Sunday, September 28, 2014

General RPGs' Endings' Disproportionate Importance

Before we begin, there's an RPG Kickstarter that you might be interested in: Graywalkers: Purgatory. This is actually a returning Kickstarter, in that the last time it was up, it didn't get funded in time. But as it seems to be a combination of Fallout, Shin Megami Tensei, and Shadowrun, and thus should by every right be perhaps the coolest thing ever conceived, I'm hoping that this time it'll hit its goal. Check it out, and throw it a pledge if you think it looks interesting!

Today’s rant is about a fairly general subject that really can apply to a great many things, but since it does have relevance to RPGs, and since I’ll be looking at it from that angle, I figure it’s legit.

It’s a funny thing. A few months ago, I played The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, while it was still relatively new. I was going to hold off on it until later on, once the price had dropped, but my good friend Queelez, who is super awesome, described the game to me in terms I might almost call glowing. Additionally, I’d just heard that the heads of Nintendo had decided to cover the costs of the company’s losses on the Wii U by cutting their own salaries rather than laying any of their employees off, which is what they did for the 3DS as well, and damn if that didn’t just fill me once more with incredible respect and admiration for Nintendo. How many companies in the world exist, on any level and of any size, that would do such a thing even once, let alone twice? The people running Nintendo are truly some noble and morally upstanding individuals, and I wanted to support them as much as possible, so I got the new Zelda the next day.

Anyway, my Nintendo praise aside, I played The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, and, well, it is, as I said, a funny thing. I didn’t really think that much of it. Oh, to be sure, I’d say it’s in the upper half of TLoZ titles, because its story is very slightly creative, it has a few elements of storytelling that are subtle but notable, and a few of its characters are fairly decent. It all adds up to an okay RPG, but that’s a hell of a lot better than so many other story-light, character depth-lacking TLoZ titles with utterly stagnant narrative creativity. I didn’t dislike it, anyway, but it didn’t strike me as anything particularly memorable or interesting, either. But once I’d finished the game, and the ending was over and done with, that’s when the funny thing happened: I realized that my immediate post-game impression of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, my feelings for it immediately after finishing the title, were actually very positive, as though I had just come away from a good RPG, even a great one! I was feeling as satisfied as I had at the end of, say, Radiant Historia, or Okage: Shadow King, or Final Fantasy 6--all of which were far superior RPGs to this one.

The reason for this? Quite simply, it’s because the very best part of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is indisputably its finale, the final confrontation in the game and its ending. The last battle is cool, the character reveal of the true villain of the game is, if not entirely unexpected, still engrossing and affecting, the return and reveal of Ravio is great, as is his dialogue with the villain, and the final part of the ending, the generous, epic act of kindness on the part of Link and Zelda toward Hilda and her all comes together as something powerful, and good, and memorable, and it makes the entire adventure seem to have been so much better, to have been worth so much more, for what it all led to. Objectively, rationally, I force myself to remember that most of the game did not impress me and judge it as merely okay. Personally, emotionally, I cannot help but reflect with pleased satisfaction upon The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.

Another story. A couple years ago, I played Mass Effect 3.* Though not perfect (weak premise of relying on a plot-convenient, inexplicable ancient doohickey like roughly 80% of all other RPGs in existence, the laziness of the Tali’s face reveal, the stupidity of Kai Leng, and goddam Diana Allers were all noticeable flaws), it was overall a great experience, filled with terrific characters, breathtakingly excellent writing, some truly amazing scenes, and emotion like you wouldn’t believe, all while maintaining the awesomeness and majesty of Mass Effect, a series which had become a true highlight in the history of science fiction. It was everything I could reasonably have wanted from a conclusion to the Mass Effect series, the perfect, mind-blowing conclusion to the epic saga. For 30+ hours, I was utterly enthralled.

When I finished the game, I was a broken, hate-filled man with a hollow feeling in my soul that persists to this day.

For the hours, days, weeks, months immediately following my completion of Mass Effect 3, I did not remember the beauty of the scenes in which the Genophage is cured. I did not recall the great coming together of Geth and Quarian, united finally and able to lay their past to rest through the the sacrifice of Legion. I did not think of the tear-inducing beauty of Charr’s poem, nor that of Thane’s final scene. I did not consider just how awesome Commander Shepard, the Chuck Norris of space, had been throughout. The countless positive parts of Mass Effect 3, both grand and tiny, that come together over the course of the game to make it so incredibly excellent as to defy description--all of that was lost to me. All I felt, looking back on it, was betrayed, and disgusted.

