Thursday, March 28, 2013

General RPGs' Voyeuristic Paralysis Syndrome

Unnecessary Paternal Ties Syndrome, Love Hina Syndrome, Anime Girl Run Syndrome, now this...Maybe I ought to make a glossary for this blog’s special terms.

You know what I’m getting kind of sick of? Moments in RPGs when the heroes of the game just sit there and do nothing as a scene goes sour in front of them. I call it Voyeuristic Paralysis Syndrome. It strikes an entire group of heroes at once and renders them totally incapable of doing anything useful or heroic as events unfold around them even though this is exactly the kind of shit they’re supposed to stop. It could be sitting back and letting someone else do all the hero work during a disaster even though they themselves have the power to help, like that moment in Mega Man Star Force 2 when Sonia just sits back with the rest of Geo’s friends and lets him go save the town as Mega Man, even though she could transform into Harp Note (what a stupid hero name) and help him, like she had the sense to just a little while before. It could be just the heroes standing silent like morons in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 as they watch someone deny their dark side, even though the heroes have seen several times already that this denial powers that dark side up and makes it into an annoying boss fight. All they’d have to do to avoid half the bosses in that game is to tell someone, “Please don’t say the words “You’re not me.”” By far the most memorable and iconic of Voyeuristic Paralysis Syndrome, though, are the moments in RPGs where a good guy’s getting beaten to a pulp and his friends just stand there like fucktards and watch without lifting a finger to help.

Example: Mass Effect 3. Assuming your Shepard isn’t a Renegade tool, and assuming that you’re a competent player, then there will be a point in the game wherein lame villain Kai Leng attempts to assassinate the Salarian Councilor, but is foiled by Shepard’s former comrade Thane. What ensues is a close-quarters combat between Kai Leng and Thane, in which Kai Leng is forever immortalized as the wannabe tough guy who could only barely keep up with a dude currently going through the last stages of a fatal, debilitating disease. The scene ends with Kai Leng managing to stab Thane with his laughably anachronistic sword, and running off like the weak little bitch-clown he is.

Throughout this entire scene, Commander Shepard and his allies just stand there watching. It is only after Shepard’s friend has been fatally stabbed that he thinks to step forward and shoot at Kai Leng.

This is what I’m talking about. Now, Shepard’s no ultra-assassin like Thane, nor a prancing little glee club ninja like Kai Leng, so yeah, he’s not going to be able to keep up with them at hand-to-hand combat, but it’s well-established that Shepard’s highly competent at unarmed fighting all the same, so it’s not like he’d get in Thane’s way or something. All Shepard would need to do in this scene is provide enough of an attacking threat to Kai Leng that the pretentious jackass would be distracted, forced to split his attention between Thane and Shepard, and this whole fight could easily have ended a lot differently. It’s already a close enough fight that it looks like Kai Leng wins more by luck than skill. The addition of Shepard to it would have made a significantly positive impact.

And there’s always the fact that Shepard and his companions have, y’know...guns. I’m somewhat mystified as to why Shepard doesn’t see fit to open fire on Kai Leng to help Thane out. Okay, yes, you can argue that with Thane and Kai Leng going at each other as fast and hard as they are, Shepard runs the risk of shooting Thane. Fair point. But Shepard’s not exactly unused to hitting moving targets, his companion EDI has advance combat programming that we could only assume contains a very functional targeting system, and his companion Liara has Biotic powers and could presumably use them to knock Kai Leng and Thane apart and down to the ground, at which point there’s no problem opening fire on the asshat without endangering Thane (Shepard himself may have Biotic powers, for that matter, depending on how the player chose to build him, although God forbid Bioware actually acknowledge any individualism in Shepard’s abilities during a cutscene). And lastly, there’s clearly a moment during the fight in which Thane and Kai Leng are standing reasonably distanced from one another for long enough that Shepard and company have no excuse not to start shooting.

Once again, though, instead of any of that logical stuff happening, Shepard and his pals just stand around and fucking watch as his buddy gets punked.

