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.

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