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.


  1. I think you mean Star Ocean 3's Abel Nox, not Star Force 3's. I agree that bad versions of previously good characters are more annoying than characters that were always bad since they have the potential to be better.

    Also, are you interested in http://www.gamespot.com/articles/grandia-ii-hd-edition-coming-to-gogcom-set-for-201/1100-6429172/ even though there's few improvements (mostly frame rate and graphics related)?

    1. Whoops! Thanks for pointing that out.

      And that DOES interest me, yes. Not because I care about the tiny technical improvements (I do not) and not even because I necessarily will want to play it again (though that is certainly possible), but more because it provides me a very simple and convenient way to push friends and readers to play this greatest of all RPGs (not everyone in this day and age has a spare PS2 just lying around). GOG and I are going through a bit of a rough patch right now, since the site stupidly decided not to offer Dex for some mysterious, arbitrary reason they refuse to elaborate on, but I'm sure once GOG wises up, offers Dex, and earns back my good graces, I'll be buying up multiple copies of Grandia 2. Thanks for letting me know about it!

    2. http://shmuplations.com/chronotrigger/


      It's available at whichever distributor you prefer now.

    3. Uh, that first link should've been http://store.steampowered.com/app/330390/

  2. Its hard for adaptations of the RPGs to actually keep to the original story in a new media format. The artists or story tellers try to add more so people can have more of a reason to even indulge in that specific media. So re-imagination becomes highly subjective to the viewer, if they played the original game or not. Overall I think all the versions or re-imaginations can be enjoyable with an open mind.

  3. I think we also should have writing team size and cooperation into account since very rarely is an RPG have only one writer. Lets take Persona 4 Ultimax and Persona Q into account

    Ultimax had eight writers and too many cooks spoil the soup as the end result was not very good with Sho not being very likeable and the plot well as subtle as a brick. At least most of the characters were handled well (except Akihiko)

    Persona Q had only one writer and an assistant writer and while the plot ended up good and having some very interesting character development, it had some of the characters ended flanderized (Akihiko, Teddie and to a lesser extent Chie) with Rei personality drowned out with her obsession with food(though this changes after the turning point of the story)

    When the team is more balanced like in the original Arena which I think had 6 and Persona Dancing all night (Yes the game's story is surprisingly good) which had the standard 4 writers the team can produce a good outcome.

    Also as you notice the team in general surprisingly does not care much for Akihiko.

    1. I haven't been able to get much interest for the Persona series since 4, just because it all just seems very...cash-in-ish. Also, Super Smash Brothers has spoiled me, to the point where I can't be bothered to play inferior fighters at all. I've never understood why Persona 3 and 4 needed to be tied together so strongly to begin with.

      Anyway, you make a good point, but I'd say that getting the right number and quality of writers together is a basis for the quality of any RPG, whether it be a continuation/reimagining or original content. As you say, too many cooks spoiled the soup of SMTP4 Ultimax (at least, I'm taking your word for it that it did, having not experienced it myself), but the same was certainly true of Final Fantasy 12...although with that one, it's more like the restaurant had its entire staff changed half a dozen times while it was being made. But yeah, you're right, instances of characters being badly reimagined can just as easily be a problem of writing room logistics as outright incompetence, carelessness, or arrogance.

  4. Replies
    1. That is a very simple question with a very long and drawn-out answer. My mind's a bit overworked lately from my classes, but I'll do my best to answer adequately.

      1. The plot: The plot is complex but paced well enough that you can always follow it, has many great and creative twists that you can't see coming that frequently deepen the plot all the more, and is overall both very creative and decently in-depth in its world-building. It also provides valuable concepts to mull over in one's head, such as the issues of when faith and religion are and are not valid and good, the importance of raising a child with an adequate amount of love, the transformative power of love, the validity of self-sacrifice, the recognition of unjust social systems and extent of one's responsibility to fight against them, the importance of understanding and making peace with one's past rather than simply avoiding it, the recognition of an inherited legacy and what one does with it, and much more.

