Trying to understand how games work

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The videogame RPG was created as a bit of a compromise. They were attempts to bring experiences from tabletop games into a digital format but changes had to be made. What was initially a collaborative activity became a solo one. In this way compromise also brought convenience, as it is much easier to set up a console with a game than it is to get a group together.

From the outset there wasn’t a consistent idea of how to transfer the tabletop experience into software. Games like Colossal Cave Adventure chose to act like a virtual dungeon master by describing scenes through on-screen text to create a prototypical adventure game. Ones like Akalabeth: World of Doom chose to build a simulation using the play mechanics of pen-and-paper games as the world’s logic, which worked like what we would call a “dungeon crawler” now. 

The modern RPG standards seem to fit somewhere between those two but I’m going to put more focus on the Japanese console RPG. By reputation it’s a fairly maximalist subgenre. Lengthy adventures across worlds visiting many towns, cities and dungeons not only to battle but also to watch big story events unfold, or to take part in various minigames (that aren’t optional). As the game progresses, playable characters will be getting stronger through multiple layers of growth mechanics. While there are many Japanese console RPGs that aren’t exactly like this, they’re thought of in this way because of the efforts of a particular company.

Square Enix has a long history of making big games. Their flagship franchise Final Fantasy epitomises it. There are just so many things to do in those games. Some of them go so far that I could load one of them up for several hours without even progressing any story or getting into a single random battle. These are high budget games with a focus on variety. It’s what people want out of these games too. Final Fantasy XIII is a game with so much detail in all the aesthetics and world-building that was criticised for its lack of variety. It’s still a big game too, one of the longer games in the series, but with no towns to visit and no minigames to lose even more time in, it wasn’t what some wanted.

They must have taken these comments to heart too, as Final Fantasy VII Remake has many distractions in it. They may have taken that too far though, as this is now part one of a multi-game saga, with other mobile games to supplement it. This is the same company that took Kingdom Hearts, a mix of RPG and platformer featuring Disney characters, and made it into a massive story spanning 13 games.

All of this is to establish that Dungeon Encounters is a bit of an unusual game for Square Enix. It’s a much smaller scale game with a simpler look to it and a more focused play experience. Unlike those other games, this is minimalist. There’s also been little promotion for its release, just a couple trailers and some obligatory social media posts. A massive contrast to the release of Final Fantasy XV where the leadup to that game’s release included an animated series, a movie starring Sean Bean and Aaron Paul, and an officially licensed car manufactured by Audi. This deluge of promotional material made it impossible to ignore.

Whereas, Dungeon Encounters is apparently not notable enough to have its own Wikipedia page (so far as of writing this article anyway). The only mentions of it on that site are within lists of works on pages of the staff that worked on the game. It’s not as though unknown people worked on the game either, it was directed by Hiroyuki Ito, who designed the battle systems used in many Final Fantasy games and was also a lead on Final Fantasy VI, IX, and XII. The music was “overseen by” Nobuo Uematsu, who I would consider as one of the most famous game musicians. It seems as though even with these notable people, Square Enix aren’t doing much to push it. 

That said, Ito isn’t often in front of the public eye. Square Enix produced documentaries for multiple Final Fantasy remasters, but he is absent from the one made for Final Fantasy IX. Most quotes featured on writing about games he’s directed come from other developers, usually Hironobu Sakaguchi who directed Final Fantasy games up to FF5. Funnily enough Ito is listed as one of the directors on FF6, but in an interview with Chris Kohler for the book Final Fantasy V, Sakaguchi mentions that he still performed the same role as he did in prior games, but had his title changed to producer because he thought it sounded “really cool”. Square Enix likes to push people forward when they are brands themselves, it’s why they’ve put a lot of games onto Tetsuya Nomura, the man responsible for iconic character designs. They put Sakaguchi aside when the movie he directed, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, was a huge bomb. Hiroyuki Ito is simply a person who makes games and spends less time out there promoting.

It’s not a graphical showcase like much of Square Enix’s output too. Even on lower powered systems like the Switch they emphasise graphical quality in different ways. Games like Octopath Traveler and Triangle Strategy can’t just be RPGs with old-school sprites, the company feels the need to prettify them up with modern effects and brand them as “HD-2D”.

