Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Mass Effect 3's Padok Wiks

Occasionally, when an RPG has multiple paths through its story and the gamer’s decisions make a difference to the events that unfold, but of these paths, 1 is clearly the better/best, something that’s legitimately good gets lost in the shuffle. Like, say, Roy’s death scene in Suikoden 5. There’s precious little about Suikoden 5 that’s memorable or interesting, but there is 1 part of the game that’s just legitimately great, a moving moment of selfless courage: the scene in which Roy gives his life in noble sacrifice and buys enough time for the heroes’ reinforcements to save the day. It’s easily the best part of the game, but the funny thing is, it’s not something that’s actually supposed to happen. You only see the scene if you’ve made a mistake and are headed down the wrong plot road. For anyone aiming at the better, true story path and ending, the heroes are never put into the situation that results in this scene, and Roy continues to live on, no one ever knowing what heroism truly lies within him. Which I’m fine with, I suppose, because I like Roy, even if a lot of that affection for him is, paradoxically, born from his death scene that never happened. But it’s still the best part of Suikoden 5, in spite of being 1 that you’ll never know exists if you’re making the right choices and experiencing the true storyline. But you get the general idea here--sometimes there are bits and pieces of non-cannon or otherwise ‘wrong’ story paths in RPGs that are actually real gems, gems that it seems a real shame to miss out on.

And no character better embodies this idea of lost excellence, I think, than Padok Wiks of Mass Effect 3. Most players will never get to know Wiks, because he’s a character whose role in Mass Effect 3’s story is simply to fill in for Mordin Solus, if Mordin died during the events of Mass Effect 2. But the vast majority of players are going to go through the lengths that Mass Effect 2 requires to keep their whole team alive and earn the best ending from that game. Heck, even in the case of players who choose not to finish ME2 with everyone on the team alive, Mordin’s the kind of exceptionally likable character who they’ll probably have made sure survives even when others didn’t. I mean, I can see someone who doesn’t care all that much about the ME2 cast shrugging as they see Jacob kick the bucket, but being much more likely to quit and reload a previous save if the same happens to Mordin, simply because Mordin is far more universally appealing.

So, for most people, the role of salarian hero and visionary who cures the Genophage in Mass Effect 3 will go to Mordin. And that’s good! Because it has more thematic weight when tied to Mordin, and his final and greatest act in life being the salvation and second chance for the krogan as a species and as a culture, is the perfect end to Mordin’s character arc. It completes arguably the greatest and most thoughtful character and personal journey in the series in a way that is satisfying and right. But it does mean that for most players, Padok Wiks will be no more than a minor NPC that Shepard converses with momentarily, never to be seen again. And that’s too bad, because Wiks is actually a terrific character, 1 of the best in the Mass Effect series and, by logical extension, 1 of the best in the RPG genre. So today, I want to make a rant in appreciation of this guy, and whoever the folks were on Bioware’s team who wrote him.

First of all, I want to say kudos to the writers for Padok Wiks just in general for making an awesome character. Padok Wiks manages to walk that line between funny-quirky and deep-meaningful perfectly, with amusing and engaging speech mannerisms and jokes that make his presence enjoyable and allow him to interact with and fit into the cast well, but also frank and creative philosophies governing his actions that draw you in and make you think, give him the depth he needs to stand as a legitimate part of the Mass Effect universe. And it’s such a creative depth, too! Padok’s musings on evolution and cosmic design as higher powers are fascinating to listen to and contemplate. He’s a character of faith in greater designs and fates, whose beliefs and evidence for his religious outlook stem from science itself--very cool. And he manages to be a character of great faith and beliefs without it being the defining trait of how he acts, which is pretty damn hard to pull off--how many other characters do you know for whom religious beliefs are the core of their motivations and depth, but who are subtle and well-rounded enough in personality that they seem as personable and conversationally nuanced as every other character in their group?

