Sunday, February 20, 2022


The new rant, updated on every 8th, 18th, and 28th of the month, is right below this post. Enjoy! But before you do, I have a quick announcement...

Friday, September 18, 2020

Fallout 4's Fourville Mod is Pretty Darned Great

Generally, when I make a rant listing the best mods for a game, I follow 3 main guidelines for what does and doesn’t get mentioned: A, it’s a mod that enhances the storytelling, lore, or overall core aesthetic experience of the game, (enhancing the post-apocalyptic exploration and ambient storytelling of Fallout, restoring planned content that didn’t have a chance to get implemented due to deadlines in a game like Knights of the Old Republic 2, correcting a glitch that prevented a quest from starting in a game like Planescape: Torment, etc); B, it’s very good (duh), and C, it’s authentic to the body and soul of the game. This last prerequisite is why I don’t mention many quest-based and campaign mods, because generally, there’s something about them that tends to make them stand out from the game proper. Sometimes it’s a contradiction to the actual canon of the game or series, sometimes there are elements in them that conflict with the setting or aesthetic of the source material, and sometimes the style and/or quality of writing for the mod is noticeably distant from that of the actual game. You can see this when looking at my list of Fallout 3’s best mods--though I give great praise to user content that captures the game’s post apocalyptic aesthetic by adding more elements of exploration, or restores some of the intended radio material and adds appropriate Fallout-based content to it, I don’t recommend a single story-based mod in that rant, in spite of there being dozens and dozens of such fan adventures available for the game. The simple fact is, as a general rule, such mods come across, at most, as fanfiction, rather than as true aspects of the game’s experience.

But there is the occasional exception.*

Fourville, a Fallout 4 mod created by one Seddo4494, is an exception of such quality that I can’t just quietly edit my original Fallout 4 mod rant to include it, as I have for a couple other mods that were released after that rant had been published. No, this one needs the full due of its own rant. Because Fourville is awesome. This mod, created by a single person, is a better, more genuine, and more substantial slice of the Fallout experience than anything the hundreds of employees of Bethesda have labored upon during the last 4 years.** It’s honestly more like a new, real DLC for Fallout 4 than it is just a mod.

First of all, Fourville is written really well. The dialogue is smooth, natural, and at the same level as the “real” game, as is the text of the holotapes, notes, and logs to be found. Which is very unusual, to be frank; user-created adventures can be decent, but there’s almost always a disconnect between the writing of a fan and the writing of the game proper. In most cases, the former is noticeably worse overall--and that’s not a mark of shame, or anything like that. A labor by 1 person for no certain reward beyond a love of the game is a different animal from the product of a team of professionals paid to do their job competently. And even if a mod’s writing is around the same level of quality as Fallout 4 as a whole, it still usually stands out for just aesthetic reasons. We all have our own narrative voice, after all, and the manner in which a mod’s author communicates, from phrases to choice in vocabulary to sentence structure, will typically differ enough from the writers of Fallout 4 that it does feel different.

But the narrative voice in Fourville manages to be so close in both quality and style to that of Fallout 4’s that it felt indistinguishable to me. Even the way dialogue and monologue is put together, such as the tone and pauses in some of the holotapes, feels authentic to the game.

And while still on the subject of the writing, the overall story and characters of Fourville are solid, too. The plot of this mod is simple, but enjoyable. Between its sequence of main and side quests, it flows naturally, and the story and settings are composed cleverly enough that even as you’re immersed in the mod’s surface-level adventures, there are bits and pieces here and there, such as certain dualities in the cast and the state of Mr. Quinn’s room, that subtly maintain a feeling of unease in you, as something is clearly out of place, and keeps you guessing about what may or may not be going on at a deeper level. It’s quite elegantly done, really, and the ultimate twist at the end of the mod is layered, interesting, and creative enough that even if you’ve guessed part of it, there’ll still be aspects of it that will pleasingly interest you and give you retrospective appreciation for the mod’s course.

Beyond the main quest, the rest of the adventure’s components are crafted well, too. While plenty of its quests are pretty basic bread-and-butter bits of “fetch this,” “kill these guys,” “go back and forth between these people” scenarios, there’s also a lot of mini-stories in Fourville that are dynamic and engaging, and work well with the characters and Fallout setting to keep your interest--I found the sidequests involving the Wattz factory and the doctor’s brother fun and even a little suspenseful at times. The mod has a purpose to communicate, and food for thought, and I really like that. As a matter of course, there are also some relatively difficult moral choices to be made in Fourville, too, as any good Fallout venture should have, and while I do tend to care perhaps a little too much about my actions in video games, I enjoy the fact that a couple of the choices I had to make in Fourville are ones that my conscience is still grappling a little with. In fact, I actually restarted the mod and played it a second time just because earlier into it, I backed a character who I came to believe is mistaken. If I care enough about the potential consequences of a decision that I go back and redo the whole adventure as a result, that’s a point in favor of that mod’s writing quality.

The characters are also pretty decent. Most are stock, meat-and-potatoes personalities that get the job done and nothing more, I suppose, but that’s true of a Fallout game as a whole, so it’s hard to see that as a flaw, and there are some individuals whose personalities, character history, and/or depth stand out for their high quality, such as old Mr. McNally, Roscoe, and Betty. Additionally, some of the after-the-fact characters whose stories are told through holotapes are really great--the story of the Armstrong family is quite compelling, the FEV scientist is a skillfully-created detestable asshole, and to be frank, I think the series of records left by a student and his teacher is among the best holotape stories that the entire Fallout series has to offer! And I should point out that some of my favorite moments of Fallout, period, have been journals left behind by characters in Fallout 3, New Vegas, and 4.

So in terms of writing quality, Fourville is top-notch from front to back. But I think it’s also important to recognize that it’s exactly as well-constructed on the material level, too. Fourville adds a decent handful of locations to the game, all involved in its quests, and they’re constructed very well--more than functional, they’re interesting to navigate, providing new playgrounds within the Fallout setting to explore and appreciate. Plenty of locations are straightforward and basic, but settings like the vertically-dominated apartment building, the dynamic flooded Wattz factory, and the cave of Mr. Abominable have more singular personality to better draw you into your ventures through them. The locations of Fourville are competently coded and organized, with few mesh conflicts, and with clutter items and containers arranged in quantity and placement that feels rewarding to careful exploration, but true to the standard that Fallout normally sets.

Another technical detail where Fourville shines: the voice acting. I have to emphatically applaud the actors who voiced Fourville’s large cast. It’s rare for a quest mod to actually have voice work for its characters, and on the occasions that you do find a fan adventure that has spoken lines, they’re pretty much always...well, it’s clear that the lines are being read by amateurs at the craft. And I don’t fault them that, because it’s a lot of work to add voiced dialogue, and the fans making these mods (and what talents they can reasonably gather for their projects) aren’t trained, paid professionals in quality recording booths. Still, there’s no denying that the quality or lack of spoken dialogue in quest mods is 1 of the biggest ways in which immersion is broken.

But Fourville’s voice acting? Clean, exact, varied, competent, and well-directed. The voice actors are on-point, they know how to use emphasis, emotion, and accent to build their characters, and they’re coming through loud and clear. If anything gives away Fourville’s status as a mod rather than a legitimate part of Fallout 4, it sure as hell ain’t the vocal work. I’m seriously impressed on this point.

And related to that, I also have to give special kudos to Fourville for its use of Nora/Nate’s dialogue, too. Another typical issue with quest mods is that Nora/Nate’s lines are silent, since obviously Courtenay Taylor and Brian T. Delaney are gonna be difficult to get hold of to record new lines for a fan project. Fourville gets around this, however, by having the Sole Survivor’s responses to dialogue and quest choices always use lines recorded for the main game, so as a result, Nora/Nate still seems to be an active part of Fourville’s events and community as she/he interacts vocally with others. Now, in fairness, this isn’t the only mod out there that’s done this, but Fourville has certainly incorporated Nora/Nate’s lines into its exchanges more naturally and intuitively than anything I’ve seen prior.

One more point of technical prowess in Fourville’s favor: this is not a small adventure. The size of this mod, with its quests, locations, characters, and alterations to existing locales, is that of an outright Fallout DLC--perhaps not as big as, say, Far Harbor or Point Lookout, but easily an adventure of greater size than Lonesome Roads or Operation: Anchorage. And definitely bigger than the majority of DLCs that Fallout 4 ended up with. To maintain the level of professional quality that Fourville has for a creation of such scope is very impressive.

Fourville’s also considerate with how it’s been set up. There’s a little content within it that will connect with the Far Harbor and Vault 88 DLCs, but you can still play this mod even if you haven’t purchased those add-ons. The quest related to Far Harbor is a very small and quick side mission which won’t even come up if Far Harbor isn’t installed, and the quest involving Vault 88 (in which you go on a pilgrimage of sorts to the Vaults of the Commonwealth) has been designed so that you can complete it with only the vanilla game’s available Vaults.

Beyond the strength of the writing and the careful architecture of its components, Fourville is, perhaps most importantly, a genuine Fallout experience on every major and minor level. The adoration its creator has for the series as a whole is proudly evident. Its main story is tied inseparably to the series’s major points of lore and approach to storytelling. It also incorporates elements and references to each of the previous major Fallout titles in a pleasant fanservice capacity, but not so strongly as to seem heavy-handed. It even references Fallout 76 with a joke at 1 point about holotapes being all the rage down in West Virginia--light enough to stay classy by not expressly criticizing Fallout 76 (although you know I’d have no problem with going all-in on the Bethesda-hate), but still scathing in its light touch through the effective implication that there’s no substance to the game to make use of beyond a quick wisecrack.

Beyond the tangible, Fourville shows a love for Fallout in its narrative methods and the little details. Fourville’s locations have solid ambient storytelling with their skeleton and object placement, which has been a detail of style for the Fallout series from its earliest days that works into its charm, morbidity, humor, and postmortem storytelling. Likewise, the number of and attention paid to the holotapes is a big plus. The creator of Fourville also clearly understands how big of a part exploration and hunting for objects of interest is to a post apocalyptic setting, because Fourville adds a new set of Bobbleheads to be found through its course that each confer little bonuses like (but not the same as) the original Bobbleheads in the game, giving you incentive to search every nook and cranny of each place you visit--and at least 1 of them is hidden quite cleverly, in a spot difficult to return to (I’ll give you a hint: sewer system), so they’re rewarding to find beyond just the, well, reward. The names of quests are often good references to bits of American culture, which is another fun little Fallout signature.

