Sunday, May 28, 2023

Disco Elysium's Examination of Communism

So...last year, I took a break from ranting during June, because May had been an especially difficult month for me at work.  And, unfortunately, May this year was basically a little worse than last.  So...yeah, I think I'm gonna have to take another break this year to recoup my rant stock a bit.  And if I'm being honest, it's pretty likely that this is going to be a regular thing with June going forward for this blog.  Sorry, guys, but I've just been too wiped out from work to focus on the things that don't matter that really matter to me.  I'll at least leave you with a rant I think is 1 of my better ones, though.  See y'all come July!

Disco Elysium is an incredibly intelligent and thoughtful RPG that, to me, is the first true successor to the creative and philosophical perfection of Planescape: Torment, and in many ways, writing a rant about it is just as difficult to me as doing so for PT would be.  For starters, I legitimately don’t feel smart enough to weigh in on a lot of the game’s ideas, beliefs, and story content; I can keep up with it to my satisfaction, but trying to stake an intellectual claim in Disco Elysium’s substance is daunting.  Also, frankly, it’s the kind of game that a great many extremely sharp individuals have already written analyses, treatises, and theories about, so my own fumbling efforts to describe the excellence with which DE portrays the virtues, necessity, and tragically inescapable nature of failure, or its flawless use of the theme of impermanence and legacy, are inevitably going to just be retreading the same ground that was already explored better anyway.  Sit me down with a very intelligent but not absolutely brilliant game like Fallout 4 or New Vegas, or Tales of Berseria, and I’ll have plenty to work with.  Lock me in a room with some ridiculous, nonsensical idiocy like Xenosaga 3 or Chrono Cross, and I’ll beat a few rants out of it in no time.  But stuff like Nier: Automata, Knights of the Old Republic 2, Neverwinter Nights 2’s Mask of the Betrayer DLC, Planescape: Torment, and Disco Elysium?  I might get lucky and squeeze out a couple rants, but there's only so much I can do with them because they feel like they’re above my intellectual pay grade.

Still, there are occasions wherein even the greatest works of gaming feel like they have imparted some of their secrets upon me in a way different from others, and today is 1 of those times.  So let’s talk about the really interesting way in which Disco Elysium regards communism.

First of all, we should probably clarify that when DE speaks of communism, it’s a slightly ambiguous take on the concept.  Communism as we see it in Disco Elysium seems to be an indistinct amalgamation of both actual communism, and its brother, socialism.  Communism in Disco Elysium exists as a failed social-military movement of the past, a currently blossoming economic-nationalist uprising led by Evrart and the majority of the worker-populace of Martinaise, and as a governing entity theorized and yearned for by passionate young intellectuals--it’s a history, a present, and a future, and it means different things within each of those contexts.  As such, there are some ways in which Disco Elysium simply uses “communism” as a blanket term that covers its portrayal of both communism and of socialism, at least as far as I can tell with my only-barely-better-than-a-layman’s understanding of the concepts.  For the purposes of this rant, I’ll be following DE’s lead and using communism as the catch-all term for any and all of these slight variations of the idea of a government and economy controlled by the majority and those who do the most for it.

Also, I guess it’s probably worth mentioning that I, myself, don’t see socialism as an inherently bad idea.  Nor communism, I guess, although I certainly don’t like it as much.  So if my not going into Liberty Prime mode here is going to bother you, you probably shouldn’t keep reading today’s rant.  With that said, I don’t really count myself as a proponent for socialism, either.  I think it’d be great if there were a way to effectively implement it without compromising any of its ideals, because I’m sure as hell not a fan of capitalism, but I don’t honestly think that socialism or communism CAN be made to work, for reasons relevant to the rant below.  Mind you, I don’t think capitalism can work, either, and our current age sure seems to be intent on proving me right...but capitalism, at least, falls into its inevitable ruin a lot slower than socialism and communism do.  So if where I stand personally on this issue is important to you as you read, look at me as, I dunno, a sympathetic but uninvolved observer.  Like The Watcher in Marvel comics, or the United States every time something horrible happens in the world that doesn’t directly threaten its oil supply.

Alright, so, back to business.  Looking at communism through the lens of Disco Elysium, it’s clear that the creators of the game are very realistically pessimistic about the odds of communism’s ever succeeding.  DE shows clearly, distinctly, and bluntly why it doesn’t seem possible for communism to ever succeed and work in any kind of long-term capacity.

First of all, and perhaps most practically, the fact is that communism’s most powerful opposing ideology, capitalism, has no interest whatsoever in letting it gain a foothold in the world.  Elysium’s first, most famous, and arguably truest attempt at establishing communism as a governing power occurred decades before the game’s beginning, an established event of history there as much as the Russian Revolution is in our own world.  And this communist revolution of Elysium was violently, thoroughly crushed, as external nations quickly went to war with the new communist nation of Revachol and ruthlessly put down its idealistic militia.  Soldiers were killed, revolutionaries executed, territory seized, and control established by the forces that represent capitalism, and Revachol’s short attempt at a land whose people had autonomy over their own lives became a part of the city’s identity of failure.  Disco Elysium’s message is simple: communism isn’t going to flourish, because the big kids aren’t interested in letting it.

Did I say message?  I meant observation.  The observation of those who have seen or read of cold wars and costly real ones in this past century, who have witnessed the cultural demonizing of socialist thought for decades, and the careful forgery of an imaginary link between democracy, a system intended to empower the many, and capitalism, a system that crushes the many for the benefit of the few.

