Thursday, November 28, 2013

Lunar 1's Alex and Luna Romance

Happy Thanksgiving, anyone in the USA. Hope it's a nice day for you. When I realized that my next scheduled rant would be on Thanksgiving (like an hour ago), I thought it would be a nice idea to put up a positive rant, something appreciative of a good aspect of RPGs. Y'know, because it's a day of being thankful, and whatnot. But it turns out that of the 9 finished rants I'm sitting on, all of them are complaining about something. Oh well. I'm a grump, what do you want.

Oh, quick question. I had thought that the new color scheme of the blog was generally positively received, but I've had someone complaining that it hurts their eyes. Anyone else dislike it? And if so, what would make it better? I'm not against adjusting it, but it took me so long to find a color scheme I like that I'd rather have a clear idea of what needs to change before I commit to altering it.

And now, on with the rant.

Ah, Lunar. A “classic” of the Sega CD and Playstation 1 era of RPGs, I’ve always felt that this largely-beloved game more conned its way into players’ good graces with its colorful, high-quality anime cutscenes at a time when such a thing was a rare and impressive treat, than actually earned its accolades. The plot’s thin and listless, the villain’s only notable feature is his voice, and the characters, while distinctive, have very little depth, when they have any at all.

And man, does this game have a case of Love Hina Syndrome.

As a reminder, since I did the rant on LH Syndrome quite a while back, Love Hina Syndrome is a phrase I use to describe a game (or movie, show, anime, comic, whatever) in which the main character and his/her romantic interest are by far the least interesting and worthy characters in the entire cast, but for some unfortunate reason are the ones who completely dominate the story’s focus. The Legend of Dragoon, Rogue Galaxy, Dragon Quest 8, and The Last Story are examples of this, games wherein a number of good (or at least better) supporting characters aren’t given as much focus and time to develop, and it seems to be at least partially because the focal idiots are hogging the spotlight with their inferior blandness.*

Lunar 1’s plot meanders aimlessly for a little while before finally coming to focus squarely on the romance between protagonist Alex and his main squeeze Luna. She gets kidnapped because she’s the goddess Althena in human form, Alex wants her back because he loves her, and the game from that point on (about 1/4th of the way through it) is a journey to confront the bad guys and save Luna. It’s, uh, not a particularly inventive or ambitious idea for a story, so long as you’ve a passing familiarity with 1980s NES titles. Still, an uncreative idea can work just fine if the execution is good. I know I use this as an example all the time, but I once again point to my favorite RPG of all time, Grandia 2, a game that collects a huge bunch of anime and RPG cliches together and then uses them incredibly well to create an amazing work of storytelling art. If Lunar 1 could really sell the Alex and Luna love story, make it believable and touching, then this could really work.

Sadly, this turns out not to be the case. The romance between Alex and Luna sucks, plain and simple. It’s another case of Show, Don’t Tell--the game is eager to Tell us quite often that Alex is in love with Luna, and that she loves him back, but there’s precious little that convincingly Shows this to be true.

First of all, there’s no damn chemistry there. Alex and Luna don’t really act like people who love one another. It’s hard to describe in words, but there’s really not much interaction between them, all said. Alex says very little, Luna’s lines don’t seem to be particularly meaningful, and as a general rule nothing they say to each other has any particular warmth or understanding there. For 2 people who have known each other their entire lives, very little personal rapport, very little emotional connection, is actually expressed between them. Hell, most of the time, what small, lacking personal nuances that Alex or Luna possesses are only ever recognized by Nall or Ramus, their mutual friends. Of course it’s important to establish that Ramus and especially Nall are close to Alex and Luna, having known them for many years, but shouldn’t there be some sort of establishment of emotional intimacy between Alex and Luna, as well?

