Friday, June 28, 2013

General RPGs' AMVs 9

What, more of these things? You’d think the internet would’ve run out by now.

Same deal as always--if you watch it, and like it, please hit the Like button, and better yet, leave a comment for the creator. It seems nearly all the really good AMVs go almost entirely without recognition, and that bothers me greatly.


Fallout 3: Radioactive, by Pastel Ink:
The music used is Radioactive, by Imagine Dragons. Quite frankly, this AMV just tears me up inside. There’s really no doubt that it’s a good video--the scenes’ actions and changes match very well to the music’s flow and tone, and several scenes work nicely with the lyrics. But...this could have been an absolutely INCREDIBLE music video, and it hurts to see it fall short of the potential. I mean, the skill with editing is there, the creativity for connecting the song and visuals is there, it doesn’t do enough with it. So many times there are lyrics going in the song that would fit beautifully to scenes and characters from Fallout 3 (and other Fallouts, but the third game is what seems to be focused on here), and instead all the AMV shows is more slow-mo kills. I mean, don’t get me wrong, a healthy dose of those in this AMV is required to convey the feel and weight of the song and game, but just using that stuff for the filler parts of the song would have done the trick, leaving so many of the more important parts of the song free for a stronger selection of scenes. The creativity to really work it all to its most effective is there, it is, you can see it several times, like at 0:40 to 0:42, when the camera’s focus on the guy’s Power Armor helmet and the camera’s rise and fall combine flawlessly with the singer’s exaggerated breath. But it just...doesn’t show up save for at a few key moments. I mean, don’t get me wrong, this is definitely a solid AMV, it could have been legendary. Still, it’s enjoyable, and worth some recognition.


Final Fantasy 9: Elevation, by Fellow Hoodlum Inc.:
The music used is Elevation, by U2. Not much to say about this one--it’s just plain good. It does a great job matching scenes to the lyrics and shifts in the music, and overall the whole thing winds up being quite exceptional.

Final Fantasy 12: You Belong With Me, by Monkeypants06:
The “music” used is You Belong With Me, by (blurrrrgh) Taylor Swift. But don’t let that stop you from watching this, because it. Is. Glorious.


The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker: You Were Born for This, by Abzifun:
The music used is You Were Born for This, by Epic Score. Well, in all honesty, with a song like this, all you’ve gotta do as an AMV maker is try to keep up with it, and it’ll make what you’re doing look pretty awesome almost on its own, but Abzifun definitely does keep up with the tune and matches the scenes to the music well, creating a kickass tribute to the game.


Mass Effect 2: Mass Relax 2, by Neko9:
The music used is The Legacy, by John Serrie. You may recall Neko9 as being the creator of the very first AMV I ever looked at in a rant, the Parasite Eve 1 AMV, Send Me an Angel. I’m always so pleased when a good AMV creator keeps making their videos, because the really good AMVs are just so damn rare. Anyway, this one’s pretty different; I wasn’t even really sure to count it as an AMV at all. But it’s showing game scenes to a song, so I reckon it qualifies. This video is everything it wants to be--relaxing, beautiful, tranquil, and somehow, even inspiring. Just showcasing the backgrounds and scenery of Mass Effect 2 to the music is more than enough to calm me down in the best of ways, and even to remind me a little of the cosmic beauty that Mass Effect used to so effectively embody. Very lovely.

Mass Effect 2 + 3: Ghost of Love, by ITaliZoraFan:
The music used is Ghost of Love, by The Rasmus. At this point, it’s getting hard for me to come up with new ways to say the same thing about many of these AMVs--this is another music video that is just plain very solid. Put together well, effectively and entertainingly conveys its purpose, uses and meshes the game and music well. It’s fun to see a Shepard x Tali video that’s not your typical really sweet and tender take on them (although I enjoy those very much, if they’re done well), and the creator very skillfully takes advantage of this song’s passion, pain, and power.

