Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Guest Rant: How do RPG Writers View the Principle of Double-Effect?, by Humza

Got a treat for you folks today: Humza has graced us with a Guest Rant! Humza is by now a veteran of editorials on this blog (how come none of y'all love me the way Humza does?), and also a gentleman whose admiration of my own rants sometimes gives me the nervous feeling of a charlatan because I am 95% sure that he is actually at least twice as thoughtful and intelligent as I am and simply hasn't realized it yet, heh. And today, he has done us the good service of putting forth his thoughts and musings for us to enjoy and mull over! As always, much appreciated, sir.

Disclaimer: I don't own Humza's words, merely borrow them with his permission. I also don't necessarily agree or disagree with his opinions and observations here. But I do definitely think that they're worth reading and thinking about!

How do RPG Writers View the Principle of Double-Effect?

April 25, 2019

Like all story-oriented media, RPGs are premised on certain ways of viewing the world. The writers express their ideas by relying upon and adapting their previous thoughts and experiences (much of which is influenced by their language and culture). This doesn't mean those sharing the same language necessarily agree with each other on everything (individual cultures are almost always internally contradictory by virtue of their diversity and the disagreements in them), but there are bound to be uniformities and repetitions despite this. A character's uncoerced sacrifice for “the greater good” is, for example, seen as morally good most of the time (although, notably, not always; Tales of Symphonia's Lloyd is against any such sacrifice and some other protagonists likely are, too).

The points that I'm trying to make in this introduction are (a) that RPGs espouse moral values, so it would not be out of place on an RPG-themed blog to examine the stances RPGs take towards them, and (b) that most RPGs (but definitely not all) seem to share similar values, and that generalizing with this caveat is sometimes fair. My aim here is to look at the way RPGs tend to look at an ethical rule known as the principle of double-effect* (which I have seen identified in medieval Europe and in legal texts from Arabia in late Antiquity, and it almost certainly is identified elsewhere as well). There are variants of this principle, but the essence of it** is this: If an action has a good effect and a bad effect, it is morally permissible as long as the actor intends only the good effect and does not wish for the bad effect to take place. A simple example of this principle applied is if a person kills another in self-defense, not intending the other person to die, but with the intent that one continues to live.

With the introduction out of the way, let's take a look at the common situations RPGs have where this ethical rule would be appropriate and how the story agrees or disagrees with it. The first examples I can think of are these: a villain harming people for a good end, the party members doing the same and self-sacrifice.

The first example I mentioned where a villain attempts to achieve a good end while causing harm to innocents has plenty of obvious examples in RPGs, but they need to be distinguished: there are cases where harming people directly achieves a good end (“the ends justify the means”; Hilda from Stella Glow is guilty of this because it is through the bad effect, crystalising innocent people, that the intended good effect, the delay of aliens destroying the world, is achieved) and another set of cases where the good end is not caused by the bad effect (Heiss from Radiant Historia falls into this camp because the good effect, his and another character’ continued living, is not directly caused by the bad effect, that is, desertification). The former is not an example of the principle at work (because the principle doesn't allow for such cases), while the latter is.

In Heiss’ case (which is the relevant one here), and other similar cases I can think of, he still is portrayed as a villain (albeit a sympathetic one; this sympathy comes, I think, not from his method, but through his motivations), so perhaps we can say RPGs view adherence to the principle of double-effect as mostly irrelevant, and it’s not hard to see why this might be the case. Heiss’ actions still result in the death of numerous innocent people and so, from a consequentialist perspective (not mine***), allowing him to do as he wishes puts the world in a vastly worse state than it otherwise would have been. So we will regard RPGs as disagreeing with the principle for the time being.

Let’s proceed to the parallel case of RPG protagonists harming others in order to achieve what they view as a good end. Closely connected with the previous example of villains harming innocents to achieve a good end is a similar (but not quite identical) case of the party members killing others in order to meet the main villain (and usually kill them, too, although not always). Unlike the previous case in which the principle of double-effect does not seem to excuse villains, the protagonist is rarely (if ever) condemned for killing others. One can interpret this as the principle at work (since the heroes’ intent is not to kill, but to get to the villain so they can stop whatever terrible plan is being carried out), but I think**** it would be more consistent to see RPGs as consequentialist here again because we can argue that, while the villains’ bad impacts by far outweigh their good ones*****, the heroes’ good impacts outweigh their bad ones.

A clear example of a protagonist employing this consequentialist perspective would be Luke from Tales of the Abyss, who initially experiences an ethical dilemma about whether to kill, but after weighing consequences, decides that he would rather kill than be killed himself. There are other considerations one could make (from memory, I think some games like Lufia 2°°° don't have battles with humans, and so one can argue their lack of sentience/intelligence weakens the bad impact), but the framework here is still consequential.

Before moving onto the case of self-sacrifice, let's take a look at a unique case more relevant here than elsewhere: Undertale. If this game is famous for anything, it's the level of dissuasion used when killing another creature in combat. Unlike the consequentialist approach most RPGs seem to hold, Undertale does not view consequences as the be-all and end-all of what is right and wrong, nor does it substitute intention for consequences (as the principle of double-effect sometimes does). It views the act of taking another's life as being wrong in all places.

The final RPG trope (that I have in mind to talk about; there are no doubt others) where the principle of double-effect seems relevant is the topic of self-sacrifice, of giving up one's life so that others may live. More decisively than the previous topic of killing, perhaps, RPGs show themselves to oppose the principle here. The positive impact of saving the world is opposed to the negative impact of losing one's own life. RPGs almost always try to portray such scenes as poignant (“bittersweet” may be a better word for it) because someone willfully forfeits their life for a noble cause. The sadness in such scenes is premised (at least partly) on the fact that one intends for their life to come to an end. The poignant aspect of such a scene would largely be lost if the principle of double-effect were applied to it because we would say the character did not intend to die, but only intended to save the world and their death is merely an unintended side-effect. We view those who sacrifice their lives for a transcendental cause (if we agree with that cause) as greater than those who succeed in the same goal without a sacrifice because of what it tells us about the former's character and beliefs. ******

I didn't have a specific point in mind when writing this post, but one has emerged along the way: the vast majority of RPGs seem to support a form of consequentialist ethics (perhaps utilitarianism, in which “good” is maximized and “bad” is minimized). This should not, perhaps, be surprising (although it was to me), since people like Hannah Arendt have pointed out “that none of our traditional legal, moral, or common sense utilitarian categories could any longer help us to come to terms with” the actions of totalitarian governments. As a substitute for a proper conclusion, I'll suggest that, as she and others have done, that our language needs to change, and that one method through which we can do this is to examine and change the worldview that our RPGs (as well as other media) tell their stories from. It is well-known, after all, that the media one consumes contributes to shaping how one views the world.

* I have seen this principle identified by different names in Medieval Europe (Thomas Aquinas was apparently the first to introduce it there) and in Islamic legal texts around that same time; it was probably identified elsewhere before either of these two places. Today, this principle is used in “Just War Theory” (by Michael Walzer) and in medical ethics, so it isn't an irrelevant ethical rule.

** There are other details like proportionality of good and bad that one can consider in variants, but I'm treating those as irrelevant for now.

*** My favourite work where this principle is discussed is Elizabeth Anscombe’s contribution, “Intention”.

**** “I think” because most comments in this post are meant to be provisional.

***** I'm typing this post without any prior planning, but it just occurred to me (when typing at this point) that we may possibly be able to say RPGs do not abandon variants of this principle where proportionality between good and bad plays an important role. I have a vague idea in my head about how this post should be structured (after all I've written) and will reflect on the merits of this view later, outside of this post.

°°° The RPGenius Says: Lufia 2 does have a single instance in which Maxim and company must fight off a small handful of human guards, who attack at the order of an ambitious and dimwitted royal. It's a clearly obvious case of self-defense, though (while most RPGs' human enemy encounters are to some degree ambiguous), and self-defense was already covered by Humza earlier as a rather universally accepted case of double-effect, and this is a rather unique, 1-time situation (and one that, frankly, out of place; there's not really anything about the whole event that feels like it was supposed to be in the game's story), so I don't know whether one can really say it has much relevance to his point. Still, figured I'd point it out where I can also point out that it doesn't necessarily affect the point much, if at all, rather than potentially having some random commenter point his/her finger at this tiny detail and make a big deal of it.

****** This is similar to a criticism Anscombe made of this principle, summarized in this quotation from her: “It is nonsense to pretend that you do not intend to do what is the means you take to your chosen end”. An applied example of sacrifice: Thomas Aquinas (who I mentioned before as having introduced this principle to Europe) was himself a Christian theologian (as is Anscombe, sans the “theologian” part) and, in an ironic twist, was unwittingly undermining his own religion because there can be no “sacrifice” (or “willful giving up”) if the principle of double-effect is applied to the Crucifixion event (and so the event loses much of its meaning).

Saturday, June 8, 2019

General RPG Downers: The Right and Wrong Way to Do It

Bethesda's Todd Howard believes that the important thing about publishing a game isn't whether it's an acceptable product at release, but whether or not it will, at some point in the future, become an acceptable product as the developer continues to work on it. So basically, the director of Fallout 4 has gone on record to say that his belief is, "It doesn't matter whether we're doing the right thing in the here and now, as long as we intend for our work to bear fruit at some nebulous, undefined, far-off date."

Just as I've become fairly certain that Borderlands 2's writers based a substantial portion of Handsome Jack's worst villainous qualities on Randy Pitchford, I suddenly have a strong suspicion about where Fallout 4's writers derived their inspiration for the delusional, self-important, callous, and heinously evil Institute.

But enough about greedy liars. Let's get on with today's actual rant!

Like any other genre of storytelling, the huge majority of RPGs have happy endings. You’re way, way, way more likely to see a generic "World Is Saved, Everyone Is Happy" ending to an RPG than you are to see an ending which is mostly negative. And that’s good, and makes sense, because most RPGs themselves are of an average or upbeat style, which naturally leads into such endings. More than almost anything else, your ending should wrap up your game in the same narrative tone as the game has had leading to said ending; you absolutely should not be switching horses at the last possible second. Otherwise, you risk a catastrophic failure of a finale, like Mass Effect 3.

There are, however, a number of RPGs out there that are, to 1 extent or another, what I would call a Downer RPG: a game whose narrative is overall unhappy or even upsetting, which typically end on a similar note. These are games for whom moments of happiness are fleeting, the themes are focused on the negative aspects of humanity, and the ending may feel like a release more than an achievement. Their intent is to make you feel, but not to make you feel good, if you get me.

