Monday, May 28, 2018

The Witcher 3's Romance Choice

Relevant to today’s rant but not something that really fits in anywhere is that when playing The Witcher 3, I played Geralt as heroically as possible. Yeah, it’s a game (and series) that expertly plays to the morally murky nature of life and humanity, and in most cases, there is no ‘right’ choice so much as the one that you feel is the better alternative. But The Witcher 3 is also realistic in that there are many instances within it in which the question of how Geralt acts is cut and dry, morally, and in all cases, I tried to do what was most morally positive. I just say this because later on in this rant, Geralt’s worthiness as a person will be relevant, so you should know that my perspective on him is built upon having played him as good as possible.

And now, for the rant:

Triss or Yennefer?

Pairing preferences are a highly personal and charged topic in fandoms, generally speaking, and fans tend to be prone to extremes of temperament when it comes to who they think should be paired with who. They both feel an overwhelming, giddy warmth at the pairing that they themselves support, and an overpowering hostility towards characters and pairings that they for whatever reason disapprove of.* And of course, in both cases, they like being vocal about it.

This is as true in RPGs as it is in any other entertainment medium. People are widely split on whether Piper, Hancock, Cait, Danse, or Curie’s love for Fallout 4’s protagonist is the purest, while Corrin’s ass is just about the most sought-after commodity in the entire Fire Emblem 14 world, with fangirls and fanboys squeeing in delight at whichever of the myriad possibilities of romantic entanglement best tickles their fancy. And while the intense enthusiasm fans have for romance usually stays relatively positive, all things considered, there are some moments when things sadly turn rather negative. I have come across more than a few forum-goers and fanfiction authors who insist upon making Aeris or Tifa out to be a soulless, thieving harpy intent on destroying all possible happiness for Cloud, in spite of, y’know, every fucking thing the game shows us of their characters and relationship dynamics.

The question of romance in The Witcher 3 inspires no less heated emotion in its players’ hearts than any other, and it has its share of negativity regarding the two women Geralt must choose between, Triss Merigold and Yennefer of Vengerberg. In this case, however...I can understand why significant negativity against either of these women might arise within the player, because both Yen and Triss have some notable flaws. So, which is the better choice for Geralt? Whose love story is the superior one?

Hell if I know. But since you’ve read this far, I can at least tell you which I picked, and how I arrived at that conclusion.

At the risk of being a Negative Nancy, let’s start by looking at the downside of each contender, starting with Triss, since hers is both much simpler to explain, and far more glaring. To put it simply, Triss is a manipulative snake who shamelessly stole her best friend’s boyfriend.

I generally disapprove of the idea of “stealing” someone’s significant other, since, generally speaking, that kind of implies that said significant other doesn’t have any responsibility for the affair. Humans in relationships aren’t possessions that can be stolen; they can be tempted, perhaps, and it may be morally wrong to attempt to woo someone away from the man or woman they’re with, but it’s also their decision and perhaps personal failing to be persuaded thus. In most cases of “stealing” one’s boyfriend/girlfriend, there is wrongdoing by some combination of the involved parties. Depending on the situation, the “thief” is potentially in the wrong for going after someone that’s already committed to another, the “stolen” is potentially in the wrong for choosing not to be emotionally and/or sexually faithful, and/or the “theft victim” is potentially in the wrong for treating his/her significant other poorly enough that they feel the need to seek emotional satisfaction and happiness elsewhere.

In Triss’s case, though? This really is actual, legitimate boyfriend theft. As The Witcher 1 opens, Geralt has lost most of his memories due to a plot twist revealed later in the series, and among the memories to go bye-bye was the knowledge that he’s romantically involved with Yennefer. So when Triss--who knows full damn well that Geralt and Yen are in love--starts putting the moves on Geralt and gets him to hook up with her in the first game and the majority of the second, she is straight up stealing Yennefer’s boyfriend, because the white-haired dope doesn’t know until it’s too late that he’s already taken. And that’s messed up.

