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.

Monday, March 18, 2019

General RPG Lists: Best Add-Ons

Add-ons. Sigh. What began as an actually okay idea back in the days when a really popular PC RPG would release 1 or 2 sizable expansions to a well-loved game for a reasonable price, has become in present times a nightmare of consumer abuse as companies release incomplete products with the intention of charging their customers over and over again just to play the game--the one they already bought at the price of $60 or more--in its complete form through downloadable content packages. It’s gotten to the point that some developers don’t even see basic sales as their economic goal, but rather the sales of the DLC packs. Season passes, Day 1 DLC, content that the main game cannot be said to be complete companies pull all kinds of dirty, underhanded shit that would make a used car salesman blush, because they know they can get away with it as long as children with little-to-no consumer discretion have access to their parents’ credit cards. The old days of expansions established a slippery slope, but developers didn’t even try not to fall down it--if anything, they grabbed a pair of skis and went speeding toward the corrupt abyss as fast as they could. Even the Japanese companies eventually got in on it, and if Atlus is anything to go by with Shin Megami Tensei 4 and Radiant Historia, they’ve slapped a pair of rockets on their skis to make up for lost time on their trip down to dignity’s rock bottom.

And yet this lousy state of the industry still isn’t as bad as the whole micro-transaction and lootbox nonsense.

Still, even if the add-on experience has been toxic overall to the industry, there have been quite a few expansions and downloadable content packs that have been enjoyable, positive additions to their games. They may be in the substantial minority, but they’re there, and worthy of praise. And that’s just what we’re gonna give them today, as I list out the 8 best RPG add-ons that I’ve seen so far!

Why 8? Because 10 just gets too long, 5 wasn’t quite enough, and 8 is the best number overall.

8. Mass Effect 2: Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC

Lair of the Shadow Broker is a good way to start out this list, because it’s an example of how you can create an add-on to a game that connects solidly to its cast, lore, and plot, but avoids the easy pitfall of providing content that seems like it should have already been a part of the main game. LotSB creates an engaging, interesting side adventure with a decent story that is especially notable for 2 successes: A, it expands on a substantial, but inescapably tertiary part of the lore of the series (that being the Shadow Broker, who has been mentioned several times as an individual of note in Mass Effect 1 and 2, yet has only been directly involved in between-game events), and B, it more strongly incorporates a major character of the previous game (Liara) who unfortunately didn’t get a chance to have much significance in ME2. Liara’s lack of major importance in Mass Effect 2 wasn’t a flaw, mind you: she’s in the right role, it’s just not as big as the audience would have expected for the most important party member from the first game. So basically, this DLC allows us a better involvement in the side-story that Liara is pursuing, which addresses the audience’s natural expectations of Liara having important involvement with this game, and it expands the Mass Effect universe by focusing on an influential entity within it, doing so in a way that feels connected and relevant to the events of ME2, yet far enough separated that it’s not just providing content that should have been there to start with. That means that Lair of the Shadowbroker essentially is doing everything that a good, ethical add-on should--and it’s doing so with a fun, exciting, and meaningful adventure. Great stuff; I wish most DLCs could so skillfully tread the difficult path of giving more content, without it turning into something that should have been already intrinsic to the game.

7. Neverwinter Nights 1: Hordes of the Underdark Expansion

I admit, I have a bit of a love/hate thing going with Hordes of the Underdark. While the first 2 chapters of this add-on are very boring and seem to be going nowhere, which I hate, I really love the last third of it, which is so epic, creative, and overall awesome that it earns a spot on this list. It also is a worthwhile addition to Neverwinter Nights 1 beyond just its own quality, as Hordes of the Underdark also incorporates a major antagonist of NN1’s main campaign, Aribeth, and far better explores her potential as a character than the primary story did, retroactively improving NN1’s main story by doing so. In a way, HotU (or its concluding chapter, at least) is not just a strong side story, it’s also a way of giving us what we should have gotten from Neverwinter Nights 1 to begin with: a solid, meaningful, and epic story that fully capitalizes on the creativity and grandeur of the Dungeons and Dragons universe.