There’s also precious little in the way of actions that suggest any strong feelings between them--lingering glances, tendency to move closer to one another during periods of conversation or rest, etc. Hey, I know it’s all a bunch of sprites, but you CAN show at least a little relationship personality through that limited medium; plenty of other games have done so. And outside the regular sprite graphics, the cutscenes from the portion of the game where Alex and Luna are traveling together certainly don’t show us any particular connection between them; they’re rarely even present in the same FMV. The only one I can really think of was the boring, long, gratuitous time-waster FMV of Luna singing on the boat. After she’s done wasting half the game’s FMV budget that could have instead been used to illustrate a scene that was interesting in any way whatsoever, the cutscene concludes with Alex standing below her, staring at her. And y’know, this could have worked, it could have been convincing, him standing there in silent, emotional awe at this (supposedly-but-not-actually) beautiful song and outpouring of emotion by his beloved. All that would have been needed to really pull this scene off, make it a compelling moment of watching Alex realize his love for Luna, or at least confirm it, was to give him the right expression, an expression that conveyed the kind of impressed, poignant tenderness of a person as they gaze at the one who stirs their heart in that beautiful, unique way, the expression of silent, radiant love.

This is not that expression. He looks as bored with Luna’s song sequence as I am. For fuck’s sake, the damn magic talking catdragon looks more emotionally moved than Alex does.

There also doesn’t seem to really be any noticeable development of romantic feelings between Alex and Luna. Now, I’ll grant you, their background means there might not have to be. Since they’ve known one another their whole lives, it would be perfectly believable and fine for their romantic feelings to need no development because it was already established before the game’s opening. For example, I rather liked the fact that Monstania’s protagonist was already in a relationship with his love interest when the game began, and so I found it acceptable that the romance didn’t actually develop any further than it started--though their feelings for one another were nonetheless shown quite clearly, so you could say they had romantic development anyway. But as I’ve said, there’s just about no chemistry whatsoever between Alex and Luna; they by and large do not act or seem like people who have feelings for one another when they’re actually together. So this is a romance that DOES need development, because there’s nothing really established beforehand for it. But there really isn’t any. Alex’s love for Luna, which is confirmed much more often by his friends’ mentioning its existence than it is by any statement made or action taken by Alex himself (more Telling instead of Showing), seems to appear out of nowhere once she’s been kidnapped, and once it’s there, it doesn’t seem to deepen or anything. It’s just there, where it didn’t seem to be before--although since Alex just quietly plods along through the plot, we usually can only tell it’s there because other people are mentioning it. Love should not just be a fucking switch that the writers flip when it’s convenient!

Oh, and there’s certainly no development on Luna’s side. Alex, at least, has the game’s focus on his journey, so he can occasionally simulate romantic feelings by saying Luna’s name over and over again (I think half of all his lines are just name repetitions). Luna’s feelings for Alex, after never being believably established due to their lack of chemistry, seem to just be assumed to exist--it feels like she loves him because it’s what the lazy plot wants her to do.

What is it about him that she loves? What does he love about her? I’ll give you that he’ll go to great lengths to save her and protect her, and that deserves a certain amount of respect and lends some verification to their relationship, but what the hell was it that made him so devoted to her to begin with? What was it that made her notice this devotion before the villain provided the opportunity for Alex to prove it? If, for each of them, the feelings of love developed as they grew up together, why do we never see or hear anything of these experiences of the past, never see any special connection or rapport or understanding of one another that this long history would imply? Do either of them make the other happy, cheer them up, support them, make them laugh? Why does the entirety of the game hinge on a love whose only real proof of existence comes at the game’s very end?

It’s not like the writers weren’t capable of at least a passable romance. The love stories between Nash and Mia, and Jessica and Kyle...well, they’re certainly not great or moving, but you can believe that they exist! Kyle and Jessica’s constant bickering is broken up by enough clear expressions of begrudging affection, enough self-confirmations of romantic interest, that they seem to genuinely care for each other. Nash’s affection for Mia is something established before the game’s opening, but unlike Alex, his words actually seem to carry that affection, even when he’s trying to deny it’s there. Someone teases Nash about liking Mia, he’ll get flustered and tell them to stuff it. Someone talks to Alex about how he loves Luna, and he just doesn’t even respond. It’s like an awkward silence of someone who doesn’t know how to break the news that they don’t feel that way after all.

