Reaching out to the risk-averse

My 1UP review of Shiren the Wanderer went online last night. I’m going to be completely frank, here: I’m not very happy with this review. Atlus’ annoying effort to disavow all knowledge of the word “roguelike” is partly to blame, because Shiren is very much of that particular school of design, and it’s important to have that fact available up front so that gamers know exactly what’s in store for them. Of course, once that’s made evident, chances are pretty good the average gamer is going to tune out the rest of the article because they either don’t like roguelikes or don’t care. So then the review would mainly be a matter of preaching to the choir and should concern itself with the way specific mechanics work (or don’t work). Except that I don’t want the genre to remain a closed niche of disinterest, because I find games like Shiren very interesting for a lot of the same reasons that people went nuts over Demon’s Souls and Torchlight last fall. So then all at once I was trying to clarify the nature of the game, explain how well it works as a roguelike, and convince nonbelievers that they might actually enjoy it if they gave it a fair try. And I’m not sure I really accomplished any of that! Oh well.

Look, Shiren is good. I like it a bit less than the DS game from a couple of years ago, because its structure is different; the main quest is a bunch of smaller dungeons with a fairly flat challenge level, with most of the really interesting dungeons reserved for play after the story is complete. More disappointingly, though, it largely neuters one of the original Shiren’s most compelling design elements, the ever-evolving world. The hero in the earlier game was caught in a perpetual, sisyphean loop of death and restarts, but his efforts effected small, persistent changes in the world through which he traveled — changes that slowly pitched the odds in the player’s favor. The Wii game more or less abandons that element, with tasks to complete for townsfolk that work more like traditional RPG quests. But even with that subtle yet significant change, Shiren is a big, interesting game — if you’re willing to take it on its own terms.

If anything, games like Shiren should be commended: They’re some of the last bastions of genuine challenge in games. Likewise Dead Rising and Demon’s Souls. Even Mass Effect 2 turns the possibility of death or failure into a strength in its endgame, presumably with ramifications for the sequel, and I’ve heard Heavy Rain (much as it otherwise fails to impress me) does likewise. Rather than skirt around the possibility of failure or try to completely obliterate it, they turn it into a strength — a core tenet of the game design. Death in games isn’t always a good thing; countless games pride themselves on their purported difficulty, but arrive at that level of challenge through poor design, making players feel like they’re being punished for failures that don’t really feel like the player’s fault, or like they could have been reasonably avoided. That’s the worst. But I really savor games that push me to the limits of my abilities — regardless of whether that’s my reflexive real-time motor skills or my ability to survey a turn-based situation and respond tactically — and make me work for a victory that is in no way assured. And I admire a game that can transform my failure into something interesting, possibly even advantageous.

If I ever have a chance to make a videogame (though at this point, it’s pretty likely that I’ll never have the freedom to do that; I’m much too busy pouring my every waking moment into simply sustaining my existence), I hope I can come up with some clever way to turn death into an outcome that players may not actually embrace, but that they’ll at least respect rather than resent. Of course, in saying that, I’m dooming this nascent proto-game to niche status, because the gaming public has grown incredibly risk-averse. The words “death” and “failure” have become conflated with “losing,” which isn’t always the case. And it’s an understandable reaction in light of all the badly made games that have trumpeted their poorly implemented challenge as a selling point; games are meant as entertainment, and there’s nothing really enjoyable about being thwarted by poorly-designed obstacles or unresponsive controls or cheap “gotcha” gimmicks. Don’t let badly made games dissuade you, though. Death (in a game) can be a good thing! Honest.

Anyway, I really love the Shiren games, and I hope everyone reading this gives the new one a fair try. Even if it’s just a rental, your doing so would make me happy. Maybe you won’t like it, and that’s cool. But there really is something fascinating about games like this, and I’d be happy if my continued stumping for the game turns a few more people onto the series or genre. Needless to say, you’re invited to share your thoughts in the requisite Talking Time thread.

And no, I don’t have a personal stake in extolling the virtues of this game, aside from the fact that someday I’d like to be able to play Shiren 4 in English. It’s a pure, chaste sort of love, untainted by publisher kickbacks.

17 thoughts on “Reaching out to the risk-averse

  1. Honestly, when a friend first started telling me all about those ascii roguelikes he used to play, I was way too intimidated to give this genre a try.

    I read what you had to say about Etrian Odyssey and gave it a shot. And I liked it! Haven’t gotten around to the 2nd yet. Here’s to trying out Shiren!

  2. My Amazon order has finally shipped, so hopefully I will be enjoying it on Wii by the Wiikend (pardon the pun). Until then, I guess I get to spend some more time trying to get through the secondary dungeons in the DS game.

