Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Annual Summary: 2009

Phew! 2009's just about over and done with! Never thought I'd actually be ranting this long; hell, I thought my material would peter out within a year. Of course, I probably would have been RIGHT if I actually kept to a regular rant schedule, instead of updating twice a month or so, but...

Anyway. 2009 was a pretty good year for me with RPGs. I didn't have too many really amazing ones, but I also didn't have many that were actually bad, either, which is the first year in too long where that's been the case--hell, it's been the first year since 2005 in which I didn't play at least 1 game that made it to the list of Worst RPGs ever. And I managed to really keep myself on the ball, unlike last year, and stick to a steady schedule that allowed me to play many more than in 2008. Which were they? Well, in alphabetical order:

Arc the Lad 1
Arc the Lad 2
Arc the Lad 3
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Dragon Age Origins
Eternal Poison
Evolution Worlds
Mother 3
Paper Mario 2
Parasite Eve 1
Pokemon Platinum
Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1
Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4
Valkyrie Profile 1
Valkyrie Profile 2
Vandal Hearts 2

I've still got several sitting on my desk that I would have liked to add to that list, like Legend of Legaia and Dragon Quest 4, but 2 full-time jobs, House M.D., 30 Rock, Glee, Justice League Heroes, Fallout 3's Downloadable Content, the discovery of That Guy With The Glasses's site, and watching the entire run of Law and Order: CI from the first episode on tends to eat your time a little. Not to mention keeping up with the rants here. Those AMV rants I've been doing seem to take 3 times longer than normal ones, too, which doesn't help.

Still and all, a good year. It started well with great games like Mother 3 and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, and ended just as well with Dragon Age Origins and the Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga series, with plenty of quality games in between. I began catching up on a bunch of legendary RPG classics I missed back in the day, such as Parasite Eve 1 and the first Castlevania RPG, kept plowing through the Shin Megami Tensei series, and found another RPG series to become familiar with, Arc the Lad. Overall, I think I did very well--managed to keep up with some of the recent popular RPGs out there (Dragon Age Origins, Pokemon Platinum), the recent obscure RPGs out there (Mother 3, Eternal Poison), the older classics (Parasite Eve 1, Valkyrie Profile 1), the obscure oldies (Evolution Worlds, Vandal Hearts 2), and of course the obscure-but-popular-at-the-same-time Shin Megami Tensei games. So this year was pretty nicely diverse, RPG-wise, with the exception being that barely any of them were actually bad (which is a lack of variety I'm okay with). In fact, it was so diverse that I really can't do the usual thing here where I mention running themes that arose over the year's course with my gaming, because, well, there weren't really any to speak of. So I guess it's on to the usual bulletin-style finish for this year's summary rant.

RPG Moments of Interest in 2009:
1. Valkyrie Profile 1 (recently rereleased as VP Lenneth on the PSP). This old PS1 RPG is a legend for the genre, and it's one of those rare games like Suikoden 2 that is ridiculously expensive to acquire.

Does it live up to the hype? Is it truly one of the greatest RPGs of all time, old Enix's one and only non-SNES RPG not to suck ass? It's great, to be sure, and quite innovative, but like many cult classics, it's not quite up to the hype its fans worship it with. Still, I was pleased overall, and glad I finally did get around to it after years of being unable to obtain it.

2. After finally obtaining and playing the mystical Valkyrie Profile 1, the game that's eluded my meager budget for years, I played Valkyrie Profile Silmeria, henceforth to always be referred to as Valkyrie Profile 2 here, and watched this prequel completely undo the entirety of VP1's plot and essence. Wow, SquareEnix. Simply wow. You've got what can only be called a legend in your pocket, whose copies are still treated like electronic gold by RPG enthusiasts all over, and what do you do the instant you make a prequel? You whiz your legend right down the leg of your pants and out of existence.

My greatest disgust in this matter is that this isn't even close to the worst ideas and decisions SquareEnix has had and made.

3. Finally experiencing Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I'm familiar with Castlevania's old action games, but, stupidly enough for a guy calling himself The RPGenius, I'd never delved into its RPG side at all. Now that I've seen its first serious RPG offering, though, the door is open to the rest.

4. Pokemon Platinum: What the HELL, Nintendo? Did I seriously just play a Pokemon game that had a halfway okay plot and an actual--hell, a GOOD--villain? At this time last year, if you had asked me whether I thought it more likely that a standard Pokemon game would have a decent villain and a plot with an occasional strong point, or that the next time I sneezed an octopus would come out my nose while a green hamster wearing a wizard hat materialized in my pocket and said "Bless you!", I would probably have gone with the octopus-magic-hamster sneeze. I'm sure not complaining, though.

5. Watching Leliana's serenade scene in Dragon Age Origins. While DAO almost counts as a moment of interest in itself, being an ultra-hyped offering by supreme game-smiths Bioware, the scene where Leliana sings to the main character is really something else. It comes out of nowhere, which makes it seem odd at first, but it's lovely to listen to once you're in the moment, and the simple scene it shows has an elegant presentation of emotion.

6. Getting romantic options in Dragon Age Origins for a guy-girl, girl-girl, OR guy-GUY relationship. I'll be making a quick rant on this later, but for now, I'll just say a very pleased "It's about time."

Best Sequel/Prequel of 2009:
Winner: Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2
Really, it's hard for me to even consider SMTDDS1 and 2 as separate games. SMTDDS2 builds off the first game completely, continuing the adventure that SMTDDS1 really only began. Everything is connected because it's one flowing story, and SMTDDS2 offering certain rewards and unlocked scenes during its course that depend on your actions in the first game only cements its total feel of continuation.
Runners-Up: Arc the Lad 2, Arc the Lad 3, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Honestly, any other year, any of these games might have won 1st place. Each continues its previous installment excellently--CSotN creates a new story to take place immediately after one of the previous Castlevanias, using characters and references from multiple installments of the series, which helps to pull them all together nicely. Arc the Lad 3 uses the final events of AtL2 to make a story that stars new characters, but includes the old ones. And AtL2 is almost up there with SMTDDS2--it, too, is a continuation of the plot of the first game, which ended on a cliffhanger, using the same characters and world while introducing new characters and new elements to the world. SMTDDS2 just has a slightly better feeling of fluid continuation, and has themes that carry over from one game to the next, while AtL1 and 2 kind of switch horses in the middle about what they want to say. Still, strong contenders as sequels, all.

Biggest Disappointment of 2009:
Loser: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4
After experiencing the monumentally excellent SMT Persona 3 FES last year, and being amazed not only at some of its characters (I do so love Aigis), but also impressed and touched by even its minor side-characters during many of its Social Links, I was all set for SMTP4 to be AWESOME. And it just...wasn't. I'm not saying it's a bad game, now; perish the thought. It's decent enough, and it has a couple moments that are emotionally strong--although, like Suikoden 5, I feel like the most powerful part of the game is the scene you see if you make the WRONG decisions, in this case the Bad Ending. But overall, it just didn't have the heart and soul of the previous game. The party members were more appealing overall, but no one had the shining emotional journey that SMTP3FES's Aigis did, the party didn't develop the same kind of bonds that Yukari and Mitsuru did, and SMTP4's Teddy is just an annoying fucktard from the moment he starts hitting on girls till the end of the game. The Social Links ranged from okay to pretty good, but there was nothing so powerful and gripping in this one as SMTP3FES's Sun Link, and by general comparison I found much more truth and emotion in the people and struggles of SMTP3FES's Social Links than in those of SMTP4's. And while the plot of SMTP3FES was fairly constant and had a scope of importance that you could appreciate, I feel like a lot of the time spent in SMTP4 is just kind of filler. So...pretty good game, but disappointing considering its predecessor.
Almost as Bad: Valkyrie Profile 2
Honestly, only these 2 games disappointed me this year (a couple others weren't that great, but I hadn't expected much from them), which ain't bad, especially when one of them wasn't even bad anyway. I mentioned earlier that I'm not a fan of VP2 basically rewriting canon so that VP1 never occurred, but I'd also like to stress that it still would have been on this list even without that crap. While VP2 isn't a BAD game (when you don't count the finale, I mean), it really lacks the kind of heart and emphasis that VP1 had, and even when the plot does have direction, it's not all that impressive. Decent, perhaps, but not especially noteworthy, and VP1 really was.

Worst RPG of 2009:
Loser: Valkyrie Profile 2
Yeah, pretty much already mentioned this. Just THINKING about this game's ending, which (Spoiler alert) kills off almost every decent character in the game while saying that the far superior VP1's events will never occur, gets me annoyed. What in the world POSSESSES a writing staff to do something like that? It's like a team of master chefs got together and carefully planned out the greatest cake ever created, then spent hours and hours preparing it, making sure all the details were just right...and then the night shift chefs come in, look at the cake, and come to the collective conclusion that this will serve as the prettiest group urinal ever.
Almost as Bad: NA
I'm pleased as punch to say that there really wasn't a single other bad RPG I played this year. Oh, sure, Evolution Worlds is slightly stupid and very generic, and Arc the Lad 1 was pretty simplistic, but they weren't BAD persay. After encountering exactly half of the games on my list of Worst RPGs Ever in the past 3 years, it's really, really nice to have a year off from catastrophes like Grandia 3 or Wild Arms 4.

Most Improved of its Series of 2009:
Winner: Pokemon Platinum
Okay, so, Pokemon Platinum's plot is not exactly stellar, but it DOES have some genuinely neat moments, it does seem to be trying to be coherent and cohesive, the game DOES manage to rekindle the Pokemon interests you left behind a decade ago, and the game DOES have a decent character (Cynthia's totally the best champion ever) and a villain which isn't just acceptable, but actually pretty good--which is an uncommon enough occurrence for a NORMAL RPG. Given how silly, stupid, and utterly pointless the other Pokemon generation games were in the past, the fact that this one has good qualities as an RPG at all rockets it to the top in this category.
Runners-Up: Arc the Lad 2, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Mother 3
Arc the Lad 2 really improves on AtL1 by better developing most of its characters, introducing new ones (several of which are seriously good characters), and improving its storytelling methods. CSotN is also a big step up from its predecessors, putting a significant element of plot into its game and giving both its hero and villain some development, which previous Castlevanias just don't have. And Mother, I thought for sure that it would win this category until I played the Pokemon game. Mother 3 takes the wacky, wonderful, colorful insanity of Earthbound and adds depth and poignant emotion to it, making a quality RPG that really touches the player--even while amusing him/her with its quirky antics. Light and dark, silly and brooding, upbeat and saddening, Mother 3 somehow manages to combine these opposites and give you a fantastic step up from Earthbound.

