My recent rants about some of the character design in Overwatch has gotten me to think about some new… design terminology. I kept using the word ‘lateral’ in reference to character design and people didn’t get what that means. So I want to try and explain this because it’s helped me think about designing certain things a little different. So first, lets talk about DESIGN LITERALISM.
This is McCree. I hate McCree. I have issues with other characters, but I am EMBARRASSED by McCree. I’ve spent a lot of words picking on Overwatch on Twitter and Tumblr, but since I actively want to like most of those characters I criticize, I’m going to ease up and focus on McCree. Because I won’t feel bad in the least.
I’m still not sure anyone actually did any actual designing with McCree. You say “Space Cowboy” and this guy is basically what most people would have pop into their head. You’re either going to have a Cyber Clint Eastwood/Stranger or a Cyber John Wayne. Maybe if you’re a special soul you’d imagine that totally sweet Kung Fu Cowboy on Mars from that Muse video. McCree is about a literal a design as you can have. You have two descriptors and you receive exactly what it says on the tin. Besides the stupid ‘BAMF’ on his belt, there is not a single unexpected, clever or interesting design element to this character. I did a google image search for ‘Space Cowboy’ and got close to the same design. Different style, obviously, but still.
The sad thing is, this design with it’s dorky but interesting astronaut head bubble and the others I saw were often at least a little bit more interesting. Not necessarily as good or well executed (McCree, if nothing else, is refined, polished genericness) but having thought into what western tropes could be converted sensibly into science fiction themes… and not just… a cowboy with some cybery bits.
Literalism isn’t always bad. Sometimes it’s appropriate. Sometimes you’re making an NPC! Sometimes you’re aiming for realism. Red Dead Redemption’s protagonist isn’t particularly out there in his design, but like costuming for a movie, there is almost so much you can do. A lot of the armors in Dark and Demon’s Souls are very literal to historic armor, often to the point of becoming their own awkward aesthetic. But in the case of someone like McCree where you’re still making up elements because you are, in theory, concocting something new in a new setting, there is little excuse for not having a bit of lateralism. But what IS lateralism?
Lateralism is divergence from the expected interpretation. When you lay out the basic description of a character like say “Cyber Cowboy”, how different is it from the tropey image that conjures. It’s not about being complicated. It’s not about necessarily adding detail. It’s about interpretation. Like you can’t go A “CYBER COWBOY… BUT HE’S A NINJA”, because you’re just adding ninja to the description.
Bayonetta is like the queen of design lateralism. “Sexy witch” …. “Sexy moon witch”? … “Sexy Gun witch”? “Sexy ELEGENT gun witch”? Does any one sentence properly describe or capture the essence of Bayonetta’s design? Bayonetta has very little to do with a witch, but none the less is very witchy. The beehive hair as a cover for the a pointy cap… the arcane baubles covering her body, the subtle gold trim, the look of her guns… She’s just WITCHY… While not at all being what you’d imagine when someone said ‘sexy witch’. Well, besides the fact you KNOW Bayonetta now and of COURSE think of her when someone says ‘sexy witch’ because you have good taste. Bayonetta is an amazingly awesome design that does a lot of work. She’s also absolutely layered with detail, down to embossed runes down the seam lines of her hair-leather outfit. Does lateral have to be crazy and complex?
Lets talk about Sam from Metal Gear Rising. I love Sam because his design is very simple, let very complicated. How would you describe Sam…? Future South American Samurai? Sam comes off as Samurai-y but it’s subtle. The facial hair and top knottish pony tail. The beefed up legs of his suit which have that ‘tucked hakama’ feel without actually being that. And of course a katana. And then the details like the severed arm that isn’t obvious and IS THAT A GUN SHEATH? And that’s a detail that isn’t just ‘lets slap future stuff on old stuff’ it’s a design element that plays into how he moves and operates and uses quickdraws. Sam is super simple but every part of his design involved someone stopping for a second and considering “How should this look”. Not taking the obvious road isn’t about being difficult or being different for the sake of being different, it’s because there is almost always a BETTER answer than what is immediately obvious. You’re not stepping laterally to disguise your design, you’re stepping laterally to escape your own assumptions about how something should be.