That’s not to say that they’re bad RPGs, though. In fact, they tend to be very good ones. The critically acclaimed Nier: Automata would qualify as such an RPG, I would say, as the hopefulness of its true ending does not outweigh or make up for the rough journey and heavy narrative through the questions of life’s meaninglessness that brought the player there. So, too, would I say that the incomparably excellent Planescape: Torment is a mild Downer RPG, for though much of it does come off as a (magnificently thoughtful and brilliant) neutral adventure, it is, ultimately, a trip through a multiverse that groans in pain at the legacy that the protagonist’s immortality has inflicted upon it, so unbearable a journey of realization that the death that comes at its end is a blessed relief. Another excellent RPG, Mother 3, is very direct in being a Downer RPG, a story about loss that begets more loss. You can come away from any of these games feeling satisfied, accepting of how they have concluded, glad to have played them and glad for the conclusion of the journeys of 2B, A2, 9S, the Nameless One, and Lucas...but you damn sure aren’t gonna come away feeling happy and triumphant like you would from, say, Final Fantasy 4, or Chrono Trigger.

Yes, to be sure, the Downer games can be powerful, excellent works of art, and they usually are. But it’s worth noting that there is a right way to create a Downer story, and there is a wrong way to do it. You do it right, and you can get a stirring masterpiece like Transistor or the others I’ve mentioned. You do it wrong, and...you get Melancholy Republic.*

So, here’s the deal with Melancholy Republic. It’s an indie game, 1 which I helped to Kickstart. It’s not actually an RPG--I’d have to define it as a visual novel, instead, in spite of having a much different format than VNs usually employ--but it was created with RPG Maker, which is how it first came onto my radar. It promised a powerful, emotionally intense story of politics and class struggle and stuff like that, which interested me, so I made my pledge.

And look, let’s get something clear right now: I’m not a moron. Well, okay, yes, I did consciously choose to play Mega Man Star Force 2 even though I had experienced the first game, so yeah, actually I am a moron. But I’m not a moron in THIS situation: I knew that Melancholy Republic was not going to be a game with a happy ending. The Kickstarter was not ambiguous about that fact, and, well, the game IS called Melancholy Republic. I was aware that this was not gonna be a rousing adventure in the realms of merriment.

Nonetheless, I’m disappointed with MR. Not because it isn’t written well, not because the conflicts within it aren’t compelling, and not because I don’t connect with the characters. It is, they are, and I do. I’m disappointed with it because I came away from it with nothing but negativity. I’ve gained nothing from experiencing it, it has said nothing to me, it has given me no feeling that its downer story went to any particular purpose. It doesn’t make me feel sad, it doesn’t make me feel even melancholic, it just makes me feel hopeless. On an emotional level, Melancholy Republic takes from you, and gives nothing back.

The conclusion of Melancholy Republic is just a dark path with no light at its end. Its main characters and most of the side characters, who you’ve grown to like and root for, die in utter futility. Their cause is lost, nearly every innocent human being they championed is destroyed, and there is no hope left to be had: it’s not that the battle is lost, and it’s not that the war is lost. It’s that all is lost. Good people wagered all they had on a just cause, and not only did they lose everything, but so did everyone they wanted to help (save for a mere 3 characters, less survivors than they are refugees from this disaster). Melancholy Republic’s conclusion is a punch to the gut, and that’s ALL that it is.** If there is a message to the game, it’s that trying to do the right thing is meaningless, that all can come crashing down around you in an instant, that everything you wish to accomplish could be doomed from the start beyond your ability to change--and that IS a message that can give a story purpose in conveying, but Melancholy Republic’s intent in sharing this message is inscrutable. Is it saying you shouldn’t bother trying to go against the powers that be to accomplish something good? Most of the terrible events and lives lost in this story would have occurred anyway. Is it saying you should try no matter what? Nearly everyone the protagonist involves and cares about in her life suffers and dies for her good intentions, so that doesn’t seem likely, either. Is it saying nothing matters anyway? Because the love between Claire and Marianne, and Marianne’s death, seem like they’re written with the intent of making you feel like they do matter, and it also seems like the fact that they’re so tragic isn’t meant to lessen their substance. And yet, in the end, they give us nothing.

That’s really all that Melancholy Republic does: it gives you characters, a story, ideals, and other pieces of a narrative, and then it rips them away from you, with such cruel totality that there is nothing you’ve gained from ever having had them.

See, that’s the thing. A downer RPG isn’t expected to have its aspects of positivity outweigh its negative parts, but there has to be some exchange. Like, you take Children of Zodiarcs. Terrific downer RPG. It’s a moving story of social cruelty and the horrible nature of vengeance, how it’s created within others, how it corrupts and utterly destroys everything it touches, how the only way to escape its unfocused destructive influence is to give up on it entirely--and sometimes even that’s not enough to avoid its wrath. This is a game about children whose lives have been so utterly horrible thanks to the harms inflicted upon them by an oppressive society that they have been twisted by hatred into retribution-seeking adults before their time. It’s a game in which people pay back and pay forward the miseries of their own lives with interest, as, good or evil, adult or child, 1 person after another is brought to destruction by the venom of vengeance, whether their own or that of those around them. It’s a game that ends with its protagonist Nahmi finally managing to set her hatred aside, and escape this horrible cycle, bringing with her the symbol of the childlike innocence that was lost to her, but which she wants to protect as important...but although this ending is a positive note, the pain and violence, so much of it utterly meaningless, that Nahmi has witnessed, suffered through, and herself inflicted on the way to this ending far outweighs whatever joy her escape might bring to the player. The terrible acts it took to reach the game’s conclusion will weigh more heavily on your memories and final impression than the hopeful final note, just as they will forever weigh on Nahmi’s conscience.

And yet, though it may disquiet you, Children of Zodiarcs will not, I think, drag you down and depress you. As terrible as its events are, and the society and people that created them, the game has a purpose in its warning against hatred and vengeance, as well as a warning against giving others cause to hate and seek revenge upon you. And even though the hurt of the loss of innocent lives, and the lives of characters I grew to care about, will always be the most powerful, reactive impression I have of Children of Zodiarcs, I will still always also remember that these tragedies were, if not necessary per say (all the more tragic for that), then at least important steps toward Nahmi escaping from the terrible cycle of violence that her hatred had kept her in. It’s a worthwhile and positive result, even if it doesn’t balance out all the terrible things that happened to make it possible. CoZ is a downer RPG for the fact that the tragic losses within it outweigh what positives they eventually lead to, but they at least DO lead to something important and meaningful. And CoZ likewise has a strong, clear purpose, to which its negative nature is an asset, as a warning against doing harm unto others, and becoming obsessed with paying harm done to you back.

So in essence, Children of Zodiarcs is the right way to do a downer game, because A, there IS a point to the characters’ suffering (even if it doesn’t equal that suffering), B, it has ideas to convey and is clear about what they are, and C, said message is better served by the fact that it’s a dark and depressing story overall.

Finally, I also think it’s important, in a downer RPG, not to mislead your audience. Again, I look at Melancholy Republic critically on this point. Yes, I did say that the title and the outward description give away the fact that it’s not going to end happily, but the game itself belies just how much shit is gonna go down in the story’s conclusion. Melancholy Republic is presented very normally as a game, with characters who give speeches of hope and good intentions, and many moments that show a positive movement in the direction of the narrative. The truly terrible and sorrowful conclusion to the game is more shocking for the fact that it feels like the story pulled this level of despair out of nowhere--and while you can argue that that shock makes it all the more powerful, I contend that it also makes it feel out of place and needlessly cruel. You want a bad ending, fine, but for one this depressing, you should have a game that better prepares you for it.

Remember Mass Effect 3’s horrible ending? I certainly do. Every day. Like a ‘Nam flashback. Well, 1 of the many reasons for how terrible it was is because you can’t spend 3 entire games showing and telling the audience over and over that your protagonist can achieve a victory even in the worst, most dire of situations, and then end your game with him just rolling over, giving up, and capitulating to his enemy! You can’t spend hundreds of hours touting a hero’s ability to win victory on his own terms, and then end your saga by saying, “Oh wait NO HE CAN’T LOL!” Contradicting everything your work is and has been for dozens of hours during its last 5 minutes is not clever, it’s just appallingly poor writing. Likewise, having an overall positive and hopeful tone to your narration and characters’ dialogue throughout your story makes the emotional carpet-bombing that is Melancholy Republic’s conclusion come off as a little disingenuous, mean-spirited, and out of place.

An RPG that does this much more adeptly would be Severed. Besides the fact that its overall aesthetic and narrative tone are clearly darker to begin with (as well as frightfully interesting and creative), Severed doesn’t mislead you at all about the fact that things may not end well. Your quest in the game is to lead its protagonist through a dark and terrible world in a search for each member of her family, who have been taken by some terrible force that also cut off the protagonist’s arm. There’s hope in Severed that she can rescue the people she loves, but the fact that they’ve been violently taken by some frightening, unknowable, and hostile entity in a world of danger and darkness lets the player know right from the start that there’s every possibility that this quest may end in tragedy. I’ll not spoil for you what happens or whether she manages to save anyone, but you can tell already that regardless of the specifics, at least some unhappiness lies in the story’s future. Severed is very skillful in subtly keeping your hope alive even in the face of tragedy, but at the same time, there’s no question that it prepares you, and continues to prepare you, for the worst, as well. There are moments in this RPG which leave you almost reeling in sympathetic loss for the protagonist, but never do they feel narratively alien and spontaneously sadistic the way Melancholy Republic’s conclusion does.

Happy or melancholic, every RPG is different, and some are going to be able to pull off narrative maneuvers that others can’t, for a variety of reasons. Nonetheless, there are certain rules of thumb for storytelling that can’t be avoided if you want to tell your story well. And for Downer RPGs, I think those are that the game must have purpose, a message to convey (which is a good rule of thumb for any creative work, if you ask me), said message should necessitate a negative mood and plot to be conveyed most effectively, and the sadness and other negative emotions that it ultimately invokes and explores must be consistent to the work as a whole, not just its conclusion.

* Well, you can also get Whisper of a Rose; I think that counts as a failed Downer RPG, in that its intention was to explore a lot of darker themes, but it kind of just never did to any adequate extent, so it comes off as less dark and melancholic and more just vaguely puzzling.

But that’s more an example of a Downer RPG that tried but didn’t quite get there. What I want to get into this rant is an example of a clear Downer game that was meant to be such, but is made in a bad way.

