Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Pokemon Series's Pokemon Breeding

Many thanks to Ecclesiastes for letting me bounce ideas about this rant off him. Also to my sister, who, as she always does, generously donated a willing ear and more time than it was worth to listen to and give feedback on this. Both of you rock.

Y’know, Pokemon breeding is seriously fucked up.

Yes, this is another rant about one of those things that the Pokemon series kinda just glosses over, but is actually pretty disturbing. I know, I know, not exactly in the world do we all enjoy and accept as harmless child’s play this bizarre world of enslaved sentients, culturally encouraged dogfighting, dangerously unsupervised preteens, lethally dangerous government buildings, out of control forced domestication of wild animals, and so on? Still, as with the dangerous nature of many Gyms, this is a subject I haven’t seen critiqued often, so, here I am to do my thing. There is no easier target for logic and ethics nitpicking than Pokemon, and I’ll be damned if I’m above beating a dead Ponyta.

You like that? Ah? Pokemon joke? I’m hilarious.

Anyway. Pokemon breeding! The Pokemon games don’t usually go into much detail on the whole Pokemon breeding scene, from what I see and can recall. It’s more directly a part of the Pokemon world that the anime depicts.* In the games, the whole process is kinda just passed off as some miraculous happening, explained in a very carefully vague way. Or at least, it is in Generation 7, and I admit that I just don’t remember how it was explained prior to that...look, gimme a break, I never used the Daycare centers and even I can’t be expected to remember the wording of every RPG tutorial I’ve ever seen. I think I’m safe in assuming that the earlier games didn’t go out on a limb and supplement their audience’s sex ed classes, though.**

Nonetheless, no matter how quietly overlooked it might be, Pokemon breeding is indeed a thing in the games’ world, as evidenced by the fact that there is an entire trainer type called, clearly enough, Pokemon Breeders. And I gotta say, the concept is pretty messed up. The whole idea of animal breeding can be kinda squicky, of course, and I think there are certain aspects of its practice in the real world that just about anyone would admit are questionable. Nonetheless, even if we take a stance in which we’re A-OK with animal breeding in terms of real life, Pokemon breeding is a whole different matter.

See, here’s the thing: when you’re breeding animals, you’re making mating decisions for creatures that generally lack self-aware determination. With most animals, mating decisions are as much made through instinct as anything else they’s highly arguable how much “choice” they have in any aspect of their lives, with or without human intervention. Granted, this is still grounds for philosophical argument of ethics (on a personal level, I don’t like this practice), but the important thing is, you’re not taking a choice away from a being that can really contemplate the concept of choice enough to appreciate it anyway. But with Pokemon breeding, you’re forcing sapient creatures of human or near-human intelligence to mate according to someone else’s will, not theirs!

This isn’t deciding which chickens mate with which chickens to get the best eggs and temperament. This isn’t setting up a blind date for your stupid dog. This is forcing 2 independent, free-willed self-aware entities to reproduce according to the arbitrary whims of a third party, disregarding any and all feelings the actual participants might have on the matter! I’m no legal expert, but I do believe that’s called rape in some circles. Also eugenics, which is its own bag of unpleasantness. But more importantly, the whole robbing free-thinking self-aware individuals of their right to choose reproductive partners thing.

Oh, and yes, Pokemon (a lot of them, at least) are sentient, sapient beings. According to my ever faithful reader, friend, and sounding board Ecclesiastes, Generation 6 tried to backtrack on this issue, and make the line between human intelligence and emotion, and Pokemon intelligence and emotion, a more solid one. Figures it’d be the 1 game generation I’d skip. Nonetheless, even with my ignorance of the game’s events, I call bullshit on that. The Pokedex and general series lore disproves any notion of Pokemon all being intellectually and emotionally inferior to humans, and said dex and lore do this all over the place. Off the top of my head:

-Cubone wears the skull of its deceased mother, showing that it possess both the concept of sentimentalism for objects associated with those it cares about, and understanding of symbolism and how it relates to loss.
-Mimikyu recognizes love and accolades given to Pikachu, and feels jealousy (which is itself a complicated emotion indicative of intelligence). Its attempt to resolve this situation is to craft a costume based on Pikachu. This isn’t unconscious mimicry born from natural selection, this is a conscious decision to visually imitate Pikachu, and obviously the process of creating a costume to wear requires human-level preparation and know-how.
-Absol’s attempts to warn human civilizations of impending dangerous weather requires forethought, empathy beyond biological imperative, and selflessness to a humanlike degree. Absol has to be intelligent enough to recognize human civilization, identify that humans cannot follow weather indicators as well as it can, and devise a plan to warn them. It also must be emotionally complex enough to recognize the potential plights of nearby humans, care about them, want to help them, and choose to devote its time and energy to doing so with absolutely no possible personal gain.
-Primarina, during her (mine was female so deal with it) personal Z-move, stands and takes a bow after her operatic performance. That’s a display of personal pride in what she has done, and pride is, I’m pretty sure, an emotion only confirmed in human-level intelligence. Additionally, it shows a recognition of subtle social gestures and how they are correctly employed, and an understanding of how such gestures add flourish to a performance. This is no trained trick, done with the potential for reward treats in mind; the only motivation she can have in this bow is to acknowledge her accomplishment and performance, and share her satisfaction in it with others. In this 1 tiny motion, Primarina confirms an intelligence that understands cultural gestures, self-aware personal pride, and art.
-Uh, yeah, Rotom does, y’know, talk. And have a clear personality. Like, throughout the entirety of Pokemon: Generation 7. From the moment it possesses your Pokedex, Rotom does more than observe and recite basic Pokemon facts--it also reacts to, comments on, and poses questions about Moon and Lillie’s adventure together. Or Sun and Lillie’s adventure, whichever you went with.

And I want to emphasize again, this is off the top of my head. If I were to categorically go through Pokedex entries and rack my memory for all the details it can provide of the 5 generations I’m familiar with, I’m pretty sure there’d be a substantially longer list of Pokemon who flat-out, hands-down, beyond-question prove that Pokemon are capable of being self-aware, intelligent creatures mentally at humanity’s level (or even higher), and frequently are. But as I am not patently insane and thus have no interest in looking over...what is it now, over 800? Over 800 Pokemon’s worth of codex entries, those 5 examples will have to suffice.

Which brings us back to my point: Pokemon breeding is forcing 2 entities who, in at least some cases, are thinking, feeling, self-aware beings to reproduce together, regardless of what reproductive partner they might have otherwise chosen. And that is pretty messed up, and not okay. It’s either rape, or something really, really close.

Is this the most morally questionable part of the Pokemon world, when analyzed? Probably not; I mean, as deplorable as the idea of disregarding someone’s feelings and desires and assigning them some eugenics pet project mate to propagate with is, this is also the world which endorses pitting intelligent, self-aware individuals against each other in deadly, painful combat to satisfy the whims and vanity of their owners. That trumps even master-race-aiming rape, at least in my opinion. Still, when you think about it, the concept of Pokemon breeding is yet another extremely unsettling aspect of this cheerful children’s series that we perpetually give a free pass to.

* Sort of. The anime, if I recall correctly (be kind if you need to inform me that I’m wrong on this; I haven’t watched Pokemon since the Orange Island arc was the new big thing), depicts the breeding process more as a vague mixture of food preparation, grooming, relaxation methods, and massage (which makes the Pokemon Refresh thing in recent games even more questionable than it already is, I suppose). As far as it shows, you’d never guess that actual sex and reproduction was a part of the process at all.

Then again, are we even sure sex IS a part of Pokemon reproduction? I mean, you can still breed genderless Pokemon in the games using a Ditto as 1 of the parents (which is in itself all kinds of weird), right? So how much does gender actually matter to these things, in terms of creating new ones? And...

...Actually, you know what? I just realized what I’m trying to analyze here, and how deep I’m going with it. And I’m gonna just cut myself off right there. Not worth the cringy shudders I’m gonna eventually give myself if I keep on.

** Although given how inadequate and often negatively exclusive sexual education often is in the USA--and that’s when a school system even bothers to teach it at all--maybe it wouldn’t have been a bad thing if Pokemon games actually had gone into detail about it.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

General RPGs' AMVs 14

Yup, another one of these things. I know, I know, no one but me likes them. Well, the people who made these videos put real time and effort into their work, and someone ought to appreciate that, so you'll just have to abide until next rant for something more substantial.


Fallout 3, 4, and New Vegas: Electric, by Lacryna:
The music used is Electric Worry, by Clutch. It’s not an amazing AMV, but it’s punchy and fun to watch, a good example of a song that captures an aspect of a game that’s been used appropriately. The action and attitude of the Fallout series works well with the music, and that’s all there is to it--it’s good.


Final Fantasy 7: Tales of Fantasy VII, by ZackFairZakkusuFea:
The music used is Karma, by BUMP OF CHICKEN, which is the opening song for Tales of the Abyss. I’m not sure if this really counts as an AMV so much as it does a fan animation, but it’s cool, so I’m sharing it anyway. This is basically a near identical recreation of the opening anime video to Tales of the Abyss, except using characters, concepts, and plot elements from Final Fantasy 7, instead. It’s all hand-drawn art that looks great, and it’s really cool how close it is to the source video (you can find it here if you want to compare: Very fun, well-made piece of fan work, this.