On the other side of the coin, though, regardless of her immoral way of starting the relationship, Triss’s feelings for Geralt certainly give every indication of being genuine. Whether you believe this lessens its magnitude of wrong (I personally do not), Triss seems to have stolen her chance to be with Geralt out of an actual emotional affection for him, and not just for some sort of power play or because she’s just horny and wants the Butcher of Blavdickin’.** She wants to spend time with Geralt, she enjoys having conversation with him, she even tries to get a little domestic thing set up with him that really seems like an earnest attempt to have a happy little life together. Additionally, it’s clear from their interactions that the two have a real romantic chemistry with one another. They engage in playful banter and trade quips the way you see people do when they’re in love and having fun with the fact, yet at a moment’s notice can return to conversing as professionals engaged in their mutual task. They read each other’s mood in each situation well enough that they can drop in and out of affection and quips, and seriousness and concern, in a natural sync--or, when not in sync, one is working to calm and focus the other because they’ve lost their calm. Triss and Geralt connect, naturally and well, and all 3 Witcher games display this.

Just too bad it’s all a result of stabbing her best friend in the back and taking advantage of a horny amnesiac.

Let’s look now at Yennefer. First of all, I need to say that I have never read any of the Witcher novels. I’ve done a little looking into Yennefer and Geralt’s history together by perusing wikis and forums, but I have no firsthand knowledge of their interactions beyond what I have seen in The Witcher 3. So while I have gotten an impression that CD Projekt Red was, in fact, pretty faithful in their adaptation of Yennefer from Sapkowski’s books, I can’t speak with any authority on that.

So, the negative part of Yennefer and Geralt’s relationship is, er, well, their relationship. As in, how they interact and how they treat each other, mostly on the side of Yen. Yennefer doesn’t treat Geralt with respect. I mean, she does have respect for him, and I’m fairly sure that Geralt knows that, but the thing of that is, just because you do respect someone, and just because they know you respect them, that doesn’t mean it’s fine to make being disrespectful to them your standard for interaction. In their everyday interactions, Yennefer doesn’t treat Geralt like an equal, or even, really, as someone she even especially likes. She’s curt, sarcastic, patronizing, dismissive, and demanding...watching them speak and work together is like watching a master and a servant that the master clearly sees as lowly. She doesn’t tell Geralt the what or why of her actions, she simply expects him to hop to her wishes and help her perform them. Taking that problem further, she makes him an accessory to acts of wrongdoing, keeping the nature of what he’s participating in and aiding a secret to him until it’s too late for him to try to convince her to try a different method. She reads his mind without his permission, and dismisses his complaints at this staggering invasion of his personal privacy. And in fairness, there are also times when Geralt is sarcastic and mean-spirited right back, more than he needs to be.

Now, you might try to defend much of Yen’s attitude toward Geralt, and the occasionally bad attitude he returns, as being a case of their trading quips and bantering for amusement. Or perhaps you could see it, since they have been together for some time, as the way long-married couples are sometimes known to bicker, but for amusement, rather than out of genuine spite. Interpreting Yen is, I fear, highly subjective, and perhaps someone other than myself can watch and listen to her without hearing the same level of sincere aggravation. Well, perhaps that’s the case, indeed, but, myself, I just can’t say that I buy it. When Geralt and Triss make jabs at each other, it sounds and feels friendly; they’re having fun with the way their minds bounce off one another. When Yennefer and Geralt argue and snipe at each other, it feels sincere, and mean. Like a long-married couple that bickers constantly not because they find it fun, but because, even though they do love each other, they genuinely don’t like each other, if that makes any sense. There are moments where it does seem like it’s for fun and they enjoy their company, but too often, I feel like I’m watching Mom and Dad have a fight that they think I don’t notice because they’re not actually raising their voices. Knowing some of their history from their books and watching them interact in The Witcher 3, you can fully believe that these 2 are in love only because a Djinn enchanted them to be, not because they actually like each other enough to be.

Yennefer does, however, have positives. First of all, some of her actions, if not her attitude, can be forgiven in the game. A lot of what she does and drags Geralt into is motivated out of an intense and fearful love for her surrogate daughter Ciri, and the fact that Yennefer will do anything to find Ciri and keep her safe. When Yennefer does something truly distasteful and has dragged Geralt into unwittingly helping her do so, she is still disturbed and disgusted by what she has done--it’s simply that she will stop at nothing to protect Ciri. That doesn’t really absolve her, as I don’t believe that it’s okay to wrong others even for the sake of those you love, but it does make her instances of wronging others and Geralt at least far less deplorable, if not entirely forgivable. And though she does not tell Geralt what her intentions are at times, one reason she does that is because she is trying to spare him the painful conscience that she herself will have to suffer through--she’s trying to give him a way to justify their actions to himself as a case of his not knowing until it was too late what she was having him help her do. Her conscience restricts her less than Geralt’s restrains him, but she respects that fact and him enough to try to lessen what pain his sensibilities will suffer, and I can respect that. In addition, for all her haughty attitude, some of her secrecy, and perhaps even her meanness, seems born from insecurity, as she does, in fact, doubt at times that Geralt trusts her enough that he would support her as he does if he knew the full extent of what she was doing. It doesn’t answer for all of how she treats him, not by a long shot, but it nonetheless does lessen how poorly one might otherwise view her.