** You can argue that there is a note of positivity in that second main character Marianne has finally been freed from her terrible life of servitude, which IS something that first main character Claire had always wanted...but Marianne is freed through the act of choosing to take her own life, so I don’t reckon it really counts as all that positive, especially since she only manages to free herself after Marianne’s finally found someone worth living for, and then lost her. Nor can you really say that Marianne’s final act of killing the men responsible for all the evil that has befallen her and the ones she cared for is a positive moment, because they’ve already done all the damage they could reasonably do--punishing them is justice, but it also feels largely meaningless, because that punishment can’t change any of the tragedy the preceded it.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Stella Glow's Hilda's Plan to Preserve the World

Hilda’s plan is goddamn stupid.

Let’s just summarize this, shall we? In the world of Stella Glow, Armageddon is called forth by a buildup of negative human emotions, because they are being monitored by a self-aware and frankly whiny crystal in the moon via cameras implanted into five women’s hearts that also give said women magical powers for no adequately explored reason. Hilda, as 1 of these “witches” as they are called, makes a promise to try to keep the world from collapsing while the fated hero takes a nap for a thousand years to recover from being injected with Linkin Park lyrics. As the Time Witch and thus only one who can freeze her own mortality long enough for the hero to get this beauty sleep, it’s her job to find a way to keep that ridiculous emo moon crystal from seeing enough negative emotion on the planet that it feels the need to send an army of angels to solve the Sadness Crisis through total genocide. Hello, RPG World, goodbye, Logic.

How does Hilda go about this? Well, like any sane individual, she chooses to try to save the world by turning to a magical technique called The Song of Ruin to encase entire communities in crystal and put people into stasis, and by founding a militaristic squad of terrorists who attempt to carry out assassinations upon the other witches.

There’s so much stupid here, I don’t know where to start. I guess we’ll begin with her crystallizing the world. She does this because people, when frozen in time-crystal or whatever the hell this magical gobbledegook does to them, won’t feel emotions, so they can’t contribute to the Kill Everything Meter that the moon’s got going. Nothing about this makes sense. Yeah, okay, she IS eliminating the negative emotions that the people she encases would produce...but what about the fallout of this action? The villagers of Hickburg are all tidily sealed, but what about the relatives of those villagers living in nearby Bumblefuckville, who have lost their loved ones and neighbors suddenly and tragically? The grief and anger caused by such a sudden, unfair loss would surely be so pronounced in those who care for the people crystallized that it at least evens out whatever everyday-life negativity that Hilda had managed to prevent! And then add to that the resulting public knowledge of some unreasoning, insanely powerful witch going around destroying entire towns seemingly without motive--the fear and anger of any and everyone who knows of the situation, the despair of understanding that there’s no way to avoid this terrible fate if the witch sets her sights on you, probably adds up to WAY more negative emotion than just letting things be.

It’s not like Hilda went around targeting communities with more negativity than others, either--she had no sense of priority over who did and didn’t become human rock candy. The game’s prologue has her freezing Mithra, a tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere which, by all indications, was filled with citizens who were quite happy, yet she never makes a move to do the same to Port Noir, a larger town we see later on which, though not especially unhappy per say, is still filled with fear and hatred for their local witch, and has quite a few maddened drug addicts running around its back alleys. Granted, I suppose Hilda couldn’t be expected to know right off the bat that Port Noir had some negative emotion issues (although her group does have at least some intelligence-gathering capabilities, so this really isn’t much of an excuse), but at the very least, you’d think she’d target Port Noir just because it’s bigger and thus has more people to add to the moon’s bad feeling counter than Mithra, whose population probably only hits the triple digits if you count barnyard animals. Port Noir’s a little closer to the capital and thus theoretically better protected by the royal knights, but HIlda’s Song of Ruin only takes a few minutes to do its thing, so it can’t be any sort of safety issue--she’s just a self-important idiot hitting towns at random.

I also object to the idea of “saving” humanity and “saving” the world by throwing human civilization into chaos and indefinitely suspending people’s lives. Hilda has no way of knowing for sure that the hero’s ever gonna wake up again (in fact, she seems rather surprised by its happening), and she demonstrably doesn’t stop her plans for that awakening anyway, so...end-game, Hilda, what exactly is your plan going to accomplish? You’re going to save humanity by permanently sealing it away? I mean, if she has no way nor expectation of beating the moon crystal from which the threat of global destruction originates, then her plan has to just be to halt the countdown on human destruction by crystallizing everyone. Because as long as the stupid moon crystal is there and as long as humans are capable of feeling icky, doomsday is inevitable, so by logical extension, Hilda’s goal has to be to completely freeze all humans for an undetermined and possibly eternal period of time. Which basically boils down to wanting to save the world by ending it. Brilliant.

Also, for someone trying to save the world by eliminating sources of negative emotion within it, Hilda sure does keep some odd company. Her right hand boy Dante is an arrogant, violent jackass with a short temper; he’s not only a source of negative emotions himself, but his attitude is dislikable and thus inspires negativity in those he faces off against. And another of Hilda’s generals, Dorothy, is a hate-filled psychopath who likes to kill and uses her own pain and suffering to empower her abilities, often harming herself with her own attacks in order to become more deadly. Seriously, Hilda? You’ll go destroy a village full of quiet folks living happy, peaceful lives to lower Earth’s negative emotion emissions, but you happily keep these 2 assholes at your side? Dante’s such a self-important piece of shit that just listening to him makes me ponder whether humanity’s worth the effort, let alone this stupid moon salt lick that’s actually looking for an excuse to invade!

And what the hell is the deal with trying to kill the other witches? Hilda wants to kill each witch because the witches are the observational tool through which the moon crystal measures negative emotion levels, and because when brought together the other 4 witches could sing a song that kickstarts the end of the world. And that sounds like a logical decision on her part, right? Except that the only method known to stop the moon’s kidney stone for good is a concert sung by all 5 witches together. So...if she kills even 1 of the witches and prevents the witch’s magic heart crystal thing from finding a successor, which is what Hilda tries to do with each and every single witch in the game’s first half, then she will basically be making it impossible to save the world for good. And she KNOWS this, because she was there the first time said concert was tried!* She’s fully aware that the only way to solve this dilemma permanently is to have all 5 witches working together, and yet she’s out with her goons trying to remove them from the picture because short-term they’re a threat to her equally short-term solutions!

For that matter, why is she even spending time on all this garbage to begin with? The woman has 1000 years to work with! Instead of trying to shove humanity’s emotions in the freezer and murder 4 innocent girls (and, subsequently, at least 1 entire culture’s population, as the fire witch is required to keep a nearby volcano in check), why the hell doesn’t Hilda try initiating social programs and founding better forms of child-rearing and education, stuff that leads to better societies with fewer causes for negative emotions? You can’t even say that she didn’t have opportunities to put long-term solutions like those into effect, because there WAS a period in the history of Stella Glow’s world in which Hilda was queen of her own nation!

And why in the world would she not spend that time in close contact with Dr. Veronica (who lives for even longer than Hilda) and pressure her to develop alternative approaches to dealing with the moon crystal threat, or at least ways that humanity could better weather an angel invasion? Veronica’s plot-convenient science-y knowledge doesn’t seem to have changed much by the time of Stella Glow’s events from the conflict 1000 years prior, so obviously she wasn’t spending that millennium on anything too important. Veronica knows how to subvert angels to do her own bidding, and she has an ability that makes her do extra damage to angels in combat--why would Hilda not spend some of her hundreds of years of life checking in with Veronica here and there, urging her to make this technology/knowledge available to others for the inevitable day of destruction? Or at least learn how it’s accomplished herself, so that Hilda could incorporate these techniques into her own queendom and/or terrorist group? With ten hundred years to work with, maybe Veronica could have found an alternative way to defeat the moon crystal’s machinations, if Hilda had bothered to keep the flighty, careless doctor on task!

At the very least, Hilda could have tried the religion route. I mean, the actions of the hero are, by the time of Stella Glow’s present, already widespread legend which the current society is quite familiar with. As 1 of the witches who was actually there for the hero’s story, surely she could have guided the development of that legend, added a few warnings or prophecies to the tail end of it about being nice to each other and also not letting 4 witches sing together or else the world will end. Prophecies and legends go together like chocolate and peanut butter, thunder and lightning, Bethesda and poor decisions--it couldn’t have possibly been difficult to get a few predictions of destruction tacked onto this one.

But you know what is by far the dumbest part of Hilda’s plans and methods? The fact that she won’t goddamn fucking EXPLAIN any of it to anyone who matters. I’m not going to go into this too deeply, because this is a just another form of an RPG trope that I’ve already expressed my white-hot hatred for, but essentially, none of the unfortunate shit that goes down in Stella Glow would have happened if Hilda had actually tried being forthright about the situation and her intentions. Hilda has multiple opportunities over the course of the game’s first half to explain herself to the protagonist, or at the very least shout something like, “I have knowledge you don’t about the witches and I can explain the circumstances of why I crystallize people!” to get him to stop and listen for a second. Alto (the protagonist) is understandably upset over her having ruined his village, but he’s never shown to be an especially rageful guy, and even expresses confusion over why she does what she does at times--he clearly would listen if she actually tried telling him what the deal is. Also, the level-headed and personable Queen Anastasia would likely have at least considered Hilda’s words, too, if given the opportunity.

For that matter, instead of just jumping straight to John Hathorne Mode, Hilda could have tried seeking the witches out and convincing them not to take part in the Anthem Program that she knows will bring about the end of humanity. All she’d have to do is convince a single witch not to cooperate, to join Hilda’s cause or at least chill at her crib for a while, and boom, problem solved! It couldn’t possibly be all that hard to get at least 1 of them on Hilda’s side: Popo, at the very least, is already predisposed to believe that her existence is dangerous and detrimental to others. But no, instead of trying to work together with anyone who isn’t a complete fucking tool, Hilda settles on attempted cold-blooded murder as her 1 and only strategy with the other witches.

Now, the game does try to mitigate all this by having Hilda occasionally talk about how no one ever listened to her warnings in the past, necessitating her more violent methods. This is narrative word of God, so we have to accept it as true that her warnings fell largely on deaf ears for quite some time, and chronologically it checks out to some degree, since if she’d been crystallizing civilization for the full thousand years, there’s no way that there’d be anything left at this point. But that doesn’t really excuse all the problems with her methods in the first half of Stella Glow.

First of all, what she’s doing still doesn’t make sense nor solve the real problems, as I outlined above, so regardless of what drove her to it, it’s still stupid. Secondly, one has to wonder how much effort she could possibly have put into communicating the dangers facing the world, given how little of an attempt she makes during the game’s own course to do so to anyone she encounters--she later accuses Alto of not listening to her, but the fact of the matter is that she gave him nothing to listen to!

