Friday, June 28, 2019

Shin Megami Tensei If's Wasted Potential

A fan translation was completed in the past year for the third and final Super Nintendo installment of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, Shin Megami Tensei: If..., a game for which, in the interest of not making myself crazy, I will never again acknowledge the ellipse. I was excited! The original Shin Megami Tensei 1 and 2 were groundbreaking for me, and though I’ve had some spectacular times with the series since, there’s been certain aesthetic and narrative aspects of the originals that I’ve yet to see duplicated by later titles. So the idea of getting 1 last chance to experience Shin Megami Tensei while it was still fresh and bright, on its system of origin,* was quite enticing.

Damn shame, then, that it turns out that SMT If is actually not good.

And I don’t mean “not good” just as a Shin Megami Tensei. SMT Devil Survivor 2 is a bad SMT game, but as just an RPG on its own, it’s alright. Not great, but alright. No, SMT If is not a good SMT game, and it is not a good RPG, period. What a disappointment; I hadn’t expected to run into an outright bad game in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, and I especially didn’t think it would be one so close to the original masterpieces!

Don’t get me wrong: SMTI is not without a few good points. While its Guardian system and its school environment are kinda primitive, it seems clear that these were the humble beginnings from which the excellent SMT Persona series sprung. And a 90s JRPG that allowed you to choose your protagonist’s gender was quite before its time--and even more impressive and forward-thinking in that said protagonist is canonically a girl. Even now, the SMT series is a humdrum sausage fest in terms of its protagonists, so power to the creators of SMTI for remembering the existence of 50% of our species all the way back in the 90s. However, what small bits and pieces of this game I appreciate and am glad for just don’t come anywhere near redeeming Shin Megami Tensei If, either as an RPG in general or as a part of its series.

There’s a lot of reasons why this one’s just a flop of an RPG. The story’s really weak, for one. Ignoring the premise (which has potential, as we’ll discuss in a moment), all that happens in this game is that a school gets teleported into a demon dimension because of 1 disgruntled kid, and then 2 of the school’s students team up to fetch some magic doohickeys from a few dungeons and bring the school back to Earth, and maybe learn at the last minute what exactly pissed off the kid who started all this. What this mostly translates into is just silently dungeon-crawling and occasionally hearing the antagonist say a few tediously over-generalizing lines about why humans suck; very little really seems to happen and not much keeps you invested in what’s on the screen. There’s precious little in the way of character depth--your partner interacts with you infrequently at best, the NPCs all have no substance whatsoever, the heroine is silent, and the antagonist you’ll only get a decent handle on if you pick 1 specific path out of 4 possibilities. Half of the endings are pretty lousy. And not that it really matters too terribly much, but...well, I’ve criticized Final Fantasy 10-2 for being appallingly careless in its reuse of resources from the first FF10, and a common (and fully justified, make no mistake) complaint against Fallout 76 is that it’s by and large just a slipshod asset-flip of Fallout 4, but apparently, Atlus was pulling this lazy shit literal decades ago! SMT If just seems out to appropriate every resource it can from its predecessors--for Promethesus’s sake, this game even reuses the SOUNDTRACK of the previous games! Atlus couldn’t even spring for MUSIC to give this title its own identity!

Oh, and lastly, the Sloth dungeon. Fuck the Sloth dungeon. Shin Megami Tensei: If’s Sloth dungeon goes straight into the Filthy, Filthy Hate Box within my mind, to join Sailing, Weapon Degradation, and Xenogears’s Chair. What the FUCK were you thinking, Atlus?

What’s really disappointing, though, is that SMT If really didn’t have to be a bad game. I mean, okay, no RPG really HAS to be a bad game, but there’s a world of difference between, say for example, The Legend of Korra: A New Era begins, which could have been really good if it had just tried to live up to its source material’s quality, and Fallout 76, which from the start was a game whose only focus was on its online identity and thus never had the slightest chance of being a quality storytelling experience. SMT If had potential, both as an RPG and as a member of the superlative Shin Megami Tensei franchise. True, the high-school-trapped-in-another-dimension angle doesn’t really have much room to go anywhere, but the essentials of it all could have been made into something really great: that being a story. Hazama, the demon emperor, traps his former schoolmates in a demon world as a way of paying back the suffering that humanity inflicted upon him back when he was human, returning his pain to bullies and innocents alike. The only way to end his retribution, or at least escape it, is for the protagonist to journey through several of 7 worlds, each representing 1 of the Deadly Sins, and overcome the trials within.

It’s an idea with the seeds for greatness, surely. The problem is that the story’s execution lacks substance, and paces itself very poorly. First of all, the fact that you only learn anything of importance about Hazama’s motivations at the very end of the game is a problem--and even then, only if you follow 1 particular route of 4 to get there! It was a real problem for Tales of Phantasia when it only told the audience the villain’s motive in a brief couple of sentences squeezed into the game’s ending, but at least ToP’s Dhaos was not the central, solitary figure of his story! The instigator of that game’s conflict, the ever-present villain, certainly, but he wasn’t the central and arguably only important character in the game! Hazama, on the other hand? SMTI is basically about him: he gets the most lines, everything that occurs is of his doing, he’s the one who has put every obstacle before you, and everything in the game has only come about because of his own, personal past. This is Hazama’s story, and you only find out about him at the very end, if you do at all!