Final Fantasy 10: The Sound of Silence, by DiDiChii:
The music used is a cover of The Sound of Silence, by Simon and Garfunkel. The cover itself is done by Disturbed. The nature of Final Fantasy 10’s story lends itself well to a quiet, slow, and powerful song such as The Sound of Silence, and this AMV does well to capitalize on that, emphasizing the more somber, quiet, and so often tragic moments and characters of the game. The video raises its visuals’ intensity as the song does, but, like the song, never loses its poignancy. Powerful stuff.


Fire Emblem 14: Demons, by WolfBeil:
The music used is Demons, by Imagine Dragons. There’s not much to say about this, besides that it is a simple, well-done AMV which matches the game’s scenes up very appropriately to the lyrics of the song. Very nice job here.

Fire Emblem 14: Who Am I Living For?, by Shinta Kakumei:
The music used is Who Am I Living For?, by...Katy Perry? Wait, that can’t be right. When did Katy Perry start making music that didn’t suck? Why wasn’t I informed that the end times had begun?

This is...well, it’s just an excellent AMV. Seriously, top-notch. It was really hard for me to choose the FF10 Sound of Silence AMV above as today's best video over this one. The song’s lyrics and ideas match to Fire Emblem 14 perfectly, allowing this video to tell the story of Corrin’s dilemma of her/his warring families and emphasize how much she/he loves them, to the echoing question of “Who am I living for?” The tone of the song ends up working surprisingly well with the visuals of FE14, too, which I would not have expected...yet the style that FE14 has of often (more often than you’d probably notice, in fact) switching between real time and slow motion makes it mesh very well with the slow throb of the song’s tempo. Really, it’s almost like Katy Perry wrote this song with FE14 in mind, it matches so well, or at least, it seems to after watching this quality AMV. This is a skillfully executed AMV that doesn’t settle for simply being a good tribute to the game, as most AMVs do, but rather uses its song to help tell a portion of the game’s story. Really great stuff!


Kingdom Hearts 2 + 365/2 Days: My Name, by La Habana Inc.:
The music used is My Name, by Shinedown. This AMV explores Roxas through the song, and it works darned well, the lyrics coordinating with his character as naturally as the footage is matched to the melody and changes. The simple effects used here and there are effective and never distracting, and ultimately, everything lines up to create a really good character-dedicated music video.

Kingdom Hearts Series: Call to Arms, by NekoKitkat25hug:
The music used is Vox Populi, by 30 Seconds to Mars. Fucking 30 Seconds to Mars again? At least it’s not This is War this time. This is a straightforward, well-made AMV that enjoyably recalls the KH series to us in a fun way. The pace of the song is matched well with the cinematography, and I like the overall package of this. I think it probably will mean a little more to me once I finally get around to playing that KH Birth by Sleep game, but even without knowing all the over complicated drama of Aqua and her friends, I still find this a solid AMV.

Kingdom Hearts Series: Maps, by Alexxis5954:
The music used is Maps, by Maroon 5. Can’t say I think much of the song, but the AMV that’s been made out of is pretty darned good. There’s not a lot that really jumps out at me about it to speak of here, it just works well. The lyrics are pretty good at telling a story of Sora and Kairi seeking each other, and the video is well coordinated with both the song’s lyrics and its overall tune and changes. This is just your textbook case of a good, well-made AMV.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Moon Hunters

Well, you know how I like to roll...when I encounter a decent Indie RPG, I try to share its existence with you folks, because games made by non-AAA developers tend not to get great marketing (with a few notable exceptions, like Undertale), and that’s just not right, given that they are often quite good.

Moon Hunters is such an RPG. A Kickstarter game which I’m pleased to say I helped to back, Moon Hunters is perhaps the only Roguelike game I have ever played that appeals to me. The Roguelike subgenre of RPGs is 1 which I have barely explored at all, because, quite frankly, it’s just not a setup that encourages the only thing that makes playing an RPG a worthwhile experience, the writing. Randomized dungeon-crawling is usually the beginning and end of a development team’s focus with Roguelikes, and that is, for me, about the most boredom I can have without having Ricky Gervais present in the room.

Hell, even when a developer has good intentions with a Roguelike, you’re still not likely to get much out of it...I was promised a story and cast of significance with Dragon Fin Soup, but I’ll be damned if anything of the sort materialized in the first 10 hours of the game, and at that point, even I gave up on it. And I played Lunar: Dragon Song from beginning to end, for heaven’s sake!

