Friday, December 18, 2015

Annual Summary 2015

Okay but seriously guys, how long can I keep up this whole rant thing? Surely I’m gonna run out of good ideas for rants soon, right?

...Wait, you can’t run out of what you never had to start with. Okay, I guess we’re good to keep going!

2015 was a good year for RPGs for me. Most of the ones I played were at least decent, plenty were great, and considering that I was working AND taking courses to be a teacher all through the year, I’d say I played a good number of them. Here’s what was on the plate this year:

Celestian Tales 1
Defenders of Oasis
Eternal Senia
Gothic 2
Legena: Union Tides
The Legend of Heroes 6-1
The Legend of Korra: A New Era Begins
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons
Mario and Luigi 4
Neverwinter Nights 1
Pillars of Eternity
Shadowrun: Hong Kong
Swords + Darkness
Witch + Hero
Xenoblade Chronicles 1
Zenonia 1

Okay, yeah, not a huge number, but again, I was pretty busy. Heck, even outside of my boring real life stuff, I filled my time up pretty fully.

With what? Why, I’m glad you (almost certainly did not actually) ask! This year, I watched a ton of great stuff. I finally, FINALLY, watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, like everyone has been telling me to for the last decade or so, and quite enjoyed it! It’s definitely a great cartoon. I also watched its sequel series, The Legend of Korra, which was great as well, and also a little more timely. I watched Brooklyn 99’s second season (hilarious as always), the recent anime Sakura Trick (meh), Rick and Morty (a much larger meh), the Dollhouse (quite good), the new show Adam Ruins Everything (fun, informative, socially important, and it stars a member of my first, favorite sketch comedy groups, Olde English!), My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’s fifth season (great as always), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (very funny), and The Tick (live action and cartoon, both are hilarious). I also rewatched Trigun and Avatar: The Last Airbender with my mother; she liked ATLA quite well and was absolutely nuts about Trigun. Naturally.

I also watched 3 things which just blew me away. The first was Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. It is, without a doubt, the greatest 80s parody ever made--and I say that now, in 2015, the very year that the indescribably awesome Kung Fury was released. Don’t get me wrong, Kung Fury comes damn close, but Garth Marenghi is just...just sublime parody perfection beyond our mortal understanding.

The second was Daredevil. Just...damn. This is now the golden standard for live action superhero shows, folks. It blows everything else out of the water. Hell, this show is so thoughtful, packed, and excellently done that it’s almost on the level of Batman: The Animated Series.

And...the third and greatest thing I watched this year was Steven Universe. I...really never expected this to happen, but...Gargoyles is no longer the greatest western cartoon ever created. Steven Universe is a thing of art and poetry, and every moment of it is wonderful and unique even as it beautifully pays homage to some of the great works of animation that inspired it. I cannot describe it. Please, please watch this show. Like MLP: Friendship is Magic, it is a show that can and will greatly benefit our society the more people, children and adults, that it touches. Yet even MLPFiM, which you guys know I have extremely high respect and affection for, does not touch the level of excellence that is Steven Universe.

What other non-RPG stuff did I do? Well, I played Kid Icarus: Uprising, and played it obsessively, at that, because damn that game is fun and funny. The quips and shenanigans of Palutena, Pit, Viridi, Hades, and all the minor characters are just a barrel of fun to experience, even several times over. Heartily recommended if you could use some simple, quirky fun. I also played Super Smash Brothers Wii U, because if you’re gonna go non-RPGs every once in a while, you might as well go with the best ever. They really pulled out all the stops on this one, and while I really miss the little story adventure that Brawl had, and my sister laments the loss of Solid Snake, overall this iteration of the series is fantastic. They finally added Little Mac! And Palutena’s there, too! What more could you ever ask for!? And lastly, I replayed both Shadowrun: Dragonfall and Undertale so my sister could experience them. She was duly impressed with them both, and I always have a blast sharing quality entertainment.

I also read a lot of stuff this year. I read books by Isaac Asimov, Peter Beagle, Robert Charrette, Agatha Christie, Mel Odom, and Benjamin Alire Saenz. That may not seem like a lot, but the authors I’m not mentioning are the COUNTLESS HORDES OF WRITERS FROM ALL DISCIPLINES WHOSE WORKS I’VE READ NONSTOP FOR CLASSES. Seriously I think my eyes are gonna pop out of my head pretty soon.

Alright, enough of all that crap. Back to the RPGs. As has become typical for me, a significant portion of my RPGs were Indie and/or crowdfunded titles, though I kept in a good mix of more “mainstream” ones. It was neat because several were games I had helped to fund, so I finally got to see how they turned out. My 3DS was as essential as ever in getting in some RPGs during transits or downtime outside of the house, although, admittedly, not a lot of them were especially memorable. I fear I’m running out of good 3DS RPGs to download which are on the cheap side...

Also, could we now, as a species, stop naming things, “The Legend of ____”? I already had The Legend of Dragoon, Grimrock, Mana, and Zelda on my tally of RPGs I’ve completed, and now I’ve got to add The Legend of Heroes and Korra in there, too. THINK OF SOMETHING ELSE ALREADY.