Fourville also takes great pride in connecting itself to Fallout 4, standing as a representation of the game it’s attached to in ways both great and small, some of which really brought a smile to my face, as someone who sincerely loved Fallout 4. While Fourville primarily uses its own locations for the majority of its quests, it nonetheless makes sure to incorporate many of the original locales of the Commonwealth into its course, and even some of Fallout 4’s own characters, which is a nice touch, because that cements one’s feelings of Fourville as a part of Fallout 4, not just a separate entity artificially grafted onto it.*** As you’d expect, synths and the conflict of the Institute are involved to a degree (although not in a major way--which is good for Fourville, as it’s allowed to focus on its own story and ideas).

As much as the bigger stuff, though, it’s also through the tiny details that Fourville connects itself to Fallout 4. Though Fourville doesn’t incorporate much of the settlement building system into its content, it does involve it a little in 1 quest, and it provides a separate Bobbhead stand for the Vault 4 Bobbleheads it adds, so you can display them just as you can for the main game’s set. Another quest actually incorporates the tokens you get for turning in Overdue Books, which is a gameplay quirk that Fallout 4 made surprisingly little use of, considering the trouble it must have been to set up, so it’s neat that Fourville remembered it, almost like fixing a slight oversight of the main game. As mentioned before, some of the game’s DLCs come into play, just enough to again build the feeling of Fourville’s being a part of Fallout 4’s whole, without (as mentioned above) closing the door on any player who hasn’t bought them. And Fourville even gives an opportunity during 1 quest to use some Silver Shroud lines! Who doesn’t love Silver Shroud content?

Finally, Fourville even extends the life of Fallout 4 beyond its own boundaries. 1 of its features is to add a big storage building in Boston, in which are dozens of locked safes filled with the property of the residents of the area’s Vaults. You can’t lockpick these safes, but passwords for these safes will, on rare occasions, be found on the corpses of feral ghoul enemies you’ve defeated. The contents of each safe are often interesting and fun, rewarding the player with item collections that tell you a little about their original owner, and even some rare or unique items, such as a variant of Maxim’s coat or 1 of the Fourville Bobbleheads. It’s fun to bring a password to this storage building and see what prize you’ve found, and since the drop rate of said passwords is way too low for you to get even half of them during the course of your Fourville experience, the mod has now given you a fun extra to look forward to when you play through other mods or revisit Fallout 4’s locations with feral ghouls in them. It’s a way more effective playing incentive than the usual find-and-return quest items like Viable Blood Samples and Technical Documents, because whereas those are just turned in for some caps that haven’t been relevant to you for the last 200 hours of your gameplay, the mystery of what you’re getting keeps you invested in turning the passwords in.**** Not to mention, playing an ethical character in Fallout 4 inevitably means cutting off the ability to turn in certain bounty items (the 2 types I listed a moment ago certainly do me no good), while the Vault resident passwords are something to look forward to finding regardless of past decisions, since they can always be turned in.

Now, of course, nothing is perfect, and Fourville does have a few problems. For starters, the NPCs that Fourville adds all seem to be at Level 1, instead of scaling at all to the player, or even being as capable as most NPCs in the regular game, which...I dunno, it’s not important, I guess, but it’s weird when so many of the individuals you may have to dispose of in the course of the mod’s events just fall apart immediately.

More significantly, there are a few spots in which Fourville can experience a bug or 2, and I can say from experience that at least 1 of them can make progressing a certain sidequest impossible without console commands. That’s always an irritation, no doubt about it. Still, I have to go easy on Fourville here, because for a mod as big and possessing as many moving parts as this, the fact that it works just fine 95% of the time is pretty impressive. I mean, it’s not like Fallout 3, 4, and New Vegas are technically perfect, either; even post-launch patches left all of them in a buggier state than Fourville’s in. Although far less immediately apparent, you could even say the same for Fallout 2; Killap’s Fallout 2 Restoration Project fixed over 1,000 bugs left in the game’s final version. So Fourville's slight technical imperfection really isn't that big a deal, in my opinion.

I also think that the companion that Fourville adds, Logan, falls a little flat. He’s fine enough, as a personality, and the mod puts in the effort to give him a character arc and quest, like the rest of the game’s companions get, and good on Seddo4494 for that. And I greatly respect the work that went into giving Logan a ton of lines that react to the environment, immediate circumstances, and even the game’s story events--from what I understand, Logan will have things to say about many of the main game’s quests and sidequests, which must have required a tremendous amount of work to make happen. As much as I respect that, though, as a character, Logan just doesn’t feel all that interesting to me...I didn’t get invested in his story even as much as I did for some of the regular characters of Fourville, and one’s instinct is to expect more from a party member than an NPC. He’s not bad by any means, but I’d wander the wastelands with most of the vanilla party members of Fallout 4 before I did Logan.

Lastly, the Fourville quest involving the video game doesn’t really sit well with me. I don’t dislike it, exactly, but part of its course is to make a light critique on the current state of the gaming industry. A critique I wholeheartedly agree with, make no mistake! But at the same time, the simple, barely-born state of video games in the Fallout universe doesn’t really accommodate the commentary that Fourville’s making about them. It feels like the kind of lore conflict you see with most other quest mods, where the user’s pulling the Fallout setting a little too far to make it do what they want. And this would normally be a bit of a dealbreaker for me; in most cases, breaking immersion even once like this is what keeps me from actively promoting a mod on this blog. However, considering how great everything else about Fourville is...well, I can let 1 thing like this go, I reckon. Even a petty, nitpicky hardass like me can be reasonable when the payoff overall is so superb.

Fourville by Seddo4494 is a truly excellent mod, a work of high quality in both writing and construction. And it’s a terrific, immersive Fallout experience that appeals to the deepest of fan love for the series. Already a valuable commodity under normal circumstances, the chance to enjoy a rich, authentic Fallout experience is especially priceless in current times, when those who hold the franchise’s license have completely lost their fucking minds (or at least their understanding of basic ethics). I’m adding it to my list of the best Fallout 4 mods, but I really wanted to take the time to give it a full rant of its own, because it’s more than worthy of such. If you love Fallout, check out Fourville!

* Shocking excellence aside, the Calfree Trilogy perfectly captures the Shadowrun experience that Harebrained Schemes created with their campaigns, and uses the series’s own official lore as the foundation to its stories. If anything, the Calfree Trilogy stays even more faithfully adherent to Shadowrun canon than the official games themselves do.

Meanwhile, the Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod may not be perfect (although it IS very, very good), but it certainly represents a far more intelligent, consistent representation of the heart and soul of Mass Effect than the toxic, idiotic ending with which Bioware sullied Mass Effect 3. Rather than a deviation from authentic core of the series, MEHEM is the only recourse for anyone who cares to end the Mass Effect trilogy in a fashion true to itself.

** Not that this says a whole lot. The act of consuming an entire can of seasoned breadcrumbs while listening to a bardcore remix of Pokemon music in the bathtub is a more authentic Fallout experience than Fallout 76. In fact, I’d wager that the only thing that could possibly be less Fallout than the current state of Fallout 76 is whatever alteration or addition Bethesda happens to next make to it.

*** In fact, in that regard, I’d actually say Fourville feels more authentically intertwined with Fallout 4 than some of the game’s actual downloadable content. Automatron, Vault 88, and Nuka-World could’ve been added to any Fallout game, really.

**** If this were an EA game (not that Bethesda is any better than them, these days), I’m sure there’d be a joke here about this being what actual surprise mechanics look like.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

General RPG Lists: Best Silent Protagonists

To reveal, here and now, that I generally don’t like silent protagonists is probably not going to blow your mind, for a couple of reasons. The first, of course, is that I’ve already mentioned my disdain for the concept in the past, multiple times. The second, though, is that I can’t really believe that there’s anyone out there who has so strongly positive a feeling about non-verbal protagonists that they’d be scandalized at the idea of another person disliking them. Oh, sure, there are many gamers who don’t mind the idea of pouring 40 - 100 hours into a title without once getting any indication that the protagonist around whom the narrative world turns is in the slightest way invested in what’s going on around him,* and even some who buy enough into the bullshit rationale that a silent protagonist is easier to put oneself into the shoes of as an audience that they actually do have a mild appreciation for the concept. But is there anyone out there, really, who strongly enjoys and appreciates silent protagonists, who is an actual, enthusiastic fan of them? I dare to presume there is not.

But if there is, then this is the rant for you, baby! Because today we’re gonna look at the 5 best silent protagonists in RPG history (as far as I know it), and appreciate these rarities whose reticence actually benefited their game!

5. Sasha (Severed)

As I mentioned back in my rant about why Fire Emblem 16's Byleth is terrible as a silent protagonist, there are a few rare occasions in which a hero’s silence can accentuate a game’s atmosphere and mood. I specifically noted the Metroid series’s Samus and Undertale’s Frisk** at the time as examples. Well, Sasha is another specimen of this phenomenon: much like Samus, the fact that Sasha never utters a word as she embarks on her unhappy quest effectively accentuates the darkness of the game as a whole, the pain of what she has lost, the discomforting solitude of a desperate stranger in a hostile world, and the loneliness Sasha feels as a girl used to the constant, supporting presence of her family now violently forced to survive on her own. And it’s worth adding that though she never expresses herself verbally, and we rarely even get to actually see her (since the game’s point of view is first person), Sasha’s emotional personality is shown quite well in Severed, through the subtle context of the game’s events and world, and the few visual glimpses we do get of her in its course. So with Sasha, we get a protagonist whose character still manages to come through adequately without words, and more importantly, a heroine whose muteness actually works to her game’s benefit, working with and emphasizing the aesthetic of Severed in an effective way.

4. Mario (Mario Series)

It kills me to credit silly, cheery, kid-friendly Mario more highly than Sasha. But honestly, I just can’t see a way around it: as a hero who says nothing, Mario does what he does pretty perfectly.

See, it’s like this: Sasha’s taciturnity reflects and benefits much of how Severed wants to present itself, and that’s a definite advantage. And that advantage isn’t outweighed by the inherent downside of a silent protagonist (a severe detriment to the character’s ability to express themselves and undergo character development), because Severed mitigates that downside very skillfully. But that benefit to Severed isn’t extreme or anything; it’s a good thing, not a great thing. Mario, on the other hand, doesn’t really benefit RPGs like Paper Mario 2 or the Mario and Luigi series with his penchant for being non-verbal...but that lack of speaking also, amazingly, completely avoids being an obstacle for his character’s expression, and actually becomes a signature personality trait.

