Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2 AMV: Sera's Holding Out for a Hero

Before starting the rant proper, let me just say that I've written a lot of this while in the grips of a rather overbearing fever, so...cut me some slack if my prose isn't up to its usual standards here.

Whenever I finish playing an RPG, I have a certain process of stuff I do before I move on to the next one. Among other things, I check to see if there are any desktop wallpapers out there about the game that I'd like, I listen to any remixes that OCR or VG Mix have for the game, I check to see if there are any videos available for download of the game's FMVs if I happened to like any (and incidentally, do any of you know a good site for this beyond Blue Laguna and Youtube? I can't find quite a lot of stuff that I'd like to have), and I look on Youtube and for any and all AMVs that have been made for the game. Since I typically play RPGs at least a year after their release, and usually much later than that, there's usually a fair bit to sort through.

When I finished the Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga series last year and began this little post-game rite, I wasn't expecting to find many AMVs for the obscure mini-series, and certainly none that would particularly interest me. I was half right--there are very few AMVs for the SMTDDS games out there. But I was also half wrong--an AMV-making individual going by Veccachan did manage to get my attention.

Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2: Sera's Holding Out for a Hero:

Poetry in Motion: Visuals are admittedly the weak link to this AMV. There are parts of the AMV that look a bit blurry, and while the rest is fairly decent, it's not what I'd call sharp quality. Also, there's a discolored band right in the middle of the screen at the scenes beginning at 0:27 and 1:46 (which is particularly distracting; anyone not familiar with that scene of the game is going to have additional trouble getting an idea of what's happening), which just ain't good. There's also not much in the way of visual artistry on the part of the AMV's maker; the fades and camera work and so on are just the FMVs' own, with the only touch added by Veccachan beyond scene arrangement being pixel-blurs* for a few scene changes.

So yeah. Really can't say much for the visual aspect of this AMV. I can look past it to an extent, because I strongly suspect that an (unfortunately) obscure mini-series like SMT: Digital Devil Saga probably doesn't have dozens of fans lining up to throw high-quality FMVs up onto the web, so the AMV's maker probably didn't have many/any quality alternatives for the games' FMVs. Hell, it's actually surprising to me that she got'em at all. Nonetheless, it IS a bit of a strike against the AMV.

I Gotta Have More Cowbell: As is the case with most AMVs I really like, this one combines the games' visuals and events with the music to convey its message. This AMV uses the song "Holding Out for a Hero," originally an 80s tune sung by Bonnie Tyler. The version this AMV uses, however, is a more recent version sung done by Jennifer Saunders, featured in the largely pointless movie Shrek 2.

The musical component to this AMV is where it really shines and earns its place in my collection. That's actually a surprise from my perspective, because I frankly find this song really annoying in every version I've ever heard, with this variation annoying me the most. But what can I say? Every single moment of this AMV matches up almost flawlessly to the tone, beat, and lyrics of the song. Remember the last AMV rant I did, the Fallout 3 Land of Confusion one, where I extolled how well-constructed its timing and scene selection was, where everything fit into the song and its words excellently? Well, while lacking perhaps some of the spirit of the last AMV, SMTDDS 1 + 2 Sera's Holding Out for a Hero does it even BETTER. It's like SMTDDS 1 + 2's Full Motion Video was made specifically to fit this song. I sincerely doubt one could possibly match an RPG's FMV scenes to this tune in a better way than here. Hell, the paid professionals who orchestrated the part of Shrek 2 featuring this song didn't even do half as good a job!

