with Forks.  Each conversation is a combination of Linear Multipath and Linear Fork, as well.  This is all encapsulated in a Gated Network which is seeded with a few linear nodes.  And event hat comes off as an oversimplification.

Flags and Variables

Flags and Variables are not inherent to narrative structure, and largely only present in video games from a technical standpoint, but they are necessary in understanding and dissecting a narrative structure.  Branches, Forks, and Multipaths are occasionally presented as a direct choice, but they are often the result of flags and variables set by previous choices.  Flags are a binary value – it is true or it is false.  When an event triggers a flag, the flag is set to “true” or “false” or, in some circumstances, is toggled (i.e. switched from true to false or vice-versa).  Flags occasionally appeared in Choose Your Own Adventure books that included Branches or Multipath – “If you have the MacGuffin, turn to page 20.  If you do not have the MacGuffin, turn to page 127.”  Variables work in roughly the same way as Flags (i.e. as logic gates), but are incremental.  When an event triggers a variable, a number is added to or subtracted from the stored variable.  In a Choose Your Own Adventure book, they would be presented as “If you have five or more vials of phlebotonium, turn to page 63.  If you have fewer than four vials of phlebotonium, turn to page 16.  If you have four vials of phlebotonium, turn to page 140.”  Returning to the Mass Effect 2 example, certain conversation options require a minimum variable (generally Paragon or Renegade value).  After the loyalty arc for any potential romantic partners, the “Interested in Romance” flag for that individual is set to “true,” and remains true until the wrong thing is said.  When the “Interested in Romance” flag is false, the characters have much less to say, though they may have new dialog due to the “loyalty” flag being true.