This problem of characters inexplicably just watching as their supposed friends get brutally murdered in front of them is not an RPG-only thing, not by a long shot (Hollywood has been particularly fond in the past 50+ years of the idea that women are incapable of assisting their rescuers in fighting for their own lives). But I have to say, the most shocking moments of it, in my mind, always come from RPGs. That’s probably due in part to the fact that in an RPG, the friends who are just standing there partaking of your punishment are usually all powerful warriors who have already proven their combat prowess in approximately 200 to 2000 random battles.

It’s probably also due in large part to that scene in Xenosaga 3 where KOS-MOS spends a good 5 minutes being thoroughly worked over by T-elos, a faster, stronger, combat-smarter android. Like, Jesus Christ, guys, it’s apparent from the start of that fight who’s gonna win it. You think maybe you guys should use those guns, or that sword, or that fucking large combat cyborg to help out somehow? I mean, they’re just standing there, minute after fucking minute, watching T-elos smash KOS-MOS into parts, and they don’t do ANYTHING. At least Shepard can lamely cling to the excuse that Thane’s fight with Kai Leng was a short one. KOS-MOS’s beatdown takes long enough that you could plan out and finish packing a basket for a reasonably decent-sized picnic before it ends.

What makes it even worse, if that’s even possible, is that later in the game the party encounters T-elos again, and THEN several party members (Shion, Jin, and Ziggy) DO try to attack her, and while she’s obviously way too much for them, they’re clearly shown to be able to distract her enough, to pose enough potential threat, that KOS-MOS could take advantage of it for her own attacks (and it could work vice-versa, too; KOS-MOS obviously has the capacity to fully engage T-elos’s attentions, which would leave the others free to capitalize on that. T-elos may prevent Ziggy from scoring a hit in the fight we do see, but if he had the opportunity to land one, one can assume it would be damaging). Where was this unified attack earlier in the game, when KOS-MOS was still underclassed and really needed the assistance? That sequence is so fucking ridiculous that I really think it’s why I now associate Voyeuristic Paralysis more with RPGs than any other media form.

Now I understand the storytelling imperative of this phenomenon. For purposes of the plot, the writers feel that it’s important for a character to be locked in a one-on-one struggle against an enemy, and for the result of that struggle to be uninfluenced by the other characters. The writers at Bioware wanted Thane to go out like a champ and they wanted to establish Kai Leng as a dangerous badass.* The writers (if such they can be called) for Xenosaga 3 wanted to establish T-elos’s supposed dominance over KOS-MOS and to remove KOS-MOS from the picture for a while, as well as create a transition into the lengthy part of the game where the party is stumbling around back in time inside Shion’s head.** And so on and so forth--each game’s writers who allow their characters to be overcome with Voyeuristic Paralysis are doing so because there’s something they want to accomplish with the scene that they feel is necessary for the game’s plot, and they feel that it can only be done by having a single particular character step up to the challenge. I understand the reasoning. But that just doesn’t excuse the fact that it makes no sense for a group of normally proactive heroes to just stand around and watch a situation play out. Some allowance can be made during occasions where the characters facing off have some personal rivalry, of course, but that’s only sometimes the case.

The thing that makes this whole issue really silly is the incredible ease with which it can be solved, which a huge number of RPGs are smart enough to utilize. It’s really, really simple. If you want your one character to fight, probably to the death, alone against an enemy, just make sure that character’s friends can’t help. Why does Galuf’s death in Final Fantasy 5 not seem as silly as Thane’s in Mass Effect 3? Simple--because Galuf’s allies are all down for the count, unable to contribute to his fatal battle to protect them. Why do I find KOS-MOS’s gratuitous beatdown in Xenosaga 3 so stupid, yet have no serious complaint about General Leo’s fatal, futile struggle against Kefka in Final Fantasy 6? Because when Leo’s getting stabbed, his numerous allies have all been knocked unconscious and/or killed already.*** All it would have taken for the Xenosaga gang to have a reason not to be helping KOS-MOS was some mild nerve gas, all it would have taken for Shepard’s non-involvement to make sense was a flash grenade, and it only gets easier for the many magic-involving RPGs out there, since you can just whip up some random paralysis spell/power whenever it’s convenient.

