Thursday, April 22, 2010

General RPGs' Opening Sequences

Thanks to Ecclesiastes again for another good idea for a rant.

Opening sequences. They're not a new concept--the idea of having an opening that shows the premise and characters of your work through various scenes spliced together to the main theme was a standard for television shows decades before even the concept of video games had been thought up. These original music videos were used by sitcoms, dramas, soaps, and especially cartoons without fail, and often still are.

RPGs' opening sequences usually occur immediately before the title screen, after the title screen's been up for a minute or so without any buttons being pressed, or once you begin a new game. Some games will have even have more than one--like, one that happens before the title screen, and one that occurs after the title screen's been up for a bit. The purpose of the opening sequence is, as near as I can figure, to get you excited and interested in the game you're about to play, and to give you a taste of the game's themes, scope, ideas, setting, and/or characters. Most opening sequences hit on most or all of these points in one way or another. For example, take the opening sequence to Tales of the Abyss, which is a pretty good specimen of the average opening sequence. The opening is a montage of anime scenes portraying specific events from the game (which, incidentally, are usually not actually portrayed in anime FMV cinemas when they're actually happening in-game) that grab your attention, containing both scenes of action and scenes of mysticism and so on, all to a rather fast-paced main theme. The idea is clearly to grab your attention immediately. The scenes show several of the game's places and suspenseful moments (providing a taste of its scope, ideas, and setting), and has a part which shows each of the main characters one by one, thus giving you a quick orientation to them.

The concept of an opening sequence is a good one. It's entertaining, and it can be a good, effective way to get a player into the right mood for the game, which can be important. I mean, sure, if you're playing a game from the Tales of series, you probably don't need to be told that it's going to be a very colorful, anime-ish adventure, so setting the mood might not be so essential, but with a game like, say, Breath of Fire 5, setting the mood is significantly important, especially if the audience is at all familiar with previous games in the series. Breath of Fires 1 - 4 were all decidedly fantasy games with a world-spanning scope and the feeling of a save-the-world adventure.* Breath of Fire 5's opening sequence, though, is gritty and at times somewhat aggressive, showing a grimy urban underground and emphasizing a personal struggle, while showcasing the artistic style and setting, which are all major factors in the game. It helps you get into the feel of the game before you start playing, and in this case, it's helpful, because a player might otherwise feel a little disjointed at playing something very obviously not the fantasy epic they're accustomed to with RPGs.

Of course, there are some common annoyances with opening sequences, too. For one, the JPop. The terrible, terrible JPop. Now it's not like I don't occasionally (actually, "rarely" is closer) like a pop song from Japan. Hell, I'd say JPop has as good a chance of producing a quality song as any genre of this hemisphere. But I can't recall the last time I saw an opening sequence set to a JPop tune that wasn't just utterly horrible to listen to. Opening sequence JPop tunes only seem to come in one variety: Whiny and Disjointed, Interspersed with Screeching. Y'know, if the rest of the game's going to have tunes that actually fit in appropriately to the scenes they play in and don't have keening vocals "singing" one of the most annoying languages ever spoken, I don't see why the opening song, which should be, y'know, trying to create an accurate feel of the game, has to be radically different. Take Grandia 3's terrible opening sequence--the song to it is generic and pointless JPop. It doesn't get you ready for an adventure in any way, it doesn't stand out or fit the game's feel at all, and frankly, it's not particularly nice to listen to. I guess you could say that it actually IS relevant given that the game itself is generic, boring crap, but I somehow doubt that was what SquareEnix was going for.**

Worse than the vocal stylings of a talent-deficient teenager whose highest aspiration is to be one of a virtual sea of Japanese pop idols for whom the phrase "5 minutes of fame" is unrealistically optimistic by a good 4 minutes, though, is some of the visual content of some opening sequences. First of all, there are some out there that just plain spoil too much of the game. The problem with showing scenes from the game in an opening sequence, you see, is that one will usually take some of the game's best and most gripping parts to show, which tend to be plot-important enough that showing any part of them gives stuff away that would have otherwise been surprising and interesting! Giving away your better plot twists and moments of tension before the game has even begun is NOT an effective strategy for preparing your audience to maintain an interest for a plot that takes 50 hours to tell.

Another problem is the rare opening sequence that actually just has no relevance to the game. I mean, Suikoden Tierkreis's opening sequence doesn't suggest an RPG adventure that involves danger and combat and mysticism so much as it suggests a long nature walk with an abundant amount of photo ops of anime characters standing and looking out to the horizon in a thoughtful way. When the whole point, as near as I can figure it, of an opening sequence is to give a sample of what's to come and get you interested in the game's events, showing a bunch of stuff--BORING stuff--that just doesn't really have much or anything to do with the game just defeats the purpose of having it.