And lastly...frankly, Alex and Luna feeling romantically interested in one another is kind of creepy on some level. I mean, consider this--Alex and Luna have both been raised by Alex’s parents all their lives. Alex’s parents took Luna in when she was still just a baby, so they’ve shared a house, parents, friends, and their whole lives together. So. Um. Doesn’t that essentially mean that Alex wants to bone his sister, and Luna in turn wishes to receive boning from her brother? Yeah, they aren’t related by blood, but in every mental, spiritual, and practical way, they are brother and sister! Raised together in the same home, by the same parents, from the earliest age they can remember...explain to me how their wanting to get it on is not at all creepy.

This is what Luna should’ve been singing during the Boat Song FMV.**

Dear Game Writers: If you’re going to make a love story the major point that your entire plot revolves around, please try to have the characters involved actually seem to be interested in one another; just having the supporting cast occasionally yell out “BOY ALEX U SHUR DO LOVE LUNA HYUCK HYUCK” does not cut it. Please try, game writers, to give us some indication, any at all, of what it is about one another that they like or appreciate, how their feelings develop into something. The emotion of love is a bit more than just an on/off switch to be flipped whenever it’s convenient for the story. And for the love of Ramuh, game writers--and I put this in because Alex x Luna isn’t the first time this has happened in RPGs--please try to stop hooking people up when they’ve been raised in the same household most/all of their lives as adopted siblings. Being brother and sister is very, VERY much less romantic than you people seem to think.

* Now, sometimes this happens in a good game, and it’s not so bad--Tidus and Yuna eventually came to dominate the story of Final Fantasy 10, for example. But it works for the better in FF10, turning it into a very impressive and touching story of love that meshes well with the themes and intended message of the game, rather than discarding them, and the relationship between Tidus and Yuna develops their characters extremely well, elevating them above the rest of the cast, even when at least some of the supporting cast is quite good. This is a case where the main characters have earned their focus, where their dominance of the story has been used to properly develop them and improve the quality of the plot. In this case, it’s not really Love Hina Syndrome, because the idea with LHS is that 1, it’s a bad thing, and 2, the ones hogging the story spotlight from other qualified characters are not themselves good characters. Thus, even though Planescape: Torment, Wild Arms 3, Final Fantasy 10, and Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume all are cases where a number of good supporting characters aren’t given quite enough time to shine because the main character(s) is/are completely dominating the story focus, they’re not examples of Love Hina Syndrome, because the end result is a good one, because the characters in the spotlight deserve to be there. Sure, I’d LIKE it if those good supporting characters had more time devoted to them, but the sacrifice is at least acceptable because the end result is a definitely positive one.

** Someone please, please, PLEASE grab the Boat Song FMV, maybe splice it up with some other scenes or artwork from the game, and make a Lunar 1 AMV to this song. It will be hilarious, and I will PAY you. A game from 2 games from! I would consider it so, so worth it.

Monday, November 18, 2013

General RPGs' Timed Hits

No introductory preamble today. Let’s talk about Timed Hits.

In most RPGs with a standard battle system (that is to say, menu-based combat), using a basic attack against an enemy is a simple case of selecting the Attack option, picking out which enemy you want to damage, and confirming with another button press. Very efficient, very simple (especially considering that Attack is almost always the first option on the menu), which is good, because you’re gonna be doing it maybe 4000 times or so for basically any given RPG.* Of course, as simple and efficient as it is, it’s equally tedious and boring. You all know by now that I consider the actual playing experience of RPGs to generally be boring (I’m in it for the story, characters, and all that jazz, not for the actual gameplay), but even by the standards of someone who for some reason enjoys limiting their gaming experience to moving a cursor up and down through various menus, selecting the Attack command probably starts to get monotonous after the first 500 times.

