In Praise of the B-Game

In Praise of the B-Game

2016 IN REVIEW: As triple-A game design grinds to a stagnant halt, the unexpected return of mid-budget console software keeps things lively, if flawed.

I cannot tell a lie: I've had a difficult time of late getting excited about the things the games industry spends its money to hype me up about. Chances are pretty good that if a game has enough of a marketing budget to appear in, say, a television ad, my feelings will trend toward "indifference."

Maybe I'm becoming a curmudgeon in my old age (as if I hadn't already been one when I was young!)... but mostly I think the issue at hand is that the nature of games and trends in games has shifted focus over time, while my interests have stayed largely the same. I would describe myself not as someone who enjoys gaming for the sake of simply gaming — for the sake of staying atop of trends or design fashion — but rather who is interested in gaming because certain kinds of games ping my brain's happy zones. It's not the act of playing a video game itself that brings me enjoyment, but rather playing the specific kinds of games that I enjoy... and which, increasingly, fall outside the medium's mainstream, where the marketing bucks reside.

I am, of course, happy to make exceptions to my churlishness.

I'm OK with that! I enjoy some big-budget titles — in the past month I've gotten a charge out of Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian, which surely were expensive projects simply due to the time frame each one encompassed. But for the most part, I'm content to let Mike, Kat, and Jaz tackle the high-profile games that beckon to their pleasure centers while I muck around with the more modest, less impressive-looking creations created by smaller teams on smaller budgets (which, in fairness, they also enjoy). There's no guarantee that a game produced with more modest resources will necessarily be more artistic or authentic than a blockbuster title, but at the very least it's less likely to work within the rigid boundaries of triple-A software design, which I find increasingly frustrating.

Or something! Whatever. All I know is that the games I got a charge out of this year were mostly produced on smaller budgets and that their release plans were almost certainly discussed in worried tones and lots of charts packed with tentative, potentially disastrous sales projections. Many of them were filled with what can only be termed "jank": Awkward controls, or visual glitches, or distracting pauses to load data, or non-standard control schemes, or any of the countless other quirks and defects that focus groups and publisher pipelines obsessively squeeze out from software bearing sales expectations in the multiple millions. And I loved them for their messy, sloppy, imperfect reality.

A very good game!

Take, for example, Dragon Quest Builders. As I said in my review, you could easily have dismissed the game as some cynical attempt by Square Enix to infuse the aging Dragon Quest franchise with something akin to relevance by riding Minecraft's coattails. And maybe that was the inspiration. But its talented development team — led by Etrian Odyssey creator Kazuya Niinou — infused Builders with a spark of its own life and invention; not simply content to give players Minecraft-but-with-Dragon-Quest-aesthetics, they created a brilliant synthesis of two genres that demonstrates all the best qualities of both. The character progression inherent to RPGs remains in Builders as you acquire additional health, but rather than being restricted simply to numeric stats your experience and progression instead takes the form of concrete skills. When your little protagonist levels up, her or she does so by gaining the ability to create new objects and synthesize new materials. Builders transmutes the abstract concept of "leveling up" into something literally concrete. And, at the same time, it brings much-needed structure and direction to the builder genre, which traditionally has taken the form of meandering sandboxes.

And Builders did all of this on a fairly modest budget. It's a nice-looking game for sure, thanks to its plasticine graphical style, but Dragon Quest is one of those series, like Pokémon, where you get the feeling that even though it's an absolute colossus in terms of sales, its publisher is happy to invest as little money as possible into it. In Builders, that parsimony manifests itself in the game's dopey control scheme. The button assignments Square Enix decided to go with for this particular adventure are downright bizarre, like nothing in any action-RPG I've ever played before; even more bewildering is the fact that you can't change them. At all. This is precisely the sort of thing that would never fly in a blockbuster game; it would have been focus-tested to death, and the resulting notes would have demanded a more standard configuration. But focus group would have changed a great many other things about the game as well, almost certainly whittling away much of what makes Builders unique and interesting. A crummy control scheme seems like a small price to pay in exchange for such an innovative adventure, don't you think?