6. Fallout: New Vegas: Lonesome Road DLC

Lonesome Road is a great, intelligent content pack that seems like it’s the developers’ attempt to give their own thoughts on the major conflict and choices of Fallout: New Vegas’s main plot, providing an interesting and thought-provoking summary and analysis of the game’s events and themes. As such, it acts as a great final, concluding side adventure to the game. But it’s also strong enough to stand on its own--Lonesome Road does an exemplary job of exploring the character of Ulysses, who’s a vaguely-referenced but clearly important background presence in Fallout: New Vegas’s events, and as an unexpected but very welcome bonus, it establishes a character history for the protagonist of the game, too. It thus has merit enough that it’s a solid side story to engage in at almost any time of the game, allowing you to consider the perspectives Ulysses offers on the main game’s conflict while they’re still relevant to the decisions laid before you in the primary plot. Strongly connected to the game proper while staunchly remaining a side story, intelligent and fascinating as it analyzes New Vegas’s lore and the culture of the United States, and providing a new perspective on the character you control, Lonesome Road is pretty damn great.

5. Fallout: New Vegas: Dead Money DLC

A lot of people will no doubt cry heresy at the idea that Dead Money would be superior to Lonesome Road, but I honestly do believe it to be the better of them. Dead Money’s got a well-paced, interesting narrative that perfectly blends Fallout with the excitement of a heist story and a treasure hunt, and it’s a great side story that’s more than divorced enough from the game proper that you don’t feel that it was missing from the main game. Yet it still has characters that tie it to the main game’s background lore well enough that it doesn’t feel spontaneous. But what I really love about this DLC, and what elevates it above Lonesome Road, is that it’s a great, multi-layered story about the concept and folly of greed. Greed as a theme permeates the history you uncover throughout Dead Money, the events you yourself are going through, the characters and conflict of the DLC, and its conclusion and message. But it’s never overbearing, it’s always skillfully subtle, which is another point in its favor--it provides an enjoyable story on its own terms without having to bonk you over the head and scream what it wants you to get from it into your ear. All respect to Lonesome Road, but Ulysses did seem, at times, so blunt that it was almost like the writers were afraid that we the audience might not have picked up on certain aspects of Fallout: New Vegas’s story and wanted to make damn sure we all appreciated their magnificence. And in being a story about the cost of greed, and exploring that idea, Dead Money is tied just as strongly to the main game (what with it being set, physically and thematically, in Las Vegas) in the intellectual sense as Lonesome Road was in the more concrete* sense. High quality, and completely its own side story yet inescapably tied in its motif to the main game, Fallout: New Vegas’s Dead Money DLC is an excellent example of what an add-on should be.

4. The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine Expansion

So far, I’ve focused on the importance of add-ons fulfilling 1 or both of 2 purposes: being a side story whose connections to the main game, while present and important, are distant and unrelated enough that the add-on’s existence does not imply incompleteness in the main game, and/or being a way of providing some form of content that, while not missing from the game per say, nonetheless was expected/hoped for by the audience (Liara having a substantial role in Mass Effect 2, grander use of D+D’s potential in Neverwinter Nights 1, etc). There is, however, another role that a good add-on can have for a game, particularly since add-ons basically always are created after the main game is finished with: that of a send-off, a finale, a last hurrah. Obviously the conclusion of the main game should stand on its own completely and totally, and to require a DLC to create a true ending for the game would be unconscionable--but DLCs and expansions can still accomplish much as epilogues, or conclusions to the series as a whole rather than just to the game.