Visually Dungeon Encounters looks straightforward. All floors of the game’s titular dungeon are rendered as grids on coloured floors, and combat encounters are simply portraits with numbers next to them and menus beneath. Events and battles are displayed on the map as letters and numbers. The game eschews the standard context-giving mechanisms of cutscenes, detailed animations, and elaborate environments. While this may give the impression of a simple game, in practice it is not.

The exploration is fairly basic: fill out the grids by walking through them and go through 99 floors. Sometimes a battle will be in the way and the rules of combat are easy to follow too. Both the playable characters and enemies have three healthbars: one that only takes physical damage, another that only takes magical damage, and the last one which only depletes once the others are empty (or if certain special abilities are used). Weapons and spells deal damage in either a fixed amount or a random number, which is clearly labelled on them. It’s a very consistent ruleset that the enemies also follow. There are a few surprises in how some enemies deploy status effects, but once they happen for the first time they become expected, as it’s routinely from the same monsters. Eventually more abilities that can be used through exploration and combat by the party can be found throughout the dungeon, adding in an extra layer of growth.

As with many RPGs that are often labelled as “traditional”, it’s the combining of all of those elements into a system of resource management that makes it compelling and challenging. It’s never a question of whether a single combat encounter is survivable, it’s whether ten can be overcome, or even more once the party is stronger. By simplifying the visuals and structure of the game it puts a laser-focus on that.

It’s also a fairly quiet game, there’s almost no music except on the starting floor and in combat. I found the combat music to be grating so I lowered its volume. It consists solely of a few electric guitars, which at the game’s standard loudness sounded too abrasive.

That lack of music, combined with there being no visible non-player characters on the maps, makes Dungeon Encounters feel lonely. If many other RPGs try to simulate the existence of a dungeon master, this game feels like they’re completely absent. The events on the map being labelled with letters and numbers in a standardised way makes it seem as though each one is being checked against some invisible reference book. It would be easy to imagine this game as an adaptation of a tabletop RPG solitaire.

I ended up thinking about trust in the context of board games because of that. Those things trust that players will follow the rules of their own accord (or even bend it to suit themselves). Videogames can’t allow for that as often, as they work using a specific ruleset that has to be followed in all circumstances (any exceptions are notable for being so).

What Dungeon Encounters does trust is imagination. So much of the game is numbers and grids, but it isn’t called Maths Problems. By including a little bit of character art, short biographies for the party members, and small descriptions for items, it lets me fill in the blanks. Swords are things that make damage numbers appear but I always think of each attack as the character moving forward to strike with them. There’s a party member that’s a large cat named “Sir Cat” and that’s adorable. I only need the picture and character bio to know that. Even the choice of enemies had me thinking more about what this dungeon must be like. What must a fight with a shark be like? The low health values of skeletons told me that this is an old place, and their bones are brittle from being buried for a long time. Also the few details shown in the environments raise questions. Ten floors down appears to be taking place in grasslands. Did I end up in a hedge maze?

The game also places more trust in mechanics to do the job. Other Square Enix games make use of a variety of elements that complement each other in order to tell stories (Final Fantasy X is an excellent example). Dungeon Encounters leaves it up to players to bring that with them, if they want to or not. Some people just like to watch the numbers go up and down. 

It’s also built for those more familiar with RPG conventions as little time is spent explaining how everything in battles works. Sometimes an enemy will show up marked as “flying” or “reflected” and while those mean the same thing as they would in similar games, without prior experience a player will learn the hard way.

It’s also very easy to pick up and play this game for short periods of time. This makes it a great fit for the Switch, as that’s the only mainstream portable system around these days. They didn’t put this game on phones, but you have to admit, playing games on phones isn’t the same as portable games used to be.

I’m actually a bit sad about the current state of handheld gaming. The Switch is technically a handheld gaming device but it doesn’t always feel like one. Many of the games made for the platform don’t suit being played on the go. I can’t imagine people getting on public transport and playing a bit of The Witcher 3 or Doom (2016). On one occasion I played Xenoblade Chronicles 2 on a train journey that lasted 50 minutes, and I spent almost all of that journey watching cutscenes that I had to finish on the platform after getting off the train.

There was a small downloadable game on the 3DS called Crimson Shroud, which was also an RPG on a reduced scale. It gave the impression of being a tabletop game by characters being rendered as models, and some actions being determined by rolling dice. The story was also told primarily through text on the screen acting as narration, almost like a dungeon master is telling it to the player. It was a neat little game, and was actually part of a collection of smaller scale games called the Guild series. They varied in quality, but I appreciated the experimentation in them. They were also fairly cheap.