Most Creative of 2009:
Winner...s: Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2
Sorry, but I'm going to have to regard these 2 games as 1 for the sake of most lists, because they're really just 2 installments of the same story. The Digital Devil Saga part of the the Shin Megami Tensei series is basically SMT making an incredibly involved, insightful, and creative story meant to involve and examine the essence and beliefs of Hinduism and Buddhism, much as SMT1 + 2 did with Christianity, and the SMT Persona games do with Tarot Cards. Unfortunately, a lot of SMTDDS's brilliance is wasted on me, because I don't understand much more than the basics of Hinduism and Buddhism, but I can nonetheless see the creative genius laced into every aspect of these games' story. These games' events and ideas would be crazily creative even if they weren't at the same time exploring and tying in with the Hindu and Buddhist religions.
Runners-Up: Dragon Age Origins, Parasite Eve 1, Valkyrie Profile 1
I really, REALLY wanted to give top spot to Parasite Eve 1. What a truly cool foray into creative modern science-fiction it is, filled with interesting ideas. VP1's theme is that of a Norse goddess collecting the souls of the dead, both good and evil, to fight as warriors of the gods in the approaching Ragnarok--can't tell me that's not a creative idea for an RPG's basis. And as for Dragon Age Origins, as seems usual for Bioware, the creative effort that went into creating their world's culture and history is extremely impressive, particularly the ideas behind their world's main, like-Christianity-but-significantly-different religion and the ways you can see it influence their society in general. Quite cool.

Stupidest Weapon of 2009:
Loser: Yukiko's Fan (Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4)
My fears last year that there might not be enough material for this category to stick were unfounded. Fans? Seriously? I don't care if they're bladed or whatever, which they aren't always anyway, you can't seriously tell me that a high school girl tossing a flat, flimsy fan at titanic monsters should actually cause any damage to them. Hell, it's really quite unlikely that the damn things would fly straight when thrown several feet to begin with.
Almost as Bad: Chongara's Pot (Arc the Lad 1), Poco's Cymbals (Arc the Lad 1 + 2), Sania's Cards (Arc the Lad 2)
Musical instruments, a deck of cards, and a goddamn pot. Gee, I wonder why none of these characters are good physical attackers.

Best Romance of 2009:
Winner: Leliana and Protagonist (Dragon Age Origins)
Of the four romantic options in Dragon Age Origins, the courtship between the main character and Leliana seems the most genuine to me, and gives me warm and fuzzy feelings more than the others. She's a neat character with more depth than you'd expect, and more of her dialogue in general seems to be aimed at the possible romance you can have with her. Plus, what makes her and Zevran (another of the 4 possible romances) different from Alistair and Morrigan is that Leliana and Zevran can fall in love with the protagonist regardless of the protagonist's gender--and I feel that this works to make the romance seem more valid, in the sense that Leliana and Zevran's general growth in their feelings for the protagonist will always have the potential feeling of love behind them, while with Morrigan and, though admittedly to a much smaller extent, Alistair, their character development doesn't change so much overall save for some small specific bits for the love story. This makes me feel like the development that Alistair and especially Morrigan have that can lead up to romance with a protagonist of opposite gender is less romantically compelling, because it's all more or less the same as it would be if it were leading up to friendship with a same-sex protagonist. Admittedly, once you're actually IN the relationship, Alistair has about as much romantic development as Leliana and more than Zevran, but still, the lead-up to it is largely the same. With Leliana and Zevran, you can pretty much take their growing appreciation for the protagonist as steps toward love because that's what they're always going to be (unless you specifically push the "Let's just be friends" agenda, which, probably due to some bad code, doesn't always halt Leliana's amorous intentions anyway), and of the two of them, I like Leliana's love story far better.
Runners-Up: Ai and Seta (Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4), Alistair and Protagonist (Dragon Age Origins), Lenneth and Lucian (Valkyrie Profile 1)
Kind of a lame year for romance, honestly, even considering that RPG romances are usually generic. I mean, I saw plenty of them, but I only barely had enough to fill this category. At any rate...Ai and Seta's romance is a sweet one that's nonetheless worldly and realistic, which I like, and she's the only romantic option in the whole game for whom the love aspect of her Social Link actually seems to make a difference. I mean, with Ai, the course of her Social Link events change depending on Seta's approach, whether he cares enough about her as a person not to push her and so on--you can mess up early on by paying attention to what you want instead of what Ai as a person needs, and end up just as her friend, missing out on the romance. With all the other romantic Social Links, everything's exactly the same for the first 8 or 9 out of 10 events whether you're going for romance or friendship. It's like what I mentioned above with the Dragon Age Origins romantic options--if the relationship between the characters is going to be mostly the same whether it's friendly or romantic, then I'm not really convinced that there's much of a love story. Ai's really the only option you have that's convincing. Now, while Alistair and the DAO Protagonist's romance DOES have the problem of being largely similar in its beginnings as the normal friendship would be, it DOES really take off once Alistair's genuinely interested and has a lot of development unique to the love and not the friendship angle--development which is, I should note, very sweet and cute. Lenneth and Lucian's love is very convincing and epic, so it deserves mentioning, but the plot demands that it pretty much only be realized and acknowledged at the very end part of the game, so by the point that it's anything more than one-sided, it's sadly very brief.

Best Voice Acting of 2009:
Winner: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4
While not absolutely perfect, as there are a few characters whose voices are a bit annoying to me, SMTP4 overall has a spectacularly talented crew voicing its characters, more so even than SMTP3FES did. Everyone fits their character well, and in nearly all cases the actors do a superb job of enhancing the characters' personalities through effective delivery of lines.
Runners-Up: Dragon Age Origins, Eternal Poison, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2
DAO also has terrific voice acting all around, and very nearly won this category--hell, Oghren alone would've earned the game a place here. EP is very good overall, and has a few characters whose voice talents are just great (Thage, Olifan, and Dufaston) to listen to. As for SMTDDS1 + 2, everyone's voices are spot-on in that one, and while a few characters' voices are annoying (Sera's standard anime-girl voice makes me sigh, and I'm not too big on Cielo, either), overall the voice acting helps quite a lot to sell the characters to you.

Best Villain of 2009:
Winner: Hikawa (Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne)*
While I didn't see any villains that I could honestly call great this year (unsurprising, given their rarity in general), there were several good ones. I would have to say that the calm, yet sinister vision of a man willing to cause the end of the world for the chance to remake it into one of silent, cold, logical order devoid of the emotion that brings about the worst of human nature is probably the best of what I saw this year. Hikawa is, to be sure, another misguided villain who grasps part of the truth yet not the whole (not realizing that the emotions and chaos he seeks to eradicate are also what give a person any semblance of satisfaction and happiness in life, and ergo are more or less the entire point of existing at all) and carries out diabolical schemes according to this incomplete vision, but he does so with calm flourish, and while his philosophy can be summed up as simply the rest of SMTN's villains' can, it is nonetheless a strong one and worthy of consideration, perhaps even agreement with. He and his ideas could have been fleshed out a LOT more, and deserve to be, but he's still a solidly good villain.
Runners-Up: Cyrus (Pokemon Platinum), Isamu (Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne)*, Loghain (Dragon Age Origins)
I did want to put Eve from Parasite Eve 1 up here, but Loghain just manages to edge her out. And yes, I know--a POKEMON game's villain is one of the tops for this year. As crazy as it seems, though, Cyrus earns his place. It's actually really weird--he's JUST like the villain of the year, Hikawa. He, too, is cold, valuing logic and order over emotion and chaos, things that are simply inexplicable to him, and seeks to use Legendary Pokemon to create a world without spirit. Honestly, if he had his plan explained as well and presented as philosophically as Hikawa's was, Cyrus would have been the best villain of the year instead, because he sells his lack of emotion even better than Hikawa does. I can't believe a POKEMON game villain almost upstaged a Shin Megami Tensei one. Isamu's a good villain, to be sure--you see how and why he comes to his conclusion about how and why the world needs to change, and can understand it to an extent (even though his vision is far more incomplete and fundamentally flawed, not to mention hypocritical, than Hikawa's...although you could say that just makes him a more interesting character and villain). And Loghain from Dragon Age Origins is, like Cyrus, a villain who definitely could have been this year's winner instead of Hikawa--his reasons for his villainy are simple, yet very realistic and understandable, he's a character with depth, and the game gives you an opportunity to learn about him and his motives in reasonable depth. The only problem with Loghain is that most of your understanding of him as a villain only comes when you speak to him after his defeat--which is only an option if you make a plot choice that drives the character Alistair out of your party. Since Alistair is a generally appealing guy and a good character, and having him leave on a sour note kind of has this "Wrong Decision!" feeling to it, not many people are going to have an opportunity to get to know Loghain until subsequent playthroughs of DAO. This means that the average, initial playing of DAO isn't going to have Loghain presented as much more than an "Asshole for the sake of being an Asshole" villain. So he's a good villain, but people aren't going to KNOW he is.

Best Character of 2009:
Winner: Leliana (Dragon Age Origins)
Leliana has both superior depth and a dynamic nature; while almost all of the party members can have differing attitudes toward the main character depending on how he/she acts toward them and in general, Leliana's growth as a character outshines theirs, to me. Her personality is almost fascinating when you consider her inner fears and conflicts about who she was as a Bard, who she was as a Chantry Sister, and who she wants to be, who she thinks she CAN be. Her development is well-executed, deep, and believable, and her personality is likable. Most interestingly, though, is that you can choose what kind of person she ultimately will develop into--you'll see her at a moral crossroads about who she really, truly is, unsure of which life she's led was the one true to herself, and through the main character you can help determine the answer she comes to. And one's not really any more or less "right" than the other--I know which life's personality and joys I think were truly Leliana's, but you can convincingly argue either one. Definitely a good character.
Runners-Up: Alistair (Dragon Age Origins), Gruga (Arc the Lad 2 + 3 (but mostly 2)), Lenneth (Valkyrie Profile 1)
Alistair is a good character with a lot of depth that makes him stand out, which is something given that DAO's has a cast where even the drunk, crude, hilarious joke character has significant complexity if you're watching for it. In addition to his very good character development, he, too, is somewhat dynamic, like Leliana, in that his attitude can change a little bit after the culmination of his personality's progression, depending, as with Leliana, on how he is treated by the protagonist. I really liked Gruga, and felt that his conflicts were not only well-executed, but fairly uncommon and interesting. And Lenneth's growth into her humanity was very convincing and special; if nearly all of it just hadn't been so crammed into the last little segment of the game, she'd probably have topped Leliana.

