I did content localization (translation and ghostwriting) work for major Japanese video game companies for a number of years. In most cases, I worked freelance through agencies; in others, I contracted directly with the clients to do content work or process management. While I've given up game work for most part in favor of regular (and less flaky) J-to-E translation work, I still take them on occasionally for old time's sake. Below are some of the titles I worked whose NDA is well expired. I also wrote game descriptions and reviews, as well as profiles of industry figures, for the All Game Guide (a subsidiary of the All Media Guide) for several months in 2000. Because many of these pieces were edited on submission and inadvertently had syntactical and other errors introduced into it, the three best game pieces and a biography are reproduced in full here.
Me & My KatamariClient: Namco USA / Agency: None / Circa: 2005-2006
Having (reluctantly, by all accounts) participated in the sequel, the creator of Katamari Damacy put his foot down for the third, PSP incarnation, proving himself to be a man of solid artistic integrity and therefore a total freak in this benighted world. The project went ahead sans his participation, and in full disclosure, I climbed on the cash train without a second thought when it chugged out of the station without Keita Takahashi aboard. I am freelance after all.
With Buddha missing from under the bodhi treet, so to speak, the script for Me & My Katamari was spare and kind of sad. I was asked to ghostwrite the King for the English version based on the existing bare bones. The King of All Cosmos in M&MK as I wrote him is older and wiser—which in his case means around 8th grade as opposed to 6th. From an exuberant student (of languages and so forth) in the earlier titles, he has grown into a full-fledged quotation-dropping, name-checking master of cultural references. In other words, he's like a know-it-all teenager, except actually omniscient and completely free of insecurities.
Since I don't own a PSP, I never played the game. Was it good?
We♥KatamariClient: Namco USA / Agency: None / Circa: 2004
When Namco decided to capitalize on the unexpected success of KD with a followup, I was brought back on board. The title was something of an encore performance with more levels and a versus mode, and there was legitimate concern expressed about taking the most creative game to come out of the industry and giving it the treatment that is the antithesis of creativity. But as corrosive as sequelitis is in the game industry, the requisite promotion blitz for new releases is just as problematic. Games usually have just one chance to make its existence known to consumers before they're buried by the next big release. Katamari Damacy managed to buck the trend and steadily rack up sales as word got around of its awesomeness; We♥Katamari reached a much largeer audience from the start due to both the existing cult fanbase and the larger promotion.
I'd personally love to see a minimum of 5 original titles for every sequel released, and the "Big 'n loud" school of promotions give way to "Nimble and interesting". Namco unintentionally tapped into a rich vein of creative consumer enthusiasm with Katamari, and I hope Namco Bandai doesn't forget about it.
Katamari DamacyClient: Namco USA / Agency: None / Circa: 2004
Just when you've decided that everyone in the console game industry wants nothing better than to chase Michael Bay into its very own Pearl Harbor, along comes hope, in living color with a rainbow cherry on top. I was brought in (thanks, L.) to rewrite and polish the first-pass translation, and ended up redoing a greater part of the King dialogue from scratch.
It was a delight to bring the King of All Cosmos to the English-speaking market in all his femme glory. With Katamari, I can honestly (and for once!) say that I was a part of a genuinely creative venture, and am happy to have been one of the many reasons for the commercial, critical and cultural success of the title.
Katamari Damacy won the "Excellence in Game Design" at the 2005 Game Developers Choice Awards, "Best Innovation" award from G4techTV, and has spawned a cheerful cult following, with fans spending perfectly good time and energy making Katamari cakes, knitting giant stuffed Queen of All Cosmos earmuffs and doing other fun, generative things not typically associated with gamers.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of LibertyClient: Konami / Agency: INTAC / Circa: 2000-2001
Pretty much all of MGS2:SOL's screenplay translation and localization was my handiwork, save for the screen navigation commands that had to be farmed out due to time constraints. The writing had to be cut down due to screen space concerns and Konami insisted on editing the product extensively; however, from what I understand, much of the errata corrections I performed on the original screenplay did survive.
Though the MGS series was lauded for its 'strong storyline', the fact of the matter is that the plot is cobbled together from forgettable Hollywood blockbusters, Frederick Forsyth and Tom Clancy novels, and mass-production after-school anime programs from the 80s. The predictable is enthusiastically embraced, and painfully geeky sexism skips hand-in-hand with military-industrial name-dropping. Given that, I chose to devote my energies to mood-building and fact-checking. When a story has a plethora of cliches ('the-government-made-me-a-killer-then-abandoned-me' comes painfully to the mind) AND takes itself seriously, all one can do is lay on a good coat of noir and make it stick. That, and eliminate glaring factual inaccuracies.
As of 2002 Konami press release, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty has sold more than 5 million units worldwide -- a record. It has won the E3 2000 Best of Show, Best Visuals and Best Adventure Game, 2001 E3 Best of Show and Best Action Adventure Game, CESA (Computer Entertainment Software Association) Game Awards 2000-2001 Excellence Award and a truckload of game magazine awards.
Metal Gear Solid: Ghost BabelClient: Konami / Agency: INTAC / Circa: 2000-2001
MGS:GB is a Nintendo Game Boy Color title that falls somewhere between MGS and MGS2 on the timeline, but in an alternate universe. It remains my favorite game project by the virtue of the radio drama ("Codec Entertainment Program") that was conceived as a bonus feature. I've never been able to establish why this excellent faux-60's parody didn't garner more attention. It's easily the only decent piece of writing in the Metal Gear franchise.
Forget government-disavowed ex-commandos: Novelty inventions are the real enemy. Clearly and mercifully, somebody on the MGS writing team got their hands on a decent indica while this one was being written. The main storyline is more-o'-the-same, but the "IdeaSpy 2.5" serial radio program that can be tuned into for Snake's sneaking pleasure is actually funny and provided hours of pastiche-making fun for this translator. The adventures of Agent Two-point-five and his heroic crusade against J.E. Inc., "The Catalog of Conspiracies" is one localization job I will never disavow, mostly because no one at the client end bothered to mess too much with my final draft for a change.