Nintendo (and Squaresoft, in the old SNES Super Mario RPG) manages the near-impossible with Mario, and transforms the fact that he never really engages in any dialogue in his RPGs or most of his other games into a strength, rather than a weakness. He’s visually expressive to such a great degree that whether he’s volunteering to help out in Paper Mario 2, babbling incomprehensibly in sort-of-but-not-really Italian gibberish in the Mario and Luigi series, or showing his readiness to start kicking ass and taking names by walking forward while swinging his fists in Super Mario RPG, there’s never any question in an RPG starring this lovable little guy of what he’s feeling about what’s going on, nor of what he’s trying to tell others. Mario has a definite, demonstrable personality in each game he’s a part of, and always having to communicate his thoughts through expressions, gestures, and motion never hinders him the way it does almost all other silent protagonists. And his games don’t shy away from it, either; they frequently go all in on his participation as the game’s hero during discussions.

Super Mario RPG actually had Mario be the one who gives recap exposition to other characters who need to be brought up to date on current events. RECAP EXPOSITION! That’s arguably the most straightforwardly verbal form of storytelling there is! But by having Mario do energetic pantomimes of what had gone on, and some inexplicable but fun shape-shifting to show the other characters that had been involved, Squaresoft not only made the guy who never says anything a perfect vehicle for describing his adventures thus far, but also made the player actually look forward to the occasions in Super Mario RPG where a recap was needed. Name me a single other game, show, movie, whatever in which you, as an audience, have looked forward to the next moment you’d see a character or narrator give a rundown on previous events that you’d already seen. I mean, by Desna, imagine if Xenogears had had Mario instead of that fucking chair--it might have actually been an enjoyable game!

So anyway, yeah, that’s why Mario trumps Sasha. Sasha is a benefit to her game, and full credit to her for it, but her game also doesn’t require very much of her as an interactive individual. Mario, on the other hand, has to pull his narrative weight as a member of a highly expressive cast in every RPG he’s a part of, and he turns his inability to articulate a full damn sentence into a strength rather than a weakness, a lovable quirk of his character rather than a lack of one.

3. Pogo (Live-A-Live)

Pogo (as well as the rest of this list’s occupants) is 1 of the great wonders of the RPG world: a silent protagonist who actually has a reason not to say anything. Much though I may like Mario, there’s no actual in-universe cause for him to only speak Charlie Chaplin, and while one certainly understands why Sasha wouldn’t be especially chatty, there is, at the same time, no particular reason why she wouldn’t at least occasionally have a thought to share verbally. Pogo, on the other hand, has every reason in the world not to have a single line of dialogue, because he’s a caveman living before the invention of a spoken language! EVERYONE in his chapter of Live-A-Live says nothing.

Of course, even if it’s a strong point in a character’s favor, just having a reason not to be speaking isn’t enough on its own to qualify for this list. If it were, that terrible failure Byleth would be here, heaven forbid. But much like Mario, and some other decent silent protagonists who didn’t quite make the cut for this rant, Pogo is an expressive, active part of his story even without the ability to speak to others, employing actions and expressions to get across what his thoughts and reactions are. And it works very well, not only by its own virtue, but also with the aiding factor that the entire story of Pogo’s chapter in Live-A-Live is being narrated, as such, by everyone else involved. Where other decent silent protagonists still stand out as strange for being surrounded by normal characters who actually speak their pieces, Pogo fits in naturally when everyone else is equally non-verbose. Also, I pay the folks who made the prehistoric chapter of Live-A-Live extra due, because for them to be able to so effectively tell Pogo’s story with such tiny sprites to work with (even by SNES standards, LAL’s character models are miniscule) shows a heck of a lot of talent. I really wish a character like Pogo, with both cause for no dialogue and a personality that shines through well enough without it, could be the standard for silent protagonists.

2. Red (Transistor)

Now see, this is how you do it! Red’s inability to speak is a consequence of the major event that sets the entirety of Transistor’s events into motion, and a significant component in the player’s understanding of her situation--since she was an incredibly poignant singer famous for her voice prior to the game’s opening, the fact that she’s lost the defining trait of who she is and who she was to others helps to emphasize the tragedy she’s suffering. Her silence is even better a symbol of her loss, and a symbol of what the antagonists have been destroying in their attempts to save, when the game contrasts it against her haunting, soulful music, which we get to hear as part of Transistor’s soundtrack. Finally, Red’s being a mute allows us the pleasure of the unbroken narration of her companion and lover, Subject Not Found, whose one-sided conversation with Red as the game goes on is well-written as to personalize both of them better than most other RPGs can manage to develop characters who can both speak to each other. It also allows for an interesting physical representation of Red and Subject Not Found completing one another, as she has lost her voice and he has lost all but his voice, and of how much they need one another for that fact, for Red’s voice was the most important part of her, and as the man who protected her, physicality was similarly Subject Not Found’s most important quality (narratively, at least).

Ultimately, Red’s inability to speak isn’t just a quirk, or solely an element of the game’s aesthetic. It’s a moving part of her character and her story, and Transistor would be far less artful and powerful otherwise.

1. Amaterasu (Okami)

Red’s silence may be the most artistic and meaningful, I must admit, but...awww, heck, how can you possibly outdo Amaterasu as a silent protagonist?

One of the many, many ways in which Okami soundly beats The Legend of Zelda at its own game is by also having a notably silent protagonist...but one who, in fact, SHOULD be unable to talk, and whose silence is actually noticed by other characters, rather than inexplicably ignored. While Link’s perpetual inability to communicate with anything beyond grunts and surprised or determined expressions has never been given explanation nor remarked upon by a world in which all other members of his race can communicate verbally, Amaterasu’s a wolf, and is thus reasonably restricted to barks, howls, whines, and the like. Not only that, but the fact that she can’t speak for herself to human beings actually, wonder of wonders, affects her interactions with people and the way the events of the game play out. This is a protagonist whose silence is actually real, not just for us, but for her, as well, as a part of her world.

Because Ammy is a wolf, the normal, almost-impossible-to-avoid downsides of lessened opportunities for characterization are largely minimized--your expectations for development of an animal character are naturally different from your expectations from a human (or appropriate equivalent) character. But even if they weren’t, the creators of Okami also went out of their way to create a strong, demonstrable personality for this furry sun goddess that smartly uses her voiceless actions and expressions as a springboard for a cleverly comical personality--Amaterasu is about as amusingly irreverent a deity as you can possibly find outside of the Kid Icarus franchise. And it even works within the confines of her being a canine; Ammy shows her lack of interest in serious dialogue and over-long exposition by laying down to nap right in the middle of other characters’ speeches in a very doglike fashion, for example. Additionally, Ammy’s creators put in the time and effort with her reactions and conduct the way few silent protagonists’ creators do--even when, for example, the writers at Nintendo try to make Link seem slightly more human than a piece of furniture, they only do so by having him give facial and/or grunt reactions to immediately, forcibly engaging events, major happenings that surprise or dismay him, or call for him to look determined to succeed, stuff like that. Amaterasu, on the other hand, acts and reacts with enough frequency and to enough variety of stimuli that she feels authentically integrated into the story she stars in, a character within rather than just a mere tool of the narrative.

Also, gotta say, Amaterasu gets bonus points from me for the fact that she’s a good example of what I’ve wanted for ages from an animal character. Granted, she is far more sapient than an outright animal usually is, so I guess maybe she's not quite the definition of what I want more of in animal characters, but I think it's safe to say that intelligence or no, her general behavior, mannerisms, and personality are very authentic to a wolf or dog, far more than to a person.  So she’s not just the best example of 1 rare, tricky character trope, but also a great representation of another..

Lastly, I’d also like to point out that Amaterasu is a great match to her boisterous, loud companion Issun. Again, we see how much better Okami is at The Legend of Zelda’s tropes than TLoZ ever has been. TLoZ frequently attempts to cheat its way around the shortcomings of forcing Link to be silent by pairing him up with a talkative companion who speaks to him and at least some other characters frequently about what’s happening--Navi, Fi, ghost Zelda, that stupid boat, etc. This way Nintendo doesn’t have to find a creative solution around the impediment they’ve pointlessly imposed upon themselves, by instead having a voice that’s more or less always there in the game with the protagonist without actually being his. Well, Issun is that character to Amaterasu, and true, he is, ultimately, as much of a narrative cheat as any of Link’s companions. But unlike most of LInk’s companions, Issun is more than just a voice there for the writers’ convenience--he and Amaterasu actually interact with each other, and have a bond that you can see change and grow over the adventure’s course. While the most you can get out of Link most of the time is a stoic acknowledgement that Tatl or 1 of the other companion entities exists, Amaterasu pays attention to Issun, and reacts to him, such as stepping on him when he’s annoying her. He’s not just a convenient mouthpiece for her, he’s actually a character she acknowledges, reacts to, and works alongside over the course of the adventure. I’ll grant you that Link did once manage something similar with 1 companion, Midna, but there still was far less of a connection there than Amaterasu has with Issun, and it was still far more 1-sided (Midna did 90% of the work in selling the player that she and Link had any sort of dynamic connection).

For that matter, it’s more than just bad examples of silent protagonists that Amaterasu and Issun trump in this case--as great and even beautiful as the connection between Red and Subject Not Found is, it isn’t very interactive. Really, Subject Not Found’s lines are closer to monologue than dialogue; he has no greater influence on or interaction with Red during Transistor than the narrator did with The Kid in Supergiant’s previous game, Bastion, and that was a case of the narrator describing what The Kid was doing as past events. Amaterasu and Issun, on the other hand, are partners in real time.

So yeah, basically, Okami is a case where a protagonist is actually supposed to be silent. It uses Amaterasu’s silence as an opportunity to create a well-defined personality that, while pleasingly unexpected, fits her like a glove, rather than as an excuse not to develop her at all, as most writers would and do. And it more than makes up for its cheat with companion Issun by making sure that Amaterasu is an involved, important part of that dynamic. Amaterasu is the best silent protagonist, paws-down, and I desperately wish RPG developers would take cues from her on how you make an unforgettable character in spite of, nay, because of her silence.

Honorable Mention: New Kid (South Park: The Fractured But Whole, and South Park: The Stick of Truth)

The New Kid’s almost completely unbroken silence doesn’t make her or him a better character, it gets in the way of her or his ability to develop or form dynamic relationships with the rest of the cast, and it’s a noticeable impediment to several key plot points, such as the New Kid’s supposed ability to connect to and become besties with anyone she or he meets. The New Kid is, basically, a great example of what makes a narrative problem, rather than anything beneficial to a game.

