Sunday, August 28, 2016

Shadowrun: Hong Kong's Ending Choice

Interestingly, the ending of each of the recent Shadowrun games has presented the player a choice in career path, and each of the choices have a similar theme. In Shadowrun Returns, the protagonist is presented with the opportunity to become a personal security officer for some wealthy, powerful bigwig. And in Shadowrun: Dragonfall, a representative of Lofwyr, the tremendously powerful dragon who heads the largest corporation in the world, offers the protagonist the opportunity for her/his team to become a retained group of mercenaries for Lofwyr. I say this is interesting, because both of these choices are basically presenting the issue that defines the entire Shadowrun franchise: the choice between the comfort and security of being owned by the enslavers of man (government, religion, and, by far most of all, corporation), and the hard, usually short life of refusing to give up your freedom to those who see you as nothing more than a resource to be possessed.

Now, almost needless to say, in both of these games, I told the mouthpieces of oppression to fuck off, and stayed a Shadowrunner. If I was possessed of the opinion that trading away your self-determination for comfort and security was a worthy goal to pursue, I wouldn’t be playing a damn Shadowrun game to begin with! Easy decision, right? Of course. Screw personal luxury, a Shadowrunner stands on her or his principles!

Which is why it would probably seem odd to you that in Shadowrun: Hong Kong, when this choice was presented again, I totally had the protagonist go for it.

So, see, at the end of Shadowrun: Hong Kong’s Extended Edition (which basically adds a small post-game storyline, much like how Fallout 3’s Broken Steel DLC extended the game past its ending), a moment comes when you have a choice similar to that offered at the end of the Shadowrun titles I mentioned above: you can follow through with the deal you’ve made with Qiu and the corporation she represents, or do as Kindly Cheng, the leader of the Triad group that you’ve been working with until now, orders. The former option will earn a reward from Qiu’s corporate backers in the form of restored SINs (System Identification Number) for the protagonist and the protagonist’s adopted brother Duncan--essentially, they’ll both be able to go back to a legal life within the social system like they had before Shadowrun: Hong Kong’s events. The latter option will be giving the finger to all involved corps and supporting the criminal organizations that live outside corporate law.

So, you’d expect that I would have chosen to side with Kindly Cheng and tell the corps to fuck off, right? But I didn’t. My decision in this scenario is to help Qiu and her corporation out, as promised, and have the SINs restored for the protagonist and Duncan. It seems hypocritical, I know, but hear out my reasoning:

First of all, the end result, on the large scale, is the same either way. Hong Kong is still doomed to become a plaything of the Ares corporation regardless of whether Qiu’s company can fight back or the Triads have a better starting position. If this was a decision that made a true difference for the citizens and runners of Hong Kong, I’d surely side with Cheng, since, though in an unpleasant way, her gang represents the freedom from the system that the Shadowrunners live by. But because this decision changes only the fate of the game’s core cast, more leeway is allowed for selfish reasons.

So, with that understanding, here’s the big thing about this issue: being a Shadowrunner is ultimately meant to be about having control over how you live your life, and refusing to relinquish your self-determination to some unchallenged, unchecked, and undeserving authority. Being a Shadowrunner is a choice to live free to who you are, instead of submitting to who someone else wants you to be.

But the protagonist of Shadowrun: Hong Kong, and her/his brother Duncan? They never got to MAKE that choice. The circumstances of the game’s plot forced them to become SINless and to live as soldiers of fortune.

The protagonists of Shadowrun Returns and Shadowrun: Dragonfall were both Shadowrunners already when those games started. It’s right for them to reject the offers of the powerful to keep them in cages, because these characters’ lifestyle implies that they have already made that choice in the past. But Duncan and the protagonist of Shadowrun: Hong Kong are bound by no obligation to stay true to a past choice, because that choice was stolen from them by the circumstances of fate.

Additionally, Duncan and SHK Protagonist’s lives as Shadowrunners have not really been a particularly good representation of the freedom of living life in the shadows. They’re allowed to take jobs on the side, but ultimately, they answer to Kindly Cheng as their master, again as a result of circumstances beyond their control more than any choice. That’s basically almost the same as it would have been for the Shadowrun: Dragonfall team if I’d had them take Lofwyr’s deal: life as another’s pet, simply on a longer leash than most. In a case such as this, being returned to the regular social system would actually represent a life with more self-direction than the current life in the shadows allows. Hell, the protagonist could choose to have her or his SIN restored, leave Hong Kong, and then become a Shadowrunner again, this time on her/his own terms.

Furthermore, there’s Duncan to consider. It would be one thing if this choice only affected the protagonist, but the restored SIN deal is offered to both her/him, AND Duncan. Even if the protagonist wants to continue as a Shadowrunner, it’s not just herself/himself that she/he is choosing a lifestyle for, it’s also Duncan. Duncan eventually becomes resigned to a life of running the shadows during the events of the main game, but he doesn’t like it, and when the possibility is raised that he could have his SIN restored and live a lawful life once more, he jumps at the chance.