Alright, some examples of what I mean. At 0:28, the song talks about the "white knight" hero the rest of the song will refer to, and the AMV gives us a zoom-in shot focusing on Serph, the SMTDDS 1 + 2 protagonist who's the "hero" the song sings about. 0:34 talks about tossing and turning late at night, and shows Sera (the damsel in distress for whom Serph is a hero) curled up asleep. At 0:43, the tone of the song changes from quiet and piano-driven, which was shown well in the AMV by simple and quiet scenes, to a more fast-paced style, which the AMV's scenes match with flashy events and action-oriented FMVs, while focusing still on Serph to keep the focus on him being the hero sung about. At 1:15, the tone becomes more tense, and the scene once again matches the song's change. It hits a crescendo at 1:21, with a scene of a demon emerging, and then immediately has the emphasized beats at 1:22 and 1:23 almost perfectly synchronized with the striking moments in the visual part. The part at 1:43, when the song talks about "rising with the heat," is matched well twice over, as you see a scene of one character changing into a demon, which kind of works with that lyric, and as the character doing this is actually named Heat. The tone of the music at 1:55 once again is reflected by the scene shown, with the music's tone suggesting marching into something unknown or epic, and the scene showing the part of SMTDDS2 in which Serph and Sera's souls are flying into the heart of the sun. At 2:13, the lyrics talk about "someone, somewhere watching me," as the AMV shows Schroedinger, the mysterious cat entity that watches Serph's progress throughout the game. 2:21 has the lyrics talking about a "storm" while focusing on a character named Gale. The part at 2:28 is particularly well done--the rising tension in the music is mirrored by the running attack of the character Heat, ending with Heat gouging his claw into Serph as the lyrics hit a climax of "there's a fire in my blood" (which is also another double-meaning scene for the AMV, given that Heat, known for his fire affinity, is putting his fist through Serph quite bloodily, hence the "fire" in "blood"). And it goes on like this--more or less every part of the song has a scene to it to match its tone and direction, and often even its lyrics. Heck, the AMV even manages to find the perfect scene and timing for the part of this Holding Out for a Hero where it gets momentarily and weirdly quiet and sweet, at 3:38. While I haven't seen any other AMVs using this song yet, I would imagine that moment in the song must be particularly confounding to an AMV-maker, as it just seems completely and totally separate both from the song itself and likely from whatever intended message an AMV to that song would have.

But what does it all mean, Basil?: The theme of the AMV is pretty simple to grasp (maybe "blatantly obvious" would be more accurate): to emphasize Serph as a hero, and more specifically, a hero to Sera. In this, the AMV does its job quite competently, focusing on Serph during his action-related FMVs from the game most of the time, and including several scenes that emphasize his heroism with regards to Sera. Nice theme, explored and portrayed pretty well.

This AMV does not have the spiritually gripping power as the As the Warlock Said AMV I looked at for Shadow Hearts 1 + 2 did, the very effective portrayal of a strong and relevant message that the Fallout 3 If You Tolerate This Your Children Will be Next AMV, or the insightful symbolism and summation of the game that the Fallout 3 Land of Confusion AMV did. It's got a decent basis and message, but not as epic or significant as the AMVs I've ranted on in the past. Nonetheless, I feel it definitely deserves attention and praise for how exceptionally well-made it is. Disregarding the lesser visual quality, this AMV's video component is nigh-flawlessly matched to the music's lyrics, tone, and message from start to finish. You don't have to have played the SMT Digital Devil Saga series to recognize the perfect timing this AMV has, and those that have played the games can appreciate the several clever extras that Veccachan has put into the video (the little things like matching the lyrics about heat and fire to the character Heat, and such). Skill and craftsmanship go a long way in the process of making a truly noteworthy RPG AMV, and Veccachan definitely demonstrates that with Sera's Holding Out for a Hero.

* This is probably not the technical term for them. Have I mentioned that I don't actually know the technical aspects of film and such? Because I don't. Hell, the little research I've done for some of these AMV rants alone has increased my knowledge of cinematography by at least 300%, and I still don't know jack shit.

Friday, February 12, 2010

General RPGs' Voice Acting

Thanks a hell of a lot to Ecclesiastes for his idea for this rant.

In the past, I resisted the idea of voice acting in RPGs. Well, not really resisted it, persay--more like I opposed the notion that it should be considered a significant factor in their quality. I thought that it was going to always be unimportant in enjoying a game for the reasons that I do find important: its plot and characters, the creativity and skill of the writing behind them. I insisted that a voice actor was unimportant to a character's portrayal and development, and that it would always solely be, as it had in the past, the character's dialog and actions that developed him, her, or it.

Now, I wasn't entirely off--the above two aspects of a character are still the greatest defining parts of that character in an RPG. And, as a plethora of RPGs from the NES, Genesis, SNES, Gameboy/Gameboy Advance, and even PS1, PS2, Game Cube, and PC prove, you can have fantastic characters without any voice acting at all.

Plus, further in my defense, the time period during which I formed this opinion on RPG voice acting was back in the days of Playstation 1 and N64. Back then, RPGs' strides into voice acting were both small (due to, I imagine, budget and space constraints, voiced parts of the game were usually restricted to a few important scenes and FMVs) and, well, just not very good. There were occasions where I liked the voices and the acting okay in the game--Lunar 2 and Grandia 1 come to mind--but "adequate" was about the highest praise you could give to that era's voice actors, and they usually didn't even warrant that much of a compliment. The situation wasn't helped by the fact that the RPG genre was still working out some last but very stubborn and noticeable vestiges of bad translation. The speech between Belmont and Dracula in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night may not be acted well to begin with, for example, but the fact that half of it doesn't really make much sense (even if it's memorable) worsens the problem.