Shadow of DestinyClient: Konami / Agency: INTAC / Circa: 2000
George Santayana must occasionally yearn for a postmortem retraction of that famous line about repeating history. The creators of SOD took their best shot at making the long-dead philosopher turn over in his grave with this well-intentioned but exasperating RPG about a guy with a J-Pop name wildly careening from the present day to an approximation of the Middle Ages in a bid to avoid being murdered.
Story-intensive games should in theory offer greater rewards to a translator; after all, the gameplay is all about adapting to plot turns and picking up clues from dialogues. Since bad original writing is the norm in the game industry, the fun of any game job is in subversively trying to raise the level of the writing, while unobtrusively correcting factual mistakes and cultural faux pas. The buzzkill in a "period piece" job like SOD is that the script is saturated with bad history. The time chosen for the medieval setting is 1581-86, a regrettable choice given that it falls about 80 years ahead of even the most generous description of what constituted the Middle Ages in what is now Germany. While the quibble about time may seem petty considering that what we know as the Medieval era lasted from around 600 to 1500 CE in Europe, the lack of any discernible effort at cultural authenticity is a legitimate cause for grievance. The way I figure it, there's always the option to go the fantasy route if one is way too research-shy for period pieces.
D2Client: Sega & WARP / Agency: INTAC / Circa: 2000
I personally find survival horror to be... icky. Face it, it's really an indiscriminate FPS played while mentally shrieking "Eeeeeeewwww!!" Nothing but the old 'cooties' fear paired with fight instead of flight instinct. If I want to be grossed out, I'll just stare at the guy in Starbucks (there's always one, usually in the nice plush armchair) picking his nose. I am happy to say that at least storywise, D2 is about as icky as it gets. It steals from all the—and I mean every single—recent horror sources.
In survival horror, everyone but you and the little kid Is a random redshirt. Especially if they happen to be black — see how well the Americans have taught us after World War II. So don't get attached to anyone in D2, like the depressive best-friend chick or the sensitive-yet-strong scientist guy. She has intimacy issues, and in the horror genre, those are best solved by sacrificing your life to save others. And strong, sensitive men who don't fall for the heroine have zero chance of surviving. If you grow fond of either of them, your heart will be broken. Then again, there's very little character development so unless you're a complete tearjerk 'ho, that's not a possibility. I translated the lot of them, and I can't even remember their names.
In fact, I can't remember much except that it was a very, very bad script.
Azure DreamsClient: Konami / Agency: INTAC / Circa: 1999
This is one of the few full-blown RPGs I've worked on. Unfortunately, I don't see a lot of what was great about non-vid RPGs getting passed down to the vid RPG, and games like Azure Dreams are typical of that trend. It's more like Monopoly than Call of Cthulu, with blandly straightforward acquisition (monsters, treasures, affections of various females) serving as both the means and the end.
As projects go, this one had insane character limits, always a fun restriction for Japanese-to-English translators getting paid by the final English output. Since English by nature requires more letters than Japanese to get across the same thing, it took some terseness and language acrobatics to get it done. On the plus side, I got to invent far superior names for all the spells on the very reasonable pretexts that the original names went over the count.
The two saving graces of this game are an assortment of cute monsters, and the sheer freakiness of the character art direction. I loathe snap cultural judgements, having had them thrown at me all my life but I will note that things like monsters, bugs and robots tend to be anthropomorphized and doted on in Japan, while causing Americans to have a total meltdown of revulsion and speciatic paranoia. Really, "cute monster" is an oxymoron in English. Anyway, the AD monsties/familiars are a fun lot, and the prospect of having a dozen on the leash like a Manhattan dog walker no doubt contributed to the game's appeal. Alas, while the monsters are adorable, the humans are quite monstrous: Giant Keane eyes in disturbing jewel tones, knock knees and — in case of the girls (and there's a whole set of 'em, one in every stereotype) — some oddly starched bits of clothing that resist gravity. I guess they're a welcome if rather discomfiting respite from the Evangelion school of art.
Cowboy Bepop: Music for FreelanceClient: Victor / Agency: Frognation / Circa: 1999
I was fairly lucky when it came to writing/translation credits, in that none were ever expected and none were given. While most people in the content localization trade stick to straight-and-narrow translation, working on big titles made me realize early on that the job had to involve a lot of rewriting if one were at all interested in doing quality work. With established agencies like INTAC, credit is not an issue. The agency is listed in the game's translation credit, and the translator gets decently paid for most parts because it's understood that she's both a ghostwriter and a translator. This sytem ensures that no personal jockeying for credit takes place, and nobody feels screwed over.
It was when I took a small 'fun' job with an agency I'd just hooked up with that I ended up with a bad case of the morning-after.
The job involved translating a fictitious DJ spiel for the newest "Cowboy Bebop" album. It seemed fun, and the agency partner I met with encouraged me to write more stuff, since the Japanese original he'd written was a little slim and pop culture reference wasn't quite on the mark. I did a significant amount of additional writing, renamed it "Radio Free Mars", and gave it a more hipster feel with overt cultural crossovers. My boyfriend ended up providing the voice of the DJ — we went over to the guy's apartment (it was a 3-person outfit with no office as yet), and recorded stuff on a portable ADAT. Very homebrew, seemed issue-free, except that when the album came out, I was listed only as the translator, and the agency guys took full, personal credit for the writing. They even translated my English DJ sequence back into Japanese and printed it in the liner notes.
Is there a point to this? I am turning this into a cautionary tale even as you shift about impatiently. Now where was I? Oh, yes. When an agent shows a predilection for indulging in completely unnecessary forms of pettiness, you know you're not going to have a good relationship, and they're probably not going to get too many juicy contracts. Content localization is a pretty narrow and very competitive industry, and while there's a lot of small, disorganized outfits operating in it at a given time, none of them do very well over the long haul unless they shape up. Case in point, I had to permanently ditch this particular agency after they proved very leisurely with their payment following the PostPet job. Six months, a dozen unhappy translators, some appalling excuses—no way to do business. So if you're thinking of doing some work in this field, keep your contracts non-exclusive, and try to avoid hooking up with inexperienced agents. Payment as promised: that's the point of being freelance. After all, if you prefer not to be paid for the hours you put in, you can always take a salaried position.