There’s even a scene in the game where he outright asks her, point-blank, why she performs the Song of Ruin, and her 1 and only response to this is “...Goodbye, Alto,” after which she just teleports away! And that isn’t even the only time this happens. There’s also another scene later on in which Alto demands to know, “Why? Why would you do this? What do you have to gain?” And her response: “I am not obliged to answer that.”** That’s not just 1, but 2 scenes in which Hilda blatantly, unequivocally refuses to make an attempt to educate the protagonist on her motives even though he’s begging to know! And she has the shameless gall to later on claim that he wouldn’t listen to her!? If her warnings in the past were anything like her so-called warnings in the present, then no goddamn wonder no one listened to her; she wasn’t TELLING them anything!

And who gives a flying fuck whether no one listened to her hundreds of years ago, anyway? You don’t just give up on communication forever because it didn’t work for a while! You keep fucking trying, even if you do have to resort to your Plan B at the same time! If opening your fucking mouth is too much goddamn work for you, then maybe saving the world just isn’t for you!

Also, uh, Hilda? Call me crazy, but it might not be helpful to your communication attempts to introduce yourself as the Witch of Destruction. I know you weren’t the one to come up with the name, but you also didn’t have to adopt it so readily!

Furthermore, it’s not even correct for her to say that no one ever listened to her. The existence of her gang of terrorists proves it! If she’d never been able to convince anyone, then what the hell are all these robed spear-wielders doing following her around? Sure, at least some of them she kidnapped as kids and raised to be her private army, so in some cases it’s less a case of convincing them than it is brainwashing them in their developmental stages...but Hrodulf, 1 of her most trusted and loyal compatriots, was head of the royal knights when she convinced him to switch sides! Getting a high-profile warrior like that to join your cause would, you’d think, be a huge morale boost for you and a strong encouragement for you to keep trying to sway others, but nope, apparently the failures she suffered in the distant past to communicate her knowledge to others hold way stronger influence over her than the recent and very useful success with Hrodulf, so Hilda just doesn’t bother even trying to explain herself to Alto, the rest of the knights, the queen, the witches, or anyone else during the game’s events.

During the second half of the game, once you have a chance to see some actual interactions with her, Hilda actually becomes a fairly decent character. In fact, she’s probably my favorite in the whole cast, believe it or not. But before that, her role as antagonist is infuriating, due to the sheer imbecilic stupidity of her plans and methods. It’s just 1 of those many cases in RPGs where the writers know what they want to happen with the plot, and they’re not gonna change their minds about the matter, even if they have to support that plot with an absurdly stupid, nonsensical, out-of-character crutch like this one.

* Before you ask, no, she can’t be operating under the assumption that said concert won’t work because it didn’t the first time, because the first time’s attempt only failed due to the error of the hero, not the method itself.

** To top the stupidity of this scene off, this exchange occurs right after Hilda telling Alto that soon enough he’ll agree with her that all this is how it has to be. She claims that, and then refuses to tell him anything that might sway him to her side. Brilliant writing, Imageepoch. Just stunning.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

South Park: The Fractured But Whole's Downloadable Content

The second South Park RPG, South Park: The Fractured But Whole, is all you’d expect it would be: hilarious, gross, inventive, satirical, and bizarrely epic. But that’s the main story...are its 2 story-based DLCs also up to snuff? Let’s see.

Dusk Over Casa Bonita: This is just plain solid stuff, honestly. The humor’s on point from start to finish, and I like the irony of teaming up with Mysterion (whose whole thing is a parody of edgy loner superheroes) and Henrietta (the goth) to take down the vampire clique because they think the vampire thing is lamely edgy. Henrietta’s a fun teammate to join the main game, and they didn’t skimp out on her, either, giving her all kinds of flavor dialogue in battle that she takes into the main game when you’re done with this DLC. The overall story of the DLC is another example of how the South Park RPGs manage to seamlessly mix an epic plot line together with the silliness of kids playing around (Mysterion the vigilante recruits heroes to save his beloved sister, who has been seduced by vampires and will soon be inducted into their coven and turned to one of them...in real-world terms, Kenny’s crashing some vampire-obsessed kids’ birthday party because he’s annoyed that his sister wants to be friends with them). The bit where The Human Kite is replaced by his alternate reality version for the puzzle-solving elements is amusing. The fact that you get to beat the shit out of “Corey Haim” is more than a little satisfying. And it even all ends on a kinda sweet note, too, which is an unexpected bonus in a South Park story.

Overall, Dusk Over Casa Bonita is exactly the kind of side-story that you’d hope for from this game, related in spirit and style to the game proper, while being its own engaging adventure. Unless you don’t like South Park’s second RPG to begin with, you’re probably going to like this add-on as much as you like the main game. However, with all that said, this thing was released for $12, and is still sold for such. But it’s not gonna give you 12 hours of gameplay, or anywhere even close to that, and while it’s certainly enjoyable, it’s not so amazing that it’s worth such a steep difference between price and content provided. So I do recommend Dusk Over Casa Bonita, but only if you can get it on a good sale, as I did--I waited and bought both this and the next DLC at a discount of 75%, which I think is far more fair a price.

Bring the Crunch: This DLC, unfortunately, didn’t really hold my interest very much. Bring the Crunch is a side story in which you investigate some horror-film-style murders happening at a special needs camp in the woods and...there’s just not a lot to it, honestly. This adventure leans hard into poking fun at generic horror flicks and Scooby Doo episodes, and, well, there’s only so far a parody of those things can go. When the appeal of a slasher fic parody dries up, there’s just nothing substantial to work with here--the villain and his plot aren’t interesting, the surprise conflict at the end is forced and barely funny, the story as a whole constantly feels like it’s stopping and starting as you move it along in tiny spurts rather than a cohesive narrative, and while you can do Jimmy as the central figure in a story under the right circumstances, this doesn’t seem to be one of the times that it works. Mintberry Crunch is a decent character addition (and has an interesting gameplay mechanic), but he seems kind of shoehorned in--at least Henrietta’s addition makes sense in Dusk Over Casa Bonita’s story about conflict between edgelords. Mintberry Crunch doesn’t really have any ties to anything in this DLC besides what he himself brings to it.

With that said, there’s some decent humor here and there in Bring the Crunch (its final line is actually pretty hilarious, in fact, and a perfect South Park-style ending), so I can see a much bigger fan of South Park than myself enjoying this as much as the last DLC package--your mileage is gonna vary. Even for someone who loves everything that South Park touches, though, it’s still not worth the $12 by a wide margin--I’d recommend getting it on a major sale, if ever.

So how does the second South Park RPG do in terms of its add-ons, overall? Eh. Not great. I mean, I enjoyed Dusk Over Casa Bonita quite a bit, and Bring the Crunch has some decent moments...but neither one is worth the price, considering how short each add-on is. It’s too bad, because if Ubisoft weren’t trying to price-gouge its customers, I’d have probably rated South Park RPG 2’s add-on scene as mildly positive, overall, which is sadly far above the average. It sure as hell is a step down from the last DLC-possessing RPG I played, Nier: Automata (DLC rant on that coming in the near-ish future), although that might not be an entirely fair comparison, I suppose. Still, I’ve seen considerably worse sets of DLCs, and if you can get Dusk Over Casa Bonita for a fair price, at least, it’s worth it.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Bravely Second's Interesting Protagonist Duality

Every now and then you get an RPG which thinks a little outside the box as far as its protagonist goes. Sometimes it’s a case of having a protagonist who basically fulfills the role of a traditional RPG villain even though he is, indeed, in the right, like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 1’s Marche. Sometimes it’s a game which has more than 1 character serve as the story’s protagonist, like Final Fantasy 6’s Terra and Celes. Sometimes it’s a game in which many of the game’s characters could be the hero of the story, and it’s up to you to determine who shall fill that role, like with Live-A-Live or Romancing Saga 1. And sometimes it’s an RPG in which the protagonist is actually a completely superfluous entity who could have been removed entirely without affecting the story whatsoever because every important event and action is instigated and performed by the supporting cast, as with Final Fantasy 12’s Vaan (hey, I didn't say they were all good ideas). And then there's Velvet, from Tales of Berseria, who's so chaotically spread across the spectrum of tragedy and heroism and villainy that you just don't know what to make of her.

Bravely Second has introduced me to another interesting take on the protagonist role in RPGs: a separate duality to its protagonist. Like Final Fantasy 6, Bravely Second essentially has 2 characters share the role of main character rather than the traditional 1--but whereas FF6 has Terra and Celes split the role of protagonist to the main plot of the game, Bravely Second’s main story is straightforward in having Yew as its protagonist. But BS does have a substantial number of sidequests, almost all of which turn out to be interconnected as events in a single, personal story--and the central figure of that side story is most definitely Edea.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game take this approach before. Oh, sure, plenty of RPGs have many sidequests whose central figure is 1 of the supporting cast--that is, in fact, 1 of the most tried and true methods for creating character depth and development for a game’s secondary major characters. But this is a case in which all the sidequests specifically make 1 supporting character their central figure, and, as revealed during the final installment of this running side-story, are specifically geared toward telling a narrative of that character developing into a leader and more complete person. The sidequests of Bravely Second constitute less a collection of minor ancillary adventures and more a second, independent adventure simply occurring at the same time as the main quest. So basically, Bravely Second is a game with a protagonist for its main story (Yew), but also another protagonist for its second story (Edea).

What’s also kind of interesting about this is that of the 2 of them, Edea’s actually a way more important protagonist of the game’s side story than Yew is of its primary plot. I doubt it was intentional, but Edea’s far more active in her leadership duties during the game’s sidequests than Yew is during the rest of the game’s course. While at least half the time Bravely Second’s plot events carry its heroes along with it, requiring little to no direct input from Yew and making him even seem incidental for much of its course, each sidequest directly requires Edea to take an active, deciding role for it. At first, it does seem like she’s just a tiebreaker for the sidequests’ decisions more often by accident than by design, true. But the final sidequest of this series, in which Edea must face her father and determine what kind of leader she will be to the world, retroactively gives each sidequest before it a significance, because each decision Edea makes as arbiter is shaping her view on what matters most in conflicts of human interest. As such, she’s a constantly active protagonist of her story, whereas Yew goes in and out of specific importance to moving Bravely Second’s plot forward.