I also appreciate Wiks for being just an overall stand-up person. Without seeming like a deliberately over-ethical kind of guy, Wiks puts his career and very life on the line without a moment’s hesitation to right what he (correctly) sees as a great cosmic wrong: the slow extinction of the krogan people due to the Genophage. His view of the universe and the grand, overarching purpose of evolution tell him that to destroy the krogan for being what they were both evolved and called upon to be is a heinous mistake, and that they have a purpose and destiny that they must be given the opportunity to fulfill--a perspective which is, once again, quite interesting to hear him speak about, and makes him ultimately a very laudable hero.

Yes, Padok Wiks as a character is terrific, among the best that Mass Effect can offer--and 1 of ME’s major selling points as a story is its engaging and well-rounded cast, so that says something. But I also appreciate the fact that Bioware managed to fit him into the role he has to play as well as they did. First of all, they managed to make a significantly engaging, deep character that you can easily grow emotionally attached to, with only about, what, a fifth of the game’s time to work with? Padok has the screen time and role in Mass Effect 3 that in other RPGs would be relegated to an overall forgettable secondary or tertiary NPC who’s used as a plot device more than a character. No player is going to have anything more than a faint amount of respect and affection for, say, Dr. Emma from Wild Arms 1, or Sergei from Tales of Zestiria, because while these characters fulfill significant roles in the plot, and are overall basically likable, they don’t really have a lot of time to develop in, nor is there any real interest on the part of the writers in having them do so. Characters given the time and significance that Padok Wiks is afforded tend to just be static, reliable friends to the heroes who do and say little that makes them stand out as someone interesting or layered. They’re functional, they’re perhaps mildly likable, but that’s it. So the fact that Bioware makes so much of Padok in such a limited time is impressive.

Of course, that probably is largely because, let’s face it, Padok’s a stand-in for a well-known, well-beloved character in the franchise, so the room and focus is already there on that role in the game--it’d be a dick move, not to mention probably even a little challenging, to fill the role of such character-driven weight as Mordin’s with a character written carelessly. Still, they didn’t have to go as far as they did for Padok to make him work--just look at the Legion VI that can replace Legion in the next major arc of the story--so I do applaud Bioware on this point.

On the subject of how well Padok fits into Mordin’s role, let’s also look at the quality of his motivations and beliefs. I have to once again tip my hat to Bioware on this point, because Padok fits flawlessly as a character into the role of Genophage-curer created for Mordin, for reasons that are entirely Padok’s own. That has got to be tough--to have designed a role to perfectly fit the personality, history, development, and motivations of 1 character (Mordin), yet then have to find a way to fit another character, who has to be substantially different, into the same role, and make it work. We know why Mordin feels compelled to cure the Genophage and save the krogan people--the guilt that he’s become less and less able to rationalize away from the period of ME2 through ME3 about his involvement in continuing the genophage, and the firsthand experience he’s had with the krogans and Tuchanka that has helped him understand the horrors of not just what the Genophage has done to them physically, but spiritually. It’s why the completion of his character arc, which started in Mass Effect 2, is such a profoundly moving and meaningful part of Mass Effect 3, possibly the greatest component of its excellent (until-the-last-second) story.

And yet, somehow, Padok manages to comfortably fit into this story slot written for Mordin, yet for reasons entirely his own! Padok owns none of the guilt of Mordin, and we’ve never seen him experience the Genophage’s horrors up close. His reasons for his unassailable need to restore the krogans are, as far as we can tell, purely philosophical and belief-based, in no way personally motivated, the way Mordin’s are. For Padok, it’s a question of the bigger picture of the universe, a (well-reasoned) faith in the need for each species to serve its purpose or die out naturally. It really is a fascinating blend of the spiritual and the scientific...but in so being, Padok’s cause for solving the Genophage is completely divorced from Mordin’s, yet fits just as well. Mordin is motivated to risk his all for what he has come to understand is right, emotionally, while Padok is motivated to risk his all for what he has come to understand is right, spiritually and logically.* Padok’s sincere belief that all species have a part to play that they must allowed, and in evolution as a form of fate and higher power, gives him just as great a cause to wish to end the Genophage, an artificial limiter placed on a species’ development, as Mordin has. So long as we believe that either character is willing to give everything he has and pursue his cause to the end, each fits exactly what is needed for the game’s role of Salarian who sacrifices himself to save a people not his own. Again, impressive work on the part of ME3’s writers.