Ace Combat 3: ElectrosphereClient: Namco / Agency: Frognation / Circa: 1999
AC3: Electrosphere, the third installment of the successful Namco franchise, is a FPS/flight-sim-action set against a sweeping backdrop of intense corporate warfare (yes, WAY too many people read Gibson) in a bright, high-tech and trigger-happy future.
I was brought in to do a demo translation of a story chapter by people who were supposedly contracted to write the screenplay. Soon after, Namco decided to lighten the budget by ditching much or all of the plot content for the non-Japanese release.
For whatever reason (though my admittedly biased view is that cutting the story didn't help), AC3 didn't make quite the splash that a release of its size should have. All the pre-localization hype surrounding the massive storyline turned into a chorus of boos and then fading grouses when the change was announced, which meant that there wasn't a lot of interest left when the title was finally ready to ship. A shame, really, since gamers who did play it almost universally praised it and it won a respectable number of "Player's Choice" distinctions.
PostPet 2000Client: Sony / Agency: FrogNation / Circa: 1998 - 1999
In Japan and the rest of East Asia, newbies have an alternative to AOL: Sony. With their unerring insight into our silliest desires and boundless supply of SSEN (sugar 'n spice 'n everything nice), Sony created an ISP division, then dressed up the humble e-mail in a pretty thing called PostPet. After all, who wants to tell sendmail what a good little protocol it is when you can do the same to a pink teddy bear that lives inside your computer and carries your mail to other people? While your pet is out visiting other PostPet users online, you can even buy her digital treats and furniture (yes, the pets have their own rooms, unlike many of their owners). They even talk to you via e-mail.
PostPet was a logistically difficult project since it wasn't arranged by my usual agent, but by a very small operation that was way in over its head. The organizational horrors aside, it was a nice break from mutants and aliens. I ended up doing the dialogue for threeor four characters in addition to a lot of UI stuff, and was pleasantly surprised by how much care had been put into the characters. They're flat little things by all accounts, but they really are designed to grow on the user. Sort of like Sanrio characters that way.
The success of the PostPet franchise in Japan, HK and Singapore indicates a hunger for 'comfort interaction' that is distinct from other types of virtual socialization. Massive multiplayer games, ordinary chat rooms, online dating and porn are predictably popular, but a large number of people are also willing to pay money to maintain an illusion that they have a little friend they can love living in a bright little room inside their computer. Kinda makes you want to put that yearning to good use, doesn't it?
For all the hard work, alas, PostPet 2000 did not take off in the U.S.
Hybrid HeavenClient: Konami / Agency: INTAC / Circa: 1998
Somewhere in Konami, there is a box where all Really Stupid Ideas go. It may be an orange crate, a novelty cookie tin, or just a sturdy cardboard box that looked too useful to toss. I am convinced that the box exists, and that it was opened sometime in 1998, because no other facts will adequately explain Hybrid Heaven.
Let's take a deep breath and get started...
Aliens exist. Some of the aliens are nice, and others are evil. Evil but wily. They want to take over Earth, which just goes to show how desperate the galactic real estate situation is getting. So one of the evil aliens infiltrates the mothership of a nice alien race on its way to peacefully explore the planet Earth. The ship arrives at its landing site under New York City (apparently, the Manhattan bedrock is a myth), evil alien enslaves good aliens, and starts creating an unholy hybrid (of what, is not explained) clone army to take over the planet. All this multitasking leaves him little time; hence he has no name other than 'The Master'. He also makes hybrid clones that look exactly like certain people (like the American president) so he can pull switcheroos. The technology for sucking out people's memories comes in real handy whenever a swap takes place. Luckily, a lone Secret Service Agent has nothing better to do than get in The Master's way...
Is there even a point in criticizing a video game for having an appalling plot, terrible dialogue, and barely cardboard characters?
My answer is yes. There's 'pretty bad' like Metal Gear Solid, which wants to marry Clancy-style political-military-adventure thriller to the Japanese giant-robot anime tradition (some traditions should be dumped, and widow burning and giant robots are two of them), then there's bad like a rotten egg. Metal Gear's bad writing doesn't get in the way of much that is good about the game, while Hybrid Heaven's stinks to—well, high heaven. Hell, given a team of good disciplined writers with a sense of humor, it would still be possible to write a decent Metal Gear game. Outrageous villains, great gadgets, cool hero, hot babes, lots of suspension of disbelief -- this is stuff of James Bond after all. Can't say the same for Hybrid Heaven.
The hard truth is, the game industry is indifferent to decent writing overall, and particularly deluded when it comes to action games. The culture of the latter is that of teenage boys who aren't particularly interested in anything except what mainstream pop culture dishes out to them, and it shows. Having translated and played a fair number of plot-intensive video games, I can say with confidence that most of these writers do not have a clue what they are doing. They wouldn't last a day in even TV or film, yet they're allowed to put out crap like "You are Nick Vrenna. It is the year 2009. You have been falsely incarcerated inside a high security underground prison where illegal genetic experiments are taking place" without anybody batting an eyelash. Good thing too. Blinking might get in the way of shooting, causing you to lose precious, precious points.
So what if a game has great playability, beautiful graphics and all the works? If you're playing a game and the hero's girlfriend/communication officer (note to Hideo Kojima: you don't know a lot of women, do you?) is bugging him about commitment issues while he's hiding from recon inside an enemy installation, point at the so-called writers and laugh at them really loudly. In public. So these game producers think you're that stupid? Swallow it, give it good reviews, fail to call them on the idiocy and you've proven that yes, you are that stupid. Bring on the sequels, feed me more of that non-nourishing, vaguely headache-inducing stuff. I wouldn't recognize quality if it came up and bit me on my numb-from-too-much-sitting ass!
Demand better. It's no coincidence that there's nothing but sequels and formulas coming out of this relatively new, multibillion-dollar industry.
