Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Threads of Fate's Imbalanced Storytelling

One of the distinguishing features of Threads of Fate is its 2-protagonist story approach. Not in the way that Final Fantasy 6 has 2 protagonists, mind; Threads of Fate handles it a different way. By that I mean that the game has 2 possible protagonists, Rue and Mint, and you choose which one to play as at the beginning of the game. The game’s plot and your perspective on that plot are then shaped by that choice. You still start at essentially the same Point A, and you still end the game’s journey at the same Point Z, but only some of the points along the way are the same. Hard to explain, but I hope you get the gist of it. This wasn’t the first RPG to try something like this. Star Ocean 2, which had come out the year before, had 2 protagonists to choose from at the start of the game, and Seiken Densetsu 3 and The 7th Saga on the SNES had a handful of protagonists to choose from. Nonetheless, this system of Threads of Fate stood out pretty well. Star Ocean 2 and The 7th Saga were virtually identical no matter which protagonist you actually chose, and Seiken Densetsu 3...well, its plot and story perspective did significantly change depending on your chosen protagonist, but one way or another, it was just a pretty generic story that featured characters that were pretty forgettable, while Threads of Fate’s got a really good story with a fun and engaging cast. So ToF is still kind of remembered as a pioneer with this idea, even if it’s not the first to try it.

Overall, Threads of Fate does this well. But there is 1 thing about it that kind of disappoints me: the 2-protagonist story approach is imbalanced. The general promise made by ToF is that both protagonists are meant to be equals in the eyes of the story, neither more or less right for the role, nor more or less important to the plot. While Rue and Mint are not similar people (not by a long, looooooong shot) and go about their quests differently, the general premise of the game is clearly supposed to be that either can be the hero with equal qualification. It’s a neat idea--but it doesn’t pan out in the end. In the end, Threads of Fate is Rue’s story, not Mint’s.

There are several points in the game that lead me to this conclusion. First of all, the game’s central themes, those of the role of destiny and of choice, are much better utilized and reflected upon in Rue’s story of discarding his intended purpose to create a new one, and of defying fate by trying to resurrect Claire (or you could interpret it as him seeing her death as something that was against destiny to start with). While Mint’s story is related to her having lost her destined role as a ruler and seeking to take it back, and thus does have ties to the whole thematic role-of-destiny-and-choice thing that ToF is going for, it’s apparent that Rue’s version of the game is by far the more in tune with the game’s deeper ideas and message.

Rue also gets better character development and exploration. Now, don’t get me wrong here. Let me make something clear:




She is hilarious. She is fun. She is charmingly clever and lovably stupid at the same time. She is unique. She is one of those rare, rare examples of a character type that I normally can’t stand (selfish, obnoxious brat who thinks everyone should bow before her) being made awesome by a character who knows how to play that normally unappealing character type up in the best possible way. Like Pinkie Pie in My Little Pony--hyperactive, bubbly, high-pitched girly-girl types usually annoy the hell out of me, but Pinkie Pie is just funny enough, just random enough, just clever enough, and just complex and noble enough that it works out to my liking her. That’s how it is with Mint--despite being a character type only a few steps away from Earthbound’s ultra-obnoxious Porky, Mint is a consistently enjoyable experience from beginning to end.*

With all that said, though, as a character, Mint cannot compete with Rue. It’s not that Mint has no character depth or development at all--it’s subtle, but it’s definitely there. But Rue is clearly the better character. He has greater and more worthwhile issues to work through, his development is clear and written well, and he’s a more heroic figure as a whole. Mint’s not a bad character and the humor attached to her does count for something, but there’s no contest between who’s a better character and a better hero.

Rue is also more significantly connected to the plot. While he and Mint are both out to obtain the same powerful relic, the Dewprism, to grant a wish, it’s Rue who has the substantial ties to the plot along the way. Rue’s past relates to the ultimate foe of the game and the sought-after relic itself, and the major antagonist of the story, Doll Master, is connected to Rue and Rue’s purpose--both his purposes, in fact, past (the Dewprism stuff) and his present (saving Claire, as Doll Master is the guy who killed her). It’s not that Mint has no connection to the major story and characters or anything, but the biggest actors on this stage, the ones who set the major events in motion and who provide the major opposition that the heroes must overcome, are tied to Rue.

Also, there’s the plain, simple mathematics of the game’s conclusion. If you play through Rue’s side of the game, at the end, Claire is saved. Rue set out to find the Dewprism to grant his wish of rescuing Claire, and though things weren’t quite that easy or straightforward, in the end Rue gets what he wanted and needed. Sadly for Mint, she doesn’t get her wish to gain the power to take over the world, but we wouldn’t exactly expect Mint’s wish to be fulfilled in Rue’s story. But if you play through the game as Mint...she still doesn’t get her wish! At the end of the game, Mint has not acquired the power necessary to rule the world. And what’s more, Rue doesn’t get to have Claire back, either! Just do the arithmetic: in Rue’s story, 1 of 2 people get what they wanted. In Mint’s story, 0 of those 2 people do. Yeah, Mint does, at the end of her version of the game’s story, have a reconciliation of sorts with her sister Maya and can go back home, and you could argue that in the end that’s what she needed more, but it’s still not what she was out for, and there’s no indication at the end of the game that her ultimate ambitions have been sated. She’s still left wanting. The family reconciliation angle is more like a bonus for her than an actual prize, just as Rue’s stronger sense of identity and peace with himself at the end of his story is a bonus for him, while the actual prize is Claire. So it’s uneven.

Even in terms of story canon, the game seems to outright favor Rue’s story by the end. Once you’ve played the game through with both characters, you unlock a final, secret scene, wherein Rue and Claire are living together in solitude, and Mint shows up to drag Rue off on another relic search so that she can get that world-conquering power she’s been hankering for. The living presence of Claire there is a clear indicator of 1 of 2 possibilities. Either the game is outright saying that the true, canon course of the game’s events was Rue’s journey, or the game’s saying that the true, canon course of the game’s events was some combination of Mint and Rue’s journeys, and Claire’s resurrection was 1 of the events of Rue’s side that did occur. The latter possibility is definitely more along the lines of a theory than an interpretation that you can really back up, though, so I’m going to say that, unless somehow proven wrong in the future, this scene is an indicator that it was Rue’s story that truly did occur, not Mint’s.

And hey, if I have to choose between whose personal dream is the more worthwhile, I’ll certainly choose Rue’s. I’m glad Claire is alive, and I would be, honestly, very put out if everything had worked out the opposite way, with Mint getting her wish and Claire being lost forever. Mint just selfishly wants to conquer the world; Rue’s wish is to save the life of someone dear, who perished unfairly and courageously in the defense of someone she cared about. Rue’s wish just plain means more, and I’m glad that he has a chance to see it fulfilled.

My point is just that the protagonist imbalance is there, and the stories of Rue and Mint are not equal. Knowing the full story of the game, there are times during Mint’s quest that kind of feel like she’s intruding on someone else’s personal tale (which is, I guess, actually the exact sort of thing Mint would do). And it’s not a big problem, because the game through Mint’s eyes is terrifically fun and amusing, and the game through Rue’s eyes is well-written and meaningful (and still has a good dose of Mint craziness). I just think it’s kind of a shame that it wasn’t a more balanced story between the 2 protagonists, the way it was set up to be. I’m glad Rue got his wish and found himself along the way, but it would be nice for Mint to get her due, too, yeah?

Well, hopefully some day we’ll get a sequel to ToF, and that game will be focused primarily on Mint, as the first was on Rue. Hey, it may not seem likely, but this is an age where 20-year-old anime like Trigun gets a new movie, 30-year-old anime like Mysterious Cities of Gold gets continued out of the blue, and My Little Pony gets rebooted into one of the best cartoons ever made. Clearly stranger things have happened when it comes to sequels, continuations, and reboots. But until that happy day, Threads of Fate is Rue’s tale, regardless of his sharing the cover with Mint.

* Actually, what she really reminds me of is Princess Elise from My World, My Way, only about 6x better.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4's Adachi Lost the Element of Surprise

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4’s villain, Adachi, was really a very good antagonist, but he would have been a little better if SMTP4 had come out before SMT Persona 3. Not by any significant measurement, I suppose, but...well, if I had played SMTP4 first, then I think that the realization that Adachi was the murderer would have hit me with a satisfying sense of surprise, as I feel the game intends. But after the revelation of Shuji Ikutsuki as a villain in Persona 3, Adachi’s role as the villain was just, well, kind of obvious.

It’s kind of weird, because in general, there really isn’t much of a connection between Adachi and Shuji. Sure, they’re both villains, but that doesn’t mean much by itself--types of villains are as varied as types of heroes. And these 2 guys don’t really have much in common. Ikutsuki’s an insane fanatic who wants to bring forth the end of humanity for reasons that are vague and hurried past. Adachi, on the other hand, is a cold and self-satisfying murderer, a sadistic monster who kills for kicks. Adachi also may not exactly be of entirely sound mind, but there’s no question that he’s ultimately mentally competent and aware of reality and self--he’s not a villain because he’s crazy, like Shuji, but rather simply because he’s a malicious, murderous asshole.

But there is one aspect of personality where Adachi and Shuji do meet, at least somewhat: their cover identity. Shuji Ikutsuki spends most of his time in the game pretending to be a helpful leader/mentor to the protagonists, a friendly and quirky fellow who loves a good terrible pun. And Adachi, well, he’s not exactly the same, but he’s pretty similar in the regard that he’s an ever-affable, quirky, helpful guy. He always seems ready to provide a lead for the protagonists to follow, and his comical laziness and slacker attitude does for him what terrible puns did for Shuji--it sets him apart in a lightly amusing, harmless way.

And that’s what did it for me, what gave Adachi away. They’re both playing the trustworthy, peculiar adult. Even if their true selves aren’t particularly comparable, Adachi and Ikutsuki’s quirky, seemingly harmless cover personalities are similar enough in the role they fulfill and how they subvert any suspicion you might have had about them that, after seeing Shuji’s betrayal in Persona 3, I knew early into Persona 4 that there was a good chance that Adachi was up to no good.