Anyway, enough boring stuff. Let’s get to the fun part! Well, assuming you find ANY part of these self-indulgent little narcissistic report cards I give myself fun, that is.

RPG Moments of Interest in 2015:

1. Did I...did I just play a Xeno- game that made a lick of sense, had a decent narrative structure and some good characters, and overall just didn’t suck? And in fact, was quite good?



2. In Shadowrun: Hong Kong, you can pickpocket excited convention-goers who are too busy messing with con activities to notice. I don’t know why, but somehow, something about this strikes me as a new low.

3.Have you seen that new Sonic Boom show? I can’t believe it, I really can’t fucking believe it, but it’s actually come to pass: after 24 prolific years of games, comics, cartoons, anime, and God only knows what else, the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise has actually produced something that doesn’t suck ass. Sonic Boom ain’t exactly a work of art, but it IS pretty damn funny, at least, and you can tell that the folks writing it are sharp and have great comical instinct.

It’s also funny to see a lot of long-time Sonic fans react to the show. They have no idea what to make of a Sonic product that’s actually enjoyable, having never encountered such a thing before, and so a lot of them decry it as getting the franchise all wrong. Pretty sure that’s the reason the show’s actually watchable, guys.

(Yes, this counts as an RPG thing. Sonic the Hedgehog had his own (shitty) RPG. Totes legit).

4. One of the many impressive things about Undertale is how it uses the game mechanic of save points and resets as an actual part of its story. It’s very rare for a game to incorporate a meta-game mechanic like that into its the top of my head, I can only think of 2 other RPGs that have done so: Breath of Fire 5 (which incorporates save file resets as a necessary part of seeing the game’s full story), and Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle (which incorporates and gives narrative cause for its multiple endings once you reach a true understanding of what’s really going on with Duchess Catherine). Neither of them, however, so expertly manipulates the system into its plot as Undertale, and it was really neat to see the creativity with which Toby Fox made it happen.

5. Oddly, I encountered 3 separate games this year whose battle mechanic is basically running into enemies to both do and take damage: Eternal Senia, Fairune, and Witch + Hero. Nothing really to say about it, I just find it weird that the first year I come across such an idea, I hit upon it 3 times.

6. A couple of games I’ve played this year really remind you of just how great a product you can get from a single person’s vision. Toby Fox didn’t develop Undertale entirely by himself, but from what I understand, it’s still fair to call the game his personal vision and overall a 1 man show. And Eternal Senia, as far as I understand it, really WAS a case of a single person, going by the name Holy Priest, making the whole thing on his own. Considering Undertale’s excellence and how emotionally powerful Eternal Senia is, it really proves that you can get some pretty amazing results from even just 1 person’s passion.

7. This is going to be the most relevant Annual Summary rant I’ve ever done, because I actually played an unusually high number of RPGs that were released this very year. Celestian Tales 1, Eternal Senia, Legena: Union Tides, Pillars of Eternity, Shadowrun: Hong Kong, and Undertale were all released in 2015. How crazy is that--The RPGenius is actually talking about stuff that’s current!*

Best Prequel/Sequel of 2015:
Winner: Shadowrun: Hong Kong
While Dragonfall is still the best Shadowrun video game to date, this year’s addition to the series is darned good, and it does the Shadowrun series proud, making good use of all the signatures of this awesome franchise: dark, gritty cyberpunk characters and settings, dark threats from both the corrupt corporate society and the forces of the supernatural, wry humor and earnest streetwise philosophy, and a twisting, layered plot. Settling into the Shadowrun universe perfectly to tell its story of greed, regret, and redemption, Shadowrun: Hong Kong is a cyberpunk gem.

Runners-Up: NA
Nothing to say, really. I didn’t play many games that were sequels or prequels this year, and of the few I did play...well, Shadowrun: Hong Kong was the only game that really did well by its predecessors and title.

Biggest Disappointment of 2015:
Loser: Mass Effect 3
You may think that the reason I keep mentioning Mass Effect 3 here every year is just to reinforce my disgust with its ending in an entertaining fashion. And you are not entirely wrong. Nonetheless, this isn’t just for the sake of hyperbolic amusement.

See, 3 years later, the atrocious pile of shit that is Mass Effect 3’s ending is still no less utterly vile and repugnant than ever. And that means, see, that the mere memory of it still brings forth feelings of disappointment that far eclipse any others I have felt this year. Since 2012, there has been no fresh disappointment in my RPG life that is great enough that it competes. Even if it’s just through memory, the ending of Mass Effect 3 really is still the most disappointing part of my year. Eat shit and die, Bioware.

However, if we limit ourselves to fresh disappointment, and reject that of recollection...