Those chronically smitten with Douglas Adams' merry sci-fi universe of galactic hitchhikers and holistic sleuths need very little explanation, but for the benefit of newcomers and long-lost friends, Starship Titanic should be described as an interactive adventure wherein humor — or rather the Adamsian sense of the absurd — is not a feature, but the intended approach, the essence and the solution. Consider the premise: a luxury starliner crashes into Your Lovely Home, rather destructively bestowing the ship's salvage rights to you the player. Homeless and possibly rich beyond one's wildest dreams, the player must then climb aboard the starship before it takes off again on a quest for answers to such grave matters as how the "Ship That Cannot Possibly Go Wrong" came to be wildly careening through the galaxy, where its control components are, and whether the ship's robotic crew is malfunctioning or merely programmed with the customer service initiative of a typical utilities company.
The sizeable interior of the starship is a limited 3D space that players move through by walking, and taking elevators and pellerators (a horizontal transport). The sole occupants of the cruise ship are bots who appear to have a screw or two loose each, from the bellboy that acts more like a frat boy to the disconsolately amnesiac doorbot. The game proceeds as a series of puzzles that must be solved before the player can move on, and like several other interactive adventures, there are no missteps the players can take that results in death, nor is there a time limit. In addition to investigative roaming and toggling, the player interacts with the game through the acquistion/use of items and "spoken" exchange with the bots. This spoken — or rather typed on the player's part — conversation capability is the title's most touted element aside from Adams' participation. Christened SpookiTalk, the feature is something of a departure from the conventional dialogue selection method and allows players to pose their own questions.
The controls for all of the actions available to the player are consolidated into a single interface at the bottom of the screen called PET (Personal Electronic Thing). The PET is organized into 5 modes: Personal Baggage, Chat-O-Mat, Remote Thingummy, Designer Room Numbers, and Real Life. Aside from the self-explanatory Personal Baggage i.e inventory, the PET's various modes provide an interface for spoken interaction with game characters, remote-controlled devices such as elevators, TV's and item transport system in a given location, room cataloguing (to be used with item transport system), and game saving and other practical operations. In one possible sequence of events, the player may use a Chat-O-Mat to summon and speak to bots via SpookiTalk, either to make inquiries or requests. Having ascertained a likely place to visit through their grudging replies, a jaunt to one of many significant locations such as the Top of the Well, Bar and Art Gallery may follow, where a particularly cumbersome item may be discovered and picked up. The player would then use the Remote Thingummy to activate the Succ-U-Bus item transport system (which vaguely resembles a dyspeptic and dim-witted monkey), select the destination with the Designer Room Numbers and send the item to another location. Having arrived at that location at some later time, the player may then retrieve that object and drag it over another item in the room to make them interact.
Unlike other walkabout-intensive adventure titles such as Riven, all movement in Starship Titanic must be executed in full; there are no shortcuts to well-frequented locations. In addition, not all of the ship is initially open to the player — an attribute of the player's ignoble Third Class status — and all in all, the puzzle component of the game is heavy on gumshoe work. The solutions to the actual puzzles consist of hunting down and combining items to achieve a series of major discrete goals such as gaining access to a new area, finding a component of the ship's controls, and ultimately, going home. A given puzzle will likely require the player to use all four in-game modes of the PET, and plotline mysteries are cleared up as the technical issues faced by the errant starship are corrected via the player's actions.
What went wrong?
Douglas Adams — former hitchhiker and radio writer, a one-man genre whose fictional works ceaselessly migrate from sci-fi to humor to mystery to popular culture at the hands of uncertain bookstore clerks, a benign neighbor to most things exciting and high-tech (he is one of the founders of h2g2.com, which evolved from Digital Village) — is definitely a man with the Midas touch. His irreverent take on life, the universe et al has often proven more visionary than many a furrow-browed futurist novel, and his impish prose never fails to delight on repeat readings. Adams has also shown himself an unexpectedly eloquent nonfiction writer; his outing with the BBC to chronicle species on the brink of extinction produced a gem titled Last Chance to See, which may prove to be his finest written work in the end.
The consequence, alas, of this joint venture falls far short of the sum of its parts. The first twenty minutes or so is absolutely delightful. The premise enchants instantly, especially for those whose brains are already ticklish thanks to the antics of Ford Prefect, Dirk Gently and other members of the Adams family. The crew — or rather the robotic rabble — peopling the ship continues that noble tradition; they are at their most clueless or scornful in the approved Hitchhiker's Guide fashion, and the third-class cabin assigned to the player is a sarcastic geometry lesson. The visual design of the ship and its denizens is so fine that one is seized by an urge to pelt the artists with medals the size of soup plates, and cannot help but decide to go exploring.
Therein lies the first mistake. The rigid first-person view and fixed path — a la Myst — does not play well with the game's Baroque look and trial-and-error model of puzzle solving, and a stroll through the ship quickly turns sour. Navigation is fairly straightforward in barer rooms and tightly enclosed spaces, but straying from the straight path in the main gallery filled with inviting nooks, some of which contain elevators and other transport devices, becomes nothing short of exasperating. One recurring example of such an instance is the player's inability to see the number designation on a given elevator until after committing to a right (or left) turn, at which point the new perspective rather abruptly swings into view. If the elevator happens to be the wrong one, an awkward shuffle to get back to the original path ensues, complicated further by the left-right symmetry used throughout the ship's design. The result is a kind of step-step-pause-turn progression familiar to brides and zombies, maddeningly slow and awkward; since much of the puzzle-solving requires players to repeatedly dash about from deck to deck, the toll on overall game play is heavy indeed. A shortcut capability to already-visited hubs, a feature deployed in Riven, would have been a welcome addition.
As long as the surrounding is beautiful and the object worthy, however, a little lurching about never hurt anybody. Alas, Starship Titanic only fulfills one of these requirements. The puzzles that should be the dangling carrot for all the gumshoe work prove instead to be a stick to drive you to the completion of the game. Many of them are so non-intuitive, with multiple variables gathered from too-disparate sources, that a walkthrough guide becomes a necessity at some point. One is available in the form of a chapter in the accompanying manual, raising suspicion that the gamemakers were aware of how tangled a skein the game had become by the time of the title's release. Having to resort to cheats does nothing to improve playing satisfaction, especially since the correct solution turns out, for the most part, to have the internal logic of an AT&T customer service policy. The "Chicken Puzzle", in particular, is almost dizzyingly random.
