Tuesday, July 28, 2015

General RPGs' Badly Reimagined Characters

It sucks when you have to put up with a poorly-written character for a whole game. RPGs average 50 to 60 hours, and that’s a hell of a long time to be stuck with an incessantly chatty dumbass like Wild Arms 4’s Jude, a thoroughly obnoxious asshole like Star Ocean 3’s Albel Nox, a nauseating simpleton like Grandia 3’s Alfina, a self-righteous hypocritical bitch like Dragon Age 1’s Morrigan, or absolutely goddamn everyone in Mega Man Star Force 1.

But you know what’s much worse? Having to put up with a poorly-written character who was, in more capable writers’ hands, previously someone you actually liked. You know what I’m talking about: you had a cool character from a game, and then, in some sequel or spin-off, that character was used again, only this time, they were suddenly really crappy, a poor caricature of their original concept, or not even close enough to be called that. Think Samus, in Metroid: Other M. Usually this is caused by an inept idiot ruining someone else’s work, like the characters of Avatar: The Last Airbender being horribly mangled by the live action movie adaptation of the show, but not always. Sometimes, the same company can utterly misunderstand and cheapen their own characters, like what Disney does to Jack Sparrow after the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and on rare occasions, the original creator him/herself will destroy his/her creation, like George Lucas did with Darth Vader. And, well, pretty much every other part of Star Wars.

Sometimes you’ll luck out, sort of, and the damage will be relatively minor. Suikoden 4 managed against all probability to make Viki boring, but as much as I do adore Viki and her hapless antics, messing up a character whose story contribution is basically just humor isn’t a comparatively huge transgression. Plus, Viki was back to her amusing Viki-ness in the next game, and adorably voice acted at that. Or you’ll get a creator who does not, nor makes absolutely any goddamn effort to, understand the characters they’re borrowing, but is only using those characters in a small way that doesn’t have the time or importance to really damage the character, like when Tetsuya Nomura uses any Final Fantasy character not from his own games in a Kingdom Hearts title.

But more often, the damage done to a beloved character, one whose influence over the audience significantly affected their enjoyment of the game as a total, is a lot more dire. Good characters can be ruined by a stupid misunderstanding of them, the way Cloud was in Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children--his character had basically regressed back to the state it was in at the end of FF7’s first disc and then multiplied its teen angst twice over. It was like watching some self-indulgent mopey teen’s fanfic misinterpretation of the character brought to CGI life, complete with the questionable black Hot Topic ensemble. Good characters can be ruined by sheer, stupefying incompetence, like the poor cast of Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals. You’d never know it from the remake, but Maxim and his companions actually had some dignity and weren’t just laughable, illogical caricatures back in the original Lufia 2. Good characters can be ruined by some writer’s arrogant impulse to brutally twist the character to fit the writer’s needs instead of who the character actually is, leaving a personality so disfigured that the character is pretty much unrecognizable, like Bioware did to Anders in Dragon Age 2. And of course, good characters can be ruined by all of these factors coming together at once, a repulsive maelstrom of careless, incompetent arrogance that strips everything that was good and worthwhile about a character away, leaving only Final Fantasy 10-2 Yuna behind.

It’s bad enough when someone takes a great plot or setting and lore, and ruins it. It was aggravating to play Shadow Hearts 3, for example, and see the inept handling of the series’s atmospheric, gloomy, yet strangely quirky image of real world history as the game bumbled its way through a slew of crappy misconceptions of the Americas. Very aggravating. It’s one of many reasons why that game just blows. And it’s even worse when important parts of a plot are ruined. It was so disappointing to see Final Fantasy 7: Last Order retroactively cheapen one of the greatest moments in the Final Fantasy series as it changed Cloud’s inspiring victory over Sephiroth at the Nibelheim Reactor to looking like Sephiroth thinks it barely an inconvenience.*

But for a large majority of RPGs, the characters are truly the heart and soul of the game, our guides and translators of the plot and its themes, the components which invest us emotionally.** So if you fuck up a character that the audience liked, you’re not just souring that character, you’re worsening everything that character touches and contributes to, the product as a whole. When that character was written correctly, he or she (or it) was one of the paths the audience took toward enjoying the work, and now that you’ve spoiled that character, he or she (or it) will just as easily become a path for the audience to take toward disliking this new work. You’re poisoning the game from the inside out, and probably spreading that poison retroactively to the original one, too. When continuing or remaking an RPG, game creators should be careful to do well by the source material, but they should exert extra caution in the case of reusing or remaking the original’s cast. Screw up there, and they have fucked up something fierce.