A personal irritation with these things that I often have is also how often opening sequences reuse Full Motion Videos from the game itself. FMVs, be they 3D or anime or whatever, are meant to be the attention-grabbers in an RPG, the moments that are so important that they have to be shown in cinema form--something to look forward to, essentially. So I kind of feel like I'm getting cheated a little when a lot/all of the opening sequence's cinematic footage is taken from the FMVs you'll already see. I mean, not only does it invite the problem of spoiling the plot that I mentioned above, but it also lessens my interest--I'll be slightly less interested in the FMVs in the game that I've already seen a decent glimpse of, and after I've seen them, I'll be less interested in the opening sequence because it's just little pieces of larger cinemas. I just feel that it's better, and gives the audience a little extra, to make the FMV of your opening sequence portray stuff that doesn't already occur in FMV during the game. You take the FMV opening sequence Square added to their Chrono Trigger rerelease for the Playstation 1--it's got lots of anime cinema in it to watch that's neat, showing various situations and scenes from the game, but the actual in-game FMVs aren't included, giving us more to watch instead of just recycling the same FMVs multiple times.

Opening sequences are more important than they're often given credit for. A good one, like the original opening sequence of Chrono Trigger, which had exciting music, good direction, and set the game's tone perfectly, can get the player in just the right mood to appreciate the game all the more--hell, a good enough opening sequence might actually buy a bad game some time before the player starts to realize that the game's not all that the exciting beginning promised. It worked admirably with Chrono Cross's 2 opening sequences, particularly FMV one--that one is so effective as a preparer for adventure that watching it STILL gets me excited and ready to play the game it's showing, even though I HAVE played it and KNOW that it is actually awful. Conversely, a bad one can just drag a game down, an irritating strike against the game before it's even begun. A little effort and good directing sense on this matter can go a long way for an RPG.

* Even though one, arguably two, of them ended up not having world-saving as their main purpose.

** Then again, who knows...considering SquareEnix's business plan and overall level of game quality from around the time of Grandia 3 up to the present moment, it very well could be that they DID intend to make a crappy opening sequence to recognize and reflect the game's poor quality. Just another in a long line of "Fuck Yous" to their loyal fanbase.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Fallout 3 AMV: Mad World

2012 Update: As time has gone on, I've come to think much less of this AMV. By all means I still consider it very good, but if I were to encounter it for the first time today, it wouldn't get its own rant. I'd include it in my General RPG AMV rants, sure, but it just doesn't merit as much praise or focus as I've given it here. I'll still keep it up, of course--it wont' be the first rant I've felt less in tune with over time, after all, but it's still a part of my history here, and it's not like it's totally off or anything. Just take this one with a grain of salt. And now, as it was:

Yeah, that's right--ANOTHER Fallout 3 AMV rant. I make no apologies. It's a good game and these are good AMVs.

Now I'll grant you, in comparison to the other Fallout 3 AMVs I've posted, this one isn't quite as blatantly awesome. But it's still darned good, and very impressive in its own right when you realize that this AMV was made before the game was even released. That means that somebody, in this case a Youtuber named Squiggy3210 (or Zorskel, on his other channel), put together an AMV using nothing but stock footage of preview videos that managed to be good enough to catch my attention (and I tend to be borderline unreasonable with how picky I am about these things). Certainly worth a look, wouldn't you say?

(Unless you don't like blood and guts and such--I've said this a couple times now, but it bears repeating that Fallout 3's general gameplay is not for the weak of stomach, faint of heart, or low of age).

Fallout 3: Mad World:

Poetry in Motion: Quality-wise, this AMV's certainly fine. Certain parts are definitely in higher definition than others, but I wouldn't say any of the clips in this video are anything less than satisfactory for how well you can see them.

As far as visual tricks go, there's not much to note here. The camera work is good sometimes, like when it gives a wide shot at 2:35, which emphasizes the scene's conjunction with the lyrics "mad world." Still, from what I understand, all of the clips of this were taken from preview footage, so that's more a case of picking the right scene for that moment than the AMV maker's setting it up himself. As far as Zorskel goes, not a lot of effects were put in--just some basic fades for transitions from one scene to the next, really. Still, even if some effects might have improved it, the AMV's good without them, and with a more mellow and slow song like this one, visual bells and whistles might have actually been distracting. The scenes often change accordingly with the music's tone and changes, so it seems reasonable to say that Zorskel did put some thought into the arrangement and timing, at least, and it does work.

I Gotta Have More Cowbell: The song is the real strength of this work. This AMV's visuals are more there as a backup to the song and its general mood than a completely equal share of it. The song for this AMV is Mad World, a song by British band Tears for Fears. This version of Mad World is the one from the movie Donnie Darko, performed by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews.

