Time and Eternity: 42 Metacritic

If you see this game on the shelf, don’t touch it, don’t even look at it. You would have much more fun spending your money on a dentist appointment.

I implore you to avoid this game at all costs, and play just about anything else on the market with the joy in your heart that you aren’t playing Time and Eternity.

Time and Eternity, PS3, 42/100 metacritic

A video posted by Sean 韓谷陳H Han-Tani-Chen-Hogan (@sean_htch) on Dec 26, 2016 at 6:53pm PST

There’s no need to talk about why the game is bad – look at any reviews. If we idealize any popular JRPG form, TE doesn’t stand up to it. I had thought that the game may have been more popular for the original audience in Japan, but a cursory glance at the reviews shows that Japanese-speakers didn’t like it, either. One review title reads something to the extent of “it’s impossible for something to be this shitty”, its first line asking if the 5-star reviews were written by the game’s developers.

A few reviews mention the positives – which I agree with – there are some absurd story beats which end up seeming like pasted-over stories from some writer’s life, cut and past into the fantasy of TE’s world. In the game’s first main arc, you have to defeat the Assassin’s Guild, but you end up running into the Assassin’s Guild Fan Club, which has monthly magazines about the true guild. Some point later on a side quest, you have to remind a journalist walking around a field as to what his job is. As it turns out, he completely forgot his purpose for being there, the main male protagonist even questioning how he can do his job when all he does is walk in small circles.

But what’s more fun, at least for a few hours, about TE, is how the ways in which it is broken point to ideas about JRPGs/games in general.

I get a small sense of “Why on earth do I exist?” from many of the NPCs. Why does any NPC exist? It’s a well-treaded subject, and as I played TE I found myself being able to see the writers behind the game. Because the writing was so flat, the characters so predictable and shallow, it’s almost as if I could see the spreadsheet and outline of plot points and story beats to hit laid bare before me, the game’s mismanagement, tangible.

It makes me question long, 20+ hour games. The game sends you back in time – to fix something – only to have a time paradox erupt and require you to go slightly less far back in time. I quit at the beginning of the second arc. Perhaps this would work in the right hands, but there was no way the game was going to get better, and I didn’t want to play the same thing for another arc, so why bother?

Most long games suffer from repetition wearing thin over way-too-long playthroughs. In this sense, TE made a great choice to have fighting be (a flawed) 1 on 1 system, but made a poor choice to spawn battles every 20 seconds and have most battles require killing 3-4 enemies in a row.

The same wearing thin can occur by separating any of the story beats by hours of fighting, or some other repetitive task. Take Persona 5, which was harmed by dungeons that always went on for an hour or two too long – thus wearing thin its difficult balance between seeing the benefits of the dating-sim aspects of the game influencing your stats in the game’s dungeons. Unfortunately P5 worked just well enough that it didn’t bother most people enough, so I’d assume that for Persona 6, the dev team will probably try to make it even longer!

This points to the popularity of Undertale. Undertale eliminates the long-playtime inaccessibility of JRPGs, and combines and simplifies popular aspects of the genre such as character development, NPC dialogue and battle systems into a 3-5 hour package with enough variance from playthrough to playthrough. Its most interesting setpiece being that its game world, abstractly, is a character with its own development and reactions that you can influence through the battle system.

For the record, I enjoyed both P5 and Undertale but didn’t encounter much new territory from a thematic standpoint, though some of P5’s arcs (and its characters in general) were very fun. TE was terrible across the board, though playing it makes apparent that in many JRPGs I’m going through the motions of the battle so I can just see the next bit of a story. Repetitive area after repetitive area, fighting recolors of 6 enemy types, with a few sidequests and treasures to find before advancing the plot. How many JRPGs are like this, but slightly better and with these mechanical cores harder to see?

As far as shorter playtimes go, from a development standpoint there’s less to worry about in terms of player pacing, and a higher chance players will “See Everything”, or at least get into a position where they can dive deeper into repeated or alternate playthroughs. There’s a lower chance that you’ll wear your story themes or characters thin through repetition or a grating, endless battle system, a higher chance you end up presenting the more interesting ideas by trying to work within a smaller playtime. Does a game really need 40-80 hours to cook and say something interesting? I don’t think so!

Next time: A review of Deidia’s soundtrack, maybe some post-release thoughts on Even the Ocean and intuited limits on the narrative possibilities of games? 


Album Review: rio8 – 🐹 OST (11/2016)

This is a review of the OST from the game 🐹 by carpetbones. Also written as “u1f439”, or for this review, HAMSTER. (The game name is officially just the emoji but sometimes it doesn’t render, so.)

