Saturday, June 26, 2010

Dragon Age 1's Morrigan: Why I Don't Like Her

Well, I've played the game a few times over, seen everything there is to see, examined the merits and flaws of each of the characters pretty thoroughly, and discussed it all with a few people whose opinions and tastes are trustworthy. And the verdict is in: Morrigan is my least favorite part of Dragon Age Origins.

There are quite a few small aspects about her that don't exactly ingratiate her character to me, of course. Her general attitude is one. She's kind of a bitch. While she treats the main character pretty decently, more or less, she's unceasingly cold and hostile to everyone else in the party, while they, aside from Alistair,* continue to attempt to be civil to her. While other characters in the game may criticize each other in a light-hearted way or with a constructive purpose in mind, Morrigan's jabs and insults are ever done spitefully. So she's not exactly the most likable person to begin with.

Still, annoying personalities I can get over, if there's a decent character beneath. I mean, look at Final Fantasy 10's Tidus--you all know I really like his character, but I'll be the first to admit that he can be really annoying at times. I've also always been a fan of Chrono Trigger's Magus, and he's not exactly friendly to the rest of the party, either.

The true problem for me with Morrigan is that her inner character is rather shallow, and far less likable than her bitchy exterior. Fundamentally, Morrigan believes in looking out for number 1, that connections to other people are meaningless farces, that religious belief is foolish, and that the mages who follow the Chantry's laws and allow themselves to be regulated are weak. Now, these are all things that I disagree with myself. But what makes her such a lousy character compared to all the rest of the cast, and what makes me really dislike her, is how she holds and expresses these beliefs.

Morrigan is a raging, senseless hypocrite who cannot extract her head from her ass. She criticizes the mages who live under the shackles that society places on them, even though she has grown up free because her adoptive witch mother, Flemeth, kept her relatively safe and almost totally secluded from the society that would have imprisoned her. She has absolutely no experience of the difficulties a mage faces when they try to escape, and she doesn't care. Even when confronted with the fact that she could have been brought up in this imprisonment and been the same as any other mage, she dismisses the argument without really addressing it, rather than even consider that the situations of other mages and herself could have been reversed. She scorns others for not fighting for the freedom she enjoys when she herself has had little role in attaining and keeping that freedom.

This is more or less how it goes every time Morrigan comes across something she doesn't approve of. She criticizes the people and society of the world around her unflinchingly, while having never had to experience it--by her own admission she knows more or less nothing of civilization, since Flemeth raised her alone in a swamp her whole life.

But it's more than just ignorance bordering on hypocrisy, here. There's also just complete and utter hypocrisy, too. One of her big things is to criticize the followers of the Chant of Light, the major quasi-Christian-esque religion of this world, for being unthinking followers to laws and beliefs that they're told. The problem here is that, again, by her own admission, most everything she knows of the world (which is, again, not very much) is what Flemeth has taught her. Nearly every opinion she has and holds is formed before she's properly out in the world to experience that which she holds the opinion on. Of all the characters in the game, she's the one whose beliefs have been determined the most by what she's been told, and she also ends up being the character whose views are the most unchangeable. Sten can learn to accept outsiders and embrace at least a precious few aspects of other cultures. Alistair comes to accept his place in the world and has his preconceived hopes about family's acceptance challenged. Oghren comes to recognize that it truly is himself and not circumstance that brings him to his lowly states. Zevran, Shale, Wynne, Leliana, they're all at least open to views other than their own. But Morrigan? On almost every point, the woman who criticizes the Chantry's followers for their blind, unquestioning obedience to the moral codes given to them absolutely refuses to entertain the possibility that what she's been told could be untrue.**

Now I'll give you the fact that Morrigan is not 100% a loathsome hypocrite. She CAN come to appreciate the friendship and/or love that the main character offers her (if the main character is a good fellow/fellowess and gives her gifts and does her a huge favor), and she doesn't deny that she values it. And that much IS fairly touching, I'll give you that. Although it does seem to be a thing so private that only she and the main character can ever know it; in all other ways and situations, Morrigan continues to scorn human connections as worthless. But I'll still admit, that's a highlight to her, and one moment where she does learn that her preconceptions are wrong.