Best Game of 2009:
Winner...s: Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2
What can I say? These games are absolutely brilliant. They can give an audience with even just the most rudimentary understanding of the religion of Hindu and Buddhism things to think about and consider on and on for hours, days, weeks. I'll probably be considering these games and their ideas, events, characters, stories, insights, and so on for years to come, finding new insights on both them and the religion they examine all the while. And unlike many great works that are meant to describe ideas, philosophies, and systems of belief to an audience to ponder over, these games have a genuinely interesting, engaging story to go with them. It's not JUST a ton of fascinating concepts to think about bundled up together--it's also a really cool, creative, and gripping adventure, too. Bravo to Atlus on these 2, to be sure.
Runners-Up: Arc the Lad 2, Dragon Age Origins, Mother 3
Dragon Age Origins is great and has great care given to all its aspects, some of which I've mentioned already. Its characters are great, having strong personalities and depth (except for the dog, I guess, but dogs are generally screwed over with character development...the unfortunate inevitable result of having no dialogue options, I suppose), and its plot is simple in premise (bad guys are coming, raise an army to stop them, kill their leader) but is comprised of many complex events, people, and ideas. Arc the Lad 2 is good to a surprising degree, with a strong plot that throws some neat twists here and there, several poignant emotional scenes, quite a few very good characters, a message to convey, and a satisfactory, yet surprising ending--and each one of these good qualities I've mentioned is built off Arc the Lad 1, taken from that nice but lackluster title and evolved into something really cool. And Mother 3? Damn, man, the madcap fun of Earthbound is no longer the entirety of the game, but rather the vehicle for a touching and intriguing plot of love and loss, complex pettiness and simple heroism. I played a lot of good games this year that deserve recognition--hell, in a different year, I'm sure Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, Valkyrie Profile 1, and possibly even Arc the Lad 3 would've made the Best Game list--but these ones are the cream of the crop.

List Changes of 2009:
Greatest RPGs: I've changed the list of Greatest RPGs to include Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2. It may kind of be cheating, but I basically condensed SMT1 + 2 into a single part of the list (6th place) and put SMTDDS1 + 2 into 7th place. These two sets of games really do both comprise single plot entities, though, and everything that puts each game on the great list is the same for its sequel/predecessor, so I figure it's okay.

And we're done with this year! Good year, it was, to be sure...which probably means 2010 is going to suck all kinds of hard, and the fact that I'm going to start it with a recent SquareEnix game (Valkyrie Profile 3) doesn't reassure me otherwise. Still, I've got an Arc the Lad game to follow it, which should be decent, at least, and Mass Effect 2 does come out this approaching year, so we shall see how things go. Thanks again for reading and especially commenting, all; it's gratifying to know that somebody's listening. See you in 2010!

* Yeah, I know that Isamu, Chiaki, and Hikawa could be considered just characters in SMTN, since you're given the opportunity to side with any of them and thus not have to oppose that one, but I think they're still closer to villains than anything else--no reason a hero can't join a villain in a story, and whatever your choice you'll still have to contend with at LEAST 2 as your foes, possibly all 3.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

General RPGs' Unnecessary Paternal Ties Syndrome

This is going to be another one of those trends in story telling that exist significantly in more than just the RPG media. Today's subject, however, IS nonetheless a worse problem in RPGs than I think it is in any other media form I've seen.

Unnecessary Paternal Ties Syndrome. Like Love Hina Syndrome, it's a little phrase I've coined for RPG discussion that you'll probably see me use now and then. Basically, it refers to instances in RPGs (or anything else) in which the father of the protagonist (and, to a lesser extent, other major characters) is thrown into a prominent position in the plot for no special reason beyond just the sake of having him there because his son* happens to be the main character.

It happens all the time. I mean, granted, you do get one or two really great father-child stories in RPGs, to be sure--Tidus and Jecht's connection was interesting and mostly well done in FF10, for example. And I can't pretend that there aren't many occasions where the father-son connection truly is legitimately necessary to the plot--Fallout 3, for example, has the game's entire central plot's purpose as the protagonist following his/her father's lead, and then completing the father's work and enacting (or corrupting) his/her father's life's goal. And then there are the plots where the protagonist's position in life, which is determined by his heritage, is a core part of the game's focus, making the father's being an important part of the plot unavoidable--Suikoden 5's events, as an example, rely heavily on the protagonist being the prince of the queendom he's trying to save. Since a story about a struggle for control over a country is kinda hard to tell without all the major players who would be involved in that struggle, one of whom would be the husband of the queen, the protagonist's dad's importance to some of the plot's events isn't coming out of nowhere.

But overall, this idea has been used to death since the first Star Wars movies. I've mentioned the pointlessness of the paternal connection in Chrono Cross in the last rant, but it certainly doesn't stop with just that game. Unnecessary Paternal Ties Syndrome happens quite often:

Does it really HAVE to be Arc's father who guides him behind the scenes in Arc the Lad 1 and 2? No. You could have had any random behind-the-scenes guide do it, and Arc's father dies so quickly after finally showing up in person that the character development Arc gets from it is quick and minimal--I mean, it's decent while it's happening, to be sure, but it just doesn't go for very long, and doesn't leave much in the way of lasting impact.

Did Kratos really HAVE to be Lloyd's dad in Tales of Symphonia? Not especially, since not a lot of character development for either of them came out of it and the tie between them served no particular purpose to the plot in general.

Did it really HAVE to be Dart's dad in Legend of Dragoon who was mistakenly thought to be the villain but later found out to be pretty okay? Nope. Really, the plot would only need slight tweaking to take Zieg out, or at least put him somewhere that's not the pointless spotlighted potential villain for daddy's boy to have to fight against. His entire presence in the game actually seems, in the end, to have been a lazy attempt by the writers to appease the players of the game by providing Rose with a romantic consolation prize after Dart inexplicably chooses to return the affections of Shana (number 2 on my list of Most Annoying Characters in RPGs) instead of the infinitely more appealing Rose. I mean, Zieg's just violently inserted into the plot and becomes a huge part of it after previously being little more than a vague memory late in the game, right around the time Dart's starting to take Shana seriously as a love interest. Coincidence? Or already bad writing compounding its inadequacies by adding Unnecessary Paternal Ties Syndrome at the last minute to unsuccessfully try to solve another of its problems? You be the judge.

And finally, seriously, did the main villain of Wild Arms 4 really HAVE to be Jude's father? Hell no. Jude doesn't even ever find out; what the hell's the point?

And the list just goes on. Here's an idea. Maybe, if there's no significant reason for the father to be involved in the plot, he could...not be involved. The only superfluous plot element that RPGs incorporate more often than Unnecessary Paternal Ties is the unexplained, poorly developed, there-just-for-the-sake-of-being-there romance, and frankly, those have a slightly better chance of being interesting to watch. Writers should try to find something ELSE to include. Hell, why not set up some issues with the protagonist's MOTHER for once? We get plenty of stories where the father's important and the mother's never/barely seen, but on the off chance that a protagonist's mom is important in any way, the father's still nearly always also important--more important, for that matter. If you've got to add in some familial issues for nearly no reason, how about some gender equality?

* I say "son" because this is almost always an event exclusive to fathers and sons. If female protagonists have family issues, it's usually, from what I've seen, with both parents--although there ARE some cases with female protagonists whose major family connections are with their dad, I suppose, like Final Fantasy 6's Terra, and Wild Arms 3's Virginia. Still, they don't exactly apply here, because Terra's heritage of human and Esper is a major part of the plot in general, particularly the Esper side of her family tree, so her relationship to her Esper parent IS necessary. And with Virginia, well, while I suppose Werner could have been anyone, not just her father, and still have been effective, her relationship with him and the character development she gets from it are excellently established and explored. About the only female protagonist I can think of with legitimate Unnecessary Paternal Ties Syndrome would be Chris from Suikoden 3, and her dad really wasn't too excessively plot-important even then.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Chrono Cross's Characters

Serge: Serge is a silent protagonist. Normally I complain about this type of hero, because they almost never measure up to a main character who actually defines their personality through action AND speech. But when you've got a hero who travels to an alternate reality where he died when he was 10 and is being sought by a cat furry named Lynx who used to be the hero's father but has now had his brain and body rewritten by an AI program from the future that wants to dominate the events of the present by using mind-control Save Points and needs the hero so that Lynx can switch bodies with him in order to unlock the door to an object of space-time-bending power, all of which is also a part of the plan of 6 dragons (from an alternate reality of lizard people that lost an inter-dimensional war with this dimension's future) so that the dragons can fuse together into Dragon Voltron and destroy humanity, all of which is also the plan of a time-traveling wise man from the past and some unexplained heroic ghosts from another country who want the hero to free a magical princess from the clutches of the remains of an evolution-eating alien that exists outside of time...well, I think at that point you're pretty much FORCED to have a silent protagonist, because there is no way in holy hell that you could actually write dialogue for any single human being engaging in and reacting to all this.*

Kid: Kid's story is only a slightly less ridiculous one than Serge's, but I'm not going to go into it, too (I'll give you a sample: magic, time paradoxes, clones).

Kid is annoying. Now, this is probably just my own prejudice speaking, but it is hard for me to have a character with a laughably exaggerated version of an accent that's already distinctive enough to be mildly amusing under normal circumstances that I am supposed to take seriously. As with Final Fantasy 5's Faris and her pirate lingo, every serious aspect of Kid that I could have recognized (not liked, mind; even when I make an effort to see her serious aspects, they're not very well-done), such as her reactions to her place in destiny, her feelings of loneliness and loss after losing her only home and orphanage family to arson, and her almost completely unexplained and unexplored romantic attachment to's all completely made forgettable by that damn, exaggerated Australian accent. All I can manage to see when I read her dialogue is an annoying, loud Aussie thug.** In fact, it's worse than with Faris, because Faris actually had a reason to have her overbearing pirate accent, what with her being, y'know, a pirate. Unless Kid tripped into a dimensional gateway to Australia and spent most of her childhood hunting dingos, kicking cane toads, and taming kangaroos down under before tripping into another gateway that took her back to the game's world, there's really no given reason for her to have this speech pattern.***

Harle: The eventually reluctant catalyst of that 6 Dragon Voltron subplot I mentioned above, Harle's development from shamelessly manipulating those around her into a character who is unwilling to fulfill her role in the planned destruction of humanity because she's grown attached to the people she travels with actually makes her a fairly decent character. Or at least, it would, if that development had really gone anywhere. Unfortunately, what we ultimately get out of Harle is a character who vaguely shows her growing character through subtle indications in dialogue, but never really has her growth as a person actualized because she just completely vanishes once she's fulfilled her destiny. She just disappears forever, leaving you with a character who COULD have been good, who still might be the best in this lousy game, but ultimately just never really had a chance to make her impact before being written out.