Which brings me to an issue with pricing. Part of the reason it was easy to get into the Guild series was that each of those games cost around £7. Dungeon Encounters sells for £24.99, which isn’t too far from what a boxed copy of a 3DS game sold for. This isn’t a one-off as Switch games can retail for up to £60 when they’re new, and some launch games still retain that price. Handheld gaming used to be a cheaper option overall, but because the Switch is also a home console, the games are priced to match that. In this specific case it’s partially the fault of Square Enix too, as with downloadable games like this one, they don’t have to follow fixed pricing. But I just know that even with the company’s old habits of charging a bit of a premium, if this game had been released ten years ago it would have cost half as much.

My ulterior motive for writing this piece has been to put a bit more attention on Dungeon Encounters, since it’s not getting much of it from its own publisher. It’s a game I’ve really been enjoying playing and thinking about. I’ve brought it up with a few people as a good game to recommend but the price ends up becoming a barrier.

I just wish that Square Enix could put a bit more trust in the game.


This article contains spoilers.

I can remember a time where Final Fantasy XII seemed more contentious. It still was largely well-liked, but when the game came up in a room full of nerds there was always someone who would react strongly to mere mention of it. They’d usually have some point about how it “isn’t Final Fantasy” mostly because of things like the big differences in combat, or the structural changes.

The years since have been kinder to the game. I’ve seen more rankings put this game at the top, and while I wouldn’t take these as fully definitive, it does seem to signify a change of consensus opinion. It may be because of the more recently released port of the game, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, which featured many changes and is the version I chose to play for this article.

That’s the version of the game that I ended up enamoured with after playing. I felt such a high with it, also declaring it one of the greatest Final Fantasy games when it was released on Playstation 4. This time around I’ve cooled down on it a little, but I still think it’s an excellent game. Playing it a second time meant that I noticed a few things that I hadn’t before.

The plot of this game is a war story (and not a particularly subtle one) about the effects of an arms race on the world. Most of the party members have dealt with tragedy related to this, especially Vaan, Ashe and Basch who all lost so much from one single event. The assassination of the King of Dalmasca by the Archadian Empire resulted in Basch losing his freedom, Vaan losing his brother, and Princess Ashe losing her father, husband, and country.

Despite what a lot of promotional material seems to show, Ashe is the central character of the story. It’s her motivation to take revenge on the Empire that drives everything forward. She is the character who most interfaces with the nethicite, the artefact central to the plot.

The nethicite is a blatant metaphor for nuclear power. In a previous war, the city of Nabudis was destroyed by nethicite. The Empire’s attempted meddling with it also caused an accidental explosion in its own fleet. These had devastating effects on the environment as well. It was initially provided by the godlike beings known as the Occuria, but the game’s villain, Vayne Solidor, sees it his mission to cut these beings off by beginning to have the Empire manufacture their own nethicite.

Throughout the game it feels as though Ashe cannot win. If she takes revenge by using the nethicite, she will only end up causing even more mass destruction. Many other options she’s given don’t feel like victories for herself, they feel more like acting in the interests of others, both man and godlike. When she gets the opportunity to destroy the Sun-Cryst, the source of nethicite, that’s when it really begins to feel like she gets a win because it also goes against the Occuria’s will.

The most striking details for me came from something completely missable: the NPC dialogue. Particularly from the people living in Rabanastre, a city in the kingdom of Dalmasca. It’s a shame that some of these conversations didn’t make their way onto the game’s critical path. More modern games may have recorded lines play out as a player passes by people, but that simply feels like passive eavesdropping. Walking up to them to initiate a conversation feels like taking an interest in their lives.

After a tutorial section elsewhere, Vayne Solidor, the new Consul of Rabanastre, arrives in the city to introduce himself. After his big speech the player is able to explore the place and talk to people. The area is divided in two, the surface and an underground area called Lowtown. Up above there’s a mix of opinions. Some people feel he might not be trustworthy since he comes from the country that defeated Dalmasca, but just as many people voice opinions that he’s going to sort the place out.