Nonetheless, this one occasion of her appreciating someone going to extreme lengths for her for the sake of friendship does not change her overall character, and that is one of an ignorant, venomous hypocrite. While this may put me at odds with the general gaming community, which seems totally enamored by her,*** I seriously dislike Morrigan, and consider her the low point of the game's cast.

* And she gives Alistair plenty of reason to dislike her, at that.

** And while it's really neither here nor there, I'd like to point out that her religious criticisms never graduate past the most rudimentary level. Morrigan isn't bringing up any more insightful arguments about the fallacies of faith and organized religion than those you would expect to hear from a teenager testing the waters of religious rebellion.

*** Which I think is largely because she spouts those empty but "edgy" anti-faith arguments here and there, and is a goth chick that shows a lot of skin--proof that Bioware can shamelessly exploit an audience just as well as SquareEnix!

Friday, June 11, 2010

General RPGs' Lack of Significant Homosexual Characters

Thanks muchly to Ecclesiastes for correcting me on the matter of Juhani.

It's less prominent nowadays than it was a few years back, but if you're at all tired of hearing tirades about furthering gay rights, you might wanna skip this rant.

So. Homosexuals in RPGs. There really aren't many. While homosexual and bisexual characters are starting to show up in the genre with more frequency, gay women and especially gay men are rarely given any significant roles in RPGs. You are way, way more likely to have a fantasy creature for a party member than a human being with even a hint of bisexual tendencies,* let alone an actual gay person. Hell, there are more DOGS in RPG parties than there are people that you could even reasonably infer are homosexual.

It's not that I want to see gay people everywhere I look in my RPGs. And I realize that, while it's estimated that 10% of America's population are homosexual, the estimate is only about 1% for Japan's population,** which is where most of the games in this genre come from. So it's not as big a cultural thing for the game makers, and it's not a big cultural thing for their primary and most profitable audience.

Still, when I looked over the list of RPGs I've played to this point--and not to toot my own horn or alternately make myself look extra pathetic, but it's a sizable list--these are the occurrences I can see of homosexuality being shown (beyond reasonable doubt, I mean; no speculation, even if Final Fantasy 7's Sephiroth DOES look like a chick in bondage gear that likes holding long swords and obsesses over a pretty sword-user in purple). I may have missed 1 or 2, because my memory's not perfect, but I'm confident I didn't miss more than that 1 or 2. Here we go:

1. Shadow Hearts 2 and 3: Pierre, Gerard, and Buigen are gay characters who serve in the game both as merchants and as "hilarious" stereotypes.
2. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4: Kanji has some confusion about his orientation early in the game, and it's mentioned (and then forgotten forever) that Yukiko has had a passing interest in her friend Chie.
3. Star Ocean 3: Claire and Nel are, from what I understand, canonically a couple according to the SO3 manga. It's only vaguely hinted at in the game itself, but I guess I'll count it.
4. Suikoden 5: Lucretia and Lelei are very clearly implied to be together.
5. Tales of Legendia: Elsa has a pretty clear romantic crush on Chloe (which Chloe has little to no reaction to one way or the other, oddly enough).
6. Fallout 2: You get the chance to marry a guy or a girl regardless of your protagonist's gender. Female protagonists also get a few chances for a quickie with various female NPCs.
7. Knights of the Old Republic 1: Juhani mentions having loved her female Jedi Master, if I remember correctly. She can also fall for a female main character and have those feelings returned, though few people will find this out without guidance because the requirements for doing so are supposedly fairly unusual.
8. Mass Effect 1 and 2: Female Commander Shepards can hook up with Liara in ME1, and either stay faithful to Liara or hook up with Kelly in ME2. Female Shepards can also have a one-timer with Sha'ira.
9. Dragon Age Origins: Leliana and Zevran are both bisexual and are romantic options for the protagonist regardless of the protagonist's gender. Protagonists of either gender can also hook up with a partner of either gender at the game's brothel.
10. Sailor Moon: Another Story: Sailors Uranus and Neptune are established as being together.
11. Baten Kaitos 2: Geldoblame and his superior Verus are together for most of the game.
12. Wild Arms 2's Caina was a man in the original Japanese version, and had a serious crush on his boss.