Beyond being a more active protagonist than Yew, Edea is also, equally interestingly, a far more important hero for her story. Culminating in her meeting with her father and his handing the duchy over to her, the entirety of Bravely Second’s sidequests until and including this final point have been formed specifically to tell the story of Edea’s rise to leadership, and to determine what kind of ruler she’s going to be. Every decision Edea makes about which side to support in each sidequest isn’t just a case of her being the essential arbiter--it is, more importantly, also conflict representative of the kind of dilemmas she will have to face as a ruler, and her decisions characterize the leadership and values that Edea will hold as future Grand Marshall. While Yew does hold some essential personal relevance to the main story of Bravely Second, Edea is the key figure of the game’s secondary story, a story which is specifically about her.

Do I have a point to all this? Not really. I just thought it was an interesting situation with Bravely Second, having a protagonist for the plot proper, but setting up almost all the sidequests to be a separate, concurrent story with its own side protagonist. And then, having made note of that, I found it amusing that Edea, as the hero of this secondary story, was so much more prominent, effective, dynamic, and essential to it than Yew was to the primary storyline. It’s like 1 of the writers came up with this interesting dual-story dual-protagonist idea, but it worked out too well, creating such a strong and fulfilling story for Edea that suddenly Yew and his main quest were found wanting by comparison.

* Although, honestly, at least half the time it kind of just progresses on its own, with no one in the party acting as the sole narrative leader. But that’s not an especially infrequent situation in RPGs.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Nier: Automata's N2's Defeat

Don’t read this if you haven’t played (and beaten) Nier: Automata.

No. For real. Don’t. Spoiling Nier: Automata for yourself is as extreme an act of self-harm as spoiling Undertale is. So don’t do it.

We good? Good.

Also: Major thanks to my buddy Ecclesiastes, and my work buddy Guy Whose Name I Forgot To Ask Permission To Share So I Won't Although Honestly Dude People Would Just Assume Your Real Name Was An Internet Handle Anyway Because It's Pretty Weird (But In An Awesome Way). I usually have my sister read my rants before I post them, so that they don't suck, but she is unfamiliar with Nier: Automata, and I don't want to spoil it for her, so in cases like this, I outsource to other educated parties. Thanks, Ecc and work buddy, you guys rock!

Nier: Automata is brilliant. We all know this. It’s brilliant from the beginning, and it only gets more so as it goes along. It’s the latest great work of philosophy, in my opinion, and it says so much about existentialism, social purpose, trust, the fatal flaws within us as individuals and as a species, our obsession with the past, and even just our own mental framework in our approach to video games, that I’ve more or less avoided ranting about it in any substantial way here for the same reason I rarely do so for Planescape: Torment, or Neverwinter Nights 2’s Mask of the Betrayer DLC: because most of what I could say about them has been said before, by more thoughtful intellectuals than myself, and, frankly, the level of higher contemplation and genius behind these works feels a bit out of my range. I have a healthy respect for my own intelligence, but the minds behind some games are intimidating in their scope, and Nier: Automata’s one of those games.

Still, every now and then I’ll have an insight that I haven’t really seen during my internet ramblings, and I feel compelled to share it. And that’s why we’re here today: because although I’ve seen quite a few people go into the many ideas and intents of Nier: Automata, and why they’re brilliant, I haven’t really seen anyone talk in detail about 1 moment in the game that I thought particularly well-crafted: the defeat of arguably the main antagonist of the game, the manipulative machine consciousness that serves as a God analogue in the game, N2.

To me, this scene is a really great moment in the game because it manages, in a single clever moment, to accomplish several functions of storytelling, theme, and philosophy. First of all, as a moment within the story, it is, of course, a rather cool and unexpected way to bring about the end of what is arguably the main antagonist of Nier: Automata: through intelligence rather than strength, by the villain’s own hand rather than the heroine’s. Yes, you could argue that it’s important for an audience’s satisfaction that the protagonist be the one to finish the ultimate baddie of a story, and that’s often true (and failing to do so can result in a catastrophically anticlimactic ending), but at the same time, there are times when more can be said through a villain falling to some force other than the hero, and that, I believe, is the case here--there are deeper aims achieved by having N2 destroy itself, as I’ll soon get into. I’m reminded of Shishio’s epic demise in Rurouni Kenshin: he dies not from an attack from Kenshin, but rather from the fact that he has overexerted himself in his battle against Kenshin, and he perishes in the flames of his own lust for conflict. Shishio represents anarchy and rule of the fittest, and so it means far more that Kenshin, a representative of peace and order, wins the fight not by outright strength, but simply be the fact that Kenshin can endure, and Shishio cannot.

More important than the unexpected coolness of N2’s defeat, story-wise, is the fact that this scene serves to enhance the depth of 1 character, and to reinforce the development. To understand each, we need to first understand 1 of concepts that N2 represents: self-aware intelligence. See, N2 is the overall machine consciousness, right? Basically a mind. And each freaky little girl image that we see it use to interact with, and later attack, A2 is essentially a thought, a feeling, an idea...a single little firing of the N2 mind. With an infinite number of incorporeal thought-selves that can be called on to attack A2, it’s beyond her conventional ability to stop.

However, eventually A2 stops attacking the N2 entities, even as more and more flood into battle to eliminate her, and with enough instances of itself gathered in a single place, N2 becomes more and more conscious, as it devotes more and more of its attention, more and more of its processing power, to the matter at hand. With more and more “thoughts” gathering together to focus on a single task, eventually the inevitable happens: a division between them on what the next step will be. It’s the equivalent, I believe, to a moment of indecision, of second-guessing oneself: having put more and more thought into the matter, part of the mind rethinks its plans, and suddenly can’t decide what the best option is. The N2 instances lose unity and cohesion, and begin to war with each other over their differing opinions, dooming themselves to failure even as their enemy watches them--it’s basically that moment when your indecision costs you both things you were trying to decide between.

With this perspective that N2 represents a mind, its destruction is a great moment for reinforcing what we’ve seen happening to 9S in these last chapters of Nier: Automata: he’s mentally self-destructing. Unable to focus on anything but his own grief at the death of 2B and the rage at the truths he’s been discovering about the world, 9S is coming undone, pursuing nigh-directionless vengeance with no regard for his own wellbeing, even going so far as to infect himself with a logic virus just because doing so will let him keep attacking and destroying everything before him, even if only for mere minutes more. 9S can’t get out of his own head, can’t focus on anything else; he’s letting the turmoil within his mind destroy him as a whole. And what we can see through slow symptoms in 9S, we see mirrored quickly and directly in N2: a mental turmoil that leads it to self-destruct.

What’s even greater, though, is that this doesn’t just reinforce the development of 9S (and, for that matter, the important idea that the androids and the machines are the same). It also is a refreshing and welcome moment enhancing the personality of another character: Pod 042! The reserved personalities of both Pods don’t get to shine very much, but here is a masterful exception. It’s Pod 042, not A2, who realizes the only way to defeat N2 is to let it keep devoting more and more “thoughts” to a single task, let it keep getting more and more consciously intelligent, until it turns on itself. And that probably doesn’t seem all that important--Pod 042 came up with a clever idea to beat an enemy, what’s the big deal?

The big deal is how Pod 042 came up with the idea. How could this simple character, ostensibly the most limited consciousness present in that battle, be the one to come up with an idea so brilliant that the supposedly greater mind of an android couldn’t think of it, and the surely superior mental entity of an entire race’s collective consciousness couldn’t foresee the danger of? The answer’s simple: because Pod 042 is an observer.

This entire game, he’s observed 2B suffer the pain of a conflict of interests, as her devotion to her duty waged war with her sorrow at having to continually kill her friend 9S. He’s observed (through reports from his counterpart, at least) the deterioration of 9S’s mental stability due to being unable to focus on anything but his own loss. He’s observed the self-destruction of the pacifist machine children, who died by their own hands for fear of the pain their attackers would cause them. He’s observed the subsequent end of Pascal, who could not find it within himself to continue living with such sorrow. Over the course of this game, time and time again, we’ve seen the main characters and those they interact with suffering and come partially or even totally undone by the turmoil in their own hearts, as their thoughts and feelings become entrapped by 1 particular memory, emotion, conflict of interests, etc. And all the way along has been Pod 042, observing everything with us. He’s seen over and over what self-aware, conscious beings do to themselves when something weighs too heavily on their mind to escape. And so he knows what beings theoretically far his mental superior do not: that to defeat a powerful mind, all that’s needed is to simply let it think too much about something. Pod 042’s just giving N2 the chance to fall into the same pitfalls that he sees his charges constantly deal with.

And the positives that N2’s death serves for the storytelling are just 1 facet in which this is a great scene! It’s also great in terms of furthering the game’s purpose of examining and commenting on human society as a whole. While Nier: Automata is certainly first and foremost all about existentialism in relation to the individual self, it also has a lot to say about humanity as a group and whole (which is unsurprising; it’s an inevitable extension of any philosophical musing, no matter how individual-oriented, I should think). While N2’s self-destruction is an excellent analogy for our own self-destruction as we mire ourselves too deeply in our inner conflicts, it also serves as a commentary on our self-destructive social behavior, as well. When the two groups of N2 consciousnesses disagree on their next step--a disagreement so trivial that it’s not about differing desires, but about how they should proceed to achieving the same goal--they recklessly and arrogantly attack one another, even while their actual enemy stands right in front of them! A2 outright spells it out for us as she watches in amused awe at the sight of N2’s consciousnesses destroy themselves over nothing: “They’re acting like humans...” So the scene not only shows us how we defeat ourselves on a personal level by letting ourselves fall prey to our own intellect, but it also shows us how we so frequently doom our own efforts as a species by letting trivial squabbles distract us from our real problems.

On that note, it’s also a great reflection of the entire conflict between the androids and the machines--Nier: Automata has gone out of its way to show many times that in all important ways, the androids and the machines are fundamentally the same,* which throws much of their war’s purpose into question, and now we have a display of 2 groups of the exact same being finding a stupid excuse to wipe each other out, even though the only point on which they disagree is ultimately not even all that sizable. It’s a great extension of the idea that NA has been pushing with its war between machine and android all along, that we make war over stupid reasons that waste our time and resources on the wrong target.