Now, I admit that I'm biased in that I'm fond of this song anyway, but I think that Mad World really fits Fallout 3's setting quite well, and this AMV shows that. Previous Fallout 3 AMVs I've covered are more active and even upbeat, having messages of warning against letting a world like Fallout 3 come to pass, and emphasizing the battle between vice and virtue in Fallout 3's wasteland. Fallout 3 Mad World, however, looks at a different, but also significant aspect of the game: the moody, regretful tone of the Fallout universe, the feeling created from simply stopping a moment in your journeys through the wasteland and looking around at it.

The song captures this lonely sadness in and of itself well, but the AMV enhances this mood and its association to the Fallout world by often tying the lyrics to the scenes being shown. The opening is very nicely done, backing up to view a part of the Capital Wasteland until you get to its explorer getting ready to go through it. Parts like the segment that starts at 0:13 match the song very nicely, showing the tired people of the wasteland and its decimated, decaying locations to the lyrics describing them as "familiar faces," "worn out places," and "worn out faces." The part at 0:27's decent, showing traveling through the Capital Wasteland as being an example of "going nowhere." The part at 0:47 is, of course, a perfect fit for "no tomorrow," being scenes of a nuclear explosion from the game. 1:55 shows the Lone Wanderer's first encounter with Sarah Lyons and her paladins, a meeting in the game in which the Brotherhood of Steel combat veterans wonder who the hell this newcomer is who's just waltzed into a combat zone, to the lyrics "no one knew me."* The real highlight of the AMV's matching scenes to the song, though, are the parts for the chorus at 1:17 and 2:34, where you're shown examples of standard chaotic settings of the post-apocalyptic world, along with a scene of the horrible violence that occurs in it regularly, perfectly emphasizing what a "mad world" it is. The second chorus is particularly good, as it goes on to be the end of the song, which the AMV handles very well, giving a wide view of the world to the "enlargen your world," and finishing the final "mad world" with the game title and the iconic Fallout 3 scene of the Lone Wanderer walking down the road with Dogmeat.

Of course, it's not perfect. There are times in the AMV where the lyrics and feel of the song just don't match up to the the visuals. 0:33, for example, shows you a scene of a gunfight with a couple super mutants, while the song, as quiet as ever, talks about tears filling up glasses and no expression and so on, which...well, there's not a lot of connection there between the audio and visual, unless I'm missing one hell of a metaphor. There are a few other moments where the connection between video and music are shaky at best, though I think that one's probably the worst. The AMV overall is of good quality and worth viewing, which is why I'm doing a rant on it at all, but it wouldn't be honest not to make mention that it's not perfect.

I'm running this monkey farm now, Frankenstein! And I wanna know what the fuck you're doing with my time!: As I said, I rather like the part of Fallout that this AMV emphasizes, the strange, displaced sense of both familiarity and the alien in a destroyed world that was once ours. Most AMVs about Fallout 3 emphasize its violent, twisted world and the small wars of vice and virtue that occur within it, and power to them--that stuff is a huge part of it. But few AMVs are willing to step back and look at the calm, exhausted displacement of the Fallout world that rests beneath it all, the sadness behind the chaos and madness that you can see, hear, even feel in the game when you stop for a moment and just take in its surroundings. Fallout 3: Mad World does a good job of that, and few AMVs try to.

This work also has a second notable function--while it may seem less important now that Fallout 3 is well over a year old, this AMV was made 2 weeks before the game was released, and was intended to further spark people's interest in the upcoming game (as is made obvious by the end of the video). I'd certainly say it does this well, too. While there were obviously fast and attention-getting trailers and such for the game, speaking for myself, a well-made AMV that shows a more contemplative side to the game and promises some heart and soul to it to go along with all the action and adventure and whatnot is easily as likely, if not more, to get me interested in the upcoming product.

This is a good AMV that gives the viewer another perspective to its featured game that most other AMV creators don't consider, and accomplishes its task of garnering interest from its viewers quite adequately. It's not perfect by a long-shot, mind--the AMV was made before there were clips to use beyond those released for trailers and such, and it does show. It could be greatly improved by Zorskel with an update to its video selections--now that Fallout 3's been out for a while, there are craploads of in-game videos of it all over Youtube and beyond, so chances are he could find some decent new clips to put in at certain parts where the video loses relevance to the song. Still, as it stands, it's still remarkably good, and worth the watching.

* Interestingly enough, since this AMV was made before Fallout 3 was out and thus before its story's events and details could have been known, Zorskel couldn't have actually KNOWN that this scene would match so well to the lyrics right then. It has to just be a very handy coincidence that he happened to put that scene there. Intentional or not, though, it DOES make for a nice addition.