Johnny is a character I think about a lot. Because Johnny is great. But then I look at him and it’s like “isn’t this some bottom of the barrel character design? Why is it okay?” But when you think about what Johnny is, he’s actually… not quite any of that. A cool sky pirate captain? To quote a friend “he doesn’t even have goggles”. What makes Johnny interesting is he’s TROPEY and SIMPLE but he’s not literal. The hat invokes some western vibes which can invoke some outlaw vibes. Having a katana that’s in a shirasaya housing kinda has a sense of austerity. It can also be bandity (I could afford a blade not not a real housing). The duster is also very western but the pants and boots and glaces are more fitted, modern and stylish. Johnny is a THOUGHT OUT BAG OF TROPES. You can be SUPER DUPER SIMPLE AND TROPEY AND CHEESE BALL and STILL have levels of sophistication and lateralism in your design.
Megaten games are LITTERED with lateral design. Depicting the Buddhist character of Mara, a representation of self destructive lust and desire as a dick on a chariot? It’s strange and very direct in it’s symbolism.
Caesar is one of my favorite designs for a persona. Like “oh it’s just a roman soldier with a globe” but the man inside, who is basically controlling an anthropomorphized Rome is super interesting. It’s a detail that rewards attention. You can grasp the design at a glance but really looking at those elements really helps. You are REWARDED for putting your eyes Megaten designs, because they are so well thought out. And again, it’s not a COMPLICATED design.
Dark Soul’s basilisks are another great example. From likes to use very literal designs next to very lateral ones. You can wear “basically real historic armor” vs what is basically a straight forward minotaur demon but then you get shit like this. No interpretation of a basilisk looks anything like this, outside of the vague lizardiness. The eyes are alarming, the frog like…. sac thing is perfect for communicating that this thing blows a projectile. You can look close at it and see that it as actual real, small eyes and it’s beak looking thing is its actual head. It’s weird and alarming looking while being dorky. The LITERAL thing to do for most monster designs is to make them look as scary as possible, but From is good at realizing that “weird” is unnerving.
Locations and other elements of design can also be lateral. A lot of European board games for example are SUPER lateral (have a theme for a game and then have rules that I GUESS KINDA SORTA ARE LIKE THAT THEME). But Ash Lake is a good example of a location like that. Not an obvious sight for ‘bottom of the world’. The opposite of the very literal ‘abyss’ that is also in the game. I could probably think of a better example, but right now DS is on my mind, so it’s the first place my mind went.
Now before I close up, I want to be clear on a few things…
First: It’s not necessarily important to be lateral or to avoid being literal. Often using these elements in contrast is important! Having a totally typical person in historic full plate with a totally modern SMG is not very lateral for example but the clean juxtaposition of something like that can be effective (see: Shadow Tower Abyss). But even when you are being literal you should still arrive there in the same way that leads to good lateral design — consider all the elements and why you designed them the way you did. A lot of the BEP characters are not really lateral but they’re elements are considered (little things like ‘try to invoke a football player silhouette’ ‘mix materials intentionally anachronistically’ blahblahblah). And being the game has been in the works for so long, I kinda wish I did some things differently anyways (I might still try and get a sorta redesign of Naomi’s armor since the small resolution of the sprites makes that a think I can get away with). And don’t get me started on ‘lateral color choices’ for limited palette games!
Second: Context matters. Back when no one had made any fighting games, just having KARATE MAN and SUMO MAN was fine. Then SNK tried to do the same thing and everyone was like “bro that’s lame”, leading them to go crazy with their designs to compensate. Bayonetta is very lateral but a lot of witchy stuff has drawn from her design pool, diluting the lateralness of certain elements. If you say “witchy guns” I’m gonna think Bayonetta’s gones at this point, just like if you say ‘energy sword’ I’m going to think of a light saber. ‘Lateral’ changes with the times.
