Monday, April 25, 2011

General RPGs' Animal Characters

Faithful reader Ecclesiastes brought up a subject for conversation the other day that arose from my SMT Persona Social Link Comparison rant: dogs in RPGs. I noted in that rant that Persona 3's Koromaru's character was inadequately developed, and that dogs in RPGs generally get a bad deal like this, which I have also mentioned more than once in the past. So you can thank or blame Ecc for this one.

Animal characters. In RPGs' never-ending mission to create the most bizarre and colorful diversity in their casts possible, they often make use of non-humanoid characters to fill out the playable character list. And hey, in theory, it's a good idea--adding in the personality and pathos of a different species to the cast could be refreshing and reflect well on the other characters' development. But in practice, it's pretty much always a severe disappointment.

Now, before I go any further, I should probably explain what I mean by an "animal character." Because when Ecclesiastes was talking to me about it, he wondered what I thought of Red XIII, from Final Fantasy 7, who, while not nearly as well-developed as several others of the game's cast, seemed to be a character of decent depth. And this would be a good example...if I counted Red XIII as an animal character. But he's not.

Look. It's like this. If it talks like a human and it thinks like a human, it's a human character. If Red XIII had been humanoid in FF7 instead of a red dog-lion thing, absolutely nothing significant would have needed to be changed for his development. His personality, his issues, his concerns, his approach to situations, his responses to and relationships with others, his thoughts, his speech, every major mental aspect to him is sentient in a human capacity. He is a human character that happens to have been placed in a non-human body. His physical differences from the others can be considered, in terms of the audience's perspective, at most to be a cultural difference. He is not an animal character. As far as I'm concerned, if it talks the talk of a human character, it IS one.*

Now, Koromaru in SMTP3? Dogmeat in the Fallout series? Puffy in Grandia 1? These are animal characters. They generally exhibit a level of intelligence that animals do, they act as animals do, their concerns and interests are bestial (though in a tamed way). They don't talk, they don't ponder their family's past, they just do animal stuff.

Unfortunately, actual animal characters rarely get adequate character development. Now I DO understand that there are limitations of what I can expect from an animal character. And I am not expecting much, I honestly am not. But I do know that there can be SOMETHING beyond what I see all the time. Koromaru's actually on the higher side of RPG animal characters, in that we have an actual, understandable reason for him to be with the team, and he does express emotions, within the capacity you'd expect for a smart and devoted dog. But they still could have developed his canine personality more than they did, and given his development stronger consideration--the loss a dog can feel after the death of their owner can be a remarkably powerful and touching thing, and we didn't get very much on that from Koromaru. A little, yes, but only enough to cement his place, not enough to explore it.

And it IS possible to make a good animal character; I've seen it before more than once. Maybe not in RPGs yet, but that means nothing. Off the top of my head, Kaw, the crow from Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books, fits the bill. Kaw is a character throughout the books that is lively, curious, and continually mischievous, yet also noble and brave. He does talk, yes, but only in as much capacity as any crow might, no more intelligent than you would expect a crow to be (as long as you ARE aware that they're very, very smart birds). It's through his actions, not his dialogue, that you get a feel for his character, and while he doesn't grapple with self-doubts and coming of age and so on like the characters around him, he DOES exhibit playfulness, pride, loyalty, bravery, and other traits and emotions that a pet raven might. Alexander gives Kaw a personality that distinguishes what kind of crow Kaw is, but not one that distinguishes him from being a crow altogether.

I mean, I GUESS there are some examples in RPGs where actual animal characters are handled well enough...some of the animals in the Suikoden series aren't really any less characterized than most of the other characters in the game, I guess. And I admit that in Secret of Evermore, the main character's dog is actually exactly right. I mean, all they really portray is a nosy, playful mutt that the main character is utterly incapable of controlling, a dog that causes way, way more problems than it's worth. But it IS Secret of Evermore, which is a humor RPG--you can't reasonably expect powerful emotion and philosophy, just good laughs. And on that, the dog delivers in a good, canine capacity. So...I suppose that there is ONE well-done animal character in RPGs at present.

Nonetheless, having an animal character that's written well for a humor RPG is not exactly the same as having animal characters that fit well into your standard, more serious and thoughtful RPG (even though I do love a good humor RPG). Why couldn't Persona 3 have gone that little bit extra with Koromaru, instead of just dropping his character development after his introduction? Why doesn't Dragon Age 1 do anything with its Mabari Hound? I mean, the game does some work to set up his breed's traits and tout them as really awesome, so why is it when you get him that he's little more than an extra body that pees on trees? Why is it that neither of the Fallout series's Dogmeats is ever given any sort of personality beyond following random strangers in Vault suits? If Flammie is going to turn out to be such an important part of the plot's finale in The Secret of Mana, shouldn't they have given it more than 5 seconds and like 2 lines of other characters' text to create a character for it? And the list goes on.