Now that list doesn't just fall short of hitting 10% of game characters that I've seen. That list also falls pretty damn short of hitting even that 1% ratio that Japan has (again, according to the internet). And that's a pretty generous list, too. I mean, the Sailor Scouts really shouldn't even be counted, since they were established in the show as being together before the game existed, especially since the game seems to generally ignore or downplay it. Not sure I should put on Caina, either, since I haven't actually SEEN that, given that he became a she for the US release. And frankly, including the Shadow Hearts guys is generous, too, because blatant and fairly offensive stereotypes aren't exactly the step in the right direction that I'm looking for. And you'll note that a lot of the examples I list come from Western RPGs. As far as just including non-heterosexual characters and relationships goes, Western RPGs seem to be on the right track, mostly. I do think that they could try including a homosexual relationship or two between characters who aren't the protagonist, but I'm satisfied overall with this hemisphere's work. Most RPGs, however, come from Japan, and, when you compare how many more Japanese RPGs there are than Western ones, my list shows a much smaller ratio for them--and as those Shadow Hearts nitwits prove, instances of homosexuality in Japanese RPGs aren't always handled well.

Now, an argument I hear defending Japanese RPGs on this matter often is that since it's not a significant issue or demographic in Japan, it's not fair to expect anything more of their games than what we've got. Well, I call bullshit on that. Deep, smelly, steamy bullshit. And the reason for this is the same one that I had for not accepting the same defense for why there's not much racial diversity in Japanese RPGs: the very foundation of the RPG genre in Japan lies almost ENTIRELY with Western culture and mythology. The vast majority of RPGs from Japan, past AND present, have drawn huge influence from Western culture--the medieval weapons and worlds, the most important monsters (even if dragons are a multi-cultured thing, most dragons in RPGs fit into the European styles), the clothing and cultural design, and so on. Just look at Christianity--how many RPGs have a structured religion clearly based on the basic principles and/or practices of Christianity? Christianity's as tiny and alien a thing to Japanese society as homosexuality, from the vague impressions and information I've got. They bend over backward to throw THAT into every other RPG they make. So why not throw a few more decent and more-than-extremely-vague-implication instances of homosexuality into the games? In addition, homosexuality is all OVER the place in anime, which is a Japanese artistic medium whose tropes, styles, and ideas are tied pretty strongly to the video game industry over there. So not only does it not make sense to have the issue all over the place in one and not the other, but the argument that it's not a big enough part of their culture to show up in the games more often is that much more flawed--they MAKE it a part of their entertainment culture frequently already.

I also have a problem with the importance placed on what few homosexual characters there are--or rather, the lack of such. Now, again, Western RPGs aren't so bad in this area--from the list above, we see multiple game protagonists that can be gay or bisexual, and the characters they can start a relationship with are major ones, genuinely important to the game's events. But if you look at the Japanese-born RPG characters from that list, what do you see? No protagonists, that's for sure. I've played about 140 RPGs that came from Asia, and not ONCE in all of them have I seen a homosexual protagonist. I'll give them that most of the Eastern RPG examples I've found at least have fairly important secondary characters--the Persona 4 kids, Star Ocean 3's Nel, and Suikoden 5's Lucretia are all very important to the plot, and I do at least appreciate that. Still, with as few homosexual characters to be found as there are in Japanese RPGs, the fact that none of them are protagonists just makes the problem seem worse.

