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What Defines A Classic?

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The current console generation is home to a number of initiatives that see earlier games lumped under the prestigious banner of Classics. The respective online stores of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 feature subsections for the games on their predecessors, while the HD Remaster efforts (at least on the PS3 in PAL regions) carry the title of Classics HD. Most consumers see it as convenient branding to better distinguish them from more modern products, but when you consider the nature of what has historically been termed ‘Classic’, one might begin to consider this mass cataloguing, irrespective of quality, as sacrilegious. With this feeling at the forefront, the question coalesced: “What defines a Classic?

A work of enduring excellence”, is one of the listings provided by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. But how does one determine whether that definition is applicable to any product, particularly when it is fresh and new, its influence on culture as a whole yet to be established? More importantly, does gaming follow the example of its forebears of film and literature in this regard, or is it so separate from them that it is forced to blaze its own trail? Before those questions can be answered, the fundamental concept of the Classic in those other mediums must first be explored, and it is easy to draw parallels between the factors for consideration in them.

The most prominent similarity is that the products that are held in the highest regard are firmly products of their time, though featuring themes, messages or narratives that are capable of resonating through the ages. It isn’t necessarily a single genre that marks them out; anything from philosophy to romance, mystery to speculative fiction is fair game. Quality runs a very close race to this incomparable aspect but it, nevertheless, remains subservient to story and the myriad elements that that incorporates. It’s easy to pick and choose from the long histories of these passive mediums to provide examples of this: Commedia, Paradise Lost, The Godfather, A Clockwork Orange, War and Peace, Atlas Shrugged, The Lord of the Rings, Casablanca, Soylent Green, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Time Machine, these form but a few of the titles deserving of eminent praise and each marks out their classification as a Classic through a single viewing or reading.

Their entitlement stems from literary achievement and, by proxy, artistic merit. There is no real reason that these same conceptions cannot be applied to video games, except that, historically, very few games have been able to capture any semblance of meaning or true excellence via their aspirations of erudition. Those widely regarded as the best from the days of yore are almost universally flawed, or simply too shallow to fairly be referred to as defining moments in storytelling. Final Fantasy VII, Deus Ex, The Legacy of Kain; each falls far short of their purported superiority from other titles when viewed from a pure literary standpoint. Since the inception of the sixth generation, the quality of game narratives has been rising, though shining examples are still few and far between.

A near perfect marriage of story and gameplay: Shadow of the Colossus is a Classic

Many gamers will hold up Shadow of the Colossus as an example of the best there is, and this is difficult to disagree with. The directed story is minimalist, as you take the role of a young man seeking to revive his lost love. The path to this is through the sacrifice of sixteen hulking beasts. There is precious little exposition in this quest, but a sense of loneliness and desolation is brought to life by the empty expanse in which the game is set. Sympathy is provoked by the fact that Wander’s mission is one of destruction that is selfish and, at the same time, selfless. It also shows how well the unique properties of a video game can be harnessed, as the gameplay mechanics lack superfluity making every action that the protagonist is capable of meaningful in some way. And, although there is only one way to bring down each Colossus, it still feels like your game. It highlights the importance of player agency, but SotC has the almost unique property of utilising this within a linear story framework, serving to make the story, and particularly the ending, more powerful than it would be if the game adopted a different style.

It is one of few that is truly deserving of being called a Classic. Being such, it also outlines the way in which the definition of them must be fundamentally altered before being applicable to gaming. The medium is dichotomous, with equal import being granted to both the interactive and non-interactive aspects. The two must be unified and equally powerful for the product to be able to take a place in the annals of history as a defining moment, and taken as such, the list of those deserving of that prestigious title is short. Arguments can be made for the likes of ICO, Okami, BioShock, Enslaved: Odyssey To The West, Journey and Grand Theft Auto III, among others. Looking deeper, each of these games has had a single creative entity behind them; the kind of development lead that is usually referred to as an auteur, but the importance of their kind in this industry is an argument for another day.

The seventh generation brought about a fundamental shift in the gaming market by popularising online multiplayer to the point that, today, it is almost ubiquitous. This is enough to make one wonder whether the trend-setters and innovators in that marketplace are also deserving of equally eminent praise, in spite of the fact that they usually have no story to tell. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, for example, took the framework of multiplayer shooters, infused it with the ideals of role-playing games and created a new standard. LittleBigPlanet gave creative control to the consumers, granting them the same tools as the developers with which to generate levels and effectively birthed a revolution. Demon’s Souls blended single player with multiplayer seamlessly, allowing players to invade each other’s games to help or hinder at random, imbuing it with a unique kind of community. Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit introduced the Autolog, evolving leaderboards to promote player competition, even when not directly contesting each other.

Although excellent and revolutionary, Modern Warfare cannot hold Classic status.