Oh, and as an aside, I like the fact that this confirms that the Genophage is an atrocity on every level, in that we see a character that feels its wrong in Mordin, and a character that knows its wrong in Padok. And hey, beyond my personal feelings, that fact does kind of strengthen the impetus that the plot gives us to guide Shepard and company in curing it, so in a small, indirect way, Padok is good for that, too.

I also appreciate Bioware’s making Padok a character that, despite needing to be available to replace him physically, doesn’t attempt to replace Mordin emotionally. Although the characters of the game cannot know, of course, that they were supposed to be working with Mordin in this part of their tale, the presence of another quirky Salarian scientist on the Normandy is understandably enough to remind Shepard, Joker, and several others aboard the ship of their fallen comrade, and even as they talk about Padok and the player gets to know this new character, everyone also reminisces about Mordin. Mordin is not forgotten by the characters, and the player clearly isn’t being asked to ignore him and his history with the series. Joker even calls Padok ‘Not-Mordin.’ If anything, it’s another perspective we’re given of Mordin as a character, to see the emotional hole his absence creates. Hey, don’t knock that--sometimes a huge part of a character, and other characters through their relationships, can only be understood and explored after death. Shadowrun: Dragonfall does this quite well with Monika, and Alice’s death creates a far better and more nuanced character of Yuri in Shadow Hearts 2, for examples. Anyway, Mordin’s far from forgotten with Padok Wiks in his place, and that’s an appropriate, believable, and respectable thing.

1 last thing I want to say in this appreciation for the unsung excellent character of Padok is that, and I know this is heresy but bear with me, in a couple regards Padok is actually better than Mordin. Yes, yes, I know I’m evil, but hear me out. In most regards, I agree that Mordin is a little better as a character, but there are a couple points that Padok beats him out in, minor though they may be. First of all, I would argue that Padok is actually an even better person than Mordin. Wonderful though Mordin is, a huge part of his motivation to do right and end the Genophage is a wish to make up for his past mistake. Now don’t get me wrong, that is a very noble and righteous motivation. But Padok? He has no personal stake like that. He just honestly believes that this is for the good of the universe, and for that, for no more than the very concept of right and wrong, Padok Wiks gives his life. Again, I am not knocking feelings of responsibility and the need to rectify past misdeeds, those are very good causes. But, to me at least, the wish to do good for no more than the sake of doing good is an even greater heroism. I suppose it’s subjective, but that’s how I feel, at any rate.

Secondly, epic and inspiring as Mordin’s speech is, is pretty damn hard to top Padok’s final words to Shepard as he goes to give his life for his cause. They’re awesome in text form, but honestly, a lot of it is in the voice actor’s delivery, too, so I’m just gonna link you to it. 0:55 - 1:16 of this: Damn if that’s not magnificent to me. Mordin’s great in this scene, but Padok’s is a final speech for the ages.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: when you discount the ending, Mass Effect 3 is a truly spectacular RPG. Really, you can see the transition from Mass Effect 3 into its ending as the symbol of Bioware’s transition from a dignified collection of storytellers capable of creating excellent products into the sloppy shit-show the company is now. But if I am to frequently point and laugh at the garbage Bioware presently makes, and criticize their now constant failures as creators and people, then I must be fair, and remember to credit them for what they once were capable of. And few of their accomplishments is as underappreciated as Padok Wiks. So I give full praise to Bioware for this character. Not many players may know Padok, and fewer still may care to pay attention to him enough to appreciate him for his unique traits...but to me, at least, Padok Wiks is as much and as worthy a part of Mass Effect as any other among its unforgettable cast.