But anyway, enough about a game I wish I hadn’t helped fund; let's get back to talking about a game that I’m glad I did. Moon Hunters manages, for the first time I’ve personally seen, to make a plot and cast work with the Roguelike formula, by taking it in a completely different direction than the linear storytelling style that we expect from most RPGs, and even in a different direction from the more free-form storytelling style that you’ll see occasionally in games like Baroque and the original 2 Fallout titles. And it does so in an ingenious way.

See, with a game that focuses on randomized dungeons, a game’s story usually has to either find an excuse for it, or just kind of stay outside of it, only existing outside and in set areas of the randomized dungeon. Like, in the Izuna games, the fun, quirky plots happen in the scenes outside the actual dungeon gameplay, and on specific, set floors of the dungeon (the boss floors, basically). For the most part as you play, though, you’re just going silently through the random dungeon floors to get to the next plot point, rather than having that plot be present with you, as it would be in, say, a regular RPG, which can have set points in any given dungeon where conversations and story events happen.

What Moon Hunters does, though, is to make its randomization the key, focal theme of its story. You see, Moon Hunters is a game with a motif of tribal lore, with the idea that the game you’re playing is someone telling a legend about an event in the past that shaped the world--you’re basically playing out a Native American myth. The setting and theme of Native American tribal lore is by itself a draw for me (as I’ve mentioned before, it’s a cultural backdrop I want to see more often implemented in RPGs), because it’s engaging and fascinating stuff, but beyond that, it works absolutely perfectly with a primarily randomized game, because every time you replay the game and it’s a little or a lot different, the plot explanation is that the same legend is being related by another teller, who is simply telling it and interpreting it differently than the last storyteller did. So rather than having to work around the core gameplay element of a Roguelike, this story style incorporates that as a key detail--the key detail, in fact (more on that in a moment).

Additionally, the randomized dungeon-crawling is broken up frequently by randomized story events. For every dangerous area you explore, you’ll encounter enemies and traps and whatnot, sure, but you’ll also encounter various characters and events in there, as well, that typically take the form of small vignettes that provide brief but interesting side plots to your journey. So, again, the randomization element is woven into the storytelling element, as you meet people and creatures that expand the lore of the world you’re traveling through. In these ways, Moon Hunters doesn’t just escape the difficulties that its game type presents to a plot and characters, it uses those difficulties, empowers them, makes them into strengths.

And let me just say, those randomized dungeon events that are like small vignettes? They really help to sell the theme of tribal legends. They often feel like authentic myths you might read in an anthology or something, side stories to your character’s heroic journey like the way various small stories from, say, ancient Greece tend to use or mention heroes (for example, Theseus, he’s in a ton of Greek myths in one way or another) and villains in several different, unconnected stories. I really liked one, for example, which has you find an accomplished singer from a nearby village practicing his craft at a lake, when out of the lake emerges a prince from a kingdom under the lake’s waters. The prince has fallen in love with the singer for his beautiful voice, and the singer asks you whether he should accept the prince’s proposal and leave the surface world to sing as king of the underwater lands. It totally feels like the kind of scenario you’d get from an old fairy tale, and it has basically nothing to do with anything else on your quest--it’s just its own, complete little myth that happened to involve the hero of this story for a moment. That’s what I mean--these momentary little side ventures feel like bits and pieces of other legends connecting with this larger one for a moment, much as a legend of ancient Greece might involve Odysseus during his journey home from the Trojan War, but not be a focal point of the actual Odyssey.

Actually, the game sells its tribal legend schtick in all regards, not just the randomized storytelling. The village settings cover a wide and interesting range of tribal styles, the consistent characters connect to the setting and style of tribal storytelling, the narration has a very old-myth-sounding style, and the way it speaks of your character after the game is finished is very legend-like, too. The involvement of celestial bodies, both in the form of the warring sun god and moon goddess and of the heroes’ and their exploits being immortalized as constellations, likewise sells the setting and theme.