But don’t misunderstand: Disco Elysium isn’t just pessimistic about communism’s chances for success because of the outside forces that want to destroy it.  The game also bitterly but earnestly demonstrates why communism is doomed to failure even without the opposition of any external enemy.  You see, while the communism of the past fell to the hammer of capitalism, the communism of Disco Elysium’s present, that represented by Evrart and his Dockworker’s Union, actually looks like it may stand a fighting chance against the foreign corporate overlords from whom the union seeks to be emancipated.  As a result of many factors, such as the tired wisdom and regret of Joyce Messier, and Harry’s own actions, but most of all Evrart and Edgar Clair’s intelligence and preparation, a new revolution of and for the people is beginning in Revachol at the end of Disco Elysium.  This time, it looks like it might have the strength to endure its enemies’ attempt to crush it.  And if it does, indeed, succeed... will be so, so much greater a failure of communism than the first time.

See, it won’t have succeeded because it was a movement by the people, for their own sake.  The Union’s communism will not have won the day by its own virtues.  It will have won because its leader Evrart is simply better at playing the game of his enemies than they are.  It appears that the only time that capitalism can’t crush communism is when the latter is being led by ruthless, manipulative, evil sons of bitches like Evrart and his brother Edgar.  Evrart is the closest thing to a standard RPG villain that Disco Elysium possesses--a man who’s bringing about his vision of a new, better world by making sacrifices of the very group of people who he’s supposedly doing it for, without their consent.  He finances his plans through the trade of narcotics that do the most harm to the common people, he manipulates his workers by spiking their borscht, he aims to “improve” slums by strong-arming their residents to move as he remakes the community.  And sure, the money DOES go toward his plans to make Revachol a city of the working class, and his people DO move in the ways he needs them to to achieve this, and the communities he’s rebuilding WILL be productive, wealthier areas--but each and every time, the desirable end result comes at the cost of the very people it’s meant to benefit, and their sacrifices aren’t requested, simply taken.*  Even if his greatest motivation really is the greater good--and we frankly only have his own word that this is the case--Evrart is very much an ends-justifies-the-means kind of guy, and what we glean of his brother paints a similar picture.

Which means that if the communism of Evrart’s union wins, then it effectively fails.  Communism is an ideology, a belief.  One that transforms itself into action and has tangible effects, yes, but ultimately, it is an idea, a philosophy of governance and trade.  You cannot prove your beliefs are right if the only way to do so is by betraying themFire Emblem 16’s Edelgard’s new empire is not a victory for her ideals of a just and noble society if the executor of her will, Hubert, only upholds that society through murder and deceit.  Shin Megami Tensei 4-2’s Dagda’s insistence upon self-reliance is a joke if he can’t accomplish his objective without someone else doing absolutely everything for him.  And when Evrart uses up the lives and well-being of the working class, employs wealth as a form of power like capitalism, and has people inconvenient to him secretly executed like facism, then his victory is not one for communism.

Not to mention that, in addition to achieving success through the methods of capitalism and facism, Evrart and his brother Edgar are themselves basically living embodiments of a monarchy.  They’re basically heads of the union for life, because even though there are rules in place to keep a union head from serving in the position for too long, whenever the 1 brother’s term is up, the other simply runs and resumes where his sibling left off.  While an opposing candidate CAN run against the Claires, they have the advantage of resources, a totally ruthless mentality, and the willingness to have their opposition killed, making it very doubtful that almost anyone could depose them.  They’ve essentially made themselves monarchs--and Evrart (and presumably Edgar too) is more than willing to enjoy a higher quality of life than the working class he supposedly represents as a perk of leadership, so he’s clearly adopted the spirit of monarchy along with its method.  Capitalist tactics, fascist brutality, monarchistic lifestyle...if the union succeeds and establishes a communistic government following the events of the game, it’s only going to have done so through the leadership of a man who embodies every single political system examined by Disco Elysium except communism.  That is not a victory for the ideology.

And of course, this pessimistic view of communism in Disco Elysium’s present is based, once again, on how the philosophy has fared in real life.  Evrart Claire is a monstrous, scummy villain, but he’s essentially a fluffy little puppy-dog compared to the historical and current figures that he represents.  Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and let’s not forget our contemporary war crime enthusiast Xi Jinping, there’s no shortage of inhuman monsters and their administrations in the last century who have adopted the pretense of a communist nation as a way to brutally seize and keep power while oppressing, ruining, and often outright massacring millions of people.  While capitalism and traditional democracies are far from immune to horrible acts and being run aground by evil assholes gaming their systems--and of course fascism and monarchy don’t even really bother with a pretense--communism in our world has a damn bad track record of being easily usurped by ambitious, murderous psychopaths who twist it into something unrecognizable for their own benefit.

And while nations like North Korea and China may in practice be far, far off from being actually communist, they still purport themselves to be, and not a lot of people care to debate the matter when it provides an easy way to vilify the ideology through association.  Small wonder that the creators of Disco Elysium so pessimistically portray their world’s present form of communism through the unscrupulous and nasty Evrart Claire, when every “successful” communist movement or nation in our world winds up the way it does.

And so, Disco Elysium shows us, in its present and past forms of communism, why the concept keeps failing: because the only people who seem up to the task of defeating the capitalism that will seek to crush it aren’t the idealists, aren’t the people who actually believe in it, but the manipulators and sacrificers who are the exact same people as the worst of communism’s foes.  It’s a similar conclusion as I’ve drawn about socialism, myself, an unavoidable fact of history, human nature, and extrapolation.  Disco Elysium’s take on communism is elegantly, realistically, articulately pessimistic, as well it should be.

