Friday, October 28, 2016

Fallout 3's Elder Lyons's Understanding of the Brotherhood of Steel

One of the most unhappy parts of Fallout 4, to me, is learning what has become of the East Coast chapter of the Brotherhood of Steel since the events of Fallout 3. To see that the noble defenders of the Capital Wasteland have fallen so far, devolved into an aggressive order of bigots and bullies who begrudge the common people true, committed assistance and are back to hoarding technology from all others. The wisdom and kindness of Elder Lyons is long gone, replaced by a thoughtless puppet dictatorship based on xenophobia, arrogance, and selfishness. These were the saviors of the Washington D.C. area, a brotherhood of heroes...and now, 20 years later, they’re the most evil organization in the Commonwealth, more of a threat to common decency than even the Institute, the actual villain group of Fallout 4.

Sad though it is, there are many who believe that this is, in fact, how the Brotherhood of Steel is meant to be, or at least, closer to it than the group was in Fallout 3. It’s born of the same argument that people have about the Outcasts in Fallout 3. The Outcasts were a splinter group that broke off from Elder Lyons’s group because they believed that helping the common people of the Capital Wasteland was a pointless endeavor, that the Brotherhood’s purpose of being on the East Coast was solely to hoard away any and all pre-war technology they could find. The letter of Brotherhood doctrine does indeed seem to indicate that the Outcasts have the right idea, that the group’s interest is solely in finding and controlling technology and to hell with the rest of the world, and the Brotherhood of Steel’s role in Fallout: New Vegas seems to back this up, as the group has become enemies of the New California Republic because it sought to control a solar energy plant and keep it out of the hands of the supposedly lesser people of the NCR. On the surface, the Brotherhood of Steel does, indeed, appear to actually be only a group of self-serving technology-hoarders who are not supposed to care a whit for the common people outside their order. They’re out to save humanity from its own technology, whatever the expense.

In this, ironically, the Brotherhood of Steel is the most like their enemy in Fallout 4, the Institute, of any faction in the Fallout series I can recall. Both groups firmly believe in saving humanity, but the humanity that both the Institute and the Brotherhood of Steel are trying to save seems to be only an abstract, overall concept, “humanity” as some intangible ideal. The actual, living, struggling, feeling, thinking humanity all around them can apparently fuck off.

At any rate, as I say, all obvious evidence points to a single conclusion: the goodness of the Brotherhood of Steel under the leadership of Elder Lyons (and the tragically brief leadership of his daughter Sarah Lyons) was an aberration of the group. The Brotherhood of Steel were never the good guys.

But I contest this. I believe that under the leadership of Owyn Lyons and Sarah Lyons, the East Coast Brotherhood of Steel was a true representation of the order, far more so than what we’ve seen of the Brotherhood since Fallout 3.

Yes, all of the evidence presented is true, beyond debate. The doctrine of the Brotherhood of Steel is to collect, safeguard, and restrict technology from the rest of the world, as a parent hides matches from a child who has accidentally burned his fingers once already. Beyond that, there is little word of policy regarding the treatment of the outside world for the Brotherhood of Steel; certainly there is no indication in the laws of the Steel that directs the Brotherhood to intervene in the rest of mankind’s behalf beyond what is beneficial for the Brotherhood of Steel itself. Going strictly by the laws of the Brotherhood, Lyons is a renegade from the order, and the Outcasts, and even Maxson’s foolish bigots in Fallout 4, are true representations of the Brotherhood of Steel.

Here’s the problem, though, with this interpretation, one which plagues us as a species: no matter how carefully written, the letter of the law does not always convey its spirit. The rules of the Brotherhood of Steel may be clear as to the order’s priorities, but in and of themselves, they fail to convey the purpose behind that priority. Yes, the Brotherhood of Steel is supposed to collect, hoard, and restrict technology, but only as part of a process of protecting and uplifting humanity. The purpose of controlling the use of the old world’s technology is not simply the control in itself, it is in keeping the people of the world safe from themselves. The idea is to only allow the common people of the wastes access to technology they are ready for, technology that they will use correctly. Isolation from the rest of mankind as a higher order of people is NOT meant to be the goal of the Brotherhood of Steel.