Viper: While General Viper has a certain appeal to me because he looks almost exactly like my grandfather (who was also a ranking military man, although not as high as General--almost, though!), I have to say that it's not entirely brilliant to invite a cat of prey that walks like a man who hails from an aggressive foreign nation, has no problems with things like murder and violent kidnapping, and aspires to possess time-space-bending objects of power into your goddamn home.

Fargo: Like Viper, Fargo is barely important enough to include here, but I guess he DOES have enough of a significant impact on the events of the plot that I can't ignore him--or at least, one version of him does. Fargo in one reality is a hardy pirate with little personality beyond being macho, and in the other reality is a wishy-washy captain of a pleasure cruiser who runs a crooked casino and uses demi-humans as slave labor because he's lost his sense of purpose since his beloved Zelbess, a demihuman herself, died, and has had an irrational hatred for her kind ever since. And y'know, as pathetic and annoying as the latter version of Fargo is, I actually wish that it was HIM who joined you instead of the boring pirate captain Fargo. At least pleasure cruise Fargo has some depth and issues he could have worked through. Pirate captain Fargo's big part of the game is slapping sense into pleasure cruise Fargo--why in the world is the character IN the party just a vehicle for the NON-party version's character development? Shouldn't we have gotten the version that was actually dynamic and plot-important to join up, so he could maybe develop further?

Lynx: The semi-sorta villain of the game (I can't really say much about the Devourer of Time, as it, like many of Squaresoft/SquareEnix's villains, only randomly shows up right at the end of the game). I already mentioned the basic back story for Lynx in that jumble of poor plot points I gave for Serge above. I have to say, though, that Lynx is a prime example of what I think I will be calling Unnecessary Paternal Ties Syndrome in RPGs--the totally superfluous act in an RPG of sticking the protagonist's father into the plot in some attention-getting way because God knows no protagonist can possibly be complete without having dad issues. Did Lynx really HAVE to be Serge's mutated pappy? Not really. Neither he nor Serge ever get a lick of character development from the connection, so why have it in the first place?

You could change it around without even having to change the overall story at all; at the time that the transformation from Serge's Dad to Lynx occurred, a friend of the family, Miguel, was present--Square could just as easily have had Miguel become Lynx. In fact, it would have worked out BETTER that way, because Serge and company meet Miguel later in the game, have him explain some of the silly plot, and then they're forced to fight and kill Miguel to continue on with the quest. Given the nature of the scene, the large amount of dialogue, and the unfortunate necessity of the fight, Square could have had Serge's Dad be the one left behind there instead and actually gotten some real conflict out of father and son finally reuniting only to have to fight to the death. Lynx is really just a reconfiguring of the matter that Serge's Dad once was; there's no memories or emotion left in him of Serge to speak of. But hey, he's the semi-sorta main villain, so HE HAS TO BE SERGE'S FATHER NO MATTER WHAT.

Doc, Draggy, Funguy, Glenn, Greco, Grobyc, Guile, Irenes, Janice, Karsh, Korcha, Leah, Leena, Luccia, Macha, Marcy, Mel, Miki, Mojo/Mojoy, NeoFio, Nikki, Norris, Orcha, Orlha, Pierre, Pip, Poshul, Radius, Razzly, Riddel, Skelly, Sneff, Sprigg, Starky, Steena, Turnip, Van, Zappa, and Zoah: Nearly every character in this game just has little or no importance to the plot and has character development--if you can even call it that--that clocks in altogether at 5 minutes or less each and which depends heavily on you discerning some kind of deep insight about each one by their accent. There is an obvious lesson to learn from this, kiddies at Square:


Does not!




*I really wish, incidentally, that I had hit on all of the insane, complicated, nonsensical idiocy of this game's plot right there, but what you just got is an extremely simplified version. The actual details and parts I left out make it all significantly more convoluted and crazy.

** Because I have Australian readers (and friends), I'd just like clarify--I don't mean to say Australians sound silly as a rule, or annoying, or anything like that. I want to mention that what I mean here is that the Australian accent is, as a rule, pretty distinctive--and I just personally feel that ANY accent that's distinctive can be mildly amusing. But my POINT in this, I must emphasize, is that Kid's accent is very exaggerated, and it's the exaggeration that I can't get around. If any of you guys/girls are still offended, I apologize.

*** Of course, this IS Chrono Cross, so really, this possibility isn't all that unlikely after all. Hell, it would be more believable than at least half of the rest of the game.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Shadow Hearts 1 and 2 AMV: As the Warlock Said

I decided, largely on a whim, that the next RPG AMV I'd do would be my favorite of all RPG AMVs I've yet seen, the Shadow Hearts 1 and 2 AMV As the Warlock Said, made with care by the esteemed Resk. This one's made up of FMVs from the first and especially second Shadow Hearts games, and the cutscenes in SH2 portray major parts of the game's events, so this AMV has strong spoiler content. Fairly warned, and all that.

Shadow Hearts 1 + 2 As the Warlock Said:

Poetry in Motion: Visually-speaking, this AMV's definitely got its act together. The scenes shown are all in good condition*, and all of the scenes shown are from the games' FMVs, which as a rule are visually pleasing, and have an artistic atmosphere of heavy, yet shadowy realism, even though they often depict mystical and other-worldly scenes--the Shadow Hearts games' characteristic feel is depicted well by their cutscenes, and Resk's selection takes advantage of this.

As far as visual effects go, this video has a greater number of them used in more significant ways than the last AMV I ranted on (Fallout 3's If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next AMV). Despite this, however, As the Warlock Said shares a certain feeling of artistic simplicity with the subject of my previous AMV rant. The most technical the visual tricks ever really get with this AMV are slow scene changes that transition to the next FMV clip while the previous one is still fading--nice, but ultimately a fairly simple effect. The creator does, however, definitely make the most of this transition, making it less a quick little "that's neat" moment and more a well-crafted part of the work as a whole. For example, there's a moment at 1:08 where the scene fades from one in which main character Yuri leaps back from the top of a train to a scene of time passing over a flower field. The lingering fade that transitions from the first scene to the second makes it seem like Yuri is leaping back into the the speeding, swirling sky of the second scene, bringing the two parts together gracefully, which makes the AMV seem more fluid, more joined, a smoother, more complete offering. There are a few examples of this in the AMV--right after the part I've mentioned, the flower scene's swirly sky begins to fade into the scene where Yuri and Kato face one another, with the previous scene's moving sky combining with the orange sunset of the next scene nicely. And there's also the part at 3:21 where we see Saki's demon form slowly descending suddenly turns into the descending image of Kato, for another example.

The other noticeable visual trick that Resk employs is a vague overlay of one scene over the other--basically, to have one FMV scene from the game playing as a background, while another one, which is translucent but more prominent, is shown as well (I believe the film making term for this is "matte"--I don't pretend to know many of the technicalities of this stuff; I only know what I like and what looks good to me). This also creates some neat effects, such as at 2:47, where Karin's face is momentarily laid over a scene of Yuri after he's said goodbye to her, presumably to show his thoughts at that moment and what he's given up, and at 3:04, where the image of Yuri's soul caught within a tree (it's symbolic and means something in the game, trust me) is shown over the image of Alice, who is in a similar position. Neat as they are, though, I do feel that they're probably the only part of this video that I can really offer negative criticism for--while well-done and interesting, they are at the same time a little distracting, and even a little confusing while you're watching and trying to determine exactly what they're showing before they're gone. Still, overall I do like them.

We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams: I have a mild fondness for the song used for this video, Gravity of Love, by Enigma. It has a certain feeling of epic mysticism, but in a modest way; its tune, vocals, and lyrics don't seem to be as direct in addressing the listener as most songs are for most of the song, like it's singing more generally of something great and wondrous, for all to hear instead of anyone specific. This effect works very nicely for the AMV in general, and the scenes fit it well in a general sense, along with being shown and emphasized well to match the music's tone and direction. The AMV also matches the scenes to the lyrics in a more specific sense, as well, doing such things as at 0:27, which has a shot of Yuri that turns around him just as the lyric "Turn around" is sung, at 0:33, where the scene shifts from Yuri with his eyes closed to a scene of Alice just as the words "Close your eyes, it's so clear" are sung--Yuri's got his eyes closed, and is clearly imagining Alice, which not only fits the lyrics perfectly, but also directly fit the actual characters and circumstances of the game, as well. Heck, even the opening is matched well to the song, when there aren't really any lyrics at all--the opening of Gravity of Love is taken from O Fortuna velut Luna, which has an epic choir bit, and during this opening the AMV shows still images of a map of Europe, warlocks in a circle, and so on--images of power and importance to match the choir's tone. These instances of directly tying what's shown to the lyrics sung help to further mesh the video's components together into something that feels like one functioning creation rather than just separate parts pushed together.

But what's it all mean, Basil?: While this anime music video doesn't exactly have a specific message to convey like the Fallout 3 AMV I showed last time, it most definitely has purpose and meaning. As the Warlock Said emphasizes the romance between Yuri and Alice from the games, showing them by themselves and with each other as souls locked together by love, whether together or separated, through life and death both. The song selection is absolutely perfect for it--when you actually just look at the lyrics all together, you can draw immediate parallels to the story of Alice and Yuri--and the scene selection is no less perfectly chosen, visually tying the lyrics and tune of a song already wonderfully suited to these characters to the games.

In addition to showing the story of Alice and Yuri's love, though, the AMV also serves as a great symbol of the game itself. Much like that Parasite Eve 1 AMV I showed in my original rant on RPG AMVs, this one seems to be a summary of the feeling of the games themselves, showing their atmosphere, darkness, monumental events, and most importantly, the simple feelings of emotion and mysticism that seem to be the true defining aspects of Shadow Hearts 1 and particularly 2. You don't just see the powerful love story of Alice and Yuri when you watch this AMV, you also see the greatness of the games themselves. This song and these games are wonderful matches for each other in both their tone and their lyrics/events, and As the Warlock Said is a perfect mixture of them.

* Although the Youtube version that I linked to above isn't quite as good quality as the original AMV; if you're a member of Anime Music Videos .org, you can find the better quality version there. You might also want to check out the other AMVs Resk has made on either site--some are definitely pretty decent. I'm quite fond of his Legend of Dragoon Strength of Sacrifice one, myself.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

General RPGs' Resurrection Abuse

As with many of my General RPG rants, this is less an RPG problem than it is an issue of several entertainment mediums--hell, this problem's no less typical with anime and manga, and it's WAY more prevalent (and absurdly done, for that matter) in western comics. Still, RPGs do it plenty, and this is an RPG rant blog, so here it is.

Basically, there are too many goddamn resurrections going on in RPGs these days. I mean, it is getting seriously ridiculous at this point. In any given RPG, you're more likely than not to encounter at LEAST one method of bringing back the dead, which will inevitably be invoked at some point in the game to do just that.