Mass Effect 3: Some Peace, by Julciczka:
The music used is This Night, by Black Lab. With so many Mass Effect AMVs being upbeat and inspiring (and with good cause; don’t get me wrong, that’s what Shepard’s all about), it’s refreshing to see the heavier, bleaker perspective on Shepard and his journey, and this video exploits the song and Shepard to their full potential, giving us a sober reminder of Shepard’s difficulties and regrets, and that which he has to leave behind, give up on, at his adventure’s finale. The video really provides and explores a great take on Shepard, and tells its story through great and appropriate scene selection.


Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 1 + 2: Raidou Shall Open Your Heart, by MargueriteProduction:
The music used is Open Your Heart, from Sonic Adventure 1. This one does an adequate job of following the tune of the music with the game scenes, but it does really well with coordinating the visuals to the song’s lyrics, well enough that the end result is that this AMV makes the song work better for Raidou than it probably did for the actual game it was made for--I can’t claim to know that for a fact, since I’ve never played Sonic Adventure 1, but I’d think it were a safe bet. Unfortunately, it’s a little hard to tell some of the lyrics; the song’s music kinda overpowers them at times, but MargueriteProduction has helpfully put the lyrics up on the screen, so the viewer can properly appreciate the connection of game to music. Non-Persona SMT AMVs are sadly uncommon, so it’s always a treat to find a well-made one like this.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

General RPGs' Level Caps

Any RPG that has characters gain levels to get stronger has a level cap, a point at which a character, upon reaching it, ceases to continue getting stronger (at least by means of leveling up). Most often the cap is set to Level 99, although with some games it can be higher. Star Ocean 3, for example, has a level cap of 255, while the standard for Nippon Ichi games is, I believe, 9999 (Nippon Ichi does love its stat extravagance). With some games, the level cap is set lower. This is usually the case in Western RPGs, such as Mass Effect 1, where the cap was set at 60, although not always--Fallout 2, a Western RPG, had a cap of the JRPG standard 99, while Super Mario RPG, a Japanese RPG, stopped at Level 30.

For most RPGs, this is not a problem. While it’s certainly possible to get to Level 99 in, say, Final Fantasy 6, you’re only going to do so if you spend hours and hours in random battles level-grinding, putting the game’s story on hold to do so. Obviously it becomes even more of an endeavor of time and patience with high caps--you can pretty comfortably beat Star Ocean 2, for example, at level 80 to 90, which is 115 to 125 levels short of the cap, and even if you want to pursue the optional ultra-bosses, a little skill and strategy will keep you from needing to go too close to the cap. But even lesser level caps can be fine in a well-balanced game. Those mere 30 levels in Super Mario RPG will take you pretty much to the game’s end, barring any extensive level-grinding, and if I recall correctly, you literally cannot hit the highest level of Mass Effect 1’s 60 without multiple playthroughs anyway, as there are a finite number of enemies and quests and such during the course of the game.

Unfortunately, the level cap CAN be a problem with some games that are not balanced well. And I hate to generalize, but I’ve found that this problem really only exists with Western RPGs. I cannot recall playing the JRPG for which simply going through the game’s plot and pursuing all its sidequests will, without specifically setting aside time to mow down random baddies to gain extra experience, cause your characters to hit the level cap significantly earlier than the game’s end. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine. In fact, it just plain drives me crazy.

You take Fallout 3, for example. Now, Fallout 3 is a fairly mild case of this, because for most of the game, you’re pretty much all set. Things are generally pretty well balanced, so it takes a good while for the player to hit the original Level 20 cap. But if you’re going through Fallout 3 pretty thoroughly (exploring each location, using your Skills, killing whatever enemies you encounter, and completing the majority of the game’s quests), you’re gonna hit Level 20, and it’s gonna be before the game’s finale. It then becomes very annoying to me to keep playing the game as I have until that point. I mean, if I can no longer gain experience from it, what real incentive do I have to combat enemies and waste my ammunition when I have enough HP and restorative options to just walk by them through to the next area of whatever ruin I’m exploring? Why bother using my eyes to identify and Skills to disarm traps when I’m strong enough and have accumulated so excessively many Stimpaks that I can just skip on through a minefield without any problem? I admit I get a bit obsessive with that little “cha-ching” and experience ticker that show up whenever you get XP in Fallout 3, requiring their satisfaction to motivate me to do anything outside the strictly necessary, but still! A game like Fallout 3 is designed to reward the player’s involvement in its world in 3 immediate ways: Karma, Loot, and XP. And since Karma’s barely a factor and loot applies more to non-XP-giving situations than anything, it makes the game start to feel empty if you have to go on without it. Admittedly, the DLC packages increase the level cap, but they also provide enough content to cover most of that increase, meaning that you’ll still be hitting that XP wall too early.