Actual Loser: The Legend of Korra: A New Era Begins
Honestly, I didn’t really expect too much of this game, but seeing as the show it’s based on is really high quality animated entertainment--one of the top 10 non-anime cartoons ever, I’d say--I was expecting, I dunno, something decent, you know? This game, though, is just...blah. It’s nothing. The story is hasty, boring, and honestly doesn’t really feel like it belongs in the Avatar universe more than it could belong in any other setting, with minimal tweaking. The characters are bland and interchangeable mockeries of the characters from the show, recognizable only from their appearance, not their personality...if they’re even there at all. When you get to the end and beat the game, you feel nothing, no sense of accomplishment or victory, and for a game based on The Legend of Korra, a show possessing such epic, meaningful, and in-universe historically significant climaxes and finales, that’s damned disappointing.

Almost as Bad: Neverwinter Nights 1, Swords + Darkness, Zenonia 1
No real story to tell with S+D and Zenonia 1--I just went into them as I do any other RPG, with the expectation that there would be a minimally acceptable plot and characters that don’t suck, and I was disappointed. Neverwinter Nights 1, though...if it weren’t for the last third of the Hordes of the Underdark expansion for it, NN1 would have been the most disappointing title for me this year. NN1 made such a splash in the RPG community when it came out, everyone was talking about it and praising it, and yet when I finally played it, all I found was a cliched, repetitive plot with terrible, boring pacing that bided its time with 1 stupid fetch quest after another instead of developing its story and characters in any real way. The main game’s only redeeming feature is Aribeth, and she’s also disappointing because she clearly has some potential as a character and villain, yet the game just doesn’t bother to do a damn thing with it. Some of the official add-ons for the game are good, but overall they’re drowned out by the others’ mediocrity, and even the best of the add-ons have problems, as I mentioned in a previous rant. So yeah...this vaunted Dungeons and Dragons game I’ve heard about for years and years just wasn’t anything of interest. Too bad.

Best Finale of 2015:
Winner: Undertale (True Ending)
Fun, heartwarming, fulfilling, grand in its scope, with a thrilling final battle that resonates strongly with the beauty of forgiveness and peace...the True Ending of Undertale is everything you want from this excellent game.

Runners-Up: Pillars of Eternity; Shadowrun: Hong Kong; Xenoblade Chronicles 1
The final part of Xenoblade Chronicles 1 is interesting and adds a bit of the existential food for thought that Xeno- games are so fond of, without getting its head stuck up its own ass about it, which Xeno- games are also fond of. Pillars of Eternity has a strong finale, clarifying much of its lore and purpose in its final area (without feeling like they were cramming the information in last-minute, as some RPGs do), and concluding with a classic individualized ending, where you’re told what the results of your actions were for each place and important person in the game. Finally, Shadowrun: Hong Kong has a solid final mission, composed of both otherworldly horrors and matters of the human spirit, and ends its tale of regret and redemption as any Shadowrun adventure should: with the pride of a job well done, the satisfaction of a world-altering conflict settled, and yet the casual acceptance that in the end, the status quo of this tyrannical corporate world remains the same, as does life in the shadows. Grand yet also insignificant, as is the story of the individual standing on his or her own in the corporate world--that’s the way of the Shadowrun ending, and Hong Kong does it well.

Worst RPG of 2015:
Loser: Zenonia 1
Honestly, I’m happy to say that none of the RPGs I played this year were truly terrible games. I mean, there was some crap, to be sure, but even Zenonia 1 here is only faulted by being very lackluster and a general waste of time. That’s really nothing compared to the asinine yawn-weaver that won this spot last year, Rune Factory 1.

Almost as Bad: Gothic 2; The Legend of Korra: A New Era Begins; Swords + Darkness
Like Gothic 1, Gothic 2 is an exercise in tedium that wants to trade you 50 hours of your life for absolutely goddamn nothing. The plot of Swords + Darkness barely exists, and is the sort of generic, pointless drivel that tells you that its creators didn’t give half a damn about it. Its story may as well have come from a 1990s side-scrolling beat’em-up title, it’s so phoned in. Lastly, well, I’ve spoken multiple times about what a careless waste of time The Legend of Korra: A New Era Begins is. I frankly wouldn’t be surprised in the least to find out that its entire script had been written on some napkins by a distracted intern on his lunch break, whose only knowledge of the show’s characters came from a brief glance at Wikipedia.

Most Improved of 2015:
Winner: Gothic 2
Gothic 1 was forgettable and let its moderately interesting premise languish in slow and distracted pacing and a thoroughly uninteresting cast. Gothic 2...does pretty much the same thing, but, I dunno, sorta not as poorly as the first game? The story is slightly less boring, the characters are slightly more interesting, the setting is slightly better still doesn’t add up to anything worth playing, but an improvement is an improvement nonetheless.

Runners-Up: NA
Meh. What can I say? Most of the games I played this year that weren’t standalone works just weren’t improvements. Mario and Luigi 4 isn’t any less boring than MaL3, the Legend of Zelda titles are both inferior to Link’s Awakening, and even though Shadowrun: Hong Kong is quite good, as I said, it isn’t as great as its direct predecessor, Shadowrun: Dragonfall.

Most Creative of 2015:
Winner: Undertale
As I said in more detail in my Undertale rant, this is one hell of a creative RPG, from its setting and lore, to its cast, to its style of storytelling, to its gameplay, to its premise, to its deconstruction of its genre, to its use of RPG mechanics within its plot. Seriously, this is 1 of the most creative RPGs you’re ever going to come across.