Third: If you like a character, you a design, it doesn’t matter of they’re literal or lateral or whatever. but it’s a.. .potentially interesting way to think about things
So when I hang out with my friends, I usually waste time in between chatter playing old games. Often odd or old things I wouldn’t normally bother which but might be of some interest to me from a more… academic perspective. And this usually ends up with me finding new games to love too.
So when I loaded King’s Field up, I expected to be put off by it’s horrible combat and ugly aesthetics immediately. Instead I found myself immediately compelled. I find myself now, having worked all the way up to King’s Field: The Ancient City on the PS2, with a translated copy of Shadow Tower: Abyss waiting to be played after it. So here are my thoughts on these crazy games that I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did. RPGs aren’t really my thing anymore but the first person movement gave me just enough tactile feedback to get really into these games.
As usual with these kinds of reviews I do, I’m not going to summarize stuff like the basic plot or how the game works. You can use wikipedia or youtube for that. I’m mostly just gonna focus on the stuff I have thoughts about.
King’s field 2
I’m going to be using the Japanese numbering for this (basically KF2 is KF1 in US and thus 3 is 2 and so on and so forth), even though I didn’t bother to play King’s Field 1. A cursory reading about King’s Field 1 made it clear to me that King’s Field 2 was the best of the PS1 offerings and that it pretty much did everything the original did better.
King’s Field 2 is an ass ugly game. The biggest visual improvement from KF1 seems to be the use of different floor textures…. most of the time. Still, the game was immediately compelling. You start out shipwrecked on the island of Melanat and despite the game the crude graphics. The sharp outlines of everything tried their damnedest to convey the sense of A PLACE. Right from the start you have watery pits to fall in, a huge boss kraken thing you won’t fight for another boss or two, a waterfall and cave filled with skeletons, a lighthouse powered by fire magic, some creepy looking fisherman NPC, a pirate cove filled with traps and treasures and a more forgiving cave.
The combat is terrible but somehow works. You circle around things to avoid the attack and hit them with your slow moving first person sword swing. Positioning and enemy management matters a lot in this. The attacks FEEL awful but the amount of interaction makes it tolerable. Magic also helps a tad. MP starts out as an incredibly rare, precious resource to the backbone of your offense.
The enemies in this game look unbelievably stupid and crude, but somehow in a way that captures the awkward weird joy of later Souls games. By the end of King’s Field 2, I found my self in love with those stupid looking Watermelon Head Eater Things. It’s infectious. The whole game is infectious. While technically a dungeon crawler, I feel the need to reject the label. Far from the more abstract dungeons of most games like this, Melanat. It has personality. It’s internals wind together and intersect. The more you play the game the more you feel that you understand it. In game maps were useful for exploring new areas, while old areas were almost immediately committed to memory. In many ways, it’s stage design was mimicked by the original Dark Souls, constantly surprising you with how areas intersect and being navigable by memorable rooms. Given the rough nature of the graphics, memorable could be anything from “Cool castle entrance” to “There is a hole”. But it all works.
“It works” Describes a lot of the game and it’s aesthetic. Crude NPCs lend a creepy atmosphere to the game, their textureless heads turning slowly to speak with you. It’s unnerving but the mood of the game is unnerving. The music is… strangely offputting, but in a good way. Like Demon’s Souls, the game’s ugliness becomes part of its charm. This is a game that should be tedious and boring yet it dragged me through it’s entirety with excitement. While not a game I would recommend without warning, it became a game I unabashedly love. Beautifully thought out world design is my jam and this game has tons of it.