It’s a damn shame, too, for a couple of reasons. First of all, if I had to have the surprise of either Shuji or Adachi be spoiled for me, I’d rather have seen Shuji coming than Adachi. Frankly, Shuji Ikutsuki’s betrayal is a real low point in the otherwise generally terrific SMTP3. It comes from nowhere, it’s poorly explained, it lessens his character by replacing the character we know him as with an inferior individual that we don’t have a chance to explore, and it comes off as just being conveniently inserted because the writers needed some way to characterize Aigis and add the drama for Mitsuru and whatnot. Ikutsuki’s betrayal doesn’t feel genuine, is the problem, and until the utterly absurd plot twist at the end of The Last Story, Ikutsuki’s backstab might have been the least believable, poorly done betrayal I’d seen in RPGs. With this, the surprise of Shuji being a villain just adds to the negative. Adachi, on the other hand, is well-developed in both his personas, and has many aspects of his cover personality that you can actually see connecting to his true, nasty self when you’re looking for them, so instead of feeling like a character who pulled a 180, Adachi as a villain feels like simply seeing the other half of the same coin. For him, the intended surprise of discovering that he was the murderer all along would have been a cool and enjoyable moment.

The other reason that the surprise would have benefited the SMT Persona 4 situation more is that SMTP4 is in large part a murder mystery.* In that kind of story, the major, climactic point in the tale, the huge part that everything is working up to and everyone is fixated on, is the revelation of who the dastardly dog was what did the dirty deed. It was substantially more important to the type of story Persona 4 is to be taken by surprise by the true nature of Adachi than it was for the somewhat more general storytelling style of Persona 3.

It’s not a big problem, or anything. Adachi’s still a solid villain. The revelation of him is still handled well. I can still appreciate the virtues of the story even if I saw it coming. But still, I think it would have been that much better of a twist if it had caught me by surprise as it was, I think, intended to, and I also think I wouldn’t have normally seen it coming. But after seeing Shuji Ikutsuki pull the Helpful, Amusing and Quirky Adult = Evil plot twist, it was easy to see the possibility that Adachi was up to no good just as Ikutsuki had been. Too bad.

* Although as a murder mystery it kind of sucks. Damn fine RPG, don’t get me wrong, but its presentation and process of the whole solve-the-murder aspect ain’t exactly Agatha Christie.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

General RPGs' Genre Definition

WARNING: This rant is a bunch of pointless pontificating and will probably be almost as big a waste of your time to read as it was for me to write. Read at the peril of your free time.

So, y’know, no different than every other rant on this blog, really. It may be a new year, but you'd sure as hell never know it from looking around here.

Alright. Fine. Let’s do this.

Readers are sometimes surprised (or scornful) when they discover some of the games I count as RPGs. This happens most often when I speak of The Legend of Zelda series as an RPG franchise, though it’s not the only questionable selection that people, well, question. In fact, if you ask me, The Legend of Zelda series aren’t even the games with the most shaky classification of RPG that I qualify as an RPG. I mean, I’d say TLoZ games are much more definitely RPGs than Startropics 1 and 2, or Deus Ex 2, and no one ever leaps forward to call me a braindead dipshit when I refer to them as such.

Anyway, so, here’s the subject of our rant today: What, in The RPGenius’s opinion and, yes, even expertise, is an RPG? What is the definition of an RPG? What are the concrete standards that make a title an RPG, and not simply a game of a different genre?

Actually, this is the easiest part of today’s rant. The answer is that I haven’t got the damndest idea.

No, really, I don’t. Sure, there are certain impressions, certain indicators that a game could be an RPG, certain qualities that make me say “Oh, yeah, this counts.” But an actual, solid, reliable set of criteria for this determination? I don’t have anything like that.

Whoa, whoa there. Calm down. Put those boos and hisses away, at least for now. Save them for someone who deserves them, like Electronic Arts, or Michael Bay--if you can even tell the difference between them. Look. I don’t have a specific set of guidelines for what makes an RPG, so I can’t explain my reasoning here. But I can at least explain why I don’t have such a checklist.

So here’s Reason Number 1, the biggest cause for my lack of decision: No one else knows what an RPG is. I mean, there’s really just no universal, understood consensus on this. There are individuals--intelligent, thoughtful individuals who have given the matter more than its due consideration--who have concrete ideals to which a game must adhere for it to be an RPG, but as a whole, the gaming community isn’t any better than I am. Look at the Wikipedia page for RPGs. Look at its table of contents. When you get right down to it, the large majority of that page is trying, unsuccessfully, to suss out what an RPG actually is. They list an RPG’s characteristics, but each time they start to explain those characteristics, you start seeing the same qualifiers littering their information. If you want to test this, just look at the first sentence of each paragraph describing an RPG’s characteristics. “Often.” “Typically.” “Most.” “Many.” “Frequently.” “Usually.” “Some.” Nearly every time an RPG characteristic is named, and described, some qualification is made that not all RPGs contain this element, or the following sentences will note prominent examples of when this rule is not present. Yes, not every aspect of any game genre is black and white, there’s always going to be exceptions and such, but, well, put all of that section of the Wikipedia page together, and what are you going to get? You’re going to get a general idea of what RPGs can be, usually are, but that’s as far as you can go with that. And hey, what do you know--that’s exactly where I am! I’ve played over 300 video games, the large majority of them have been RPGs to some degree and in some form, and I’m as clueless as a newcomer who’s just tried to take in that large, indecisive internet dictionary page.

The rest of the Wikipedia page isn’t any better. It’s all about the genre’s history and means of classification, but really, all that the folks at Wikipedia seem to be able to do is recite others’ opinions and criticisms about the subject, relate how perceptions of RPGs have changed from what they were, but not offer hard definition, nor official classification, nor a strong idea of what the genre has transformed into.

Compare it to the Wikipedia page for First Person Shooters. The page starts off with a clear, fairly precise, concise explanation of what an FPS is. Compare that to the opening of the RPG page: ”A role-playing video game (commonly referred to as role-playing game or RPG) is a video game genre where the player controls the actions of a protagonist (or several adventuring party members) immersed in a fictional world.” Uh, yeah, not exactly precise; they basically just described, what, 70% of all video games ever created? Plus, where the RPG page can do nothing more than launch into characteristics, which it goes back and forth on, the FPS page’s first section is a clear, informative, and largely unambiguous definition of the genre.

Wikipedia mirrors the gaming community as a whole on this issue. Anyone can easily recognize a First Person Shooter, and they can tell you exactly why they know it’s an FPS. And they can tell you why another game is not an FPS. And they can give you a pretty accurate explanation of what an FPS is. But an RPG? A gamer can probably recognize it, and they can sort of point to some aspects that probably make it an RPG. And they can maybe tell you when another game is not an RPG. But they are not likely to give you a detailed, hard explanation of what an RPG is. They have a general idea, an overall impression, but no detailed and concrete definition. Knowing an RPG, I think, is, for most gamers, and most developers, a case of intuition, not scientific classification.

But that’s not to say that’s true for all people. Like I said, plenty of sharp folks, hardcore RPG fans, do have a set definition in their mind of what an RPG is, and they’ve shared it, and it works for them. Some people insist it’s any game where you play a role, which I guess is technically accurate going by the name. Some people have a system where each RPG quality is worth a certain number of points, and a game has to have enough of those qualities to reach a certain point threshold where it becomes an RPG. And some people are Chris Avellone, who states, "An RPG is a game that provides character progression, opportunities for exploration, the ability to confront or fight adversaries and obstacles to achieve rewards, and, most importantly, gives choice in everything from character construction to action and dialogue choices in the game, and the game reacts to those choices in measurable ways."

I’m glad if these things work for them. Hell, it’s not like they’re wrong, most of the time. I’ve seen some folks get creative enough with RPG definitions to be too nuts to get behind,* but overall, it’s all fine. If someone wants to believe that any game where you play a role is an RPG, well, I think that’s nuts because it essentially means that the genre spans like 98% of all games ever made, but on the other hand, how the hell do you argue with that logic when the name of the genre is role-playing game? The RPG Consoler, a fine blog that has a far more organized, systematic, and professional vision of RPGs than my own raving mess, has a very tidy and workable system for determining whether a game’s an RPG, and power to that, it’s good. And Chris Avellone is to RPGs what Isaac Asimov is to science fiction, Agatha Christie is to murder mysteries, Steven Hawking is to science, Fred Rogers is to morality. If RPGs were ice cream, Avellone would be the flavor Cookie Butter.** If Chris Avellone says a game’s an RPG, I’m sure as hell not gonna deny it.

Still, my perspective is just...different. Extremely broad, sweeping definitions don’t do it for me. But neither does quantifying RPG qualities and how many a game must hit before it’s an RPG. I’ve just...there’s always an exception. Almost always, there’s more than one. What I mean is, well, here, let me list out some of the ways I’ve seen people argue that a game is not an RPG, and why I think that’s not enough of a reason to bar a game from the genre.

Character Advancement: Many people claim that if you don’t advance your character’s abilities and/or stats in some way, it’s not an RPG. Typically this means leveling a character up, although something like Final Fantasy 10’s Sphere Grid or the level-it-as-you-do-it system for The Elder Scrolls 4 also qualify. This is a major argument against counting The Legend of Zelda and Startropics as RPGs--Link doesn’t increase advance his abilities/stats, and neither does Mike. Only...well, they sort of do. I mean, their hearts are essentially HP, and for Link, it goes up in 2 ways. He gets more of it when he beats a dungeon/boss, and he gets it if he explores enough and completes certain sidequests (by finding and/or earning enough Pieces of Heart to make a new Heart HP for himself). Same with Mike--hearts (HP) go up by completing objectives and by finding them through exploration.

Uh, well, that’s...RPG-like. I mean, getting more hearts = getting more HP = increasing a stat, right? Link and Mike are rewarded for beating dungeons and bosses with this stat increase, and for exploring. Well, in Mass Effect 2 and 3, Shepard only actually gets experience and levels up after the conclusion of a mission; he or she does not get experience for each enemy killed, only for the mission success itself. That’s essentially the same thing as the Pieces of Heart that you get for helping NPCs or beating minigames (and sometimes the reward requires you do both). And in Deus Ex 1, a major source of the skill points you spend on advancing JC Denton’s abilities comes from exploration, finding certain key nooks and crannies. Yeah, you get it from other, plot-advancing sources, but most non-mandatory skill points come from exploration alone. JC does not get them for killing enemies. Well, if it takes JC a few times of clever exploration to earn enough points to qualify him for upgrading one of his skills, how is that any different, really, from Link taking a few times of clever exploration to earn enough Pieces of Heart to qualify him for upgrading the only stat he can increase? And likewise, if it takes Shepard a couple small side missions to advance to a new level rather than just tallying the number of enemies he or she kills, how is that any different, really, from Link taking a few times of sidequest completion to earn enough Pieces of Heart to qualify him for upgrading that same single stat? Same with Mike, only when he’s rewarded for exploration/plot advancement, he gets a full heart each time, but that’s basically as if he just leveled up then and there. If I don’t count The Legend of Zelda games as RPGs for this issue of character advancement, I really can’t Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3, or Deus Ex 1, either, and those are officially recognized and seldom questioned members of the RPG genre.