Animals DO have personalities. They CAN feel certain powerful emotions, and exhibit distinctive character traits. But they don't act the same as us, and they don't react to things and think about them the same way as us. There IS potential there for an animal character with strong depth--you just have to know how to show that depth WITHOUT forcing a human mindset on the creature. And unfortunately, I've yet to see an RPG get it right in any serious capacity.

04/21/20 UPDATE: Amaterasu, the protagonist of Okami, is pretty close to exactly what I have yearned for in an animal character. So it can be done! Here's hoping more like her will grace the RPG genre someday.

* I can make an exception on talking when it's, like, one single time during a plot-relevant moment. Say like Bahamut Lagoon, where there's a moment near the game's end where this guy psychically hears the minds of the dragons that have traveled with the game's protagonist through the journey, and relates the dragons' love and devotion. That's a one-time thing, and it's a special circumstance, not just the animals deciding to open their mouths and deliver a diatribe. The rest of the time, they don't give any particular indication of human-level intelligence, so they still count as animal characters.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Mass Effect 2's Downloadable Content

And here comes another add-on rant.

As a note, I say on a few of these that they're free with the game, which is kind of true and kind of not. Basically, when you buy the game from a store, it comes with a card for the Cerberus Network, which allows you to download several DLC packages for no charge. Thing is, you actually do pay MORE for a copy of the game that comes with the card for that network, so you ARE paying for the Cerberus Network, and thus, the benefits it comes with are not actually free. This is something that Bioware would prefer that people not figure out, as they not only like to promote their Cerberus Network stuff as "free," but also to pout and say that their fans are unreasonable when said fans complain about some of the crappy add-ons that they have to pay for (pointless shit like extra armor styles or alternate appearances for certain characters). Bioware is fond of whining, at that point, "But we gave you all this other stuff for FREE! You people are never satisfied! I WORK AND I SLAVE OVER A HOT STOVE ALL DAY ETC." It's probably the first time I've seen this company be outright disingenuous, and its focus on exploiting loyal fans and complaining if that exploitation isn't 100% successful is disturbingly reminiscent of SquareEnix's current business plan. I sure as hell hope THAT won't continue. Bioware's misleading--hell, outright dishonest--wording aside, however, the Cerberus Network's content, even if not actually "free," is still a good deal for the overall cost, given how many DLC packages you get with it that have some actual content.

Anyway, let's get this going.

Zaeed Massani: Zaeed is free with the Ceberus Network. Basically, this DLC adds a new team member, a famous bounty hunter, to Commander Shepard's squad. Zaeed's as much a character as any other; they skimped on nearly nothing with him--he has unique dialogue reactions when he's in your party to many parts of the game, he has scenes of his own in the final mission when needed, and he has his own special Loyalty Mission for you to play through as any other character would. All he lacks is regular dialogue for when you speak to him on the ship (although he still has plenty to say in an NPC fashion, so that's no strike against him) and a mission to actually recruit him, which would have been nice, but is an acceptable loss when everything else is right. He's a pretty fun character to listen to, he's got some history that's interesting, and his Loyalty Mission gives him an acceptable bit of character development--nothing stellar, but certainly not bad, either. Zaeed's a solid DLC addition, to be sure.

Normandy Crash: This one's tiny. As a single 10 to 20 minute mission with no dialogue and only slight plot relevance that doesn't involve any action, you wouldn't think I would have any positive remarks about it, but life is pretty unpredictable--I actually really liked this one. The overall idea of recovering pieces of your former ship is decent, the execution is exactly as it should be--quiet, reflective, mournful, and lonely--and the choice given to you of where to place the memorial marker is a nice touch, letting you decide what was the most important and symbolic part of the first Normandy to honor with a statue. The DLC also provides posthumous character development for a relatively minor, yet memorable, NPC from Mass Effect 1, Navigator/XO Pressly. Overall, this minuscule DLC packs a lot of atmosphere, meaning, and even a bit of character development into its few minutes.

Firewalker: Another free Cerberus Network download, the Firewalker DLC pack adds 5 minor missions to the game that incorporate a new vehicle, a hover attack vehicle thingy called the Hammerhead. The Hammerhead's controls are pretty slick, it shoots missiles quite handily, and the missions have a small story tying them together of trying to locate missing scientists and an ancient artifact. It's not an especially strong story entry, but it's nice in that the plot acknowledges the goings-on of the Mass Effect galaxy while Shepard's fooling around with his main quest, reminding us of the importance of the Protheans that Mass Effect 1 established and perhaps promising future developments with this DLC's events. Not a bad little hour or two of extra game play, if not at all memorable.