So you clearly don't NEED voice acting to get a great character, and I think I had fair reason to think voice acting wasn't a big deal when it came onto the scene. But I've since had to relent in the face of many modern RPGs, and reform my opinion. Voice acting CAN make a significant difference to a character's quality and appeal. I still stand by the idea that it isn't a factor that can make or break a character, mind--Final Fantasy 10's Yuna sounds like she was voiced by an illiterate who hadn't slept in at least 2 days, but anyone who frequents these rants will know that I think very highly of her character. Conversely, I thought that Fran in Final Fantasy 12 had quite a competent voice actress, who affected an accent that was noticeable and distinguished the character, but did not distract from or become an obstacle to her dialogue...yet that doesn't stop me from seeing Fran as yet another boring automaton lacking any strong personality trait, like most of the other characters in FF12.

But if a voice actor, no matter how good or bad, can't change whether or not someone is actually a decent character or not, they CAN, at least, enhance that character's personality and quality through their performance. Makai Kingdom's Zetta's power-driven egomania is clear from his actions and dialogue, but his voice actor really drives that personality home with loud, commanding tones and challenging, boasting bursts of laughter. Tales of the Abyss makes it clear time and time again through his dialogue just what a snarky bastard Jade Curtiss is, but his voice acting just seals the deal entirely, enhancing every dry, witty line he says. And Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic, she would be a fascinating character without a single spoken word to match her dialogue, but the actress behind Kreia reaches vocal acting perfection with the role, flawlessly enhancing fantastic lines with an emphasis on Kreia's mix of age, wisdom, cunning, and darkness.

Now, I've gone over the subject, offered up an opinion about its importance, and thrown in a few examples here and there to illustrate my thoughts. It's usually at this point in the rant that I would state how the RPG industry should improve on this matter, and why.

Thing is, I can't really do that. With regards to voice acting, RPG companies have been more or less consistently going in the right direction from the Playstation 2 generation onward. Major RPGs generally include voice acting to a significant degree nowadays, making most or even nearly all their main dialogue voice acted. The voice acting quality is generally improved, too--games are more and more often hiring experienced professionals to do their voice acting, and even those RPG voice actors who don't have a long history of voice work seem to be being encouraged to do a better job, because it's uncommon to hear a character now whose voice actor isn't at the very least competent.* And it helps a good bit that the translations for the acted dialogue are, as a rule, much better than they used to be.

Game companies continue to put an emphasis on voice acting and take it seriously, and the effort shows in the good results it yields. Western RPGs like Mass Effect 1, Fallout 3, and Dragon Age Origins all have the kind of excellent voice acting which betters the characters and story-telling that you would expect--but more and more often, Japanese RPGs with entire casts of talented voice actors are popping up and rivaling the Western RPGs' voice acting quality on their own home turf. Japanese developer Nippon Ichi gets just the right voices to portray its games' characters just as often as Western developer Bioware does, it seems, and the localization team for Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and 4 might have made their Japanese RPG that actually takes place in Japan seem more accessible and natural in its voice acting to the average American than even Fallout 3 was.

Voice acting may not be critical, but it is important. Luckily, RPG companies, with few exceptions,** have come to recognize this, and continue a trend of improving quality--and I'm pleased to see it happening.

* Uncommon, but not unknown--Suikoden Tierkreis is a recent game that I'm playing through now, and there are several characters who just aren't voiced well, most notably the protagonist. Non-named Suikoden heroes typically have an accepted "canon" name that fans dub them with (Riou in Suikoden 2, Faroush in Suikoden 5 (what a stupid name), etc), but Suikoden Tierkreis seems to have fans split between the names "Sieg" and "MotorMouth," and I throw my lot in with the latter. I swear the actor is racing against the text being printed on the screen as he blurts out his lines, and he's winning that race by a long shot. Still, my point on the general quality of voice acting improving stands; Suikoden Tierkreis is one of the only non-SquareEnix RPGs I've played in the last 5 years or so to have noticeably bad voice acting.