It’s much worse with Fallout: New Vegas. Fallout: New Vegas had a level cap of 30 to 50 (depending on what DLCs you got; the original game, however, is 30), which is higher than Fallout 3’s, but they balanced the game much worse at the same time. In Fallout: New Vegas, there are a TON of enemies who give the maximum 50 XP upon being killed; in fact, I think there’s more that give out that max amount than there are enemies worth fewer points. With Fallout 3, at least, only a few enemies were worth that full amount, and they weren’t freakin’ everywhere. Even with the 10 additional levels that Fallout: New Vegas’s cap has over Fallout 3’s, I still hit Level 50 when I was only about 65% of the way through exploring the game’s content! Thank goodness for the modding community having more sense than the game’s actual developers, and releasing various mods to raise that cap to something reasonable.

And don’t even get me started on Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. A classic and impressive game in most ways, but good lord, if you’re fighting enemies yourself in that game,* you can be hitting the Level 50 cap before you’re halfway through it!

I don’t think I’m being unfair with my expectations. I think it’s reasonable to expect that an RPG’s level cap be set at a point where it’s only going to be close to being reached at the game’s very endpoint, going by the assumption that a player fights any and all random enemies they encounter along the way but isn’t just walking back and forth looking for more baddies to bash. RPGs are generally boring to play already--taking away the main gameplay-related reward for playing through them is not a good thing! And the fact that all the instances of game imbalance resulting in too low a level cap I’ve encountered have come from Western RPGs, ones that pride themselves on the draw of the player’s ability to direct his character’s growth, makes it that much worse. If, in Fallout and Arcanum and the other games that suffer from an inadequate level cap, character advancement is such an important feature of the playing experience, shouldn’t THEY, of all games, be the ones to get it right?

* Arcanum has this game mechanic where you get significantly less experience for slain enemies if your companions are the ones who do the slaying.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Dragon Age 1's Blood Motif

Thanks to my sister and Ecclesiastes for their assistance with proofreading, and for the term “Tarentino imagery” and a reminder of the dark ritual’s relevance to this rant, respectively.

I’m still not sure I’d call Dragon Age 2 an actually bad game, but there’s no denying that at its very best it’s mediocre, and that it is completely inferior to its predecessor, Dragon Age: Origins (which I refer to as Dragon Age 1 because I like the simplicity of numerical classification when possible). The reasons for this are varied and many--characters of lesser quality, a narrative that stumbles over itself trying to establish which of its two major parts are the more important, an ending that’s just complete trash, and a plot whose ultimate crucial point is a choice between competing moral ambiguities, not to mention, for those who care about such things, quite a few problems with the actual gameplay (most prominently the dungeons just being recycled over and over again).

One thing I think is overlooked when assessing how DA2 fails where DA1 succeeded, though, is that DA1 has a recurring theme that runs throughout its story that provides both a literal and a metaphorical backdrop to more or less the entire story: the motif of Blood. Dragon Age 2, on the other hand, doesn’t have anything of the sort--the closest you get are the questions of spirit that the Qunari raise, which are squashed to irrelevance with the abrupt and somewhat meaningless conflict with the Arishok at the end of Act 2, and questions of controlling a few potentially dangerous individuals unfairly for the good of society that the Templars vs. Mages conflict raises, a conflict which raises so few positive points and so many negative points on each side that it becomes, as I said above, a choice between moral ambiguities. Honestly, I feel like after the credits of DA2 there should be that clip from Mystery Science Theater 3000 of Crow saying, “We hope you’ve enjoyed No Moral Theatre!”