The game has some fascinating mechanics, many you see show up in later games. Crystal Flasks might as well be estus. You find them or construct them out of crystals and fill them up with wells. You eventually find wells that heal MP instead and eventually find both (which seems to be something that shows up in DS3 from what I’ve heard?). The warping mechanic is great. Instead of having fixed warp points, you can leave a ‘key’ at a save to use a corresponding ‘gate’ item to teleport to. You find up to 3 sets of these by the end of the game. The flexibility to set your own warp points allowed for just the right amount of backtracking to make me love and understand the world. You could balance convenience against repetition and by the time you have all 3 sets and understand the island, it becomes a non issue. The perfect flow. There are weird things in the game, like an NPC who magically pops up in random places from time to time who identifies your items. You can’t know when she’ll appear. Maybe not the best choice, but an interesting one. Many doors are textured like walls. They have frames to tell you they’re there but it makes it easy to miss stuff. This is something that fortunately goes away in King’s Field 3. Oh yeah there is also a minecart ride that kills you 90% of the time and rewards you with basically nothing if you survive. Which is… odd.
There seems to be a decent about of lore, but I couldn’t say much about it. The last boss, Guyra, a one eyed black dragon, is clearly the inspiration for Kalameet. Seath is treated like a holy figure in this. Granted, it’s not the same Seath, but it’s interesting to see these ideas revisited and adapted.
In the end, it’s hard to even say why King’s Field 2 is great. So much of it is crude as hell and really shows it’s age. But there is just a lot of brilliance in the game too. I’m left with a fondness for Melanat that mirrors my love of Lordran. By the end it kinda… feels like home?
King’s Field 3
King’s Field 3 is like the Dark Souls 2 of King’s Field. It improves the game in so many ways and is far FAR more ambitious. You start out with a giant field, filled with buildings and NPCs. The Headeaters are now venus fly traps. That made me sad! Fortunately the old ugly ones return later on. Anyways the game is now sprawling and its level design more literal and sensible. The game looks infinitely better. Screenshots might not truly capture it but the environments look so much more involved and the enemies look… Still ugly but much much less so. It’s also important to remember for this and KF2 — these are seamless games with no load times. So some ugliness is to still be expected.
The game gives you an automapper somewhat early on. While not necessary for KF2, this is much more necessary for the sprawling maze like levels of KF3. KF3 gets even closer to the dreaded “Dungeon Crawler” level design and dungeons play more like Legend of Zelda-esque areas than actual parts of the world. You go in, you clear the area, you leave. Compared to the interconnected nature of KF2, this was a huge let down to me. Verdite lacked the sense of “place” that Melanat had, despite having much better visuals. The music too is a lot more… on the nose. Not bad, but lacking the same personality.
Combat feels better. You know more clearly if you hit something and enemies at least TRY to counteract you spinning around them. You get magic faster too, which gives you much better options faster. Warping is greatly simplified, with 4 items to find for 4 preset gates before allowing you to warp everywhere by the end. Warping everywhere by the end is good but it was sad to see the system from KF2 leave, even if it would have been terrible in a map this big.
The game has a ton of lore and I couldn’t even begin to explore it. You get an mirror item that tells you about every area, every enemy and every NPC. All lines of dialog are saved for viewing in the menu. So you could comb through this game for tons of info if you wanted.
The game has some cool, crude visuals and works FMV cutscenes in it, sometime on top of gameplay (where you’re few will suddenly have compression artifacts because it switched to a video). You could tell with this game they were trying to go all out.
In the end the game is way way more playable than KF2 and has many clever ideas, but it just missed the same spark. It felt more… typical. Much like Dark Souls 2, it spreads itself out and tries to be grand but that grandness makes it ultimately more ordinary.
But hey at the end you get to fight Giant Gundam Seath and that’s pretty cool?
OH BOY SHADOW TOWER. This might be the most interesting game of the three. KF2 might still be my favorite Shadow tower is a fucking slog of a game, especially early on. It’s also d
eeply miserable without maps. And there are no in game maps. But with them, the game and it’s horrendous draw distance becomes playable. Because the game is dark. Darker than it even needs to be. But god damn does it look better. There is a color scheme to things. and the textures play nice and the enemies look great. And there are so many of them. This game has 160 monsters and they almost all have absolutely crazy designs. This is the true start of the Demon’s Souls aesthetic. Dark, grimy and depressing with awkward looking monsters that are so goofy they roll around to scary. Demons that hop on their tongues, weird wiggly glow in the dark tree plants, muscular monsters with heads that are like blooming meat flowers. They’re great.