The Witcher 3’s Blood and Wine expansion is an excellent example of this. Blood and Wine is a solid adventure in its own right, but more than that, it’s a love letter from CD Projekt Red to the trilogy that made them as a game developer, and to the fans of that trilogy. It’s filled with references to the series as a whole, it revels in the characters of the series and the choices the audience has had Geralt make, it explores the Witcher world in a new arena, and it gives us 1 last perspective, both new and yet also familiar, on Geralt, through the eyes of another of his friends from the books whom we have previously only heard briefly referenced. Blood and Wine is a great example of how to make your love for your creations and your appreciation for your audience’s support known at the end of your trilogy, mixing the typical joy of a new, well-crafted adventure with the pleasure of a known, enjoyed history and community, as you create a final goodbye to this beloved series.

3. Borderlands 2: Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep DLC

As a finale to Borderlands 2 (even if it unfortunately did not end up being the last DLC released for the game), the kind of add-on that’s meant as a conclusive goodbye to the game as the developers move onto new projects, Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep is absolutely top tier. It’s funny and engaging in the signature Borderlands way, to the best degree that the series can accomplish. It makes use of nearly the entire major cast of Borderlands 2 to each character’s best strengths. It enjoyably explores the geek culture that a substantial portion of the game’s audience is familiar with/immersed within, while remaining easily accessible and open to more casual gamers. And, most interesting and laudable in my eyes, this DLC creates a concise, understated emotional summary of Borderlands 2’s main plot, which it uses to create a scenario of really touching character growth for 1 of the more memorable NPCs of Borderlands lore. In essence, TTAoDK is the ultimate DLC send-off to a game: it gives you all the new, fun content you could ask of an add-on, functions as an adeptly created story in and of itself, and it reminds you of all that you loved about the main game--and goes a step beyond that, incorporating that recollection dynamically and purposefully into the DLC’s own plot’s narrative, to the end of leaving the player with the perfect farewell from the writers. Much alike to the case of The Witcher 3’s Blood and Wine expansion, playing Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep is like having the game’s developers extend their arm to give you a firm, grateful handshake, as they look you in the eye and say, “Thank you for playing what we made. We’re happy you loved it as much as we did.”

2. Fallout 4: Far Harbor DLC

This is basically just a flawless add-on. I don’t even know what to say about it, honestly. Far Harbor has a tight, thought-provoking story and theme revolving around the concept of the truth: the truth of who you are, the weight and consequences the truth can have, the power the truth can have to destroy yet also to reconcile, what the truth even is, these are all subjects explored with a masterfully soft touch through the adventure and characters of Far Harbor. This evaluation of the concept of truth is excellent on its own, and it strengthens your experience with the main game, too, as it creates new perspectives on the synths of Fallout 4, as well as a fresh, fascinating possibility of the Sole Survivor’s identity that adds a new lens through which to view her/his actions and role in the main story. It also relates well to Fallout 4 in the sense that it explores arguably the most famous part of Maine, which is appropriate as a side story to a game otherwise set in and focused upon Massachusetts, since Maine was originally a part of Massachusetts before being made into a state in its own right. And, of course, it’s great that Far Harbor also further develops Nick Valentine’s history and personality--he wasn’t missing any depth or anything (in fact, I’d argue that Nick is the best, most interesting and developed character in Fallout 4, and in the top 5 for the entire series), but it’s great to see his character added to. This is, frankly, the perfect standard DLC: a flawlessly distant-yet-connected side story of impeccable quality that gives fresh meaning and depth to the game it’s connected to. Fun, thoughtful, and excellent as a whole, I wish all DLCs could be of Far Harbor’s caliber.

1. Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer Expansion

Yeah...there’s no way this wasn’t gonna be the winner. I mean, I may love Far Harbor and Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep and all, but comparing even their level of excellence to that of Mask of the Betrayer is like comparing a Stradivarius to a kazoo. What is there to say, honestly? Mask of the Betrayer is pure storytelling poetry, some of the finest narrative work committed to video game format. To call it thoughtful, insightful, and superlative is to undersell this master work of intellectual and emotional exploration. If this were its own game, rather than an expansion, it would easily be in the top 10 RPGs I’ve ever played. And hey, while it’s a long, long way away from being 1 of MotB’s best qualities, it’s also worth noting that it’s great in the sole terms of being an add-on, too--it continues Neverwinter Nights 2’s events with a new, far better adventure, and even redeems the main game substantially by retroactively making NN2’s ending less shitty. This is true excellence, folks, 1 of the greatest moments in RPG history. I can’t even say I wish more add-ons were like it, the way I did with Far Harbor--Mask of the Betrayer is the kind of beautiful coming together of genius, creativity, and opportunity that can’t be duplicated.