You know, I remember back when death was considered to be, y'know, PERMANENT. When somebody died, they were supposed to actually be GONE. There wasn't some cheap, convenient magical stone to bring their soul back. There wasn't some techno-magic way to recreate them in their dad's basement. They didn't just have to wait until the next time they resurrected for no apparent reason to continue trying to take over the world. It used to be that defeating Death was the great, miraculous triumph of Jesus Christ, one of the most awe-inspiring moments of proof of God's limitless power and wonder. Now every character and his grandmother keeps half a dozen magic stones in their basement for quick resurrection jobs.

I don't mean, incidentally, items like the Final Fantasy Phoenix Downs, or Shin Megami Tensei games' Revival Beads/Gems/Orbs. In-battle resurrection doesn't really count to me, since most games, despite the names of their bring-back items implying actual return from death, simply regard going to 0 HP in battle (and, in a stupid few, 0 MP) to be a case of the character fainting, being stunned, or getting KO'd, to name a few game terms for it. If a character CAN be brought back to his/her/its feet during battle from 0 HP (in some games, like the Fallout series, 0 HP really is just plain death with no remedy), it's very rarely referred to as death. So when I talk about cheap resurrections, I mostly mean ones that occur via plot.

Now, it's not that it's ALWAYS cheap and empty in RPGs, mind. I can think of a few moments where I don't mind it. Chrono Trigger, for one--the journey to take Crono back from the grasp of death is one that involves great struggle, the great knowledge of not one, but two insanely wise sages, and winds up bending the laws of the universe to go back in and then FREEZE time--an action that's not even so much resurrection as it is causing the death not to happen in the first place. Then there's Shadow Hearts 2, which resurrects Alice using the knowledge of Roger, who is a scholar-of-all-trades who's lived for centuries, and a book of forbidden knowledge of unknown origins--for a moment. But then the process goes wrong, and fizzles out, and Alice dissolves back into nothingness--because defeating Death simply can't be done by mere mortals, even with all the knowledge and science in the world on their side.* The games hammer home the fact that bringing someone back from the dead is actually a BIG DEAL, instead of just coming up with one excuse after another involving Farplanes and Lifestreams and other such magical plot contrivances to bring back a lame villain half a dozen times.

And of course, there are a couple of times where it's been an integral part of an extremely well-devised plot that I won't complain about. The resurrection of the characters in Shin Megami Tensei 1 is acceptable to me, given that the game is an insanely brilliant analysis and commentary on Christianity and thus the resurrection helps to draw necessary parallels with Jesus Christ that are fun to mentally chew on and dissect. And the implied reincarnation of the cast of Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 also is quite acceptable, given that the game is based on, analyzes, and comments on the theology and philosophy of Hinduism and Buddhism, of which reincarnation is a very integral part. These are cases where death being temporary is a necessary component for a highly intellectual and fascinating plot. It's not just another typical case of, "Well, we know we killed this guy, but we really liked him, so let's bring him back just because!"

But overall, seriously, enough of this. Enough of the Dragon Balls, the villains that just grow back like crab grass, the dead characters coming back to life at the end of the game for no adequately explored reason, and so on. I may be happy to see a character I like get a second chance, but it just overall cheapens their original death scene, and begs the question of why they'd be killed off to begin with if the writers couldn't take not having them around to complete the story--a question that can almost always be answered, "Because we wanted a quick and easy emotional scene, and couldn't be bothered to come up with anything but the cheapest, most typical way to get it." Why have a villain die if dying isn't going to cease his machinations at all? Doesn't that defeat the entire purpose of killing him? Death should have consequences. It should mean permanent loss of life for the characters and all the emotional hardships that go along with that for the people who mourn them...and it should also mean permanent loss of that character for the writers. It shouldn't be a thing the writers flip like a switch. If they want to use a character's death to enhance the telling of their story, then the writers should be prepared for the downside that the character is gone. Because when they don't, the entire thing just starts to lose all meaning.

* This good idea and lesson is, of course, totally disregarded and crapped on by Shadow Hearts 3 later saying "lol n00b ur doin it wrong" to Roger, and has some random middle-aged bozo complete the resurrection process. But if the only good parts of SH2 that you counted for anything were ones that SH3 didn't ruin, you'd practically have to disregard the whole game.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fallout 3's Downloadable Content

While not totally unknown to the RPG world (Mass Effect 1's Bring Down the Sky add-on came first, and maybe there have been downloadable additions to RPGs prior to that), Fallout 3 has brought the potential of Downloadable Content for RPGs to the spotlight. I like explaining concepts that you probably already know, so, Downloadable Content is basically an addition to a game that you can download from an online source that adds significant aspects and features to the game that are not available in it normally. Mass Effect 1 released one soon after the game was available, a free extra mission to download that added a side quest to the game and fleshed out some of the setting of the game. It was pretty cool, awesomely free of charge, and there's a rumor that there will be one more released soon before Mass Effect 2 is finished for advertising purposes--which would be kickass, lemme tell you.

But while Mass Effect 1 was the first RPG I saw to implement the idea really well (besides, obviously, online RPGs; given that they're completely dependent on online factors to begin with, I don't count them the same way), Fallout 3 has really provided an example of what you can do with additions to an off-line RPG, and how successful it can be (each Fallout 3 DLC package costs more or less $10 to get, which allows for a tidy profit margin with how many people buy them, given that the programming for them is only one game area's worth). Through its add-ons, it's not only provided different areas and items of interest to add diversity to the game, but it's also added several sidequests with their own minor plots, several instances that further develop the world and history of Fallout, and even developed the main character's personality a bit--something the game proper barely does to begin with.

So, what did I think of each Downloadable Content for Fallout 3, you ask?* Well, let's go over them, following the order of release.**

Operation: Anchorage: Not counting the release of the GECK editor, Operation: Anchorage was the first DLC released for Fallout 3. All in all, a pretty good add-on. The pre-nuclear-devastation battle for Anchorage, Alaska is referenced several times in Fallout 3's main game, and getting some insight into what it was like and the general idea of how it went down via a virtual reality simulator was pretty neat, developed that bit of Fallout history nicely while giving you a fairly fun few missions where you have to rely more on your game skill than on the various super-powerful weapons and armors you may have already amassed. The DLC also gives an interesting glance into the mentality the Outcasts, allowing you to see firsthand that their flawed beliefs and objectives lead to dissension and murderous disagreements even within their own ranks. Operation: Anchorage develops the world and players of Fallout a moderate amount while giving you an interesting and different environment and set of missions to play through. Definitely a solid start.

The Pitt: The Pitt is another part of the Fallout world referenced a few times during Fallout 3's main game, with the Pitt (the ruins of Pittsburgh) being made out to be a hellhole of chaos, danger, and ugly brutality so extreme that it challenges even the imagination of the regular citizens of the wasteland, who are no strangers to harsh violence. As such, I did feel slightly disappointed when I actually went through it. It was a sucky place, to be sure, with slaves working themselves to death under brutal captors in an industrial setting, occasionally having to fight to the death in an irradiated tournament chamber or go searching for resources in the untamed areas of the city filled with gun-wielding madmen and mutant beasts, but...well, I mean, that's a pretty effectively horrible setting, to be sure, and Fallout 3 depicts its evils well, but this is Fallout here. What's an unthinkable hellhole for most other RPGs is only a few steps worse than the average wasteland location for this game. The game explains it as The Pitt having become much more ordered and manageable in the recent years from the horrible place mentioned in Fallout 3's main game, but still, I was expecting to be thrown into the worst place ever conceived, and it didn't happen.

The rest of the DLC follows this feeling of "Alright, but not what I'd hoped." The mini-plot of The Pitt has too much of a morally ambiguous feel to it, is okay-but-not-awesome as a story in general, and only slightly ties into the rest of the Fallout world. It's a decent enough side quest, but it doesn't measure up to the first DLC.

Broken Steel: Pretty much the biggest add-on, and also originally intended to be the final one, Broken Steel extends the game past its original ending and keeps the story going as you help push the bad guys out of the Capital Wasteland. This one was great--not only did it have the most additions of sidequests and locations, it tied in directly with the plot, kept it going, added bits and pieces here and there, and fixed up a serious plot hole with Fallout 3's original ending (see my former rant and retraction on this point). While the main, most important plot line of the game, the goal of providing clean water to the Capital Wasteland, is mostly settled in Fallout 3's main game, this DLC does briefly touch on it as it goes along with tying up the other loose ends of Fallout 3's major plot lines. A decent extension of the plot, a few decent minor new characters, several additions to gameplay and exploration through the wastes, correction of a previous mistake, and the ability to see that your actions in the main game paid off...a big thumbs-up to Broken Steel. Now if only it had made a new ending for when you finished it up; Fallout 3 now just doesn't really have a conclusion.

Point Lookout: Honestly, when I first heard about this DLC, I thought it would be lame. I mean, it looked like it was just exploring a swamp area with some mutant hillbillies. Whoop-dee-doo. Then I played through it, and found that it was my favorite. You're never too old or too familiar with the idea of "Don't judge a book by its cover" for a refresher course in it.

Point Lookout is basically everything I could hope for in a Fallout 3 add-on, and much more. Its plot is fairly self-contained, not having too much to do with Fallout 3's main game, but it introduces an entirely new, and rather neat, aspect of the Fallout world's events and history, a game of Spy Versus Spy of sorts that's been waged since before the war that destroyed the world, in which you get to play a small part. It also further develops Fallout's history with a couple of minor side quests that have you investigate happenings and individuals from before the war that further give you an idea of what the world was like at the time. It introduces a few characters of interest. Of lesser importance, it's also really fun to play through--the environment is surprisingly well-made even for Fallout 3's high standards, and you get to do a hell of a lot of exploring and treasure-hunting--there's all KINDS of great stuff hidden all over the place on the unusually large map. And what helps that is that the treasure-hunting is actually CONVENIENT--rather than having to go all the way back to the merchants and/or your home in the Capital Wasteland every time you've filled your inventory and need to unload, there's a couple of VERY well-stocked vendors in Point Lookout to sell to, and a safe container right on the boat that brings you to and from the area, which you can fast-travel to and actually bring with you back to the Capital Wasteland. Extremely convenient.

And beyond anything I would have expected is a moment in Point Lookout where the game's protagonist, the Lone Wanderer, gets some character development. In a game where all the protagonist's actions, dialogue, opinions, and beliefs are almost completely up to the player, it's hard to flesh out the main character because every normal method for doing so is already in the hands of the player. But the hallucinations during one part of Point Lookout's main quest provide multiple insights into the character of the Lone Wanderer, with his/her worries and deep insecurities being displayed in the form of delusional visions and voices. Darned cool; this DLC went above and beyond.