Runners-Up: Fairune; Pillars of Eternity; Xenoblade Chronicles 1
The world and history of Xenoblade Chronicles 1 is interesting and had some decent thought and effort put into it. It’s nothing mind-blowing, but it’s also a lot more than your standard JRPG package. Fairune is kind of neat, using mostly nonverbal methods to tell...well, less tell, actually, and more imply, a vague but present backstory that makes the game a little more than it seems at first. Makes me think of Crystalis, though for what reason, I couldn't really guess. And lastly, Pillars of Eternity is a classic, yet distinct fantasy world which delves into the concepts of reincarnation and soul, and what meaning and impact one’s life really can have. It’s pretty neat, and I think the mechanics of souls and rebirth that Chris Avellone and company have come up with is quite singular.

Best Romance of 2015:
Winner: Aribeth and The Sleeping Man (Neverwinter Nights 1)
This romance is mostly awesome in a 1-sided way--the history of The Sleeping Man in Neverwinter Nights 1’s Hordes of the Underdark expansion is just terrifically epic, beautiful, and inspiring. He can actually get together with a few of the women in the expansion, but some are disappointing (it’s total bullshit that the disciple chickens out and flees him), and others just don’t feel very genuine. Aribeth, though...there’s something about the idea of the soul of the fallen paladin, as she walks the frozen plains of Hell in an attempt to find redemption and create purpose from her sins in life, finding this divine being slumbering for countless ages as he awaits her with unshakable faith, that I find really, really awesome. He, a man who gave up all he had because he lacked love, and traveled to the center of Hell itself to wait faithfully for it, and she, a woman who turned from all she had and believed in because she lost love, and was condemned to that same Hell to languish, finding one another and completing a destiny written beyond the fates of planes and time just speaks to me.

Runners-Up: Alphys and Undyne (Undertale); Fiora and Shulk (Xenoblade Chronicles 1); Frisk and Papyrus (Undertale)
Eh, Alphys and Undyne are cute. That’s really all there is to it; they work well together. Moving on, Fiora and Shulk have some believable chemistry, and their devotion to each other is romantic. I also like the fact that they just kind of naturally, mostly unconsciously acknowledge and embrace their feelings for one another. I mean, they do explicitly talk about it, too, it’s not all left unsaid, but most of the time, it’s kind of just a case of each clearly showing through their actions, tone, and motivations that they love the other, and understand that they’re loved back. It’s nice.

Finally, skeleton dates are best dates. ‘Nuff said.

Best Voice Acting of 2015:
Winner: Pillars of Eternity
There’s a lot of heavy dialogue with some of the more nuanced members of the Pillars of Eternity cast, and in such a situation, having voice actors who can bring each line alive in the right way for their character can be the difference between an engaging speech of philosophy and inquiry into the nature of humanity, the universe, and the spiritual...and just coming off as being overly gabby. Pillars of Eternity, thankfully, has a vocal cast that really do their jobs well, bringing complex characters like Eder and unique characters like the Grieving Mother to life and shaping their words into personality and depth.

Runners-Up: Neverwinter Nights 1; Xenoblade Chronicles 1
In the case of Neverwinter Nights 1, “Best” voice acting really just means “Wasn’t Bad” voice acting. I didn’t play many RPGs this year with vocal work, and some of the ones I did play had awful voice acting (Gothic 2**), so it hasn’t taken much to make it onto the list this year. Still, NN1 does its job adequately in most cases, at least. Xenoblade Chronicles 1 is better, with a cast that have pretty good and personal vocal work that distinguishes their characters well. I actually quite enjoyed the accents, too--most of the time, English translations of games are released in the USA or Canada first, but this time Europe got the game before we did, so our English dub is done by British voice actors. It’s an enjoyable change of pace, and the acting is competent and fits the characters well...and you just can’t resist the ridiculous, almost campy charm of Reyn shouting those goofy battle quotes of his.

Funniest of 2015:
Winner: Undertale
Among other things like heartwarming and creepy, Undertale is just goddamn hilarious. From bad bone puns and mischievous little dogs to amusing item descriptions and deranged robot TV stars, Undertale doesn’t fail to keep you chuckling.

And Papyrus. Papyrus is comedy.

Runner-Up: Witch + Hero
While nothing special overall, Witch + Hero makes it clear from its opening that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and with what few opportunities it allows itself to develop a tiny story, it’s generally fairly amusing. There’s not much more to the game than a few giggles, but hey, that’s something, right?

Best Villain of 2015:
Winner: Flowey (Undertale)
Vicious, creepy as fuck, infuriating, smart, remorseless...and secretly pretty deep as a character, Flowey is an awesome villain, just another of the many reasons that Undertale is so damn good.

