29 July 2011

Story a Week!

I've been off the blog for a bit, so it has missed an important announcement I made IRL. For the summer, at least, I am attempting to write a story a week. Yes, Jonathan Coulton is a bit of an inspiration here. For the purposes of this goal, I'm defining "story" as a flash-sized piece of fiction (>1000 words). Thus far I've kept it up for three weeks, though last week was a bit of a crunch, and it looks as though I am on track to keep it up a fourth week.

So far I've written mostly all horror, though two pieces have been a distinctly dark fantasy sort of horror about thieves going into the crypts of these necromancers. Those pieces are entitled "The Pendant of Zeklin Kha" and "Jabeld's Casket." Zeklin Kha has already received one rejection, but with a positive note, saying the story was "fun, but not quite for us." This was from MicroHorror.

The piece I squeezed out last week is less a story and more a fictional real estate ad, but its contents tell a story in their own way. It attempts to sell the reader on a tomb "in a quiet neighborhood underground" with a table "ALWAYS expecting visitors" and other such slightly off things you'd probably never want to read in a actual ad (I suppose it is not often on Craigslist that one sees listings that assert particular rooms have "no bloodstains").

I was actually inspired to write the previous three pieces by the Dracoid ruins in Lands of Lore II! It's so atmospheric, definitely my favourite part of the game. I s'pose I'll have to update on LoL:GoD again soon. I've stopped playing it on the hardest difficulty, though. One of the things I started doing as practice was to park Luther in front of some strange thing and then write down a re-contextualized description of the object for use in later stories.

This week, I'm shifting gears slightly in that my story is to be about a cat. Aaron has been staying at our mutual friend Helen's place while she is away... apparently he is not a fan of her feline companion. He recently referred to it as "that damned cat," and my mind went instantly to Ambrose Bierce ("The Damned Thing") and H.P. Lovecraft ("The Rats in the Walls"). Although I don't think my story will end up anything like either of those great works, their authors do provide inspiration...

I've also been doing some work getting these stories into different formats for publication. It's not so hard, but I have to think of a better way to organize my stories so that all the versions floating around don't get mixed up. Mostly I've got copies in either standard internet format or standard manuscript format. All of the publications I've been looking at submitting work to have different rules for presenting work, but most seem to want either of these two formats, with stories either sent in the body of an e-mail or attached as a .rtf.

Also, I recently discovered Darkmarkets.com and Duotrope's Digest, which should prove useful additions to Ralan's Webstravaganza in connecting me to more and more people looking to publish the sort of junk I write.

I'll end this post with a small note of thanks to the kind folks who saw my little comment about "A Ruined House" on Facebook and commented on the story. It's much appreciated.

06 July 2011

7 Ways to Improve Secret of Mana

I recall Secret of Mana fondly, as do many, when I consider playing it as a child. On a more recent play of it (a couple years ago), I was a little more critical. Don't get me wrong, Secret of Mana is an excellent game that no RPG lover should go without playing. Its free-roaming combat system reproduced spatially accurate AoE attacks (one of the things that also made Chrono Trigger's combat unique two years later, only Secret of Mana did it in real time), and its multiplayer mode encouraged cooperation, so every player could feel important. Plus, the game's level progression is mostly seamless, except toward the end (more on that later).

Please bear with my recent blog post... some ways the game could've been improved.

Also, spoilers.

1) A quest log. We take these for granted nowadays, but they are a somewhat modern convenience in gaming. Like other RPGs of its time, Secret of Mana just expected players to remember what they had to do. If you saved your game and reloaded later and had to jog your memory, you had to remember who to talk to about the quest to get a recap. Most of the time the characters dealing out quests are pretty significant (e.g., the king of Matango), but it would at least save you the trouble of flying around going, "Which of these forests is Matango?" if you could just look up your current quest at any time.

This time wasted between playing the game to advance the plot and playing to discover how to advance the plot is problematic. If there is no chance for characters to gain experience in-between, it could end up being pretty much another loading screen.

2) Map labels. If you forget which forest is Matango and your only way to rediscover it is by trial-and-error, something is wrong. Flying around on Flammie is fun, cool, and even has good music that changes to serve the plot's mood, but the interface introduces a lot of dead space even when the player knows where they're going if they don't know where it is. It's interesting to think that heroes might be the first mapping out these routes or something, in a way that expands the scale of the game's exploration phase, but locations should at least be marked after being visited.