** Unfortunately, one of those exceptions is a rather prominent one: SquareEnix. I'm not sure what the deal is, but SquareEnix just seems to be 2 steps behind everyone else in the field of voice acting. From the very beginning, they were behind the ball--sure, they stuck some voice acting into Xenogears, but look at the Playstation 1 installments of their iconic Final Fantasy series. Of Final Fantasies 7, 8, 9, and Tactics, not a single one had any voice acting whatsoever, not to mention the same being true of Chrono Cross and Parasite Eve 1. They finally got with the program with FF10, and put in a crapload of voice acting there, but all of it ranged from Average to Just Outright Bad. Who DIDN'T want to slap Tidus and Yuna in the face several times after listening to that godforsaken laugh scene? Then came Grandia 3--listening to Alfina in that game is like letting molten candy seep into your ears right to your brain, where it cools into crystals that tear your mind to shreds. And what about Final Fantasy 12? I can see FF10 having a bad time with voice acting when it's the first major venture into spoken lines SquareEnix took, but with the exception of Balthier and somewhat Fran, the only distinguishing characteristic to any of FF12's voice acting is the occasion obnoxious whine of Vaan. And what about the bland and lackluster vocal talents of Valkyrie Profile 2? These are recent games; it's not like they don't have examples of games with consistently excellent voice acting, like Tales of Legendia or Makai Kingdom. SquareEnix just seems shockingly backwards on this matter.***

*** Though, to be fair, they're not ALWAYS a miss--the Kingdom Hearts series's voice acting is good enough, and Star Ocean 3's was decent. But in general SquareEnix seems pretty out of it.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Mass Effect 1's Saren: A Better Villain Before the Book "Revelation"

In honor of the recently released Mass Effect 2 (which I HIGHLY recommend you obtain right this second if you've played ME1, and if you haven't played ME1, I HIGHLY recommend you obtain ME2 right the second that you finish playing ME1, which is even MORE highly recommended that you get right this second. Wrap your mind around that if you can), I thought I'd do a rant on ME1. Of course, this is an odd honor, for this rant is going to be about an aspect that I didn't like about it, but, y'know, whatever.

Mass Effect 1 was a terrific RPG. New, different, and exceptionally created, it had good characters and a terrific plot that took place in an epic sci-fi setting, that wonderful kind of science fiction creation that not only gives you a great story immediately, but has the heart, the creativity, the imagination, the depth, and the scope that just begs to be expanded on. I hadn't gotten so fired up and interested in the vast creative potential of a science fiction setting since seeing the original Star Wars movies.

Bioware, the company that created Mass Effect, seemed to have a good idea of the potential of their creation. In addition to the game, two books were published about events occurring before and after ME1--the first book, Revelation, by Drew Karpyshyn, who is also one of the major writers behind the Mass Effect games, set several of the plot elements of ME1 into motion, while the second book, Ascension, by the same author, set up a side-story after ME1's events that (so far) has only minimal ties to the games' main plots. Now that ME2 is out, Bioware's got some more stuff hitting the markets to further expand its sci-fi thriller's depth--a comic book series, I think, along with another book or 2. I'm not sure, but I know I'll be checking them all out later, being the fanboy who is commercially easily-led that I am.

In general, a good idea--the Star Wars universe is at its very best, after all, in many of the published fanfiction by authors like Timothy Zahn, who expand the ideas and concepts of the Star Wars movies until a universe of exceeding depth and complexity has been formed from their contributions to it over the past few decades.* And in practice, a lot of the expanding that the Mass Effect books do is good stuff--gives you some more perspective on the Cerberus group from the games, a more detailed look on the past history of David Anderson (important bloke from the game), and so on. Aside from the stupid final part of the Revelation book which drops all the subtle foreshadowing of the game's events that the book had been doing so well until then and bonking you on the noggin clumsily with its plot set-ups ("OKAY IN CASE YOU DIDN'T GET IT SOMEHOW THIS IS THE BIG IMPORTANT THING HERE DO YOU SEE IT HERE HERE HERE LOOK"), I think the books accomplish what they're trying to do quite adequately.

Save for one significant problem: Saren. The antagonist (though not main villain) of Mass Effect 1, Saren in the game is a fairly good villain--I wouldn't call him great, but he's a cut above the standard RPG villain fair. Spoilers ahead, although I can't imagine many people who haven't played ME1 are going to bother to read this.