This is where timed hits come in. Pioneered, I think, by Super Mario RPG on the SNES,** the idea of a timed hit is that it’s an attack or skill which requires the player to enhance the effectiveness of said attack/skill by hitting a button, or multiple buttons, at just the right time and/or in just the right way during the attack/skill’s act. For example, in SMRPG, if you have Mario use a jump ability on an enemy, he leaps into the air and comes down on his enemy’s head in standard Mario fashion. But if you press the A button at just the right moment as he’s landing on the enemy, the attack will do extra damage, or Mario will bounce back up for another jump attack altogether (depending on which variation of the jump attack you’re using). For the sake of convenience, I’m going to use the term Timed Hits to cover both these basic button-pressing occurrences, and other, similar cases where more than just a button press is needed--for example, from the same game, one of Geno’s powers is boosted if you hold the Y button down until a certain time, and then release, and one of Bowser’s abilities is enhanced when, if I remember right, you move in counter-clockwise circles on the direction pad. In a sense, all this sort of thing still has to take place in a certain way in a certain time limit, so you can call it a Timed Hit. Also, for the purposes of simplicity, we’ll assume that a Timed Hit is only something that happens in standard menu-based combat. Timing your attacks and blocks and combos and such in an Action RPG is the norm, not an extra. Hell, I’m not sure how you’d have an Action RPG without timing your actions in some way.

Anyway. There is a right way, and a wrong way to do Timed Hits. Unfortunately, it is much more common to see it done the wrong way than the right one. Let’s take The Legend of Dragoon, for example, because it’s got just about everything wrong with Timed Hits that can be wrong. In TLoD, with the exception of Shana and Miranda, every character’s full normal attack consists of a half dozen or more strikes that can be made if you push a button at the exact right moment during the attack’s sequence. Here’s the first problem--the rapid-fire Timed Hits are frustrating. Where Super Mario RPG had the sense to keep its regular attacks restricted to a single well-timed button tap, your regular attacks in The Legend of Dragoon aren’t going to get you anywhere if you can’t keep up with their pace, something which usually requires more memorization than actual response skills (which just makes it all the more annoying that you’ll have to change their pattern several times during the game’s course as more powerful sequences are found, meaning you have to memorize a whole new set all the time). Look, game, I’m just trying to attack the enemy. I want to do some damage and get done with it. Why the hell do I have to tap 10 times to Dart’s silly sword dance each and every damn time I want to do this, huh? Sony put the work into choreographing all these attack routines; you’d think they’d want us to be able to pay attention to them instead of having to completely focus on the little button prompt box.

I guess I should just be thankful that TLoD’s rapid-fire button ordeal was at least functional. Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood’s special abilities very often required tons of fast-paced buttons pressed and circled and so on, and that crappy game’s stylus control always seems a bit off, or like it doesn’t detect the input right. Ugh. I guess that’s one Timed Hit sin that TLoD doesn’t have--a Timed Hit system that doesn’t work properly.

Next potential problem with Timed Hits that can also be found in The Legend of Dragoon: too much reliance on them. Like I said above, if you aren’t making the most of your Timed Hits for your regular attacks in this game, you’re not getting anywhere. The incredibly weak attackers in the game, Shana and Miranda, aren’t weak because their attack deals less damage than an attack by someone else on the team, they’re weak because it only deals that damage once, when the others can deal it many times over. But that’s the problem--without the Timed Hits, your characters are all doing White Mage damage. Super Mario RPG’s Timed Hits were very useful and made a real difference, but they were not essential. If you didn’t get the timing for a character’s attack, yeah, they’d do noticeably less damage, but it wasn’t so little as to be insignificant. Without Timed Hits, Super Mario RPG would be a little harder, and its battles would all be several turns longer, but you wouldn’t be crippled by the problem. But in The Legend of Dragoon...well, the game already suffered from bad experience balance, and a good-on-paper-terrible-in-practice magic system.*** The Timed Hit attacks were more or less your one and only truly effective, truly reliable combat option in most cases. Where does that leave a person who just doesn’t have a knack for timed button presses? Well and fully fucked, that’s where.