And that’s all great, because as much as they are about poking fun at fantasy stories and comic book tropes, these South Park games are also all about mocking the conventions of RPGs. So yes, all the standard, immersion-breaking problems are present with the New Kid, but they’re there intentionally, so that the games can frequently make jokes about it, like having characters deliver exposition to the New Kid and then stand expectantly, waiting for a verbal answer that’s just never coming, before awkwardly moving forward. It’s often enough that there’s enough humor to make the silent act worth maintaining for the whole game, yet not frequent enough that the joke ever became stale to me. And frankly, even if it had, the final payoff to the New Kid’s reticence at the end of The Stick of Truth still would have made it worth it.

And I suppose it’s only fair to mention that even in being a parody of the silent protagonist trope, the New Kid is still a better specimen than most silent protagonists, because The Fractured But Whole actually DOES provide a few bits of characterization for her or him in the scenes we get of her or his unhappy home life, which even provides a tiny bit of explanation, perhaps, for the New Kid’s unwillingness to talk. Yeah, South Park is good enough that even their damn joke characters are a bit better than the standard.

I’m a sucker for in-genre jokes about RPGs, and The New Kid’s a great example of someone actually recognizing the silliness of silent protagonists, and making an amusing critique of it.

* “Why “him” only, you sexist pig, women can be protagonists too!” you fire vehemently in my direction, perhaps. Well, because it’s really quite rare that a dedicated female protagonist (as in, a protagonist who is only a woman, not one which the player can choose to play as a man or a woman) is also a silent one. I don’t know whether I was right the first time I noted this years back in joking that there might some unconscious link to the old stereotype of women being chatty, or if perhaps the idea of a woman in a leading role is still relatively new enough that a writer is only going to think to do it when he/she gives enough of a shit about his/her game to also want that leading role to have actual dialogue, or if it’s another reason altogether, but the fact is that a silent female protagonist is just a very uncommon thing to find. And, more amusingly, it relates to my original sentence above even less for the fact that the only 3 invariably-female silent protagonists I can immediately think of are actually on this list as silent protagonists who don’t suck.

...Which is odd, thinking about it. What are the odds that of all silent protagonists, 3 of the 5 best ones would also happen to be all 3 of the definitively female ones (of which I’m aware, at least)? I don’t think it’s from any bias on my part; my reasons for their placement are pretty solid, I think. Hm. Peculiar.

** Frisk was a strong contender for this list, but Sasha just barely edges Frisk out for the fact that Frisk’s silence is a powerful tool for creating the terrifying and disturbing ambiance of a Genocide playthrough of Undertale, but it doesn’t really do all that much for the Pacifist path. I mean, it’s not useless or anything; there’re certain benefits it has in connection to Frisk’s personal history, but its benefits are mild at best. Since Sasha’s silence benefits her game in its entirety, rather than just 1 of 2 main paths (and the lesser of them, for that matter), she makes the list.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q1 and Q2's Primary Persona Teams

Warning: This rant has sort of a spoiler about the main plot focus of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q2. I mean...the main theme of the game is not exactly hard to suss out from fairly early on, so it’s not “Rosebud was the name of Luke Skywalker’s father!” level of secrecy, here, but for the sake of being responsible, consider y’allselves warned.

Although I freely acknowledge that several others in the Shin Megami Tensei series are superior offerings, I must confess that my second favorite game in the franchise is SMT Persona Q1. While admittedly the significant majority of the work is just fun, mildly fanservice-y fluff, the twist that comes 75% of the way through the game turns it into a powerfully emotional, gripping tale about finding purpose in one’s life, and I absolutely loved it. I still remember weeping openly at Persona Q1’s ending (a somewhat embarrassing incident, because I was playing it while waiting for my car to get fixed at the local dealership, and it wasn’t long after the credits began rolling that an employee approached me to let me know that my vehicle was ready to go).

What never made much sense to me about SMTPQ1, though, was that the game gave you an option to play from the perspective of the cast of either Persona 3, or Persona 4. Both casts would eventually meet up and join forces either way, of course, but you were still given the option of clearly making this adventure the property of 1 group or the other. But why give the option at all? This game’s purpose and message were clearly in line with Persona 3’s, not Persona 4’s. While the question of what it is that makes life worthwhile and meaningful is not absent from SMT Persona 4, it’s inarguable that Persona 3 is far more focused upon it--the main story, the plots of many of its Social Links, the character arc of its most iconic party member Aigis, the interactions with an incarnation of Death, Minato’s status and purpose as a messiah, even the gimmick of referencing suicide through the Evoker guns, it all comes back to Persona 3’s intent to explore and speak about our search as human beings to find a reason to live. As Persona Q1 is essentially a game-sized Social Link about exactly that idea, it makes no sense to have Persona 4’s Investigation Team spearheading the adventure--this is SEES’s territory.

But SMT Persona Q1 at least offers the player the choice of selecting the thematically right team for the job. You can’t say as much for its sequel.

I’m a big fan of Shin Megami Tensei Persona Q2, make no mistake, but it shouldn’t have railroaded the player into having to play the game from the perspective of the Shin Megami Tensei Persona 5 cast. At the very least, players should have gotten the same kind of choice that they did with SMTPQ1 of which Persona cast to put into the spotlight--or better yet, Q2 should have forced the player into the perspective of a single cast, but that cast should have been Persona 4.

Because, see, SMT Persona Q2 is much like Q1 in that it is, again, sort of an entire game made out of a Social Link. There’s a single character (Hikari) whose personal history, issues, and needs, as well as the process of bringing her to a better personal state, define the vast majority of the plot of SMTPQ2. And what that’s all about is reminding Hikari of who she is inside, working her through key moments in her life which convinced her to bury her personality beneath a more bland, socially-safe facade, convincing her that suppressing herself for fear of others’ negative reactions isn’t the right course of action, and reassuring her that there are people who will and do value Hikari for who she really is. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q2 is, in summary, a story of the importance of having the courage to be true to yourself.

Which isn’t unrelated to Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 5, of course. There’s plenty about SMTP5 that does tie into that idea, as I understand it. And, for that matter, SMT Persona 3 also has plenty of aspects in its story, Social Links, and characters that touch upon and incorporate the concept of self-honesty. But it’s not the major, important focus of either of them. Just as Persona 3 is unequivocally about finding meaning in life, and the importance of doing so, so too does Persona 5 have a different primary intent. Persona 5’s main thematic focuses are of teenage rebellion, and standing up to the corruption of the system and those who run it. Does that overlap with a “to thine own self be true” thing? Absolutely!

But the idea of personal, internal acceptance and truth isn’t just something that Persona 4 occasionally overlaps with--it’s what SMTP4 is all about. The whole point of that game is a search for the truth, an unwavering journey to clear away distractions, misconceptions, and denials to face the cold truth of reality. Its main characters each gain their powers only when they confront the shadows of things about themselves they’ve been trying to deny, and accept them as true. Its villain is an embodiment of the idea that the world prefers to see a clean, likable surface than to delve deep enough into a person or profession to know the absolute truth. Replacing SMTP3's evoker guns in SMTP4 are glasses that each character must wear when in dungeons and battle, glasses being symbolic of the ability to clearly see what could not have before been perceived. Accepting easy appearances as all there is to a matter is how you get SMTP4’s haunting bad ending.

The idea of truth and the importance of not conforming to what the world expects of one when it’s irreconcilable with one’s own true nature is a repeating concept in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. Just as SMTPQ1’s intent of finding purpose to one’s life perfectly aligns with Persona 3, making SEES the right team for the job, so, too, does SMTPQ2’s story of unearthing and accepting the suppressed truth of oneself integrate seamlessly with Persona 4. Just as The Investigation Team should be guests to SEES’s adventure in Q1, SEES and The Phantom Thieves should have been attendees to The Investigation Team’s adventure in Q2.

And yeah, I get why Atlus decided to force the Persona 5 crew into the spotlight for Persona Q2. Persona 4 is pretty old by this point (I should probably be grateful that Persona 3’s cast was even invited at all), while Persona 5 is the shiny, new, and quite successful inheritor of the franchise. The company stood the most to gain from having The Phantom Thieves of Hearts in the driver’s seat, using the new and bright recognition of SMTP5 to help sell Q2, and retroactively use Q2 to help sell Persona 5--which is definitely a thing; Q2 is my first time experiencing the Persona 5 gang, and I can’t be the only one who isn’t going to buy their main title until it comes out on a real gaming system. And I can’t help but think, much though I may like Persona Q2, that Atlus wasn’t willing to work quite so hard on it as they were Q1--a few bits and pieces of its system aren’t as polished as they should have been, and it’s telling that they weren’t willing to spend the time and money on voice acting to localize it (which is a little upsetting, because I really enjoy a lot of the vocal performances in the Persona series--not getting to hear Aigis, Yosuke, Elizabeth, Mitsuru, or Rise’s English actors again is a lost opportunity, although it is admittedly balanced a little by also not having to hear Teddy in English). So in light of that, it’s not surprising that they wouldn’t give the player a choice of which cast to choose this time around, given how much more effort that would have taken to set up. It’s just too bad, is all; if they were going to make the SMTPQ series disallow the player to choose which cast to make the game’s protagonists, they should’ve done so earlier and tied Q1 and Persona 3 together, and they should’ve opted to go with Persona 4 instead of 5 with Q2.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

West of Loathing's Downloadable Content

While add-ons like Downloadable Content are generally associated (usually negatively) with the mainstream video game industry, it’s not impossible to find such additions within the Indie gaming scene. While certainly not what typically comes to mind when one thinks of an Indie game, given that it’s got more polish than a hell of a lot of (so-called) AAA titles, Pathfinder: Kingmaker was Owlcat Games’s first work (and crowd-funded, to boot), so I reckon it counts as an Indie RPG, and it had a couple DLCs. Celestian Tales 1 had its own add-on, for that matter, and there’s little debate about whether that one’s an Indie work. And today we’re going to look at the DLC available for another Indie RPG: the incredibly fun and funny West of Loathing.*

Reckonin’ at Gun Manor: You know how I tend to get way too carried away with these DLC rants and go on and on for pages, sometimes saying more about the add-on than I’ve ever said about the game itself? This will not be 1 of those times. Reckonin’ at Gun Manor is as fun and hilariously clever as the rest of West of Loathing, and if you own the game, you should own the DLC.

