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ASK MATT
Oh No! ...Onnolia.
August 29, 2007

Matthew Demers - 08:05 EST

THERE ARE SOME fun letters in my inbox just waiting to be answered, so I'll keep this intro short. To answer the questions I've been receiving, the answer is yes: I'm going to be leaving RPGamer after more than two years, this winter after Sock 2 has concluded. It was a tough decision to make, but the time has come. I'll miss working for the site like nothing else in the world, but it would be fun to stay in contact with some of the great people I've met- readers and staff members- during my years in the captain's chair.

One way or another, that's still months away, and I have a column to write. So, let's begin!




LETTERS
Hard & Easy Like Sunday Morning (I don't even know what this means, but it sounds really funny. Jeremy wrote it.)


Hey Matt,

It's Jeremy, your favorate nerd/Texan/NewYorker. Okay, I really thought this letter out, so I expect some heavy thinking, or at least some candid replies from peeps if you post this letter.

Matt

Heavy thinking!? Sounds, uh, heavy. I don't know if I like what you're pulling here...

Here's a question I wonder about a lot: what makes an RPG 'hard'? When people write about an RPG being 'too easy', I'm not sure what they mean. Does this mean that they cheated and got a super powerful weapon early in the game that they weren't supposed to have as a first-time player, or does it mean that they followed only the main story path and only had to pus the "Confirm" button over and over to win anything?

For example, Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest was an 'easy' game, but I never figured out a way to beat the final boss, making it 'hard' (hey, I was young then, give me SOME credit). Is hard definable simply by how long it takes you to defeat enemies when you encounter them, or mostly by uber-challenging bosses, or how long it takes you to slog through a level? (Worse yet, if it's a boring dungeon crawl, the patience it takes to get through this is 'hard'.)

Matt

That's true, but I'd tend to use different words, myself. If a game is hard because playing it is like watching paint drying on slowly growing grass, then I'm more likely to describe it by the words "tedious," "hellishly boring," or "awful," all of which are a lot less ambiguous.

I think that a game's true difficulty can be determined by one overarching theme: "Do I need to use my brain or employ any special strategies in order to progress?" If the answer is yes, then challenge, in some sense, is there. That challenge might take the form of some well-thought-out puzzles in dungeons, or it could be an interesting battle system. Truly challenging RPGs (and, for myself, I could almost replace the word "challenging" here with "good" instead) will feature many different forms of challenge. I think, though, that opposed to "hard," "challenging" is the right word to use here. If I were saying this out loud, by the way, I could choose to irritatingly say "quote un-quote" way too many times; I just realized this randomly right now for some reason.

Some games, however, can take the idea of challenge in a terrifying, different way; these are the games that I like to call hard or even evil. In the case of RPGs, old-school gamers know these well; any Final Fantasy for the NES would make a fantastic example. They're the games that can make you go for big, long stretches without any save points, even though upon defeat you retain nothing for your efforts. Hard. Evil. In these cases, any single battle might be really easy- a matter of just hitting a single button- but one unfortunate back-attack could dump a Game Over screen in your lap. This kind of challenge is, to me, not a really enjoyable thing. This is my feeling on the connotations of the word "hard" in contrast to other choices of adjectives.

For fear of overramblement, I pass the torch back to you here.

Whatever the factors of gameplay involved, you have to admit that there is a difference between an RPG being a challenge to advance the story line and being hard to pick up and turn the 'on' button on your console, or carve your time out of a day because playing it is considered a chore pyschologically.

I can illustrate this with a recent game, Rogue Galaxy. The actual battles were pretty 'easy', and it's a well-made beautiful game, so it makes it 'easy' to play, but some of the dungeons were TORTURE to slog through, making it 'hard' at times. I believe this is what other video game reviewers call "uninspired".