If you’re interested in getting to know this character, and either enjoying him as much as I do or shaking your head in disgust and wondering what the hell I’m going on about, you can find a compilation of pretty much every part of Padok’s time in Mass Effect 3 here:

* Not to say that Padok is some stoic Spock type, or that Mordin isn’t thinking long and hard about the important long-term, or anything. Padok is very warm and engaging with everyone, including the krogan Bakura, and Mordin has clearly put significant thought into what the future holds for the krogan, as seen by his assessment, once the Genophage cure is about to be put into effect, of how the krogan as a whole will be as they go forward, depending on whether Wrex and Bakura have survived. I’m just saying that the primary motivation for Mordin is what’s morally right emotionally, while for Padok it’s what’s morally right intellectually, and what justifications they have beyond that starting point are simply built upon their primary motivator.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Fallout 4's Best Mods

Fallout 4 is awesome and I love it. I wouldn’t change a thing about it!


No, wait, I totally would. And so would quite a damn lot of other people, it seems, because the modding scene for Fallout 4 seems to be even more ferociously prolific than for the previous installments in the series. The mods for this game range from the useful (such as many fixes to bugs in the game--it may not seem like much, but those sparking wires and misplaced elevator buttons were really driving me crazy!), to the shamelessly bizarre (wanna fire baby-shaped nuclear explosives at Macho Man Randy Savage as you travel the wasteland with a supermutant wearing a milk vending machine, searching for hidden caches of cadbury cream eggs to steal from Doctor Zoidberg? Go right ahead, my friend).

Beyond outrageous fun and improvements to basic functionality, however, there are also many mods for Fallout 4 which legitimately improve it as a Fallout title, mods which I, personally, believe enhance the game to an extent that they should be included in any playthrough, not just for fun or utility, but because they make it a truer Fallout experience. And so, as I did for Fallout 3 and may at some point do for Fallout: New Vegas, I’m going to share with you all a list of the Fallout 4 mods that I believe are an essential addition to Fallout 4, which capture its essence and enhance it.

Do keep in mind, of course, that there are many enjoyable and well-made mods out there in addition to the ones below which are quite good--I’m quite partial, for example, to We are the Minutemen, which basically solves a bit of a logic hole regarding the representation of the faction’s strength over time, Diamond City Expansion, which makes Diamond City feel more like the major city it’s supposed to be, and The Secret of Huntress Manor, as it’s pretty much the only campaign mod I’ve seen in a Fallout game that’s immersive and captures the feel and style of the series. What’s below is just a list of mods that I believe, in 1 way or another, make Fallout 4 a more whole experience overall. Like, if a flavor mod such as The Secret of Huntress Manor is icing on Fallout 4's cake that enhances it without any contradicting flavors, then the mods below are the ingredients you add to the cake to make it the best that it can be.

I'm not sure that metaphor is especially good, but I'm hungry.

05/03/19: Rsiyo's Location Pack added.
03/19/18 - 05/02/19: Commonwealth Supply Caches, MSRae's Interiors, and MoreXplore added.

The Wild Wasteland: 1 of Fallout 4’s few real weaknesses as a Fallout game is that it’s largely forgotten that occasional random silliness is a core element of the series. From the very start, the Fallout series has been an entrancing mix of 90% serious, thoughtful storytelling and cultural analysis, and 10% ridiculous gags. Dead red shirts, seeing the TARDIS taking off, encountering characters from Monty Python or Pinkie + The Brain, finding a bar in which character models from the first Fallout gripe about their roles (or lack thereof)...the first couple Fallouts have tons of instances of wacky nonsense scattered throughout, and Bethesda just doesn’t seem to remember/know/care about it. Fallout 3 didn’t have nearly enough goofy little scenarios and references, and Fallout 4 has even fewer.