And yet, it is so careful to keep hope alive.

In spite of the past’s failure and the dim outlook of the present with Evrart as its architect, communism’s idealists DO still live in Disco Elysium’s world, and they are represented by Steban (and to a lesser extent, his cohort Ulixes).  Steban is shown to be ferociously intellectual, genuinely focused on understanding all he sees and reads at its highest level, and on a constant journey to experience and contribute to the exchange of thoughtful ideas, theories, and critiques.  He and Ulixes are staunch proponents and experts on communism and its branching theories, and envision a future in which its principles have been put into effect in government and economy, but also applied to interpersonal behavior and even the physical infrastructure of society, such as architecture.  The moral and philosophical heart of communism still lives in people like Steban, idealistic and intelligent youths who still have an eye to the future and envision what it could be.

Now, make no mistake, the game also shows that Steban is a dreamer who is biting off more than he can chew, as is the case of pretty much anyone who sincerely believes in the ideology in its own right.  Even in its message of hope, Disco Elysium is reasonably realistic.  Steban and Ulixes have not actually accomplished anything of their ideals beyond writing some intelligent but largely ignored articles, one of which has a subject matter whose relevance can’t even be called tangential.  Like, think of an article that is putting forth a passionate opinion about interpreting an extremely minor corner of human culture in a way that doesn’t really matter or change anything about that niche, which will be read by maybe 100 total people, ever.  And once you’re done envisioning Thinking Inside the Box, imagine it’s written way, way more insightfully.  That’s basically where Steban’s at in Disco Elysium--a highly erudite but infinitesimally minor bit player.  The fact that he has no idea how to raise enthusiasm for and recruit people into a reading group makes his potential to be the one to lead the masses to a social paradise pretty damn doubtful.  Additionally, there are multiple times during conversing with Steban when Harry’s inner thoughts and observations will conclude that the earnest young man is naive, spouting and indulging points of philosophy that he has not seen tested by the real world.  You absolutely can make a good argument that Disco Elysium’s portrayal of the well-intentioned but unprepared, disorganized, and green Steban as communism’s future suggests no more success for the ideology in the times to come than it’s had to date.

Still, the fact that idealists like Steban do still live, and that they’re shown through his representation to be smart, engaged people regardless of inexperience, at least implies the possibility that circumstances could improve for communism in the future.  Even if manipulative shitheads like Evrart are its present, there’s still the chance that the next face of the movement will be someone like Steban, who values communism for what it’s meant to be instead of what it can do for him.

And yes, the likely impossibility of communism being successfully implemented is still acknowledged by Disco Elysium...but even then, it still has hope.  1 of my favorite moments in the entire game is the scene in which Steban, Ulixes, and Harry all work together at the end of their reading club meeting to construct a building out of matchboxes, made in accordance with the architecture theorized by a communist philosopher in some of his writings.  In spite of the fact that the structure seems like it should be incapable of standing on its own, as Harry’s ever-skeptical partner Kim points stands nonetheless as the 3 men finish and draw away from it.  Not for long--but long enough to prove its point in a quiet, poignant moment of hopeful symbolism that strikes awe even in Kim.  It seems clearly impossible--but it is accomplished nonetheless.  

1 of my favorite quotes from the game comes from Steban as a message of hope.  When Harry has the opportunity to question him on what the point is in striving for communism, in the face of a task which history has proven impossible and which may even prove fatal to undertake, Steban’s response is, “In dark times, should the stars also go out?”  In spite of all that has come in the game before it, it’s hard for a line like that not to be the take-away message on the matter.

Disco Elysium is realistically pessimistic about the prospects of true socialism and/or communism ever succeeding, as well it should be--but it’s also sympathetically optimistic, too.  Through the failure of communism’s history in Elysium and through the likely success of Evrart Claire, it establishes beyond doubt that, by all appearances, true, noble communism is unattainable.  And yet, by showing those that truly believe in it and want to urge the world toward it through the scholarly and sincere Steban, Disco Elysium is nonetheless sympathetic to the ideology...and through the scene of Harry, Steban, and Ulixes successfully building the matchbox structure, the game also goes out of its way to show that perhaps, with belief and hope, what seems and should be impossible really can be accomplished.  Disco Elysium strikes an interesting and elegant mix in its views on communism, and I appreciate equally its frank but non-hostile assessment of the movement’s unlikelihood to succeed, and its refusal to give up hope altogether for it.

* You can make defenses of each of these situations, of course.  The borscht is no big deal to him, to the point that he doesn’t even remember that it’s a thing he’s having done, so Harry can put an end to that one right then and there.  Evrart does claim that he’ll stop the drug trade if Harry raises a stink (although I’m fairly sure that this is meant to be a sarcastic remark, not genuine).  And Lilienne will justify her signature to allow Evrart to build his community center and thus displace most of the people living in the area by pointing out that regardless of how it may hurt herself and her community now, if it creates a better life for her children, it’s worth it.  But each of these justifications are only lucky circumstances each time--the evil behind Evrart’s behavior can’t keep lucking into happenstance that makes it theoretically justifiable forever, and let’s face it, it’s REALLY unlikely that these are the only unethical irons in Evrart’s fire.  I mean, again, he doesn’t even remember chemically manipulating his people with the spiked borscht, and if he actually IS willing to put the brakes on a narcotics empire because Harry doesn’t like it, then hell, I can’t even imagine how terrible the plans that he DOES really care about must be.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Breath of Fire 1's Second Wind

You know what was a pretty neat idea?  Breath of Fire 1’s Second Wind feature.  Like some RPGs before it and a lot of RPGs that came after, BoF1 utilized health bars to let the player know, broadly, how much HP an enemy still had during combat.  Health bars are a favorite tool of developers and gamers alike for managing their expectations for enemy longevity, and Breath of Fire 1’s health bars were particularly good ones for its time--the BoF1 health bar was big and diminished in real time with your attacks, giving you a very helpful and accurate understanding of what sort of chunks you could expect your characters to continue removing from the bar on subsequent attacks.  While BoF1 certainly didn’t invent the concept, it just as certainly did have a hand in positively directing the health bar’s evolution.

