Saturday, March 27, 2010

Shadow Hearts 1's Doll House

Every now and then, you get an RPG setting that really just pulls you in and conveys a mood perfectly, instilling an intended atmosphere within you seamlessly, getting you into what's going on with above average skill and subtlety. In my old rant about Skies of Arcadia Legends's City of Valua, the visuals of the environment, the background music, and what you encounter all work together to put together a particularly strong environment of the worst of urban life.

You get superior environments like this every now and then in RPGs. Sometimes they portray human settlements, as Valua does, and Final Fantasy 7's Midgar. Most often, you find yourself in a dungeon, forest, temple, cave, or some other dangerous place where you explore an area made exceptionally well to pull you into the environment--Grandia 1 does this in practically every explorable area in its game.

There's only one time, though, that I can recall experiencing an RPG where a strong environment like what I'm speaking of is created which just scares the pants off you: Shadow Hearts 1's Doll House.

While Shadow Hearts 2's Doll House has its moments of mild creepiness (and SH3's Doll House, as par for the game, is dull and boring), it's SH1's Doll House that has the dark, spooky look inside and out, lighted or in the dark, of a house whose history makes it better left abandoned. It's SH1's Doll House that has the heavy, moody music that sets the tone without going too far. And it's SH1's Doll House that has the creepy history of a little girl and her doll told through pictures and diary entries, all leading to the final place of the house, a silent, utterly scary room where a doll sits on a rocking horse, watching you with its lifeless face...a lifeless face that may move just out of the corner of the main character's eye when he's not paying attention. SH1's Doll House is as spooky, as creepy, as downright freak-you-out scary an area, particularly its final room, as any environment you'll find in a Survival Horror game like the Resident Evils. I was seriously impressed with it--when I was done holding my breath in fright.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tales of the Abyss's Ion: The Damsel in Distress Who's a Boy

Remember that rant on Wild Arms 3's Virginia I did? About how she perfectly fulfills a male character's role, without once sacrificing even a hint of her identity as a woman? Today's rant is like that, only for a male character and a female's role.

Ah, the Damsel in Distress. One of the oldest and most traditional plot tools for story-telling, the Damsel in Distress is a classic way to create the excitement of a dangerous situation, express the heroism and manly male manliness of the hero as he mannishly saves the damsel in a masculine manner, and, perhaps most importantly, reinforce the notion that anyone with a vagina is weak, helpless, and probably stupid. It's a writing device as common in RPGs as it is in anything else, although there is a small variation with RPGs: normally, the plight a damsel becomes involved in may or may not be of the villain's doing (sure, she COULD be kidnapped, but there's a good chance she just stupidly tripped and fell into a damn hole or something, too), but with RPGs, women who need to be saved from something are at least 80% of the time kidnapped by the villain, or otherwise at said villain's mercy. It's practically video game tradition.

You don't really see any real role-reversal in this situation, either. While there ARE a few times when a male character is in a bind and needs saving, these events are a one-time thing for the guys--and just how often do you see major male characters get captured away from the party, and NOT initiate and at least halfway, if not just totally, complete a successful escape attempt? On the rare occasions when they don't just get out all on their own, they're either saved so far into the escape attempt that the rescue's nearly superfluous anyway (like Chrono Trigger--yeah, I know you CAN have Crono saved at the last minute by Lucca, but you can also have him escape all by himself, and most players' actions are going to trigger the latter), or the folks saving the male character are escaping the same prison at the time anyway, making it just a part of the joint escape rather than an honest rescue.

Ion of Tales of the Abyss, however, is a notable exception to this rule. Ion, leader of TotA's world's major (actually, one and only) religion, is a boy. He is young-ish, like 14 years old, and even for a kid, he ain't exactly manly, but he definitely is a male.

Ion finds himself in a bind a lot. A LOT. Really, it seems like every time you turn around, Ion's gone and gotten himself caught by an enemy general. If he's not being held captive, you're dragging him along with your party, trying to keep an eye on him so that the next random person he says "Hi" to doesn't kidnap him. He's seriously right up there with Final Fantasy 8's Rinoa and Tales of Legendia's Shirley for how often he needs rescue and asylum--he might even be in the same league as Shana from Legend of Dragoon.

