In Defense of Kemco

Capitalistic thinking does no favors for personal aspect of art. The amount of sells a videogame makes is a number that goes into a faceless vacuum. It has no bearing on my life, it enriches no part of myself. It may be an indicator of how easily a game is liked, but then the likability of something is also meaningless to its final quality. Yet the legitimacy of a game is still dependent on its market worth.

Bad Games and Kemco

Kemco is infamous as a shovelware publisher, an interpretation spread by small gatekeepers, a slow burn by word of mouth only. Maybe it’s true to their reputation in Japan. It’s not to my experience with their games. Though they can be rough around the edges, they’re inherently playful, and manage to present their genre take in some specific, individual way. I believe certain, unconscious, unshakable prejudices are the cause of these aspects being ignored. A “good” videogame hinges only on the appearance of being good, on the strength of its advertising and properties that are marketable. A bad videogame, then, is a game that fails to deliver the experienced advertised, or at the tier of “shovelware”, are unable to be advertised at all. And so the metrics of good and bad are precedents of budget, or, rarely, the luck of press and connections to make a game pass as if it had a budget.

Ask yourself: would you play a rpgmaker game? Not a semi-viral, well-regarded one, but take the plunge on an unknown title? Kemco games aren’t rpgmaker games, although they could pass as one, but the prevention of their legitimacy is shared with the scorn that has always been heaped on low-budget videogames. The idea being more expensive looking tells to a greater mastery or better resources supposedly needed to bring software to some ideal. As that’s no longer strictly relevant in the diversity of modern independent game development, the bias maintains a new form in requiring a standard of appearing as if they hit that presentational ideal. This concept gets condensed as “polish” and it’s an absolutely worthless classifier, a value that enables those with the more power and connections to dominate

It’s noticeable that there’s little celebration of free games in videogame press and communities. A free game cannot be good or bad, since it has opted out of the metrics of worth entirely. Neither are mobile games given press (interestingly a relatively more open platform than consoles), so the legitimacy of innumerable games is decided. It isn’t raw marketability or popularity, then, that matters, but the interpreted marketability based on the demographic that made enthusiast press to begin with; people who are interested in the output of corporations that are able to spend enough to be cutting edge. Kemco publishes, sometimes free, videogames for cellphones, that lack the market appeasement of polish, so the fundamental quality of their games is irrelevant. It’s not that Kemco doesn’t put out good games, it’s that their games aren’t allowed to be considered good.

All That Matters is That a Game is Fun

Justifying these prejudices is a belief that a game succeeds because of its greatness. That is what’s comforting about sales numbers, it’s a statistical measurement of software that is complex and intangible. Market impact really can only describe market impact, but whether or not people acknowledge that, gamers are more concerned with videogames that can penetrate their demographic. Discussions are always fixated on new games by console developers, while Ubisoft loudly demonstrates that this fixation and granting of press channels is for nothing of value.

Still, frustratingly among indie developers, is this belief that if a videogame is good enough it’ll succeed. Annoying platitudes come up, all that matters is that a game is good, or all that matters is that a game is fun, but no. All that matters is that a game had the opportunity to be advertised. Gamers believe in a meritocracy without examining their habits of consumption and discussion, they believe in a meritocracy based on a very narrow view of output. If a corporation can afford to get their game in a box on a console, if a developer is lucky enough to have their name made famous, sure, the field is “equal.” I’d like to believe this reality is obvious and not worth mentioning, but as much as it may be acknowledged, savvy gamers overwhelmingly prefer corporations and big names.

Good Games and Kemco

I think Symphony of Eternity is a java based game, it was released in 2009 through a phone subscription model, but was ported forward to modern smartphones (and localized) in 2012. To adapt for a platform not designed for videogames, the game’s scale is quaintly small and zoomed out, with animations that are sticky and stuttering. The overworld is very sparse, a plasticky layering of similar colors offering no depth or contract, while the dungeon maps are incredibly dense, despite the scale for tiles and the amount of detail overall being low. Later dungeons follow an expanding sequence and frame rooms in a very punchy way, it’s easy to inhabit the areas, but playing is rough at the start with arbitrary mazes that don’t seem to grow or develop into anything.

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In battle, Symphony of Eternity is brilliant. Animations may be rudimentary, but the main party’s character designs capture three perspectives, and monsters are large and detailed in homage to old Final Fantasy. This detail is precedent, combat is how this game expresses itself. Similar to Final Fantasy V, there are jobs to master, and any class’ learned abilities are gained permanently. Unlike Final Fantasy, the jobs, called tablets (or kits depending on the character) aren’t given out by the story, but need to be found or bought. They’re not charge or a requirement by other powers, they’re instead a result of labor. Tablets that can be used are specific to each character, though with overlap. This alludes to commonality between the playable characters, while also allowing fundamental individuality. The characters just aren’t clay to be molded, but have relevant inclinations and biases. A system centering the acquisition (or absorption for the robots) of knowledge, a pursuit that is still personal, for every person has a different potential.

The combo and break system is unique and ends up allowing knowledgeable characters to put over bosses. Without mastering jobs or setting up powerful breaks, boss fights are grueling ten minute affairs. Playing well unlocks that unsurety, a difference of domination that would otherwise end up taxing available resources. A break triples the damage of an attack and has it occur immediately, regardless of speed. Successive attacks cause a combo, each subsequent source of damage increasing in power. Comboing breaks is the obvious course of action, but breaks come slowly, normally only one per boss fight, so the party needs to be completely ready to not be wasteful. Debuffs are graciously accepted by bosses; there’s then a ritualized foreplay of creating the best possible conditions by buffing, debuffing, shifting stats around, and charging the relevant damage stat. A tense air forms as these spells last for a short time, while characters reduce their defensive stats sharply to increase their damage. It’s a sharp scenario of risk and reward, of crippling and hitting the exact ecstatic moment of personal relevance, of a forceful breakthrough. Then a few minutes of winding down with straightforward attacking and healing.

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Symphony of Eternity’s narrative doesn’t really do any favors for its explosive ludics. It’s more competent than Chrono Trigger at similar shrug worthy themes of hope and human excellence, something I don’t think is inherent, or even needed to justify existence. There’s a theme of atonement though, instead of the more common flat exorcism of threats. The effects of multiple conflicts in the past are detailed, the game has a simple but coherent history, and humans paved way for both of the concurrent antagonistic threats. With quasi-religious theming (the protagonist is literally named Kreist) these conflicts feel like manifestations of original sin, a fundamental awfulness in human existence, that the party has to repent for. No matter how terrible the lineage, it won’t hold back someone who wishes to do good. I appreciate the gestures because I don’t gel with any ideology about natural evil, it’s just too morose to carry around.

For the record, I enjoyed Symphony of Eternity much more than other popular games from 2012, it’s a hell of a lot more coherent and better feeling than Far Cry 3 or Spec Ops: The Line. Realistically, Symphony of Eternity isn’t “important” or wholly unique. It’s just a really competent genre title. It’s apparently okay for big publishers to put out a tirade of genre games, to slowly change and spin their wheels. Smaller developers, like Kemco, with less resources, have the weight and responsibility, even the expectation, to experiment and innovate, despite having no inherent platform for it. At the very least I’d like to see this stigma for “cheap” looking games to erode, for videogames to be judged not by the success of their presentation, but their ability to communicate and the effect of their fundamental aesthetic.

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