And the Second Wind system is a neat feature that was tacked onto the still-emerging art of the health bar.  The way the Second Wind worked was that when a boss health bar was fully depleted, they wouldn’t die like the rank-and-file random encounter enemies would.  Instead, the boss could get a Second Wind, in which a message would be given about the fight not being over, like “Evil Wizard grins fearlessly!” or “Diabolical General grits his teeth!” or “Annoying Politician demands recount!”  At that point, you would continue to fight on with no indication of how much HP the boss had left, turning your carefully planned assault into a slug-fest of attrition in which you just try to endure and match the strength of an enemy in the hopes that your own determination can outlast his.

Which is a pretty cool idea, right?  I mean, RPGs and their anime foundations are filled to the damn brim and then some with heroes who’re too damned determined to win to let a little thing like the disintegration of their spinal cord keep them down, after all, so why not let a villain do the same thing every now and then?  I mean, hell, Star Ocean 3’s finale involves the actual entire universe being wholly destroyed, and Fayt gets his Second Wind after being hit by that, so surely it’s not so unfair for 1 or 2 particularly important antagonists to be able to take a hit and keep on truckin’?

A well-placed Second Wind on a really important, powerful adversary could be a great way to really emphasize just what a dangerous villain it is that you face, and force an unexpected and even unnerving change to the player’s tactics.  The tension rises as you realize you’re up against a force that will not yield; blindly you struggle on, taxing your resources past what you had rationed them for, hoping that you can persist long enough to strike the final blow yet never knowing which it will’s a good way to up the stakes of an already major battle, to make it clear that THIS is truly a fight around which the destiny of this world revolves!  I mean, okay, you’d need to have some discretion about the feature, because obviously it’s the sort of thing that should be reserved for only the most climactic of struggles, but I think as long as you didn’t go crazy and give a Second Wind to every damn boss in the game, you’d be good.

So hey guess what Capcom did with it

Yup.  Yup.  Rather than have the Second Wind be a special signature of the story’s more momentous battles and villains, pretty much all of Breath of Fire 1’s bosses have the ability.  Like, from the first boss on.  With a bare few exceptions, every single time you go up against any enemy of any note whatsoever in this game, you’re trained to expect them to outlive their health bar.  Hell, after a while, it starts to seem like they have MORE health in their last gasp!

Obviously this cheapens a tool which could have otherwise been applied tactically to raise the stakes of the narratively significant battles in the game, as a few RPGs have done with the concept in the many years since BoF1.  And honestly, it makes me wonder, what’s even the point of having a health bar for the bosses in this game, anyway?  I mean, if you go into every single boss fight knowing that the battle is going to extend past what said bar indicates, without the slightest knowledge of just how much extra health the bad guy will have, then what function does the health bar have?  If you want players to be in the dark about how much HP a villain has, then just don’t put a health bar on them to begin with.  Let the mystery BE a mystery if that’s what you want; having the Second Wind be a reflex rather than a special event just makes the presence of a health bar at all feel like an irritating bait-and-switch.

They also didn’t get the Second Wind thing off to a great start.  The message that plays when the first boss of the game gets his Second Wind informs you that he started crying, so, y’know, it doesn’t exactly present itself initially as a situation where a boss is too badass to succumb to death.  Doesn’t matter how many monsters and maniacs later in the game laugh in the face of mortality and redouble their efforts; your first impression with the Second Wind is always gonna have been a giant frog monster ugly-crying fat, wobbly amphibian tears down his green jowls.*

I dunno what it is with Breath of Fire pioneering interesting game mechanics, or at least adopting them while they’re still in their infancy, and just not having the slightest idea how to effectively make use of them (or establishing how to do so early on and then completely botching their own successful formula later).  I’ve obviously spoken on this trend in the series before, and I can already think of a couple more examples in BoF1 and 2 of good ideas implemented ineffectually that’ll probably get their own rants at some point, too.

* It also makes that battle feel really awkward.  It’s like, dude, you’re the one who led a violent invasion of a small, defenseless village at the behest of an evil emperor; stop crying like you’re the one getting bullied.  I resent being made to feel sorry for you.

Monday, May 8, 2023

Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous's Summoning Circle in Areelu's Secret Laboratory

BIG TIME SPOILERS FOR PATHFINDER: WRATH OF THE RIGHTEOUS AHEAD.  So don’t read this rant if you haven’t played it to its conclusion.  Yeah, I don’t care that this means I’m gonna get a grand total of, like, 6 readers altogether over the lifetime of this article.  Y’all know I just write these things to amuse myself anyway.  Now, for all of the none of you left, on with the rant:

I wonder if I’ll ever make a Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous rant that’s about something actually important?  Well, if it ever does happen, it sure as hell ain’t gonna be on this day.