      2. Although half the cast is only mildly serviceable (Lulu, Auron, Rikku, and Kimahri), there are some distinctly deep and well-written characters spearheading the plot events. Tidus, despite his sometimes excessive personality that does get annoying, is a complicated character of depth who is very positively dynamic, and Yuna's character development is even better still. For all the frustration that his dislikable viewpoint brings for most of the game, Wakka also has a large amount of depth, and his development of and away from that personality into something better is very interesting and well-done. I won't say Seymour is a fantastic villain, but he does have a few good parallels to Tidus and Yuna (as any good villain should to the protagonist(s)), he has a more than adequate schtick and depth for the villain, and he fits the role of the game's antagonist well, only adding to its quality.

      More on Tidus: http://wwwthinkinginsidethebox.blogspot.com/2008/11/general-rpg-lists-greatest-heroes.html

      3. The plot execution: This game really knows how to make its characters, themes, and events engage the player and draw one in (most of the time, at least; I admit that the balcony laughing scene is one of the more awkward moments in RPG history). The attack on Zanarkand in the beginning is thrilling, Tidus's lone exploration of the ruins for the means to stay alive feels desperate, the devastation left by Sin hits you as terrible, Yuna's escape from the wedding is epic as it's meant to be, the plot revelations almost always surprise and interest you, and even the world itself is interesting to think about--while I don't usually care much for visuals and such, the world of Spira that FF10 presents is an unusually beautiful and vibrant land, even for an RPG, and that just serves to further underscore just how horrible the situation is for the people who live in it, for rather than ever being able to appreciate their beautiful beaches and islands, their rich and lovely forests, their impressive rolling plains, etc, they live in the perpetual shadow of a monster that they're willing to sacrifice their best to in order to gain a mere couple years' respite. FF10 is a game that has a lot to say, and it says it well. And then there's that ending...


      4. Tidus and Yuna's love: Eh, just go read my explanation here:


      So yeah. That's a decent chunk of why I like FF10, right there.

  5. Isn't it odd to say that Cloud's victory over Sephiroth is one of the greatest moments in the series, and then call Sephiroth lame? It goes without saying that a great scene can incorporate a bad character without being affected negatively. I think a victory against a lame character would ultimately ring hollow (in most cases), and possibly cheapen the arduous journey that the characters took (explaining why would likely lead to circular reasoning, but maybe you'd get my confusion).

    Also the advertisement below ( http://i.imgur.com/5AbzhzX.png ) is appropriate considering this comment since fangirls/boys have drawn Sephiroth doing similar things.

    1. Warning: It's late and I'm tired so I may ramble a bit.

      You make a good and logical point. I daresay in most cases your argument would be entirely true. However, it's the circumstances that really make the scene, not exactly the adversary. Being impaled on a sword and lifted into the air with it is a serious problem, no matter who it is that's holding the sword. Cloud's strength of will in this moment is incredible and inspiring, the fact that in this moment where all is lost, where he himself has suffered what could only be assumed by all was a fatal would, he can grab hold of the very weapon that has defeated him, and turn it against his foe, is just epic. And the more meaningful context contributes just as much to make this an impressive moment--in this moment, the SOLDIER Zack has failed, he who represents a level of strength and skill that Cloud has been unable to achieve. And Cloud has felt that failure profoundly, with such shame that he has hidden his identity from the girl he told his dream to years back. Yet Zack is unable to stop Sephiroth, as is Tifa, a star pupil of the most talented martial artist on the planet. Only Cloud, the weakling, the lowly trooper who was supposedly unfit to be a part of anything greater, Cloud the man who represents those of us who are told by others that we lack the talent to fulfill our dreams, has the strength of will to finish this fight. Cloud the wash-out is the one to defeat what the world sees as the embodiment of perfect talent through sheer force of will, and he does it by taking his moment of failure, the act through which he seems to have been defeated, and holding it aloft, and using it as the very weapon by which he achieves what the world would say was impossible. This moment is so significant to the role of Cloud as a symbol, for the most important thing that Cloud represents, arguably, is the concept that through grit, through turning your weaknesses and your moments of failure into your weapons and your greatest victories, you can achieve more than anyone could ever have imagined you capable of.

      To that end, it doesn't matter that Sephiroth is a highly lame character. It is the situation that makes Cloud's victory in this scene magnificent, and what it represents. But it does matter, very much, that this be the sound and shocking defeat for Sephiroth that the game shows. Everything beautiful about this scene comes apart otherwise, and that's why the FF7 Last Order remake is an utter travesty.