The premise of the DLC is exploring the mansion of the inventor of the gun, because you’re helping a parody ghostbuster with her job to exterminate a bunch of phantasms that have all invaded the premises. Along with the many paranormal jokes one might expect (through which Asymmetric proves that a female ghostbuster can be quite entertaining, contrary to what the 2016 flop compels you to believe) is a whole host of the usual random, well-written absurdity at which Loathing is so uniquely masterful, including hedge wizards, mannequin greeting practice, and a heated argument over whether or not the process of poaching an egg involves bullets, to name just a few. Oh, and of course, a spittoon, possibly the funniest so far. As a whole, it’s silly and a bucket of fun, as one expects.

But I would like to also appreciate Reckonin’ at Gun Manor for the fact that it doesn’t just deliver what you’d expect from West of Loathing: it goes a step further than the main game itself does by including a light, but nonetheless distinctly present story. West of Loathing’s overall plot can be equated with the simplicity and barely-there nature of most NES games--which isn’t really a strike against it, because WoL is all about the hilarity of the journey rather than the destination itself (even if its main story is actually just about a destination). In a humor RPG, being consistently funny is the key criteria for success, and a gripping plot and/or cast is icing on the cake--very nice when you can get it, like Okage: Shadow King or Undertale, but you can still have a great time without it as long as the laughs are plentiful, and West of Loathing keeps the chortles coming nicely. But this DLC takes WoL’s formula a step forward and does form itself around a gradual narrative, and that’s neat.

And not only does Reckonin’ at Gun Manor take the game a step forward by telling a real story, it’s also a pretty good story at that! It’s nothing fancy, but the twist to this add-on is clever, and the conclusion (if you went to the trouble to resolve each ghost the patient way, that is) is a pretty satisfying one that makes good on the DLC’s name and ties itself to the Old West theme with a little frontier justice.

Lastly, it’s a bit of a relief to me to have finally found, after so many other games have failed to do so, an offering which provides no debate over its worth from a money-to-time perspective. I got well over 5 hours of enjoyment out of Reckonin’ at Gun Manor, so its price tag of $5 is more than fair. It’s good enough that it’d still be worth purchasing even at a ratio lower than $1/hour, but Asymmetric is good enough to give you your full money’s worth.

...Alright, maybe that wasn’t as short as I thought it would be, but it’s still smaller than most of the other add-on rants I’ve done, right? At any rate, thank you, West of Loathing, for a little light through the dark tunnel of RPG DLCs. I’m sure I’ll need these unusually pleasant add-on memories when next I play a so-called AAA game’s additional content.

* At least, I think you can count it as an Indie title? Asymmetric’s run Kingdom of Loathing for like 20 years by this point, but I daresay there’s a substantial difference between a mostly-text browser RPG and a more standard game. I guess the company’s made a couple other tiny little educational games, too? The line of what is and isn’t an Indie title is sometimes as hard to define as the line of what is and isn’t an RPG, honestly.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Chrono Cross's Cast's Presentation Problem

Y’know, I thought I’d pretty much covered it when it came to the way that Chrono Cross utterly fails in terms of its cast. The few characters it pays any actual attention to are generally awful, and the rest of the cast are virtually non-entities thanks to no development and the Accent System eliminating any chance at their even having distinguishable personalities. Squaresoft was not prepared to deal with its bloated cast size, but let’s face it: looking at Serge, Kid, Lynx, and the few others that Square actually did attempt to characterize, it’s pretty clear that they weren’t competent enough to handle a regular-sized cast, either.

But I’ve been thinking about Chrono Cross a bit lately, and its large cast, and trying to figure something out about my position on the game that’s been bothering me. Because if I’m to be objective, I have to recognize 2 facts: A, there are games that I consider to be good RPGs with large casts in which many characters don’t get much more development than the majority of Chrono Cross’s cast, such as several Suikodens, or the game I Have Low Stats, But My Class is Leader, so I Recruited Everyone I Know to Fight the Dark Lord, a game whose once amusing title I have begun to curse every time I need to reference it. And B, there are also games that I consider to be good RPGs whose casts did not, by any stretch of the imagination, need to be as large as they are, such as Fire Emblem 14. So why do I scorn and mock the ways in which Chrono Cross’s cast’s size fails, but not these other games, which share some of the flaws I’m so eager to point out in CC?

Well, for starters, the Accent System.

But beyond that stupid, lazy cheat which I shall never tire of ragging on ever, I think it all has to do with how these other highly populated games present themselves.

First of all, the other RPGs I’ve mentioned don’t usually have the other problems that Chrono Cross does. The characters that do get significant focus in the good Suikoden titles aren’t poorly written the way CC’s plot darlings are (and even the bad Suikodens are lousy for different reasons), for example. And even if Fire Emblem 14’s cast is clearly far larger than it needs to be, you can’t fault Nintendo’s effort with it; just about every party member has multiple chains of conversations with other characters within which to develop, and personalities defined by more than whether or not they over-pronounce vowels. I mean, they’re definitely not all winners--Hisame in Fire Emblem 14 can almost entirely be summed up as “likes to make pickles,” and it would be an uphill battle to try to argue that Midori, Shiro, or Kiragi are any better--but at least it’s clear that, whatever limitations of skill Nintendo’s writers may have had from 1 character to the next, they were putting in the hours to exercise said skill. With Chrono Cross, well, the full scope of a cavegirl’s character is that she’s a cavegirl.

More importantly, however? It’s all in the presentation.

Suikoden games may have a lot of cast members whose gravitas is, shall we say, a lot lighter, just like Chrono Cross does. One can’t deny that plenty of the service-provider characters in Suikoden who do things like run inns, man shops, and operate elevators in the heroes’ castle are as 1-note and unexamined as Chrono Cross’s Funguy, or those tiresome Dragoon devas. But here’s the thing about Suikoden titles: as a general rule, they’re stories about pivotal wars and social movements, depicting great, all-changing moments in the history of 1 wold’s civilizations. As such, Suikoden creates a mood of everyone in a country pitching in for a grand, united cause, all citizens doing their part and putting in their best efforts for their nation and fellow patriots, no matter how great or small that part may be. So even if the character development of the bath attendant or groundskeeper aren’t as deep or present as the game’s generals or strategist, that fact doesn’t lessen the game’s appeal and quality--the light impact and involvement of such characters is expected.

Chrono Cross, unfortunately, is an adventure structured far more in the standard, personalized style of most RPGs. Even though it’s a journey whose stakes can be world-saving or higher, the typical RPG focus and formula is inevitably a personal one, wherein the essence, actions, and history of the protagonist are a fundamental, inseparable core to not only the game’s events, but how those events came about. It’s not some grand venture of all the people of the land coming together as a coordinated effort to show the power of a nation united. It’s a story about Serge and the (sort of) people who travel with him to tackle a giant problem in which he is inextricably linked. Yes, Suikoden stories also have the personal element mixed in, and generally interweave it quite well, but in the end, they’re still grand struggles of armies, supply chains, strategists, communities and cultures. Even if many of the party members in Suikoden games are invested in a much more personal fashion in the adventure, it’s fully expected and acceptable for many others to be lighter on character development because of the way the games overall set an expectation of cast contribution. But Chrono Cross doesn’t have that luxury, as a more typical RPG approach, and so it’s a noticeable disappointment and flaw that the majority of its cast are empty shells defined by no more than their superficial traits. The expectation is that characters in CC should have weight, interact significantly, just actually matter, and they largely don’t.

The game I Have Low Stats, But My Class is Leader, So I Recruited Everyone I Know to Fight the Dark Lord is another example of this. IHLSBMCiLSIREIKtFtDL* has almost 100 party members, and the majority of them don’t really get any more focus than the average Chrono Cross character’s 5 - 7 minutes of screen time that covers their introduction, recruitment, and sidequest material. Admittedly, the characters in IHLSBMCiLSIREIKtFtDL all interact with one another in various ways over the course of the game--real interactions, I mean, not that Accent System shit--so they’re still substantially better developed than the Chrono Cross bunch. Still, the major problem of little to no real development past what the character actually is physically is still there. You won’t find more depth or plot importance in IHLSBMCiLSIREIKtFtDL’s barkeep, illusionist, and priest than you will in the barkeep, illusionist, and priest in Chrono Cross, for example.

But the difference in presentation once again makes that flaw more acceptable for IHLSBMCiLSIREIKtFtDL than it is for Chrono Cross. The former game is, as can be easily gleaned from the title alone, a lighthearted RPG, more focused on a bit of humor than some grand, sweeping adventure of alternate dimensions and devourers of time and whatnot. The whole thing of having a damn army of party members to save the world just by sheer numbers is the joke and the point. No one’s expecting stellar personal stories from the barber and the pet cat who got press-ganged into a heroic world tour solely because they happened to live in the same town as the expedition’s leader. They’re there because they’re instruments in the joke that the game’s making.

Chrono Cross, on the other hand, doesn’t have that excuse. I mean, yes, it absolutely is a fucking joke of an RPG, but it wasn’t trying to be. As I’ve pointed out before, CC is an RPG that handles itself with a typical seriousness--and the gravity it comports itself with is constantly, irrecoverably undercut by the absurdity of half its cast. So yeah, the teacher and her entire class of students being hauled along on a life-threatening field trip in IHLSBMCiLSIREIKtFtDL may clearly have no real reason to be there and limited character development as a result, but it’s forgiven because that’s the joke. CC, on the other hand, just leaves you wondering why the hell a living voodoo doll has chosen to come along for a 50-hour ride that has nothing to do with him.

Finally, Fire Emblem 14 is a game with a large cast--in fact, it has 2 dozen more party members than Chrono Cross! And it certainly didn’t need to be that big. Only a third of them are actually necessary for the game’s events. The game would have gotten along exactly the same without the retainers, for example, and of course, the children are a famously superfluous bunch. And yet, FE14’s huge cast never felt for a moment to me to be so over-stuffed and bloated as Chrono Cross’s.