Another example of that same thing--The Magic of Scheherazade. Nobody will argue that it’s not an RPG if they’re familiar with the game (though not a lot of people actually are). Well, in The Magic of Scheherazade, you can level up through defeating enemies via Experience Points, as most RPGs...BUT, if you reach the end of a chapter in the story underneath a certain level, the game will automatically level you up to that point anyway. Additionally, you can only get to a certain level in each chapter, and after that point you won’t receive any further experience, which prevents you from becoming so strong that there’s no challenge. You see, there is a little player control of what level you’re at in The Magic of Scheherazade, but the game WILL take steps to make sure you’re never too weak or too strong. Well, isn’t that sort of the case with the heart increase of Link and Mike after hitting plot objectives like beating a dungeon and moving on to the next part of their story? The mandatory increase in HP ensures that they’re never so weak that it’s impossible to win, while the hiding of optional HP increases that take exploration to find ensures that you have a chance to make them stronger, and that in itself is limited by how much of the world Link and Mike can explore at that point in the game so that neither ever become too strong.

Of course, you could argue that only giving the player 1 aspect of a character to improve (Link and Mike’s HP) does not provide enough choice to the player for how the character advances and defeats the purpose. I see where you’re coming from with that, but again, if you disqualify The Legend of Zelda for that, then I feel like you have to disqualify a lot of other games firmly cemented in their existence as RPGs. I mean, think about it--how much control over your character’s advancement do you really have in, say, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, or The Secret of Evermore? Your character abilities and stats in many RPGs are determined by little more than what level you’re at; you don’t actually have much say in what they are yourself. You can choose a character’s equipment and that makes some difference, but then, you can do the same thing in many Legend of Zelda games, and even, to a much more limited extent, in Startropics. And what about games like Fire Emblem, where character advancement at level up is determined by probability? No one questions Fire Emblem as an RPG, yet your ability to influence your character’s growth there is limited to just hitting a reset button and trying again, hoping that you’ll get what you want next time. And the same is true with some Shin Megami Tensei games’ demon level ups, only those are even more randomized than Fire Emblem’s. How can you disqualify Legend of Zelda games and Startropics because of the rigidity of their character advancement when other “true” RPGs can have just as little player choice, or even less?

Certainly character advancement is a major RPG characteristic, but a make-or-break quality? I can’t honestly think of it as such, because if it is, it disqualifies a ton of games from the genre that even officially are considered RPGs.

World Map/Exploration: Surprisingly, a major necessity for an RPG for some people is a world map, the idea that you can explore the world in a relatively free sense, traversing from one major location to the next on foot, ship, airship, or whatnot. I don’t know why this is such a big sticking point for some people, honestly, I never would have thought it would be, but as with character advancement, saying a game is not an RPG if it lacks this trait disqualifies a hell of a lot of bonafide, populace-approved RPGs from the genre. I mean, there’s no world map or world exploration in any of the Fire Emblem titles I’ve encountered. Nor in Deus Ex 1 and 2, nor in several Nippon Ichi games such as Disgaea 1, Phantom Brave, and Makai Kingdom, nor in Legend of Grimrock, nor in Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon, nor in Torchlight 1, nor in Baroque...the list goes on. I’ve not heard of anyone criticizing several of those games as not being truly RPGs; they’re all officially known as such, so far as I’m aware.

What qualifies as a world map, while we’re on the subject? Some people would say that it has to be either something along the lines of Final Fantasy 4, Lunar 1, and Lufia 2, where, outside of towns and dungeons, you walk/sail/fly around the land to your next destination, or Fallout 3, Crystalis, and Lords of Xulima, where you explore an extremely large geographic area on foot. That’s fine and good, but does that disqualify point-and-click world maps, such as those for Final Fantasy 10, Final Fantasy Tactics, Kingdom Hearts 1, Solatorobo: Red the Hunter, and Crimson Shroud? Because that would be a lot of games widely accepted as RPGs being crossed off the list. And considering that Grandia 2 and Planescape: Torment fall into this category, you’d also be losing some of the very best games ever made from the RPG genre, which’d be a damn shame. Plus, there’s the confusion of a few games whose world maps are almost the same as a point-and-click deal, like Secret of Mana and Sailor Moon: Another Story--you can fly overhead, but there are only certain set landing points for each area of the world, so it’s sort of right in between being a regular world map deal and the point-and-click setup.

The backbone of this world map question revolves around the theme of world exploration, and some people don’t quibble over world maps so much as they claim that an RPG must have exploration of its world. In fact, this is 1 of the few RPG qualities that the ambivalent Wikipedia page on RPGs seems adamant about being necessary. That seems mostly reasonable, but would that disqualify a dungeon-crawler like Baroque? Besides the central settlement of Baroque, the game is a large, randomized dungeon. You can explore each floor you come to, but is that really exploring the game’s world? I mean, if the world you explore changes every time you step foot in it, why is exploring it such an important deal? You’re not uncovering anything with specific design and thought beyond a randomized formula, no concrete world wherein your explorations mean that you know it any better. Also, there’s world exploration in plenty of titles that most everyone agrees are not RPGs. There’s plenty of it Grand Theft Auto games, and hell, even simple games like Mario titles involve a certain degree of it. I mean, you can say that just finding bonus levels and warp zones in the original Super Mario Brothers doesn’t qualify as world exploration, but then that begs the question of how far of a degree does exploration have to go to in order to be considered an RPG? The world exploration in several RPGs, such as Dust: An Elysian Tale and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, is certainly no stronger an aspect of the game than it is for many non-RPG platformers.

Combat: Oh God, combat. This one’s so damn divisive sometimes. I’m not going to get into it much. Some people claim an RPG battle system must be turn-based, like Earthbound or Breath of Fire 1, but that would disqualify a ridiculously huge amount of RPGs from the mix, including such important mainstays as Chrono Trigger, several iconic Final Fantasies, Kingdom Hearts, and the Baldur’s Gate games. Some are more lenient on what the combat system has to be, accepting action RPGs and strategy RPGs and whatnot, but insist that it be menu-based, which would eliminate a ton of great RPGs like Fallout 3, Dust: An Elysian Tale, Alundra 1, and Terranigma. Hell, just the insistence by itself that combat must be a constant component of the game seems shortsighted--it’s hard to deny that Sakura Wars 5 is an RPG (at least, a hybrid RPG), yet there are only, what, half a dozen battles in the whole game? Character advancement isn’t even related to the battles; your party gets stronger through your out-of-battle interactions with them. Similarly, Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle has only about 5 battles in its entire course, battles which are not especially long like Sakura Wars 5’s are. They’re an after-thought to the game’s true focus, which is plot and especially characters. You certainly couldn’t classify Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle anything but an RPG, but combat is almost nonexistent within the game.

Story and Characters: Some people, myself certainly included, view RPGs as primarily being centered around plot, characters, themes, all the intellectual aspects of storytelling. Generally speaking, this is true of the genre, and it’s that fact which drew me to RPGs to begin with, and which keeps me firmly rooted in their midst. Nonetheless, even though I believe an RPG should focus on such things and I hold it against any RPG which does not deliver a satisfactory storytelling experience, my grudge does not extend so far as denying a game classification as an RPG just because it does not adequately prioritize its plot and characters. I’d much rather play an RPG with a rich and rewarding story, such as Shin Megami Tensei 1, or a rich and rewarding cast, such as Tales of Legendia, or better yet, a game with a rich and rewarding story AND cast, like Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, but that preference does not mean that a game like Lagoon, or Orcs + Elves, or Rune Factory 1, games that have barely any story to tell and/or any depth in their cast, are not still RPGs. I may not LIKE the bland, barely present nature of Legend of Grimrock’s story and its lack of any significant cast, but it’s still pretty clearly an RPG. Additionally, plot and characters are not solely the property of RPGs--Silent Hill games are heavy with such elements, as are games like The Last of Us, Full Throttle, and (sort of) Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Being story-based, having a cast with importance, these are integral parts of an RPG, but they’re not the only qualifier, nor are they strictly necessary (though if you want a GOOD RPG, they are).

And so on and so forth. I could go on, but I think you’re getting my point here. There’s really no 1 magic quality that makes a game an RPG or not, in my opinion, nor is there any specific formula or combination of aspects that do. Any time someone proposes a stern guideline for what is and is not an RPG, I invariably see exceptions to this proposed rule, games that are disqualified that people by and large agree are indeed RPGs, sometimes even the individual proposing such a rule. Likewise, these strict guidelines often let in games with most everyone agrees are not RPGs, again, sometimes including the individual proposing the rule. So for me, what is and is not an RPG is just kind of an undefined, general impression that is aided, but not dictated, by things like stats and world exploration and item shops and turn-based battles and story and characters and all that jazz. If it has some of those common traits, then I probably will categorize it as an RPG, but I keep an open mind and go with my gut feeling on the matter, too. That’s what works for me. If you disagree, that’s fine, but I’m comfortable with how I approach the matter, and I’m going to keep doing it my way.

* I had a friend a while back who could pretty eloquently argue that most racing games are RPGs. I don’t agree because that’s crazy, and he himself didn’t actually believe that either, but he did make a much better case for it than most arguments I’ve seen for why one game or another is or is not an RPG.

** If you have never had Cookie Butter Ice Cream before, for the love of God go find some and have it. Put it on some apple crisp or a pie or something. I don’t say this about anything, but I say it now: Cookie Butter Ice Cream is scrumtrulescent.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Annual Summary: 2014

Weeeeellp, another year has come and gone, and I somehow keep managing to think of unimportant RPG nonsense to spout thrice a month. Crazy.