Matt

Ew, yes. There are several games that suffer from this, too- this, of course, falling cleanly into the "boring" box. Almost any game with randomly-generated dungeons will fit here, incidentally. *shudder*

Another example is with the most recent Dragon Quest/Warrior games. I considered Dragon Quest 8 challenging because enemies didn't all follow three-step attack patterns that were easy to guess, and it never seemed like you could much over-power yourself. There was actually a reward to levelling up enough so that enemies were easier to slay, but not THAT MUCH easier.

Dragon Quest 7, however, was HARD to pickup because there was no real emotional reward to accomplishing something (and it was hard, to boot). Some people (masochists, mostly), find challenging games like Dragon Quest 7 worth more of an emotional reward because of the effort involved in playing, and some people find more emotional reward in games that are more balanced, and get hard at the right times, like just before a pivotal boss battle. And sometimes, bizzarely enough, people find games hard because of the amount of effort you have to put in after a boss-battle failure - like when you have to watch a long, involved cut-scene that can't be skipped.

Matt

Dragon Quest VII is a bit of an oddball in the series that way. Some of the mini-stories are a little bit satisfying, but there are just so damn many of them that you just stop caring after, you know, the fifteenth or so. You start wondering when the game is going to moooove on. Additionally, the sweet balance of the Dragon Quest battle system is there, but it's strangely, slightly off in VII, for a few reasons I'm not about to get into. For those reasons, I often found myself less able to focus on the game. In comparison, VIII was a complete breath of fresh air.

I have to admit that I really agree with you on the cut-scene skippage. It can be really, really frustrating to have to sit for five or ten minutes scrolling through screens you've seen fifty times before with no other option in sight. At least having the option to be able to hit "Start" is very, very nice.

So, what defines a 'hard' game to you? The effort it takes to pick Up And play, the average non-boss enemy encounter, the boss battle encounters, or the varying punishments for failing in battle, like having to rewatch cut-scenes or start a dungeon over?

Jeremy (www.themoralorder.com)

Matt

Heh, I guess I've pretty much answered this by interrupting you repeatedly, as I tend to rudely do. I think that I use the word "hard" when I'm describing a difficult, evil, sadistic sort of game that might occasionally cause you to want to stop playing upon achieving a game over. Sometimes you might stop playing for awhile, and sometimes you might stop forever; other times, you throw down the controller, go pee, go get a drink, come back, and try again.

For many people, these really HARD games are what the core of video gaming is all about. For others, like myself, the games that stretch your mind and get you thinking about what you're doing, saving you from the 50%-conscious blank-stare one-button-fest... those are the games that are truly worth your while.

Hopefully this was thoughtful enough for you! I think I stressed myself out while pondering it, too- my shoulders are suddenly feeling uncharacteristically tense.

Good to hear from you again, Jeremy! I think you really are my favourite nerdy Texan/New Yorker after all.



A few non-pineapple-related tidbits


Hey Matt,

Post this... or die. Just kidding! ^_^

Matt

Eh, I was defeated a long time ago. Grad school turned me into a soulless husk of a man about a year ago, I think.

I HTML tagged this letter to make it easier for you. I hope it helps!

Matt

Yeah, and you have no idea how... absolutely HOT that is. Really and truthfully, your letter made me smile when I saw it. See what writing a couple of Q&A columns does to a guy?

So, I want to explain what makes the DDS games so nasty. First of all, you have three turns per round. Each action takes one turn, except passing, which takes a half turn. Hitting an enemy weakness, while doing more damage and possibly frightening them, will only cost a half-turn instead of a full one. If an attack misses, the turn, as well as an extra one, are both lost. If an attacked is repelled or the enemy is strong to it, up to three turns could be used. Of course, the enemies use the same rules as you.

If you don't know what attacks the enemies use, they might just tear you a new one. Every character has weaknesses that must be overcome, or protected, or you will be getting pounded upon quite frequently (and spending turns healing). Also, your characters need to be set to use the correct skills, or they might not be able to damage the enemies at all. Therefore, you need to find out what weaknesses all the enemies have and then build a battle party that can handle them.