Kasumi - Stolen Memory: Now THIS is more like it. This is probably the best add-on I've seen since Fallout 3. With this DLC, you get Kasumi, a new party member who, like Zaeed, fits in like she was always in the game, having reactionary dialogue throughout the game and her own scenes to play out during the last mission, but with more character depth than Zaeed. You also get a new mission to play through that focuses on Kasumi, and the mission is, honestly, pretty damn good. The mission itself is pretty cool, it has a good element of plot to it, and it develops Kasumi's character quite nicely. Thumbs up on this one, definitely.

Overlord: Not the best Bioware's done, but not bad. This DLC is basically a few missions connected by a side story of short-sighted ambitions causing inhumane treatment of the innocent in the name of the greater good. It's decent, and its nature reminds me a bit of the various side quests from Mass Effect 1, which often had similar tones and ideas. And anything that reminds me of ME1 ain't a bad thing--I think the only failing ME2 had was its strong dissimilarities to its predecessor. So Overlord's alright. But it isn't great. And as an extra that costs $7 instead of just being packaged with the Cerberus Network (which would have made more sense anyway, given that it uses the Hammerhead, which came with the Firewalker DLC, which was a Cerberus Network package), I can't in good conscience say it's worth the price.

Lair of the Shadow Broker: Very nice, this one. With a good story and some much-needed character development for Liara, both of which tie up loose ends that the game proper just kind of left, this is definitely a high quality DLC. It's exciting, well-told, and interesting pretty much from start to finish, and all the bonus content at the end is a real gem--after gaining access to the Shadow Broker's data and files, Shepard gets to read up on the intel the Broker has on Shepard's companions and friends, which means lots of neat tidbits to further develop most of the game's major characters. Many are amusing, many are insightful, some are even touching--it's all great stuff. Hell, I'd actually say that the development you get for the characters as an end bonus to this DLC is the most worthy reason to play through it. There are several little gameplay bonuses to this DLC, too, that go beyond what you'd expect, so that's nice, too, I suppose. But the main reasons to play a DLC are all there and solid with this one.

The Arrival: The Arrival's a pretty decent DLC. Initial reaction to it by fans was that it was "predictable," and this is generally true for anyone who's familiar with Reaper technology, the rarity of one of Shepard's missions going without a hitch, and Shepard's penchant for lecturing ancient apocalyptic horrors on the virtues of the human spirit--so, in essence, predictable to anyone who's played Mass Effect. But if my recent enthrallment with the new My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic cartoon has taught me anything,* it's that predictable conclusions can still be interesting and worthwhile if you have a skilled creative mind behind them. And this DLC is such a case. Yes, you'll probably see the twist coming in some capacity, but the events of The Arrival are still neat, and very relevant to the major story of the series--more so than most other DLCs, I think. In fact, this add-on feels less like a contained side story like most of the above do and the ME1 add-ons did, and more like an important part of the overall plot of the Mass Effect trilogy's events. There's nothing incredible in here, and the mission, while full, is over kind of quickly for the price, but it's a solid little adventure, it gets the player's focus back on track with the main story after a lot of DLC packages that kinda deviated away from it, it's exciting, it features the return (and first visual appearance) of an important secondary character from ME1, and it helps to transition from ME2 to the upcoming ME3 (I think; I won't know for sure until we actually see ME3, but that's what it feels like). So I'd say it does most everything Bioware wanted it to, and is decent and worth the price of admission as much as any Downloadable Content ever is. A good way to conclude ME2's set of add-ons, as ME3 looms.

And that's that. On the whole? I think Mass Effect 2's Downloadable Content has been a pretty good thing. Sure, there were a couple that really weren't all that noteworthy, and Bioware's shady policy regarding the Cerberus Network is very disappointing. But the majority of the add-ons were good offerings, and I don't feel like any of them were an outright rip-off, and both of these points make Mass Effect 2's set of add-ons a marked improvement over those of Dragon Age 1, so Bioware's certainly improving. Bethesda's Fallout 3 add-ons were still a better deal and half the time were of greater storytelling quality, but ME2's additional content nonetheless leaves me with a positive impression.

Now, will Bioware continue to improve with Dragon Age 2's add-ons, or will it go back to the generally disappointing DA1's add-ons for inspiration? And how will the somewhat recent Fallout: New Vegas's add-ons measure up against its own predecessor's? We'll just have to see.

* Shut the fuck up. MLPFiM is awesome and 100% acceptable by masculine standards. It beat the shit out of 4chan and there's like thousands of other guys who love it. Look it up if you don't believe me.