The reason for this? The same one that would later skew my hindsight of TLoZALBW, just in reverse: the game’s ending. I’ve spoken about this many, many times, and most of those times have been at length, but here it is again: Mass Effect 3’s ending is horrible beyond comprehension; it is poison to every moment of the series preceding it. The ending of ME3 violently throws aside the values of the series so far. It utterly destroys Shepard’s character and the ideals that he or she represents. It makes less sense than Tommy Wiseau’s The Room--in fact, if it were revealed that Tommy Wiseau had been the one to write out the explanations that the Catalyst hologram kid says, I would be exactly 0% surprised. It cheapens the power, threat, and effect of the series’s antagonists. It tries to shift the entire tone of the series away from what it is and try to make it what it isn’t--like if you ineptly pasted the ending of an abandoned first draft of an Isaac Asimov imitation book onto Star Wars. Its arguments and themes are proven wrong not only by basic rational thought, but also by the prior events of the game itself. It shifts aside all the major themes of the series and tries to convince us that one of the secondary themes was, in fact, the important one all along. It disregards the element of player choice that has been present from the beginning of Mass Effect, and for that matter, also disregards the possibility of following a Paragon course of action, since Shepard’s choices are essentially to either kill an entire sapient race, disregard all his beliefs regarding the dangers of using power greater than that which you’ve earned (which has been one of the cautionary themes of the series, too) and do exactly what he just prevented the main villain from doing, die in failure, or utterly violate every single organism in the universe’s right to bodily self-determination in order to immediately do what the antagonists essentially wanted anyway.

And by the way, I’m speaking right now of the ending as of Bioware’s attempt to fix it with the Extended Cut. Their first try was actually even worse.

Anyway, this ending is so vile that it made me forget everything great that had led up to it. It worsens all that came before it, a retroactively toxic thing that sours all one’s previous enjoyment with the realization that everything that had been good was all just leading up to this. Up until the ending, Mass Effect 3 was easily one of the greatest RPGs I’d ever played, better even than the first title...and yet all that remained in me once it was finished was hollow, hopeless distaste.

Thankfully, though, cases like The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds outnumber ones like Mass Effect 3. Of the RPG finales and endings I’ve seen that have significantly changed my immediate impression of their games, most have been positive. I can think of several good cases off the top of my head (Valkyrie Profile 1, Startropics 1, and Makai Kingdom) that have altered my perspective on the game for the better, whereas the only case where the disproportionately bad ending affected my overall feelings of the game that I can recall is the example above, Mass Effect 3.

Endings are important and endings are powerful. I think a lot of people, many of them the ones writing and developing games and other forms of storytelling, underestimate just what an effect an ending can have. It doesn’t seem possible, or even right, that a small, 10 - 30 minute period of a narrative could so significantly alter an opinion that has been forged by a prior 20 to 50 hours of experience with the game...and yet the simple fact is that endings can and do. They’re the last experience we have with the story, and that gives them a better chance to be the part of the game we remember the most, simply for the fact that we tend to remember the recent more clearly than the long past. In addition, no matter what good or bad has happened during the course of the game, the ending to it is where it was all headed, and as such, the ending’s quality naturally is going to color how you see the game’s events. With an ending so good it’s out of place, suddenly everything leading up to the ending can seem better, not for its own sake but for the sake that we know now that it led to something worthwhile. Conversely, with an ending so bad it’s out of place, the events that lead up to it might no longer seem as good, because for all their worth on their own, you’re naturally going to see them and remember that great though this or that moment may be, ultimately they’re just leading to the lousy conclusion.

I’m not saying that every ending IS important and powerful, mind, nor even that every ending should be. The majority of RPG endings I’ve seen have not been disproportionately important to the overall quality of the game. In most cases, the endings are as good or bad as the game would lead us to expect (as examples, Chrono Trigger’s ending is excellent, but everything leading up to it is, too, and Suikoden 4 has a hellishly boring ending, but no one could possibly have expected anything else from it). All an ending NEEDS to do, really, is conclude the work while more or less maintaining the game’s status quo for quality, and that’s what they usually accomplish.

But the potential to disproportionately affect an audience is there in an ending, the potential to significantly and permanently alter the player’s opinion in a positive or negative way, to suddenly elevate the game beyond the sum of its parts or to be the moment where it trips at the finish line. And as I said, people do often seem to underestimate, or deliberately downplay, this importance of endings. As an example of that downplaying, I remember that in the case of the Mass Effect 3 ending, Bioware, utterly shameless and unrepentant, made a mighty push in its advertising of the game to emphasize that “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.”** A charming misrepresentation of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, truly an adorably transparent attempt to savagely twist his original intent to serve the dishonorable and greedy desires of the amoral, soulless automatons in Bioware’s marketing department, but all the same, I once someone respond to this Bioware misquote with a considerably wiser saying:

“Many would walk through Hell to get to Heaven. Few would walk through Heaven to get to Hell.”