Listen along and support the composer here – https://rio8.bandcamp.com/album/u1f439-ost

No commentary playthrough of the game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nw_uswPTai8

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This game comes from a lineage of 2D, top-down dreamscape exploration games where the places you explore and inhabit are often of a surreal nature. Thus the music often doesn’t follow traditional structures.

Music for these settings can draw from a range of influences, the least interesting way to discuss them is writing them off as ambient, it is more interesting to create descriptions of textures, materials, atmospheres – that the music draws upon.

The sort of style for many of these types of games, Hamster included, is a short ambient loop – which is constructed as a combination of moods, textures, ‘shapes’. It’s not so much the notes that matter in particular here (you can often just slap on random notes and it will work for this style of composition) but the sorts of textures of the sounds.

 

 

Track-by-track

1) Credits

Objectively the most cheery piece in the album – perhaps the simplest as well, with some added complexity in the quieter harmony notes of the rhodes-like lead, which add a nice layer of depth to help accentuate the cuteness of the piece.

What sticks out to me, in context of this album, is just how cheery this piece is.  It’s here I need to bring up the context of the game – and that it seems to stake a divide between dream and reality, as the music does, too. As we’ll see in later tracks, the music seems to suggest particular connotations about dreams.

For the unfamiliar, this song falls has the locational context (not a genre!) of”Title Screen”, as in it joins a group of diverse music that plays on the Title Screens of video games.

It’s music that plays when you open a video game up to play it, but before the game itself starts. Sort of like a title card or intro credits to a movie.

I find it helpful to ask, how does the title screen music in a game frame the game or foreshadow it, how does it sound once I’ve played the game?

2) Garden

This song is one instrument as well (though with three separate voice lines), similar but warmer to the one in Credits. It is a short, straightforwardly positive loop – each voice working in the same key and accentuating the same mood, with that a sort of ‘yearning’ or nostalgic nature  brought upon by the chosen chord structures, most apparent when the middle voice holds a sustain note on a chord.

In some ways it reminds me of noodling on a Casio in my college dorm room – sort of a sheltered, quiet and friendly place.

It sets an interesting tone for the rest of the album – this occupies a completely different mind-space than anything else, that of a cheery garden or nostalgic place. And fittingly, it is set in such a place in-game – the outdoors garden of the protagonist hamster, in the hamster’s waking world.

 

3) White

This is the most violent rupture in mood continuity in the album (and game) – immediately I get some calls back to Yume Nikki’s OST and very likely other games and spin-offs related to it which I’ve never listened to the music from.

In this case we only have two: a droning, downsampled buzzy synth with a sine-LFO on its amplitude. The LFO is important in not wearing out the listener’s ear, it also helps with accentuating a feeling of uncertainty and anticipation (though those feelings would exist WITHOUT the LFO, I’d argue). We also hear the volume of the drone voice being automated with its volume to grow and recede in intensity, further accentuating this feeling.

The second important element to break up the pace of the drone is the delayed synth which seems to have the same or similar timbre as the drone, just it’s not sustained, but bounces around the song.

Overall I’d say this serves as a good transition to the rest of the album – where moods continue to vary but stick to the same format of a more textural music.

4) Puddle

For me, sometimes it can help – either while composing or listening to music that does not follow the structure of popular music – to imagine it as a progression through a particular landscape, where in place of a landmark passing your vision, the song brings in particular elements.

This is one of the longest songs on the album. The background of the entire song is the delayed bell synths, secondarily, the more melodic ones that come in at a lower register.

The most interesting ‘sight’ here would be the traditionally dissonant sound that comes in around 0:50 – contributing even further to the clipping of the music, transitioning from a simple sound to a wobbly one by means of an extreme sine-LFO on the pitch of the sound.

Composing something like this is fun – one fun thing is to change up what the most melodic element of the song is, which happens throughout. (I like 1:44, though it fades into the mix rather quickly, it provides an interesting point of contrast that departs from the general ‘uncertainty ambience’ of this piece.

As for the game context, this takes place in a rainy tennis court. Interesting to read the delayed bells as ‘rain’ and the misty/cloudy-like optimism of the song as being used to color in an ambiguous, yet slightly positive and cloudy day.

5) Highway

Highway is interesting – the scene in the game it is from is a highway, and I think takes influence from one of my games, Anodyne. Dark road, yellow lane markings and skid marks.

The song itself conjures a demonic, bumpy car ride through a dark underpass. The clipping, water-wet-sounding blips that surround the ‘engine growl’ synth add a nice widening to the song.