Of course, a major part of that is that Nintendo actually gave enough of a damn to make sure every party member was given decent time to develop as a character, as mentioned. But even if the cast of FE14 had the same ratio of significant characters to empty ones that Chrono Cross does, I believe I’d still regard FE14’s cast as far less unnecessary. Yes, even the children! Because for the most part, the FE14 cast actually have a vested, personal interest in the game’s conflict. Granted, there are a couple of characters in Fire Emblem Fates who are just loosely along for the ride (Anna and Benny, for example),** but for the most part, everyone in Fire Emblem 14 has a strong, recognizable reason for traveling with Corrin. They may do so out of a feeling of duty and responsibility as a future ruler, love and devotion to Corrin herself, the obligation of their job as a personal guard to another party member, a desire to protect or prove themselves to their parents, or even just because they’re a gold-digger and Corrin’s army contains like 70% of the members of this world’s a general rule, you can point to almost any of the nigh 70 individuals in FE14’s playable cast, and say, “Yeah, I know why they’ve signed on with Corrin, that reason makes sense, and they’ve got a purpose for being there.”

On the other hand, in Chrono Cross, you can walk into a random house, and walk out 2 minutes later with a masked wrestler who’s spontaneously pledged his life to the service of some kid he’s just met. Or a penniless artist’s kid, who has decided to start his own journey of self-discovery by following a murderous-looking cat-man into lethal combat, and who held the weapon he’ll be using in said life-threatening battle for the first time just before walking out the door. Or a blacksmith who has inexplicably decided to hitch his looking-for-a-rare-smithing-material wagon to the quest of a total stranger. Basically, any time you walk into a building in Chrono Cross, there’s like a 10% chance you’re gonna walk out of it with some rando who is completely willing to throw themselves at monsters, dragons, and killer robots for the sake of a guy they didn’t know existed 10 minutes ago.

Did the retainer characters in Fire Emblem Fates have to be there? No, by and large the game’s story would have continued along unchanged without them. Would the game overall be a little less silly without magically aging up all the babies of your preferred FE14 ships so they could join the war effort? Oh, absolutely. FE14 has far more party members than are needed for its story to be told. But at least they’re all there for a reason of their own, reasons that make sense of their being willing to fight to the death for their leader’s cause. None of FE14’s cast are a fucking talking turnip that inexplicably decided it owed Corrin some debt of honor just because she happened to dig it up one day.

So yes, there are other RPGs with large casts--larger, even--who commit some of the same major sins with those casts that Chrono Cross is most remembered for. And yet, CC is still the one that stands out for its mistakes, and it does so alone. Because even when these other games neglect many of their abundant cast, their overall presentation as stories of large-scale conflict or of amusement rather than gravity lessen the need and expectation for them to fully flesh out every single individual in their scope, in contrast to Chrono Cross’s basic approach of the personally-driven and serious RPG adventure. And because even when these other games clearly have many more party members than they required, those characters are still at least usually there for a relevant, sensible reason, in contrast to Chrono Cross, where a mermaid weighs Serge’s helping a band put on a show as being equal to the act of putting her life on the line to fight the forces of fate itself. Chrono Cross truly was a spectacle of failure, and even decades later, I still find myself coming to new understanding of its gross shortcomings.

* I’m starting to think I may kill the man who made this game.

** Which, by the way, still isn’t as bad in Fire Emblem as it is in a more typical RPG like Chrono Cross. While certainly nowhere near to the same degree as Suikoden, FE also has a certain focus on the whole large-scale war thing (even if these “wars” only seem to be fought by the dozen or so individual characters you select for any given battle; FE16 was the first title, to my knowledge, to mildly involve actual battalions of soldiers). So it’s neither unusual nor out of place for a character in Suikoden to have no more personal a stake in a conflict than, say, being a mercenary who was paid to join the party, or something like that.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Pathfinder: Kingmaker's Nyrissa's Punishment

Just a short rant today (stop scoffing). This rant’s subject is probably something that many others have realized, of course, but it just occurred to me, and I really liked it, and my trend towards trying to only rant about things that are utterly unique to my own head in recent years has made it difficult to keep a decent cushion of rants on standby, so it’s time to start making some little ones now and then for whatever comes to my mind, regardless of whether others have doubtless expounded upon it before. The game itself does not (I think) specifically spell this out, at least, so that’s good enough for me.

It’s just occurred to me that the punishment inflicted upon Nyrissa by The Lantern King--or at least, her means to redeem herself--is a clever piece of symbolic irony. The so-called crime that Nyrissa is punished for, after all, is her ambition to join the Eldest as an equal, her pride at thinking that she could rise above her station as a queen to join the ranks of gods (or at least beings very close to gods). For her hubris, she was struck down by the beings she thought to join, tormented, and stripped of her ability to feel love, and told by The Lantern King that she would be forgiven once she had caused the fall of 1000 kingdoms, empires, and so on within the Stolen Lands. The long history in the Pathfinder universe of the Stolen Lands being impossible to settle, the innumerable rises and falls of communities within them, are all due to her influence, as she inspires the creation and then instigates the destruction of all manner of societies over the centuries, as penance to terrible higher beings.

What I find interesting about it is that it’s an atonement that echoes the crime that created it. Just as the Eldest stepped forth to punish a queen’s hubris at thinking she could become an Eldest, so now is a queen forced to punish the hubris of lower mortals thinking they can become royalty. Not only is Nyrissa forced to suffer for centuries the inability to feel love, twisting her into the very antithesis of what she originally was, but the terms of her sentence force her to witness her “crime” over and over again, and to take on the role that her own punisher took. It’s not enough for the Lantern King that she suffer--she must suffer while every single day being reminded of what brought about her suffering, and being forced to become the monster who destroys these ambitious mortals that represent herself. An elegantly sadistic, tragic punishment, indeed.

Understanding this also makes me really enjoy and appreciate the connection that Nyrissa and the protagonist of Pathfinder: Kingmaker have all the more. Because in many ways, the Queen/King (is there a more canon term for the protagonist?) is a living embodiment of hope and inspiration to Nyrissa, as a representation of her that shows the possibility of success, that represents everything Nyrissa hoped to be. After all, the protagonist of Pathfinder: Kingmaker is, like all the others that Nyrissa has struck down, a woman/man who reaches above her/his station to become more...and yet, each time that Nyrissa moves to punish that ambition, to strike the Queen/King down and destroy the reign she/he has built and earned, the attack is thwarted, and the Queen/King continues to rule in defiance of the higher being that would punish her/his daring. There’s even a parallel in that you can, with a hell of a lot of careful work, have the protagonist pursue a romance with Nyrissa--another act of being bold enough to reach above her/his station--just as Nyrissa once was the lover of 1 of the Eldest. No wonder Nyrissa can, once you return the capacity to love to her, fall so easily and deeply in love with the protagonist--not only is she/he the hero that saved who Nyrissa was from who she was forced to become, but the Queen/King is also an inspiring symbol of Nyrissa’s own past that vindicates her, whose success proves that Nyrissa’s own dreams and hopes were not wrong, no matter what her conqueror and tormentor tried to abuse her into accepting.

Really cool, Owlcat Games. Looking forward to quality like this in the next one!

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Gurumin's Requirements to Unlock Popon

I like features that add replayability to a game as much as the next guy. At least, I assume I do; I can’t truthfully say I’ve gone around polling other gamers on the issue. But, y’know, if people have a generally favorable opinion on game replayability, then we’re in the same camp.

I like New Game+, whether it be a general, static kind as found in most RPGs, or one you can customize a bit, as the Tales of series features. I’m fine with RPGs having multiple ways to solve quests and sidequests, thus encouraging to players to go through a second time to see the other possible results of their actions, as with many western RPGs like Fallout and Mass Effect. I like it when games have multiple story paths based around the philosophical and moral stance of the player, encouraging multiple playthroughs to see each path’s events, like most Shin Megami Tensei games or Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume. I found it interesting that The Witcher 2’s second chapter had essentially 2 entirely different stories to tell, depending on whether Geralt had backed Roche or Iorveth in the first chapter--kind of like getting an entire extra third of a game for free. I’m even generally not too unhappy about the RPGs which lock significant story content behind the first playthrough, requiring you to play and finish the game once before giving you the ability to play it through to its full extent--stuff like Sakura Wars 5, which only unlocks the option to romance Ratchet after you’ve completed the game once, or the more common scenario of Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, which requires you to play through the game twice to get the better ending.

Yes, I generally embrace RPGs’ replayability-enhancing features. I’m not exactly looking to sacrifice more time to a game than I have to, but the results are usually pretty positive in the genre.

Gurumin, however, can go spelunking in a garbage disposal.

Who the hell was the madman on the development staff of Gurumin, known here as Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure, who decided to introduce the character of Popon to the game during a second playthrough as an NPC, but then only allow her to become playable after you beat the game on four separate difficulties?

That didn’t seem crazy to anyone around the Nihon Falcom offices? When the idea of Popon was batted around for the first time at a meeting, not a single staff member spoke up to say, “Hey, maybe forcing the player to play an initially charming but, let’s face it, not especially mentally stimulating game on Easy, Normal, Hard, and Happy Mode, a difficulty setting we’re just making up right now, in order to unlock a second character is a little excessive?” No one looked at the plan to make a player have to go through the same 2 dozen levels or so 4 separate times and thought there was anything wrong with that?

To make a bad situation worse, they didn’t even implement this ludicrous requirement well. Let’s compare Gurumin’s replayability strategy to Fire Emblem 16’s, for a moment. Both Gurumin and FE16 require the player to experience them at least 4 times to get their full effect.* In Gurumin’s case, we’re talking about unlocking Popon as a playable character, while in FE16’s, it’s a case of seeing all the game’s paths in order to fully understand its lore, events, and major characters, as all the details of such won’t be available to the player on any single given playthrough.

It’s a crazy time sink either way to achieve this 4-playthrough-goal, but Fire Emblem 16, at least, is smart enough to make the journey to that destination somewhat worthwhile: the latter half of each of the game’s paths is different from the others,** allowing you to see variations each playthrough, ones which are perhaps a little more engaging than simply “this enemy takes 2 more hits to kill now.” Each path of FE16 tells the story of a different focal character, the purpose and events vary to some degree, certain important supporting cast members are given prominence, and you’re given more understanding of the game’s story as a whole each time.

By contrast, what you potentially get from your second, third, and fourth playthroughs of Gurumin are a couple different outfits for Parin. Woohooooo.

What’s possibly the worst part of this is that, if you’re mentally unhinged enough that you actually DO go and spend the time to beat Gurumin 4 times and unlock find that she feels like a bit of a cop-out on the developers’ part. Gameplay-wise, she controls basically the same as Parin does--the only real differences, to my understanding (I sure as hell ain’t gonna put in the time and monotony to personally confirm this) are that she can’t equip headgear, and she does crazy damage during the final battle since her sword is dragon kryptonite. That’s seriously it! 4 entire playthroughs doing the same things, fighting the same enemies, with a single character...and the developers couldn’t even be bothered to code a player character who could change the formula a little!