Finally, N2’s destruction is a great, philosophical end to the machines’ wish to be human. Throughout the game, the machines have been grappling with the inevitable questions of existence, and their method for doing so has always been to seek to become like the humans who originally owned the Earth. Over and over through the course of Nier: Automata we see, in both the main story and the sidequests, machines imitating human behavior, immersing themselves in human pastimes and passions, and studying human culture, religion, and philosophers, attempting to make sense of their own existence by making sense of humans’ existence. It’s always with this faithful reverence--as though they believe without a doubt that humanity had all the answers, so even when the human behavior has no purpose with machine lifeforms (childcare, sex, pursuit of physical beauty, etc.), or they don’t really understand the significance of what humans did (Eve questioning why he’s being named after a female figure, pointing out that Cain and Abel might make more sense than Adam and Eve, and being rebuffed by Adam simply because that’s not how the humans did it), they still go through the motions, simply trusting that it’s how things must be done. More or less everyone in Nier: Automata is trying to figure out the purpose of their existence, it’s what the game’s about, but by and large, the machines do so by mimicking the ways of beings they believe to have had the answers.

And then, in this scene, the machine consciousness net N2 finally makes the breakthrough, finally advances enough to--again, in A2’s (and thus the game’s) own words--truly act like humans, and it immediately destroys them. They wanted to take up humanity’s mantle, but it was such a poor fit that it only choked them.

It’s a brilliantly tragic end to the machines’ journey.** And it’s also a great philosophical message that the game has for us, one unlike most of its others: find your own answers to your questions. The machines sought the answers to their own self-awareness from outsiders (and worse, a species which, frankly, had not, as a whole, figured out those answers to begin with), attempting to become humans instead of figure out what they themselves are, and the only result that has come of that method is demonstrated by N2: a system failure. In a sense, this scene is a warning label stuck onto the entirety of Nier: Automata, telling us that we should consider what it, and any other work of advice and philosophy, tells us, adopt its ideas and suggestions to the extent that work for ourselves, but not to let it do all the thinking for us, not to just let its answers be our own. Just as NA has reached its own conclusions which it shares with us after examining the works left by the previous great minds it frequently references, it wants only to give you ideas to consider in your own quest for existential truth, not to just give you an answer sheet to copy unquestioningly. Reminds me of Buddhism, a bit--the Buddha is a revered figure who has found enlightenment which you’re encouraged to respect and examine, but just outright emulating him won’t lead to your own enlightenment.

And...that’s all I got for today. There’s probably more bits of narrative, thematic, and philosophical brilliance that the defeat of N2 provides to Nier: Automata, because this game really is just that complex and sharp, but that’s all I’ve come up with in my own musings. And I think I’ve done a decent job! It’s something to think about, at least, and it’s a scene I haven’t seen discussed in too much detail in my (admittedly limited) ramblings across the web.

And now, back to our regular schedule of nitpicking stuff that doesn’t matter, jokes at Fallout 76’s expense, and reviewing DLCs for games over a decade old.

* A fact which, of course, is patently obvious to us, a biological audience to whom all mechanical life forms basically seem the same. But that’s the beauty of Nier: Automata: the fact that the androids and machines acting like there’s some great distinction between themselves seems absurd to us is easily flipped around as a commentary on our own racial conflicts--just as it seems silly to we humans that the androids before us are aghast at the notion that they and the machines are similar beings, so, too, would an android observer of human history find it ludicrous that we humans put such stock in distinctions like skin tone when we’re all the same organism in every significant way.

** Obviously this isn’t literally the end of all the machines at this moment, of course, as there’s more battles ahead for A2 after this point. I mean in the figurative sense--N2 has completed the journey to human-ness that the machines as a whole are all on, and that journey ends in self-destruction, so as long as they each stay on this path, this will be their end.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

General RPGs' Battle Speed-Up Option

Alright, guys, I’m sick as a dog today (well, as of writing this, at least; by the time it goes up, I hope I’m long since recovered from this demon malady afflicting me), so let’s do a quicky rant. ...What? Yes, I can write those! I have before! I think. Shut up.

So, as I’ve mentioned a great many times over the years, in spite of RPGs being my chosen video game obsession, I actually don’t find these things any fun, generally. The majority of them base their “gameplay,” if such it can even be called, around making selections from a menu, for heaven’s sake. It’s like some programmer was going through the multiple-choice section of his driver’s test and had the brilliant idea of coding the process into the next game he made to see whether anyone would be able to tell the difference between it and actual fun.

But the other reason RPGs are generally boring to play is something I don’t mention nearly as often, despite the fact that it is actually even worse than the overall gameplay methods of the genre: the horrible, tedious repetition. I’ll crack wise about how unengaging it is to turn life-threatening combat into a process indistinguishable from browsing folders on a Windows system, but honestly, the boredom of this set-up would not be nearly as bad if it weren’t for the fact that, in the course of your average RPG, you’re gonna be going through it actual, literal HUNDREDS of times! Frankly, even the few fun RPGs get old after a while just because of how often you’re required to combat something--after a certain point in Fallout 3, 4, and New Vegas, I got so powerful and so utterly bored with doing the same damn thing every time, even in a genuinely good gameplay system, that I would frequently just pass enemies by on my way through their aggro territory, or, in enclosed environments, utterly ignore them and let my companions slowly deal with them while I just did my exploring. And that’s Fallout, a series of actually fun games!* Having to go through the random encounter motions in your standard RPG hundreds of times is tedium beyond description!

That’s why I so greatly appreciate the feature many RPGs in the past decade or so have been adding, the option to accelerate battle animations. The option to speed up combat actions in Etrian Odyssey 2, as well as the auto-battle feature? Love it. The option in most Kemco games to make combat go at 2x or even 4x its usual pace? Possibly the most (and at times, only) positive trait of their products. The option to turn off combat animations in several Fire Emblem games, or use the B button to cancel them in Stella Glow? A godsend.

Because let’s face it: even in a properly story-rich RPG, you’re gonna be spending at least half the game’s span of 20 - 80 hours in combat, and most of those battles are against generic, time-wasting random monsters that you’ve already defeated at least a dozen times before. Friends, our time on Earth is finite, and even if some of us are fool enough to have wasted a portion of it playing Quest 64 or Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, that time is something we should value--and value more than spending dozens of hours confirming menu options so we can kill enemies we’ve already killed several times before in the exact same way. Every RPG that has a battle speed-up option will save you literal hours of your life that you can devote to something more fulfilling than watching a goblin get bonked on the head for the 20th time in a row. I both appreciate it every time a game gives it to me, and sincerely hope to see it saturate the genre even more from here on out.

* Not counting 76, of course. Never counting 76. Just...any time I talk about Fallout games as a whole being good, assume that 76 isn’t in that estimation. In fact, any time I talk about any positive experience or aspect of life, the universe, and the works of humanity, just assume that Fallout 76 is excluded.

Monday, April 8, 2019

General RPGs' Dying Breath Syndrome

I’ve come across more than a few speech impediments in my time of playing RPGs, no doubt about it. I’ve seen Scias stutter in Breath of Fire 4, and I’ve seen Micky lisp in Makai Kingdom, which are 2 kinds of speech disorders quite common in real life. I’ve also seen some real life speech disorders that are less common, such as Final Fantasy 9’s Garnet, who loses her ability to speak for quite some time as a result of mental trauma and guilt. And, of course, I’ve seen quite a few speech impediments that I’m fairly sure the RPGs just made up for the sake of adding quirks to their cast members, such as Fujin’s only being able to communicate by shouting a single word at a time in Final Fantasy 8, the guards in Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle speaking in emoticons, Cyan of Final Fantasy 6 speaking in an old-fashioned middle english manner in spite of the fact that nobody else in his country or even the entire world speaks that way so where the hell did he pick that up, and Wild Arms 4’s Jude, who’s unable to speak a single sentence that isn’t incredibly stupid.

Also, I think at least a few of the variations in Chrono Cross’s accent system really count less as manners of speech than as disorders. No one else uncontrollably elongates their vowels with every sentence they speak, Starky. You don’t have an accent, you have a communication problem.

But of all the many speech impediments I’ve seen in RPGs, from the disorders one can observe in the real world to the irrepressible compulsion to add “kupo” to the end of every sentence, by far the most frustrating has to be the one where an important character can’t bring themselves to cough up any important information until the moment they’re gonna die.

Dying Breath Syndrome: my newest term for these rants, which shall be defined as the complete inability to communicate basic, easily-understood facts of the plot until you’re dying and your previous silence has screwed things up beyond repair. Certainly not unique to RPGs, this genre nonetheless seems to be far fonder of the annoying trope than most other storytelling mediums, from what I can glean. It seems I can’t go a whole 3 RPGs in a row before someone important to the game’s story decides that the best time to spill their guts is while they’re literally spilling their guts.

Does it annoy anyone else that an inexplicable lack of ability to express essential yet simple ideas is such a staple of RPG storytelling? Like, how many times have you played an RPG in which the heroes are manipulated into killing the wrong person or helping the wrong cause, and they’re only told the truth of the matter after there’s no going back, even though the entity telling them this could have just told them this important shit before getting stabbed through the heart and saved him/herself a painful death?

It’s always such a clumsily-handled narrative device. Like, let’s use the example of Asdivine 4’s Shadow Deity.* During the first half of Asdivine 4, the heroes are tricked by the Light Deity, who secretly wants to kill all humans and restart the world with better indigenous life forms and so on, normal RPG villain stuff, into thinking that the Shadow Deity is the source of their world’s recent problems. So the heroes bumble along on their quest, defeating the 2 guardians who are basically glorified padlocks on the Shadow Deity’s front door--neither of whom, incidentally, see fit to say anything to the heroes about their mistaken goals save for the most cryptic and vague warnings possible--and eventually meet face to face with the Shadow Deity. Before they begin combat, does the Shadow Deity tell them something like, “Kids, the Light Deity is manipulating you. She wants to destroy the world, and I’m the only thing in her way”? Does he yell, “JUST COOL IT FOR A SECOND YOU IDIOTS, IF I DIE THIS WHOLE WORLD IS GONNA FOLLOW ME”? Does he communicate any information that is direct, clear, and useful?

No, of course he doesn’t! All the Shadow Deity does prior to battle is utter some non-specific warning that this isn’t a good idea. And then, during the entire battle that follows, he keeps mum. Even as he’s slashed and punched and blasted closer and closer to death, the Shadow Deity doesn’t see fit to spend a single turn of combat to just outright say “You’re being tricked and I’m actually the good guy.”

But after it’s too late, after he’s dead-ish and can only speak to the party as a helpless spirit projection thingy? Oh, then this mouthy motherfucker’s got all kinds of useful plot information to share.** He’s more than happy to tell the (so-called) heroes alllll about how the Light Deity’s gonna destroy the world and everyone in it then, after it’s too late to go back. Somehow, dying seems to have enabled the Shadow Deity to clearly lay everything important for the heroes to know out in the open, all the information that would have been most beneficial to know prior to killing him.