Mothership Zeta: Following on the heels of the incomparable Point Lookout didn't help this disappointing pile of nonsense any. It's almost the exact opposite, really--the plot is silly idiocy perforated with holes, the enemies and setting have very little variety once their initial novelty wears off, the characters range from bland to modestly okay, and the whole thing is just so far removed (literally and figuratively) from the actual events and world of Fallout that it seems largely pointless. I mean, with the other DLCs, you discover lost technology and aid the Outcasts in acquiring it, decide the fate of an entire city of slave workers, wage a war against the Enclave, and bring about the end of a major Bond-villain-esque world player of the pre-war age. With this one, you just...go bother some aliens that abduct a few people every now and then. Granted, they generally do nasty things to their victims, but they're making less of an impact on the Fallout world than random raiders do. What's the point?

The one thing I will give this add-on is that they do a good job of making the aliens seem completely foreign and inexplicable, as one might expect they would be. They don't speak any human language, seem to have completely random intentions for their various prisoners with no discernible method to their actions, and for reasons totally beyond anyone's guess have some obsession with Giddyup Buttercup toys, seeming to regard them as some sort of military super-weapon or cultural idol or something. So kudos for having aliens be alien. But overall, a disappointing DLC. I actually wrote this whole rant about a month and a half ago, and just kept hanging on to it in the desperate hope that Bethesda might release one last DLC after Mothership Zeta, but it looks like that's not going to happen, so I'm left with a slightly sour taste in my mouth when all is said and done.

So, when all is said and done? The Fallout 3 DLCs were fun and had some neat ideas. I'm glad for them. I AM a little wary of the idea of having to buy parts of a game separately instead of all together, given the potential for companies to mercilessly attack their gamers' wallets with this stuff, but most of Fallout 3's add-ons have the feeling of ideas that the company, Bethesda, had after completing the game, rather than just content that they held back so they could sell it later. I'm fine with that--the game was released a complete product, and these DLCs are just an overall enjoyable series of extras. I just hope that any RPG developers in the future who want to use Downloadable Content follow this example and don't abuse the idea with extra content that was deliberately cut from the game just so they could sell it separately. We'll just have to see how it goes--the upcoming Dragon Age should provide us with a good test of whether other RPG companies can also be responsible with several dedicated DLCs.

* I am aware that you probably did not actually ask that. I'm just accustomed to using that transitional exp​ression.

** It occurs to me that I just spent two paragraphs explaining what a Downloadable Content package is in a rant that will actually be focused on going over the specific instances of said packages, meaning that the only people who will be reading it are the ones who already know all about it. Apparently, I am an idiot.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Wild Arms 5's Characters

Wow, it has been a really long time since I did one of these.

Dean: Dean spends the first part of the game as a stupid, incredibly annoying doofus who is absolutely obsessed with Golems (these big stone-ish ancient robot things). It's like listening to Jude from Wild Arms 4 all over again, only instead of the never-ceasing topic of babble being All Adults Are EVIL, it's Holy Fuckballs Guys I Just Saw A Rusted Screw That Could Potentially Have Once Been In A Golem And I Have Now Crapped My Drawers Out Of Excitement.

Thankfully, Dean gets more tolerable after a little while, once he starts losing interest in Golems. He is sadly just as stupid as ever, but considerably less annoying. Of course, he transforms into a generic stupid protagonist at this point, so his character loses what little separated him from the sea of other do-gooding simpletons, but honestly, I was so relieved to see him not creaming his pants at the mere thought of moving stone statues that it's a trade I'm willing to make.

Oh, and I've mentioned this before, but his weapons are one of the stupidest in gaming history. Instead of just using the guns to shoot enemies like he shoots things OUTSIDE of battle, he swings the long, unwieldy blade things on their handles into enemies, even though shooting a bad guy in the face at point-blank range would be WAY more damaging, faster, and easier to do. God Dean is an idiot. He should've just kept the shovel he used as a weapon earlier in the game; at least he used THAT tool more or less as well as it could be.

Rebecca: Rebecca's entire character development is about romantic feelings that she never acts on or gets any kind of closure for.

Avril: Wow, a magical girl of mysterious plot-important origins who has amnesia. What novelty!

Greg: Greg is an archeological terrorist. Yes, that means exactly what you think it does--he's an extremist who blows up artifacts and relics (Golems, in this case) for the purpose of getting attention of the upper class that's wronged him (in this case, one certain upper-class asshole), so as to draw his enemy out so Greg can have revenge (a plan which, incidentally, barely makes any sense at all and doesn't work).

This game wants you to think that this makes Greg deep and cool. But we don't all get what we want.

Chuck: Why is Chuck even here? I don't remember a single damn time where having him in the party significantly contributed to the plot or the heroes' efforts. Hell, he made more of an impact as an NPC, before joining you.

Carol: Okay, I know I recently ranted about how weird it is that RPG parties are okay with letting children encounter life-threatening danger regularly. But seriously, who the hell thought it was okay for a 12-year-old to run around with BALLISTIC MISSILES strapped to her BACK?

Volsung: A misunderstood mama's boy caught between two racial worlds whose hardships in life because of his heritage make him bitter and genocidal. Gee, you think maybe, just maybe, someone on the Wild Arms 5 development team played Final Fantasy 10?

Monowheel: Yeah, okay, not a character and not the main villain. But so stupid it needs to be mentioned. You know that old, old rant I did on Xenosaga 2's KOSMOS's space motorcycle? As nonsensical and stupid as that vehicle was, it's a fucking Rolls Royce compared to this thing. The Monowheel has to be the most undignified transport of all time, bar none. I've seen it all--space motorcycles, large golden chickens, seagulls capable of carrying a fully grown human's weight while flying, talking dragon sailboats, cowardly mine-cart-pulling turtles, and just loading yourself into a cannon and being shot into foreign countries. But the Monowheel is the most idiotic, lame form of transportation I've seen in an RPG. And the worst part is, once you see how awkward, lethargic, and annoying the controls for Asgard (your second vehicle in this game) are, you'll actually want to suffer the indignity of the Monowheel as often as possible when traveling rather than fumble around with Asgard's crappy movements.

No, wait. I forgot. The worst part of the Monowheel is when Dean actually attempts to use it as a melee weapon at the end of the game. Oh, you WISH I was kidding: (scene really begins at about 1:02 if you're in a hurry). If I ever make a list of the Top 10 Stupidest Moments in the History of RPGs, I am 99% sure that this scene will be there.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Fallout 3 AMV: If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next

As far as AMVs are concerned, Fallout 3 is a game with a lot of potential. It's exceptional graphics-wise, to the point that its in-game visuals far outclass the FMVs from many console games from which your standard AMV is made, and from what I understand of the technical side of things (which isn't much, I grant you), it's generally far easier to record your own video from a PC game than it is from a console game, allowing for AMV-makers to record what they want to show close to exactly rather than have to rely on stock footage. In addition to this, the game takes place in a very expansive section of the Washington DC area in a post-apocalyptic future, so, as you can guess, there's a lot of great, artsy material to work with from the game.

Today's AMV definitely makes good use of that. Today, we'll be looking at FalseEmperor13's first (I think) Fallout 3 AMV. Nice thing about this is that it doesn't really have spoilers per say, so anyone worried about such things can still watch this one.

Fallout 3 If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next: (Kept on my channel because FalseEmperor13's Youtube account has disappeared)

She blinded me with Science!: Visually-speaking, I've got nothing to really complain about. The quality of the footage is good, with the only slight flaw being that the camera's movement in it is slightly jerky at times. But it's not significantly distracting, and quite forgivable considering that the AMV's maker was making his own in-game footage to use for the video.

The visual effects for this AMV are minimal and simple, mostly limited to smooth fades from one scene to the next--nothing fancy or attention-getting, but the rest of the AMV's content is strong enough that it's not necessary anyway. There IS, though, one moment where the scene-changing fade is used with a little flair--as the song hits a climax around 3:20 to 3:35, FalseEmperor13 prolongs the scene merge, having the next scene (a continually zooming out shot of the ruined Capitol Building) overtake the current one very slowly, so you can start to see it happen even while watching the scene it will succeed. It adds a nice touch to that moment, simple but artsy.

We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams: I don't really think much of the song used for this AMV one way or another--I don't hate it, but it doesn't really interest me, either. That being said, though, the song is used extremely well in this video. The general tone of it works excellently with the video's scenes, atmosphere, and message, and as the music changes the scenes follow its tone and lyrics.

Now, something worth noting here is that the AMV doesn't attempt to match everything up perfectly with the lyrics. The story part of the song's lyrics are for the AMV filler area, which you watch between the strong parts of the tune and the attention-catching chorus. This doesn't bother me so much, though, because the song itself is mostly the same--the chorus and its surrounding music is louder, stronger, and far more memorable and communicative than the parts the chorus connects. The heart of the song and the part that the listener is going to best remember is in its grander chorus segments, and thus those are the parts that the AMV works with the most, the parts where it best matches its audio and visual, and puts forth its message. The AMV's founded on the feel and tone of the song, the message of its most significant parts, rather than trying to align itself perfectly with every lesser detail, and it works.

But what's it all mean, Basil?: The AMV has a definite message to convey: stand up against injustice, don't just quietly let the world become a worse place on your watch, because if you don't fight wrong-doing now, if you just choose to tolerate a bad situation rather than work to change it, then it's your children, the innocent next generation, who will be the ones to suffer the longest and hardest from the world your inaction allowed. It's the AMV's effectiveness to this end that really makes me love it. The song is, of course, an excellent selection for that (again, going more by its tone and dominant chorus than by every one of its lyrics), and the visuals match the message even better, showing a series of examples of the burnt-out Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3, a world of cruelty and violence (shown through heaps of human bones in dirty cages, and Super Mutants firing guns) taking place in the ruined remains of a former shining example of freedom and cooperation (shown through scenes of the DC Ruins, particularly the Capitol Building and the Lincoln Monument). The scenes work with the song and the message, changing to match its tone and direction--for example, its shifting from the vices tolerated to a scene of children gathered in innocent celebration with family to coordinate with the song's words.

The AMV's message is very skillfully conveyed, and it definitely ties in with the actual game extremely well, as Fallout 3's setting is just such a world as the song warns against allowing--one where the future generations suffer unspeakable hardship and cruelties as punishment for their ancestors' mistakes. And the AMV's message is all the more valid for this--because we live in a world filled with people out to restrict our freedoms and who seek power over all others, and where the threat of nuclear annihilation is still very, very real. The world of the Fallout series is closer than we may think, closer than is comfortable, and this AMV reminds us that, ultimately, WE are the only ones who can keep this game only a fantasy.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Sailor Moon: Another Story's Epic Foundations

Man, if you guys thought my rant on Mario strained the limits of what's supposed to be an RPG-only rant blog thingy, you're gonna LOVE what I've got today.