So, there’s a rather great and thematically perfect secret ending to Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous which involves a practically labyrinthine requirement of specific actions taken throughout the game from pretty much the first 5 minutes onward.  Actually, “practically” nothing, 1 of the requirements for this ending is literally labyrinthine, because it requires you to backtrack through a labyrinth, with no indication whatsoever that you should do so.  It’s kinda bullshit, actually.  Anyway, in addition to the hard necessities to achieve the secret ending, the player also has to have said or done at least 5 out of 7 things over the game’s course, achieving enough moments of acting in a certain way that the protagonist can successfully argue to Areelu Vorlesh that she or he is, in fact, not a failed experiment, but actually a true representation of Areelu’s daughter or son manifesting herself or himself through the soul amalgamation that Areelu created the protagonist from.  Most of these factors are select choices of dialogue taken from various previous interactions with Areelu, but a couple points are specifically actions.

It’s 1 of these points of action that we look at today: the protagonist’s choice to use the summoning circle in Areelu’s secret lab.  This action is an odd and unique one in Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, because it is, to my knowledge, essentially the only thing in the game that can be interacted with, yet does not give the standard visible indicator that an action can be taken with it.  Normally in a Pathfinder game--and, to varying degrees, a ton of other PC RPGs of this sort, like the Dragon Age series, Disco Elysium, and most Dungeons and Dragons titles--you’re able to press a certain designated key to make all objects on the screen that you can do something with (loot to pick up, things to examine, items to interact with, people to talk to, etc) highlighted, or to have their icons for interaction otherwise made immediately and plainly visible.  It’s a great tool that helps you get the most out of your experience with RPGs, probably 1 of the best features of the entire genre, and I should probably do a rant on it sometime, if I can think of any single thing to say about it other than that it’s a godsend that every relevant RPG should be equipped with.  And it’s generally this same indispensable assistant throughout PWotR, highlighting lootable objects on the ground (in and of itself important for getting the secret ending, considering you often have a limited time frame to grab those randomly placed Nahyndrian Crystals necessary for the best results in the ending), listing the names of NPCs so you can tell which of myriad townsfolk you need to speak to, displaying magnifying glass icons to provide you the chance to experience the game’s flavor text on its many involved settings, and presenting hand emblems on objects that can be used within the environment to accomplish goals and interact with puzzles and whatnot.  Handy, handy thing, the highlight feature.

But, as I said, this 1 summoning circle in Areelu’s secret lab, so very important to getting the true ending, does not submit to the highlight function.  Unlike every other usable object in the game, the highlight button will not show anything noteworthy about the summoning circle in the front of the recreation of Areelu’s old home.  The only way to know that there’s anything to be done with it is to happen to have your mouse scroll over it and only then see the cursor change to a Use icon.

A lot of people thought, at first, that this was a glitch.  PWotR, like its predecessor Kingmaker, released with a LOT of bugs, in fairness.  Like, halfway to Bethesda levels of bugs.  So they complained a bit about it, and dismissed it as an unintentional little error.  But unlike Bethesda, Owlcat Games makes an effort to fix their mistakes, and also like its predecessor, Wrath of the Righteous received a large update that fixed the huge majority of its glitches and goofs.  It was this corrected version I played, and I was surprised to discover, when reaching Areelu’s secret lab, that the summoning circle still existed in exactly the same state as it had before.  Even though I hadn’t encountered any other bug I’d read about thanks to the new version’s corrections, the summoning circle still hadn’t been fixed.

But on thinking about it, I realized that it had never been broken.  This is how it should be.

Because think about what the use of the summoning circle represents.  This isn’t just some random thing to do for fun, profit, or curiosity, like most of the other stuff you can do in the game.  The primary purpose of this particular point of interaction is that it will potentially be employed, later, as a piece of proof that the protagonist’s person is also partially Areelu’s progeny.  This is a moment of evidence that beyond the Commander’s heart and mind and body, the soul of Areelu’s daughter/son, whose greatest hobby in life was (for some reason) summoning demons, has manifested within the Commander’s own original one.

As a matter of course, then, the decision to use the summoning circle cannot be something that any old protagonist might make.  Using the summoning circle can’t be an idea that would pop into the mind of the Queen/King from Pathfinder: Kingmaker, or any other adventurer.  It can’t be the sort of consciously determined and enacted decision that is implied by an act denoted by the highlight button--that which this feature presents are objects and potential acts that the main character knowingly sees, as an adventurer.  The act of a soul must go beyond what can be conscious or even reflexive.  The soul must be a personality and passion beyond awareness, memory, or even the subconscious, a governing influence from a source beyond one’s physical entity.  For a video game character, the player him/herself takes upon the role of the soul.

And that’s why the summoning circle’s interaction is not made apparent to the player.  Its intended purpose is to demonstrate inscrutable instinct--the soul of Areelu’s daughter/son making herself/himself known by doing something, something that has no other purpose, no rational cause to be done by anyone else, but would have meaning to the soul of someone who, in life, was fascinated with the art of summoning and could not resist indulging in it whenever she/he could.  As the stand-in for the soul of the character they control, it is the player’s own responsibility to possess this same instinct of Areelu’s child to want to be interested enough in the summoning circle to prod at it even when there is no justifiable reason to.

It’s very elegant.  Many kudos to Owlcat Games’s developers for putting such consideration into such an ultimately tiny detail of its deeper levels of storytelling.  Seriously cool!