* Hey, Nomura, do you think you could maybe just try to go a full 5 minutes without fellating Sephiroth? Just once? For the sake of artistic integrity? No, I guess not.

** Mind, not ALL RPGs are like this. There are some RPGs that are excellent solely by virtue of story, themes, and whatnot, without any real influence from the characters. Deus Ex 1, for example, is a terrific RPG, but it owes almost none of its quality to its cast--they all just fit their roles as needed and don’t get in the way of the gripping and thought-provoking plot. Earthbound, as another example, is a game whose main characters barely have any real narrative presence, yet there are more than a few who think it quite a decent RPG, just for other reasons. Still, most RPGs have a strong focus on their characters, and those characters being good or bad may make or break the title.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Guest Rant: Energy Breaker's Ties to the Lufia Series, by Humza

Whoo! Guest rant! Interesting new perspectives, AND less work for me! What's not to love?

Today's guest rant is authored by one Humza, a frequent reader here who I am particularly fond of, for the fact that he called the attention of one of my most revered game industry heroes, Chris Avellone, to one of my rants, which resulted in Mr. Avellone calling it “brilliant.” Yup, one of the highlights of my life right there. And now Humza does me another solid with a guest rant! What a fine gentleman he is.

Anyway, disclaimer: I make no pretense of ownership of Mr. Humza's words here, and this guest rant does not necessarily reflect my own opinions and perceptions. That said, though, I wouldn't publish it if I didn't think it was at least worth reading and contemplating, so check it out.

Energy Breaker’s Ties to the Lufia Series

July 13, 2015

This won’t make sense to anyone that’s not familiar with at least the first two installments of the Lufia series, so reading this would be a waste of time; no previous knowledge of Energy Breaker is required, though.

So there are a couple of references in Energy Breaker that relate to the Lufia series. The first of these is a quest in which the party takes a request from an NPC in order to progress the plot. The details of the request involve planting a genetically modified seed and bringing the flower to the NPC. This turns out to be the Priphea Flower, which some might remember as the type of flower which Lufia likes so much (maybe even being one of her character’s defining traits*).

This is pretty straight forward – but what’s so special and interesting about finding the origins of a flower that’s barely related to the overarching events of the series? To answer that question, we must look back at the character that loves the flowers so much. One of the game’s more memorable aspects of the character Lufia is the fact that she is Erim, the Sinistral of Death. In the opening of Lufia 2, it’s clear that Erim believes that Sinistrals are far superior to humans, and the theme of Humans vs. Sinistrals often recurs through the game.

This, I think, demonstrates the purpose of the aforementioned quest: Sinistrals can also benefit from humans, and the differences between them may not be as stark as Erim originally thought. This can also demonstrate Erim’s character development as she gradually became more accepting of humans from the beginning of Lufia 2 the end of Lufia 1 (to the point that she enjoyed their creations to a great extent).

The other reference to the Lufia series in Energy Breaker is the Dual Blade, the legendary sword that seems to have a mind of its own (as it stabbed Lufia against the protagonist’s will at the end of the first game and has the ability to choose its wielder). This, admittedly, is shakier than the first point, but it’s also more interesting.

The Dual Blade’s appearance in Energy Breaker isn’t connected to the plot like Priphea Flowers are, but it makes an appearance as one of the strongest weapons in the game. This raises a number of questions, such as why it isn’t as strong as it was in the Lufia games, how the Dual Blade gained the strength it holds, as well as where the blade’s almost-sentient qualities originate from.

In Lufia: The Legend Returns for the GBC, Milka states that the Dual Blade was not made by humans and implies that Sinistrals could not have made the weapon either, so there must have been an event to change the Dual Blade if it turned from a strong (but not special) sword to what it is in the Lufia series.