Runners-Up: Aribeth (Neverwinter Nights 1); Colonel Richard (The Legend of Heroes 6-1); Thaos (Pillars of Eternity)
Even though the game doesn’t even attempt to use Aribeth to her full potential, she’s still not a bad villain, and the Hordes of the Underdark expansion later develops her character and villainy nicely, fleshing out her rationale, regrets, and revelations. Thaos is...well, honestly, he’s not exactly compelling, but he does have an interesting purpose and provides some good food for thought while adequately serving the role of obstacle-with-a-connection-to-the-protagonist, so he’s a pretty good villain. Lastly, Richard is decent, a conspirator whose motivation for his well-intentioned but immoral methods is paranoia and a hero-worship that he can’t get past. As I’ve mentioned, I think the fact that he connects to an overall trend of his country’s people that we’ve seen constantly throughout the game, the tendency to credit their country’s success and peace to a single man, is very smart and well-reasoned. Richard’s a good villain; he’d probably have won this year if not for that evil little plant bastard.

Best Character of 2015:
Winner: Grieving Mother (Pillars of Eternity)
Well, hell, what is there to say but that Chris Avellone has done it again? She’s no Kreia or Ravel, but the Grieving Mother is still fascinating and unique, a fresh character in both personality and complexity that I would say is an intellectual highlight of this thoughtful RPG, and certainly the best part of it in terms of emotional impact. Truly an impressive character, to be certain.

Runners-Up: Eder (Pillars of Eternity); Gaichu (Shadowrun: Hong Kong); The Sleeping Man (Neverwinter Nights 1)
You know, for a game I didn’t actually like overall, NN1 seems to be showing up in this rant a lot. Well, I wish I could have put some (or all) of the characters from Undertale in here, because I dearly love them, but objectively speaking, this bunch just has more depth, development, and worth.

Eder is a well written character, great in every aspect: he’s likable, he’s got great depth, he’s interesting to listen to and contemplate, you can see him grow (and help guide that growth) as a person and more importantly as himself, and you really feel for the guy. He’s just a solid character from every angle. Gaichu is a rich and complicated character whose conflict is interesting, and whose warring sense of honor and duty, his acknowledgement of his own rights and individuality, and his brutal instinct makes for a great character. Finally, again, I just really admire the grand romance of The Sleeping Man, the fact that his is a story of inspiration in both love and faith, to be found and cherished at the center of a place for the condemned and the seemingly irrevocably evil. damn epic!

Best Game of 2015:
Winner: Undertale
Undertale really is just a remarkable piece of fun, wit, poignant emotion, massive creativity, and meaningful commentary. It’s an RPG that will stay with you, and which shakes up what we think of as our standards for the genre, becoming a new example of excellence for other games to strive to match. Out of over 280 I've played, this is the eleventh best RPG I've ever encountered--and if you want some context, that puts it higher than Final Fantasy 7, every Mass Effect and Fallout, and Mother 3. I sincerely hope this will not be the only game we see made by Toby Fox, because he apparently possesses the talent and drive to create art of great worth.

Runners-Up: Pillars of Eternity; Shadowrun: Hong Kong; Xenoblade Chronicles 1
Actually, in all honesty, I personally like Eternal Senia better than some of these, but objectively speaking, these are the 3 best non-Undertale RPGs of the year. Pillars of Eternity is great, an RPG devoted to higher order thought which challenges the player intellectually with its plot of previous lives, how a single life can matter, the question of science vs. tradition in a society newly emerging into an intellectual Renaissance, and so much more. Shadowrun: Hong Kong is a solid, interesting cyberpunk venture, as Shadowrun should be, and getting to see the Shadowrun universe’s take on China and the eastern supernatural is a treat. Finally, while I think that Xenoblade Chronicles 1 is overrated somewhat, it’s still a solid, enjoyable JRPG with heart, and content that invites contemplation and attachment.

List Changes:
Greatest Villains: Flowey has been added; Delita has been removed. Sorry, you resourceful rags-to-riches ruffian.
Greatest RPGs: Undertale has been added; Shadow Hearts 2 has been removed. Sorry, you European yarn about Yuri’s yearning.

And that’s it for 2015! Certainly a good year for RPGs and beyond, and 2016 is promising, with many more Kickstarter RPGs I’ve backed set to release during its course, finishing Fallout 4 and playing its no doubt awesome upcoming DLCs, and plenty more RPGs on my playlist to go! I just wonder how much I’ll actually be able to get done as I move from taking classes to teaching them...I hope 2016 won’t be the year I have to permanently throttle back how many rants I’m releasing, but the possibility is there. Of course, if I were to get more Guest Rants from you fine folks, that would alleviate the difficulty greatly, I’m sure...hint, hint.

At any rate, thank you all again for continuing to read this silly drivel of mine, and here’s hoping 2016 will be a great year for us all. I’ll see you then.

* I’m also playing another 2015 release, Fallout 4, right now, but let’s face it, the game’s so massive that I’ll be lucky to finish it in time for the 2016 Annual Summary rant.