I never had any significant problem with TLoD’s Timed Hit system, incidentally. I did, however, have a problem with Mother 3’s Timed Hits, a mastery of which was almost as essential in that game as it was in TLoD. In order to make your characters’ attacks effective in Mother 3, you had to tap the attack button along to the beat of the background music, something I was absolutely fucking TERRIBLE at. I don’t think most players have that much trouble with it, but I’m apparently just utterly tone-deaf (or however you’d describe it), so I was lucky if I could get even one of the beats right. Like TLoD, Mother 3 seemed to be set up on the assumption that you were at least moderately competent at this timing thing, and this assumption made a game I think was supposed to be only as mildly challenging as its predecessor Earthbound into an excruciating ordeal. You guys may snicker at my insistence on playing games with no regard to how fun or boring or frustrating they may be, but I’m glad I do things the way I do, because if I let the actual gameplay of an RPG bother me, I never would have gotten through Mother 3 and would have missed out on a really great game.

At any rate, my point here is, you should never make a gimmick like this into something so important to your battle system that the game can’t be played adequately without it, because there are going to be some people, even if it’s only a small percentage, who just will not be able to perform it as expected. And it’s an RPG, not Guitar Hero, Parappa the Rapper, or Whack-A-Mole--this is not a skill that a gamer who wants to play an RPG should HAVE to have. You know how much I hate mandatory minigames--well, making Timed Hits too significant a part of effective combat is essentially making the entire battle system a mandatory minigame. A successful Timed Hit should be a bonus, not a necessity.

One more way to do Timed Hits wrong: forgetting why you put it in there to begin with. I started this rant by talking about how monotonous and boring it is to just hit the Attack command over and over again for 50 hours or so. Well, Timed Hits are an uncommon feature that changes how this works, so it’s fairly logical to assume that a developer who puts them into his/her game is doing so with the interest in making the playing experience more interesting, right? Well, here’s the problem--it often doesn’t actually make the battles any more interesting. I mean, the ones in The Legend of Dragoon will throw you for a bit of a loop when you first encounter each new sequence, but after a few battles, you’ve either got a handle on it, or you don’t. If you don’t, things are more interesting, but in a bad way, as you become frustrated with this system that you’re having trouble with. And if you do get used to it, well, the difference between a normal game’s Attack command and The Legend of Dragoon’s is that TLoD requires you to push the confirm button several times more. That’s, uh...that’s more or less it. Is that less dull and repetitive? Is it really?

I don’t hate the idea of Timed Hits and their ilk. Like I said, I found that Super Mario RPG did them fairly well--they were simple and straightforward enough, and if you found yourself unable to perform them, it wasn’t too major a roadblock in your attempt to play the game. Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden also involved Timed Hits in a pretty decent capacity--while not as forgiving as SMRPG, the Barkley game didn’t need you to time everything perfectly each time to do a reasonable amount of damage, and the timing and necessary actions were quite different for every single attack, so it actually managed to avoid becoming tedious pretty well. Some of the Timed Hits were even fairly creative. Still, it’s a gimmick that’s easy to make into an annoyance instead of a fun feature if someone’s not careful about it. Developers, please keep this in mind in the future. Y’know...because I’m sure you’re all reading this.

* You may think I’m exaggerating, but honestly, I think that number’s probably fairly accurate. I mean, on average you’re gonna engage in combat many hundreds of times, possibly over a thousand, in a given RPG, and I think most of those battles will see you use regular attacks at least a few times. It’s gotta add up into the thousands, wouldn’t you think?

** Although I’d swear there were several spells in Breath of Fire 2, released 2 years prior to SMRPG, that you could guarantee a critical hit from if you pushed the A button at just the moment the damage was being dealt. I’ve looked online at GameFAQs and spoken to other players about this and no one has any idea what I’m talking about, but I just know it’s true. Those spells couldn’t possibly have had such a huge Critical chance during every single one of my half dozen or so playthroughs, right? Someone tell me I’m not freaking crazy here.