Unfortunately, the creators seem set on viewing poor puzzle design merely as a 'feature' of the game. What they fail to realize is that loony logic and bureaucratic barriers may be amusing to read about and empathize with, but are not particularly enjoyable to experience as a disembodied and fairly helpless game protagonist. The Suc-U-Bus bot giving you trouble? You know exactly what you would do in real life — gag the little bastard with a handy towel and make sure it doesn't keep sucking up your stuff. Come to think of it, that's probably what Ford Prefect would do. However, in Starship Titanic, only the locals have the license to act like Douglas Adams characters; the player is fresh out of personality.
Despite the grievous flaws inherent in Starship Titanic, other adventure game developers would be wise to heed its example when it comes to several things, most notably character design. By happy coincidence or shrewd insight, Digital Village has managed to eliminate that universal undoing of adventure game characters: the tendency to annoy. In a typical adventure game, characters refuse to cooperate and utter infuriating banalities such as "Those two things don't work together" or "I wouldn't try that".
Starship Titanic turns the tables on the evil legacy of character tyranny by a simple expedient: the bots in Starship Titanic are meant to be annoying. They are ignorant, disgreeable, and mostly off their rockers. If they aren't being irresponsible or rude, they're reeling in the vacuum of robotic malfunction. Ask a perfectly reasonable question via SpookiTalk and a bot may give a completely pointless answer. Technical limitation? Inadequate writing? No, it's a feature! The stance that failed to convince when it came to puzzle design is an unparalleled success in this arena. The more flagrantly illogical and proudly uncooperative a game character is, the more forgivably human — and more convincing — they become. The measure of loathing a player feels for the typical I-know-it-all-but-no-way-I'm-telling-you digital creature is the measure of relief experienced in dealing with the Starship Titanic riffraff.
Inevitably linked to character design is the player interface, and SpookiTalk is worthy of admiration. Illusory it may be, the sense of control derived from the ability to ask one's own question is significant, and the responses elicited from the bots are well-chosen and amusing. The advantage of having a real writer crafting the dialogue becomes delightfully obvious, especially given the abysmal standards ('Grammar and spelling optional') currently in effect throughout the game industry. One unfortunate side effect of trustworthy dialogue and off-the-wall characterization is the tendency for relevant information to get lost; if the ship's parrot is screeching mad insults and demands constantly, the one useful thing it does shriek is not as likely to be noticed. All the more unfortunate, since the excellent writing is further enhanced by pitch-perfect voice casting and the only witty use of ambient music I have yet to encounter in a video game.
Should you play it? Taken as a whole, the answer must be yes. Be prepared to use the walkthrough, and treat it as an interactive story rather than a game, but do buy the thing. The design work and writing are reasons enough for many, but the most compelling element of Starship Titanic may be the intention of its creators: to bring some of the anarchy of the written word to a medium in its infancy, and the absurd to the form of entertainment that takes itself all too seriously.
"Fearsome is [the medium of] animation," said the writer Akiyuki Nosaka in his review of the 1988 film Hotaru no Haka, adapted for the screen from his novella of the same name. High praise indeed from an author, extraordinary considering the nature of the work: the story that won the writer and occasional activist the 1972 Naoki Prize (an equivalent of the Booker) is autobiographical in nature, a lacerating account of a boy and his 4-year-old sister's ill-fated bid for survival in Kobe, 1943. Written in a characteristic raw tumble, Nosaka's prose has a relentless quality that illuminates the last months of the children's lives like gobs of incendiary bullets, and Hotaru no Haka is as much a story of their rapid forsaking by people around them as it is the author's painful epitaph to the sister that he could not save quarter of a century ago. It is as unlikely a work to be chosen for animated adaptation as can be, and even less likely to make that journey successfully.
The filmmaker who accomplished both of these things, winning the benediction of the author, a major animated film award, and an unprecedented box office response in the process, is himself of the same generation as Akiyuki Nosaka. Born on October 29, 1935 in Mie, Japan, Isao Takahata was the youngest of seven children. He attended Tokyo University from 1954 to 1959, majoring in French literature, before applying for and winning a production assistant position at Toei Doga. He was officially hired a month after his graduation, and paid his dues as a production assistant and continuity staff on several animated features and series. The 1963 promotion to production designer — a role virtually synonymous with that of the director in much of the animation industry at the time — led to work on the critically-acclaimed feature animated film Taiyo no Ouji: Horus no Dai Bouken (The Prince of the Sun: Adventures of Horus). These early years at Toei Doga also brought about a friendship that is arguably one of the most famous in animation history. Hayao Miyazaki, a younger animator who was already becoming known at Toei for his illustration prowess, was an active member of the animator's union, and Takahata became first his mentor, then a close friend. It was in fact Miyazaki that coined the nickname "Pak-san" for Takahata, whose chronic tardiness and subsequent public breakfasts at his desk was something of a running gag. "Pak-pak", an onomatopoeia for rapid munching, is also the source of the game title Pak Man.
Toei Doga, however, was about to make a monumental blunder. Though Horus won several awards including the Best Director prize at the Tashkent Film Festival, and would go on to be recognized as one of the best features ever to come out of Toei, it was a commercial failure at the time of its release. Losses incurred on the film were in fact so bad that a scapegoat was called for. On June 10th, 1971, Isao Takahata resigned from the company and defected to A Productions. He took with him two animator friends, Youichi Odabe and Hayao Miyazaki. Odabe, after many years in Takahata and Miyazaki's inner circle, would emerge as the chief animator for the megahit feature films based on the Pokemon franchise.
Once at A Productions, Takahata oversaw production design of the popular series Lupin III until 1972, and stood in as the acting chief director of the Shakudo Suzunosuke series from 1972 to 1973. 1972 also marked the return of diplomatic relations between China and Japan, and the arrival of giant pandas in Tokyo, a gesture of goodwill on the part of the People's Republic, started a panda craze. Hayao Miyazaki came up with a concept for an animated feature called Panda Kopanda, and the film, under Takahata and Miyazaki's creative supervision, was released in 1972 as an "opener" for matinee showings of Godzilla. However, the gentle antics of a pair of pandas and their human and animal companions created something of a sensation among the young audience members, and a sequel, Panda Kopanda: Amefuri Saakasu no Maki (Rainy Circus Episode), by the original production team quickly followed.