And worst of all, Popon not only plays identically to Parin, she speaks and acts identically, too! And that’s not an exaggeration. When playing as Popon, spoken dialogue just reuses Parin’s lines! Supposedly the cutscenes even still show Parin! How fucking lazy is that? And no, this is not excused by the fact that Gurumin makes a clever little joke about it by having Parin confirm with Popon, when switching out with her, that the latter got Parin’s script for the game. The fourth wall is not there so you can get away with being lazy, Nihon Falcom!

I like Gurumin overall, but as far as its situation with unlocking Popon goes, it’s both absurdly unreasonable in its demands, and insultingly slothful.

* In theory, at least. In practice, you can totally just ditch the Blue Lions and miss virtually nothing of importance or interest.

** Yes, the Church and Golden Deer routes are virtually identical in terms of the battles you fight, and not strongly dissimilar in terms of their events, either. But there are variations, most notably character-based ones, nonetheless. It’s not a case of experiencing a literally identical game again, at least.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

General RPGs' Preferable Non-Realism List 2

Before we begin today, I'm just gonna vent a little of my frustration at recent events.

Why does it seem to be so goddamn difficult for anyone even an inch above the faceless rank-and-file public to just be a basically acceptable human being?

How is it so fucking hard to not do things that make you a bad person overall? I frankly don't get it. Everyone has flaws; I'm sure anyone who's read some (or possibly even just 1) of my rants can point to some traits I possess which aren't particularly positive, likely ones related to egotism, or at least a habitual disregard for certain grammatical rules of conduct. People who know me personally can point to worse qualities of my character, and have. And I have some vices that I keep fully private, as well, things that don't harm anyone, but are nonetheless not great qualities in a person. I'm not perfect and no one else is, either.

But none of my shortcomings come anywhere near something like sexual assault and misconduct. And avoidance of that level of immorality hasn't been difficult for me; it's not hard to avoid doing things that are seriously wrong, that genuinely make one a bad person! I'm still a decent enough human being as a whole, because even just a baseline, average sense of ethics and empathy keeps me from engaging in the kind of things that would stain my worth as a person. So if restricting oneself to the mundane, forgivable flaws of human existence is something even an unremarkable person like myself can manage, why is it so impossible a task for anyone of even the slightest renown?

It's very frustrating.

So yeah, I'm in the market for a new god of RPG writing to worship, now that Chris Avellone's decided to bow out of the Basically Okay Human Being category. Taking suggestions for his replacement.

Anyway, sorry to waste your time, just needed to vent a little. But this self-important little tirade is all done with, so let's move on to the next.

A few years back, I made a list of instances in which it was better for a game to be unrealistic than to strictly adhere to the limitations of real life. It was kinda fun to write! And also, I soon after realized that there were more examples of these moments of desirable suspension of disbelief to be found. So I figured, why not do another rant once I’d gotten a decent number of them? And as we all know, 8 is the best number, so I went with that. Thus, now that I’ve thought of that many more of these things...let’s waste our time once again with this nonsense! Here are 8 more examples of RPG conventions that are much, much better sans realism.

Expiration Dates: Let’s face it: RPG characters do not have any great gift of common sense when it comes to what they put in their mouths.

No, I’m not just talking about Shion’s love life in the Xenosaga series. I’m referring to RPG characters’ universal belief that anything and everything that they find in a box is good eatin’. An herb discovered within a treasure chest situated at the very bottom of an abandoned mine? A blackberry found in the back corner of a rotten armoire located in an underwater city last populated over a hundred years ago? A vial of healing potion just left out in the sun on the floor of a floating ancient temple created by a race that went extinct a millennium prior? Throw it all in the Inventory sack and live like there’s no tomorrow, guys! Age won’t have desiccated that herb’s ability to restore 40 HP, no amount of rot and fungus will interrupt that fruit’s dedication to restoring 30% of your MP, and c’mon, what harm could there possibly be in ingesting a beaker of liquid chemicals allowed to react to one another and heat for ten centuries in a row?

By Asmodeus, do you realize that there is a moment in Millennium 4 in which the heroes explore a series of abandoned, forgotten sewer passages, find a treasure chest with meat inside, and actually take this long-lost sewer meat with them to potentially consume later? It isn’t even like this is some edible item found in a normal, disgusting RPG sewer system--it’s a section of underground fecal water-park that has gone unvisited for so long that the city above has outright forgotten about it! This is meat that has been stewing in a highly populated and active city’s poo-gas for an indeterminable set of decades, and rather than forever swear off the act of consuming food then and there at the mere sight of this wretched stuff, they intend to EAT IT. Oh my God.

And frankly, even the stuff you can buy fresh from a vendor at the beginning of the game probably shouldn’t be exactly as useful at the end of an adventure that spans weeks, months, or possibly even years.

With a mere touch more realism, 90% of the healing herbs you find in RPGs should cause more harm than they repair, as the flora should cause paralyzing digestive distress that puts an adventure on hold for a good 24 hours at a time, as the potions should probably fatally poison their consumer’s innards. And just opening that sewer meat’s chest should have straight-up melted Marine’s face right off with the fumes alone. But as amusing as it is to theorize that diarrhea should be so intrinsic to most RPG adventures that it counts as a party member, I sure as hell don’t want to deal with some knucklehead developer creating a timing system for using up items before they go bad, or denying me vital vitality victuals as I explore various dungeons just because it’s not realistic that they’d still be edible after being placed into a treasure chest a thousand years prior.

EDIT: Thanks to reader Adam E, I have now remembered that I have dealt with the realism of food spoilage in action in an RPG before. Baten Kaitos, though generally a pretty laudable couple of RPGs, does indeed have a system in play wherein certain items, those being health-restoring food, will indeed, after a set period of time, transform into a spoiled food item that no longer restores health but instead has a virtually uselessly low chance of inflicting poison on someone. I don't know how I could have forgotten this little example of some developer thinking a bit too highly of how clever he/she was, but I'm guessing I mentally blocked this part of the Baten Kaitos experience out, because this mechanic serves no purpose whatsoever beyond inconvenience and frustration.

But thanks for reminding me, Adam! I mean, sort of. Admittedly it's not a blast to remember the experience. But still, thanks!

Village and City Size: Anyone ever get concerned about the viability of most RPG towns’ genetic diversity? I mean, I like the coziness of small-town communities as much as the next guy, but 4 houses and 1 shop stall does not a village make! Hell, it doesn’t even fill out a cul-de-sac properly. Even the largest RPG city that you’re allowed to fully explore from 1 end to the other doesn’t usually amount to much more than the population and geographical area of my local shopping mall.

But that’s not really a bad thing. I really don’t need to explore every nook and cranny of New Tech Fantasyburg to get the overall idea of the city’s size and scope, nor do I especially want to spend the next 5 hours of the game doing so--repeated architecture tiles and NPC dialogue doesn’t have that powerful a pull on me. I’ve played RPGs that stuck around 1 single city well past the novelty’s expiration date, and it wasn’t a great time--Ordon Village in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was infuriatingly dull and overplayed, Kingdom Hearts 2’s beginning in Twilight Town was worse, and poor Dragon Age 2 never even escaped from the city of Kirkwall.

Also, on a personal note, I am absolute shit with directions, and this flaw absolutely does translate to my gaming. I already frequently get lost in the more decently-sized city microcosms in some RPGs--even navigating a moderate city section, like those in Deus Ex 3, is a spatial nightmare for me. Seriously, game developers, never give us any more than these tiny slices of RPG towns. Please. For my sake.

Running Endurance, Part 2: As I noted last time, RPG characters generally seem indefatigable when it comes to jogging from 1 screen to the next nonstop for 50+ hours of game time, a fact that I’m very glad for, because as little value as I clearly place upon my time, even I have better shit to do than to fritter away an extra cumulative 60 minutes’ worth of time per game because some slow-ass protagonist wanted to meander instead of trot his way to every goal.

But as a sharp-witted and anonymous reader pointed out on the last rant, not only does unflagging limb motion as they literally cross the world never tire most RPG characters, but their running endurance and speed are also rarely, if ever, affected by their actual physical condition. Spikehair McSwordbutt will jog at exactly the same speed, for exactly as long, whether he’s at full health or a measly 1 HP. Be he of robust constitution or suffering from no less than 6 different status effects, some of which may be states of unconsciousness, his pace is equally unfaltering.

Now, I can’t say this for absolute certainty, as I just avoid running and all other forms of physical activity altogether either way, but I think that if I were deeply poisoned and every step I took literally drained the life from my person, it might have a negative impact on my capacity to hustle.

But of course, this is a good thing, and should not change. Because 1 game did, in fact, link a character’s ability to run to their HP. And that game was Lunar: Dragon Song.

And you never, ever follow Lunar: Dragon Song’s example.

On anything.


Decaying Weapons: Okay guys I know I did this one last time, and don’t worry I’m not counting this as 1 of the new 8 things on this list, but hear me out on this: I just really fucking hate equipment degradation. Seriously who the fuck is the obnoxious little shit that first came up with this ass-ery? To the first video game developer that decided to apply the natural entropy of all things to video games’ weapons, armor, and whatnot, let me just say: I want every badger on Earth to become uncontrollably, very aggressively attracted to you and seek you out. I desire the last moments of your life to be someone forcing you to binge-watch Star Trek: Discovery. I hope you accidentally bite your tongue every single day.

Oh, and hey, just to keep things fresh, there’s a whole new reason these days why weapons that disintegrate as you use them is a bad thing, as if the obvious wasn’t enough: game developers can use this shitty game mechanic to scam you into paying them more. Never afraid to be unequivocally proven to be liars and cheats, Bethesda used the annoyance of weapon degradation in Fallout 76 as an opportunity to, after having said on record that all microtransactions would have no effect on gameplay, sell players special equipment repair kits to make the weapon degradation less inconvenient. Yes, Bethesda took this spectacularly anti-fun gameplay mechanic, put it in their game, sold that game to you for 59 dollars and 98-and-a-half cents more than the game was worth, and then charged you more money for a solution to the problem that they created. So yeah, besides just the obvious reason that it’s fucking asinine beyond the human capacity to fathom, weapon degradation is a bad idea in RPGs because it is also, it seems, an invitation for Todd Howard and his unethical corporate shitstain peers to rape your wallet.