And finally, it’s certainly worth observing that regardless of how she treats him and takes advantage of his love for her, Yennefer does, in fact, love him. You have the option to do a side quest with Yennefer in the game in which she breaks the djinn’s spell tying their fates together, and once this happens, regardless of how Geralt feels, Yennefer finds her feelings are unchanged. Yen does love Geralt, of her own volition, and that’s important.

...Well, okay, I suppose she might just mistake lust and sense of possession of her little murder puppet for love, and that same feeling continues regardless of the djinn’s spell being broken, but let’s at least give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that it really is honest love.

So then, which is the better choice for Geralt? Should he be with a woman he loves, but who doesn’t seem to make him happy to actually be with? Or should he be with a woman he can love and who clearly makes him happy, but who is only even in the running because she took advantage of him and betrayed her best friend in an unconscionable way? Yennefer, or Triss?

When I hashed it out in my mind, it basically became a simple question of what I valued more: just reward, or just punishment?

You see, as far as I can figure it, the woman who makes Geralt the happiest in loving is Triss. To be sure, he’s willing enough in his love for Yennefer, but as Geralt himself intimates to Ciri if you do choose Triss, it’s so much better for him to be with someone who gets him, someone whose personality he’s not always at odds with. Geralt doesn’t just love Triss, he likes her, too, as a person, and she has no issues in making it clear that she feels the same way. But to choose Triss is also to reward a woman who did a truly despicable thing, to allow her to escape punishment for gross wrongdoing, regardless of whether it was out of sincere love or not.

Allow a person who has done much good a chance at greater happiness? Or ensure that a person who has done a great wrong does not enjoy the fruits of her deception?

Ultimately, my decision is this: if I must choose between rewarding a person for doing good, and punishing a person for doing bad, I shall always choose to reward he who did good.

Justice is an important concept. It is. But, if I may get pedestrian and cheesy, Wonder Woman says it best: "It’s not about what you deserve, it’s about what you believe--and I believe in love." There are times when Love and Justice cannot reconcile, times in which meting out punishment means losing an opportunity to do good, and vice-versa. And between the 2, I think it more important to us all that, when we absolutely must choose between them, we do good rather than justice.

I don’t like the fact that choosing Triss means that her selfish act of betrayal came through for her in the end with essentially no negative repercussions. I really don’t. But I do sincerely believe that being with Triss will give Geralt greater happiness, and even if she doesn’t necessarily deserve that happiness, he does. And that’s why, in spite of how this choice came to be offered in the first place, I had Geralt choose to be with Triss.

* Twilight Sparkle and Celestia are meant for each other, and all you crazy motherfuckers who pair Celestia with Discord or Twilight with Flash Sentry are going to burn in hell. Just so we’re on the same page about this.

** I’m not apologizing.

Friday, May 18, 2018

General RPGs' Dialogue Archiving

Something that a few RPGs do to varying degrees that I want to give a brief shout out for: dialogue archiving. Sometimes, an RPG will have an option for you to scroll back up through dialogue or other text that’s been said previously, so you can reread something the characters said.

This is obviously useful, particularly to a story-junkie like myself. First of all, if you have to get up and do something in the middle of a conversation in an RPG, being able to scroll back up through what’s been said gives you a chance, once you’re done with whatever distracted you, to much more easily get back into the game and situation that you left. Life is unpredictable, and RPG conversations are long--this has been very useful to me more than once. It’s also handy in the sense that if for some reason you aren’t sure what a character’s talking about, you can go back and review the text that brought you to this point in the conversation, and maybe find some clarification from it. And sometimes, an RPG conversation is heavy and dense enough that it just is useful to be able to reread parts of it over again, once you’ve finished it and have a general idea as to where it was going--sort of like rewatching a movie or anime a second time and understanding it better now that you know what it’s trying to express.