This mod, however, takes a page from Fallout: New Vegas’s book, and adds a ton of locations, encounters, and items to Fallout 4, scattered around the wasteland, that you can stumble upon and chuckle at, all denoted by New Vegas’s little weird sound chime when you find them. From a Steven Universe reference, to an alien outcast who seemed to go renegade for his obsession with Giddyup Buttercup, to a gaggle of callbacks to previous games in the series, this mod’s got a lot of fun stuff to find, and is a worthy part of the Fallout 4 experience by not only restoring the comedy to the soul of the series, but also adding a substantial amount of locations to the game to explore and enjoy. I will say that at times The Wild Wasteland feels a little like it’s going overboard, or adds an item or reference that does feel slightly out of place even considering the spirit of the mod...but ultimately, the increase and improvement to the Fallout experience that it brings to the table far outweigh these slight and insubstantial misgivings.

Beantown Interiors Project: Remember that great Fallout 3 mod, my favorite of the ones I outlined as improving that game, DC Interiors Project? Well, in that same spirit comes Beantown Interiors Project!

As I said while recommending its predecessor, a huge part of Fallout is the exploration of the post-apocalyptic wasteland. Fallout’s setting is the most integral part of the series, and exploring it is a vital part of Fallout’s soul. Much of the series’s gravity and narrative comes from its ambient storytelling, which is only accessible through exploration. Fallout 4 is leaps and bounds above New Vegas and 3 in this department, with far more settings to explore, dotting a larger map, than any other installment of the franchise to date. And yet, in spite of the vast number of buildings you can enter and explore in this game, there are still significantly more that are boarded up, inaccessible, just soulless scenery. Boston, Cambridge, Lexington, Concord, and so many other locations have so much more potential than is being used! So, any mod that expands this unused real estate into more immersive, interesting locales for us to explore and experience the postapocalyptic Commonwealth is a very good one, in my book.

With that said, Beantown Interiors doesn’t entirely live up to its legacy. DC Interiors, I think, had far more creativity and detail put into most of its locations...Beantown Interiors has a bad habit of simply filling the buildings it opens up with a tremendous amount of debris and clutter, and calling it a day. Which is still a positive addition, make no mistake, and admittedly does mesh better with the whole post-nuclear-war thing than much of the actual game’s content does. But it does seem like less thought went into this iteration than DC Interiors, at times. Also, I don’t really see the point of adding the lawn gnomes and the mad bomber items; it’s like someone just mashed 2 separate mods into this project because Beantown Interiors is the only mod of the 3 that anyone’s gonna pay any attention to. Nonetheless, it’s still a positive addition, and there are some spots that Beantown Interiors adds that are pretty neat, so I do definitely recommend it.

Rsiyo's Location Pack: Like Beantown Interiors, this mod changes several outdoor locations in Fallout 4, adding points of interest where none existed previously, all of which are lore-friendly, enhancing the exploration aspect of the game further. They're nothing major or complex, but the little spots of interest bring the wastelands of Fallout to life just as much as the big ones do, so download this mod and enrich your immersion into the Commonwealth!

Note: There is a single location conflict with this mod and 1 of the mods listed below, MoreXplore. It's nothing major, or anything, just 1 of MoreXplore's locations containing a fence that cuts off part of 1 of Rsiyo's locations. No problem with a quick little console command action, but figured I should mention it all the same.

Commonwealth Supply Caches: This mod adds several small spots through the Commonwealth in which you find supply caches left behind by the Minutemen for fellow faction members in the area to use. Most of these are quite small little hidden spots, although there are some larger caches to find, as well. 1 of the new locations also adds some lore for the history of how these caches came about, which is competently written. Overall, this, like Beantown Interiors, serves to enhance your experience of exploring the Commonwealth's wasteland with more spots of interest to find, which is a major and pleasant part of the Fallout experience. And it makes the legacy of the Minutemen feel more appropriately present in the Commonwealth, as well, providing physical remnants of their history rather than having all of their past come from stories and information you merely hear and read.