One other game that caught my eye this year came from Gust and Tecmo Koei: Nights of Azure. As tends to be the case with Gust, Nights of Azure focuses on female characters and lots of anime tropes. But I tend to associate Gust with the turn-based and decidedly convoluted Atelier series, whereas Nights of Azure takes the form of an action-RPG. Specifically, as I mentioned in my review, it bears a striking resemblance to PlayStation 2-era action-RPGs such as Castlevania: Curse of Darkness. And that's fantastic!

Also a very good game! Even though this screenshot makes it look terrible. Sorry, 3DS screens don't scale up well.

The funny thing is, no one really liked Curse of Darkness back when it was new. It was — yes — janky and a bit awkward. It felt out of step with forward-thinking design trends. Well, a decade later, those "forward-thinking design trends" have led many games to the same ossified ending: The uniform interfaces and mechanics of big-budget software. That uniformity exists because, well, it works and makes sense; a big part of what made games like Halo so revolutionary had to do with the fact that they matched interesting design to control schemes that felt intuitive and natural. It's little surprise that the rest of the industry soon rushed to standardize popular practices, but it has led to a nagging sensation that every game is the same. I remember feeling that way about 2D platformers in the 16-bit era, but honestly it's grown much worse in the modern age.

Except, that is, with rare oddities like Nights of Azure, which have an appealing clumsiness about them. I really feel like Gust's heart was in the right place with this one: The main characters clearly are in love with one another despite both being (gasp!) women, but the sapphic overtones of their relationship don't feel like cynical exploitation; they feel like, well, a romance — a life-long bond. (Yes, even through the rather less-than-elegant English localization.) That's not to say the game keeps it totally on the up-and-up; the leading ladies' character designs have quite a bit of, ah, fan appeal, and the heroine can only perform magic rituals while wearing clingy, diaphanous wedding-night lingerie. Again, though, those elements of shameless pandering seem a small price to pay for a game that feels both earnest and refreshingly unpolished. No, I'm not sure exactly when "unpolished" became a good thing — and by no means is it always an admirable trait in a game. In this case, though, it worked. Nights of Azure served as a reminder of an era in gaming during which rough, ambitious, creative games were the rule, not the exception. (It wasn't actually that long ago!)

But that's not to say a game has to be full of jank in order to scratch my B-game itch. Nintendo publishes a fair few B-games, and Nintendo doesn't do "janky." Consider this year's entry in the Kirby series, Planet Robobot. There's nothing sloppy or half-formed about Planet Robobot; as with every Kirby game since the very beginning, it absolutely shines with polish and refinement. But you'd never mistake it for a blockbuster game; it just doesn't fall into that category. It's too simple, too direct, too... well, too portable.

A good game, despite the extraordinary impracticality of the heroine's demon-fighting outfit!

There was a thread on NeoGAF a while back in which someone pointed out the fact that Kirby games consistently sell almost exactly a million copies apiece, year in and year out. Another poster made an excellent point: There's something to be said for a publisher that's content to produce a series with a relatively modest, stable sales target and be both profitable and inventive with it. Nintendo and HAL have a pretty great system in place with Kirby — as was explained to me a few years ago, HAL basically works on an alternating cycle with the franchise. One year they create a classic Kirby 2D platformer, while the next they let their freak flag fly and come up with something more offbeat. I'm not actually sure where Planet Robobot falls in that scheme, though; it's a pretty typical Kirby platformer in most respects. But, on the other hand: Giant robots. So who knows?

Anyway, the point of all of this is that the games I enjoyed most this year generally didn't have enormous budgets behind them. They weren't best-sellers. They probably barely moved the needle at retail in the U.S., and were largely overlooked by most and quickly forgotten by others. But they existed, and I'm grateful.

In no way am I denigrating big-budget games. I mean, Overwatch seems like it's pretty phenomenal. It's not for me, because I have zero interest in competitive gaming, but I'm happy that so many people enjoy a game so genuinely exuberant and colorful and packed with personality! Blockbusters need to exist, because the better they do, the more the gaming audience grows. And the more people we have playing video games, the more room there is in the medium for the janky, quirky, or low-budget little games to find purchase. So keep on playing those crowd-pleasing epics, those sure-fire, carefully cultivated hits targeted directly at the top of the sales chart. And I'll keep on playing all the weird stuff that pops up in their shade. What a great system we've created here, together.

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