2014 was...well, it really wasn’t a big year for me with RPGs. That’s not to say that there weren’t any good ones in there, or even that I didn’t play a decent number. There were actually quite a few really good games I played this year, comparatively few bad ones, and I played 21 RPGs to finish overall, which isn’t a bad number, if not great. Here they are, in alphabetical rather than chronological order:

Away: Shuffle Dungeon
Crimson Shroud
Defender’s Quest 1
Dust: An Elysian Tail
Geneforge 2
Gothic 1
Jade Empire
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
Lords of Xulima
Magical Starsign
Pokemon Generation 5-2
Rune Factory 1
Shadowrun: Dragonfall
Shadowrun Returns
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers
Solatorobo: Red the Hunter
Threads of Fate
Weapon Shop de Omasse
The Witcher 2

The reason it wasn’t much of an RPG year is that there should have been a LOT more games on that list. It may not be a bad number, but it could have been longer by at least 10 games, I’d say. But a lot happened in the second half of 2014 that kept me from playing many new RPGs.

First of all, I decided in July to do a replay of Fallout 3, because apparently Bethesda is not going to see fit to grace us with the next Fallout for who knows how much longer. It was an absolute blast; the game is just as great as I remember, and there were a few mods that made it even better, which I’ll go into more detail about in a future rant. Fallout 3’s a pretty massive game, though, particularly if you’re as completionist a Fallout player as I am, so that took a month’s worth of gaming time right there. Then in August, my computer and my car decided to die at roughly the same time, and the process of getting a new car and computer took me, believe it or not, the whole damn month. I’m not great at car shopping, and every step of the process of replacing the computer had bizarre, unforeseen, time-wasting difficulties attached to it. Hell, I still wouldn’t have a functioning computer if not for the tireless assistance of my friend Angahith. If you read these rants, sir, let me again thank you for always coming through and being 100% pure awesome.

That all cleared up just in time for me to go back to school for graduate work, of course, and I’m sure you can imagine the effect that has on my free time (hint: not a good one). And what free time I was left with for RPGs took a nigh-fatal blow with the release of Super Smash Brothers 4, of which I own both versions and will probably be playing obsessively well into 2015. So even when I do have free time for gaming, it tends to be Smash-related. Hey, what can I do? They added Little Mac to the game this time around! Little Mac. My hands are tied.

So yeah, without that stuff happening, I’d have played many more RPGs this year. I’ve also used up potential RPG time this year on books by Sherman Alexie, Isaac Asimov, Stephen Chbosky; Agatha Christie, John Green, George R. R. Martin (which you know counts like 3 times over), and Cory O’Brien. I also spent my time discovering and obsessively watching every episode of Bravest Warriors and Brooklyn 99, both of which I heartily recommend you check out, and also checking out the old semi-anime superhero cartoon Cybersix, which seemed decent, but obviously lost a lot in transition to being kid-appropriate. I also rewatched X-Men: The Animated Series, Firefly, and Futurama. Oh, and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’s fourth season happened this year, as well, and I accordingly watched the hell out of that, because Ponies = Fucking Awesome. Actually, on that note, I also spent a bit of time playing Megapony, a rather fun Megaman-esque game starring ponies (duh), as well as the game Superbrothers: Sword + Sworcery EP, which is weird but artsy and decent. And of course, I did the same stuff I always do: write fanfiction (someday I’ll actually finish this damn story and post it), write rants, and go to my job.

Getting back to what RPGs I did manage to play, the year started out pretty well. The first game I played was The Witcher 2, which just about anyone will tell you is just a great game altogether, and I followed it up with Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, both of which are fine specimens of their series. I also found pleasant surprises early on in Away: Shuffle Dungeon and Robocalypse, games better than I had expected them to be.

After this, I had a bit of a streak of boring. Pokemon Generation 5-2 (AKA Black 2 and White 2) is dull and pointless, Silver kind of crawls along, Gothic is slow as hell and just not very interesting altogether, and Rune Factory 1 is so boring that it almost felt like playing Suikoden 4...well, okay, it’s not nearly that bad, but Rune Factory 1 is still less entertaining than seeing how many pieces of lint you can find around the house.

I got out of the boring streak with Geneforge 2, which, while not wildly entertaining, is a fine RPG. That kicked off a period of months in which I played most of the Indie titles on the list above. I’m again pleased with the consistent level of quality with Indie titles; so far the only bad one I’ve played was Weapon Shop de Omasse, and quite a few have been just terrific games.

As the Indie phase petered out, that’s when the computer and car woes I mentioned hit, so I only played a few more titles after that point, but they were all quite decent. I ended the year with Crimson Shroud, which is quite neat and singular in its storytelling approach, Lords of Xulima, the first Kickstarter RPG that I’ve funded to be completed and overall a barely so-so game, and Jade Empire, one of the few Bioware games from the days before the company lost its fucking mind which I had not played yet. It was pretty good, although I have to say, not nearly as good as most of the rest of their titles.

Anyway, enough about that crap. Let’s get on with the fun part!

RPG Moments of Interest in 2014:

1. Pokemon Generation 5-2 earns a unique award: Idiot Henchman of the Year. A Team Plasma grunt proudly makes the claim to the protagonist that the beds in one particular room of the Plasma headquarters don’t get used, and then, thinking somehow that the main character does not believe this and, inexplicably, caring mightily, the grunt indignantly challenges the main character to try sleeping in these beds to prove how unused they are. Taking such pride in unused beds that you tell your enemy to take a nap in them, in an RPG...yup, that is a singular kind of stupidity, there.

2. I was honestly very surprised that Away: Shuffle Dungeon turned out to be pretty good. Looking at its cutesy appearance and its gimmicky gameplay focus, you’d never expect the game to have a genuinely creative and fairly engaging story to it, but it really does. I was even more shocked when I realized that ASD was developed by Mistwalker, the company founded by Hironobu Sakaguchi (the creator of Final Fantasy). Where was this creativity in plot and concept when Sakaguchi was making his so-called ‘masterpiece,’ The Last Story?

3. Defender’s Quest 1 is the first tower defense game I’ve ever played, and I find that the concept actually works extremely well when combined with RPG elements, which is neat. I hope we’ll see more games like it in the future--especially if they have stories as solid and casts as fun as DQ1 has.

4. OH MY GOD SHADOWRUN IS BACK. Sorry, just had to get that out there. I’m an odd fan of Shadowrun in that I’ve never played and have no interest in playing Shadowrun in its true form (tabletop RPG), but I do love the Shadowrun universe and have been wanting more console RPGs based on it since the day I finished the SNES Shadowrun title. Sort of like the way I love comic book heroes and plots, but don’t actually read comic books. Shadowrun Returns came out last year, and its DLC-turned-actual-game Shadowrun: Dragonfall came out this year, all thanks to Kickstarter, and it is a glorious, glorious thing for me to be able to run the shadows once more.

5. On that note, I would like to note, for the record, that I squee’ed in fanboyish glee during Shadowrun Returns when my character opened a morgue drawer and found Jake Armitage taking a nap within. Squee’ed so. Damn. Hard.

6. Huh. Jade Empire has an option for a polyamorous relationship with Dawn Star and Silk Fox. That’s neat, I guess. It’s not all that convincing or interesting, but then, none of the romances of the game are. It had some potential, at least. Skies of Arcadia handled polyamory better, though (even if that’s just a fan interpretation (but a pretty reasonable one!)).

7. Sort of not an RPG moment, but related enough to mention. I said that I discovered the online cartoon show Bravest Warriors, right? Fun show, very Adventure Time-esque, silly and epic at the same time. Well, it turns out that the voice actor for one of the main characters, Wallow, is Ian Jones Quarterly--the guy who made the classic old webcomic RPG World! How seriously awesome is that?

8. Lords of Xulima became the first Kickstarter RPG I’ve helped fund to reach its completion, so I got to play a game this year whose existence I had an active hand in creating. Sadly, it’s...well, it’s great for folks looking for old-school PC RPG gameplay, but for someone looking for intellectual content beyond stat and skill management, it’s kinda lacking. The story’s okay, I guess, but it sure didn’t need over 100 hours to tell--hell, you could’ve fit the game’s plot into 10 hours or less. Overall, it’s not even remotely worth the time, and it’s a disappointing departure from the typical storytelling strength of indie RPGs. Ah, well...I’ll just have to hope that my patronage was more wisely given to the rest of the Kickstarter projects I’m waiting on.

9. My rant total has finally surpassed my finished RPG total this year--I have now produced more rants than I have played RPGs. Cool? Pathetic? You decide.

Best Prequel/Sequel of 2014:
Winner: The Witcher 2
Building off of the first game, The Witcher 2 continues Geralt’s roundabout journey for answers perfectly, developing Geralt and his world further and giving him new obstacles to overcome while maintaining a general progression toward the resolution of the overarching Wild Hunt plot that we will hopefully see concluded in the third game. It’s everything you’d want from a continuation and a bridge from a trilogy’s beginning to its end.

Runners-Up: Geneforge 2; The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds; Shadowrun: Dragonfall
Actually, there’s not much competition for The Witcher 2. Geneforge 2 is a good follow-up to Geneforge 1, using the world and themes introduced in the first game and developing them further, yet leaving much to come in the future (which makes sense, since the series is 5 games long). Still, it’s not nearly so directly or skillfully tied to its predecessor as The Witcher 2 is. TLoZALBW is a sequel to the old The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, while not exactly being directly related to it. It’s pretty neat overall, but really, it’s more a sequel for its connection of environment and style than for anything substantial. Similarly, Shadowrun: Dragonfall takes place at roughly the same time as Shadowrun Returns and does reference the game a few times here and there, but overall, there’s not much of a connection. Still, it’s a good game and it’s a sequel, sort of, so I’ll put it here.

Biggest Disappointment of 2014:
Loser: Mass Effect 3
If you think that I’m going to get over how vile and heinous the ending of Mass Effect 3 was any time soon, then son, you obviously have not been paying much attention.

However, if we want to be legit...