Each of these games is notable for being a progressive step in the evolution of the online sector in some way, and although each will be fondly remembered for doing that going forward, are they deserving of the same recognition as those single player experiences that are memorable due to a story that could not be told as powerfully in any other way? By the very definition of a Classic, the answer to that is a resounding “no”. Although they are powerful examples of player agency, there is no literary value to be found within them and, as such, they have not the power to endure. Their quality will invariably be utterly eclipsed before too many years pass.

There is no doubt that the same argument can be made for the stories that games tell as they are a similarly iterative process, but there is a difference. The public can attach themselves to story, narrative and character in ways they cannot to a purely competitive experience. It gives the single player aspects of gaming an indelible benefit that allows them to be held up to scrutiny, even after many years, their merits and achievements dissected until the final verdict is passed on whether the title is allowed to bear the hallowed designation of a Classic. And it is only over time that anything can really be determined as deserving of that taxonomy, even though it may be thought possible from day one. Why else is it only in retrospect that we are truly appreciative of excellence?

Publishers, and those that grant these titles, need to recognise that status isn’t granted on a whim. Just because a product is old or critically acclaimed, does not mean that it is deserving of the same barometer of cultural significance as, for example, Orwell’s 1984. The mass categorisation based on the single factor of age is a mistake that deserves to be looked upon with utter disdain. It is a status that needs to be recognised by those most able to do so, and that is, most assuredly, not the creators or even the fans. It is the realm of true critics. It requires subtlety and scrutiny, literary dissection and dissertation. This is truly what defines a Classic.

Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

Features

The Maker of 2019’s Must-Have Interstellar RPG Within the Cosmos Talks Gameplay, Lore, and the Future

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Within the Cosmos

Some indie games look impressive enough to match anything coming out of the AAA studios. Within the Cosmos fits that bill to a tee. Every screenshot from the project shines with ethereal beauty, and the description makes it sound like a marvellous mash-up of Deus Ex, Mass Effect, and Halo

This RPG casts players as a would-be colonist intended to seed human life away from what seems to be an apocalyptic interstellar war.

To find out more about the promising project, OnlySP reached out to developer Francis Debois, who went into great depth about the gameplay, structure, and the processes involved in production across the last five years. 

OnlySP: I wanted to start by asking about the gameplay. In the marketing you’ve mentioned that objectives can be completed through stealth, combat, or diplomacy, which is always a plus for an RPG. Is that multi-path approach available for every mission, and how free-form are the player’s options?

Debois: The missions in the game generally give you multiple ways to affect how the mission unfolds, whether it’s through dialogue or how the player approaches the mission. Also, the options available to you are governed by the type of character you create. If you have a character that’s high in Intelligence, you might be able to hack a control panel that opens a door to a room that you’d otherwise have to fight through to get to, or if your Charisma isn’t high enough, and you try to convince them to leave the area, they might not listen to what you have to say, and they’ll become hostile, or you can simply avoid all of that and find a way to sneak inside!

OnlySP: From what I understand, the RPG levelling mechanics are tied to modules on the character’s suit. Can you tell us more about how this system works and maybe provide examples of some of those modules and upgrades?

Debois: Modules are essentially “perk points” that you can use to upgrade your character. Every time you level up your character, you will get a module you can use to enhance/alter your character. The perks available to you are tied to your attribute points. So, if your Agility is high enough, you can “spend” a module and get the “Light Steps” perk, which makes your footsteps much lighter, therefore harder for the enemies to hear.

OnlySP: The game also has a stat system, which sounds a little like S.P.E.C.I.A.L. from Fallout. Is that an apt comparison? Will players be able to improve and modify those stats through gameplay and, if so, how?

Debois: Yeah, it’s a similar idea to how S.P.E.C.I.A.L. works in Fallout or similar games. When the player starts the game, they will be given a fixed amount of points that they can assign to their attributes. So, if you decide to max out your Constitution and Agility, you’ll have a character who’s agile, sneaky, and strong, but that would come at the cost of not having much Intelligence, Charisma, or Perception. So, you’re really gonna have to think about what attributes you favour, or you could put a roughly equal amount into all of them and have a character that can do a little bit of everything but not a master of everything. It’s up to you. I feel like that system will really create the desire for players to have multiple playthroughs of the game, and still have each playthrough feel like a different experience.

As far as improving and modifying those stats… I’m still trying to get the balance right. There might be one or two instances where you can upgrade them, or get temporary boosts to them, but whether you can improve or modify them beyond that is still being determined.

OnlySP: While upgrading, will players be able to respec their character’s abilities at all or are they locked into the upgrades they use?

Debois: No, they won’t be able to respec. Once you select an upgrade/perk, that’s what you’re locked into.

OnlySP: If I recall correctly, I’ve read somewhere that Within the Cosmos has a linear structure. Does that mean players won’t be able to revisit previous locations? 