This kind of textural music tends to create an unsettling feeling – letting you tap into darker places or ideas in your mind.

6) Office

This is one of the trickier songs to critique off the album – listening to it now, outside of the game, it strikes me as a bit annoyingly random and weak, the bassline randomly meandering at a constant pace.

It makes a lot more sense, within the context of the game, though, where you navigate a series of small, square-shaped office rooms. With the game, the song is complete – calling upon a tone of disorientation and confusion that’s conjured by the strangeness of uniform office spaces across the world. Office spaces – confined, orderly rooms with water coolers and cubicles.

7) Train

Alone, this is one of the weaker songs on the album.

The volume LFO around 0:40 is a nice twist on the constant timbre of the synth, as well as the steam-y breathing synth that plays in parallel with the more pronounced wobbly bass synth. These two ideas seem like they could have led to more, but instead this song choose to randomly jump around with the pitch of its main synth. Things become a bit more interesting near the end of the song, but never enough to really cohere into a more interesting atmosphere or image – the song comes off as a little rushed or noodled into the keyboard.

Taken a little further, in some way – more layers, effects, or compositional changes, I think this could work for some kind of empty and sprawling space, or a quieter confined and subdued space.

For some reason this song plays in a later part of the game than it does in the album. It plays in a realistic-ish looking city where you can walk over train tracks and watch trains going by. In this context the song makes more sense, the meandering synth serving more as a point of creating tension within the game’s atmosphere.

8) Jelly

I can kind of understand this track – but I think some mixing might have helped with reducing the bass frequencies, which seem to overpower the pleasant bubbling mid-range synth that pops up now and then.

Still, I like the song at a more abstract level – this barely audible rumbling contrasting against  a louder bubbling.

It’s worth mentioning that I don’t think this fits the area it plays in particularly well, where you walk through a black field filled with sugar cubes and a spoon. I imagine more of some kind of place where you are in transit.

9) Phone

I almost want the meandering bassline here to be a little less random – or more consistently confined to one range, maybe interspersed with silence or gaps. The repetition here sounds more grating – like putting a randomizer on the pitch for a donky xylophone synth and calling it a day. To some extent, this does seem to describe the dial tones of a phone, which I would chalk up as a positive for the song. The area in-game also features scissors and telephones in its landscape.

10) Underwater

This takes a similar approach to previous songs – building up the sound with meandering notes, except each note is sustained longer and has a longer attack. In this way, the effect of the random notes is more bearable to the listener, because the randomness of the notes is not as apparent, thanks to the timbre of the notes being sort of a growing drone.

It’s interesting – on its own this song feels hot, warm. Kind of a gritty/fire texture to it, but in-game it’s used in an underwater area where you walk very slowly! Works well as an example in where an environment and the song may have some contrast to them that creates something interesting together.

11) Doors

This song goes alongside one of the more surreal spaces inside of Hamster, a black space with doors scattered around with blue skies and white clouds showing through them, reminding me a bit of the painter Magritte’s Surrealist work.

The form of doors may be a reference to Yume Nikki or other sorts of games (LSD Dream Emulator). Which feature doors prominently as passageways between spaces.

How should the passageways between one room and another be delineated in an abstract setting?

Well… you can use the most literal choice, of doors. Which has an interesting effect.

I think this song uses silence well. Silence is a tool that is easy to forget we have, as musicians. Creating anticipation for the next note, confusion as why music cut out, contemplation of what’s to come…

In some way this song points more to anxiety, I think due to the dial-tone like synth that pervades the song in between staticy synth that appears from time to time.

12) Kid

This is a ‘sad’ song –  fitting into the locational context of a ‘game over’ song, or ‘sad cutscene’ song. A more melodic song in the middle of a bunch of more textural work always hints at some narrative meaning. The area in the game this song takes place in features toybox-like shapes, clown heads, fried eggs, childrens’ blocks. Even without the game, the word “Kid” gives us some connections to sadder or nostalgic moments of someone’s childhood.

I find this song nice, but since it covers well-treaded musical ground I find it less interesting than others. I do like it as it kind of calls back some of more melodic songs on the album (like #2 Garden).

13) Candle

The breathy ambience here seems a little too quiet relative to the rest of the OST. Reminds me of times at night when walking alone through the city – hearing air conditioners echo through streets surrounded by tall buildings.

These kinds of textures summon images and ideas related to vast, mechanical and oppressive spaces, devoid of any living creatures.

In the game it’s put to use in a sort of ruined, grey cobblestone city with unlit candles.