1. Saren has depth--as a Specter, Saren's goal ultimately is to protect galactic peace. When he encounters Sovereign and learns of the threat of the Reapers, Saren concludes that there is simply no possible way for the united people of the galaxy to resist the Reapers and win--a reasonable conclusion, given that the Reapers have systematically destroyed cultures in the past of equitable size and better technology in the past. He hopes that by serving the Reaper vanguard Sovereign, he can prove that the people of the galaxy can be useful to the Reapers if kept alive, thus preventing galaxy-wide genocide and saving trillions, maybe quadrillions of lives. He's weighed his options, and against such hopeless odds of victory, he feels that the way to protect the galaxy's people is to sacrifice their physical and mental freedom to save their lives.

2. Saren is a good opposite to the protagonist, Shepard--at least, if we assume that Shepard is a Paragon, and not a Renegade.*** Saren is willing to give up freedom to preserve life; Shepard will fight to the death to protect self-determination. Saren wants to play it safe and appease the superior force to save life; Shepard understands that the life without freedom is meaningless to have and will risk it all to protect its worth. Saren's morality can only see the big picture; Shepard's morality sees the small acts of heroism, courage, generosity, and unity that the big picture must be made from.

Basically, Saren in Mass Effect 1 is clearly the game's villain, but as that obvious villain, Saren has a good deal of depth and subtlety to make him both interesting and a good contrast to the game's protagonist.

The thing is, though, the book Revelation, which chronicles an adventure a couple decades before ME1 begins that prominently involves Saren, paints a very different picture of this character. Book-Saren has absolutely none of the elegant depth that made him more than just a sci-fi Snidely Whiplash. He's brutal, relentless, and without a conscience--he'll not only sacrifice innocents to meet his objectives without a second thought, he'll go out of his way to do so. Saren in the books is a deadly jerk who kills civilians indiscriminately and often. His job as a Spectre just gives him the excuse and the authority to murder anyone and everyone.

Saren from the game and Saren from the book both have an "ends justify the means" philosophy in what they do, but that's more or less where the similarity between them ends. Game-Saren pursues his twisted goal of saving the galaxy with unwavering purpose, taking whatever steps are necessary to achieve that goal--killing those who pose a threat, lying to those he can manipulate, and generally being a jerk--but a jerk with a plan. Book-Saren just goes out of his way to kill, his actions and demeanor suggesting that his work and goals take second place to his desire to end lives.

I mean, take this one scene from the book. To try to track down his quarry for his mission, Saren interrogates a hospitalized woman who may have information he needs. She's in a real bad way, having barely survived a building's exploding right next to her, so to get his information, Saren forces her awake--a dick thing to do, given that she's in excruciating pain from her injuries. This much rings true for the game's Saren--he'd have no qualms about doing such a thing in order to accomplish his goals. But then, when Saren's gotten all he can out of her, he doesn't give her the injection that can put her back to sleep and potentially save her life. He actually takes a moment to personally watch her die from his inaction, and then, when she dies, gives her the injection to cover up what he's done. There's no reason given for this, nothing he can possibly gain from it; he just does it because he's that much of a bastard.

This clumsily evil, spiteful, and murderous villain does not fit the image at all that the game gives us--that of a misguided villain who, although contemptible, at least has a purpose he strives for that he believes is noble. Book-Saren, in fact, actually creates a semi-plot hole--not only does he lessen the worth of the overall character of Saren, but he also creates the question of how such a brutish fiend wound up becoming a misguided villain. I mean, it just seems unlikely that a cruel, psychotic murderer who found Sovereign and found out about the Reapers' threat to the galaxy would say to himself, "Gee, up until now I've given every indication of having no interest in anything beyond killing people...but now that I've found something that could kill everyone everywhere, I think I'll attempt to save as many lives as possible from it!"

I suppose there are ways to explain it away--Sovereign's Indoctrination affecting Saren and causing him to change his mind, perhaps, but I can't see what Sovereign's motive would be in that, and the game implies that Sovereign's influence over Saren is minimal since Saren remains strong and efficient--but overall, Mass Effect 1's Saren was a far better villain before Revelation further developed (or perhaps "devolved" is a better term) him.

* Well, actually, the Star Wars universe is also at its best in the Knights of the Old Republic RPG series, too, but that distracts from the point I'm trying to make.**

** The small KotOR series, incidentally, got its start from Bioware--the Mass Effect folks. These people kick ASS!

*** Although it would still work fairly well--Renegade Shepard values power and dominion over all races, so Saren's still the logical antagonist, because the dominion over all life that he wants to give to the Reapers is the same dominion that Shepard wants for him/herself.