  3. “But I really savor games that push me to the limits of my abilities — regardless of whether that’s my reflexive real-time motor skills or my ability to survey a turn-based situation and respond tactically — and make me work for a victory that is in no way assured.”

    Also known as Mega Man 9. Difficult, but difficult because it’s well-designed.

  4. “…and convince nonbelievers that they might actually enjoy it if they gave it a fair try.”
    Know the easy way to do that? Inflate the review score into the stratosphere. ;-)

  5. But how would you recommend this game to someone who has zero interest in Demon’s Souls? An affiliation like that can also work in the negative.

  6. I had no idea you had thoughts about making a game sometime. Your educated scrutiny and deep analysis of games makes me think you would be quite successful at it, so don’t give up on it! Just think about how your GameSpite books, another endeavor you had small hopes for, did quite decently.

    About Shiren, I did play the DS title but abandoned it because, well, the characteristics of a roguelike don’t seem to appeal to me. I like leveling up, seeing character grow and become more powerful, and also amass (and retain) big item inventories. The thought of not only losing it all and start over multiple times, but also constantly replaying cleared areas terrifies me. So… I guess the new twists of this new entry won’t change my mind, right?

  7. I have no Wii, but I’m going to give Shiren DS (which I picked up for ridiculously cheap) the ol’ college try. I’m not usually big on the idea of getting better at things by re-playing them from scratch, but I did put in a little time at NetHack back in the day, and the small persistent-world elements intrigue me.

  8. The talk of embracing failure reminds me of the Wario games, where getting hit kinda powers you up. Or maybe Voodo Vince. I’m sure you mean it on a more profound level. Someone needs to make a game where you need to climb your piles of your own corpses to progress.

  9. Shellshock, I’ve been wanting to make a game since about 1988 (my now-immortal Jetpack Goonies concept). Unfortunately, making books is something I can do easily. Games, not so much.

  10. I would love to give Shiren a try if I could just find someplace to actually buy it. Guess I’ll be using Amazon and waiting.

  11. I found Shiren 2 to be a lot of fun, but only in a short playthrough sense. I would usually just plop it in and grind til I die. Not sure how I’d recieve sitting down in front of my tv for short playings.

  12. I thought the review was good. You know, I’d never even heard the term “roguelike” before you started talking about them a lot. You explain them in a way that makes them sound, to me, pretty intriguing — and maybe I’m not the “average gamer”, but then I’m not necessarily “the audience” for this game, either — , and when I read a negative review of Shiren DS recently, my feeling was, like, I think this reviewer just doesn’t get what this game is about. So I’m gonna pick up a copy of Shiren DS this weekend, too.

  13. Just saw two copies Shiren DS at my local Best Buy for $15, so if any of you want to give a roguelike a shot, you can probably still find copies around for a pretty minimal investment, and try it for yourself before leaping into the console game.

  14. Since the forums won’t let me post yet, I will instead post here that my Amazon order has arrived, so I’ve got something to look forward to this weekend.

  15. Thanks for carrying the roguelike torch. I think your 1UP review is as good as you could make it, given the audience.

    Roguelikes, Shiren included, are good for the same reason you identified Mega Man 9 as being good — the impact of each of your decisions is crystal clear, and the logic/structure of the game is crystal clear. As games become more complex graphically, are more organic (less gridded), and are more cinematic in pacing, the player becomes less in control, and the actual game mechanics become more obscured.

    The funny thing is, people have yet to master a game as simple as chess. And just as in Chess, in a game like Shiren (or Mega Man), it’s incredibly satisfying when you succeed and you understand precisely WHY you succeeded. Add in a story and some risk and you have yourself a good time.

    That’s my two cents, not that anyone asked for them, or needed them.

  16. I have Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer that I bought quite a while ago and I give it a try every few months or so. I still can’t understand what I am doing incorrectly. It happens pretty much the same way every time. I travel through the first five or six levels again doing fine, then I enter a level and there are four enemies surrounding me with no way to defeat them all. It seems like if I happened to be lucky, I could have an item in my inventory that can help me but usually that early in the game I have very few things. What am I missing?

  17. Here are some pointers for the DS game:

    – Talk to townsfolk every time you pass through a non-combat area, since there are small changes that happen with repeated conversations. Take on their side quests, such as paying off the restaurant’s debt.
    – Team up with wandering characters who offer to join up or help you, even if they screw you over at first. Eventually, they become incredibly valuable allies who will make your expeditions far easier.
    – Make use of the warehouse to store up surplus items, especially the ability to send things back to the opening town. By hoarding items during basic runs, you’ll be well-equipped for more serious ventures. The game seems to spawn similar items during single outings, like tons of scrolls one time or a bunch of weapons the next. Store up your extras for later.

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