Still, there's also a certain set of personality traits that Damsels in Distress almost always seem to have. Just getting caught a couple times doesn't necessarily make gamers see you as a DiD. Take Knights of the Old Republic 1, for instance--there's a couple instances in that game where Bastila's held against her will by enemies and needs to be saved, but I've yet to meet a KotOR player who'd call her a Damsel in Distress. The distinction comes from the fact that Bastila is a short-tempered, demanding, strong-willed person who also kicks ass as a lightsaber-wielding Jedi Knight. She also insists after you save her that she had the situation well in hand and that you nearly messed everything up, although how true her claim is is kind of left open to debate. But ultimately, it doesn't matter how many times circumstances might dictate she need rescuing--Bastila's personality and combat abilities preclude any possibility of calling her a Damsel in Distress.

Ion, however, fits the bill perfectly on this account, too. He's kind, innocent, and eternally optimistic, always seeing the good in people even when others cannot. He's never lacking for an encouraging remark, always determined to emotionally help all around him, and as soft and sweet as a syrup-drenched marshmallow. And while this detail wouldn't necessarily disqualify him for DiD status were it not true, it doesn't hurt that his voice is about as far from being masculine as you can get without actually becoming Shirley Temple.

So he's got the personality, and there seems to be a neon sign taped to his back that says "KIDNAP ME." That IS typically enough for a character to be seen as a Damsel in Distress, but those characters actually are girls. We need one last DiD staple for Ion to fit into: plot role.

DiDs' roles in a game's plot usually fall under 2 categories: political importance and mystical anime holy powers. Basically, there has to be SOME reason for the hero and company to go to all this trouble for the damsel, because even heroes' good will only goes so far. Political importance is probably the oldest role for a damsel (how many game plots, even RPG plots, have boiled down to "Go save the Princess?" Princess Zelda from the Legend of Zelda Series and Princess Peach from Mario games are pretty much the ultimate Damsels in Distress for all gaming history), but a recent favorite with the RPG genre is the mystical anime divine nonsense stuff--basically, the hero HAS to cart around this female dead weight because she's the only person in the world who can commune with the gods or realign the sparkly magical spirit energies or whatever.

So how does Ion fit in here? Pretty well, as he's both. Half the time, the Tales of the Abyss heroes are babysitting the little guy because he happens to be the most important religious figure on the planet. The other half, it's because he's the only one who can unlock the mystical seals on magical lift pillars of the forgotten age yadda yadda yadda. And hey, as if he wasn't already 10 for 10 on the Damsel in Distress Checklist, using his powers drains his energy and makes him faint.

Ion's a Damsel in Distress, no matter how you look at it. Not only that, but he's essentially the PERFECT Damsel in Distress--he really does pretty much fit every criteria for the role that I, or likely anyone else, can think of. So how does it work out? Very well. There's really no point in the game where this situation feels unnatural or off at all, and Ion even manages to be one of the very few Damsels in Distress that's actually an appealing character--even if he's saccharine, he's still very likable, which is something most DiDs don't manage (Grandia 3's Alfina, Wild Arms 4's Yulie), and his personality fits into the dynamic of the party very well, rather than superfluously intruding on it like some DiDs do (ToL's Shirley, Lunar 2's Lucia) or destroying it altogether (TLoD's Shana, FF8's Rinoa). Ion perfectly fulfills the role of Damsel in Distress, while remaining unquestionably a guy--a shy, young, nice little guy, but a guy--AND far surpassing nearly every other RPG character with the same role by simply being a good fit with the group and a LIKABLE human being. Like Wild Arms 3's Virginia, a girl playing a male hero's role to complete perfection, Ion being the ideal example of the role he plays is an example of gender equality in writing--that it should be the character, not the gender, that determines their role in a game. All it takes is good writing.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Evolution Worlds's Characters

Mag: Mag is about as dim-witted and annoyingly enthusiastic as you'd expect from a protagonist. I was going to say that he has an excuse since he's obviously no older than 11 while your typical feeble-minded main character is in his late teens or early 20s, but I just looked it up, and Mag is apparently actually 16. I guess I was thrown off by the fact that he stands no higher than a regular-sized adult's waistline, and most of that height is from having a head of unusual proportions even for anime. Maybe that's the problem--his freakin' head's so titanic that the rest of him can barely manage to hold it up, let alone grow higher.