Is that incredibly cheap? Absolutely. But is it better than the nonsensical notion of having your cast break character and do absolutely nothing? Definitely. I’ll take conventional and cheap writing over illogical and stupid writing any day.

* That they only achieved half of these ambitions is irrelevant.

** That this is weird and makes no sense is irrelevant. Also, expected.

*** Although I do have to say that the actual act of them being taken down earlier was dumb, and sort of a case of Voyeuristic Paralysis itself, as they all just kinda watched themselves get blasted by the Magitek Armors. But, at the time of Leo’s last stand, there’s no one to help him.


  1. Yep also known as Cutsceen Incompetence...also don't forget about healing spells in the game when people don't used them to help out *COUGHAERITHANDSHINJICOUGH* in cutsceens.

    1. Final Fantasy 4 and 5 spoilers.

      I'm not sure how that piece of pop culture has survived to this day.

      FF 4 and 5 both used healing out of battle. Both games had it fail(FF4 also presented cutscene healing to be otherwise effective at several other points, for what were implied to be nontrivial injuries). Aerith wasn't even a subversion of tradition. This might have been an edgy "witticism" back in '97, but not fifteen years later with 4/5 being localized and released multiple times. I don't get it, but it's far too widespread to actually blame anyone for bringing it up.

      Shinji can easily be chalked up to taking a direct bullet, and not injured through vaguely defined means like in most battles. Besides, cutscene attacks tend to hurt more for dramatic purposes. It's not nearly as bad as some of the more gratuitous examples of this flavor of lazy setup.

      This rant hurt me inside. Persona 4 was particularly retarded about it, but the game itself is particularly retarded, so...par for the course. Like you say, much of the problem with this is that it can be [i]so easily justified[/i] most of the time.

    2. The whole "Dead" status in Final Fantasies tends to be passed off as actually a state of unconsciousness, having been beaten to the point of blacking out (this tends to be the case in most RPGs, I notice; only a few, like Fire Emblem, earlier Fallouts, Suikoden's army battles, and Dungeons and Dragons-based RPGs actually have falling in battle qualify as real death). So no, Life and Phoenix Downs and whatnot should not be assumed to have had any effect.

      That said, smaller wounds and afflictions are, indeed, handled outside of battle at times in RPG cut scenes through items and spells, so we can assume that there's SOME limited and sadly very undefined correlation. The way I usually assume it works unless shown otherwise is that spells and potions can give a momentary, powerful boost to one's body's natural healing (which allows for some games' healing in cut scenes but would not be enough to counteract a fatal wound like Aeris's), and status ailment restoratives work roughly exactly the same outside battle as they do within it (but with the understanding that dropping to 0 HP in battle is being knocked out, not being killed). As a general rule, this mindset has functioned very adequately for me.

  2. Ah yes "those moments" always always a pain to watch.

    Especially when you start thinking to yourself that "Hey this all could have ended a lot sooner if they have done [insert whatever you think in here]"

  3. At first, Chrono Trigger came into my mind here; in fact the situation where Robo is beaten to scrap by the R-Series, but then again, you have control over your character here, and as you get thrown back if you try to help you can assume that you could only distract those robots. So the real battling would have to be done by Robo, who is paralysed himself, as he questions his own meaning of existence.
    So, long story short, in that situation its logical.

    1. I forgot about that situation when I wrote this out! Ah, the memories. Actually, your first instinct is half right. True, Crono can try to assist and be thrown back, so he gets a free pass (well, 90% of a free pass, anyway; you can still question why he didn't attempt to intervene with his actual weapon). But, the third companion, Marle or Lucca, DOES just stand there and watch with distress as Robo gets reduced to a heap of trash. On her account, you're definitely right--Voyeuristic Paralysis Syndrome is in full effect.

      Although I suppose you COULD argue that Robo actively shouts to Crono (and thus also Marle/Lucca), in the event that Crono tries to intervene, not to harm his brothers, so maybe Marle/Lucca's utter inaction is justified...but on the other hand, she's just going to kill them all in a few moments once Robo's beating is done with, so Robo's request can't hold that much weight when it comes down to it. Yup, I'll count it as an instance of this syndrome.