Actual Loser: Weapon Shop de Omasse
With a creative and relatively promising concept (running a weapon shop in an RPG world), and clever tongue-in-cheek humor that draws you in, Weapon Shop de Omasse looked like it’s going to be a winner. Unfortunately, even for a game with a small scale, Weapon Shop de Omasse has a trite and unengaging plot, and while it’s funny for a while, eventually you realize that most of its jokes are just the same thing over and over again--poking fun at RPGs. The game’s good at it and has some fun references, so that’s fine for a time, but without anything substantial to back it up, sooner or later it starts getting old. Even my patience for such things is not infinite, and I daresay I have a greater interest in RPG parody than most. And what humor the game has that’s not directly RPG-related tends to fall flat, and a bit of it is actually kind of offensive--I’m so sick of tasteless jokes about big, ugly, “scary” crossdressers in anime and games, and the character of Grape is nothing but that joke told over and over again. Ugh. It really is too bad. The makers of WSdO certainly had an interesting idea and some skill with humor, but they just didn’t take it anywhere.

Almost as Bad: Lords of Xulima; Rune Factory 1
I covered LoX above--it’s just not a compelling story, there’s only a small level of depth to it, and there’s essentially no characterization worth noting. Not a bad game, but considering how long it is and that indie RPGs are usually a cut above since they’re works of love more than of paycheck, it’s nonetheless disappointing.

I’d heard that the Rune Factory games were good. I was misinformed.

Best Finale of 2014:
Winner: The Witcher 2
The ending to this game is just an extremely solid one, tying up loose ends in its final confrontation with Letho--and it says much to the game’s credit that whatever you choose to do with Letho, you feel the choice is meaningful, right, and epic--and providing a sense of satisfaction and conclusion as Geralt heads out to continue his journeys. His work isn’t done, yet there is a feeling of accomplishment and even peace with all that has happened in the game, as should be the case with the ending. And cliche though it is, the scene with Geralt peacefully examining the ladybug really is a simple but excellent way to wrap everything up. It’s a great ending to a great game.

Runners-Up: Geneforge 2; The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds; Threads of Fate
Threads of Fate’s ending for Mint is fine, but its ending for Rue is solid and meaningful, a pleasing conclusion to its tale of resisting destiny, and of course I like the bonus scene, which promises more adventures for Rue and Mint to come (now if only we could get a sequel where that did come to pass). Geneforge 2’s ending is nothing emotionally powerful, but it does summarize the results of your actions through the game and how they affected the world as a whole--no point in giving player choice in the game if you’re not going to have those choices reflected by the ending, right? And lastly, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds’s best part is its finale. Up until the game’s final moments, TLoZALBW is just standard Zelda fare, kind of okay but not really having anything to offer in terms of storytelling or characters. At its finale, however, its major twist (which I did see coming, but that didn’t diminish it) adds substantial depth to the story as a whole, and the return of Ravio is really well done. Finally, the truly epic act of generosity and goodwill by Link and Zelda during the game’s ending is terrific, really hits you with how grand a gesture of kindness and forgiveness it is, and retroactively puts the whole game into a better, more meaningful light. Kind of like the way that Startropics 1’s ending makes the otherwise light and fun adventure into something so much more important. This game’s ending is so unexpectedly impressive that I actually was inspired by it to do a rant on the power of endings, and you can hear more of my thoughts there if you like. Suffice to say here, though, that this is a very moving finale, and its quality was a very pleasant surprise.

Worst RPG of 2014:
Loser: Rune Factory 1
On the scale of boredom, Rune Factory 1 ranks somewhere between The 7th Saga and Suikoden 4, making it one of the most dull RPGs I’ve ever come across. Just thinking about it is making me want to take a nap. Ugh. There’s nothing worthwhile about this game, plain and simple. Its plot is bland and generic, and just getting to the point where the plot is actually starting to show up at all takes fucking days of repetitive busywork punctuated by subpar dungeon-crawling. Compounding this fatal flaw, the supporting cast are dull and generic, and the romance aspect is trite and unconvincing, not to mention essentially the same regardless of which character’s affections you choose to pursue. This is a game that delights in all the mind-numbing side crap that annoys me in RPGs (item maintenance, item creation, item growth management, fishing, repeated dungeon-crawling that explores the same goddamn dungeons over and over, etc) and makes actually telling a fucking story and saying anything meaningful into a secondary priority. No, scratch that, storytelling and meaning is a tertiary priority. No, scratch that, everything that actually engages your mind and imagination in any capacity is a non priority in Rune Factory 1. The game is just nothing, there’s nothing that it offers, there’s nothing that it says, there’s nothing that it does or attempts or demands or means or possesses. Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy 8, Grandia 3, Shadow Hearts 3, Mega Man Star Force 1 and 2--these are all poor RPGs, but every one of them has SOMETHING to offer, even if it’s bad, even if it annoys the hell out of me with its stupidity. I can still get something out of these dismal failures. Rune Factory 1? Nothing. Just. Nothing.

Almost as Bad: Pokemon Generation 5-2; Weapon Shop de Omasse
If there’s an upside to the severe waste of time that was Rune Factory 1, it’s that I played very few RPGs this year that were actually bad. I mean, I can’t say I thought too much of Silver, Lords of Xuilma, or Gothic 1, but even if they weren’t good, they weren’t bad, either. Still, there were a couple stinkers, and Pokemon Black 2 and White 2 was definitely one. Even for a Pokemon game, there’s not much to this game, a needless sequel that struggles and fails to find a point for its existence. Remember back in Pokemon Generation 2, you had a chance in the post-game to go back to the first generation’s region and revisit its Gym Leaders and locations, just kinda checking the old stomping grounds out for the heck of it? Well, that’s a fine idea for a post-game side journey, but it sure as hell ain’t enough to base a whole damn game around. As for Weapon Shop de Omasse, like I said, the game has an interesting premise and is pretty funny at first, but it just goes fucking nowhere with that premise and the humor is all painfully one-note.

Most Improved of its Series of 2014:
Winner: Shadowrun: Dragonfall
I enjoyed Shadowrun Returns quite a bit, but the general consensus is right on this count: Dragonfall is far, far superior. The story is far more interesting, better crafted, more meaningful, and challenges you and requires you to really consider what you think is the better course of action, without many clear-cut examples of which decisions are right and wrong. The cast is much stronger than Shadowrun Returns, with more engaging side NPCs and party members (sorry, Jake!) with depth and great development. The setting is more interesting, too. And hell, I do have to mention it: Dragonfall does not have the truckload of spelling and grammatical issues that Returns was plagued by. The one and only thing I think Returns can stack up to its successor with is the villain--I’d say both games’ main antagonists are almost equal in quality. But yeah, overall, Shadowrun: Dragonfall really elevated the Shadowrun video game series to a new level of excellence.

Almost as Good: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds; Shadowrun Returns
Hey, just because Shadowrun: Dragonfall is a big step up from Shadowrun Returns, that doesn’t mean Returns isn’t also still a solid RPG and a step up from its SNES and Genesis predecessors. The SNES Shadowrun was a neat story and the Genesis Shadowrun was, uh, okay, I guess, but ultimately they were most enjoyable to me just for inducting me into the Shadowrun universe. Shadowrun Returns takes things a step higher with a story that has themes of the connections of family that are subtle but thought-provoking, a good villain, and a stronger base of characters. Dragonfall may beat the pants off of Returns, but that sure as hell doesn’t mean that Shadowrun Returns isn’t still laudable. As for The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, well, it’s definitely not an improvement on the last major Zelda game (Skyward Sword), but it IS most definitely better than the old Link to the Past, which is more what this title is a sequel to. I know it’s a classic and all, but there’s really just not a lot of interest about TLoZ A Link to the Past. The story is generic with only a single, gimmicky twist (the dark world thing), and there’s no character depth or development to speak of. A Link Between Worlds is a definite step up, with a plot that’s at least a little more interesting and much better expressed, and some characters who are, well, actually characters. Plus, as I said, I do love the twist and all the stuff that goes on in the ending. So yeah, I’d definitely say A Link Between Worlds is a step up from its predecessor.

Most Creative of 2014:
Winner: The Witcher 2
The Witcher 2 is extremely ambitious as a story, splitting itself halfway into 2 related, but clearly separated story directions, depending on the player’s decisions of Geralt’s priorities and whom he trusts to assist him. Lots of games depend on player input for their storytelling, like Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic, but that input usually is just determining the reasons for the character’s actions and the results of those actions, not actually changing what the actions will be. What I mean by that is, whether you have Commander Shepard in Mass Effect 3, for example, be a paragon of virtue or a monumental dickhead, either way you’ll be taking Shepard through all the same major plot events, and most of the minor ones. Your decision whether to kill or talk down Wrex in Mass Effect 1 won’t change the ME3 plot arc of having to convince the Krogan people to support you, it will just change who among them you’re appealing to. Whether you’re following the path of Jedi or Sith in Knights of the Old Republic 1, you’ll still have to visit the same planets, and follow almost identical plot paths on those planets. In The Witcher 2, however, Geralt’s actions and decisions in Chapter 1 actually do inform the events of the rest of the game, Chapter 2 in particular, and the objectives and events of the rest of the game are substantially different as a result. You could accurately say that this is 2 stories in 1 game, to a degree I can’t recall having seen accomplished before. Considering the complexity of each of these stories, the fact that either path feels natural and true to Geralt, and that it takes nothing away from the size and scope of the story to split it--either way, it feels like a full and rich game--I’d say this is quite a laudable achievement on the part of CD Projekt. It’s a creative approach, and they put in a lot of effort to make it work flawlessly.

Also significantly creative with The Witcher 2 is how naturally human the story feels. Some RPGs go out of their way to be stories of moral shades of gray, stories where there really isn’t a clear right or wrong and what you choose depends on your perspective. Shadowrun: Dragonfall is a good example of this, as well as, to a certain extent, many Shin Megami Tensei titles. The thing of this is, while these games can be terrific and force you to think about the arbitrary nature of right and wrong and how you define such always feels, I dunno, transparent, to me. I mean...I can usually tell an RPG’s purpose is to be all artsy with its shades of gray thing, it’s obvious that the game’s been set up to be that way. Which is fine, of course. But what really sets The Witcher 2 (and its predecessor, though not as much) apart in this area of moral shades of gray RPGs is that this game feels completely natural about it. You’re not playing a game crafted to show that there’s no clear-cut right and wrong when it comes to real people and issues, you’re playing a game that’s just naturally showing people and issues, and because it’s accurate, it’s morally gray. Characters in The Witcher 2 don’t come off like they were carefully constructed to have checks and balances that give them good and bad qualities--they just come off like real, honest people, and the fact that they have qualities both good and bad, sympathetic and repellant, comes as a natural result. The same with the situations that Geralt encounters in the game. Also, just as in real life, not EVERYTHING is gray--there really are some people and situations in the game which really are pretty clear-cut right and wrong. Anyway, it’s a very creative and skillful way to handle making a game of moral gray areas, subtle yet clear, and I give CD Projekt a big thumbs-up for their ability to make it all work.