** Although it’s certainly not solely the voice actors’ fault. A lot of Gothic 2’s singular vocal weirdness comes from the bizarre choice of the developers to have a few lines just reused over and over again for many varied situations. Like, the line, “Hey, you!” must be said for at least 50 different dialogue openings, and it’s weird because it’s always the same accusatory “Hey, you!” used, even when the protagonist is just casually opening conversation with a friend. The rest of the conversation can be amiable and light, but it’ll unfailingly begin with the guy acting like he’s just caught someone stealing a purse or something.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

General RPGs as Classroom Texts

Check it out: in this rant, I do what I should have been doing for the last 9 years and actually italicize titles! Don’t expect to ever see me fulfilling this fundamental grammatical responsibility again, though. Today’s rant is related to what will hopefully be my career soon, so I feel more compelled to be somewhat professional about it. After this, I’m just gonna slump back into my slovenly, gibbering ways that you all know and mildly like just enough to read this blog sometimes when you’re really bored.

So, as I mentioned in last year’s Annual Summary Rant, I’ve been doing some graduate work to be certified as a teacher. High School English, specifically. It’s a fairly rigorous program (or it’s not, and I’m just not very good at it), so matters of the classroom have been going through my mind quite a lot during this past year. And of course, with my head already so full of all the RPG stuff that I overthink, it was really only a matter of time before a Teacher thought would collide with an RPG thought, and so we come to the question of today’s rant:

Can an RPG be a suitable text for the classroom?

First of all, let’s briefly define what a classroom text even is. We tend to think of texts in school as being things like novels, textbooks, short stories, articles, plays, reports, and various other typed, readable examples of fiction and nonfiction. Which makes sense, of course, as these are all things that communicate their ideas via, y’know, text. In the program within which I am enrolled, however, “text” takes on a broader meaning, associated with any outside work introduced for study in the classroom, regardless of its format. Under this definition, a text could certainly be a physical copy of The Great Gatsby or an online posting of an Emily Dickinson poem, as you’d expect, but a movie adaptation of Hamlet, a picture of one of Jackson Pollock’s paintings, or an audio recording of a speech by the Dalai Lama, would also each be considered texts if used in the classroom.

So, then, if we allow that any work that can be studied is a text, and so long as we also allow that avenues of fictional storytelling are even something that we believe worth studying to begin with,* it is as possible that an RPG can be a text as it is possible that anything else can be. But can an RPG be a suitable text?

Well, the answer to that, of course, is subjective, and also quite dependant on what RPG you’re looking at. Certainly not all RPGs are worthy of study in a classroom. In fact, I’d say most of them aren’t. But that doesn’t really prove much by itself; I daresay even most books don’t warrant focused study. But are there at least some RPGs that have something to offer to a program of study, that are worth the effort of teaching?


As an example: A great many classrooms study Fahrenheit 451, 1984, or some other book that covers the dangers of totalitarian societies, how they are perpetuated and the ways of fighting back against them--or the hopelessness of trying to do so. Some enlightened schools have started incorporating The Hunger Games into this study of dystopias, which I heartily applaud, and hope to do so myself. It’s a good genre to have students study, at least a little. First of all, by directly encountering, studying, and coming to understand this concept of an overbearing, freedom-restricting, anti-intellectual society, the students can come to have a better understanding of important aspects of other works, such as Animal Farm or The Scarlet Letter (the Puritans needed to chill out, man), or even nuances of parts of their history class (such as why it was so important for the institution of slavery that slaves be forbidden to learn to read). Secondly and far more important, learning about this idea of a society which uses meaningless distractions, propaganda, and the destruction and alteration of idea exchange is important in teaching students to look critically at their own society, and recognize dangerous similarities between real life and the dystopias they have read about when they encounter them. Studying dystopias can make students better, more vigilant guardians of their society and their freedom.

Would not the RPG Deus Ex 1 fit into such a unit perfectly? It is, after all, all about dystopia, how it might come to be enacted in our world, the questions of when government goes too far and the means through which it does so, the dangers of propaganda, the questions of total surveillance, and so on and so forth. In fact, while I do think the primary text of a dystopia unit should remain 1984, The Hunger Games trilogy, or Fahrenheit 451, I would say that the second most important text in such a unit would be Deus Ex 1, rather than a second book chosen from that list. Why? Because those three books I mentioned, and most other dystopian works I’ve encountered, all describe to us a dystopia that is already in place. They describe the incredibly difficult, perhaps impossible, struggle to overcome a dystopia once it is a fact of life. The cautions they offer to the reader on how to stop a dystopia from coming to be are all general, non-specific advice--don’t let authority ban or destroy literature or any other free exchange of ideas, don’t let yourself be tricked by doublespeak and meaningless wars, be critical of what you see and read, don’t let yourself be put at odds against those as oppressed as you are by the people causing the oppression, and so on. All very good pieces of advice, of course, but in some ways harder to put into practice because of how unspecific they are.

Deus Ex 1, on the other hand, shows us the moment at which an oppressive authority takes the final step to become a dystopia, and it details to us the methods that evil authority uses--the kinds of agencies, the kinds of propaganda, the kinds of tools, and the reasons these things work. The books I’ve mentioned give you the grim caution of what could happen, but Deus Ex 1 shows you how it could happen, and so better forearms its audience with the knowledge of specific warning signs of the dangers that the books could only give generalized cautions against. Providing a practical example of how a dystopia could be enacted is a GREAT way to support your primary dystopia text, and DE1 would be able to do that with its level of specific detail.**

...Okay, wow, I didn’t mean to make this one example long enough to be its own rant. Sorry. I’ll try to be less long-winded on these other points.

