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.