Like I said, if the protagonist likes being a Shadowrunner better than living a normal life, she/he can always choose at a later date to give up the standard life again and return to the underworld--and do so without being eternally indebted to Kindly Cheng, to boot. This isn’t the protagonist’s only chance at living as a Shadowrunner. But this IS Duncan’s only chance at getting out of the shadows and living a life he wants to. To give up on the chance to have their SINs restored is to screw Duncan, the longest and most loyal companion the protagonist has, over horribly.

And frankly? If you do that to Duncan, you’re no better than the careless, selfish corporations and wealthy assholes who are the villains of the Shadowrun franchise. No, really, how would you be any different? You’re taking a man’s ability to decide what he wants to do with his life out of his hands, deciding his fate for him with no regard to what he wants. That’s the thematic definition of everything the entire Shadowrun franchise stands against!

In Shadowrun Returns and Shadowrun: Dragonfall, I told the messengers of society’s oppression to take a hike, because I believe in self autonomy, in the freedom that Shadowrunners represent. But it’s because I hold that belief that I chose the exact opposite in Shadowrun: Hong Kong, and allowed Duncan and his sister/brother to escape their lives in the shadows: because this time, that’s the choice that means freedom. And I say kudos to Harebrained Schemes for having the skill and creativity to flip the situation around in such a way.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Guest Rant: Final Fantasy 4's Insistence on Not Letting Its Characters Die, By Humza

Guest rant time! Today's rant is another in the fine line of Humza's work, and this time it's even about a game I know! Now isn't that spiffy? Thanks for covering for me yet again, sir!

Disclaimer: I don't own Humza's words below, and they don't necessarily reflect my own perceptions and opinions. Although they might. You'll just have to sit and wonder. I'm not telling.

Final Fantasy 4's Insistence on Not Letting Its Characters Die

July 11, 2016

I think most people that would visit an RPG blog are likely to be at least somewhat familiar with Final Fantasy 4, even if they haven’t played it; for those that haven’t, then it probably isn’t worth wasting your time reading through this and spoiling some important elements of the game.

One of the most bizarre aspects of Final Fantasy 4’s plot (which is saying something considering this is a game where you go to the moon on a giant whale) is how almost every character (save Tellah and his daughter, Anna) dies a fake death and then returns by the end of the game, despite having little plot relevance at that point. There are quite a few theories as to why the writers decided to do this, like the expected audience being too young to witness death, but those explanations aren’t really interesting since there isn’t much meaning to the deaths in that case, and Tellah’s death is also not explained.

The primary cause of the characters’ alleged deaths is their resistance to Golbez and their attempts to prevent him from gaining the crystals and thus achieving...whatever his vague goal in collecting those crystals was. Their deaths are also the main form of destruction and evil that we see from Golbez, since the game doesn’t show us many other evil deeds he was responsible for (the only exception being Rydia’s town, whose citizens were indirectly killed by Golbez).

By reversing the primary source of damage that the players can identify Golbez as being responsible for, the player is more likely to forgive him, since those characters weren’t actually killed (meaning that the player sees even less harm that Golbez has committed, which would make him seem less evil than they initially thought). This fits in with the last quarter of the game, where the game tries (but fails) to make the players feel more sympathetic towards Golbez since he lost his parents and was corrupted by Zemus as a kid. The combination of his backstory (intended to induce players’ sympathy) and his lack of killing (intended to make players hate him less) cause him to seem better than the player previously perceived him as.

That still doesn’t explain why Anna and Tellah didn't survive, though, because reversing their deaths could have added to the decrease in hatred that the player was most likely intended to have (especially so for Anna, since she is a non-combatant and more innocent from the player’s view because of that). So why does the game still not let those two survive?

Tellah’s death occurred by using the Meteor spell on Golbez, which was too strong for the former to handle while still surviving, and it damaged Golbez severely, which seems impressive to the player since the gap in strength between Golbez and the rest of the party is still quite large at that point. The same spell is cast by Golbez and Fusoya against Zeromus at the end of the game, which the player would expect to be extremely strong (especially since it was cast by Lunarians, who are portrayed as superior in magic to humans, and since two people were now casting Meteor instead of one), but Zeromus was still mostly unharmed after the duo’s attack, which increases Zeromus’ strength in the player’s mind and makes him appear a more formidable enemy as a result.

If Tellah didn’t die, then how would that event have differed? The player wouldn’t see Meteor as being such a strong spell if it didn’t have so much recoil damage, which would decrease the intended surprise that would be caused by Golbez and Fusoya’s attack. More importantly, it would also make Zeromus appear to be a less formidable enemy since he would have been unharmed by what the player would perceive as being a weaker magic spell, which isn’t as impressive a feat. This also deals with the problem of the game letting Anna die at the same time, because the chain of events that caused Tellah to cast Meteor and then die as a result would have been avoided if Anna did not die and cause Tellah to set out on his journey with the party.