DE1 isn’t the only RPG that could be used as a great supplemental text, of course. In a unit which examines, for example, the question of Man against God, a number of RPGs could be used as supplements--Grandia 2, some Shin Megami Tensei titles if you want to be literal about the issue, Okage: Shadow King, Star Ocean 3 (if you could really, really abridge the game’s first half), Wild Arms, this is a really, really frequent theme in JRPGs, now that I think about it.

Fill in the blank: It would be _______________ to follow Ahab in his journey in Moby Dick to destroy the white whale and prove he has free will, while playing Tales of the Abyss at the same time, watching Van Grants set forth in his own machinations to break the world free of destiny’s cage, the Score of Lorelei, and draw comparisons between them in class discussions.

If your answer was “Pretty Cool,” give yourself a gold star. If not, see me after class.

You could do a lot with some of the richer intellectual western RPGs in a unit about teaching effective reading--Planescape: Torment would be ideal for it. Any unit involving a look at religion and how it shapes us and our society could be benefited greatly by a number of Shin Megami Tensei titles, or Final Fantasy 10. In a unit that covers the theme of a young adult seeking to find themselves and their place in life, I can see far worse companions to Paper Towns, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Catcher in the Rye than the games Wild Arms 3 or Final Fantasy 9.*** Surely any unit that uses works like The Great Gatsby, Our Town, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to speak about the social history and personal essence of the United States would benefit from a great deal of the stories and events, both direct and allegorical, found within the Fallout series. And so on and so forth--I daresay there are few typical High School English units (and even fewer college-level ones, for that matter) that I couldn’t associate with at least 1 RPG that could add thoughtful, worthwhile insights into the matter.

And so, coming back to the question of this rant, can an RPG be a suitable text for a classroom? Well, in my reasonably expert opinion, the answer

“Oh COME ON, The RPGenius, you inimitable, self-important asshole!” you grumble now, as your mouse cursor hovers dangerously close over the X button in the corner of your browser. “Did you seriously just waste all that time convincing us that RPGs have as much to offer a thoughtful curriculum as any other method of expression, only to turn around and tell us it can’t be done anyway?”

Of course I did. I’m a total jackass. I thought you guys would’ve figured that out by now. Really, you have only yourselves to blame.

See, here’s the thing. I do believe wholeheartedly in what I’ve been saying here. As methods of storytelling and expressing higher thought, RPGs are no less capable and worthy than any other narrative art form, be it books, television, movies, comics, visual art, theater, or what have you. Obviously those other forms have a huge head start on video games, but I’d nonetheless place the likes of Planescape: Torment, Deus Ex 1, Final Fantasy 7, Wild Arms 3, Mother 3, and many more RPGs at the same level of worth and intellect as the average classic work of literature.****

Here, however, is the “but” that makes that opinion meaningless: Many RPGs are worthy of academic study, but, it is, logistically speaking, impossible to make them a part of any school’s curriculum, for a number of reasons:

A: The time. Even reading a full novel from start to finish, a task that a class unit gives its students a time of about 1 - 4 weeks to complete, is never a task that’s going to take more than 20 hours of a student’s time altogether, and as far as I can tell, most assigned books take considerably less time than that. Heck according to this site, you can read the entire Hunger Games trilogy in less than 17 hours. Obviously the mileage of high school students is going to vary greatly, but still, you get the idea.

Now consider the fact that RPGs average anywhere between 25 to 60 hours to complete. If it takes 2 to 3 weeks to have students read and learn about The Great Gatsby, which averages in at less than 3 hours to read, or To Kill a Mockingbird, which clocks in at less than 6 hours to finish, how the hell would you ever find a way to include, say, Grandia 2, which takes, according to How Long to Beat, about 35 hours? You’d basically have to be including it in your curriculum for an entire term, and probably be well past whatever unit it was meant to coincide with before you even got to the relevant details in the game.

Even Deus Ex 1, a short RPG, takes 20 to 25 hours to complete, which would translate to, what, a month in class? You could maybe make your unit on dystopian fiction last a full month, but you wouldn’t be able to fit in anything but DE1, and while I think it’s an ideal supplementary text, it can’t be the anchor for the unit--you really just need to have Orwell, Bradbury, or Collins serving as the unit’s foundation.

I can’t really see it being possible to effectively teach an RPG as a text in parts, either. While you can take excerpts from some books and such to teach with, RPGs are typically a very linear story that really requires that you’ve witnessed all of what’s come before each scene in order to get what’s going on. Context and background knowledge is too vital for almost any RPG’s significant scenes and dialogues to be able to work effectively with excerpts from the game.