So, a few weeks ago, I was browsing various AMVs on Youtube, and happened across one made by Neko9, the same person who made the Parasite Eve 1 AMV I used for an example in my RPG AMVs rant last month, for the Sailor Moon anime (specifically, its 2 movies). It was a rather nice AMV,* and the way it was put together got me thinking about the Sailor Moon anime in general, and I had something akin to a revelation about it.

(Yes, I WILL get to the actual RPG later on, I promise).

Sailor Moon is, by now, a relatively 'old' anime. For a lot of people, myself included, it was part of a small group of translated animes that inducted nerds and geeks into the world of Japanimation while we were in middle and high school. I remember watching it religiously on Cartoon Network's Toonami, along with a few other shows like Dragon Ball Z, the timelessly excellent Robotech, and occasionally Gundam Wing. Back in the day, there weren't many animes readily available in pop culture to court new and eager anime fans with, and Sailor Moon was one of the most easily available and long-running series out there.

Of course, nowadays, a lot of us look back on the show with a more modern, adult view and wonder what we were thinking. I mean, the show is generally over-dramatic, silly, and hackneyed. From the vapid, annoying characterization of several of the show's cast members (you can only get so many jokes out of Serena/Usagi's bad school habits before it gets annoying, and most of the tiny little romance subplots for the Sailor Scouts are dull and go nowhere), the fights get repetitive (and so do the plots leading to the fights--how many different damn ways are there to gather people together to steal their spiritual energy or spiritual heart energies or spiritual spirit energies, etc?), and the daily bad guys CAN look pretty cool and have some neat abilities, but are usually more on the stupid side. And the general plot progression for each villain arc of the show is pretty formulaic--enemy general is trusted with gathering magic stuff and killing Sailor Scouts, enemy general fails for 10 to 30 episodes to do so, and eventually is killed and replaced with the next general up on the command tier, with there being, oh, say, 4 to 6 generals before the big baddy in charge takes over. Sailor Moon largely created the silly and exaggerated Magical Girl genre of anime, and it remains more or less the quintessential example of its more dumb vices.

So yes, a lot of us, years later now, are quick to criticize Sailor Moon, and rightly so, because the show's presentation of itself was juvenile and silly, and managed to become cliched by the very cliches that it pioneered.

The thing is, though, is this: when I stopped to think about it, as much criticism as Sailor Moon gets, I rarely hear of anyone who just flat-out hated it, who just says it's irredeemable garbage. We who watched it may often poke fun at it and groan as we look back on it, but relatively speaking, there's not nearly as much disdain or animosity as one might think for the show, who harbors serious, real spite and loathing for it. You take another big anime that was on at the time that we all watched because it was different and new, Dragon Ball Z, and you don't get the same effect. When people look back on it and recognize it for being boring trash, there's plenty of venom to be found in their criticisms for it. We look back on that and know we just watched the damn thing because there was little other anime readily available to sate our growing interests; otherwise we would have just gotten bored after 10 episodes and watched something else. There's just something about Sailor Moon and our old enjoyment of it that we can't quite betray in the same way we can turn on its contemporary peers.

Here's what I think it is, the quality that goes beyond simple rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia to keep us from actually hating the old show: if you look beyond the stupid moments, the annoying pace, modern kiddy soap-opera tones and silly have foundations for something epic, something great.

I mean, think about its basic premise: a displaced princess from a destroyed, ancient kingdom, lost to time and herself until reawakened into a warrior of justice, fights against world-threatening foes both one-dimensionally sinister (Beryl, Wiseman) AND human and interesting (Diamond/Demando, those annoying Anne and Alan blokes with the damn alien tree), accompanied by predestined soldiers to aid her, protect her, and help her to build a future queendom that unites great technology, benevolent magic, and the rulers of old together to usher in an age of peace, prosperity, and human glory. She and they utilize elements of significance both to the world and to humanity--Wind, Lightning, Fire, Ice, Water, Earth, Light, Darkness, Time, and Love. Sometimes there are times of rest between battles. At other times, the unthinkable happens--deaths of allies, the corruption of one's own child against its parents. But in the end, hope and love always triumph over those that would destroy or pervert them.

You look underneath the stupid shit like Tuxedo Mask, repetitive and stupid battles, Serena/Usagi's crappy grades, the bickering, and Rini/Chibi-Usa being annoying in general, and you find EPIC foundations. All of that stuff up there can make for a genuinely great, moving, and inspiring tale on a grand scale. Regardless of the mess they built upon it, the foundation is solid and great.

Now, to actually tie this in to RPGs to give me a transparent and sad excuse to do an anime-rant in here, the Sailor Moon RPG for the SNES, Sailor Moon: Another Story, follows the same method as the show in this regard. On the surface, the game seems largely dull in all the same ways as the show--character development for most of the characters amounts to tiny, inexplicable romances that die out almost immediately and serve no purpose, the villains' motives are barely explored and usually dumb (though to be fair, I've noted before that it's hard to find a genuinely good villain in RPGs in general), the overall demeanor of the characters is usually annoying and/or typecast, and Tuxedo Mask is, somehow, even MORE useless than usual.

But for all the boring and clumsy execution of the plot by under-developed characters, the game's also got some pretty cool ideas at its core. The general idea is that a new villainess, Apsu, is using the unique, reality-shifting power of a comet passing by near the Earth to alter Fate itself,** rearranging the events of history so that the various foes the Sailor Scouts defeated in the past did not die, and promising each villain an altered fate where they won and obtained what they wanted so long as they follow Apsu. The Scouts have to fend off old enemies, from the highest dangers like Beryl and the Sovereign of Silence/Mistress 9 to the lowest of common, single-episode grunts, all while dealing with the new band of villainesses formed by Apsu, as they attempt to right the world's fate and correct history back to its true course before the changes to the past remake them, as well. Pretty neat idea, all in all.

So yeah. I wouldn't call Sailor Moon: Another Story a good game, but I can't say it's a bad one, either, because regardless of its somewhat bland and annoying execution, it's got some solid originality and epic feel to its plot's foundation--and all in all, I feel that this is also the case with the anime itself. Regardless of the flaws in the finished product, at its core Sailor Moon was solid, creative, and epic, and it had a lot of heart. And I think that people in general could recognize that when they watched it, and still do, even if not consciously.

* No longer on Youtube, but you can find it at the profile I linked to above for Neko9.
** Now I do have to wonder, did the makers of SMAS come up with this idea themselves, or did they steal it from Illusion of Gaia, made roughly 2 years prior? Or is there perhaps some real-world mythological basis for nearby comets being able to alter reality, and I just don't know about it? I mean, I know that shooting stars are in several cultures portents of disaster, but I've never heard anything specific about their ability to warp destiny and history in any legends I've encountered, and that sort of thing sounds more like a modern idea than it does an ancient myth.

Friday, September 18, 2009

General RPGs' Child Party Members

As I've mentioned before, RPG casts can be some of the most physically varied out there. Your companions can be any species, any race, any gender, any level of intellect, any sexuality, any social class, etc. You can pick up an RPG and have a party of 10 (sort of) average humans, or you could get one with a human, cat fairy, half-harpy thing, floating wise man, wooden guy, flute-playing researcher, flying squirrel, shrimp, odd little robot that looks like a mailbox with arms, and two big genies.* And one of the many factors that vary for party members is age. Oh, sure, at least 98% of the RPGs you'll find are going to have the main character's age range from mid-early teens to very early 20s, but the side characters can be anywhere from 5 to 5000 years of age. You actually see quite a few kids running around in RPG parties--Eiko from Final Fantasy 9, Maria from Xenogears, Mel from Chrono Cross, Roger from Star Ocean 3, and Carol from Wild Arms 5 are just a few examples. And y'know, the more I see it happen, and the more I think about it, the more it seems really odd to me.

I mean, okay, I get that it adds a little diversity to have a drastically younger character in the cast and provides some opportunity for different character development (not that writers often exploit that potential very well). And hey, I have to admit, I've always actually found it kind of cool to have some random, sweet-looking little girl somehow able to kick ass like a crazy viking berserker, even if simple facts of physics and human biology are against it.

But, uh, think about this. We're talking about bringing children repeatedly--the hundreds-of-times kind of repeatedly--into life-threatening combat, where not only do they have to witness brutal acts of violence inflicted upon animals, other human beings, and their friends and possible family members that they travel with, but they have to take PART in this wanton, never-ending slaughter. It's not enough that they're watching Meathead Protagonist #395 butcher whatever fuzzy hell-bunny randomly showed up for a beating at any given time, but they have to murder every enemy they come across like all the other party members. That's actually pretty messed up, or at least it seems that way to me.

Now sure, RPGs only rarely address the psychological issues that come from having to murder human beings for their characters. The fact that a somewhat normal protagonist-kid like Luke from Tales of the Abyss initially has serious qualms with the necessity of taking other human beings' lives may seem like a simple and obvious reaction and opportunity for character development, but it's an issue very rarely explored by anyone in any RPG. So it's not exactly that child party members unrealistically never deal with the mental trauma of battle so much as it is that NOBODY does.

And, to be fair further, it's believable in some cases for RPG kids to be relatively fine with hacking monsters apart with their bare hands, given the kids' personalities. In some cases, a child character, like Anise from Tales of the Abyss or Ken from Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES, is developed as a character with certain mental processes far beyond his/her age, making him/her mature enough to react to most things as an adult would--in the example of Anise, she's just about the most devious schemer and gung-ho battler in the game, and understands everything with a maturity far beyond her age; she's an interesting mix of a kid's enthusiasm and pluck with an adult's wit and perceptions. In the case of Ken, his readiness for the battlefield is actually worked into his character history. In other cases, the child character is just so daft that they clearly aren't in touch with reality enough to properly consider their actions anyway--Roger from Star Ocean 3 and Choko from Arc the Lad 1 and 2 come to mind. And on the really, really rare occasion, you DO get a kid character who reacts to situations and fighting in a realistic fashion for his/her age--rare as in the only one I can think of is Marona from Phantom Brave, but it CAN happen.

Still, overall, the somewhat common presence of kids in an RPG party just seems odd when I think about it, particularly given how little development they're given regarding their reactions to the constant combat. We don't hear a peep out of Final Fantasy 6's Relm about her having to stab men through the heart with a paintbrush. Does it ever concern Final Fantasy 9's Eiko when she watches Zidane slice up a cute, fluffy (though admittedly diabolical) Yan in front of her? Did anyone in the entire Chrono Cross party ever consider NOT putting the 10-year-old whose hobby is doodling out on the front lines to take on monsters, armed guards, killer robots, and ungodly abominations? It's a weird trend, and, when you think about it, maybe even a bit disturbing.