The move to A Productions apparently failed to cure Isao Takahata's newly-acquired wanderlust. A scant two years after joining the company, he moved onto Zuiyo Eizo (now called Nippon Animation), once again with Hayao Miyazaki and Youichi Odabe. It was at Zuiyo Eizo that Takahata came into his own as a filmmaker. Alps no Shojo Heidi, the 1975 syndicated TV adaptation of Johanna Spyri's Heidi was Takahata's first project as a director/production designer, and one of the few animated works to be 'shot on location'. The story of a young girl coming of age in the Swiss mountains required the kind of intimacy with the geographic location that would not be achieved second-hand, and Takahata decided to take the production team to the Swiss Alps.
"Go and draw everything" was the gist of the orders Takahata gave Hayao Miyazaki, his hand-picked lead artist for the project's scenery. Miyazaki complied with his characteristic thoroughness; some of these early sketches, meant merely to familiarize the artist with the landscape, were actually transformed directly into production cels. The mile-high skies and lush depiction of the Alpine ecology that resulted from the location work was an act of revolt against shoddy quality, mass production method and low pay that had begun to dog the Japanese TV animation industry. Takahata, often called the 'animator who does not draw', saw the contradiction of illustrators churning out a world of pristine mountains they had never seen in a cramped, fluorescent-lit office in Tokyo. His vision of realism enriched by imagination struck a chord in the audience, and Takahata found himself vindicated. Heidi, the novel that was already overexposed in Japan to the point of being used as a textbook, was a resounding commercial as well as critical success in its new incarnation.
Takahata again took his crew on location during the production of Haha o Tazunete Sanzenri (A Three Thousand League Journey in Search of Mother) — also adapted from a book, by Edmundo De Amicis — but with a more grueling level of commitment. The team traced the steps of the young fictional protagonist from Genoa, Italy to Argentina by ship and road to get a feel for the geosocial and climatic conditions of the journey. Takahata's emphasis on realism was later adopted by Hayao Miyazaki, whose Tonari no Totoro and Mononoke Hime are both grounded in actual locations: the Deer God's Forest in the latter is based on the island ecology of Yakushima, a designated U.N. World Heritage site. With Sanzenri's release, Takahata was widely recognized within the industry as a force to be reckoned with, not only for his uncompromising attention to detail, but for the degree of resonance his work seemed to achieve with the audience.
Takahata's skills as a mentor appears to have been as formidable as his filmmaking talents; by 1978, Hayao Miyazaki had come into his own with a major project known as Mirai Shonen Conan (Conan the Future Kid), and Takahata lent a hand as a production designer. The several years following that project was dominated by several TV series and features (including Sero Hiki no Goushu [Goche the Cellist] and the ill-fated Little Nemo, from which Takahata ultimately stepped down as director due to creative differences), punctuated by a move to Telekom in 1981. By the early '80s, the system of animated features filmmaking had become more consolidated, and the projects sometimes too large to control alone. When Miyazaki received the go-ahead on an animated version of his graphic novel, he needed a creative collaborator who was also willing to butt heads with him. The resulting film, which Takahata filled the role of producer in, was Kaze no Tani no Nausicaa (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind).
In 1985, a year after Nausicaa's release, Takahata and Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli (pronounced ji'bli; a type of North African storm). Their first project was a live-action film which Takahata wrote and directed; their second, the 1986 classic Tenkuu no Shiro Laputa, directed by Miyazaki and produced by Takahata.
Two years later, on April 16, 1988, Hotaru no Haka was released
in incomplete form, two weeks before the final retakes were wrapped. The
film's use of parallel flashbacks and juxtaposition of timelines is considered
a landmark in the technique of animated filmmaking, and the quiet but
unflinching depiction of war's casualties sent an uncomfortable ripple
through a country which has come to believe itself something of a wholly
innocent victim itself. "Look at this," a passerby hisses in
disgust at the sight of a vagrant teenager, skeletal and near death. "What
are the Americans going to think when they show up?"
Takahata's subsequent works have also been characterized by the use of innovative techniques and refusal to provide facile answers. The 1991 film Omoide Poroporo (Only Yesterday), though considered by many to be a failure, was an exploration of a young woman's dream of leaving the city and a white-collar career for farming, and used many of the time-bending structural elements developed in Hotaru. After Poroporo, Takahata entered a period of reflection and production that would last three years. During this time, he wrote his third book — his first in 7 years — a subjective study of Frederick Back's The Man Who Planted Trees. A vocal admirer of the French-born Canadian filmmaker, Takahata was partly responsible for bringing Back's work to the Japanese audience, and is credited as the French-to-Japanese translator of Jean Giono's original book, which is illustrated by Back.
At the end of the three years, Souten'nen shoku Manga Eiga (A Comics Cinema Event in Living Colors): Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko was released in theaters. Takahata also wrote the original story, which was published as a children's book the same year. The film, Takahata's most sophisticated at the time, makes liberal allusions to Japanese oral traditions, classical poetry and folktales to tell a deceptively simple story of animals valiantly fighting encroaching development of their natural habitat. Set against the backdrop of an infamous real-life housing development of the Tama foothills, the film was a comedic tour de force lined with a deep sense of pathos and loss, and is considered by many to be a creative breakthrough for Takahata. The vanguard 'three realities' technique used to render the animals fueled much speculation among cinephiles regarding the direction Takahata was taking his craft, as did his somber comment that he "[has come to believe that] all struggles towards democratization after the end of WWII has failed".