But while these DA2 ideas are present for most of the game in one form or another, they’re handled rather clumsily overall, and don’t have the symbolic presence that Blood does in DA1, anyway. So, why don’t people add that to the standard laundry list of problems DA2 had compared to DA1? Well, I imagine it’s probably because most people, while able to recognize and appreciate the narrative benefits of the Blood motif over the course of DA1’s story, don’t really realize that it’s there to begin with. Thankfully, though, The RPGenius is here to inform! Because I’m just that kind of nice guy. Also, I’m bored and I like talking.

So! Blood. Blood is a big thing in Dragon Age 1. This is obvious at the very most basic, surface level, of course--it’s all over the place. When people die in DA1, there’s blood. Lots of it! When your characters kill enemies, they get splattered with the stuff. Head to toe. When a Blood Mage cuts himself to power up, it’s like a blood-filled water balloon just exploded. Hell, the very moment you start the game, the game developer logo intro has a dragon made of blood flying around!

But funnily enough, it’s this excessive amount of actual blood shown in the game that clued me in at first that there was something more to it. Because believe it or doesn’t actually seem gratuitously violent or gory! I know it sounds crazy, but seriously, hear me out on this. The blood in DA1 isn’t like the blood you see in movies and games and such that are clearly just trying to be gory for the shock value. With those, it’s just an ichor, a load of red liquid, sometimes more like red glop, that streams and gushes and spurts from the wounded and dead, there to create a reaction in the audience rather than to serve a necessary storytelling function. It’s what I like to call Tarantino imagery--all shock value, no substance. But the blood in Dragon Age 1 isn’t just bodily ichor, it’s a force. It’s not bright and attention-getting, it’s deep-hued and accessory to the act that has called it forth. It doesn’t flow, it roils. And it’s never, to my recollection, joined by body parts and internal organs and such, as is often the case in situations of gore for gore’s sake--the blood is the only reactive evidence of injury or death because the blood is what’s important.

And why does the blood seem less like an escaped fluid and more like a liquid force? Because Blood is a force--it is the single most recognizable physical symbol in human culture of a living thing’s life force. And this meaning of Blood, that of its being the symbol of one’s own life, one’s own being, is probably the most common and important use that Dragon Age 1 has for it. The most literal use of this is, of course, the fact that when a creature dies in the game, they bleed, while their killer will then have that blood cling to him or her. The game even has a moment early on, in the City Elf origin story, where a villain tells his guards not to needlessly provoke the protagonist, the to-be Grey Warden, because she* is covered in blood--the blood is the visible residue of lives that have fallen before this individual, a warning that this is an individual not to be trifled with. And yes, this IS still a fairly pedestrian use of blood that any particularly gory movie/game/whatever could use to do the same thing, but still, the difference is all in how it’s presented. The excessive gore of a horror movie villain being covered in his victims’ blood is not the same to me; the horror movie uses it as a way to shock and frighten, a way to provoke an emotional response, wearing an excess of it for its origins, while DA1 uses it as a visual confirmation that lives, many of them, have been ended before this warrior. It’s a symbol of conflict overcome, that makes the wearer formidable, not gratuitous.

More importantly, though, DA1 equates Blood as a life force symbol by way of Blood Magic, and the Grey Wardens’ taint. Blood Magic is interesting when you view it through this more metaphorical lens. The idea of Blood Magic is that the mage is using his/her own life force to fuel and enhance his/her spells, shedding blood and calling upon its power as it flows. As it figuratively does in our world, Blood has literal power in the world of Ferelden--in fact, Blood Magic is seen as the most dangerous of all magics! It’s interesting to think about what interpretation is meant to be taken from this, if any--perhaps that one who is willing to give up anything, including his own life, to achieve his own goals has a power that no other has, and is the most dangerous of all ambitious individuals? But I’m not interested today in exploring too deeply the Blood motif, merely in recognizing it and pointing it out. Blood Magic is also notable in that its most famous ability is to allow its practitioner to gain control of others. Again, we see the link between blood and one’s very essence--if Blood Magic is the use of blood to manipulate blood, then the implication in being able to use it to control others is that one’s actions, one’s decisions, one’s personal being is dependent on and linked to it. Twice over does Blood Magic use Blood as a symbol of life force.