*** The enemies consistently gave so little experience that grinding was so time-consuming that it was almost out of the question; if you fought every enemy you encountered between one boss and the other in a large dungeon, you’d usually only level up once, which is NOT a good rate for a standard JRPG. Magic abilities could only activate if you transformed into a Dragoon, after which you’d need to recharge your ability to transform again. Additionally, the only significant way to heal your characters was Shana and Miranda, the ones whose basic attack did about as much damage as an anorexic kitten halfheartedly throwing a marshmallow at the enemy. So if you wanted to have any magical healing, for those rare moments when your magic was actually available to you, you had to go through a battle with 1 of your 3 characters unable to do any serious attack damage, AND unable to access her actual abilities without taking special steps. But with the game’s difficulty and the fact that level grinding was twice as tedious and time-consuming as it usually is, not having that magic healing, unreliable though it was, was all the more difficult.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2's Equality Ending's Supposed Flaw

Before we begin the rant tonight, I'd like to mention that the Kickstarter game You Are Not the Hero looks like it will be pretty neato-torpedo. You might wanna check it out and throw in a pledge in these last days of its funding drive. Or not; purely up to you, and they're certainly more than fully funded at this point anyway. But it's neat so I thought I'd share it.

Okay, now the rant, for real.

Hey guys, here I am, with November's Shin Megami Tensei rant for my self-created SMT Rant Year. I ranted on SMT Devil Survivor 2 last time, so I figured to mix things up, I'd...rant about the exact same game again. Okay, so I'm not very original. Sue me.

Most games in the Shin Megami Tensei series have multiple endings. Not in the traditional RPG sense of a Good Ending, a Bad Ending, and sometimes a Better, True Ending as well (although SMT Persona 4 did that schtick), but rather a finale to the game that reflects the player’s moral beliefs and choices. Traditionally, it’s a split between Law, Neutral, and Chaos, although not always (SMT3’s moral choices are related to these, but not the same, for example). But one thing that that stays pretty consistent in an SMT title with multiple endings based on your personal beliefs regarding society and religion is that Atlus tries pretty hard to keep an unbiased stance on the matter. True, the Neutral path in an SMT game is most often considered the “best” one, and even the canon one, but it’s a small enough margin that it doesn’t feel like you’re pigeonholed into that choice over the other ones. As a general rule, Atlus presents a case for one side, emphasizing its virtues and flaws, and does the same for the other side, and clearly tries to do so equally enough that it’s left to the player’s personal beliefs on what aspects of humanity that the game’s focusing on are valued more highly than others. Almost always, it’s not a choice between a “good” side and a “bad” side, it’s a choice between which side’s virtues you value more and flaws you mind less. Or, if you think both are too extreme, you can go the Neutral route, which usually is shown to be a happier medium between the other choices (hence why so many consider it the “true” choice), but to require more work, and to have the downside that it’s little more than a gamble that a prolonged balance between the extremes is possible.*

This is all true of Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2. SMTDS2 has multiple endings, the most prominent ones being an ending that reshapes the world into one of utter equality where all is shared between people, an ending that reshapes the world into a meritocracy where one’s social position and power are dictated by one’s strength, intelligence, and general skills and usefulness, and a couple of Neutral endings that straddle the fence one way or another. The game has the figureheads of each school of thought (Ronaldo for Equality and Yamato for Meritocracy) argue to the protagonist the main benefits of their philosophy, and the main flaw of their opponent's. Unfortunately, however, SMTDS2...well, it didn’t do a particularly good job with providing equally compelling arguments.

The first reason that the argument between Equality and Meritocracy is imbalanced is that the latter’s spokesman, Yamato, has a perspective which is shown to be flawed and incomplete--and not by the writers’ intentions. I already went over that, however, so just refer back to my Yamato’s Folly rant if you want to refresh your memory. Ronaldo, champion of the world of Equality, has no such glaring, specifically self-defeating character development scenes. Thus, regardless of which one’s view you actually would support, Ronaldo is the one who comes off like he’s actually got his act together simply because he’s not a hypocrite to his ideals.