The answer to these questions came five years later, in the form of the 104-minute feature film Ho-Hokekyo; Tonari no Yamada-kun (The Yamadas Next Door). Takahata's announcement that Ghibli's next project would be his adaptation of a syndicated newspaper strip by Hisaichi Ishii puzzled most and left not a few aghast, especially in the wake of Miyazaki's epic-proportion Mononoke Hime and Takahata's selection as one of the recipients of a national medal awarded to artists and cultural figures of note. As a strip, Tonari no Yamada-kun was no Peanuts; the loud-mouthed and downwardly-mobile Yamada family, whose mantra of utterly mundane concerns is topped by their all-overriding desire to slack off, seemed an impossibly uninspiring material for a recognized auteur. The non-adventures of five-person, three-generation family — plus a surly dog that no one particularly cares for — had never been longer than four frames at a time, with a minimal background rendered in the same unshaded 2D perspective as the characters.
Takahata's finished product was a record-setting 177,000 frames in volume, surpassing the frame count set by Mononoke Hime's 144,000. The extraordinary density was required not for realism of movement or cinematic detail, but rather paradoxically for a truly minimalist look. The film was an official departure from cel-based animation for Takahata, who opted for a full digital execution. The aim was to create a moving watercolor sketch, with all of that technique's characteristic blurring, color gradation and flavor, and the result won high critical acclaim for both the incredible level of artistry and transporting depiction of a down-to-earth family life lived at a looser pace. Peppered with readings from poets including Bashou, the 1999 film has racked up an astonishing number of rave reviews from film critics, many of whom proclaimed it one of the most important Japanese films ever. One in particular, the reviewer at the prestigious Kinema Shunpou, concluded his review with an emotional thank you to Takahata for "this courageous masterpiece... History will no doubt prove the greatness of this film, and this small essay is just the beginning."
Times are hard for puzzle games. In the high-stress, multi-tasking, Ritalin-craving lifestyle of a majority of game consumers, there is little room for amusement of the purely analytical persuasion. Puzzle game creators do, however, persevere. IQ Final is the follow-up to the 1997 PlayStation release Intelligent Qube, and essentially an expanded and refined version of that game. The central concept remains the same: think your way past a moving labyrinth. The player scurries around the narrow platform of the game surface like a mouse with limited demolition capability, carving vacuums and scores out of an approaching tide of cubes in increasingly more complex configurations.
IQ Final encompasses a greater number of modes than its predecessor. Individual puzzles in all modes are scored on a "par" system, with players challenged to clear all cubes off the platform in the least number of steps. The tutorial-model “100 Attack” consists of 100 puzzles of increasing difficulty, and rewards players with new characters and animated solutions as they match the game's requirements. The title “IQ Final” mode is a marathon mode consisting of 9 stages, each new stage churning out a greater number of target cubes in different hues like geological samples. A two-player option is available for the “Survival” mode, which requires one or both players to hold their ground and solve puzzle after puzzle without any break. And in the final, “Create” mode, the developers hand the game over to the players with an editor that allows them to create and play their own puzzles.
The controls and the rules are deceptively simple: the player can basically move, mark, or sink. Every square on the platform's surface can be stood on and marked with a floating cursor. A desired cube can then be 'sunk' when (and only when) it has reached the marked spot. Sink a single black "forbidden" cube and one entire row crumbles off the edge of the platform in a penalty that the player quickly learns to dread. Sink one of the Jell-O green "advantage" cubes and a 3x3 square surrounding the sunk cube is automatically marked for immediate or delayed sinking in a move that forms the kernel of the game's strategic requirements. When all plain and green cubes have been cleared, the forbidden black cubes vanish as well, and the player is ready for the next puzzle. Since one button serves to both mark and sink single cubes, and another to trigger the group-mark zone, the calculations involved can be high-wire indeed.
The sinking and marking do not, however, apply to the rotating gate puzzles that appear in the “Survival” mode. The gates are one-cube-wide walls of forbidden cubes with a single opening, and advance down the platform top over bottom. They can come singly or in a series, and reward reflex and speed. Since the “Survival” mode features a mixture of the cube puzzles and the rotating gate, as well as a flipping technique for the cube puzzles that adds yet another variable to decimating the cubes, it should be considered a mode for practiced players. However, the speed of the cubes can be set to Low, Normal or High in all modes, allowing for a range of customization. The game is compatible with Dual Shock Analog Controller, and data can be downloaded to PocketStation.
Nou wa tatakau. The kick in the IQ Final tag line comes across better in Japanese, but a translation must suffice. So: The brain fights. In one of the best-designed console games ever, Sony takes the concept of the puzzle-as-battle to elegant extremes to produce a Phillip Stark of games. A huge slab consisting of stacked cubes hangs in pitch-dark space like a mislaid subway platform. A single tiny watercolor of a figure sways and patters across the immense granite-tone surface as a battalion of cubes in different configurations closes in from the far end, marching in a slamming roll for all the world like something moving in for a kill. Stray too close to the encroaching wave of plain, black, and luminous green cubes and the stick figure is flattened; retreat too far or fail to cut a path through the cubes in time and the character topples off the precipice with a thin scream, a Duchamp in animation.
Not a very empowering role for a player to take on, it may seem — a Lilliputian at the mercy of geometry, with nothing but well-aimed calculations to ensure survival. But the calculations of when and what to sink means the difference between a well-ordered campaign and a frenzied bombardment, the glory of "Perfect!" announcement and a thoroughly demoralizing stomping. IQ Final is game strategy at its more Byzantine and, by necessity, bold. This is no chess, with its apparently coma-length contemplation of the next move. All decisions made in IQ Final are done so under duress, in a matter of seconds before the cubes go out of control, and the tension level goes from 0 to 80 in 5 seconds flat at the prospect of playing chicken with the Great Wall. Every puzzle is at its heart a death match, and as anyone who has played network death matches can attest to, the better one gets at a termination tag, the more enthralling it becomes. In addition to the puzzle game paradigm's innate addictiveness, IQ Final delivers an unusually well-crafted set of positive reinforcements at the skillful conclusion of a puzzle. From the disembodied benediction delivered in the booming voice of celebrity music critic Peter Barakan to the satisfying thud of an extra row being added to the platform, the subtle cues are there to give a sense of heft and physical impact to what is essentially a cerebral game.