Friday, April 28, 2023

Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous's Minagho's Ending

Minagho once trapped a man within a blessed fountain of healing waters, and lit a fire under the fountain.  The man boiled alive in holy water that continued to heal him as fast as it scalded him, kept in undying agony for days on end.  She kept the man’s subordinates prisoner and starving, and occasionally she would take a slice of his cooked flesh off of him, and tempt her ravenous prisoners with it.

Owlcat Games, it is not my place to tell you how to go about your business, but I think it might be a real good idea to do a round of psych evaluations with your writing staff.  There is at least 1 guy on your payroll who is not fun to talk to at parties.

Minagho the demon has also taken part in an aggressive war against all of mortalkind, ruthlessly manipulated the emotions of a man into betraying his cause which led to hundreds or perhaps even thousands of deaths, engaged in murderous games of intrigue against her fellow demonkind, and spoken unkind words to others with the clear intent of hurting their feelings.  None of which even come close to the vicious cruelty of the boiling holy water thing, of course, but it’s definitely worth establishing that that was not a lone act of evil in her long and industrious career.  Hell, we don’t even necessarily know for sure that that was the worst thing she’s ever done, although I frankly can’t imagine what could possibly top it.  And if you can, I don’t want to talk to you at parties.

Why am I coming at you with a villain’s laundry list that includes possibly the most sick and heinous act ever committed in an RPG, besides maybe that shit Kevin Winnicot pulled in Xenosaga 3?  Because I want to make sure we all know Minagho’s deal, and I’m not gonna be accused of not giving you the whole story so that my position sounds better.  Even if she’s actually still only mid-range at best on the evil tier list when it comes to the baddies of Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, Minagho’s certainly got the greatest individual act of evil locked down, and I’m not about to sugarcoat that fact.  While I generally am one to hold my ground on the opinions I post here, Minagho ain’t a hill I’m gonna die on.  I wholeheartedly accept and respect anyone who wants to hold this promising candidate for leadership at Ubisoft accountable for her cruelties with her life.

But I, shockingly, actually believe that giving Minagho a happy ending is the best course of action.

This sounds absolutely ludicrous, I know.  I’ve ranted and raved against forgiving other villains in the past who aren’t even on the same scale of malice as Minagho, even when they actually do far more damage than she manages.  But there’s 4 major considerations in this matter which, when all put together, convince me that the best course of action is for Minagho’s fate to be as good as possible.

Although before we get into them, it’d probably be best to clarify what Minagho’s happy ending even looks like.  Basically, Minagho usually has 2 potential fates: she either dies at the hands of the protagonist during their final confrontation, or the Commander spares her, and later on Minagho returns to help fight on the Commander’s side, and dies during the battle.

But, if you’re on the Azata Mythic path, which you totally should be because it's the best one, you actually can enable a much more favorable ending for her.  Upon meeting the demon Chivarro, it’s discovered that she and Minagho are associates, and though their association began as hatefully murderous rivals, it gradually has progressed naturally into something that Chivarro seems utterly unable to understand or even identify.  But the audience can pretty easily recognize that Minagho and Chivarro have fallen, or at the very least are in the process of falling, in love. Even The Hand of the Inheritor can see it as such, and while he’s a pretty chill guy all things considered, angels aren’t usually the most open-minded and optimistic folks when it comes to demonkind, so that means something.  Well, if you’re playing as an Azata and you’ve spared Minagho, there’s a path-exclusive option to tell Chivarro that Minagho’s out there alive but alone, and to urge Chivarro to go to her.  Chivarro does just this, uprooting her life on the spot and leaving her highly successful business behind forever for the sake of being there for Minagho (a telling indication in itself of how genuine their emotional bond is).  After this, Minagho will not show up later on to fight and die, and instead her ending slide will indicate that she and Chivarro eventually reunited and stayed together forever.

It’s very heartwarming!  As long as you try to forget the fact that the last time Minagho warmed a heart, it took on a very different form.

Anyway, now that we know what shape Minagho’s happy ending takes and how, let’s establish why I think she should have it.  NOT why I think she deserves it, mind you.  Because she doesn’t.  But why she should have it all the same.

Point 1: The factors of Nature and Nurture.  Now let’s get 1 thing very, very clear: a bad upbringing does not absolve a person of guilt and responsibility for their crimes.  And let’s get 1 thing more just as clear: having impulses to do wrong does not absolve a person of guilt and responsibility for submitting to those impulses.  As a general rule, even if one’s formative years taught one to act only in self interest and told one that harming others was an acceptable or necessary part of living, the fact of the matter is that, as an adult, a human being almost inevitably has enough exposure to the basic workings of lawful society, not to mention cultural philosophy and foresight through art, media, and interactions both personal and witnessed, to be able to reason one’s one’s way to knowing right from wrong to at least a minimal degree.  Similarly, by the time one is an adult, it’s only reasonable for the world to expect one to be able to separate which of their impulses are acceptable from which ones aren’t, and exercise appropriate self-restraint based on that discretion.  Mind you, I absolutely believe that matters of justice and sentencing should take factors like bad childhoods and psychological conditions impeding functional moral judgment into consideration when determining both sentencing and avenues for rehabilitation!  But those factors are, generally, NOT free passes.