In less of the abstract, the purpose of the Brotherhood of Steel is supposed to be about protecting humanity from and with the use of greater technology. To insist upon focusing solely on scavenging and hoarding technology and ignore the plight of the people around them is a case of the Brotherhood of Steel being unable to see the forest for the trees. I’m not saying that the Brotherhood of Steel is meant to engage every minor threat to everyone they come across--that’s what we’ve got game protagonists for--but the long-term goal of the order is the preservation of humanity. That’s the reason they’re out hoarding and researching all the technology. So when the Brotherhood of Steel sees a place like the Capital Wasteland, sees a place in which the people suffer so greatly and are contending with a threat that could wipe them out and then spread onward (the DC super mutants), it IS, in fact, true to the Brotherhood of Steel’s spirit to set up shop and engage in helping the population to solve problems that require the sort of power and technology that the Brotherhood can provide. Leaving the entirety of the D.C. area to die out and be overtaken by super mutants runs contrary to the long-term goal of saving humanity which the Brotherhood of Steel is meant to pursue. Elder Lyons’s heroism in staying to combat the super mutant threat and help the people of Washington, D.C. was simply a case of prioritizing the purpose of the law over its technicality.

I’d like to also point out that saying that Owyn Lyons’s actions are contrary to the “real” Brotherhood of Steel is to deny the validity of the earliest examples that we know of the order. Let’s take a look back, way back, at Fallout 1.* Specifically, let’s consider Fallout 1’s ending. 1 of the possible ending slides for the Brotherhood of Steel, specifically the ending slide which Fallout 2 and 3 later established was canon, says this:

“The Brotherhood of Steel helps the other human outposts drive the mutant armies away with minimal loss of life, on both sides of the conflict. The advanced technology of the Brotherhood is slowly reintroduced into New California, with little disruption or chaos. The Brotherhood wisely remains out of the power structure, and becomes a major research and development house.”

Well gosh, look at that. The Brotherhood of Steel in Fallout 1, which is the earliest and thus, logically, the most pure and true version of the order which we have witnessed, went out of their way to help the common people of the waste, and carefully reintroduced their hoarded technology, rather than just kept it totally for themselves. This first visible iteration of the Brotherhood of Steel was not just researching and gathering technology for its own sake, it was doing so with the intent of benefiting humanity through a controlled reintroduction. This Brotherhood of Steel understood that its goal was the preservation of humanity, that the flow of technological advancement was to be controlled for the sake of cautious advance, not as an end means of itself. This BoS understood that to stand aloof from the rest of humanity is not to ignore its plight when the humanity around the them faces threats it cannot overcome without the order’s assistance.

Let’s also look at some other important evidence from Fallout 1: the history of the Brotherhood of Steel’s formation. Without getting into too much detail, the origins of the Brotherhood are found in the days leading up to the great war that created the nuclear wastelands of Fallout. The long and short of it is, a certain group of United States soldiers were assigned to a military base in which government scientists were experimenting on live, unwilling human subjects. The soldiers, horrified by the atrocities they were witness to, put an end to the research, and wound up murdering the scientists, repaying 1 act of inhuman barbarism with another. Unable to cope with the knowledge of what his government was doing, the soldiers’ leader, Maxson, sent out an open declaration to the US government that he and his men, in this military base, were seceding from the union. They expected nothing less than to be taken and killed for treason, but as it turned out, all this was happening just around the time the nukes started falling, so obviously their little rebellion kinda got lost in the shuffle. There’s a lot more history to the Brotherhood after that, notably the actual founding of the order, but that’s the stuff that’s relevant to my point here.

Now, that there is the birth of the Brotherhood of Steel. They may not have had their name yet, they may not have known what they were gonna be about yet, but it started there. That is the founding moment of the order. And what is it? It is a moment in which some soldiers came upon something that was wrong, and could not sit by and abide it. It was a moment in which men and women ignored the orders of their superiors in order to stop the suffering of innocent people. The letter of the law for the soldiers was obedience, which in this case meant to turn a blind eye and allow the experiments to continue. But the spirit of the law for soldiers is to protect others, to forcibly end that which is wrong, and in this case, this founding moment of the Brotherhood of Steel, the soldiers knew that their orders were not compatible with their greater purpose.