It is very easy to grind in these games. Learn what the enemies can and can't do, and then exploit them. Is the enemy weak to Earth? Hit it with constant Tera spells. Immune to Physical attacks? Use magic. You learn it all pretty quickly. At higher levels you can start using passive skills to block weaknesses or create immunities. A high level fighter type may have learned Null-Phys or Null Phys (first one is a single round protection spell that blocks physical attacks, second actually makes the character immune to them). Using such skills you can tailor your group for any challenge.

Towards the end of the games, most of the monsters have multiple strengths and few weaknesses. Once you fight them a few times, they do become easy, but that doesn't stop them from killing you via ambush.

Matt

Excellent- you explained it way better than I ever could have. In retrospect, though, I guess I didn't do too badly of a job. One thing is for certain: You have to know your foes in that game, which is something that few games beyond Pokémon require anymore. I really like the idea.

Today is Metroid Prime 3 day! Are you getting it? My copy came in—Should I go get it? I need an excuse to skip work for a week...

Matt

Oh Sean... I tried. On my bike ride back from my professor's house, I stopped to get groceries, and then thought to myself "Hmmm... I wonder if it's in?" I made an extra stop at the mall, hoping that my perishable food items wouldn't spoil with the little detour. After standing in line for ten minutes, I was told that they were sold out- yeah, I know, I should have pre-ordered. No matter, though; I'll have it soon enough. I've heard really good things!

I think I am finally approaching the end to Brave Story. My main guy just got level 50 last night, so I figure it must be getting ready to conclude soon. It has been a fun ride! *whispers in Matt's ear* Buy a PSP or your DS gets it!

Matt

Silly rabbit. Actually, you know, I'm starting to think that first and foremost, I may have another large expense on the way... a laptop. I've been avoiding it for so long, but it's getting irritating to be a grad student and not have one, because I have to remember to save everything onto my USB key and then steal a supervisor's (Herb's) computer when I head to campus, something that has just got to be irritating as hell.

Enjoy your week, Matt. I hope you get everything done on time!

Regards,

Sean

PS Send me letters people! I need 21 like Matt has...

Matt

Oh, I'll get everything done, no worries. And hey, it's not that hard to get 21 letters in the inbox- just run a contest that provides some extra incentive. You'll catch on. And hey, you're doing a tremendous job already, so I'm sure people will warm up to you in no time. :)

Until next time, Sean!



Taboo! It's all taboo!


Hi Matt!

Nice to have you back. I realized (upon seeing reaction of others, and myself) that sexuality is a topic almost never discussed on the letters column. In fact, that's similar in RPGs as well. There are plenty of love stories and sometimes sexual innuendos but almost nothing else.

Matt

It's funny too, because RPGs are, in a sense, the most "human" games out there. Many games seek to provoke emotional responses by poking at many different topics, and everything- from love, to religion, to war, to death, to the idea of evil- is examined in quite a bit of depth in many games.

But here we have the subject of sexuality that is a part of just about everyone's life. At first glance, it seems odd that it isn't a topic that comes up much, but we live in an age where, for some reason, sex has become the most incredibly taboo topic. It doesn't take much to see this, though, in other areas. Why is it, for instance, that we can turn on CSI five nights a week and see grotesquely and unnaturally mutilated bodies hanging from the ceiling, yet the minute that Janet Jackson exposes almost one *whole* boob, the entire world freaks out incredibly? It seems unbelievably backwards to me.

I can't think of a single sex scene (which is not surprising) but also, I can hardly think of any implied sex. There's the much debated night of Cloud and Tifa before going to the northern crater, I recall Ramsus and Miang being in bed at night (and later in the Xenogears a slightly similar scene with Fei and Elly)... Anything else?

Matt

I can think of one, and exactly one, off the top of my mind... at least, if you don't count the Starry Shrine moments of the Dragon Quest Monsters games, heh heh.