14) Radio

Goopy, bubbling black textures make up the lower end of this song’s frequency range. This part establishes the general mood of the song, the higher notes are used to create the feeling of walking through a dark place, and quickly darting your head at what seemed to be a passing light or sound.

In a more taste way, I thought the higher notes may have been too much, at least at ~0:40. Perhaps a better way could have been to reduce the delay feedback, or just lower the volume of those sounds? I was hoping for something that made those moments of sounds darting around to be much quicker. The lower-frequency sound at ~1:30 works a lot better for this kind of goal since it doesn’t separate itself too far from the general sound palette of the song.

I like this song a lot – especially in game, as you traverse a dark space, only able to see in a small circle around yourself. As you walk around you reveal the red glowing tips of radio towers, eventually leading you to the exit of the area.

15) In Death

A far stronger ‘ending’ track than #16 Stars, the notes here call back to the feeling of #2 Garden – almost as if the song is trying to recall or wake up to the atmosphere created through Garden. I like this sort of intra-album linkage, as well as how it works in-game, as you travel through a cemetery/forest-like place. It creates some nostalgia for the beginning of the game.

16) Stars

Sort of like #12 Kid, I found the musical territory this treads to not be particularly new. It’s an oddly sad way to end the album – I liked the tonal change in #15 In Death and thought it would have worked well as a replacement for this song.

Worse, it felt out of place in the game – a short walk on clouds through a starry background, back home to end the game.

Whereas many of the tracks sound neutrally or sometimes ‘negatively’ ominous, this song goes for a more sad, piano lullaby vibe, which struck me as a bit off considering the progression of the narrative as a whole didn’t point towards this kind of ending, nor was this describing a particularly sad/lullaby sort of space/scene.

Overall

That covers my thoughts – I liked this album! Again, you can purchase it and support the composer here.

I hope to write more reviews later and figure out more interesting ways of writing about music. This review got a little formal at times, but I think it’s useful to break music down to figure out why it gives us the feelings it does. “Disassembly” work also makes it easier to incorporate aspects of a song into work as a composer.

Feel free to leave comments below!

Sean

A note on music found in Games… maybe I’ll expand on this later.

The value I find for this sort of short-textural music, or more generally music in games – or More Generally experimental music, as a composer, is how it expands my vocabulary for describing spaces (hospital, driveway, store, etc). I can see how a composer envisioned a particular place sounding – or, I can ignore the game context entirely, and see what images the music conjures. This format of music makes it easy to incorporate elements of all genres of music, for various effects.

A game plants the seeds for a composer to envision new sounds, likewise, a song can plant the seeds for a game designer to envision new spaces and systems and interactions.

As a listener, this sort of music is interesting in its effect to transport one to unknown and new places – places you can stand still and observe in.

As a critic, this music is important to talk about and signal boost, as a part of the wide variety of experimental music that can be listened and used as-is, or as a base for creating more music, as part of political statements in albums, games, or other media. This kind of music is easily overlooked and ignored from the critical sphere.

Music in games can often be a sort of experimental music. By way of being for games, its roots can sometimes be hard to trace back culturally, at least not in the clear paths often defined in popular musics. But, it’s wrong to say that creators of music in games are not influenced by other music, nor does their music fail to influence future composers (just look at all the popular composers who love 90s game music!).

Further, since there’s not really popular game music (except for some obvious nintendo/final fantasy etc stuff), it can be hard to categorize many game composers into easily-defined movements or buckets.


On knowing the fate of FF15’s world on a second playthrough

Spoilers for FF15.

The best part of FF15 is in the second playthrough or a spoiled first playthrough – it’s a part that you can only experience once given the knowledge of the game’s final arc and what happens to the world (before you save it, of course…!)

FF 15’s main plot consists of 14 chapters.

The first time you play FF15, you spend Ch. 1-8 driving around the open world of Lucis, playing as Prince Noctis, advancing the plot, fighting monsters, character-developing the main cast.

Your time in Lucis, is colored and contextualized by mystery of what will happen to the world and the characters.

Eventually you progress onto Chapter 9. The game becomes linear – taking place not in Lucis, but on a long train trip through the Evil Empire’s country. By the end of the train ride, daytime has vanished, and the Darkness has taken over the world (oh no!).

NPCs and characters worry about this in an unproductive way, not taking action, because of course, it’s a Final Fantasy world and there’s no way a normal person has any ability to affect change – only you, Prince Noctis, do!