But that’s how it is for human beings, in the real world.  In the case of Pathfinder’s’s a little trickier.  The demons in the Abyss exist within a society built upon nothing BUT evil and cruelty and self-interest.  There’s no external evidence for them to witness and learn from which could tell them that acts of evil are unacceptable.  Rather, every level and function of their world reinforces the idea that ruthlessness, manipulation, and pure power are the only ways to succeed--and cruelty in all of these qualities is the only way to enjoy having that success.  The Abyss is the plane of Chaotic Evil; there is no ebb and flow of good and bad within it the way there is with a “normal” world like Golarion (or our own), no havens or foreign lands to find or hear of where things are different and better that could inspire a demon to pursue and explore such an idea.  The majority of demons will only ever encounter beings of other planes as invaders, or in the capacity of using them as slaves or partners in wrongdoing.  While demon lords have enough power and position that they can observe the rest of the multiverse long and intently enough to learn better, most demons below that top rung simply do not have the option of prolonged exposure to other societies and other ways of thinking.

How can one ethically hold the average demon accountable for her or his crimes on the basis of laws and morality that she or he simply doesn’t even have the opportunity to learn?*

Similarly, demons are the very representations of the concept of Chaotic Evil.  Though it is possible for them to have the spark of something more within them, and though it is possible even for them to restrain themselves, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of their nature yearns to do evil at every opportunity, and it is very, very difficult for them to resist that urge.  Even when they actually want to!  Arueshalae, a succubus who has managed to refashion herself into an honestly very good person, struggles for most of the game to restrain herself from hurting those around her.  Her first instinct is still always to do harm, and it’s through conscious effort that this sweetheart does anything else.  Planescape: Torment’s succubus Fall-from-Grace, meanwhile, suffers constant torment from her internal war against her nature as she forces herself to be chaste and Lawful Neutral, going so far as to create a quasi-religious order dedicated to redirecting one’s passions from the physical to the intellectual, as a way of further destroying, denying, and agonizing over what every fiber of her being wants her to be.  While we may all have both good and evil within us in varying quantities, it’s safe to say that few humans, if any, are as starkly incongruent in their moral instincts as a demon is.

How can one ethically hold the average demon accountable for acting on her or his evil instincts when she or he effectively has no other impulses to choose from?

This doesn’t mean that Minagho or other demons should just be forgiven out of hand and allowed to do whatever the hell they want, nor that they deserve kindness or reward.  But at the same time, both rationally and ethically speaking, there is only so far that we can hold a grudge against them for their evil before our desire to see them punished is for no higher purpose than our own personal gratification.  The demons still are enemies and need to be fought and stopped, usually through lethal means--even Ember will freely admit to this, and she’s basically Pathfinder Jesus--but it’s significant to understand that for this act to be righteous and not just gratuitous, it must be to prevent the demons from committing more evil, not as retribution for the evil that they’ve already wrought.  Minagho sure as hell may not deserve joy, but if we look at the circumstances of her existence objectively, it’s only fair to concede that, once convinced not to continue attacking humanity, she also does not necessarily deserve punishment.

Before we move on to Point 2, we should probably clarify that Minagho’s happy ending is not just a case of her finding a pleasant fate for herself (and Chivarro) postgame.  It’s also representative of a potential for Minagho to ascend higher than the limitations of her demonic nature.  Because this is a new beginning for her (and Chivarro) that is defined by Love, an emotion that is supposed to be impossible for demons to experience and one which is most frequently and significantly tied to the Good side of the moral spectrum, it is, I think, only reasonable to see this moment as the first step on a path to redemption and ascension.  Whether she (and/or Chivarro) will be capable of continuing the journey past that first step is unknown, but that first step is the most monumentally difficult to make for a demon, the true breaking through of the barriers of her/his own limitations, so it’s damned promising.  Arueshalae herself speaks during the game’s course about the fact that Good is a far more powerful, tempting force than people credit it to those who have never known it before--it might even be, in Pathfinder’s judgment, nearly inevitable that the journey out of Evil will be completed once it’s begun.

Also, as a side note, if Point 1 hasn’t convinced you that Minagho shouldn’t be fully and completely punished for her egregious crimes, I do want to just add, now that we’ve established that her happy ending is also potentially the first step toward ascension, this thought: Arueshalae never suffered greater pain for the evils she had committed than she did when she was far enough along her journey to Good to feel remorse.  No typical demon will regret the evil they’ve done, not even at the moment you plunge a spear through their heart in retribution.  But the nightmares of what she’s done will always be Arueshalae’s burden to bear, because she’s become good enough to understand her wrongs.  If you truly can’t be convinced otherwise that Minagho (or any other demon) must be harmed for what she’s done, then at least consider that redeeming her, opening her mental state to the concept of regret and empathy, might very well be the only way of truly punishing a demon at all.

Anyway, on to the next major point.

Point 2: The factor of Our Own Hypocrisy.  For most players on the Azata route--really, for most players as a whole, I should wager--in Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, to deny Minagho the chance at ascension that her eventual life with Chivarro represents is to be a hypocrite to our own actions.  After all, provided we’re pursuing her story to its intended, Good ending, we not only extend that very same courtesy to Arueshalae, but actually assist her along the way!  Arueshalae’s involved character subplot is a story of her struggling to overcome her instinct to be evil with her desire to be good, to complete the journey to ascension that the goddess Desna put her on and to find a dream for herself.  If we’re willing to give Arueshalae a chance of happiness and a future of personal fulfillment, how can we then turn around and arbitrarily say that Minagho doesn’t deserve the chance to go on a journey of betterment of her own?  Yes, Arueshalae is a darling sweetheart cinnamon roll who must be protected at all costs while Minagho is, uh, a little less sympathetic, but we’re only seeing Arueshalae halfway through her journey of ascension.  While our scope of knowledge of the old Arueshalae is limited, she was, by all accounts, a monstrously wicked being responsible for all manner of corruption and torment.  I don’t know if Arueshalae’s got any evil act in her history quite the equal of Minagho penning a new recipe for soup, but when you go walking around the Abyss in the game, Arueshalae’s a well-known figure on a first-name basis with just about everyone of any note you meet.  You don’t exactly get to be the Norm Peterson of Hell’s meaner big brother through kindness and generosity.