The game's 4-mode lineup — five including Survival's two-player option — serves players in various stages of skill and compulsion, and along the way, your supposed — and at first insultingly low — 'IQ' is calculated from the results of each bout. Though the game booklet specifically states that the "IQ" in this case stands for "Intelligent Qube" and not the intelligence quotient as defined by the Wexler scale, no one cares. Novice players protest the low score by loudly declaring that the game is unfair. To prove the point, they play again, and discover that the game has become slightly more fair after the third or so attempt. Soon, the evaluation delivered by the little animated boxes at the end is declared justice itself, and the gloating begins. The boxes, plaintively weird quasi-characters christened “cubri” and “fobri”, seem fitting bookends to the stable of appealingly abbreviated characters that include a Golden-Age aviator, a caveman, and two animals. Collect all nine, the game seems to urge. This is, after all, a game about cubes and boxes, and the nuggets of pleasure that come in them.
Where's the fetish? The hardboiled may ask. How can sinking cubes compare with taking off heads? It doesn't; same urge, different satisfaction. A long, curving putt is sunk, a rival goes down in the shearing arc of a plasma rifle, the queen is captured by an overlooked pawn: the quixotic predator inside us revels in the moment. The game drives us. We take pleasure in it, in how precise and fast and good we can be. And IQ Final reveals how pure that hunger.
Gridz has as its objective territory conquest and enemy decimation. The game field itself is a square plane divided into grids, and the number of grids varies from stage to stage, as does the number of rival forces. Scattered about the field are grids marked by donut-shaped Tokens, and occupying these grids gives the player long-term currency to obtain Toolbot upgrades with between stages. Initially, however, all players start off with a lone robot pawn, and a single occupied grid referred to as the 'Domain", housing a a whirlygig contraption that acts as a power collector/generator. Each grid occupied feeds more power to the domain, which in turn makes the energy available for further occupation activity. The power level of each player is displayed in the upper left corner of the screen, and the power collected can be used to plant rods or launch different Toolbots.
Rods? Toolbots? Rods, a mere 1 point of power each, are planted in the four corners of a grid, and when activated by a Builder bot, secures that grid as the player's. New rods can only be planted next to a player's existing rods, forcing all players to extend their reach from their respective domains. Rods may only be activated by a class of Toolbots—as the pawns are called—named Builders, and these range, like all Toolbots from the free Ping to the 40-point D'Bug. Whatever Toolbots are available at the level of energy the player possesses are displayed on the personal toolbar, and selecting one and clicking on a grid launches that bot. Bots fundamentally work without supervision; for example, the slow but steady Ping trundles about activating rods while the player feverishly plants the initial perimeter. Toolbots cannot tresspass into grids occupied by other players, and higher-grade Toolbots often have longer reach for an added advantage.
But of course, what can be built can be destroyed. The other two classes of Toolbots are called Strikers and Hackers, and their specialty is sabotage and destruction. The Toolbots are an ultimate example of specialization, with no overlap in function. Strikers roam about destroying other players' bots, while Hackers concentrate on knocking out rods and threatening their existence. When a Hacker reaches a player's domain and successfully takes out one of the four defining rods, that player vanishes from the game as do all their grids and bots from the playing field. Basic Toolbot commands are available to organize the campaign somewhat, such as "Guard", "Defend", "Stop" and "Hunt". The higher the grade of a bot, the faster it is at its assigned job and more numerous the selection of commands. Clicking on a particular bot during the game will bring up the menu of commands available, and the direction of their heading can also be altered by dragging.
At the beginning of each stage, players can elect to change their Toolbot selection on the toolbar. Upgrade possibilities—a function of tokens collected—are presented at this point, and players can forego the free Toolbots in favor of priced but more efficient bots as the starting lineup. Games are automatically saved after each stage, and only one game per player ID may be saved. Gridz can be played over LAN or the Inernet, and players can check the GridzNet server for any current public games.
The creators of the game appear to have spent some time articulating the visual and behavioral personalities of the Toolbots, but there are several indications that other aspects of the game were not so thoroughly planned out. The more notable of those is the game instruction section, which, for the lack of CD inserts, new players inevitably look to first. The purely linear organization of the how-to's quickly becomes an inconvenience; bot upgrades, toolbar references, and general rules are all grouped together and can only be scrolled forward or back. As a result, there is no way to perform a quick check or a search on a particular subject. The instructions also leave out fairly important facts. Chief among those are the ability of Builders to indirectly destroy enemy robots and the fact that grids need not necessarily have active nodes in all four corners to be captured.
Once the player gleans the rules, the game itself plays fairly smoothly. The difficulty level can be configured slightly higher by selecting "Smarter Enemies" and "Timed Nodes", and the nuts and bolts of deploying bots and seeing one's domain grow are agreeable enough to create a gentle addiction. The game play is extremely repetitive, which serves to enhance the Solitaire-like impression. Nothing much changes from stage to stage, and after a while, the tokens disappear to leave the player in a no-man's land, possessed of a stable of high-end Toolbots and the same field of grids to conquer over and over again. The comments made by the Toolbots and the voices they are spoken in may quickly grow tiresome to many a player, and it should be noted here that the voice cannot be selectively turned off.
Possibly the most problematic aspect of Gridz is the awkwardness of the Toolbot-control interface. Clicking on an existing bot with the Selection tool on (or with the Option key held down) is supposed to bring up its command menu, but unless the cursor is right on the center of the bot, the menu fails to materialize. Chasing after a moving bot while some border comes under attack is a common occurence, and pinning an erstwhile machine down, changing its direction and/or command does not guarantee that the bot will make a beeline for the hot spot and do its work. Often enough, Toolbots will seemingly skulk in a corner or roam about lugubriously like so many brightly-colored Black & Decker power tools. Because there is no way to keep track of them (or even know how many of each kind are out in the field at a given time), once released, the bots usually drop out of sight. The only strategy is to keep creating them right where they are needed, which may indeed defeat the point of a strategy game.
Despite these major drawbacks, Gridz has its moments. It may become difficult to remember what exactly those were around Stage 27 or so, but they do exist. The title's strengths may have more in common with Solitaire's than the strategy genre, but the world can never have too much of Solitaire. There will, after all, always be a need to wile away those hours between a suspicious lunch and a bad breakfast on trans-oceanic flights.