Better still might be a customizable map that automatically marks plot-significant locations, but also lets users to identify and create their own comments on locations.

3) Properly identify spell effects. You need to cast a lot of good buffing spells in Secret of Mana, which is part of what makes the Girl such an important character in combat. Unfortunately, when you cast a bunch of spells on people, they wear off. This is okay, nobody expects the effects to be permanent.

Still, when the effects do wear off, the game reports, "X's magic wore off." They don't tell you which spell it was that wore off, so you have to guess. You can infer that the X refers to the recipient of a spell and not its caster when you see the hero's name there, because he can't cast magic. If you don't have many buffer spells on, that's fine, but when you've got at least three on everyone at any time... why not just say the name of the spell that wore off? Why should I have to waste mana re-buffing spells that haven't actually worn off yet?

4) Don't offer the trip to Kakkara. After leaving Flammie with King Truffles in Matango, the Cannon Express offers the player a trip to either the Kakkara Desert or to Magical Walrus Winterland. Kakkara is first on the list. Here the choice is deceptive, though, because it offers an emergent divergence not mirrored by the embedded narrative— but when players enter Kakkara, they trigger an encounter with a sandship and then a boss fight which would seem to suggest they were on the right track. Only after the end of that can the players explore the desert and the fire temple to discover that they need the power of the fire elemental Salamando to get past the lava under the temple. Unfortunately, Salamando is in Winter Country-- but there's nothing in Kakkara that signifies or suggests that, so the player can end up lost searching for clues to the puzzle. The player should just be sent to save Santa in Winterland first.

5) Don't start Light and Dark Magic at Level 1. Casting magic is an important part of the game. It solves puzzles and makes combat easier. But magic is only effective at higher levels in Secret of Mana, which means that by the time you get these two last elementals, you have other spells that appear to be way better. Tell me, do you cast level 1 Lucent Beam (puny damage) or level 8 Exploder (big, triple-digit numbers' worth of damage) when you want to get rid of a tough enemy in combat?

Unfortunately, you're going to want Light and Dark Magic to be effective in order to get through the Mana Fortress. These are the mid-bosses' weaknesses. This means derailing the player from the main plot line to make them grind their new magic up.

Why not make the new spells come in at either the average of a caster's spell levels or just at the caster's lowest elemental level?

6) Armour should make sense. Even though the Girl's graphic stays the same, she's still subjected to some sexual male fantasy bullshit in her armour. Did you know a Tiger Suit (AC 52) protects its wearer less than a Tiger Bikini (AC 64)? Me neither until I played Secret of Mana. If the bikinis give more protection, why isn't every character running around in them? Where's the Bikini Army? Seriously, in D&D terms: the Hero and Girl are both M sized adventurers, they should both be able to buy the same plate mail. I can understand requiring two character roles to adapt to different armour settings, but the Tiger Suit/Tiger Bikini representations feel mismatched in terms of what their respective ACs indicate.

Fictional gameworlds are incoherent because they rely on meta-knowledge of the rules in order to make sense, but we do have some control over what these incoherencies represent. Petty chauvinism should not default.

7) Give every player an equal role in the final combat. Here I'm sure some others may disagree-- and maybe I'm even misremembering-- but I thought the ending combat was one of the game's biggest let-downs. Not because it was too easy (which it was not for me), but because the gimmick for beating the boss was obscure and didn't give players an equal role in defeating the Mana Beast. At its core, the final combat reminded me that Secret of Mana was, after all, designed as a single player game, even though it had a multiplayer feature.

Yes, the Hero is who the player starts with. Other characters only come after time and their being played is even optional. Still, all the Girl and Sprite do is cast buffer spells on the Hero-- they can't do any damage to the Mana Beast. Why this big FU to the other players? Couldn't there have been a way to bring together all of their powers more equally?

Even though the Hero is... well, the Hero... Sprite, up until this point, has actually been much more handy at dispatching bosses. Suddenly Sprite does nothing. Aside from telling whoever is playing Sprite to take a hike, this also means that the team's functioning-- which has been honed in particular patterns throughout the whole game-- is suddenly disrupted by this new gimmick. Should I have to stress that when players spend time building something throughout the whole game, it might be a good idea to let them use it in the finale?

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This took longer to type than I thought. I should get something to eat. Anyone wishing to share their thoughts, please do.