* Hands up if you don’t see where I’m going with this. No hands? Yeah.

** Pictorial evidence: This is an actual, legit example of their ad campaign after the first wave of players went apeshit over the game’s ending. Can’t decide whether it’s more insulting or sad, really.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

General RPGs' Town Music

Why is town music in RPGs always so insipid, annoying, and/or completely forgettable?

Think about it. With a few exceptions--notable, but few--town music is pretty much always a boring or outright unpleasant affair in RPGs. It’s either some uninspired, tired, vaguely upbeat (or gloomy, for some towns) affair that makes me roll my eyes with how lacking in creativity and feeling it is, or some obnoxious, grating ditty set on an eternal, ear-grinding loop. Or it’s just such an outright forgettable sequence of generic notes that it barely qualifies as background noise. It feels to me like basic town music is the part of every game soundtrack that the composer just outsources to whichever company it is that comes up with the background music to infomercials.

It’s kind of annoying to me, honestly. The rest of the game’s music may be excellent, with each track composed carefully to inspire a certain feeling relevant to the times of the game it plays during, to convey a mood or meaning via its notes, but everything always seems to fall apart the instant your party sets foot within city limits. At that moment, the only message the music communicates is “WELCOME TO TOWN,” its only mood, boredom. Obviously some are worse than others--sweet merciful Rempo is the standard town music for Final Fantasy 4 dull, and don’t even get me started on every generic town theme of every Dragon Quest ever--but next to no town theme is ever actually good or memorable.

Obviously, of course, there are a good handful of exceptions. Or rather, there seem to be. For example, I think the theme for the (sort of) town of Dologany, from Breath of Fire 2, is very cool and epic, and I think the same of the music for the town of Narvick in Lufia 2. The music for Windia in Breath of Fire 4 is very calming and enjoyable, as is that for the Moon Kingdom of Sailor Moon: Another Story. The music in Star Ocean 3 for Whipple Village is among my all-time favorite RPG tunes. And many themes that play during sad moments involving towns in RPGs (such as a town after it’s been burned/flooded/blown to bits/infected/whatever by the forces of evil) are quite good, too--I’m quite a fan of the ruined city theme in Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled, and the one for The Legend of Dragoon. Ahto City from Knights of the Old Republic 1, Alistel from Radiant Historia, Valua City from Skies of Arcadia Legends, Murky Waters from The Witcher 1...the list actually goes on for a while of the town themes I find to be excellent.

But here’s the thing about all those exceptions. They’re all specialized, individual themes. The music for Dologany and Narvick are ONLY heard in those towns, nowhere else in the game. Each is the final town you visit on the game’s journey, and each is a location that is hugely important to the plot. They receive special musical attention to better convey their epic finality. The actual generic town music used for most other settlements in BoF2 is bland (though admittedly above the average of RPG towns), and the actual generic town music of Lufia 2’s communities is like audible Novocaine. And so it is for all the “exceptions” I just listed. They’re all tailored specifically for 1 single location and/or a specific plot event/atmosphere of importance. In fact, some come from games where EVERY town location has its own individual tune. And that’s not a bad thing! When every town is important to that degree, when you put some actual effort into making a theme for a town that’s unique to that town and/or its place in the game’s events, when you believe it matters, you can get some good results!

But when it comes to the authentic generic town music, the stuff that gets played for the majority of towns in an RPG...meh. When we take out specialized and/or singular town themes, I come up with very few pieces of town music that I think are particularly decent and memorable. Wild Arms 1’s town theme, Legaia 2’s town theme,, I can’t even think of a third. If there’s any situation where the phrase “the exception proves the rule” applies, it’s probably the situation where you have 2 exceptions in a pool of over 250.* For the sake of not having to mildly regret every time I decide to stop by a village for an equipment upgrade and a night at the inn, I wish game composers could put a little more effort, time, and/or creativity into their town music, give it more punch, more pizzazz, more SOMETHING. Or better yet, I wish more RPGs would adopt the practice of giving each town its own musical theme. After all, what CAN you expect from a tune composed with the deliberate purpose of being vague and generic enough to be layered onto like 50 different town locations?

* Okay, for accuracy’s sake, I must admit that not ALL 250+ of the RPGs I’ve played had any generic town music (a few, as I mentioned, give individual tracks to each town). But the large majority do have a generic town theme (a few even have multiple ones), large enough that I think the slight exaggeration is still okay.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Deus Ex 2's Pequod's and Queequeg's Reveal

Deus Ex 2 has a rather accelerated pace in its storytelling, going from one major event and thematic concept to the next with very little delay, making it a much shorter game than its predecessor. In general, though, the writers handle this pace well enough that, despite its quickness, it doesn’t really come off as rushed, and you still have enough time for your mind to chew on the game’s ideas without being left behind. There is, however, 1 time in DE2 in which the brisk narrative pace has a noticeably detrimental effect: the reveal of Pequod’s and Queequeg’s.