Okay, so to summarize that verbose mess I typed above, I think that the characters’ fake deaths are because the game doesn’t want us to hate Golbez for killing the characters as much, but instead wants us to sympathize with him. Tellah did die because his death served the plot purpose of showing the strength of Meteor through the recoil damage that killed him, which makes Zeromus seem that much stronger when he survives a Meteor spell cast by Golbez and Fusoya, and this couldn’t have happened unless Anna also died and made Tellah seek vengeance.

Monday, August 8, 2016

General RPGs as Art

It’s a question that’s starting to get thrown around here and there in gamers’ communities with some frequency, and I only expect it to become more and more widely debated in the future:

Are video games art?

Well, that’s just too big a question for me to answer. I’m not qualified to judge the medium as a whole, so I’m not going to try.

Wait, where are you going? Sit back down; I’m not finished. God, you kids and your trying to leave before the bell rings, I swear.

As I was saying, I’m not qualified to judge the entire form of entertainment that is the video game on whether it is or is not art. But I do feel qualified to examine the question in terms of the RPG, at least.

As long as we’re pretty loose with what we consider “qualified,” that is.

So, are RPGs art? That, I can answer with an emphatic, “Yes! Well, y’know. Sometimes.”

What even qualifies as art, of course, is somewhat subjective, and always has been, and always should be. Still, even if it’s essentially impossible to hammer down the exact edges of the concept of art, we can at least generally agree on a broad area of its spectrum of definition. So even though my personal definition of art may not be exactly the same as your own, we’ll probably still be able to agree the majority of time. With this rule in mind, I feel safe in giving the definition I generally adhere to deciding whether something is or is not art:

To me, Art is a creative work or action created with the intent of conveying to or evoking within an audience an emotional, spiritual, or philosophical meaning, question, or resonation. And, well, gets some degree of success in its result. I mean, you can’t deny that Mass Effect 3’s ending evoked one hell of an emotional response, but I don’t think blind, unending fury against the game’s creators was the intended response, so I wouldn’t call that pile of shit art, at least not for that reason.

So, to me, there are a lot of RPGs that are art, yes. As a general rule, RPGs are plot-centric, attempting to engage us with characters who explore various theoreticals of the human condition, with the intent of making an overall statement on the world.

Are these statements always complex and intriguing? Certainly not. More often, the games convey fairly simple ideas as an overall theme, things like Love = Good, Know and Be True to Yourself, Friendship is Magic, and even just Be a Decent Person. Still, art doesn’t always have to be deep and complicated to be art. Sometimes it’s important to contemplate and reinforce the simple ideals and facets of ourselves, too. Besides, sometimes a simple concept can still make for a powerful piece of art; it’s just all in the execution. Yeah, “Love = Good” may be the simplistic message you can take from, say, Legend of Dragoon, but it’s also essentially the message of the gripping, emotional powerhouse that is Disgaea 1, or the truly spectacular Undertale, and I think it would be difficult to argue either of those creative, nuanced explorations of human connections as not art. Likewise, you can say that “Friendship is Really Good,” which is something you can find as a major theme of simple stories like Wild Arms 1 and Secret of Mana, is too facile to be art...but when you get down to it, isn’t that the fundamental theme of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, a game which explores the power and spiritual meaning of our connections to one another in a grandly emotional and even poetic way, and The World Ends with You, an RPG widely recognized for its creativity and the strong emotional connection its audience forms with its cast?

And whether or not you can accept the RPGs with simpler ideas to convey as art or not, there are certainly a number of games in the genre which explore deeper ideas and emotional truths in a way too creative and devoted not to be called art. Deus Ex 1 explores the nature of government and its power, strongly relevant to our current society, and what the truths it has discovered mean for us as a society. The Shin Megami Tensei series takes a number of perspectives in analyzing the concepts of religion and faith, as well as the conflict within us and our society between the wish for security and order, and the wish for freedom and independence. Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume examines the concept of vengeance, and what it can do to a person who chooses it as his or her duty. The Fallout series explores, celebrates, and critiques the culture of the United States, and the inevitability of both good and bad aspects of human nature. Several RPGs like Tales of the Abyss, Star Ocean 3, Okage: Shadow King, and Valkyrie Profile 1 examine the question of Man against God/Destiny in a definitive variety of ways. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and Q both explore the question of what gives our lives meaning. And then there’s Planescape: Torment, which is just damn.

To me, RPGs can, and more often than not should, be considered art. Not always--there are plenty of RPGs out there that just clearly are a paint-by-numbers affair that convey nothing but their developers’ wish to make money. But overall, the genre is all about the exploration and communication of truths of humanity, and/or the portrayal and invocation of powerful emotional states, be it in a simple or grandiose manner. And to me, that makes them art.