Return Policies of Limitless Possibilities: Life for a merchant in an RPG world must occasionally become something of a nightmare, when the heroes roll into town. Sure, these assholes will probably lay down some coin to purchase a few necessities...but they may very well drop 99 battle axes on your counter, instead, and demand that you buy every single one off of them at half resale value. Does it matter that you’re strictly a potion vendor? Nope, you’re still obligated to purchase nearly a hundred of an item that you don’t even peddle--and even if you did, it’d still be a tough sell, since the adventurers wouldn’t be unloading an overstuffed sack of helmets on you if every last 1 of those damn things wasn’t obsolete compared to the equipment offered in this very town. Does it matter that you’re located in a tiny, rural farming hamlet, on an island with no port? Absolutely not--you’d better goddamn well have the full 46,000 that the pile of outdated knives is worth on hand and ready to fork over, down to the last gil!

However, as silly as it may seem that any given stall in a farmer’s market has got more shekels in its cash box than Randy Pitchford has stains on his immortal soul, I’d much rather have the convenience of being able to sell any amount of anything to anyone in an RPG than to have the alternative that you see in some Western RPGs like Fallout, games which actually limit how much currency any given merchant has on hand at any given time. As convenient as Fast Travel makes the process, it’s still something of a pain to find yourself carrying a load of valuable crap to sell, and have to hoof it to 1 vendor after another to get rid of it while still getting your money’s worth. And while I can appreciate the amusing subversion of RPG tropes inherent to it, it was nonetheless kind of annoying in Undertale when merchants refused to buy your junk off you, even if for admittedly logical reasons. Although the concept of the “Looter Shooter” is relatively recent to the industry, the quick and gratuitous acquisition of stuff, and the immediate pawning of said stuff for cold, hard zenny, is a longtime staple of the RPG genre, and adding the frustrating minutia of real-world restrictions to these transactions doesn’t have a beneficial tradeoff. Just let the dirty trash-picking waster living in a torn tent under a collapsed overpass possess the 1600 caps he owes me for unwisely handing him a dozen laser shotguns, and let me get on with my Fallout life, Bethesda!

Global Monolingualism: Basically, every single culture on any given fantasy planet (or undefined magical land, or magic-locked sister dimensions, or collapsed titanic divine mecha that they crawl on like disgusting parasites, or whatever) has a 95% chance of speaking the exact same language, and, to compound this miracle several times over, often all with the same accent! If anyone speaks a different language, you can be damn sure it’s only because it’s useful to the game’s narrative--padding the game’s time with quests to translate plot-relevant prophecies and instructions, padding the game’s time with sidequests to translate not plot-relevant dialogue for no particular reason because what was the point of Al Bhed really?, emphasizing how alien Tales of Eternia’s Meredy is even though the game gets lazier and lazier on implementing this different languages thing once it stops being useful and just kind of says “fuck it, everyone perfectly understands everyone because magic, we can’t be bothered to keep track of this shit any more” eventually, and so on.

This is, of course, not an RPG-specific trope by any stretch of the imagination, but they certainly make use of this convenient bit of non-realism at least as often as any other form of storytelling - perhaps more than most, even. And just as obvious are the benefits of taking this approach that every single being in the world, even a bunch of schmucks who’ve been living for a thousand years on a floating sky city apart from the world, or a bunch of inner-earth-dwelling dwarves who have never before this moment even encountered an inhabitant of the surface, speaks a single, unified language. If we were to introduce the concept of a realistic divide of languages between a planet’s cultures such as what we deal with in our own world, the complications of having to set up appropriate narrative devices for translation would soon become overly burdensome--and that irritation would easily outweigh what little benefits the story would gain from the situation. If there were any benefits to be had at all--I can’t really think of what, say, Lufia 2, or Lunar 1 would gain from such linguistic distinctions. Even the benefits for games in which a cultural divide is a plot point wouldn’t necessarily have much to gain--Grandia 1 and Chrono Trigger, for example, don’t have the kind of storytelling objectives that would get any real mileage from language barriers, even though encountering and exploring new lands is a major part of Grandia 1, and doing the same for different times is a major part of Chrono Trigger. For the pleasure of not having to hire a new translator every time I get shot from a canon into another county in a Mana game just for the sake of realism, I’ll gladly embrace the “all the universe speaks English” approach.

Also, the current system of only involving other languages when they’re useful to the plot actually works to our benefit in another way, too. While it’s frequently just a convenience to have everyone speak Galactic Basic Standard, the fact that we’re groomed to expect everyone we encounter in a game to speak a single language actually makes it more noteworthy when a character or plot device doesn’t. An indecipherable sacred text or a magical girl falling from the sky who speaks a foreign language wouldn’t seem all that eye-catching in a game whose course of events already had to juggle English, Japanese, Spanish, French, Gaelic, Polish, Cantonese, Al Bhed, Klingon, Animal Crossing, and Wookie. But in a game with only a single widely-spoken language? The difference stands out far more.

Money-Changing: Is it especially likely that a typical human empire, the human kingdom said empire is at war with, a secluded elven village, an underwater town of merpeople, a single vendor inexplicably and unapologetically living in ruins that have been abandoned for over 500 years, a community of extra-dimensional cat-people, the denizens of a post-apocalyptic wasteland existing over a thousand years in the future, and real, actual fucking penguins would all happen to accept the same gold coins or colorful gems as payment for their goods and services? No.

Do I want to revisit Secret of Evermore’s system of requiring you to visit a money exchange merchant every time I reach a new area of the game whose currency is completely different from the last? A far, far more emphatic no.

Seriously, nothing important is accomplished by this. No one cares, no one possibly could care, about that level of realistic detail in their RPG adventure. It’s a mild annoyance which adds nothing to the experience. Or it’s not even that much--the currency differences between the NCR, Legion, and general wasteland in Fallout: New Vegas were all but meaningless in a game whose economic system is primarily about barter.

Dietary Realism: Honestly, even when they’re consuming food items that haven’t been sitting in a moldy pouch for multiple lifetimes, RPG characters have got some shit diets. The Secret of Mana kids go their entire adventure subsisting on nothing but candy, chocolate, jam, and an occasional walnut. You trying to tell me that after weeks, maybe months of being in the wilderness, subsisting on nothing but ice cream toppings, they’d be in any condition to take on dark sorcerers and gigantic dragon-furries? Randi’s Strength stat should have been going DOWN every time he leveled up; the only healthily robust part of these characters’ bodies should have been their acne!

And what about all the game meat some RPG characters acquire as they go along their travels? Yeah, not everything caught in the wild is as dangerous as the infamous bushmeat (although it’s certainly present in some RPGs; the Millennium series outright has you collecting edible, health-restoring monkey and gorilla meat, for example), but a steady diet of game meat is a dicey gamble--realistically, in games where you get consumable meat items from wild boars and birds and so on, at least 1 party member would be struck with a nasty parasite or possibly even fatal disease per long adventure from all the untreated dire woof-woofs they’ve been cramming down their gullet. And that’s assuming they’re even cooking the damn stuff--some RPGs distinguish between raw and cooked food items, after all. Really, Fallout 4, you’re trying to tell me that Nora can spend her days devouring the raw innards of giant mutated cockroaches that roll around in and actively dig through the filth of post-apocalyptic Boston--not an especially clean and sanitary city even before Armageddon, I’d like to point out--all the time, and nothing, absolutely nothing will threaten her health beyond a slight increase in rads?

Man, just a little more realism to this situation, and Adventure Bar Story wouldn’t even exist.

But of course, even though the act of sinking my teeth into the twisted, bloated bulk of a hideously mutated mole-rat makes me queasy merely to think about and would probably lead to a legendary battle with my bathroom if I tried it, it’s better not to transfer the real-life reactions to living off the fat of fantasy and post-apocalyptic lands. Because I don’t think there’s a single person alive who won’t agree that malnutrition and food poisoning are major fucking bummers.

Fuck You, Second Law of Physics: Two objects cannot occupy the same place at the same time. But 5 - 8 objects that happen to be several humans, a robot, and a talkative self-aware guinea pig fully decked out in medieval armor? Oh, yeah, that’s no problem. Pile on in, guys, plenty of room in the single block of texture space which the protagonist inhabits! Just cram yourselves so far up into the main character’s personal space that you outright vanish from sight, as a Japanese subway attendant looks on with tears of envious admiration in his eyes. Or, alternately, all the supporting party members can just sort of trail behind the hero as he wanders around, single-file, keeping a respectful and exact distance behind him like dutiful, emotionally-repressed wives of olden times, while maintaining no more than a phantasmal presence, since the protagonist can unexpectedly double back whenever he feels like it and just walk right the hell through them with nary an effort.

Still, as peculiar as it may be for characters like Star Ocean 2’s Noel, the majority of Chrono Cross’s cast, and 95% of all Kemco characters to possess a physical presence equal to their overall substance as characters, it’s way better to have one’s party members disappear into the protagonist’s pocket or haunt his every step as no more than specters, than to have them running around as solid objects. Because then you get situations wherein your companions block your path if you want to go back, or loiter in doorways, trapping you indefinitely within small rooms because you can’t push past. The problem of becoming trapped by inconvenient and random NPC movement paths is already enough of an irritation; we don’t need to add the people who’re supposed to be your allies to the mix.

Just imagine if the 98 party members following Josephine around in I Have Low Stats But My Class is Leader, So I Recruited Everyone I Know to Fight the Dark Lord were all solid. The RPG would basically be a highly frustrating game of Snake.

I will say that, while my preference is the non-realistic approach to this issue, I’ll also accept a scenario that is much more realistic, too. As in, party members are solid beings who can obstruct your path, BUT you also have enough realism as a person to, y’know, open your stupid mouth and ask them to move. Fallout 2 was, I believe, the first RPG to come up with this idea, probably due to how infuriatingly often companions got in one’s way during the first Fallout, and a few titles since have gone this route, and bully for them. Whatever it takes to keep a narrow passage at the corner of the area map from becoming my protagonist’s final resting place because he’s just too damn shy to ask his closest friends in the world to take 2 steps to the left.

Well, that was fun, again. I really don’t have anything new to close this one out with, so, I dunno, I guess I’ll just reiterate what I concluded with last time: realism is a fine and lovely thing in our games, but it’s not an end in itself. It’s a tool to serve the purpose of a better gaming experience. So if implementing a new gameplay mechanic or eliminating a trope of the genre for the sake of realism does more harm than good to the audience’s experience, well, don’t fucking do it! You’d think this sort of thing would be obvious, honestly.