Honorable Mention: Mass Effect 3: Citadel DLC

The Citadel DLC, like Blood and Wine, and Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, is a really great farewell to the Mass Effect series and to the players. Its plot isn’t much to look at, admittedly, but that’s not really what it’s about: Citadel is more about 1 last opportunity to spend time with the characters who so elegantly and vividly brought the Mass Effect trilogy to life, to see the best examples of the bonds of their friendship and love that we the audience have come to feel as a part of our own selves. And it’s also about reveling in the lively, engaged audience, as Bioware honors its longtime fanbase by incorporating many nods to the memes and slang they’ve created around discussing the ME series, and addresses several of their lasting concerns with the game (such as allowing us a chance to finally see the entire team working together at once on a mission, allowing players to at long last romance Samara, and giving a few nutters the chance to bed Javik). Citadel is the quintessential farewell DLC, an example of the developer clasping the player by the shoulder as they both look tearfully yet happily at the sunset of the saga.

...But, the fact remains that for all Bioware’s attempts to give the audience what they wanted in this DLC, the company still refused to do that which was wanted most by its patrons, that which was needed most by Mass Effect 3: creating a new, artistically consistent and appropriate ending to the game. So no matter how wonderful it is to have your final Mass Effect moments with the Citadel DLC, you still must do so with the terrible knowledge of an unspeakably horrible end to Shepard’s efforts looming over you the entire time. This is, thankfully, something that can be solved through the wonderful, thank-God-it-exists Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod...but just because some dedicated, true enthusiasts of Mass Effect were able to correct the ending situation, that doesn’t mean that Bioware’s sins are any less. While Citadel’s quality as Bioware’s acknowledgment of and tribute to its fans and its series is considerable, great enough that it should be on this list, the fact is that it was also the final, resounding knell of failure on Bioware’s part to do what should have been done for Mass Effect 3’s integrity. So, the best I really feel comfortable with is giving it the Honorable Mention here, because the only way you can really experience all that Citadel has to offer as a farewell to the series without having to be reminded of the greatest storytelling failure I’ve ever personally seen is by acquiring a separate, unconnected mod that Bioware had nothing to do with.

And that’s that! The greatest RPG add-ons I’ve encountered thus far, laid out in neat order. What did we learn today? Who actually cared to know which DLCs and expansions I think are best? Nothing and no one, that’s what and who! But I did buy myself another 10 days before I need to come up with something else to make a rant on, so...Mission: Success!

* It’s a pun, see, because Lonesome Road was all about roads, and, like, concrete? Yeah, I know, I suck.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Conception 2's Star Children

You know what? The whole Star Children situation in Conception 2 is messed up.

You may recall that I am not a great fan of Conception 2. Or maybe you don’t recall that, because you didn’t read that rant, because you are among God’s Favored Children, AKA, Human Beings Who Have Not Played Conception 2. If that be the case, please, feel free to take a hard pass on this rant, too. Because even my describing 1 of the problems with Conception 2 is still too dangerously close to the act of experiencing Conception 2 for comfort. But for the damned like myself, you may remember that I am not a great fan of Conception 2, notably (but definitely not limited to) its villain. But even with the understanding that there wasn’t much I liked about this listless dating sim wannabe, even with the understanding that my overall opinion on Conception 2 is that it really ought to be on any and every time traveler’s bucket list of catastrophes to prevent, Star Children are a pretty disturbing mess.