Everyone’s Best Friend: Alright, which moron at Bethesda did it? Who was the guy/gal with the IQ of a mollusk who decided that you have to choose between having Dogmeat or any other companion accompany you? This is Fallout. You’re not supposed to have to make a tradeoff to have Dogmeat. You’re supposed to just be able to have a dog at your side, always! No questions, no sacrifice of having any other party member! 1 of the biggest inspirations for this series is the (fairly disturbing) 1975 film A Boy and His Dog, for Garuda’s sake!

Thankfully, this mod exists, and with it, you can have Dogmeat stay by your side, without having to go without a regular party member. Having Dogmeat by your side is a Fallout staple, and hearing the reactions of the various party members to new locations and situations is an important part of the narrative of Fallout 4, so this mod is definitely 1 that I think every player should make use of.

Combat Zone Restored: A lot of the intended content of the Combat Zone in Fallout 4 didn’t manage to make the deadline, and unfortunately, it shows. Sometimes stuff cut for time isn’t obvious--I like the mod The Lost Building of Atlantic, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell there was anything more that had been planned for Atlantic Offices on my own--but since the Combat Zone is where you recruit Cait, it piques your interest a lot more than a random raider location otherwise might, and this extra scrutiny highlights just how abrupt it seems.

This mod restores the content that was cut, and adds/fixes what’s missing/bugged to bring the place up to the standards that were originally set for it. The Combat Zone Restored makes the process of recruiting Cait more involved, which better fleshes out her character and the character of her manager, and recovers the Combat Zone’s functionality as an arena. It’s good for both the character and the lore, so it’s worth having.

Piper Interview Restored: Not everything can make the cut in any game. Hell, not everything should. Still, sometimes you have to look at what got left on the cutting room floor, scratch your head, and wonder why in the world it didn’t make it in. Such as the content that this mod restores. Some of the questions and responses during Piper’s interview early in the game apparently didn’t make it into the finished product, yet, from every way I look at it, they’re completely compatible to the lore, character integrity, and themes of the game. Not only that, but these extra bits make the interview better overall, and assist in developing the Sole Survivor, as well as potentially underscoring the major message of Fallout. Reminds me a bit of Bioware’s inexplicable removal of several lines from Anderson and Shepard’s final conversation in Mass Effect 3. Anyone playing Fallout 4 absolutely should have this mod installed, so they can hear the full thing.

Cut Content: Sanctuary Terminals: Another bit of content that it just doesn’t make any sense to have cut from the game, here. There’s a couple terminals that were created for Sanctuary which didn’t make it into Fallout 4, but they’re still coded and have the entries in them, and given that they better develop Nora and Nate as people (in ways that are completely compliant to their characters, I want to emphasize), I think it’s preferable, even advisable, to use this mod to restore them.

Stumble Upon Interiors: This, to me, is a truer successor to DC Interiors than Beantown Interiors is. This mod adds 8 new interior locations to the Commonwealth, utilizing several otherwise unused boarded-up locations scattered about Fallout 4 to provide you with a bunch of new places to explore and experience, all of which feel completely true to the game, in both their construction and in their light ambient storytelling. Great stuff!

MsRae's Commonwealth Interiors: In the same vein as Stumble Upon Interiors, this mod also adds several new locations to the Commonwealth that you can come across while exploring, all of which, again, feel authentic to the Fallout universe. I had an issue with a couple of the new locations causing slowdown for me, so be aware of that, but since this mod is pretty new, I can only assume that will be addressed in a future update, and all but 2 of the locations worked just fine. This is another mod that provides more of the classic Fallout exploration that the game, huge though it may be, could use a lot more of, so check it out.