Heck, it can be useful for something as small as having found a particular exchange between characters hilarious, and wanting to read said hilarity out to your sister so she can enjoy it. This is how I first realized how useful this feature was, in fact, as I simply had to share Aegis’s comments on Yukari’s fanfiction habits in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q, and suddenly realized the utility of the button that brings up all the text you’ve seen previously.

In spite of the fact that the first time I really came to notice this feature for its merits was in SMTPQ, this is something that western RPGs seem to have a much longer history with than JRPGs. It’s actually a pretty common thing for you to be able to scroll up in a dialogue box to see an archive of everything that’s been said to you, going back in chronological order. The feature goes pretty far back--I remember finding it useful in Fallout 1 and 2 (although those little boxes also archived all battle action descriptions, too, so its utility was somewhat lessened). It’s something I especially appreciated (even if I didn’t really think about it specifically) for Planescape: Torment and Torment: Tides of Numenera, since narration and dialogue are the primary points of interest for those 2 RPGs, and just about all of it is incredibly heavy and thoughtful.

Still, props to JRPGs where it’s due--several of them have started implementing a feature that has a separate screen for keeping track of all that’s been said to date (as I mentioned, I was quite pleased with this in SMT Persona Q). Maybe not all of them are good enough to actually warrant it (can’t imagine why anyone would feel the need to reread any of Conception 2’s text), but it’s nonetheless great to see it becoming a regular JRPG feature. It’s definitely not just a western RPG thing. In fact, I think the earliest example of it I know of is from a Japanese RPG, Energy Breaker. Although the dialogue archive feature is in its infancy in EB, it is present, in the sense that, within every conversation, you have the ability to press Up as characters are talking to see everything they’ve said during that particular branch of dialogue until that point. Only good for parts of conversations rather than being a true archive, of course, but still, an early step toward this great idea.

Still, although there are a few JRPGs out there that include dialogue archiving to some extent, most do not, and I hope that more will implement this feature as time goes on. I likewise hope to see it in more western RPGs--they may have the lion’s share of games that have this handy characteristic, but they are still not nearly as common as I wish they were. For a gamer like myself, who plays specifically for the story and the humanity to be found in the genre, dialogue archiving is a great feature, and I appreciate every game that employs it.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Sweet Lily Dreams's Use of the Kingdom Hearts Method

Sweet Lily Dreams is a sequel of sorts to Whisper of a Rose, both indie RPGs created with RPG Maker. You may recall that I had several issues with WoaR, and unfortunately, it’s much the same with Sweet Lily Dreams. In some regards, SLD is a little improved, I admit, but it still suffers from the same lackluster writing that fails to bring its characters or subjects alive in any way, as well as the same difficulty in avoiding confusions in its lore and events. And unfortunately, SLD also brings a new set of problems to the table, with an even less engaging cast than WoaR, an ending more flat and lifeless than an unsalted Saltine as it abruptly ends the game’s main conflict in the most unlikely way possible* so that it can then immediately toss you into a spontaneous and unwanted sequel-bait plot twist, and some truly fucking horrible mandatory minigames (more on at least 1 of them in a future rant).

Among the issues that Sweet Lily Dreams suffers from which its predecessor did not is that it’s not using its storytelling method well. Whisper of a Rose’s was a fairly generic approach of its protagonist traveling from 1 place to another in its world (dream world, at any rate), with the story’s events motivating her to go from 1 place/plot point to the next, in typical RPG fashion. Certainly not innovative, but functional enough that you kinda can’t mess it up. Sweet Lily Dreams, on the other hand, has a setup in which the majority of the game is a large crossover, in which the game’s characters visit the settings and meet the casts of several other stories to take part in those stories’ events. Basically, it’s like Sora visiting various Disney settings in Kingdom Hearts 1 + 2, except Sweet Lily Dreams does classic old literature and movies, like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Dracula, and The Mummy. Maybe Roseportal Games intentionally used Kingdom Hearts as a template for Sweet Lily Dreams’s approach, or maybe they didn’t and it’s just a coincidence.

...But since SLD opens with its protagonist** choosing what kind of fighter she’ll be on a series of big stained glass platforms floating in a void, I’m gonna bet on the similar narrative approach to Kingdom Hearts being maybe not a complete coincidence.