There's also a really major problem I'd like to point out that occurs regardless of which side of the planet makes the RPG: lesbians. Now look, I am all for gay women characters in RPGs. All for them. What I am NOT all for is them being the ONLY homosexual characters being put into the games. Look at that list again. Even if you count the crappy Shadow Hearts embarrassments, gay female characters outnumber gay male ones by a ratio of about 2 to 1. As unfairly absent as homosexual characters are from RPGs in general, the problem is doubly bad for gay males.

Oh, I know WHY this is. Something a lot of people mistakenly thought after my old complaining rant about the lack of guy-guy romances in Mass Effect 1 was that I didn't get why they did it. I do. It's because it's marketable. Since the major demographic of gamers is young, typically stupid guys (even for more intellectual games, as RPGs can be), their main audience is going to be eager to see lesbians in their game, while they'll have considerably less interest--profitable interest--in seeing gay guy romancing. I do get it.

I just don't accept it.

It's not a good reason. Shallow marketing ploys do not interest me. What I want is to see intellectual integrity in my games. That is what I care about. Games, RPGs in particular, are vehicles for ideas, opinions, and creativity, and it is and always will be my firm belief that THOSE are the aspects that should hold ultimate importance in creating an RPG. Maybe I'm the minority--in fact, there's no "maybe" about it, I just am--but creative, intellectual integrity is what I want to see in my games, and so I'm going to keep complaining about the lack of gay male romances in RPGs when compared to the number of gay female ones even if I understand the reason why it's that way.

So yeah. Ultimately, I think there needs to be way more homosexual characters, important or minor, in RPGs in general, particularly male ones. I mean, not every single game or anything, but not once every 15 games, either. I don't need them in the spotlight, I don't need them to always be happy and perfect and all that jazz, but I do need them to BE there.

* A REAL hint, I mean. Yaoi fangirls can find romantic undertones in the greatest of hatred or apathy between any 2 (or more) attractive boys in any RPG, I know. Their perverse optimism notwithstanding, though, there's not much actual, reasonable evidence of homosexual tendencies in game characters in general, is what I mean.

** This is not exhaustively researched. This is just a ballpark estimate from a few sites Google pulled up. But the internet is never inaccurate, right?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Suikoden Tierkreis's Bad Reputation

So, for reasons I can't quite understand, I have not completely given up on the Suikoden series, even after the bland pretense that Suikoden 5 was, and the abominably boring yawn-fest that Suikoden 4 was. Then again, I keep giving Wild Arms chances in the hopes that they'll have a series with more than 1 good game in it, so maybe I'm just a hopeful glutton for punishment. Or an idiot.

Anyway, I recently played Suikoden Tierkreis. Now, if you speak this game's name in front of a Suikoden community, you're more likely than not to attract sneers, hisses, retching sounds, and sometimes threats on your life. People call this game the black sheep of the series, an embarrassment to it, a stain on its good name. I didn't actually KNOW this, mind, when I got and started playing the game, but I didn't have high hopes for it myself. First reason was that, as I mentioned, the Suikoden series has not been particularly impressive in the past...8 years. Suikoden Tactics wasn't bad, but it wasn't notably good, either, and the other 2 games we've seen since Suikoden 3 have been lackluster and outright boring, respectively. I'll give Suikoden 5 that it followed the series formula and mimicked a Suikoden game convincingly, but it just lacked the emotional impact and heart that characterized the older games. Suikoden 4 was so abysmally bland that it wasn't just unenjoyable, but playing it actually, I think, lessened the joy you could feel in life from that moment on. And Tierkreis's opening is not exactly awe-inspiring, as I mentioned in my Opening Sequences rant. Even the first parts of the game are kind of off-putting, with main character Sieg, AKA Motormouth, jamming words together so rapidly that you'd swear they put him on fast-forward, except his voice isn't all squeaky. It's like listening to a low-voiced Chip and Dale, only faster.