Secondly, the Deadly Sins angle: it feels like a name-drop for credibility, rather than a legitimate invocation of the this ancient semi-religious concept. Only half the dungeons seem to actually have anything to do with the sin they were named for--and frankly, even those that do attempt to do something with their Deadly Sin gimmick often fail at it. I mean, in the Envy dungeon, for example, your companion is charmed away from you, and you have to brave the dungeon alone to get her back. Supposedly, according to the SMT Wiki, the Envy angle is that the protagonist is jealous of her friend getting a hunky new boytoy...but there’s absolutely nothing in the game that actually suggests that, beyond a few insults that the protagonist’s partner throws her way because of it. But those lines feel more like empty personal attacks than they do anything substantial, and the protagonist's act of chasing after her partner can’t be seen as any confirmation of envy; getting to the end of each world and beating the realm’s ruler is what she does in EVERY SMTI world. If there’s any unusual thought process involved in this particular case, it’s far more likely, given the protagonist’s actions to this point, that it’s simply an intent on saving her friend and regaining the friend’s help in this quest.

Some other worlds’ only connections to their Deadly Sin namesake seems to be the nature of their bosses, and the Sloth world is only connected on a meta level--in that the developers themselves were clearly too lazy to create a real dungeon for it, so they just make the experience all about repetitive time-wasting. Aside from that, the only other thing that capitalizes on the Deadly Sins angle is that Hazama will, at the start of each dungeon, make a brief speech about why this particular sin is proof that humanity sucks, rantings which are no more focused or coherent than any given RPG villain’s typical drivel.

Basically, what SMT If needed to be a good RPG was a properly paced focus on the character of its antagonist regardless of which path you choose, being that he’s the central and sort of only important character in the game’s story, and what it needed to be a good Shin Megami Tensei was a thoughtful look into the nature of each of the Seven Deadly Sins that make up its theological backbone. Plenty of other positive nuances would have been helpful, of course, such as more time and dialogue to develop the partner characters, a greater and more dynamic involvement of some NPCs, more concrete ways of tying certain dungeons to their sin namesake, using the alternate paths in the game as a way of allowing the player to choose a philosophical and/or theological stance (you know, like almost every other Shin Megami Tensei?), and a protagonist with an actual personality, but I think that the essential components for making this subpar RPG into something worth playing are expanding Hazama, and leaning into the 7 Deadly Sins thing.

And you know what’s really sad? A single plan of action could have easily solved both of these problems. All Atlus would have had to do, would have been to have Hazama’s past revealed over time through each dungeon. Think about it: the reason Hazama has transported the school to the demon-filled Expanse is because the vices of those around him, particularly those in his school, caused him suffering, and he’s getting his revenge on the humanity that he now despises. What Atlus could have done was, for each dungeon, have 2 - 4 scenes, each triggered as you progress through the dungeon, in which we witness an experience in Hazama’s past that drove him to this state, in which Hazama’s tormentor (or even Hazama himself) was embodying the particular Sin that the dungeon is named for. Rather than just shove 97% of the villain’s motives and backstory into the game’s finale, hidden from all but 1 path the player can choose, instead give his character some narrative room, let us get to know this central figure properly! And while doing so, keep the Sins’ connection to the plot and to humanity relevant and clear!

Even if Atlus really insisted on a big last-minute revelation, this plan could still work: these scenes could just be Hazama telling a story in each dungeon, just a tale of a sin he supposedly witnessed in mankind, and let it only be at the end that it’s revealed that every story was from his own life. You’d still get the impact of the revelation at the finale, but have the benefit of having been developing your most important personality through the game’s course.

Not only would this solve the 2 problems holding Shin Megami Tensei If back, it would also have a lot of side benefits, too. Dungeons would be less tedious and repetitive if they were broken up with a few more story scenes, for starters. The otherwise barely noticeable students and faculty of the school might have more of an impact, since doubtless they’d be heavily involved in these pieces of Hazama’s past. And the partners in the game could be developed through these scenes, too, in their reactions to them: Yumi could show her sympathy by feeling bad for Hazama (or the characters in his stories, if going for the big-reveal-at-end thing), while Charlie could perhaps argue why Hazama’s not as deserving of sympathy as his story implies, and Reiko could struggle with her sadness and even guilt for how her brother’s life turned out.

Just imagine a scenario in which Hazama’s life experiences, told over the course of the game, has made Yumi feel so sorry for him that it causes her major inner conflict to have to defeat him at the game’s end--yet she still does so, because she herself still believes in humanity, and still feels that she must save everyone in the school, regardless of who does and doesn’t deserve it. How great would that be, as an overall story, and as a way of deepening Yumi’s otherwise static, surface-level heroic character?

What a damn shame that Shin Megami Tensei If turned out like it did. It honestly does have the potential to be a decent RPG and a decent SMT, and it really wouldn’t have taken very much to make it such. As it is, though...I can appreciate the good things that came as a result of it, and I can recognize the quality of the ideas at its roots, but overall, Shin Megami Tensei If is disappointingly below average.

* Yeah, I know it’s all technically started by Megami Tensei, from the NES, but it’s been Shin Megami Tensei since the SNES, and I daresay the general purpose and style of the series was defined there, so I count SMT1 as the birth of the franchise. So sue me.

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, 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.