Debois: You WILL be able to revisit previous locations. It’s linear in the sense that you can’t visit a new region, or planet that you have no narrative reason to visit yet. For example, the first planet you go to in the game is Alios, the second planet you visit is Berith II. If you’re right in the beginning of the game and you just got to Alios, you won’t be able to just go straight to Berith II until you’ve reached the point in the story where it makes sense to go there, but once you go there, you can go back and forth between those planets as often as you’d like. Also, I used the term “linear” as a way to get the point across that it’s not a huge open sandbox or anything. The game is very story-driven.

OnlySP: Speaking of locations, the game has the character visiting a number of planets. How many planets are there, and how have you differentiated each of them?

Debois: There are three planets in the game. Each one is aesthetically different, with different fauna, different factions, and the architecture of each planet reflects the dominant faction or factions on that planet. Aside from those locations, there are other places you’ll visit for a mission or a series of missions.

OnlySP: Looking at the Steam Greenlight page, there’s mention of vehicles and survival mechanics, but those seem not to have made it to the final version. Can you maybe explain how the development process has resulted in changes from the game you initially set out to make?

Debois: The direction the game was headed when I created the Greenlight page was completely different to what it ended up being! Initially, I intended to make an FPS with survival mechanics, but as the game progressed, and I started writing more of the story, I realised that survival mechanics didn’t really make sense, and it negatively impacted the experience. There were many things that were added and cut out in the end, so vehicles, and the survival mechanics were just two of the many things that simply didn’t end up feeling right as the game really began to take shape. As I wrote more and more, I felt like an RPG would be the best way for players to experience the game and the story.

OnlySP: You’ve mentioned that the game should take between eight and ten hours to complete. Does that factor in all the content available in the game or just the main missions?

Debois: 8-10 hours is a rough estimate of what I would say an “average” playthrough would be. Which is someone who has completed the main story, and did a few side missions. If you decide to do everything possible in the game, it will certainly take longer than that, but if you decide to strictly follow the main story, it will be shorter than that.

OnlySP: As I’ve been following Within the Cosmos, I’ve felt that it looks a bit like Halo and sounds a lot like Deus Ex. It’s got me wondering what you feel as though it’s most similar to and what sort of inspirations have shaped the look, feel, and overall tone?

Debois: Oh, there have been so many inspirations! I love the FPS RPG genre, so Deus Ex was a massive inspiration, as was Fallout: New Vegas. Those are two top tier FPS RPG games that I absolutely love. Space-based games have had an influence as well, such as Halo and Mass Effect. They helped shape the game in one way or another. I’d say the biggest inspiration behind it all has been Star Trek, I think the story and lore will reflect that to some degree.

OnlySP: Within the Cosmos is set against the backdrop of an interstellar war. How much of that background lore will players be privy to as the experience goes on?

Debois: The interstellar war is the reason that the player, and the factions are there in the first place. You will be exposed to the history of the war by reading some of the logs in the game, and through some characters you meet, etc. The war is what ties everything together. As you play through the game, you will see that even though you’ve escaped to this region of space, which is far away from the war itself, you still feel the effects of it. What you decide to do can really influence how the war plays out.

OnlySP: Meanwhile, the main story follows an individual sent to safety to preserve the human race. We’ve seen similar ideas of species protection and propagation in the likes of Fallout and Mass Effect: Andromeda. How is Within the Cosmos distinct from those earlier games?

Debois: Well, I really don’t like to compare Within the Cosmos to other games, but Fallout is more of a sandbox, and Mass Effect is more of a story-driven action RPG. Within the Cosmos falls somewhere in the middle of that.

OnlySP: As I understand it, Within the Cosmos, is entirely self-funded, self-developed, and self-published. Did you ever consider crowdfunding or partnering with a publisher to help get the game across the line sooner? Why or why not?

Debois: Not really, no. Some people suggested that I should try crowdfunding but that was something I was never interested in for Within the Cosmos. This was really a game that I wanted to make myself, so funding it and publishing it myself felt the most natural to me.

OnlySP: I know there’s still a little while before Within the Cosmos launches, but what’s next for debdev?

Debois: Once Within the Cosmos is out, I’m going to listen to the feedback from the community, and just work on updating the game with more content as time goes on. I really want to give this game all the support I can give it. Anything after that, we’ll have to see what happens! I would love to work on some of the other ideas I have, some more RPGs. There are other games that I really want to make, but after dedicating nearly five years of my life to this game, I’m not sure I will have the financial means to be able to do this again! 

OnlySP: Finally, do you have any final comments that you’d like to leave with our readers?

Debois: I’d really like to thank those who have been giving the game compliments, and those who have been providing feedback! It all really means a lot to me, and proves that all the years of hard work that I have inputted into the game, has been all worth it!

Thank you all for reading this, and for having an interest in Within the Cosmos! I really hope you check it out on Steam, wishlist it, and play it when it releases on 1 August!


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