But there’s another, larger problem with Atlus’s attempt to balance the sides out here: the big flaw. Like I said, each side has its benefits and its downsides, but ultimately, the characters of the game focus very specifically upon a small handful of each side’s merits and flaws. The one I’m concerned with is the perhaps biggest alleged flaw of Ronaldo’s proposed world of Equality, a flaw pointed out by several other characters who object to Ronaldo’s philosophy. Their claim, and thus the game’s claim, is that in such a world of full equality, where all work is for the good of others and all resources and aid are distributed equally and without preference, humans would no longer feel the drive to excel, to try their hardest and overcome their own limits to be and do better. The game reasons that if all wealth and resources are truly spread equally, if no one person is valued more than another, then there is no higher position in any part of society to yearn to achieve, no reward for those who do better than others for which a person can strive for. Ronaldo’s equality would mean the end of power, wealth, perks, property, and at least some forms of fame and prestige--at least, in the sense that these things can potentially be possessed in greater quantities by one person than by another.

It seems a fair point, and certainly there’s truth in it, to the effect that the material bonuses for working harder/better/faster/stronger would not exist, and so, indeed, would there be no more motivation for people to work harder and exceed expectations just for the benefits it could bring to them personally. In Ronaldo’s world where no one gets more than another, the most reward one could really hope for as a return for exceptional work would be a pat on the back and others’ appreciation.

But the thing is, the game’s making this out like the hope for advancement and reward are the ONLY reasons people have for giving their all and going above and beyond in their jobs, duties, and so on. When the characters discuss the downsides of Ronaldo’s world of Equality, they talk about how such a world would have NO ambition, they question whether such a world would be taking something important from humanity by removing people’s desire to do their best, do more than is expected, do better than others around them. The game’s philosophy in determining this to be a major, possibly THE major, flaw of Ronaldo’s vision is that EVERY reason to excel is removed when you remove the possibility for material benefits and/or social recognition.

Here’s the thing, though. That’s NOT the only reason people can have to do their best, to excel at their duties, to try to be the best and brightest and do great things. That’s not even close to true! There are so many examples of how this idea is wrong that I don’t know where to start! Are there not many teachers in the world who have a passion for passing on knowledge, a passion whose satisfaction comes not from their meager paycheck or ever-dwindling benefits and social status, but rather from the knowledge that educating others helps to better them and the society they take part of? Is it not true that many doctors, nurses, and EMTs throw themselves into their career ultimately because they want to heal, to help people? Isn’t it true that many, many soldiers joined their country’s military because they love their country and wish to protect its people and values? As far as I’ve been able to tell, the more impassioned about their work a charity worker, environmentalist, or human rights activist is, the more likely that passion flows from a genuine interest in the betterment of society and the world, not from the interest of becoming more affluent or getting a better position. In fact, many such people readily give up those comforts so they can better excel at working for their convictions!

Good heavens, just look at science and mathematics! Philosophy and art! How many countless thinkers of human history, the people we ultimately revere as our greatest members, were motivated by nothing but the pure desire to understand, to explore the workings of the world and the human race? Certainly, many profited from the knowledge and discoveries they achieved, and certainly some did so specifically with that goal in mind, but I daresay it’s quite fair to assume that most of them were working with motives other than personal advancement, power, or material benefits.

It’s a huge gap in SMTDS2’s logic, and not a hard one to recognize. That by itself makes this a rather large and embarrassing flaw for the game’s writers, very uncharacteristic of Atlus. But it’s not just that one’s own simple reasoning can debunk the position that True Equality = No Drive to Excel. The game itself proves this idea wrong! Many times, even!