B: The cost. School budgets in the USA are pretty meager. Honestly, most of them are outright pathetic. It is flabbergasting, honestly, the expectations that this country has of an education system that it staunchly refuses to adequately fund at any level of government. There are a lot of reasons for why so little (sometimes even none) of a high school’s English class literature comes from any time more recent than the 1960s, all of them bad, but one of the big reasons is simply that books cost money. Even with the discounts that publishers give schools, it’s a lot easier to pay for a few replacements each year of an older book that the school already has a few hundred copies of, than it is to buy a few hundred copies of a new book that the school’s never taught before. Especially considering that newer books are priced higher.

So really, how would you be able to fit RPGs into the budget? If you have to get enough copies for every student in each classroom, there’s no possible way, even if we assume that you magically always have access to a PC version of the game and don’t have to outright buy the game systems that run the RPG to begin with. You could try to do a school account at GOG, purchase the game once, and have the students download it from that account, but that’s definitely not ethical, particularly when you consider how easy it would be for the student to just keep it for themselves even after the class was done with it. And even if you were unethical enough not to care, I’m fairly sure that the unusual number of downloads would be noticed by the retailer before too long, and they’d take steps to prevent it from happening again.

C: The Inequity. Even assuming, again, that you’re only using computer-based RPGs in a curriculum, not every student has regular access to a computer for the length of time it would take to play the game through to its end. Public-use computers in the library or a school computer lab are great for writing a paper or doing some research, but they certainly aren’t going to do it for something that takes 20+ hours to experience, saved games or no. Not every family can afford a reliable PC, and not every family can accommodate their household computer being tied up for that long on just a single assignment.

D. The Disparity. Plenty of RPGs are completely linear, which would be fine for teaching, but a lot of others provide experiences that vary greatly depending on what decisions the player makes. A player who plays Planescape: Torment without putting a single point in the Wisdom stat is going to have a significantly different (and poorer) experience from the game than a player who properly prioritizes that particular stat, which is all-important to the game’s storytelling. A player who doesn’t bother with the Social Links in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 in his/her haste to forward the game’s plot will have less than half as enriching an experience as the player who does. Trying to teach a class on the significant stuff in an RPG where player input has any influence on that content would be an exercise in futility.

E: The Teaching. Yeah, it’s easy enough to have everyone look in their books during class to examine a specific passage, or watch a video on a TV or a projector at the front of the classroom, but a game and its console isn’t exactly something you can easily have everyone bring into class and just go to specific scenes within it the same way you flip a page or pause and rewind a video. I mean, it’s not the hardest logistical problem of these, but the teacher would still have to go to extra trouble to hunt down a Let’s Play of the game to show the desired scenes to the class for whatever examination is part of the day’s lesson, then go to further extra trouble to find a Let’s Play that doesn’t involve an awkwardly-voiced idiot chattering nonstop as he plays as though it’s his dull witticisms, inept musings, and garbled mumbling that you’re watching the video for. And if a suitable Let’s Play can’t be found, then you’d need to make videos of the gameplay yourself, which of course adds heaven only knows how much extra time to your class prep.

F: The Administration. Video games as a respectable medium of art is an idea that is new, and not going to take hold of the culture for a long, long time. We might not even live to see the day where games are recognized by the common person as such. I mean, graphic novels and comic books as we recognize them have been around, what, about 100 years now, and there’s still a LOT of people who would scoff at the idea that they can express ideas as well and as worthy as books or theater. Parents and administrators may not question a teacher’s decision to include a movie or recorded play in the curriculum now and then, but even if you could get all your other logistical ducks in a row, actually convincing the people in charge of your department, your school, your students, and your very employment that there’s anything worthwhile to be taught in a video game is a tall order at best. Hell, I don’t even know if I’ve even convinced you of that, and you already came here specifically to read about RPGs!

So in the end, do I think RPGs are worthy of study, as any other form of expression? Yes.

Do I think they are so, to the extent that they are as deserving of academic focus as many accepted novels, plays, and so on? Also yes.

Do I think there is any way at all that you could make an academic study of them work in school? Nope. Not a chance in hell. It’s too bad, but that’s the way it is, from any angle I look at it: it’s a nice idea, but it just can’t be done. If you think otherwise, please do tell me how you’d get around all the problems I’ve listed, because I’d love to be able to make this work.

And finally, am I self-aware enough to realize that no one beyond myself actually cares about this to begin with, and that I have wasted everyone’s time with this rant? Of course. Hell, I just assume that’s true for every rant I post here.

* Apparently a number of high schools across the country are moving to curtail or even altogether eliminate their English programs. It’s quite a frightening social trend.

** You might worry that being more specific could also mean that DE1 would be more dated, given it came out over 15 years ago. After all, the more specific something is in its use of real world details, the more easily it becomes dated as those details change. Well, no worries there. I’m pleased and utterly terrified to assure you that DE1’s portrayal of governmental and private movements to disempower the world’s citizens and restrict freedoms is more relevantly accurate today than ever before!

*** In fact, if you ask me, one of those worse companions for such a unit IS Catcher in the Rye. Yeah, I’m an aspiring English Teacher that doesn’t like Salinger’s most famous work. Bite me.

**** Maybe even above that level, in fact, if you count Kurt Vonnegut’s works as part of the classics canon. Yeah, I’m an aspiring English Teacher that doesn’t like Vonnegut. Again, bite me.