And of course, there’s also the equally common scenario in which an NPC had vitally important plot information that they only choose to share with the heroes after someone ELSE fatally wounds them. This case has a better chance of having some logical reason why King Plot Twist IV couldn’t be bothered to reveal all prior to this moment, but there’re still plenty of occurrences of this brand of Dying Breath Syndrome in which there was absolutely no rational reason why the NPC would hold onto all this useful information until after their kidney had been punctured. Hell, considering how often these characters are killed specifically to prevent them from telling the heroes what they need to know,*** a lot of them could’ve saved their own lives by just being forthcoming about what they knew as soon as they had the opportunity to do so.

It doesn’t always have to be plot-essential info, either. Dying Breath Syndrome can also apply to situations of emotional relationships between characters, too. Like scenarios in which someone who seemed like they were Important Character A’s enemy reveals, after the fatal battle, that they in fact always admired Important Character A, or loved them, or were their brother/father/etc, and some inconvenient and usually stupid plot device always prevented them from being able to properly connect with Important Character A, leading inevitably to this battle in which they have now been killed by Important Character A’s own hands. Inevitable, that is, but for the fact that had this dying dimwit bothered to explain all this about 5 minutes ago, Important Character A wouldn’t have felt the need to kill them to begin with!

It’s not even like there aren’t easy ways to achieve the same necessary plot results that make more sense. If you’ve absolutely just gotta have your important NPC only reveal important shit after it’s too late, then you could at least have the heroes launch a sneak attack on them, to prevent their having the chance to reveal that it’s all a misunderstanding until afterwards--same result, but at least it doesn’t seem so idiotic that they waited until the most unnecessarily worst time to spout their exposition. Or maybe have the heroes be given the expectation that they need to cover their ears going into combat to prevent a mind-control or sonic attack or something, so prior to engaging with the important NPC they take a page from Startropics’s Mike’s playbook and stuff some bananas in their ears and can’t hear the NPC shouting to them that they’re being morons. Or maybe--and this one’s a really crazy thought, I know--maybe writers could just try prioritizing a logical narrative of character interactions instead of assigning inflated importance to plot twists that aren’t that creative anyway and cheap, forced emotional drama coming from needless character death.

* When you want to illustrate a clumsy and thoughtless RPG cliche, you just can’t go wrong looking to Kemco for an example.

** In fact, it’s actually kind of amazing how MUCH can be said with one’s dying breath, according to RPGs. I daresay that many of these final speeches would cause a healthy person to get out of breath while trying to expunge all this information at once. Yet apparently having a lung collapse does the exact opposite of what you’d think it would for one’s ability to verbally convey large amounts of information! Really putting the “die” in “verbal diarrhea” there, RPGs.

*** Thinking about it, the villains would have been better served just not killing the important NPC at all, since apparently they would’ve just continued to hold out on the heroes forever otherwise.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

General RPG Theory: Acceptable Sacrifices for the Needs of the Many

WARNING: Significant spoilers for Dragon Age 1, Etrian Odyssey 1, Fallout 3 + 4, Final Fantasy 6 + 10, Grandia 2, Mass Effect 3, Millennium 5, Radiant Historia, Skies of Arcadia Legends, Suikoden 1 + 3, Tales of Berseria, and Wild Arms 3. And also the second Star Trek movie.

Time for yet another of those rants that’s really much more general than just RPGs, but because I’m just thrilled at the way words appear on the screen when I hit the letter buttons, we’re gonna roll with it on this supposedly RPG-specific blog anyway.

Sacrifice. As storytelling tropes go, it’s 1 of the most common you can find, possibly even the most common. The sacrifice of 1 person (or more) for another person (or more) saturates our literature, our television, our movies, our comics...hell, it goes way beyond our fictional media. Some of the most compelling and contested subjects of philosophy revolve around the idea of sacrifice, the act of sacrifice both mixes with and results from several distinctive cultures’ values (it seems to always crop up pretty heavily in the traditions of especially honor-based societies, for example), and many of our most noteworthy institutions and professions revolve around the idea of potential sacrifice (such as soldiers, doctors, and rescue workers). Heck, 1 of the biggest and most famous (and infamous) religions to date is pretty much entirely based around a guy who (according to said religion) sacrificed himself for the sake of the entire human species! So yeah, small wonder that the subject of sacrifice comes up a lot in RPGs, as well; it’d frankly be a bizarre anomaly if it didn’t.

While we somehow never seem to tire of sacrifice as an emotional and/or philosophical draw in our narratives, I have noticed that it seems to most often, in RPGs, exist in 1 of 2 capacities. First, and more commonly, we see the trope of the noble sacrifice, in which 1 character (sometimes more, but it’s usually a single-person deal) gives his or her life to ensure the safety and well-being of others. This can happen in a number of ways, of course, but it most often manifests as either A, the character volunteering to stay behind and fight some impossible foe as others (usually the heroes) flee, in order to guarantee the heroes a safe escape (Gregorio in Skies of Arcadia Legends, Mareg in Grandia 2, Shadow in Final Fantasy 6 and Pahn in Suikoden 1 if you let them die because you need to git gud, etc). Or B, there’s some manner of contrived magical plot bullshit, contrived technological plot bullshit, or contrived circumstantial plot bullshit (or some combination of the above) that demands the death of someone (often someone very specific) to work, upon which the fate of the entire world and story rest (examples: Jeane in Millennium 5, Yun in Suikoden 3, Mordin or Padok in Mass Effect 3...oh, and speaking of ME3, you can also check out the game’s ending if you want to see what this trope looks like when handled with extreme stupidity).

Besides the noble sacrifice, the other most common form of sacrifice in RPGs is found in cases in which a character or organized group is causing substantial and usually fatal harm to others, and justifying these actions with the logic that those being harmed is a case of the few being sacrificed for the good of the many. Examples: Ishmael Ashur in Fallout 3 seeking to create a civilization built on the backs of slaves, the Final Fantasy 10 Yevon religion’s use of Summoners’ lives as a way of delaying Sin for a few years, Etrian Odyssey 1’s M.I.K.E. wishing to use a weapon of mass destruction to destroy a world-threatening monster at the expense of a city’s worth of people, and Tales of Berseria's Artorius...well, just basically everything that guy's about. Also, you can again check out Mass Effect 3’s ending if you want to see this concept when it’s handled with staggering incompetence.

Although not always (Shepard in Mass Effect 2 has to make a decision in the Arrival DLC that sacrifices the (comparatively) few for the many, and several of the sidequests in Bravely Second pose a few-versus-many dilemma to Edea), most of the time, RPGs portray these cases of sacrificing the few for the good of the many as the morally wrong thing to do, and the characters and groups that engage in this practice are villains. I mean, have you seen what an outrageous pack of assholes the Institute from Fallout 4 is?*

And yet, doesn’t this mean there’s a conflict in how RPGs are approaching this concept of sacrificing the few for the many? Why does Dragon Age 1 portray Branka’s methods and plans of sacrificing the few to safeguard the lives and prosperity of the many as morally wrong, when the central figures of the game’s lore, the Grey Wardens, are a group of warriors who each give up her/his future, chance for happiness, and, sooner or later, life, in service to the greater good of humanity (as well as dwarves, elves, and whatever the qunari count as), and are clearly applauded by the game’s narrative for being a noble, morally right organization? Both are cases of sacrificing the needs of the few for the needs of the many. Why is it wrong for Yuna to sacrifice herself in Final Fantasy 10 for the sake of the entire land of Spira, and yet it’s shown as a wonderful and righteous thing when Tidus does so in the very same game? Why do the writers make Heiss’s disgust with the ritual sacrifice that protects Radiant Historia’s world so eloquent and sympathetic when the choice to make that sacrifice at the game’s end is so clearly shown to be a heroic act?

The difference is simple, and I’m sure you’ve figured it out on your own at this point--or perhaps you already knew. It is, simply, in the matter of choice. Gregorio, Mareg, Jeane, Yun, Mordin, Padok, the Grey Wardens, Tidus, Stocke and Heiss, and so many countless other RPG characters, they all chose to give their lives for the good of others, be those others few or many. Each one made an informed, personal choice to die so that others would benefit.

See, this is the place where all these well-meaning but ultimately morally bankrupt RPG bad guys trip up. It is, in fact, the place where people in real life trip up. That the sacrifice being voluntary is what makes it acceptable is a simple truth, yet the lure of just saying the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few and stopping at that point is strong enough that a lot of people never take the reasoning that important step further.

Many watch Spock’s death in the second Star Trek movie, and nod as he explains his impeccable Vulcan logic to Kirk--the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Yet an important aspect of this sacrifice is the fact that Spock himself has volunteered to be the few whose needs are sacrificed for the good of the many. When he talks of weighing the many over the few, he isn’t justifying a decision to send someone else to their death in order to save the many. He’s explaining why he has taken the burden on himself. If the reasoning stopped simply at one-versus-many, he would have sent someone else in there to do it, because he has demonstrated countless times that he is an incredible asset to the Federation--it would have been more beneficial to the Federation’s interests to lose a less capable and distinguished officer. If the caveat that the one being sacrificed be a volunteer were not a crucial part of the understanding of this sacrifice, then Spock’s logic would have demanded that he order another to take on this burden. Voluntary choice is an absolute necessity.

Of course, this scenario isn’t really allowed for in the trolley dilemma, the classic question of philosophy which, in spite of its simplicity and its use as an introduction to philosophical conundrums, perpetually confounds our species. The trolley problem, for anyone who isn’t familiar with it (and hasn’t read Humza’s guest rant), is a theoretical situation in which a trolley is out of control and headed for a group of people, and you, in control of a single junction along its path, have the choice of whether to divert it to a track upon which there is only a single person. It’s the classic problem of the needs of the many versus the needs of the few, and it describes a situation in which the decision-maker has no possible input besides a single choice: you’re too far away to do anything other than decide who is to be sacrificed. In such a dire scenario, you truly do have to decide who dies for the sake of others.**

And that sort of situation can, I suppose, exist...but how often does it, really? How often do the details of reality align perfectly to make you the judge of who dies for who, while arranging an insurmountable distance and only enough time to decide rather than change the scenario in some way? Some might say it’s unrealistic, my position that sacrificing a few others to serve the many is always morally wrong and that only self-sacrifice makes it right--I contest that a scenario so perfectly engineered to require an inescapable and unchangeable choice of others to sacrifice is what’s unrealistic.

