Thursday, November 8, 2018

General RPGs' Frequent Use of Aliens

You know something? RPGs sure are strangely fond of including space aliens that are completely inappropriate to their narrative.

I mean, yeah, okay, you’d expect some aliens here and there in the genre, sure. No one playing the Mass Effect series is gonna be especially surprised that half the cast consists of various species of aliens. Nor will players be surprised that the same is true of Cosmic Star Heroine, the Phantasy Star series, and Anachronox. They’re all sci-fi RPGs, so it makes complete sense that they’d incorporate some aliens in their cast.*

And even in some non-sci-fi cases, it makes sense. The Fallout series, for example. Yeah, there’s nothing about a post apocalyptic nuclear wasteland that especially calls for space aliens, but Fallout’s biggest theme and purpose is an exploration of United States culture and history on all levels, and Americans have long held a fascination and affection for the idea of extraterrestrial life, so throwing in an alien here and there makes sense. A game like the first South Park RPG, or Sailor Moon: Another Story, is based on a franchise that has already incorporated aliens into its story in the past, so there’s nothing out of place with its doing so again Similarly, sometimes non-sci-fi RPGs will base a major part of their story around the concept of extraterrestrial life, such as Tales of Legendia and Final Fantasy 7, both of whose stories heavily incorporate the idea of extraterrestrial races having long ago come to an already inhabited planet, and influenced the direction of its history.

But beyond outright science fiction, and appropriate non-sci-fi settings where extraterrestrial elements are a significant part of the lore, have you noticed how common it is just to have random aliens thrown into the mix, for seemingly no reason at all?

Like, what is Starky doing in Chrono Cross? Don’t get me wrong, I actually do very mildly like the little guy (which by extension means that I guess he must be my favorite character), and Girtablulu knows that Starky is not even close to being the weirdest, most narratively inappropriate character in Chrono Cross’s cast. But what about the world and tone of Chrono Cross fits with a cute, amusingly weird little alien conqueror scout being incorporated into the plot, hm? The Chrono world might already have had some alien influence, admittedly, as Lavos is also an extraterrestrial creature, but the major difference there is, like Jenova from Final Fantasy 7, Lavos is the basis upon which the entirety of Chrono Trigger’s history and conflict is built. Starky the random alien, on the other hand, just comes from nowhere and goes nowhere.

And he is not alone. Think of the RPGs you’ve played, and all the unexpected, inexplicable aliens that come and go in them that are not only completely unnecessary to the story, but are, in fact, jarringly inappropriate to it. Why is 1 of the character choices in The 7th Saga an alien--what does it accomplish? Cute though he is, whatever purpose does Pupu in Final Fantasy 8 serve? Is it not more than a little immersion-breaking for a Legend of Zelda adventure to incorporate alien abductions into a major sidequest? How did anyone on the writing team think that the spontaneous inclusion of Muppy, possibly the most random-ass alien of them all, would be a good fit for the alchemy-themed fantasy Mana Khemia 1? I know I’ve pointed out the Wild Arms series’s typical inability to stay true to its purported setting, but even by its own loose standards, how the hell do random invading alien enemies figure into multiple installments of Wild West games?

There is someone, working somewhere in the gaming industry, who is grossly mishandling the Drake equation.

Wild Arms 2 can’t even be satisfied with the 1 random-ass alien invasion, in fact--it’s gotta have the inexplicable recurring alien enemies of the series, and a pair of random-as-fuck alien lizard-people doing mad science for the bad guys. Why couldn’t the villains of Wild Arms 2 get by with regular, human mad scientists? What about the plot of WA2 necessitated this normal role be filled by outer space scalies whose extraterrestrial nature had absolutely no relevance nor place in the game? Who was the guy/gal at Contrail who heard the phrase “Cowboy RPG” and immediately thought to themselves, “This calls for reptilian humanoids!”? Such questions are beyond our ability to answer.

I guess I don’t necessarily have something against this unusual trope of random aliens sprinkled haphazardly about, given that it at least only rarely breaks immersion badly enough that it’s actually detrimental to the storytelling process. But it is another entry in my ever-growing list of things about this genre that are really quite odd.

* In fact, what doesn’t make sense, really, is how often sci-fi RPGs don’t have proper aliens in them. Xenosaga’s civilization has managed to fill up the entire galaxy without finding a single non-human form of life that they didn’t create themselves, Borderlands appears to be much the same, and it seems like every world’s species in the Star Ocean universe is indistinguishable from humanity. It’s like you have less of a chance to see proper aliens in the sci-fi RPGs than the rest!


  1. This is why men of sensibility drop Starky and put Razzly in their diminutive mascot slot. Lets me pretend that Dwarf bullshit mattered.

    I'm not sure when aliens became a stock character concept in RPGs, but it's a concept that holds a lot of danger in breaking the setting. Once you introduce aliens, you have to overlook a game's worth of questions about the aliens just to continue a game that could have existed without aliens.

    I'm okay with humans being spacefaring without meeting aliens, because the concept of humanity actually being alone in the vastness of space is a terrifying and fascinating one, and it's too often taken for granted that some other civilization is just outside our visible range.

    Wild Arms 3 and Star Ocean 3 were happy accidents removed from the creators' memory for not blending in with the weeds around them. We need more JRPGs like those.

  2. Some good observations here! I actually like the aliens in Majora's Mask, since there's no way the creators didn't realize how ridiculous the entire situation was. The aliens abducting the cows is a joke, although it's definitely out of place (but they do contribute to Majora's Mask being one of the strangest Zelda games, at least, for good and bad).

    One of my favourite dumb appearances of aliens is Final Fantasy IV, where the main character turns out to be half-alien, because people live on the moon or whatever. It's worse than the pointless alien in Final Fantasy VIII, since aliens end up being important to the main narrative at the last minute in FFIV; I'm still more forgiving of the older game, though, since Square really had little idea how to write narratives back then (mind you, they don't seem to have really learned much since then, judging from their latest games).

    I like the point at the end about how many sci-fi RPGs actually do not have aliens for some weird reason. I hadn't really thought about that with Xenosaga, but you're right. It did make me think about Xenoblade X for the Wii U, which is made by the same guy but handles aliens far better. Xenoblade X has a number of story and gameplay issues, but one thing is does right is showing how humans and other species work to coexist on a hostile alien planet.

    1. Thanks for the compliment!

      Well...FF4's alien angle is woven into the plot, so it's not like the random-ass aliens I mentioned in the rant, being that it actually exists to some purpose. But, upon thinking about it, I think you're right after all on this point, because there's just absolutely nothing accomplished by having the Lunarians exist as an alien race over anything more terrestrial. When you get right down to it, there's nothing about the Lunarians' function in FF4's history and events that wouldn't be just as easily accomplished through using a race of elves, or other very-similar-but-not-quite-human race. Looking at many other JRPGs, you can see elves and other magical races that fulfill the same plot functions as the Lunarians do exactly, without inexplicably being off-worlders. So you're right--it might not be as spontaneous as the other examples I gave, but it's just as dumb and random.

      And then there's the Namingway thing, which IS spontaneously random and weird, so you get both sides with FF4.