I mean, to start with, just the concept of them is creepy. They’re children magically conceived by the main character and the girls he partners with in his world-saving duties, children whose births are not just encouraged, but mandated by his world-saving organization. Given that both the protagonist and his partners are all highschoolers, it’s more than a little uncomfortable that this is an unavoidable aspect of gameplay. And yeah, yeah, I know, it’s not actually underage sex, there’s no actual teen pregnancy, and all that jazz. It’s all done through nebulous, plot-convenient magical essence-mixing mumbo-jumbo. Conception 2 just wanted to plagiarize Shin Megami Tensei: Persona’s way of pushing the envelope, and chose to go with metaphorical teen parenthood instead of metaphorical teen suicide. Well, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 has got enough superb qualities and thoughtful use of its allegories and imagery that I can at least tolerate (albeit never become quite comfortable with) its disturbing obsession with people putting guns to their head and pulling the trigger. Conception 2, on the other hand, does not have enough going on in the intellectual department to earn the same forgiveness: its imagery of teenage procreation isn’t serving as a metaphor for anything other than the exact creepy stuff it so transparently looks like, as the game is, ultimately, a subpar dating sim that can’t even be honest with itself about its nature.

But all of that is messed up on a meta level. It is (or at least should be) disquieting to us, the audience, but in the context of the game’s own world and lore, it’s not as obviously freaky. Once we start thinking about the Star Children beyond their vaguely disturbing origins, however, that’s when things are seriously and clearly fucked up even within the context of Conception 2’s own setting.

Because if you really think about it, this whole Star Child system basically entails bringing self-aware life capable of emotions and reason* into the world solely for the purpose of immediately forcing this brand new life form into life-threatening combat against monsters of tremendous destructive power. These children, as capable of love and kindness as any man or woman, as capable of feeling pain and fear as any human, are born into this world, and immediately thrust into warfare. Children born solely for the purpose of killing and dying at the whims of their parents. No choice of whether or not they want to take up a sword on the very day of their birth. Now how can anyone, player or in-game character, possibly look at this situation and not realize how messed up that is?

And it doesn’t stop there. A Star Child may be lucky to survive long enough to become obsolete in combat, but he or she won’t be fortunate enough to actually have earned a happy life. Nope! After a Star Child is released from their enslavement as a newborn forced to endure the horrors of constant life-and-death combat, their retirement plan is to be forced to go into the city and perform menial labor from then on. You’d think maybe these poor things might have earned an actual rest by that point, but apparently having to cut their own umbilical cord with the blades of war isn’t enough: their reward is to go from being warrior slaves to just regular slaves. Their ever-growing workforce population benefits the city and raises its ability to research and produce greater technologies for its long war against the encroaching monster nests, but I’ll be damned if there’s even the slightest indication that this earns the kids even a basic level of human respect from the overlords who benefit from their slave labor.

You send them out into the city to labor and raise its level of proficiency, exiling these children from their parents who, for some unfathomable reason, the kids express an inexhaustible love and respect for, their only interaction with Mommy and Daddy from this point on to be the regular money that the Star Children send. Yeah--they pay you for having banished them to fend for themselves as unloved manual labor within the city. Thinking and feeling beings born to be cannon fodder, thrust into the nightmare of constant combat from the day they’re born, regarded by the parents they love as nothing more than mindless automatons of war, destined at very best to indentured servants of menial labor to the state who relinquish their earnings to the very heartless monsters who bore them and then discarded them. That’s the lot of Conception 2’s Star Children.

And people say Pokemon is fucked up.

* Not that I think anyone would, but it is definitely beyond debate that the Star Children are as intelligent and capable of feelings as any human being is. They react and they reason, they speak to express ideas, to question, and to make their feelings and affections known, and they’re capable of filling roles both in combat and in normal social situations that require the capacity for rational thought that humans possess. The only limit upon their mental and emotional faculties is that they seem to perpetually maintain a child’s sensibilities and attitude, never ‘growing up,’ so to speak. Which, frankly, just makes the situation that much more distressing.