Here’s the problem, though. Kingdom Hearts did this journey across familiar worlds well. Sweet Lily Dreams doesn’t. If I had to take a guess, I’d say Roseportal Games didn’t realize that there was more to making this method successful than just the act of having it at all. It’s like if you bought a car with an empty gas tank and found yourself utterly perplexed by its refusal to drive you anywhere--all the parts are there and assembled, so why doesn’t it work?

See, here’s the thing. It’s kind of cool to move along from 1 dream world to the next, hanging out with Swamp Thing, helping Dr. Jekyll conquer Mr. Hyde, and battling against Dracula, but nothing of substance comes from these adventures, story- and characters-wise. Of the few times that members of the party get developed during the course of the game, few to none of these occasions have any significant ties to the world and story they’re currently experiencing. None of these worlds have any part to play in the game’s events after you leave them; they’re solely plot obstacles that have no lingering effects--Swamp Thing isn’t going to return later to assist you in thanks for trying to help him, the Mummy’s not gonna return later for revenge, the Hypercube has no bearing on the finale’s events, etc. And even though these are worlds created by the game’s antagonist, The Writer, from his own mentality from the stories he cares most about, none of them actually tell you very much, if anything, about his character. I mean, they’re all darker stories, and he’s a pretty troubled guy, so there’s that, but that’s far too general to be considered character development. You could look at the Swamp Thing and Mummy stories as indicative of his feelings about being unable to protect someone he loved from the cruelties of the world, I guess, but since none of the other stories you visit appear to have any substantial connection to The Writer’s headspace beyond being gloomy, it seems much more like these stories only happen to connect to him out of chance, rather than design.

See, what makes Kingdom Hearts work is that, despite being a dozen different little stories in succession, they’re all strung together by a feeling and depiction as being important vignettes of a larger story. In Kingdom Hearts, the major characters, Sora in particular, learn and grow from their experiences in the worlds they visit, and their character bases and developments are solidified through the mini-adventures that each world provides. By the finales of KH1 and KH2, it feels like the experiences of Sora and company have led them to these final points and contributed to the growth of them and the plot. Additionally, several plot points and characters in the various Disney worlds visited come back to contribute to the story overall; they’re not just left behind and forgotten as though they had no actual importance. The specific events of each Disney world are relevant vehicles for the main characters’ long-term development, and the characters and plot points of those worlds frequently maintain a relevance to the overall story of Kingdom Hearts after the fact.

And Kingdom Hearts 2 did make use of Organization 13 in many of the stories of the different worlds Sora visits, which made the attempt to develop the villains of the story. I mean, KH2 failed miserably on this part, but that’s because what it was trying to develop were a bunch of 1-dimensional morons so bland they were barely distinguishable from each other, not because the game didn’t have the right idea, storytelling-wise.

That’s how this style of narrative needs to be--it needs to use the specifics of each crossover world in a way that develops the cast, that holds relevance to the overall story, and that develops the antagonist(s) of the game where possible. And Sweet Lily Dreams just doesn’t really do that, at all. Each story world you enter, you’re just there to get through it and move on, as you occasionally witness spurts of character development that could have occurred anywhere. Your goal in SLD is to get to the end of The Writer’s dream worlds to confront him, and the game handles itself in a way that makes this goal the clear focus. Each world in Sweet Lily Dreams is just an obstacle to be overcome, not a part of the greater storytelling process, and since these literary/cinematic sidestories take up the majority of the game’s play time, that makes this an RPG in which you spend most of your time just trying to get to something that matters. And that, sadly, makes for a pretty dull time.

* So, wait, the evil dream cult that wants to destroy everyone who took up residence in the central city because they consider that city part of their heritage...was actually totally fine the whole time with just sharing it? These extremists who experiment with creating out-of-control phobia monsters and have no qualms whatever about trying to destroy the psyches of other people, including those of children...these guys are just totally fine with a compromise the first time it’s offered? And no one else thought to just check with them at any point to see whether they’d be reasonable about the matter?

** At least, the game wants you to think she’s the protagonist. Given that she is the most passive and superfluous, as well as least-developed, member of the party, has the least effect upon the game’s events and other characters, and doesn’t really have any substantial connection to the plot, though, I’d say she’s no more the main character of her game than Vaan is of Final Fantasy 12. Lily’s really just along for the ride.