What is that example? Madonna and Maduin in the Esper World of Final Fantasy VI. I thought it was a wonderful scene, too, because without much at all in the way of text, the implication of the intermingling stars and such was very, very clear. Yeah, I liked that a lot.

Think of how few games feature nudity at all in the first place- even of the PG-13 variety? And you know, there's no way that sex scenes, X-rated or R-rated, will make it into mainstream gaming in this lifetime. You think that Dr.Phil, J.T., and the world of the yuppies hate video gaming now? Just imagine!

I guess the most obvious reason for this is trying to keep the ESRB rating down. What do you think?

Zohar Gilboa

Matt

I guess I've answered this question as I've gone on, like I did with Jeremy up a couple of screens ago. I really think that we live in a society that is ridiculously and unnecessarily uptight about a subject upon which our species' survival rests. If that makes me a crazy left-winger, then I guess I'm a crazy left-winger. I don't mean to say that sexuality must necessarily be inserted into every RPG that we play, but there are times when sure, I think that use of the theme could potentially contribute to the construction of a really fantastic, thought-provoking playing experience.

What are your thoughts? I'll make this a hot topic to replace the other "sexual" topic on the board, perhaps. Whether you agree with me, disagree, or just want to ponder the idea, I'd love to hear your opinions!

Thanks, Zohar.



Close to home.


Matt,

Just had to write in, I was gonna anyways, but when you mentioned those storms I instantly grew angry. See, last Friday (Aug 24) a massive storm crashed through Detroit and you'll guessed exactly what happened. I was playing the first Grandia and was just level grinding to level up my magic; I hadn't saved in like four hours. And that is very unlike me too. Well, when I decided to save since it was really looking ugly outside, the power cut out. I freaked! It went out for like two seconds, and then flashed back on just to tell me the system restarted then flashed out again. I think I broke my controller when I threw it against my desk. I was especially mad since I don't get too many moments now that I can waste four hours at a time on a game. Oh well, I learned my lesson I guess.

The Dark Chevalier

P.S. Good to have you back, though Sean is a good addition to the team.

Matt

Oh my FUN! Those were the exact thunderstorms that I suffered through, because my hometown of Chatham, Ontario, is just across the lake from Detroit. They WERE unbelievably scary, and apparently, there were even some highly destructive tornadoes in the area! My family and I had Chuck Gaidica and his "4D Titan" radar on for like two hours as my dad scrambled to get everyone in from outside on the farm and the rest of us brought in patio furniture from outside. Scary stuff. That was one INTENSE storm.

I'm sorry about the loss, though. That's so incredibly frustrating- it's enough when a game is frustrating on its own, without having other circumstances come into play. I remember playing Star Ocean 3, and getting incredibly irritated at Moonbase or some other really difficult area, due to excessive Game Overage. When I finally made progress, there was a sudden power outage (no storm, no nothing). I think I threw down the controller, silently walked away and stared at myself in the mirror while shaking my head for about five minutes. Then the power came back on, the smoke detector went off as a result, and I nearly leapt out of my skin.

Thanks for sharing! And I'll agree: Sean is great. Hopefully he'll be around for a long time to come, too.



Big flagships. Departing flagships.


It's not an RPG, but it was a crushing blow nonetheless, and worse was that it was self inflicted: I had Kirby's Dream Land 3 for the Super Nintendo, was in a very difficult section, and got frustrated enough to bang on my Super Nintendo. I ended up hitting the lever to eject and it moved juuuuuuuuuuuuuuuust enough to erase all the data on the cartridge. From that day forward I just threw my controllers down in frustration.