Runners-Up: Away: Shuffle Dungeon; Crimson Shroud; Shadowrun: Dragonfall
Man, I gotta say, Away: Shuffle Dungeon’s plot will really sneak up on you. From all appearances, it’s just gonna be a cutesy, generic little save-the-girl dungeon-crawler, and then wham, you’re suddenly ambushed by a neat, really unique sci-fi plot changing everything you thought you knew. I still can’t believe that something this charmingly different came from the same developer that birthed the by-the-numbers The Last Story. Crimson Shroud is really quite nifty in its presentation; it’s a game that really makes you feel like you’re taking part in a tabletop RPG, which is neat (only with a narrator who is way, way more excellent and eloquent than any Dungeon Master I’ve ever encountered). It also creates a pretty interesting world, kind of Final Fantasy Tactics-like...I just wish we got to see more of it. Hopefully it’ll get a sequel; it’s quite good and definitely creative enough to warrant it. And then there’s Shadowrun: Dragonfall. Great new setting for the Shadowrun games, played very well, with lots of neat twists to a complicated but well-told story. It’s fun to get everything you expect and want from a Shadowrun game, but in such a an interesting, unexpected way.

Stupidest Weapon of 2014:
Loser: Super Net (The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds)
Link, stop using a butterfly net as a weapon. I don’t care how inexplicably effective it is. You look like an idiot.

Almost as Bad: Boxing Glove Gun (Robocalypse); Dahak (Solatorobo: Red the Hunter)
A big propelled boxing glove was stupid for Tia in that pile of sloppy shit, Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals, and it’s stupid now. Although I’ll at least give Robocalypse that it’s not actually trying to be a serious game anyway. The Dahak is just dumb--it’s a big old ridable robot attack machine, but its only real form of attack is to lift stuff up and throw it! You can’t even use its flexible, strong, long-reaching arms to hit stuff, only to lift it up and throw it! Lame.

Best Romance of 2014:
Winner: Geralt and Triss (The Witcher 2)
Uh...not much to offer in this category this year. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with the relationship between Geralt and Triss, don’t get me wrong. It feels honest and they both clearly do genuinely care for each other. But at the same time, there’s nothing especially amazing about them, either...there just wasn’t much in the way of great love stories in the RPGs I played this year.

Runners-Up: Anella and Sword (Away: Shuffle Dungeon); Flaxen and Myron (Robocalypse); Protagonist and Silk Fox (Jade Empire)
Anella and Sword have a decently believable connection, if not one that really stands out...still, it’s nice enough. Flaxen and Myron is nothing special, but at the same time, it’s kinda fun and sweet, the way it ends up, in that appealingly goofy way that Robocalypse has. And lastly, the romances in Jade Empire are all kind of basic, but of them, I think the romance with Silk Fox is probably the best, with the mild depths of her personality shown better than those of Sky or Dawn Star with their love plots. Still, nothing special, all said. I hope next year gives me some considerably more compelling love stories.

Best Voice Acting of 2014:
Winner: The Witcher 2
Solid voice acting on all fronts. Not much that really stands out, save for Geralt’s subtly excellent vocal talent, but all lines are said well and keep the story going without a hitch, and Geralt’s actor continues to quietly shine for his ability to enhance Geralt’s character despite a restrictive vocal range for him.

Runners-Up: Dust: An Elysian Tail; Jade Empire; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers
Despite a few small subpar performances, Dust: An Elysian Tail has a good vocal cast that does the job well. Jade Empire is much the same, with the added benefit of having one of my favorite voice actors, Cam Clarke, taking on the role of Sky (and it was also neat to hear Nathan Fillion as Gao the Lesser). And SMTDSSH is also quite decent; I think that the voice acting for Nemissa is especially good.

Funniest of 2014:
Winner: Robocalypse
New category this year! I love a good, funny, lighthearted RPG, and a lot of them actually have a lot of emotional and thematic power hidden in their funny presentation (Okage: Shadow King and Mother 3, for example).

So, what’s the funniest game this year? Robocalypse! A silly venture of geeks, war machines with the brains of diabolical toasters, and self-conscious infatuated insect overlords from space, this fun little title will keep you chuckling from start to finish, and it’s even kind of sweet at the end, in a kooky sort of way. Fun times, try it out some time if you need a giggle.

Runners-Up: Defender’s Quest 1; Dust: An Elysian Tail; Threads of Fate
First of all, I’d like to say that Weapon Shop de Omasse really should have made it to this list at first glance, but the appeal of its humor just peters out so damn quickly, never growing or adding to itself. Ah well. Anyway, Defender’s Quest 1 is quite a funny little jaunt, and choosing whether it or Robocalypse was more amusing was quite difficult. DQ1 is actually a much better story with better characters than Robocalypse, but I think that as far as which is just flat-out funnier, Robocalypse just barely edges it out. Still, I had many good laughs from Defender’s Quest 1. Dust: An Elysian Tail is usually a pretty serious story, but the adorable Fidget rarely fails to find a way to lighten the mood, and keep things fun. And finally, Threads of Fate...I’ve mentioned before that Mint is a goddamn laugh riot, right?

Best Villain of 2014:
Winner: Jessica (Shadowrun Returns)
Tough choice this year, but I think Jessica does top the rest. Jessica’s villainy stems from her family issues, most notably the negative influence her brother Sam had upon Jessica and her mother, and that foundation for her evil schemes and psychosis reflects the overall theme of family connections, biological or consciously forged, that Shadowrun Returns is all about. Jessica has some good depth--she may be a nut, but you can see how she got to be that way, and you can see what drives her. Definitely a solid antagonist.

Runners-Up: Letho (The Witcher 2); Sun Li (Jade Empire); Vauclair (Shadowrun: Dragonfall)
Sun Li’s pretty average as a villain in most ways, but he is a damn good schemer. Letho and Vauclair are very good villains, good enough that I imagine most people would put at least 1 of them, possibly both, above my choice of Jessica. Vauclair actually reminds me a little of Jessica in that he has some strong ties to the theme of family, which are also a part of Shadowrun: Dragonfall just as they were Shadowrun Returns, and he’s got good depth and motivation. If he had been given more time to develop, instead of just coming into the light at the end of the game, he might have put Jessica out, but he at least makes great use of his limited time. As for Letho, well, he’s about as awesome and layered as you might expect a major plot entity of The Witcher 2 to be, much better than the villain of the previous Witcher. I probably should have given him the top spot this year, I suppose, but I just really liked the thematic strength of Jessica’s villainy, and calling Letho a villain is kind of off-base anyway...he’s an antagonist, but he sort of isn’t, too. Definitely great either way, though.

Best Character of 2014:
Winner: Glory (Shadowrun: Dragonfall)
Shadowrun: Dragonfall has a rich cast, but even among them, Glory’s depth and history set her above the rest, as does the development she gets as she attempts to set her past right. I’m not going to go into details, because I won’t able to do her justice, but Shadowrun: Dragonfall really had a winner in the character of Glory.

Runners-Up: Dust (Dust: An Elysian Tail); Geralt (The Witcher 2); Rue (Threads of Fate)
Dust’s attempt to find himself, and how he copes with the answers he receives, is quite good, and adds a lot of weight to the game. Rue develops nicely along his journey, and as much as I love to watch Mint’s antics, it’s Rue who’s the real star, the real heart and soul, of Threads of Fate. As for Geralt, he’s great as always. I do think that The Witcher 1 did give him a little more opportunity for character depth as he struggled to determine what his position as a Witcher meant in a slowly but surely changing world, but there’s plenty of growth and complexity for him in the sequel, too.

Best RPG of 2014:
Winner: Shadowrun: Dragonfall
A great setting, a great execution of that setting, a strong cast, an engaging and powerful story, meaningful, thoughtful, emotional...Shadowrun: Dragonfall is fantastic, it really is. I could not have asked for a better return of Shadowrun to video games than this. You owe it to yourself to check this one out.

Runners-Up: Dust: An Elysian Tail; Threads of Fate; The Witcher 2
An epic tale of redemption and protecting the oppressed, Dust: An Elysian Tail is just one more example of the high quality that Indie RPGs seem to deliver regularly. Threads of Fate is surprisingly good and emotional, with a memorable cast, a neat theme of fate that it explores in various ways, and a generally enjoyable story and style. Ah, sure could make some fine RPGs. What the hell happened? Finally, The Witcher 2 is just a true RPG gem, and it was hard deciding between it and Shadowrun: Dragonfall for the top spot. Good story, good characters, great use of the Hexer universe, good themes and ideas to explore, paced and told well...there’s nothing not to like about Geralt’s continuing adventures. I can’t wait to see how it all concludes in the final Witcher game, and I’m definitely going to keep my eye out in the future for more CD Projekt RED games, because these are masters like few others of RPG storytelling.

And that’s it. Well, it wasn’t a bad year for RPGs for me, even if it wasn’t nearly as prolific as it should have been. With me being enrolled in a program that will take me at least a year and a half to finish and with Super Smash Brothers 4 continuing to exist, it’s a good bet 2015 won’t be too productive on the RPG front, either. Still, hopefully there won’t be quite as many distractions as there were this year. I’m certainly looking forward to it--several of the other Kickstarter RPGs I’ve backed are set to come out in 2015, which excites me to no end, as well as The Witcher 3 (not sure if I’ll play it while it’s new yet, but it’s fun to anticipate anyway), and given the critical acclaim for Shadowrun: Dragonfall, maybe next year will see another title for the series. Regardless, I’ll be here, ranting. Thanks for continuing to read and give these ridiculous little essays some purpose, folks. Happy holidays, and I’ll see you come January.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Final Fantasy 6's Protagonists

Y’know, the matter of who the protagonist of Final Fantasy 6 is inspires a little debate here and there. Most people, I think, agree that Terra is FF6’s protagonist, but some say it’s Celes, and a few people, who I can only assume have a sexist perspective that only men can be video game heroes or something, even argue that it’s Locke. And then there’s the camp that say that FF6 has no protagonist at all. Among this camp is SquareEnix itself, whose official stance on the matter is that the entire cast of FF6 is meant to get equal development and importance. Well, that’s fine and good if you respect the creator’s word as the 1 and only reliable source about a work, and if that’s how you feel, then good news for you: you get to finish reading today’s rant early! Seriously, that’s all for today. See you next time.