Down below in Lowtown it’s different. Many of the people there are locals who have been priced out of their own homes, barely scraping by to survive. The place has fallen into disrepair, almost out of deliberate neglect. The guards stationed around the city don’t even go into the place. The people there all don’t trust the new rulers, and some don’t even share opinions because they’re too busy worrying about their own life. A lot of this information is simply found from looking around and having conversations with people.

I feel as though it’s important to highlight this precisely because it reinforces the game’s narrative as a whole. There are also other areas with play with a similar situation, such as the Empire’s capital city, Archadia. The party members all come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Vaan and Ashe especially and Final Fantasy XII uses that as an opportunity for good storytelling. Both of them lost family in the war, but their circumstances are very different. Many upper class people in Ivalice have a lot of interest in Ashe because of her status as a princess (but many of them have ulterior motives), but Vaan had to look out for himself often. He is introduced in a scene where he fights rats in a sewer to pass the time, before having to do menial tasks and thievery to earn a living.

Vaan is the one with first-hand experience of the effect of war on poor people because of what happened to him and many other people he knows. While Ashe is the central character of the story, it’s Vaan who’s controlled in all non-combat areas. He’s the one doing all the talking to the NPCs. He’s the one hearing about their experiences. He is the one who encourages Ashe to destroy the Sun-Cryst and not use it for revenge. Even though he has lost a lot because of the Empire, he knows that when the privileged choose violence, it’s the poor that get the biggest casualties.

Stories of haves and have-nots have been done before throughout Final Fantasy, and they’ve been done well, in the case of Final Fantasy VII. The story of a thief joining with an escaped princess was also done before in Final Fantasy IX, but that wasn’t without its flaws. Final Fantasy XII does better at this because it keeps things grounded. There’s more perspectives to consider, and the villains aren’t afflicted by darkness that makes them evil, they’re simply infected with selfish ideas which they rationalise with morals. Bringing the “reins of history back into the hands of man” becomes a reasoning for the erosion of democracy.

There’s a real struggle going on in the world of Ivalice, but that wasn’t felt by me when I went to explore the world. The battles of Final Fantasy XII use a real-time system where each action takes place after a small per-character timer. It’s backed up with an automation mechanic referred to as “Gambits”, which a player can program themselves with simple if statements (for example if an ally’s health is below a certain percentage, a cure spell should be cast). With the right kind of planning it means that the game’s combat ends up playing itself. While it is nice to see a plan come together nicely, it is very easy to do so and most enemies don’t need much more than “if you see it, attack it”. There’s much more satisfying encounters in some of the game’s sidequests, but I do wish I didn’t have to go out of my way for that. For a large portion of the game I was simply running through areas on fast-forward, watching enemies fall over and picking up the loot to sell later.

That’s another thing, the fast-forward function was a later addition to this game. There’s a reason I didn’t simply write “Final Fantasy XII” for the title of this blog post. The Zodiac Age is a complete rebalancing of the game with all sorts of things changed like character progression, item placement and many more small changes. When I wrote about Final Fantasy X, I stressed the importance of how that game’s mechanics work in tandem with the storytelling. One thing I didn’t mention in that piece was that the optional Expert Sphere Grid found in later versions of the game removes that mechanic’s ties to the game’s narrative because the character’s positions on that grid are no longer tied to their relationships. I wondered how many more changes like that are present here. Though I might have had more fun and an easier time with this version, would that have meant that I missed out on a version of the game where other systems better inform the narrative?

Even the visuals have had a big overhaul in order to suit higher resolutions. While it still keeps somewhat true to how it originally looked on the Playstation 2, it’s still different. This is still an excellent looking game, with some brilliant use of lighting, fantastic facial animation and great cutscene direction but the increase in detail makes the imperfections more apparent. I suppose it’s in the nature of games moving onto platforms that they were not intended for, they do end up losing something in the process.

Before I finished Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, I made one last trip to Rabanastre. I had to have a talk with the NPCs again. Not much had changed except that Lowtown was a little more full. It served as a good reminder for what the party was fighting for.

The game’s ending initially comes across as triumphant. Vayne Solidor has been defeated, Dalmasca has been reinstated, and the Occuria’s meddling has been cut off. It’s actually more of a quiet tragedy. In becoming Queen of Dalmasca, Ashe has been forced to cut herself off from the party due to her much higher status. Life has returned to normal, but in this world normal means that the class divide doesn’t go because the bad apples have been thrown out. While the party was able to come together to avert a crisis, the systems of the world ensured it couldn’t stay that way.



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