This is why I believe that the Brotherhood of Steel in Fallout 3, under the leadership of Owyn Lyons, was, indeed, a true representation of the group, truer than the Outcasts in that game, truer than the fanatical bigots of Fallout 4, and truer even than the faction seen in Fallout: New Vegas. In refusing to ignore the otherwise incurable suffering of the people of the Capital Wasteland, in having his group use its power and technology to protect the common people of the D.C. area, and work with them to better their living conditions, Elder Lyons is, indeed, acting as the Brotherhood of Steel is meant to. He is looking at his group’s goals and resources in the long-term, he is doing as the elders of the past have done, and he is acting exactly as the first Elder Maxson did in the defining, founding moment that gave birth to the Brotherhood of Steel: he is going against protocol in order to pursue the goal that the protocol was only put in place to achieve. Fallout 3’s Brotherhood of Steel was the real thing, perhaps the last true representation of the order that we’ll see in the franchise.

More’s the pity.**

* Y’know, I think that if more people had studied Sesame Street thoroughly enough to realize that there are numbers that come before 3, there would be a LOT fewer arguments in the Fallout fandom. Like when people complain about how Fallout 4 shouldn’t have silly things in it and how that’s ruining the franchise. Yeah, because it’s totally not like there’s a moment in Fallout 2 in which you meet a giant talking rat with delusions of grandeur that’s a reference to Pinky and the Brain, or anything.

Hm. Maybe I should do a rant on that. Then again, I feel like I’ve already just said as much as I need to on the matter.

** This doesn’t really fit into the rant anywhere else, but I also wanted to note that even if you buy the view that the Brotherhood of Steel actually is supposed to just hoard and research technology and ignore the plight of others and all that isolationist garbage, Lyons’s Brotherhood is still a better example of the BoS than the Outcasts or the official New Vegas faction. I mean, if the priority really is just to control all the best technology possible, period, Lyons’s methods were a hell of a lot more successful. While the Outcasts are tinkering with a bunch of common laser and plasma weaponry over in their little fort, Lyons’s trust in and cooperation with outsiders nets his Brotherhood faction the science and structure of a water purifier for an entire region, the armor, weaponry, and miscellaneous tech of the previously technologically superior Enclave forces, and enough knowledge of Liberty Prime that they’ll be able to, given some time, rebuild him for their use. And hey, it turns out that when your policy is to protect the common people of the wasteland and help them to improve their livelihood, rather than try to shove them away from everything useful so you can keep it for yourself, those common people don’t attack you in overwhelming numbers and drive you away from the stuff you wanted and into hiding like scared rabbits. So I guess that Lyons’s policies are a hell of a lot more effective than the New Vegas Brotherhood’s, huh? By working with and assisting outsiders rather than shunning them entirely, Lyons got all the best technology, and those outsiders were willing to let his group keep it. So even by the shortsighted standards of the Outcasts and West Coast Brotherhood of Steel, Lyons still was doing his job, and better than them.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Fire Emblem Series's Flying Units' Weakness

I seem to be strangely over-critical of flying units in the Fire Emblem series.

One of the mainstay character classes of Fire Emblem is the flying unit. These are the ones where some fighter rides atop a pegasus, a wyvern, or, recently, a big honkin’ cockatoo in battle, and can travel over various map obstacles that other fighters can’t traverse, because, y’know, flying. Naturally, this makes these units extremely handy, particularly for accomplishing timed objectives during a battle which would otherwise be nearly impossible to get to in time. To balance these units out so that players can’t abuse their mobility too much, they always take critical damage from projectile weapons like bows.

This seems sensible enough at a glance. They’re flying units, so naturally the weapon you’d rely on to take them down would be a projectile, right? I mean, that’s how it works in real life. You need to take down a bird flying overhead, you’re gonna need something with a little more reach than a sword. But, scrutinize this system with anything lengthier than that glance, and you’ll realize that this actually doesn’t make any damn sense.