* I did not randomly make these characters up. I have encountered them all as party members. In the same game, no less. The Magic of Scheherazade was fun times.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

General RPGs' AMVs 1

Something I've not often really advertised about myself: I like AMVs. AMV, for all of those too caught up in not being losers to already know, stands for Anime Music Video. Basically, it's a fan taking a song, and making a music video for it using scenes from an anime (or several) to go along with the tune. Of course, the internet being what it is, the "Anime" part of AMV quickly became a less commanding suggestion than the local Speed Limit, or Mass Effect 1's Auto-Level option. Nowadays, you can make an AMV out of animes, cartoons, animated movies of any kind, and, of course, video games.

Now, when I say I like AMVs, I should clarify that I like them in the same capacity that I like any fan-made media (fanfiction, for example). That is to say, I actually hate most of the ones I come across, because they are garbage. This is because the people making these videos are:

1. Clueless
2. Idiots
3. Lacking Skills
4. Tasteless
5. Any Combination of 1, 2, 3, and 4
6. Not Convinced That Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2 Shouldn't Have More Music Videos Than There are People on the Earth to Watch Them.

Still, there are some good ones out there. There are even some that I'd say are really great. And plenty of these good and great ones are RPG AMVs.

What, however, makes a good AMV? I mean, it's easy to tell when you've found a really good one; everything seems right. But what are the factors that really make the difference? Well, I've thought for a while on it, and I think I've pretty much got an idea of what makes an RPG AMV really work well. Before I get into them, though, here's an example of a very good RPG AMV. The game is Parasite Eve 1, and it does potentially spoil stuff, so be warned. Also be warned, if you haven't played the game but want to watch the AMV, that the game has some pretty fucked up stuff happen in it, and there's some pretty graphic, freaky shit going down in a lot of the game's FMVs (Full Motion Videos; cinemas, in other words).

Parasite Eve 1: Send Me an Angel: (Kept on my channel because Neko9's Youtube account has disappeared)

I'll be referring to this AMV as an example for almost each point of the list below, because it incorporates almost everything I think makes an AMV good. So here's the guide:

1. HAVE A POINT. Look, it's really no different than any other art form: an AMV should have a direction, something it wants to do or say. It can be a thoughtful, insightful comment on society or human nature. It can be a portrayal of great emotion and conflict. That's all great. But it doesn't have to be that big, either. It can be something basic, too--just summarizing the scope and feel of the game it shows, making the audience laugh, telling a story, emphasizing some aspects of the game's events, these are all fine. The PE1 AMV's not going for anything too extraordinary; it's just sort of summarizing the feel and action of the game, showing things that happen and matching it to a tune. That works fine. Just have SOME reason of substance for making an AMV. But if you're just doing it because you like the game and you like the song, or because you just think that the game's super-pretty bishounen main character is dreamy and HAS to have yet another music video dedicated to how awesome it is that he has good hair, then you're just going to end up with a rather pointless mess.

2. HAVE AN APPROPRIATE SONG. Look, we all have different tastes in music. I know that. But make sure your song actually coordinates with the game you're showing and what you want to say with the AMV. Don't play some screaming, raw alternative heavy rock metal whatever* to your AMV about the heartfelt love between Final Fantasy 10's Tidus and Yuna. If you're showing a montage of your most gruesome, horrifying, totally awesome kills in Fallout 3, don't put it to some longing, totally unintelligible J-Pop tune about feelings, butterflies, and eating sushi on trains or something. See how the PE1 AMV has a song that's fairly upbeat but with its moments of weird techno, with a general feeling of danger and need, all of which works pretty well with a modern-day semi-sci-fi adventure? The song works for what's being shown.

3. HAVE QUALITY VISUALS. Pretty simple: if it looks like crap, people don't wanna see it. I don't need Maximum Blow-Me-Out-Of-My-Chair HD x 10,000 graphic quality, but the video should be clean and clear. Seems obvious, but I've seen so many AMVs that are fuzzy, grainy, static-y, and just overall unappealing to watch. The PE1 video I showed is decent all the way through, as nice to watch to the music as it was to watch in the game.

4. SHOW SOME ARTISTRY. Any damn fool can just have some scenes run while music plays. Spice things up a bit. Cut to other scenes in an interesting way. Impose a translucent scene or picture over the video's action. There are all kinds of neat cinematography tricks that can make an AMV seem oodles cooler than it would have been. I mean, there's no need to go crazy with it--I've seen a couple AMVs that just had so much visual meddling going on that I had no idea what it was I was supposed to be watching--but a little dabbling can really make things more fun to watch. The PE1 AMV doesn't do much of this, but it does have a small example that's kind of neat--the scene change at 2:40 goes from the round altimeter, to the round moon, to the round view of DNA,** so it's like the same circle in each scene, just changing what's in it. It's a small thing, but it's neat.

5. GET THE TIMING RIGHT. As I said, any damn fool can just have some scenes run while music plays. But what really makes an AMV's visual and audio parts tie together into something fun to watch is timing the scenes to the music. Is there a crash, an impact of some sort in the song? Show something appropriate at that moment in the AMV. Is there an emphasized word or phrase in the song at certain points? Show something related at those moments. Is there a scene in your AMV about Final Fantasy 7's Cloud and Sephiroth's enmity where their blades meet? Play it right as the music hits a strong and lingering note. And let the AMV's scenes change as the music's tone and directions do. This detail is what separates an AMV from a random video with music playing to it. The PE1 AMV I directed you to has a lot of great examples of this--the scenes change well with the tune's change, the singing lady's voice is accompanied by scenes of Eve singing, the sudden, loud pause in the song at 1:41 has Eve slam her hands down, the chorus of "Send me an Angel" is always accompanied by an appropriate moment of Eve rising into the air or one of the good guys flying through it (and the scenes' order is good, too, with the most important, final "Send me an Angel" line getting the main character Aya to emphasize it), another beating pause at 2:10 accompanies a scene of a cop suddenly stopping a car...the timing in this video is nigh perfect from start to finish, and that really makes it cool to watch and worth noting.

6. MATCH THE SONG TO THE VIDEO. This one is kind of a combination of 3 and 5--have the videos tying in to the song's lyrics as they play, or working alongside the tone of the song's tune. Either's fine, as long as you're doing something to tie the package together. A lot of people just take a song they like and play it while showing the opening video of an RPG, claiming that it's an AMV. But doing that means that, save for extraordinary luck, a lot, most, or all of the video won't really seem to match up with the song being played at all. Hell, pretty much all RPG opening videos already HAVE music playing to them, which they were designed to match. Match the mood, match the words, just do something to make it work together. For our PE1 example, the scenes shift from urgent to slower and building as the song does quite well.

7. DON'T BE AFRAID OF NON-FMV VIDEO. Here's the deal: most RPGs have fairly limited FMVs to choose from. FMVs are expensive and take up a lot of space, even today, so game makers pretty much always use them sparingly. So if you're making an AMV for a game, you're probably going to be using all the same videos that anyone else who's made an AMV for the same game has used. But y'know, in reasonable doses, actual game footage CAN be useful. I have yet to find a great RPG AMV that's tried using in-game footage, but I've found some good ones that did and suffered no lesser quality because of it. Sometimes, powerful scenes don't have an accompanying FMV to go with them, but work so well with the song and theme that they just should be shown. Sparingly-used, they can add a lot, and most people don't really think to try it out. Now, the PE1 video I use as an example doesn't have any of this, unfortunately. As a stand-in, I recall once viewing a decent Tales of the Abyss AMV which was set to an extremely fast-paced, loud song. The AMV was pretty much dedicated to fast-pitched, tough battle, and used quite a lot of in-game footage of the different special attacks (which, like the song, were mostly fast-paced and flashy). It worked quite well, and was a good AMV for what it was going for.

8. DON'T BE AFRAID OF IN-GAME SOUND EFFECTS. In general, people don't have quite the appreciation for sound effects that they should. Sound effects are the audio details that help us orient ourselves within the game's world, arguably as responsible for drawing us into a game's mood and events as the music and voice acting are. So if the sound effects in an RPG's FMV are meant to make the scene more real to the viewer...why get rid of them? I'm not saying that an AMV-maker shouldn't pick and choose which scenes' sound effects are distracting and unnecessary, but look at the FE1 AMV--the roar of the jets, the shaking of fossils in the museum, these sound effects that played in the game's scenes do the same job of making the video feel real to the watcher now as they did then, without interfering with the music. And it's not like the AMV maker just didn't bother to take anything out--they kept what was helpful, but they got rid of sounds that would have been distracting, too. When Eve slams her hand on the piano at 1:41, the sound of the piano being hit is removed, because the music's impact at that moment was more important. This keeping of useful sound effects is, unfortunately, not something that most makers of AMVs think to do, but can help make it seem more smooth and immersing.

So that's my guide on what I think makes a great RPG AMV. Dunno whether anyone in the world who plans to make one will ever see it, but, eh, I like talking anyways, so what the hey. It's there.

Now, something else I haven't really advertised: I've made over 100 rants. The 100th rant, in fact, was the last one I put up. Now, Queelez suggested that I do something special for the 100th rant, but I decided not to. I mean, 100, big deal. Just a number. Who cares.

BUT, this is Rant 101. That's like 100, only bigger, AND a palindrome! Totally worth doing something special over. So, I've decided that from here on out, I'll have the occasional rant on really great RPG AMVs I've found, showing them to you all and noting why I think they're awesome and worth watching. As I mentioned, I really like a great, well-crafted AMV, and I'm hoping you all do, too. And for those who don't, which could very well be all of you, well...if it helps, I've actually so far only found 4 RPG AMVs that I really think are great, not counting Parasite Eve 1: Send Me an Angel, which I thought was on the border between good and great anyway. So you won't have that many AMV rants to slog through/ignore.

Oh, and hey, everyone, incidentally: thanks a lot for reading, commenting, suggesting, everything. I'm okay with only entertaining myself with huge walls of text, but it's really cool to know that there are some folks out there actually willing to wade through my endless babble over and over again. It means a whole hell of a lot, seriously. Here's to the next 101.***

* Yeah, I don't actually know much about music genres. I just know what I like and don't.
** To be honest, the change from the altimeter to the moon MIGHT have already been in the game's FMV cinema. I don't remember. But I'm pretty sure that the change to the DNA was the AMV's maker's doing.
*** Uh, imagine that I just lifted my Orange Julius to toast you guys. The action's kinda lost in text.