For those of you still here, it may be that you remember that Bioware stands by the idea that the ending of Mass Effect 3 actually is not a horrendous pile of lazy, arrogant, stupid, nonsensical bullshit. Or it may be that you are relatively familiar with SquareEnix. Either way, you’re familiar either with the fact that a game’s developer does not always know a goddamn thing about the art of their own creation, and/or with the fact that anything SquareEnix does or says has, at best, a 50-50 chance of actually being right. And it’s in this mindset that I say that FF6 has 2 protagonists, no more, and no fewer. Terra and Celes share the role of protagonist in this game.

I really can’t see calling either one the game’s protagonist without the other. I mean, think about it. The first quarter of the game’s plot revolves around Terra, from the first events of Narshe up until the battle to protect the Narshe Esper. She is at the center of almost all game events, and the plot is clearly following her. Everything is about Espers, Terra, and their connection to the Empire. Yes, there is a point during this segment of the game where the party is split in 3, and 2 scenarios (those of Locke and Sabin) occur completely absent of Terra, but when you look at those stories, they’re still revolving around a plot idea that Terra is the central figure of: getting to Narshe so that Terra can speak to the Esper there. The first quarter of the game follows Terra almost exclusively, and the plot is entirely focused on her.

In the second quarter of the game, Terra flies off, and the rest of the party go after her. True, at this point any of the party can go find her, but you can’t say that this is a moment of protagonist equality between the rest of the cast. Their goal is clearly stated: to find Terra. She may not be present, but she’s still the plot’s center. Think about Chrono Trigger, during the period of the game after Crono is killed and the rest of the team must find a way to revive him. There’s still no doubt in anyone’s mind that Crono is the protagonist, even if he’s not present with the party for this period of the game, right? The implied major focus of the plot at that point is still based around his presence in the party. If such a period of the game doesn’t make all the protagonists in CT equal, surely it does not for FF6 (especially considering that you actually CAN decide in CT not to bother saving Crono and just do the rest of the game without jerk).

Once the rest of the team finds her, it is then, finally, that the first real segment of the game comes in which the party and plot focus is not on Terra: the trip to the Empire to free the Espers.* For this quest, Celes and Locke are required to be present, with the last 2 spaces on the team being optional for who you want to be there. Of them the story has been focused on Celes--she’s leading the way because she knows the Empire, while Locke is only there as support, to act as her protector. The events in the Empire are focused on Celes’s character and dictated by her actions until the party’s escape. Now, this little quest by itself doesn’t prove anything; you can find plenty of other times in RPGs where a particular mandatory quest in the game focuses on a character other than the protagonist--but as we see later on, it IS a test run for later in the game, when Celes takes over the role of protagonist.

Anyway, after that point, Terra rejoins the party, and she’s once again the focus of the plot events. You may be able to choose not to have her in the party here and there, but for every remaining major event of Final Fantasy 6’s second quarter (roughly ending at the lifting of the floating continent), save the dinner with the Emperor, Terra is the focus. She’s necessary to continue the plot at the cave entrance to the Esper land, and she and Locke are necessary for the trip to Thamasa (and Locke is, again, only in a support role, not the focal point of the events going on around him) and all the Esper- and Kefka-related nonsense therein. Up to the floating continent, the game is once more a story in which Terra is the central figure, the key dynamic force, and the individual we’re forced to follow and watch.

So at the halfway mark, what’re the results? Well, Terra has been the key focus of the plot events and the plans of both the good and evil members of the cast, and the character who has had the longest and most frequent mandatory presence. Her presence is also the key dynamic force of the game; it’s through her actions that most of the game’s major events occur. Celes has been a mandatory character only for 1 quest, though she was, during that quest, the key figure in its events. Locke has been a required presence often, but nearly always as a support figure, more or less never outshining Terra or Celes during his times of importance. And everyone else is more or less incidental--some are required at some points of the game (like Sabin and Setzer), but inarguably in no greater a way than any secondary party member would be.

Let’s look at the third quarter of the game now. The floating continent throws a wrench in the works: Terra is entirely optional, and actually has no more connection to the events of this pivotal point of the game than any other character. In fact, until the end of the dungeon, no single member of the team seems to be leading at this moment. But that changes soon enough, much too quickly to really enter into our calculations here. By the end of the dungeon, Celes is suddenly inserted into the team if she’s not there, and the climactic events of the floating continent are focused only on her, where her loyalties lie. I mean, the scene is kind of more about Kefka and Gestahl, but of the party members, Celes is the only important character involved; all other party members are just collateral.

And of course, after the floating continent is done...the game shifts its focus to Celes. Once Celes wakes up in the World of Ruin, she is the one we’re following for the rest of the third quarter. It’s her journey to find her friends, her reactions to the harsh new world, her hope and efforts. Everything in the plot is now about her and what she does and intends. Terra is actually relegated to minor importance at this point in the game, purposefully taking herself out of the picture while she sorts herself out. It is, in fact, much like the time before, when Celes led the team to the Empire--Terra is unable to continue as protagonist, so Celes steps up to the plate. Celes goes to find survivors based on her hope, Celes finds and leaves Terra, Celes finds and rerecruits Edgar, and she and Edgar find and rerecuit Setzer, and gain the airship. That’s a whole quarter of the game in which Celes is the one leading the audience and the story along, where everything is focused on her.

The last quarter of FF6 is more lax. Once you have the airship, and more than 4 characters, then who goes where and why is loose. You can bring anyone along to find Sabin, Relm, Cyan, Gau, Mog, Gogo, Shadow, Locke, and Terra, and Strago and Umaro only need a specific party member (Relm and Mog, respectively) there for a moment of recruitment. Some of the other sidequests have character requirements, such as Cyan for Cyan’s dream (duh) and Strago and Relm for defeating Hidon, but that stuff is, at most, character sidequest material, so their mandatory presence can’t logically be seen as any shot at a protagonist’s role. However, I do not think this should be seen as evidence of SquareEnix’s statement that everyone is a protagonist. True, for this last section of the game, everyone in the party IS as important as everyone else--but only because they are all essentially unimportant. It’s not that the role of protagonist is being shared, it’s that the role just isn’t there at all. It’s all optional (you can beat the game with only Celes, Setzer, and Edgar, though it’s quite a challenge), there’s little or no party member interaction...the only thing you could really say about this quarter is that finding the rest of the team and getting them all back together is the task that Celes set out to do originally in the World of Ruin, the quest that she took upon herself, so I guess that she’s the one and only person you could really call the protagonist at this point in the game. It’s shaky, since Celes doesn’t actually have to be present for any of these recruitment quests, but it’s either Celes or just plain nobody.

So, on to the finale. Regardless of whether she was brought back onto the team, Terra will join the final battle. This is appropriate--this game began with her, and it ends with her, no matter what. She is here because this final fight is hers; she is the protagonist of this game. Yet at the same time, this final battle is only happening because of Celes. For all of Terra’s essential importance to this moment which all things have led to, it was not Terra’s willpower, her heroic desire, that led here. It was Celes who had faith that she could find her friends, Celes who convinced Edgar and Setzer to help her round everyone up again for one last attempt to save their world. From the narrative view, Celes is the one who has led the second half of the game to this point, just as Terra led the first half of the game (although I’d say Celes is far more proactive about it). The fact that this final battle is happening at all, is all Celes.

So let’s review. For the first half of the game, Terra is, 90% of the time, the central figure of the story and its unfolding events, necessary to move the plot forward, and the character around whom the rest of the party congregates. The only 2 points of the first half of the game where Terra is not the major, important focus of the plot for a moment are the journey to the Empire and the floating continent, and both of those times, Celes has become the central figure. Then, for the second half of the game, Celes leads the plot entirely, until the point where no one in the party leads overall, until the finale, in which the team, thanks to Celes’s intent to reunite them, fights Kefka, and Terra will show up for this final battle and the ending whether or not she was recruited.

I put forth to you once more, looking over the game as a whole, that Terra and Celes are both the protagonists of Final Fantasy 6. To say that Terra is not the protagonist of the game is absurd; she’s its central figure from the start and ultimately the game will wrap around to be about her at its end. Yet at the same time, how can you say that Celes is not the protagonist of the game, as well? Terra is out of the spotlight for half of the entire game, and during this half, it’s Celes who is leading, her will and journey that the plot now focuses on, and her character, that of hope and redemption, that now holds the greatest significance to the story and setting. Even if the last quarter of the game has less of a concrete connection to Celes, she’s still the dynamic force behind the party’s actions at that point.

Additionally, I say that no one else in the game is in the running for the role. The closest is Locke, as he is the character most often required to be present after Terra and Celes, and he has the most connection to the events that transpire, but all the same, Locke is just not the one on whom the game is focused, and while his influence on Celes is certainly a huge factor in her actions in the second half of the game, that’s not the same as actually directing the plot himself. He is, ultimately, just an important secondary character, no more a protagonist to the game than Tear in Tales of the Abyss, Alistair in Dragon Age 1, Alice in Shadow Hearts 1, or Marle in Chrono Trigger.** And after Locke, there are some fairly important characters, but no one you could make a case for being a protagonist. Edgar and Setzer have their important moments in the story, but certainly no more than a plethora of other RPGs’ secondary characters. And as for SquareEnix’s assertion that everyone in the game has equal importance and development, well, that’s just idiotic. Can you really pretend that Gau or Strago had as much importance to the events of Final Fantasy 6 as Terra or Locke? Or that Mog and Relm had as much character depth and development as Celes or Edgar? To say nothing of Umaro and Gogo--they’re 100% optional and unimportant to the plot, and so lacking development and depth that even calling them characters to begin with is kind of a stretch. I have to wonder sometimes whether SquareEnix plays its own games.

Anyway. Terra and Celes are both Final Fantasy 6’s protagonists. Obviously some people have different perspectives on this, but I just haven’t met anyone yet who can make a compelling argument for those views. They’re the only characters whose presence, connection to the plot, and central importance to the events, themes, and characters of the game warrant the title, and to try to claim that 1 or the other is the only protagonist is to discard simple facts of the other’s involvement.