MoreXplore: This is another exploration mod, which adds 12 more locations, mostly interiors, to the wasteland to come across. There's not much to say about MoreXplore that hasn't been said about the others so far, save that most of its locations felt, to me, even more authentic to Fallout 4 than the other exploration mods I've mentioned so far. And yeah, it must seem, now, that I'm recommending an awful lot of exploration mods, but keep in mind, Fallout 4's map is BIG. The more new, immersive ruins to explore scattered about the Commonwealth, the more enjoyment you'll get out of Fallout 4, and with as many ruins as this and the other mods open up, you've got a chance to make a replay of this game feel almost like a new Fallout experience.

Inside Jobs: Same deal as the last 3 mods, really, in that this, too, adds many interiors to those unused buildings in the game, which all feel authentic. And I gotta say, a lot of these locations look great; the author of this mod really knows how to create atmosphere with lighting. Seriously, some of these locations are basically art. I absolutely love this mod, and heartily recommend it.

Atomic Radio: The last mod I’ll be recommending today is also my absolute favorite of all the ones I’ve seen for Fallout 4, Atomic Radio. This is a rather simple mod that adds a new radio station to the game for you to listen to whenever the mood strikes you. Not a big deal, right? There are tons of radio mods out there. But what I really love about this 1 is that in between playing the standard Fallout music that you can find on Diamond City Radio, Atomic Radio has all kinds of commercials and radio shows which use Fallout 4’s lore. There are ads for dozens of the items you find in the game, from Nuka Cola on down to brands of the junk items you find, such as Suprathaw Antifreeze and Abraxo, as well as various prewar businesses whose locations are found in the Commonwealth, such as Wicked Shipping and Joe’s Spuckies. There are also various trailers for old timey movies, as well as for episodes of Grognak based on the covers of the Grognak comics you can find in the game. Added to that are various Cold War era-esque propaganda PSAs, a couple lore-friendly talk shows and game shows, and several radio skits dramas, including little Twilight Zone-styled episodes. Remember how much I liked the Fallout 3 mod that restored cut commercials to Galaxy News Radio? This is like a whole radio station of those enjoyable tidbits!

And it’s worth noting that the execution is as great as the idea itself. The voice acting in these is clean, clear, and spot-on, and the production value is so high that you would never know this wasn’t intended to be a part of the game. It’s all written really well, too, with most of these ads and programs having the same sort of commentary on American past and present culture as Fallout itself makes. Not to mention, almost all of it is really funny, and a few of those little dramas are actually pretty cool and/or compelling. And, of course, it checks out completely in that most important of categories to me: it’s completely, 100% immersive; Atomic Radio feels truer to Fallout than some parts of the actual game do! Kris Takahashi, the mod’s creator, clearly possesses a perfect understanding of and appreciation for both the lore, and the heart, of Fallout, not to mention a great sense of humor. This is professional work, no 2 ways about it, and it’s a great way to give yourself something new and fun to listen to as you explore the wasteland and build up your settlements--especially since this mod does not skimp out on the content; back-to-back, all the shows and ads and whatnot in Atomic Radio total to around 4 hours! When regularly interspersed by the normal radio songs, this mod will last you a good, long time. It’s definitely my favorite mod for Fallout 4, and I heartily recommend it. No playthrough of Fallout 4 should be without Atomic Radio.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Energy Breaker's Attention to Background Details

Energy Breaker, an SNES RPG that has had a fan translation completed for it, seems to be a big name in obscure 16-bit RPGs that never got a release in the United States, like Terranigma and Bahamut Lagoon. I’ve had a couple of people put it on my radar, including our very own Humza, with his neat guest rant a little ways back. And honestly, now that I’ve played it, I don’t see what the big deal is. It’s alright, maybe even good, but little about its story and characters really stands out to me. Playing it wasn’t a negative experience by any means, but I thought I’d get more from it.

There is, however, 1 aspect of Energy Breaker that I really was impressed with, small though it may be: the care and attention that the game’s background details got. As you go through this game, Myra can examine and comment on a remarkable number of objects and nuances of the background. She can complain about the dustiness of a bar’s counter, or admire how great she looks in the reflection of a bucket of water, or comment on the weather though a window...there’s all sorts of stuff she has to say about her environment. It actually serves to characterize Myra a bit, in that her flippant and spunky personality and outlook is quite well-cemented simply by the way she frequently cracks wise or grumbles about all sorts of stuff as she comes across it.