In Energy Breaker, the only character that can wield the Dual Blade is Leon, since it fits with the weapon type he uses. After the game’s credits, Leon is shown sitting (seemingly dead?) at the bottom of an ocean, and Selphia’s spirit appears to do something to him before she teleports. My theory is that she sealed his spirit or mind into the Dual Blade, which I’ll admit is quite farfetched. But it fills the ambiguities relatively eloquently – Leon was a strong character in the game, so sealing his spirit into a sword would most likely make it stronger. It also answers the question of how the Dual Blade is able to stab Lufia on its own, or how it is able to choose the person that should wield it. The Dual Blade is also found in an underwater shrine in Lufia 2, and we last see Leon underwater. The absence of his body or its remnants can be attributed to decay or fossilization.

You would be able to poke some holes into this theory by inquiring why the Dual Blade chose Daos at first, but Leon was not always in cahoots with the party, and there’s the possibility that his mind degraded either due to time or due to the process itself.

Both of these are probably simple cameos that weren’t bestowed with any special meaning since the writer for the Lufia games didn’t appear in Energy Breaker’s credits, but canonical or not, it's still interesting to think about.

* The RPGenius Says: Yup. Admiring Priphea flowers, making cinnamon tea, and fawning over the mostly unresponsive lump that passes for a protagonist...these are the defining, and only, traits of Lufia.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Dragon Age 2's Merrill

Merrill is a weird character for me.

There aren’t a lot of party members in Dragon Age 2 whose personalities are actually appealing. Varric, I guess, is likeable from the start, but Aveline, Fenris, Sebastian, Bethany, and Isabela don’t have much charisma going for them. What personality they have tends to be either faintly annoying (Bethany’s resentfulness), cliched (Fenris’s brooding), or both (Isabela’s self-interest). Despite that, though, they’re all actually pretty decent characters, with enough depth and core beliefs and behaviors that they come out as positive in the end. Meanwhile, Carver is a pill AND doesn’t have any worthwhile character quality to make up for it, and Anders has the personality of a close-minded jerk and turns out to be even more of a thoughtless asswipe than he comes off as.

But then there’s Merrill. Merrill's is actually an enjoyable, appealing personality. She’s cheerful and flighty, with a naivete that’s actually charming (most naive RPG characters come off as forced and/or just really dumb) and a generally nice demeanor. Aside from Varric, Merrill is the character who consistently makes party banter engaging. I like hearing from her.

Here’s what makes her weird, though: Merrill’s a terrible, selfish person and I actually really hate her.

See, Merrill’s actual character development is that of a careless, obsessed fool who toys with forces that everyone knows have a long history of being dangerous. She’s so single-mindedly focused on her goals that she consorts with a demon and is easily manipulated into doing its bidding, eventually leading to a point where, if not for the intervention and sacrifice of an innocent third party, Merrill would have found herself possessed by the demon that she had stupidly put her faith in despite the warnings of those around her.

I mean, think about this--you have a character who makes bargains with demonic forces, who arrogantly and mistakenly thinks that she possesses the ability to control that demon, and is tricked the whole time into doing the demon’s bidding, all of which leads to the event where the demon is ready to betray its plaything and reveal its true intentions. Most of the time, that character I've just described is an out and out villain in an RPG story. I mean, just how many RPG villains have we seen that do the exact same kind of shit that Merrill does? Gaidel from Arc the Lad 2, the Drow queen in the Neverwinter Nights 1 Hordes of the Underdark expansion, the many people indoctrinated by the Reapers in Mass Effect, and so on and so forth; there are plenty of examples. The only difference between Merrill and your average misguided, egotistical villain is that, as I mentioned, she never has to pay the price for her stupidity. Marethari, the leader of the elves in the area and the one who has been telling Merrill to drop this obsession since the beginning because of its danger, takes Merrill’s rightful punishment onto herself. I suppose it’s not right to resent Merrill on this point since Marethari does this without Merrill having any choice in the matter...but then, the punishment is only coming because Merrill made her choice, for years, to ignore Marethari’s wisdom, not to mention basic common sense, so I still count it against Merrill all the same.

So, Merrill is quite a unique character for me. On the one hand, she comes off like someone I like--sweet, charming, friendly, and caring. On the other hand, she’s an overconfident, obsessed fool dabbling in obviously dangerous matters and ignoring the warnings of someone who cares for her well-being, eventually getting that person killed when the obvious consequences of her careless actions come to pass. I certainly can’t think of any other RPG character I’ve seen who I instinctively want to like, but can’t because underneath a sincerely likable personality they’re actually a major asshole. I don’t know whether this makes Merrill a well-written character or not, but it does make her a unique one.