Similarly we see the induction ritual of the Grey Wardens use blood as a life force--and more than that, a representative life force. What separates the Grey Wardens from regular humans is that they have consumed the tainted blood of the Darkspawn (and lived through the process), after which they gain heightened awareness of Darkspawn (in other words, the ability to sense where they are), as well as the ability to permanently kill the Darkspawn horde’s leader by fatally taking the leader’s essence into themselves. Again, we see Blood as synonymous with one’s life force and personal power, as it is through consuming the Darkspawn’s blood, taking it within themselves, that the Grey Wardens gain their essential abilities. This, of course, harkens back to the ancient and gross idea that by consuming the symbolic parts of another person, you can add that person’s qualities to your own (as Futurama’s Professor Farnsworth puts it, “And if you kill anyone, don’t forget to eat their heart to gain their courage. Their rich, tasty courage.”). Just what effects the Darkspawn blood has for the Grey Wardens is also telling. The abilities gained, as well as the process’s detrimental effects, are, after all, not so much power as awareness, and even identity. The ability to sense other Darkspawn, the ability to take their leader’s soul into oneself, the eventual loss of oneself to the Darkspawn’s call, the connection through dreams to a Darkspawn group consciousness of sorts...becoming a Grey Warden, drinking the Darkspawn blood, is to actually become part Darkspawn. Again, the Blood is seen as the container of one’s very essence, and to take another’s Blood into oneself is to combine it with one’s own essence, to have one’s own identity become a mixture of the two.

The motif of Blood is also used in DA1 in a couple of different ways, as well, beyond that of being symbolic of life essence. Blood is also, for example, used as a corruptive force at times. Often in literature and other forms of cultural expression, Blood is equated with a loss of innocence, a destruction of something pure, a vessel for corruption. I’ve always found this a little bit interesting in that this symbolic use of blood actually has, in addition to its spiritual basis, medical precedence--there are some particularly nasty maladies which can be transmitted through contact with another’s blood, most famously HIV/AIDS. DA1 shows us this idea of Blood as corruption a few times, such as during the quest to obtain Andraste’s Ashes. During this quest, you are given the option to, if you are a titanic asshole, pour a dragon’s blood into the ashes and ruin them utterly. It’s pretty straightforward--it’s the use of the Blood of this most savage and grand of beasts to corrupt and destroy the pure, divine remnants of Dragon Age’s equivalent to Jesus.

The most plot-relevant and recurring example of Blood as a corruptive power, of course, is the Darkspawn taint, the illness from being exposed to the Darkspawn too long that sickens one and eventually turns one into the Darkspawn. The people of DA1 say that this taint is carried within the blood, and this statement is verified by both the Grey Warden induction ceremony (since the Darkspawn essence they take into themselves will, eventually, drive them to the darkness themselves) and by the quest in the game to recruit the Dog character. During this quest, the Grey Warden protagonist encounters a dog who has become sick because he ingested some Darkspawn blood from a prior battle. The Darkspawn taint has been carried into the Dog by that blood, and will kill him if the Grey Warden doesn’t find some medicinal herbs to help him.** Symbolic of the Darkspawn’s life force, Blood becomes the carrier of their taint, and a force of corruption.

The last major way that Blood is used as a motif in DA1 is as it’s related to heritage. A classic way of describing one’s family history, nationality, and breeding is to indicate that they’re found in one’s blood. Those descended from royalty are often said to have royal blood. A dog whose predecessors were all notable hunting dogs might be said to have hunting in his blood. Regardless of the country of one’s birth and residence, one might be said to have, say, the blood of an Irishman, if one’s family origins can be traced back to Ireland. And so on and so forth. For us, Blood is used as a metaphorical indicator of heritage and legacy.