At the very least, I can say that such an inflexible scenario very rarely exists in RPGs.*** Dwarven civilization is threatened, as it always has been, by the Darkspawn in Dragon Age 1, but it is not so immediate and impossible a threat that there could be absolutely no other solution than Branka’s using the magical forge she seeks to sacrifice people in order to create golem protectors. She’s acting like a far-off event, 1 which we don’t even necessarily know is inevitable, is so immediate that there is not and could never be any other possible way to prevent it--she’d rather take others’ lives into her own hands and use them as fuel for an easy, more obvious solution to a far-off problem than to use the time and resources that the problem’s distance provides her to commit to finding less costly alternative solutions. When the heroes of Etrian Odyssey 1 hear that the weapon of mass destruction meant to stop the Yggdrasil monster will result in such casualties, they reject it, and seek an alternative solution that won’t require any unwilling, uninformed sacrifices, which they do find--you can’t exactly blame M.I.K.E. for his single-mindedness the way you can blame most individuals in the “acceptable losses” camp, I suppose, given that he’s literally programmed not to consider possible alternatives, but the Gungnir superweapon is still clearly the wrong way to go. And it’s shown quite well that the Commonwealth of Fallout 4 can be rebuilt into a strong and forward-moving community of humanity if you side with the Minutemen and Railroad, and make generally moral and positive decisions through the game, without the destination-less pursuit of scientific advancement that the Institute purchases with countless human lives.****

There are almost always alternatives to the scenarios in which someone says the few must be sacrificed for the many--and when sacrifices must be made for the good of others, those giving their lives should only ever do so voluntarily. And, for that matter, that consent must be informed. That’s an important next step to this subject of sacrificing oneself for the good of others, because even just establishing that sacrifices must be voluntary to be morally acceptable isn’t enough--it still leaves open the possibility for others to take advantage, and use cultural pressures and manipulative tricks of psychology to subtly coerce someone into volunteering to give their lives for a cause.

A great example of this comes from Wild Arms 3. Shane, brother to major party member Gallows, gets it in his head that he’s going to perform a sacrifice that will help his brother Gallows protect the world. He explains to Gallows that he loves this world and is happy to give his own life to protect it...but Gallows isn’t having it, and bitch-slaps that nonsense in the face with the cold, steely hand of logic. He points out that Shane hasn’t seen this world he claims to love so much, having lived his whole life in a small village. “The world” is, to Shane, just a pretty concept that he’s convinced himself he likes, without actually experiencing it enough to know a damn thing about it. It’s a solid argument, and I like the fact that Gallows, who has seen the world by this point, doesn’t even try to argue that the world isn’t necessarily worth giving one’s life for--he simply makes the point that Shane can’t possibly be informed enough to know that this is something worth dying for, because it’s just an idea, rather than a concrete thing he has experienced. It’s a great and memorable scene even for a game full of great and memorable moments. And it’s worth noting that Shane has only come up with this idea because of another entity’s manipulating him--again, driving home the point that a sacrifice for the needs of others is not right just with consent, but with informed consent, because others can manipulate an uninformed individual into giving his/her life for something that he/she doesn’t properly understand.*****

The idea that one’s noble sacrifice must be made with informed consent is why Radiant Historia’s Heiss is fully in the right to hate the ritual that his bloodline is expected to partake in, as it expects the sacrificed to give their lives for a world and cause they can only understand conceptually. The idea that a child who has not yet even lived within the world be expected to die in order to save that world is, indeed, terrible. But that’s why Stocke’s willingness at the game’s close to become the sacrifice is acceptable and seen as good: because, as he himself tells Heiss, he’s had a chance to live the kind of life where he’s seen his world, and he’s lived a life in which he’s surrounded himself with friends and family that he cares about and wants to keep safe. Stocke’s voluntary sacrifice is just and moral, because he is doing so with a concrete connection to what and who benefit. And the same is true, if you get the true ending, of Heiss’s decision to replace him, because Heiss now has something he cares about that he knows his sacrifice will protect.

This idea of noble sacrifices requiring informed consent is 1 of the reasons why Tidus’s sacrifice is seen as heroic, while Yuna’s was something to be resisted and fought against, even though both are voluntary: the repeated sacrifice of the Summoners in Spira is performed by men and women who only know part of the story of how such sacrifices came to be needed, and aren’t aware of the ways their noble deaths perpetuate certain evils of their society. Tidus, on the other hand, knows exactly why his death at the game’s end will be necessary, what will come of it, and who will benefit from it--the entire world, yes, but of more concrete importance to him, his friends and the woman he loves. The informed consent thing is why it’s okay for Chris in Suikoden 3 to allow Yun to go through with her own sacrifice: yes, she’s been raised from a young age with the expectation that she will give her life to unseal the True Water Rune, so you could say that she’s been culturally coerced, but Yun is able to see the future, able to see what happens to the world if she doesn’t give her life, so the idea that she’s dying for a better future isn’t just an immaterial concept for her: she has a personal experience and knowledge on the matter. Additionally, she has an emotional connection to Chris, giving Yun a specific person that she cares about to give her life to protect. And the informed consent thing is also why Fallout 4’s Institute would still be in the wrong, even if its victims actually had consented to be killed and/or experimented upon--because with no clear goals, no clear vision of what the world of Mankind Redefined looks like, no concrete steps to take towards its better tomorrow, the things the Institute strives for are nothing more than pretty, empty ideas (in fact, “idea” is overstating it; ideas usually have better definition), even less worth dying for than the world that Shane has no understanding of in Wild Arms 3.

Anyway, that’s about all I have to say today. This rant has (very obviously) been mostly about my getting certain thoughts off my chest on the overall question of the needs of the many versus the needs of the few, so it’s been kind of rambling, but if I were to put a point to it, I’d say that, over the course of their genre, RPGs have shown us pretty effectively that it’s wrong to demand the lives of others just because it serves the needs of the many, that one’s own noble sacrifice is usually the only time in which it’s okay for the math of few vs. many to play out, and that such sacrifices are only acceptable when made by someone who fully understands the situation and what his/her sacrifice will accomplish, and for whom. And I think that’s a good overall opinion that RPGs relate to us, because for all the attractive simplicity of the trolley problem, the fact of the matter is that there really aren’t all that many scenarios in our lives which are as rigid and uncompromising a case of either-or as the trolley problem is. More often, we wrongly apply the idea of the many’s needs outweighing the few’s to situations and policy that allow for enough freedom in time and personal action that alternatives could be pursued and willing sacrifices could take the place of the proposed victimized few. If the cause is just and the need necessary enough, someone will step up to be the one to sacrifice themselves for others...and if no one does, then maybe the cause and necessity should be reevaluated, before choosing others’ fates for them.

* Although I will admit that the Institute are an uncommonly egregious example of this mentality being evil. Most bad guy groups will settle for sacrificing the needs of the few for the needs of the many in just, like, 1 or 2 ways. The Institute, on the other hand, views every single human being not in its employ as expendable and meaningless, AND engages in frequent assassinations, AND kidnaps children from their parents, AND employs what is essentially racial slavery, AND performs experimentation on unwilling human subjects, AND purposefully destabilizes local governments, AND releases the organized, gun-toting, super strong, man-eating giants it’s created into the region, all for the sake of a better future. A better future, incidentally, that they have neither defined, nor laid out any concrete goals to progress towards it, meaning that there’s basically no planned point at which their already over-a-century-long cruelty will have achieved its purpose and stop being necessary. The better tomorrow of the Institute also happens to be the tomorrow I keep mentioning to myself in which I get my life together and stop being such a pathetic RPG weeb: it’s never gonna fucking happen. So yeah, the Institute is an atypical example for being 3 or 4 times more diversely evil than most other “needs of the many outweigh needs of the few” RPG organizations.

“Mankind Redefined”...yeah, unless what the Institute means is that it wants to modify the definition of mankind to prominently include the word “extinct”, I ain’t buying it.

** Although there are other schools of thought on the matter.

*** I will admit that 1 of the scenarios I mentioned earlier DOES mimic the trolley problem closely enough, and realistically, that it is a scenario in which the sacrifice of the few is justifiable and not inherently evil: the Arrival DLC for Mass Effect 2. This miniature adventure creates a scenario in which Shepard has only 1 possible way of resolving the situation and keeping an entire galactic civilization’s worth of lives safe, without the option to be the sacrificial few himself. While we’re on the subject and series, Mass Effect 1’s situation on Virmire where you have to pick which squad member to save and which to leave behind is equally well-constructed: the clock, distance, and enemy opposition truly do make for a situation in which Shepard HAS to make the decision.

**** Ironically (well, sort of), the biggest threat to the Commonwealth’s future by the end of the game, provided that you side with the Minutemen and/or Railroad, the 1 dangerous and hostile faction that you can’t more or less stamp out over the course of the game’s events, is the that which the Institute put there in the first place: the super mutants. Thanks again for the contributions to humanity’s better tomorrow, Institute, you fucking sods.

***** Humza got a first peek at this rant a little ways back, and actually wrote a very thoughtful and compelling response to it, which he shared with me, and which calls a lot of my words here into question. In most of these cases, I think he's simply expecting me to explore certain threads of thought in this rant further than I believe suits my purpose here, but he did bring up the question of how one defines "informed consent" on this issue, since obviously situations vary greatly, and there are plenty of examples of noble self-sacrifices in RPGs in which the one letting him/herself die doesn't actually know for sure that anything good would come of it (Humza brings up my example of Mareg, who can't actually know that his dying to give his friends more time to flee will actually save their lives).

I think the answer to this question of what acceptable informed consent is, is that a sacrifice can only be asked of someone who A, knows as much of the sacrifice's situation, cause, and purpose as possible--as in, as much as is known by anyone about the situation, inasmuch as time allows. They have to know what has caused the need for a sacrifice, why there are no alternatives, and who will benefit from their death (and how). And B, any and everyone who has a hand in asking/convincing this person to give his/her life has to be doing so without any conscious attempt to psychologically, emotionally, or logically mislead: the one sacrificed must be convinced through honest means (or, perhaps, at the very least be fully aware of what attempts to manipulate them are being made). Not every situation can be understood fully in the time it takes to need resolution, and sometimes the sacrifice situation in RPGs have plot-twist elements that no one knew about beforehand, but it's only right that the one doing the dying is, at least, among the most knowledgeable about the situation and what it requires in whatever capacity is feasible, time- and content-wise. And, of course, that knowledge has to have something solid behind it, it can't just be reasonless conjecture that if Person A dies, Persons B and C magically benefit for no adequately proven reason.