The game has no music. Silence. It’s off putting. The visuals are often bleak. You start on ‘top’ of the shadow tower, a tower that has sunken into the ground. The areas of the game have ominous names. “Human World: The Forgotten Region” or “Death World: The Lingering Curse Layer” or “Beast World: THE SCREECHING AREA” (these are area names you do not want to see). The visuals area bleak. This clean, brind cylinder extending up and down seemingly into infinity. You see stairs and can make your way to a number of doors into areas around the tower that have sunken underground. But you keep coming back to the tower, lower and lower. The map design is at its weakest here overall, but the constant return to the Shadow Tower gives the game the hold it needs to give a sense of progression.
The survival aspect horrors of the game are strong. Weapons degrade, and fast. The items to repair them are rare. Smithys are also rare. The currency they use to repair? Your health. Health Potions? Also a finite resource. Fortunately you can trade broken or obsolete items for them. And thankfully they always grant full health. There is a very clear economic circle here and it is a tense one early in the game. Nothing is renewable until much later in the game so you constantly feel like you’re falling to pieces. There is another currency, cunes. Also a rare item — there are, as I understand, 99 in the whole game? And the shop is the same shop everywhere, so the items you see at the start are the items you see at the end. I saved up for a helmet that restored MP over time early on and it was game changing. “Infinite magic!” I thought, until I realized casting spells degraded my rings. Oh well, can’t have everything.
The NPC interactions feel very Demon’s Soulsy. A demon in a doll body asks you to kill a man who trapped her. a knight being crushed by a boulder begs you to sacrifice a sword to save his life (and remember, SWORDS ARE IMPORTANT AND LIMITED). Some gnome things curses you over and over and begs for his life like a coward when you corner him. Also there is a fat mole who is totally your bro.
As you go from the more human world to elemental planes the game starts feeling real surreal. There is just tons of atmosphere. It just suffers from the fact that the game is so initially impenetrable and the map design that doesn’t work with the super dark game. Getting around without a map is an almost impossible chore. I’m not sure even KF2’s map would have worked under these lighting conditions. The automapper from KF3 would have been a massive improvement, where you could know where you were going while not quite spoiling areas immediately by checking maps.
Funny thing is when you beat an area, it lightens up. So they could have gotten away with it. I assume the darkness was to mask enemies spawning in (which they do, unlike in the KF games). This looks weird in illuminated areas, but not so weird as to be a bad tradeoff. The enemy spawning is interesting though. There are a finite amount of enemies in the game. As you kill enemies in a room, replacement spawn elsewhere, often in the same room, but sometimes not. You’ll return to an area you thought you cleared out, sometimes to find a horrific surprise. Often this can lead to cool items being dropped though, so you have an incentive to clear things out. Killing enemies also I think… basically IV trains you, like pokemon? There is no leveling in the game. Beating stuff up and killing certain enemies raises your stats. It’s interesting and kinda works?
The game is linear in nature but it does some clever things to disguise it. There are sometimes multiple ways to get down the tower and sometimes you can even jump down to a set of stairs you can only barely see. You often still end up covering the same areas or coming back later, but it makes the tower feel more like a space you’re trying to conquer than a completely abstract area.
The game also has NG+ (I think? Or maybe you’re just back at the top of the tower to clear it out?) and a rather… Soulsy ending. A flawed gem that was only a few changes away from being truly great. and the game with the strongest aesthetic ties to the Souls series. It makes me more excited for Shadow Tower Abyss than King’s Field 4 and I hear KF4 is AWESOME.
While I can only recommend KF2 with some reservations, I can only recommend Shadow Tower with a LOT of reservations. But it’s interesting and if you want to play a game as a curiosity and see some of the evolution of the Souls series, Shadow Tower is AWESOME.