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.