* I suppose you could say that this is still Terra-centric since it’s during this quest that you encounter Terra’s father, who will soon after bring Terra back to the fore of the game’s events, and the whole premise of this quest is that it’s basically something to do while Terra’s pulling herself together, but at that point you’re reaching a bit, I think.

** Actually, Marle’s way closer to a protagonist than Locke is. It’s she who convinces her friends to try to stop Lavos and save the world--the entire heroic quest of Chrono Trigger is actually her idea!

Friday, November 28, 2014

General RPGs' Suspension of Disbelief Theory

Greetings, all. I hope all of you in the USA enjoyed your Thanksgiving, and I also hope that you have the luxury to be home and relaxing today. Remember--if you go out shopping today, you're an amoral bastard perpetuating a sickening and staggeringly depraved example of human vice that stands as a reminder of the dark and vile potential of society. Just do basic human dignity a solid and stay home. Here, I'll even make it easier for you with a new rant--spend your time reading it instead of trampling shoppers and your worth as a human being.

Today’s another of those rants that is really more of a general thing, but does apply to RPGs enough that I feel it’s okay to talk about it here, like Unnecessary Paternal Ties Syndrome, or stupid fucking hot springs scenes.

I imagine we’re all fairly familiar with the concept of Suspension of Disbelief, but because I just love the sound of my own typing, a refresher: Suspension of Disbelief, an idea coined by Coleridge in the early 1800s (thanks Wikipedia!), is basically the common act your brain performs when reading, viewing, or otherwise experiencing fiction wherein you accept certain unlikelihoods/impossibilities/fantasy elements in order to enjoy the work. When you play a Final Fantasy game and accept the existence within the game’s setting of magic and monsters that don’t exist in real life (and often seem evolutionarily questionable even within the game’s setting), that’s you suspending your disbelief. When you read comics, you’re suspending disbelief when you accept that Superman is an alien dude who can absorb energy from the sun like a solar panel and that this energy somehow can make him impossibly powerful and capable of flying. When you watch Doctor Who, you’re suspending disbelief...well, about just about goddamn everything, really. When you see an American Pie film, you’re suspending disbelief when you accept the idea that watching it is preferable to, oh say, spraying oven cleaner into your eyes. And so on and so forth; you get the idea and I’m sure I didn’t need to waste time explaining all of this to you to begin with.

How exactly does it work, though? I mean, we get the basic premise, but what are the nuances of this function? As an audience, most of us are still at least somewhat critical. We can still recognize when something is nonsensical and, at times, hold it against that product. Suspension of disbelief is not absolute, not by a long shot. It’s abundantly clear that having all the elemental spirits in Avalon Code be extra weak to even a tiny bit of water makes absolutely no sense, as I have mentioned. The absurdity of having the sacrifice of Fallout 3’s original ending be unavoidable annoyed players so much that Bethesda had to fix it in a later DLC. One of the many annoying parts of the HM element of Pokemon games is that it doesn’t even make sense for a variety of reasons anyway, which I’ve recently covered. And then there’s Xenosaga. It would take a rope woven from the hairs of Superman and God, coated in adamantium and enhanced with enchantments cast by Twilight Sparkle, to bear the burden of one’s disbelief at Xenosaga 3.*

And not only is our ability to suspend belief not absolute, it’s fickle. To make an odd and highly random contrast, take a look at the greatest non-anime cartoon of all time, Gargoyles, and the 2014 Godzilla movie. Throughout the course of the series, Gargoyles shows us magic and science of equally unlikely capacities, containing spells, cyborgs, mutants, and robots in almost equal measure, as it takes us through stories involving time travel, fantasy creatures, religious mythology, and mad science, all of which is encountered by the same few characters. Elisa Maza goes from being a regular New York detective, to a woman who befriends gargoyles, has a brother who gets transformed into a mutant cat-bat with electrical powers and a father who’s spiritually connected to a native american spirit god, opposes a megalomaniacal super-rich genius that marries a werewolf and has a manservant who comes straight from a Shakespeare play, fights shapeshifters and time-traveling wizards as often as she does street gangs, and meets minotaurs, aliens, banshees, immortal knights, ghosts of vengeance, nanomachine hive-minds, the Loch Ness Monster, Odin, King Arthur, and much more, all in the space of, what, 2 years or so? How insanely unbelievable is that?

And yet, no one talks about how unbelievable the content of Gargoyles is, at least not that I’ve ever heard. And I’ve certainly never myself complained, or even really considered, that the whole package is a bit hard to swallow. But you know what people HAVE often said is pretty hard to believe? The fact that the main character of the Godzilla movie, this 1 single guy, somehow manages to keep bumping into Godzilla and the other 2 giant monsters over and over again no matter where he goes, and is present at every major event of their rampage--while surviving every encounter. Hard to believe? Certainly! As hard to believe as Elisa Maza stumbling across the biggest collection of mythologies, monsters, and mad science that you’ll ever find outside a Shin Megami Tensei game? Uh, not even remotely. Yet the audience will unquestioningly suspend disbelief for Gargoyles, while Godzilla 2014’s string of coincidences and lucky breaks are noticeably unlikely.

And I’m sure you can come up with other examples of this if you think about it. We laugh when we come across a fanfiction (or an actual, published novel; thanks so much Stephenie Meyer) with an obvious and painful Mary Sue who’s perfect and wonderful and everyone loves her, yet we only vaguely question the believability of Batman being a perfectly fit super sleuth genius strategist master of combat who spends his time as Bruce charming random floozies and spends his time as Batman charming Catwoman, Talia al Ghoul, Batgirl, Lois Lane, Wonder Woman, and who knows how many others (I’m more familiar with the cartoons than the actual comics, in case it’s not obvious). Sure, the long-lost sister of Sailor Moon who’s a born natural at piloting a Gundam and whom Vegeta falls passionately in love with because she solves everyone’s problems easily just by being smart and talented and awesome is a highly unbelievable character--but Batman’s really no more likely!

So what’s the secret variable? Why is it that sometimes we have no problem believing the unbelievable in a story, but at other times, it sends up a flag in our minds even though it’s actually not nearly so bad as some of the other things we’ve taken at face value?

I think there’s a lot to it, but my theory is that 1 major factor of the equation is a rate of exchange. Essentially, your Suspension of Disbelief is strengthened by the quality of the product--you’ll forgive more if you’re getting more for it. Gargoyles may be filled to the brim with fantasy and sci-fi concepts, but it’s handled excellently, and it always has purpose with what it’s doing, and that purpose is a good one, creating and exploring complex characters and interpersonal dynamics, showing us human nature and concepts worth contemplation. When we agree to swallow the incredible events of Gargoyles, we get high quality entertainment and intellectual content back that is well worth the unlikeliness that it took to produce it. The same can’t be said of the Godzilla movie--there’s not a whole lot to take from it, in the end. I’m not saying it’s bad necessarily (though I didn’t like it myself), but it’s lacking enough merit that we aren’t adequately distracted from all of the unbelievable elements. We accept some (such as the existence of Godzilla and the other monsters), but the payout of entertainment and quality just doesn’t add up to enough to cover every unbelievable element. Same deal with the idea of the fanfiction Mary Sue compared to Batman--Batman’s story is epic and interesting, his character deep enough to draw interest and thought, and his adventures are both fun to watch and explore the darkness and light in human nature and develop him by proxy. We accept his hard-to-believe perfection because doing so opens the door to enjoy something seriously awesome,** even as we deride most fanfiction Mary Sues for a similarly unlikely perfection, because the fanfictions involving Mary Sues rarely, if ever, offer anything compelling and worth suspending belief for.

Hm. I’ve actually talked fairly little about RPGs so far. Uh, my bad. Lemme get back on track. This theory of mine helps me to explain how my impressions of believability work sometimes with RPGs. I mean, when you get right down to it, Tales of the Abyss’s world, for example, is pretty overcomplicated and crazy, really only a little less utterly absurd than the events and setting of Final Fantasy 8. Yet I take the whole of Tales of the Abyss in stride, but dismiss FF8 as a ridiculous pile of gobbledegook (which it definitely is). Why? Because in exchange for taking Tales of the Abyss’s magical cloning and 2-tiered world and falling continents and quasi-musical mysticism gibberish seriously, I get a great cast of characters who are nearly all layered and well-developed through the entirety of the game, and I get an adventure that delves well into the themes of defining one’s identity and worth, redemption, the value of life, and the question of free will and fate, among others. Conversely, in exchange for taking FF8’s nonstop barrage of fanciful idiocy seriously, I get an awful cast of insulting teenage caricatures, and an adventure whose only purpose seems to be reinforcing the idea that teenagers love each other in stupid and annoying ways and they just have to make everything that goes on in the cosmos all about that love. Gag me with a gunblade. So, since they’re not building up to anything worthwhile, there’s no reason for my subconscious to gloss over and forgive FF8 its logical inconsistencies, while my mind does so for Tales of the Abyss.

There’s plenty of other factors in it, of course--such as, in the last example, the fact that TotA takes the time to really explain its unlikely set pieces to the player, and plays devil’s advocate with itself in the form of Luke’s comments and skepticisms enough that it explains its illogical logic thoroughly, while FF8 just springs Guardian-Forces-eat-your-brain plot twists and the world being okay with no television for like 20 years just because nobody can be bothered to fix 1 single broadcast tower at every turn, and the characters just dumbly nod their heads and move along to the next thing without question. And another factor is how seriously you’re even meant to take the subject--a lighthearted, comical game, movie, show, or whatever obviously doesn’t need much believability so long as it’s funny. Still, I think this exchange rate makes sense of the situation pretty well. You’ll graciously shoulder more disbelief, IF doing so leads to a better payoff. I’m sure I’m not the first to come up with it, and I don’t know if I really had much of a point in telling you about it, Wouldn’t be the first occasion where I’ve shamelessly wasted your time, right?

* But even that wondrous rope of disbelief suspension could not make Indiana Jones surviving a nuke in a refrigerator seem possible.

** Well, I mean, in theory. Linkara has taught me well that not everything involving Batman is a masterpiece. The ridiculous bullshit that Frank Miller pulls alone...but all the same, as a general rule, Batman stuff is awesome.