See, the problem comes back to the reasoning for why this would appear to make sense: flying enemies are outside our normal reach, so we would rely on a bow to take down, say, a pegasus knight. But the game doesn’t actually follow this logic, because a pegasus knight can be attacked using melee weapons just as any other unit can be! Get a ground-based unit with an axe up to a pegasus knight unit, and that axe grunt can attack the pegasus knight exactly as effectively as he can anyone else! The pegasus knight is no more or less evasive, takes no more or less damage from the axe, as any other unit would. The bow’s extra damage to flying units is founded on the core idea that a flying enemy can only be hit by long-range weapons, but the game doesn’t actually support this--the flying units are no less vulnerable to regular weaponry!

So why, then, should the bow be so deadly to flying units? It’s not like they’re significantly less armored than many other types of fighters in the Fire Emblem series. The regular horses that knights ride are just as vulnerable to an arrow’s damage. More, really, because any significant damage to the majority of a horse’s body is going to make the act of movement along the ground difficult or impossible for the horse, while in the case of a pegasus, a lot less of its body would need to be in perfect condition to keep moving through the air.

And what about wyvern units? Considering that these guys are dragons’ lesser cousins, their scales should make them far less susceptible to arrows than most regular units in the series, and the knights that sit atop them tend to be pretty heavily armored, too.

Heck, what about the issue of mobility? If anything, shouldn’t a flying unit be even harder to hit with a bow, since they have more space and distance when in the air to react and evade? Ground units are significantly more limited in their options for avoiding projectiles than those that can move through the air at will.

It just doesn’t make sense. If, in practice, everyone can attack the flying units with any weapon and not suffer any kind of damage or accuracy penalty, thus eliminating the theoretical benefit of a bow’s range in combat against a flying foe, then there’s just no logical reason why a bow’s arrows would be any more effective on a kinshi, pegasus, or especially wyvern rider than it would be on any other given fighter. I know it’s all in the name of gameplay balance (although I’m not actually sure whether this system even really balances flying units out very well to begin with), but that doesn’t mean it’s sensible on more important levels.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

General RPGs' Accessories

RPG heroes are dumb, man.

When it comes to RPGs, there are 3 mainstays of equipment: Weapon, Armor, and Accessory. Sometimes a game will differentiate separate parts of armor (Dragon Age 1, for example, has equipment slots for boots and helmets in addition to the body armor), sometimes a game will have multiple hand slots for weapons or shields determined by the player (DA1 also does this), sometimes a game will differentiate different types of accessories (to continue the example, DA1 has separate slots for equipping necklaces and rings, allowing for 2 rings and 1 necklace on every character), but in the end, it almost always comes down to these mainstays. I mean, not always, I’ll grant you (AeternoBlade, for example, has 3 slots for accessories, but Freyja’s weapon and armor are set in stone for the game’s duration...not that you’d ever want her to stop using the most insanely deadly sword in RPG history), but still, this is the case like 90+% of the time.

Accessories tend to be the most interesting and useful of these mainstays. After all, the bonuses from weapons and armors tend to just be simple increases to attack and defense. Yes, there are many weapons and armors that have other effects, and those can be exceptionally useful, but generally, accessories are the pieces of equipment that provide varied effects that can change your playstyle or be manipulated to make your characters unstoppable in 1 fashion or another. Is the deadliest part of an upcoming boss fight the enemy’s Damage-Over-Time effects? Throw on a couple rings that prevent Poison or Bleed conditions. Want to attack 8 times, that’s 8 fucking times, in a row in Final Fantasy 6? Throw an Offering and Genji Glove on a character. Want to just be actually, honestly indestructible in Lufia 2? Equip the Egg Ring (although by the time you can get the damn thing, you clearly don’t need it anyway). Accessories can cause you to regenerate health every round, increase the damage of critical strikes or attacks to hit elemental weaknesses, activate bonus skills on characters that normally have to choose between them, give immunity to status ailments and instant death attacks, increase stats, confer extra experience and money at the end of battles, lower the cost of spells and abilities, give elemental resistances, increase the amount of actions you get per turn, make healing spells and items more effective, empower attack skills and magic, and do so much more. A wide and varied number of accessories in a game can allow for party customization in RPGs which otherwise have no such opportunities.

So, of course, this begs the question of why the hell RPG characters only ever equip, at most, a few of these things at a time.