Nonetheless, by the end of the game, I found the game was decent. Maybe even good. There are some decent characters (Chrodechild's pretty neat, Dirk's alright, and Fredegund is okay, though she had WAY more potential as a deep, involved character than they ever tried to realize), the semi-main villain was decent enough, the plot had a lot of creative aspects and neat ideas, and there were a few moments that were pretty touching. So I wound up pleased with it in the end. Then I hopped onto the internet forums, and found out that this was NOT the typical reaction from Suikoden fans. My curiosity was piqued at this wide-spread hatred, so I investigated a little further to find out why, exactly, the game earns such scorn.

There are a lot of reasons I've been given as to why people don't like it. There's the voice acting, which I mentioned, although I honestly can't say I'd ever dislike a whole game significantly for its voice acting. That's just ridiculous, honestly. Sometimes people don't like the final boss, and feel like he was lame and sloppy. I can't say I thought much of The One King, either, honestly, although I felt that his gimmick of passing himself on was actually somewhat neat, but...this is SUIKODEN. Sloppy, lame, silly, out-of-nowhere over-blown final bosses is one of the most consistent aspects of the series. I mean, it's something to dislike, sure, but how can you hold The One King against Suikoden Tierkreis and not hold Barbarossa randomly becoming a dragon against 1, or villains magically being able to invoke corporeal forms of the True Runes to fight at the end of the game even when there are people with True Runes on your side with better knowledge of them that can't do the same against 3 and 5? And let's not forget that stupid fucking magic tree in Suikoden 4.

Smaller complaints aside, though, it seems to me that most of the hatred for Suikoden Tierkreis is that it's different from other Suikodens. Ultimately, that's what every major complaint seems to boil down to. People complain about the system of magic, not because it doesn't work just fine (it mostly does), but because it's different from the previous Suikoden rune-based magic system. People complain about the setting and characters, not because they aren't just fine (they are), but because it's not the regular world Suikoden takes place on and none of the characters have a connection to previous titles. They complain about the focus points of the plot, not because the themes of multiple worlds and fate-containing books don't make for a decent basis, but because the focal point isn't the 27 True Runes. There are complaints about the country-versus-country conflicts, not because they aren't there and aren't fairly okay, but because they don't have the same tactics and political machinations of the previous Suikodens. And so on.*

Basically, the consensus I'm getting is that Suikoden Tierkreis is actually a completely fine game, but that Suikoden fans won't allow themselves to enjoy it because they expect everything to be exactly the same.

This isn't rational, nor is it fair. The fact that Suikoden Tierkreis is a decent game and has notable merits in its storytelling is what should count, not whether or not those elements of plot and characters happen to be like previous games'. You can go ahead and compare it to previous Suikodens and say it's not as good as them, but you can't say that the game is a bad game just because it doesn't compare to a predecessor. If it's a decent game, it's, y'know, a decent game.

I also think that some of the comparisons are silly. I mean, people complain about the lack of the True Runes in Suikoden Tierkreis, but what about Suikoden Tactics? They served no purpose in that game and had nothing to do with its plot that I can remember. Didn't hear much complaint then. And why are people expecting a setting, plot, and overall game that continues the overall story of the main Suikoden world and its people and mysticism from a game whose title clearly denotes it as a side-story off-shoot? I mean, it's not like Konami named the game Suikoden 6 and then had it have very few significant ties to the previous games. It seems obvious to ME that it's going to be some kind of offshoot from the regular series when the regular series is numbered and this one is given a word title. Suikoden Tactics might have been set in the same Suikoden world and have plot and character ties to previous games, but its focus and plot were set on things completely irrelevant to the focus of the main series, so why the big deal with this one?

Suikoden Tierkreis is just fine. It does not deserve its reputation. And rabid Suikoden fans need to get off their groundless high horse, get real, and calm the hell down.

* I mean, I'm not saying that Suikoden Tierkreis is perfect, or even really good, on any of these points, but I am going to have to stand by the idea that it's still at least decent on each.