Linear: Once she actually starts speaking and receiving tiny tidbits of character development, it is made very apparent that Linear is a complete moron. When main villain Yurka, a guy that Linear has known for an entire 3 days and over the course of those days only actually met thrice for about 5 minutes at a time, comes out of nowhere and accosts Mag, who took Linear in years ago and has been her constant companion, friend, caretaker, and protector since meeting her, and starts being nasty and threatening, Linear's first impulse on seeing them not getting along is to jump in and take Yurka's side. How dare Mag get upset about somebody he doesn't know speaking threateningly to him! Way to have a handle on the ideas of friendship and gratitude, Linear. Then Yurka convinces her that she's just a burden to Mag and should come with Yurka to stop being so much trouble for Mag, which would be maybe a little more convincing an argument if Yurka's intentions for Linear weren't to have her help him revive an ancient mech suit of destruction with which he can eradicate humanity. Somehow it doesn't occur to her that Mag might actually consider her co-piloting a robot suit that destroys everything he knows and loves to be more of a burden than just letting her freeload at his place.

Actually, she reminds me of Tales of Symphonia's Genis, the dipshit for whom choosing between the friend he's known for about 2 hours and the friends and family he's grown up with and loved for all his life, all of whom said new friend intends to kill or sacrifice, is a major moral conflict. Same general idea, really, just somewhat (not much) less absurd and idiotic with Linear's scenario.

Gre: Gre is Mag's butler. His loyalty is an awfully odd thing--Mag's family is just shy of bankrupt so Gre can't be getting paid, and Mag is an idiot who screws up almost everything he touches and continually manages to drive the family into greater debt. My only explanation for why Gre has stuck around is that the family went bankrupt before he got a final paycheck, so he's just desperately hoping that Mag will accidentally strike it rich one day and Gre can finally collect years of back-pay and move on with his life. That, or the family has one massive life insurance policy on Mag, and Gre's sending him into these dangerous ruins armed only with a mechanical hand and his malfunctioning wits with the hopes that he'll have an accident and Gre, as the closest thing to an inheritor that the family has after Mag's gone, will finally get his freedom and a chunk of change to go with it.

Chain: Remember Rebecca from Wild Arms 5? The girl whose entire character development was centered around romantic feelings that she never acted on or had closure for? Chain is like that, only the romantic feelings that comprise her entire personal stake in the plot aren't just never acted on--they're barely even mentioned.

Pepper: Pepper is a flighty, flirty, attractive woman. That's about it. Oh, and there's this one special ability she has where she restores Mag's HP by shoving her melons into his face. I don't care how old the game says he is, how much he clearly enjoys it, or how low his health is--he's still a squat, baby-faced midget, and I still pointed at the screen and yelled "BAD TOUCH! BAD TOUCH!" when I saw it.

Carcano: Carcano is a hardened criminal, a bandit accustomed to museum heists and armed, violent train robbery. Yet as soon as Mag beats the crap out of him in battle, he suddenly becomes the most good-natured, smiley buddy to the kid that can be imagined. Oh RPGs, you and your ridiculous "If you can prove you're wiser than me by beating my face to a raw fleshy pulp, I'll do whatever you want forever" policy.

Yurka: "Dude, I have known you for 2 days, and during that time you've stolen the shit I worked my ass off to acquire for a museum, turned my semi-adopted sister-figure and/or girlfriend against me, and tried to murder me every time you've seen me. Now that I've finally whupped your ass for good, you can't even have the dignity to die like you lived and stick to your convictions? NOW you're gonna spew this bullshit about wanting to be my friend? Fuck you, asshole, I don't think so!" --What Mag SHOULD have said to Yurka during Yurka's dying moments.*

* To compound just how annoying and dumb Mag is, this is more or less what Mag actually did say at the time: "Of course we can be friends, Yurka! We'll always be friends, and we always were! We were just too busy with me smashing you in the face with a hammer the size of 3 men and you attempting to incinerate me with a beam of fire to notice our great friendship! BFF forever, girlfriend-stealing guy I met yesterday with aspirations to enact Armageddon on humanity!" I am barely exaggerating.