As you progress through the events of Deus Ex 2, one of the subplots you frequently encounter is the bitter corporate rivalry between the global coffeehouse chains, Pequod’s Coffee and Queequeg’s Coffee (both of which are, of course, parodies of Starbucks, also taking their names from Moby Dick). In each city that Alex Denton, the protagonist, visits, the manager of one or both of these competitors will attempt to get Alex to help them to get a leg up on their competition, sometimes legally (getting permission for Queequeg’s to do business in the ritzier part of town, for example), sometimes not so legally (a certain Pequod’s manager subscribes to the same idea as that famous NPC from The Legend of Zelda 2: If all else fails, use fire). It’s a mildly interesting subplot, but doesn’t seem to have any real importance.

Until, that is, you come across some evidence hidden in a police station in Trier, which the local Queequeg’s manager wants Alex to find for him. This evidence reveals that Queequeg’s and Pequod’s coffee chains are, in fact, both owned by the same company. That company set each chain up to appeal to different demographics (Queequeg’s is seen as the everyman’s coffee, while Pequod’s is thought to cater to the more refined, higher class tastes), and then set them to war with one another, with the idea that the competition would cause the customers of each to become all the more loyal supporters of their preferred brand, their devotion solidified by their enmity toward the supposed rival chain. Whether people support Side A or Side B, if you’re running the war, you’re the one winning, right? It also plays on people's tendency to become nervous about monopolies and other such 1-party systems, falsely reassuring them that if either chain begins doing wrong by its customers, there's another chain that the people can flock to.

This revelation is great in 2 ways. The first is that it makes the previously seemingly unimportant coffee sidequest into a genuine, significant part of the Deus Ex theme of exposing and analyzing the ways in which a population is manipulated and controlled, in this case showing us some of the ways that businesses do so. Well-executed twist, makes sense, gives the subplot some significance, very nicely done in general.

The other great thing about this revelation is that it’s clever foreshadowing for a later, much more important plot revelation: the fact that the World Trade Organization and The Order, the 2 major world power groups that have each been vying for Alex’s assistance and attempting to gain the upper hand over the other, are actually both being run by the same people: the Illuminati. Just as with the Pequod’s and Queequeg’s coffee chains, the people on both sides of the famously hostile competition between the WTO and The Order are being manipulated into working against one another, their fervor to seize every bit of control and advantage over the “enemy” only making the puppet masters of the conflict more powerful. Great little parallel they set up here, just connected enough that you can figure out that the WTO and Order will wind up being the same as the coffee chains if you’re clever, but not obvious or anything, so it’s still a neat twist even if you guessed it.

Or at least, that’s how it should work.

But this foreshadowing idea is where the problem is with the coffee chain reveal. In theory, it should work fine, because like I said, it’s clever and it’s written well, connected but still subtle. But the pacing of the game kind of just ruins it. See, after visiting the police station in Trier where you learn the truth of the Pequod’s and Queequeg’s rivalry, the next real mission of the game is to rescue the leader of The Order...and it’s then that you discover that the Illuminati are running both the WTO and The Order.

The plot twist that the coffee subplot was foreshadowing comes right after the coffee subplot reveal! It’s the very next part of the game’s story!

Foreshadowing just doesn’t work when it’s given so little time to work with. The revelation of Pequod’s and Queequeg’s origin isn’t given the time needed to sit in the audience’s head and germinate into a deeper understanding. Done properly, the reveal of the WTO and The Order would make a little light go off in your head, would make you think, “Of course! It’s like the coffee chains from earlier! I should have seen it coming--the truth was staring at me the whole time! The writers really had this theme all worked out!” Instead, coming so soon after the coffee subquest reveal, the impression is just, “Oh, like that other thing that I only just saw like 30 minutes ago. Neat connection.” The effect is still positive, but there’s none of the impact that there might have been if the plot twist had come earlier in the game. If you’d had more time to remember it and consider it, if it had been placed earlier and thus better connected the WTO and Order reveal to the earlier events of the story, making a stronger sense of the answer always having been there...well, it would simply have been a much more effective use of the Queequeg’s and Pequod’s subplot twist. Foreshadowing should be more than just 1 single step ahead of the plot.

Anyway, it’s not a huge deal, I suppose, and overall the twist and its connection to the game’s larger events and theme is still good. It’s just a shame to me that its timing keeps it from being better.