Now, of course, this is not unique to Energy Breaker. Plenty of RPGs do this, having protagonists comment on the various objects of interest in towns and dungeons as they come across them. Sometimes games even make it a recurring joke, like Atelier Iris 1’s odd thing of having party members shout “Barrel!” every time you investigate one, or make these comments on surroundings into an entire conversation, as some Tales of games have conversation skits devoted to landmarks and oddities you discover while wandering around towns and dungeons. And there are certainly some RPGs out there in which there are as many and as frequent opportunities to have characters comment on (or the narration do so) the various parts of the environment you can examine. Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle and Undertale are quite amusing and charming in this, with lots of quirky and funny comments to be found throughout each game, as are Earthbound and Mother 3.

But even if Energy Breaker isn’t the only RPG to use commentary on its environments as a method of characterization, or even the only one to do so to a major extent, I can say that it’s still the most impressive to me for how meticulous it is with it. Because, see, Myra’s observations on a bit of the environment around her are not necessarily static. Oh, certainly, some things never change--she’ll be forever annoyed with the lack of dusting the innkeeper does in Myra’s room, for example--but where appropriate, Myra’s commentary changes as the game marches onward. When looking out the window, for example, Myra may comment on how nice the day is...but later in the game, after there’s been some huge explosion, examining the same window will see Myra commenting on the plume of smoke she can see in the distance. Later still, when some serious plot shit goes down and the world’s ending with the sky turning red, examining the window again has her comment on the current situation.

The game’s even careful of details for small stuff. I mean, the window thing gives you an idea of how much focus Energy Breaker’s creators put on having the ambient details of the game line up correctly, but you could point out that the window is slightly connected to plot events (in that the changes to Myra’s observations always seem tied to things that are actually happening), so it deserves a little extra focus. But Energy Breaker even makes accommodations for the changes to game environments that are too tiny to have any story importance. For example, there’s a married couple who stay at one of the Olga Town inn’s rooms for...let’s say about half the game, or so. If you have Myra examine the beds in the room, she makes a comment for each on the state the bed is in. After the couple leaves the room, however, if you have Myra examine the beds, her commentary changes. Now, really think about how tiny a thing that is. The developers of this game wanted to make sure that, on the off-chance that a player actually cared to examine the beds not just once, but multiple times through the game, Myra would have a relevant observation to make at all times, whether it be noting that 1 of the beds smells of man sweat while there’s a man staying in the room, or later discovering that said smell is no longer present now that the room is empty of boarders.

Most other RPGs would just have Myra’s initial comments on the state of the beds stand, unchanged for the rest of the game. There’s no substantial cause to go to trouble to change examination script for any given object in the whole damn town each and every time the slightest event might, conceivably, alter how a character sees or otherwise interacts with that object. As far as most games care, no amount of washing and changing will ever remove those bedsheets’ saturation of masculine stink. But Energy Breaker has such incredible dedication to keeping every tiny part of its environment alive and flexible that even tiny things like this are carefully kept up with. And while the dividends of this focus and effort may seem quite meager, it nonetheless does promote a greater desire to keep interacting with Energy Breaker’s world in the player, a greater immersion into the game, and also assists in giving the protagonist a little extra personality here and there. I’ve said it before on issues like the skits from the Tales of series, or party members bantering with each other during/after battle, but when it comes to creating memorable characters in your game, the little stuff is at least as important as their major, plot-related character arcs. And that’s true here, too, for a lot of the quirks in Myra’s personality really come out and stick in your head through her interactions with the world around her.

So kudos to Energy Breaker on this point. Not a lot about its story and cast stands out to me overall, but I do think that its dedication to its ambient details is very laudable.