Consider the character of Daichi. Daichi’s character development in the game is mostly concerned with him dealing with his fears and reticence to stand up for what he believes in, and coming to believe in his ability to help people and the need to do so when they can’t help themselves. Why in the world does Daichi later in the game question whether people in a world of true Equality would be capable of going above and beyond, capable of the important human quality of ambition? His whole bit of soul-searching has given him the convictions and strength of character to put himself on the line to help others, and his reasons for doing so are unrelated to any interest in being rewarded or winning a higher position in life. Daichi’s character development is proof positive by the game itself that motivations to do more than your minimal duties, to go above and beyond in the tasks you take, can be entirely unrelated to desires for reward, prestige, power, or anything like that.

What about Ronaldo himself, for that matter? Ronaldo is putting his life on the line over and over in battling against Yamato’s forces, and he does so in defense of the weak and helpless, people that Yamato ignores as worthless. More importantly, Ronaldo throws his every possible effort into bringing about his ideal world of Equality. You can’t tell me that he lacks motivation to succeed, that he doesn’t give his all to his goals, that he doesn’t have a hell of a lot of ambition. He and Yamato are meant to be seen as basically evenly matched when it comes to ambition and desire to succeed. All of this determination pretty obviously isn’t coming from a desire to be better off or more respected than others, since it’s all being directed at creating a world where such things don’t exist.

And there are plenty of other examples like this in the game. Makoto is one of Yamato’s best officers, and her motivation for doing her job as well as possible, for sticking with Yamato’s group no matter what, is because she’s grateful to him for having given her an opportunity to make a difference with her life after her original life plans fell through. In fact, it’s her motivations of loyalty that keep her with Yamato to the end, not a belief that his ideal world is actually the best option. Keita puts everything he has into being as strong as he possibly can be, and this desire for personal perfection seems entirely motivated simply for its own sake, not the benefits it can confer. Hell, practically every time the party scrambles to prevent a Nicaea death video from coming to pass, it’s unrelated to their basic duties and motivated entirely by the simple wish for that person to live.

You know what? When I really think about it, the vast majority of motivations shown throughout Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 are ones that have little to nothing to do with social or material benefits! The whole damn game is its own argument against itself!

Companionship, altruism, desire for personal perfection, loyalty, love, a wish to make the world better, a thirst for understanding, patriotism, moral obligation...these are many powerful motivations that give people the drive to be as great as they can possibly be and do as much as they possibly do, and there is no logical reason at all to think that ANY of these motives would not exist in a world of Equality as described by SMTDS2. In fact, several of them would probably be all the stronger!

While the debate between philosophies in other SMT games usually comes down to personal beliefs and values because the points for and against each side are well-balanced and logical, the debate between Equality and Meritocracy in SMT Devil Survivor 2 is poorly balanced. As mentioned in a previous rant, the figurehead of the Meritocracy, Yamato, has an incomplete perspective that is contradicted by his own words and actions multiple times. Additionally, as I’ve pointed out in this rant, the game’s big clincher argument against the world of Equality is debunked both by simple logic on the player’s part, and the actions of the game’s own characters. It’s all well and fine for me, since I’m a proponent for the world of Equality, but it makes for a less intellectually engaging story and theme. It feels like the SMT team phoned this one in. Bad show, Atlus, bad show.

* A gamble that actually seems futile sometimes, really. I mean, the balance of the Neutral path is often a return to some semblance of regular life, but the situation of these battling extremes came up naturally from a relatively Neutral world to start with, so it seems like the Neutral path is just a temporary extension of balance that’s eventually going to lead right back to the same situation. Look at some of the major SMT games--SMT1, 2, 4, and Strange Journey. The forces of Law claim that humanity can’t exist on its own without faith in God and a need for restrictive order. The forces of Chaos claim that humanity can’t exist on its own without a desire for the power of demons and a yearning for freedom. Well, since all these games are (tenuously) connected to one another, and the conflict between Law and Chaos keeps repeating itself to the backdrop of regular Neutral life, it would seem both sides are correct. Well, if Neutral is going to keep leading to these wars between Heaven and Hell over the convictions of humanity, maybe it’s not as good a path as everyone says, and somebody SHOULD make a lasting decision of Law or Chaos.