Interestingly and ironically enough, this theme of Blood which is entirely symbolic and non-corporeal in real life has the most actual, practical influence on the events and world of Dragon Age 1. Heritage and lineage are huge parts of the Dragon Age setting and the game’s plot. Many parts of the societies of Thedas revolve around lineage--the human nobility functions as largely through birthright as our own real-world nobility does, and family history determines very nearly every major part of the dwarven society. In addition, the events of the plot very often incorporate lineage (and thus Blood) as being very important. Most of the origin stories for the Grey Warden, for example, relate to the Warden’s family history in one way or another. The werewolves in the quest for the elves’ allegiance are forced to carry a curse for the actions of their ancestors, a punishment inflicted upon them for their Blood rather than their own actions. A DLC sidequest adventure sees the descendant of Sophia Dryden, a Grey Warden of the past, attempting to learn the truth of his ancestor and reclaim her fortress--in other words, a quest to know and reclaim the heritage of his Blood. One of the major crisis points in the character development of Alistair revolves around his expectations of the connection he has to his half-sister, a connection forged solely on a shared lineage.

Perhaps most prominently, a major plot event of DA1 revolves around whether Anora or Alistair should become ruler of Fereldan--Anora is queen by marriage to the late King Cailan, and has both a ruler’s intellect and experience (as she basically was ruling the kingdom for the fun and good-natured but clearly not politically gifted Cailan) but Alistair is Cailan’s bastard half-brother, meaning that he has actual claim to the throne through his Blood. The big lynchpin in the Warden’s plan, midgame, is to put forth Alistair as the rightful king and oust Anora (and by doing so oust the villain Loghain, who is using his daughter Anora as his royal puppet).

And let us not forget the last but potentially most important plot event of the game, Morrigan’s dark ritual, which is an act of creating a spiritual legacy of the old gods and material legacy of either the protagonist or Alistair in the form of a child, which is heavily implied will be a major part of the future of the Dragon Age series. This is an instance of Blood as heritage whose importance will no doubt only grow; Bioware was certainly very hyped about playing its importance to the future up, even making DA1’s last DLC entirely about pursuing Morrigan, promising to answer our many questions about the child and the ritual and to tie up loose ends.***

It’s unclear to me what, if anything, Dragon Age 1 means to say about the lineage of Blood--one could say that Bioware paints it in a negative light, as the werewolves suffering for their ancestors’ mistakes is clearly unjust and the dwarven society is clearly declining badly because of its crippling traditions of heritage, but one could just as easily argue that there are parts of DA1 that verify the idea of Blood’s lineage as legitimate, such as the fact that Duncan’s decision to recruit the City Elf Grey Warden (assuming that’s the origin you pick for your protagonist) because her mother was an impressive warrior was obviously the right idea, what with her going on to save the country and all. At other times the issue’s not so simple, such as with Anora and Alistair--Anora’s the better ruler for her intellect and abilities, which is a point against Blood, but Alistair is a better person for his compassion and bravery and other moral values (which is also important in a king), which could be said to be a point for Blood. But like I said before, I’m more here just to recognize and display the Blood motif, not to analyze it too deeply, so I’ll leave that up to you to think over. Regardless of what conclusions can be drawn on the subject, though, it’s clear that Blood as a symbol of heritage is a tremendously important part of Dragon Age 1.

And that’s about all I’ve got for you today. It’s completely possible that there are more ways in which the motif of Blood is tied to DA1, ways both subtle and even obvious that I’ve missed completely--in fact, I’d be very surprised if I hadn’t missed at least a couple. I’m a far ways away from perfect. Nonetheless, I think you can see from even my limited observations that DA1 has worked Blood into its essence in several very important ways. And I think that it really makes a positive mark on the game, gives the story some symbolic backbone, helps to subtly but strongly tie its many elements together into one cohesive work. It’s the touch of art upon the game’s storytelling, perhaps the last touch of art Bioware was ever destined to give, and it’s one of the many elements of Dragon Age 1 that elevates it to the ranks of great RPGs.

* You can choose the gender of your protagonist in DA1, but some of the origin stories are clearly meant to have one gender over the other. In the City Elf origin’s case, you’re clearly meant to be playing a female.

** With said herbs, however, the Dog survives and joins the party, which has always made me wonder if the Dog doesn’t also count as a Grey Warden. I mean, he basically did the exact same thing that the Wardens do to make them Wardens--drank Darkspawn blood and didn’t die from it.

*** Note: Answers, clarification, and an actual attempt to resolve anything whatsoever not included.