And speaking of the moon goddess, let’s get back to that theme of storytelling interpretations. I absolutely love how much of a quiet, yet huge thing the idea of fluid, changing interpretations and storytelling is to Moon Hunters. It really portrays an interesting and very infrequently examined concept of oral tradition--the variation between tellers and the changes that occur to a story over time and distance--in a realistic and engaging manner. In fact, the game makes it the hinging point in its plot, not just through the randomization of playthroughs, but through the focal entity of the game, the goddess of the moon. Each of the game’s tribes worship the moon as a different entity...1 sees her as a maternal goddess, another as the arbiter of death, still another as an embodiment of nature and the wild, and so on. She has as many interpretations as the compass has directions, and yet they are all her, for her true self is only defined by the people who worship her--if you play right, and arrive at a point near the game’s end in which she speaks to you, you see that her ‘true’ self has no face, no identity save as a being of wisdom and love, the only traits which all interpretations of her share. It’s very cool, the way the game quietly speaks to its audience about the nature and value of variation in the telling of myths, while almost never going so far as to outright tell you its message. And even in the rare instance when the game is fairly direct (the postgame, final battle for the right to interpret and tell in new ways), it still seems no less artistic and skillfully understated.

And by the way, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this plot and storytelling method is all about style and theme, with no substance. Though the telling of this game is understated and its protagonist silent, there is a story to Moon Hunters, and that story has some strong moments to it. I absolutely love the small but weighted speech that the moon goddess gives to you at the end of the game, assuming you’re getting the ‘real’ ending. I mean, don’t go in expecting an ever-present, solid plot like you would from a Final Fantasy or Tales of game, but don’t misunderstand my enthusiasm for the themes and mythological element of this game to mean that it doesn’t have a real story, per say.

Other, minor good points to Moon Hunters: first of all, you know I don’t care a lick for visuals, but it must be said, this game looks terrific and perfectly represents its setting with a graphical style that...hmmm, it’s hard to explain. It looks very indie, that’s for sure, which makes sense, but beyond that, it kind of looks like what a video game might have if the graphical limitations of old PC games back in the early 90s had never been surpassed over time, but rather, refined. The music, while rarely something that makes you just sit back and pause at how good it is, is nonetheless excellent at what it’s made for, which is selling the mood and atmosphere of the game. The gameplay controls well enough; nothing notably great or poor about it, really. And hey, I’d like to say that I give a huge thumbs-up to the artist(s) for Moon Hunters, because the people of the Moon Hunters world look like, well, people. You may recall (but probably don’t, given that no one read this blog back then) that 1 of my earliest rants was my appreciation for the fact that Vandal Hearts 1 had characters who weren’t all a bunch of perfect anime caricatures, but rather employed a cast who overall looked much more realistic, less cleaned up and pretty. Looking back on that rant and that game’s cast, I can see that I was giving it more credit than it might have deserved; the characters of VH1 are only somewhat less beautified than a typical game cast, certainly not to the extent I credited it. With Moon Hunters, however, the villagers you encounter simply look like a collection of human beings as you might actually see as you stroll through a village, and I really like, and even applaud, that. Helps make it feel all the more real.

Now, Moon Hunters isn’t perfect, of course. There is the fact that, well, from start to finish, the game is like, I dunno, 2 hours long? At most? It will seem, at first, not to be worth your time. When I first started playing it, I was deeply disappointed that such a tiny RPG had come about from the funding of we backers. But, the thing is, this is not, first of all, a long story to be told. Moon Hunters takes exactly as much time as it needs to tell its story, and extending the game to be longer would mostly just be padding it out unnecessarily, I think. Secondly, and much more importantly, you are supposed to play it many times. Chrono Trigger tempts you with its many endings to play through it at least once more, but Moon Hunters requires it. There are multiple endings, but more than that, you will never be able to feel and embrace the concept of varied tellings if you do not play this game more than once, and it’s not possible to see all, or even most, of this game’s story content in a single playthrough. To see each village, a good amount of the randomized side story content, each of the endings, and the possible consequences of your choices, and overall reach a point where you can feel like you’ve experienced Moon Hunters in full, you will need to play it at least a good 5 or 6 times, I’d say, which stretches your time with the game out to a good 10 or more hours, and that is a better deal for your money.* In the end, the brevity of Moon Hunters is not because it’s poorly designed, it’s because it’s designed well in a way that you’re not expecting.

Anyway, I reckon that’s enough, and then some. If you’re in the mood for a very different RPG, a short and quiet tale that gets you caught up in ideas and a setting you rarely get to enjoy in the genre, something contemplative and calm and engulfing like the full moon in the dark sky...give Moon Hunters a try. Once your mind becomes comfortable in the game’s mindset, it’s a very enjoyable experience. You can find it on Good Old Games, Steam, or Humble Bundle. I recommend it, especially if you’re curious to see how a Roguelike can use its writing limitations to its advantage to become something really interesting and special.

* You might also be a moron like me, and play the game from start to finish like 12 times without getting the true ending because it just somehow never dawns on your tiny brain that the first area of each game is telling you exactly what direction to go in.

Here’s a hint for anyone as thick as myself: the goddess is the compass.