Matt

Oh no... that's terrible! And yeah, you have nobody to blame but yourself, which is a lot worse, too. I remember once when I was, oh, twelve or so, when my dad walked through the room while I was playing some Dragon Warrior game. Pick up his feet he did not, and he took the poor NES with him, which crashed on the ground, leaving the screen doing that stupid flashing-periodically-thing that only the NES did. My heart sank, and I yelled so loudly- I don't think I've ever seen my dad apologize so much over a video game, too. My file was intact, though it had been awhile since I had saved. Less painful than your situation, for sure, but I thought I'd share. My point is that that was definitely a case where I could cry "NOT MY FAULT!"

On a happier note, do you remember renting RPGs from video stores? Before the days of memory cards, everything was stored on the cartridge. Renting the game was just like starting anew with it so you had to squeeze out all the enjoyment from a game in the short time you had it. (Once I got to the lunar core in FF7 where I think my characters were in the high 40s levelwise and I gave up when I was defeated trying to get to the super weapons. This was after about 19-20 hours or so.) One time when I was still in elementary school and was in the habit of renting a NES game every weekend, I decided to get The Legend of Zelda and discovered to my joy that the game that my babysitter and myself had been working on 6 months back was still waiting for me.

Bucket

Matt

Oh man, I know I've recounted this story a thousand times by this point, but I just have to share yet again. Renting Dragon Warrior III back as a young'un was the most traumatic experience ever. I knew that I was one of the few people to rent it regularly, but I knew too that every time I brought it back to the store, there was the risk that someone else would erase my quest. I rented the game at least ten times, and on one occasion, I opened up my file to find everybody completely dead and almost no money in my bank. Augh! Of course, you know how the story ends... or at least you should if you read regularly. Actually, perhaps I'll make that one of today's Sock questions. Yes, yes.

Anyway, I totally remember those days too, Bucket... those ten-hour marathons were absolutely insane, and I think my skull would burst if I tried that sort of thing now. Even with the memory card, Final Fantasy VII was still a race for me (and an even bigger one, too) because I rented the entire PlayStation with the game... twice. The first time I beat the game, I invested 54 hours over the course of one week. Wow, I felt like a truck had run me over after that was done with, to say the least.

Good to hear from you, Bucket!



QUICKIES

Hey Matt,
Just out of curiosity, what do you think was the most definitive two-dimensional Dragon Quest game of the series? I say 2-D since DQ8 brought it to 3-D, and proved the simplest formulas for RPGs can work on the most complex of game consoles, compared to FF12. So, which 2-D game really brought out the best of the series BEFORE DQ8?
BLG

Matt

That's a tough one, because I think that there are a couple of possible "definitives." Dragon Warrior III is the epitome of classic gameplay; there's no doubt about that. Dragon Warrior IV, however, blended some of that gameplay with a niftier story to create my very favourite game of the series. This is why, though, I'm looking forward to Dragon Quest V and VI DS so much: I've never played an official translation, and I can't wait to see what's in store. Perhaps I'll have a new favourite!

Did you hear the news? No DQIX until 08 at the earliest. Thoughts? :P

Matt

Yes. Don't remind me. I guess I figured that this was pretty inevitable, though. And besides, with Dragon Quest IV, V, and VI coming out soon, I'm still a very, very happy slime.



IN CLOSING

Another early start, but if I don't do 'em early this week, they won't happen. Have you ever had a ton of obligations in your life when all you really want to do is sit down and do something else? That's pretty much the story of my life.

Anyway, you read about it above, but what are your feelings of sexuality in RPGs- or, more accurately, the absence of the theme in virtually all games? Could games stand to benefit from having the freedom to explore the topic more freely? Does society need a swift kick in the ass first? Or is the fact that it isn't explored a good thing? I'm interested to hear your opinions on the subject, so get writing!

Otherwise, keep reading. I'll be back tomorrow, rest assured.



Send a Letter!

Unanswered Letter Backlog: 27 - very good



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Matt is off to the Ex!


Tom keeps talking about Curly-Q fries, a food item that may be found at the CNE. However, if I hear "Curly-Q fries" just one more time, I may have to knock somebody between the eyes.

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