What this all leads up to is a huge ‘whoa’ in Chapter 14 – where you end up, 10 years later after separating from your 3 friends, at an early area in the game, alone as Noctis. This area was a pleasant beach resort but is now overrun by a ton of demons. You’ll probably decide to run past them.  You end up in a car driven by a character who you encountered as a kid in the first arc. You head back to the first area of the game, surveying the countryside and watching demons run around everywhere, as you talk to this driver about what’s changed, and what hasn’t. Your friends are still alive. The gas station, Hammerhead, where you started the game, is now more or less an outpost for demon hunters.

For all its flaws, I think this progression is pretty brilliant – a logical conclusion to the slow insertion of hopelessness and (on average) reduced sense of power in the player throughout the game’s 2nd arc.

Anyways, you sacrifice yourself and save the world. Hooray.

OKAY SEAN WHAT’S THE BEST PART OF FINAL FANTASY 15??

Now we’re ready to talk about that!

The best part of FF15 is the emotion of inhabiting Lucis’s landscape in your second playthrough, knowing what tragedy will befall it. Viewing its visual spectacles, going on fun hunts with your band of buddies, and still having that colored by knowledge of the world’s future.

It’s the feeling of know that every anxious NPC and person you are talking to, is doing too little, too late. Whether anyone likes it, eventually once you’re on that train, daylight will wane away, demons will grow, people will die. You know things will end up linearly, on a slow train ride through deserts, as the world turns to dark.

As an NPC in the Train Arc says on the radio – the shifts happened so slowly that no one noticed it until the effects were extreme.

Hmm… that sounds familiar…

And I say emotion, because once you drill into it, you realize this is a pretty dumb game overall and the reason that emotion exists is because of a silly fantasy narrative where almost every non-hero is literally Pointless.

The social system the game creates is one in which NPCs have zero power to do anything collectively, except maybe give you money which helps you save the world (oh wait, did I just make an argument for the existence of collective action by NPCs in JRPGs? Hm).

But still, it’s a powerful feeling. You grow to hate the night while playing FF15 – you can’t fast travel, overpowered enemies spawn. And this feeling is accentuated because the entire world and everything positive about it will be lost to that night.

 

Maybe this parallels our world now – talks of organization against fascism. Of course, our world is different. If people band together, they can do something! We don’t have to wait for a Prince Noctis. Still, those emotions of oh, shit about the future, that perpetually color our air, are worth noting.

It’s worth bringing up a game, Even the Ocean, which has a similar feeling on its second playthrough.

Spoilers for Even the Ocean

Even the Ocean is carefully colored by a silent tone of growing dread, culminating in the ending, where everyone dies. You can completely miss this by playing through quickly or skimming dialogue.

On a second playthrough, things are toned similarly to FF15 – you know the world will end, except in ETO, the world ending is permanent. So you get this sense of dread thinking about how people are idly sitting by or misinterpreting the situation, rather than, it’s a crazy fantasy plot and Prince Noctis and the Gods will swoop in and save it all!

It’s a hopeful, maybe realistic ending, once you drill down – one in which it’s acknowledged that there could have been change, a way to avoid the events of ETO’s ending – had people known to act together earlier.

Thanks to this piece by @eatthepen on jrpgsaredead whose observation about a weird feeling hearing a song play while driving, spurred me on to write this short piece.

If you liked this piece, consider buying Even the Ocean and telling friends about it!


A note on this blog coming back

Decided to re-consolidate things here… Medium was kind of annoying and weird to manage. Website works, but it’s nice to have this stuff working here and it looks like wordpress has decent backup exporting. Plus there’s old stuff here already.

On the blog name, not sure. It’s a term I use to describe my music, and I kind of like the juxtaposition it makes in your head. Blogs need a name, I guess.

Some essays from the time in between: http://seancom.nfshost.com/writing.html

It’s been 3 years since posting on here! Other than that writing, well, Joni and I finished Even the Ocean. Funny that the last post here was “goals of Even the Ocean”. I think we did a good job overall, the best we could. It’s not selling great. Oh well. Bad time to release and everyone wants to write about Hot Dogs 2 and Dishonorable the Second, and soon, This Game Again 15 and etc. (oops i just wrote about it too). We might get more coverage in coming months?

I kind of wish the press or Youtube or Twitch people, would do less talking about spreading diversity and then, uh, stamping it entirely out by never reporting or talking about minority work. I understand the economic issues behind why this isn’t always possible… but still!

A lot of other things happened, but are of less concern to this blog. I guess one main thing is that I now teach at SAIC  for the Experimental Game Lab class, in which I taught a bunch of minority work and had students make their own games. I hope to write about that in a few weeks once it wraps up, as well as release course materials (I’ll be teaching it in the spring, too.)