I mean, think about it. Let’s take Final Fantasy 6 as an example. If, say, protagonist Terra decides to equip both a Gem Box and an Economizer (Soul of Thamasa and Celestriad in the later translation), she can cast magic twice per turn (4 times if you abuse the Quick spell), and all spells cost her only a single MP. Being able to throw Ultima around twice (or 4 times) with no worry of running out of magical ammo for it is pretty awesome! But that’s just 2 accessories working in tandem--an orb and a necklace, it seems. Well, there’s nothing about wearing an orb (however that works) and a necklace that should stop Terra from also tying a Ribbon around her neck or wrist or wherever the Ribbon item is kept--she could have all that magical attack power, AND be immune to status ailments! For that matter, there’s no reason any of these accessories would get in the way of her wearing a White Cape, increasing her defense and magical evasion. And underneath the cape could be the wings of some Cherub Down, to ensure that she’s immune to all Earth-based attacks. And why should any of these accessories prevent her from putting on a pair of Marvel Shoes, granting herself faster actions, health regeneration, and additional protection from magic and physical damage? None of these accessories get in the way of one another, so if Terra really wants to be an unstoppable force of nature, she could equip them all. Hell, even the ones that would get in each other’s way don’t always have to be exclusive. I mean, I think the Beads accessory is supposed to be worn around one’s neck, so you’d think Terra wouldn’t be able to wear it and the Economizer at the same time, but it’s not like it’s physically impossible to wear 2 necklaces/pendants/whatevers at the same time. She could totally wear both, no problem.

Why does my protagonist in Dragon Age 1 only wear 2 rings? There are 35 different rings in the game that give beneficial effects. Just 2? Fuck that, I want a ring on every damn finger! And toe! Hell, if it means more spell resistance and critical damage, go ahead and pierce my Grey Warden’s ears with a couple of those magical rings each, and her nose, and tongue! Deck her out like a punk rocker with a fetish for costume jewelry! I like it, so I wanna put 3 dozen rings on it!

There are 39 different amulets in the game? Pile’em on! By the time I’m done with her, people are gonna be mistaking her neck for a cluttered keychain!

How many stat-boosting, effect-giving magical belts are there in Dragon Age, again? 32? Bring’em on, who said that belts are for the waist only? Throw 5 around my city elf heroine’s waist and then start strapping’em around her legs, arms, wherever they’ll go! If it means extra Cunning stats (somehow) and better health regeneration, I’ll make her look like she just came straight outta one of Tetsuya Nomura’s wet dreams!

It’s just always seemed silly to me that RPG characters have some arbitrary accessory limit imposed on them. You can only really wear 1 set of armor (maybe 2, I guess, if you have separate armors for clothing-type and real-armor-type), you can only grip 2 weapons and there are actual pros and cons to the issue of whether to go with 2 weapons, a weapon and shield, or just a weapon gripped with both hands. But nearly every RPG character has got a neck, 2 wrists, 10 fingers, 10 toes, and so on. There’s no reason they can’t wear 20 different magical rings into battle, a couple of pendants, several bracelets or at least 2 gauntlets, and so on. They’ve got access to all these incredible ability-boosting baubles, but they only ever wear 1 - 5 of them at a time! C’mon, Wild Arms 2’s Ashley, you’re trying to save your world from terrorists, an ancient demon, and an actual living universe that’s trying to eat your reality! You need to get serious about this shit! Pin the Sheriff’s Star on your chest, AND wear a pair of attack-increasing gloves! At the same time, you idiot!

And yeah, I know the reason for this from the gameplay perspective. Obviously, if you want any sort of game balance, you can’t give a character the option to load themselves down with as many accessories as they’re actually able to wear. Well, that’s great and all for design mechanics, but that doesn’t mean that it makes sense from a narrative standpoint when Hero McSwordbutt decides to take off the ring he’s been wearing because he wants to try on a new cape. Just because you have to do something to maintain game balance, that doesn’t mean it needs no explanation whatsoever to justify it, if it goes beyond the laws of common sense (I’m looking at you, Adventuring Party Size Limits). You still should do or say something to make some sense of it.

I’m telling you, the day some RPG hero realizes that she’s got more than 2 fingers, and that her neck and hands occupy different places on her body, we’re gonna have the most overpowered game character of all time.