Not to mention that finishing Ember’s personal quest involves more of the same.  If you’re willing to support Ember’s beliefs and help her in her goal for a better universe, her simple but charismatic entreaties to her enemies winds up convincing a generous handful of demons to switch sides and give the ways of love and kindness a chance.  Much like Desna did for Aruehsalae, Ember has gifted these random demons the chance to become better and find a better existence, kickstarting them on their own paths to ascension.  While it’s doubtful that these rank-and-files have had the opportunity to give someone the worst kind of bath like Minagho did, they’re still beings defined by the evils they’ve done being given an opportunity they haven’t earned to become better.

If you can believe in Arueshalae’s right to ascend, if you can support Ember’s simple, indiscriminate kindness and belief in good...hell, if you can even just admire Nocticula someday becoming the Redeemer Queen through sheer determination to ascend from demon lord to outright goddess...then surely it’s not reasonable to shut Minagho out of a similar opportunity.

Point 3: The factor of Thematic Consistency.  Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous is a game with a constant, powerful theme of transcendence, of the capacity of people to be more than the sum of their components and rise above what is supposed to be possible for them.  From Arueshalae working hard to shed her evil nature, to Ember convincing evil beings to do good through nothing more than caring about them, to Areelu’s reason for creating the Worldwound, to Regill the Lawful-fanatic employing guile and sacrificing his own position for the greater good, to Nenio becoming something out of nothing, to Anevia having been able to become what she was meant to be regardless of what she was born as, to Galfrey’s capacity to relinquish her duty for the sake of her love...and I could keep going with so many more examples...PWotR is absolutely filled with representations of this theme, both overt and subtle, as it underscores and defines the game’s greater plot and purpose, the majority of its substantial characters, and the very concept of its Mythic paths.  For the simple sake of symmetrical elegance, the fact that Minagho has the opportunity to perhaps one day follow in the footsteps of Arueshalae, Fall-From-Grace, and Nocticula, and ascend to be more than she was born to be, means that it’s our duty as witness and participant to this overarching symphony of ascension to permit her to pursue that path.

Also, we should consider what’s consistent to the path of the Azata, here.  After all, for all the inflated importance and time this rant is giving it, this option to give Minagho a future with her lover IS exclusively an act of a protagonist who has chosen to be an Azata.  And I would definitely say that it’s in character for an Azata to cut Minagho a break.  As an entity of Chaotic Good, an Azata really doesn’t get hung up on orderly systems like karma and justice--what matters to an Azata protagonist is what’s good and right in the here and now and in the future, and the freedom necessary to pursue that good.  The wrongs of the past matter nothing before what rights can be wrought now and in times to come for an Azata.  The act of allowing a demon the chance to live in love, the freedom to defy the bonds of her nature in order to explore something good and wholesome?  That’s definitely right up an Azata’s alley.  And it’s especially appealing to a being of Chaotic Good that betting on a demon’s ability to transcend her Evil nature is to act against the cosmic order and hierarchy that dictates what demons are meant to be.  So in terms of the game as a whole, and the path in which this option presents itself, giving Minagho her best ending thematically lines up.

Point 4: The factor of the Miracle.  To decide not to nurture Minagho’s ability to love Chivarro, and vice-versa, feels like a waste of something significant.  I mean, these are 2 demons who have on their own manifested the capacity to love each other, and unconsciously taken their first steps toward ascension.  It took the intervention of a goddess to bring Arueshalae to the point that she could recognize, appreciate, and desire any non-evil act or emotion.  Ember’s demons have only been able to dip their toes into a greater world of Good because they were lucky enough to have the Overcooked Elf Girl equivalent of Jesus sermonize in their direction.  But Chivarro and Minagho have somehow, miraculously, begun to feel love for one another entirely on their own, without any guidance from benevolent divine or charismatic external forces.  Even the Hand of the Inheritor recognizes and is slightly awed by the revelation that the redeeming light of love could independently bloom within demons in the middle of the Abyss--and while Pathfinder angels are generally less stringent and self-righteous than the ones over in Shin Megami Tensei, the shocked approval of an archangel for anything a demon does is an endorsement I’m loathe to disregard.

And beyond the fact that you shouldn’t just go sticking your nose up at miracles, allowing Minagho and Chivarro to embrace and advance their love is important for the precedent it sets.  The belief that demons can’t feel love is such a universally accepted one that Chivarro herself still clings to it in denial even as she struggles to explain how her feelings for and connection with Minagho could be anything but.  Giving Minagho her happy ending has implications beyond just her and Chivarro’s happiness and redemption--it allows them to be an example to the rest of their kind that such aberrations from the norm the universe expects of demons are possible.  The more examples like Arueshalae, Nocticula, the demons Ember converts, and Minagho and Chivarro, the more chances there are that other demons who learn of them can be inspired to follow their paths.

Jesus Christ I just realized I’ve spent 6 pages talking about whether or not a second-tier villain should be redeemed by an action that’s only available to players on 1 of 10 different story paths.**  I thought this was gonna be a quick rant.  Look, those are my points of argument, take them and do what the hell you will with Minagho if you even have the option to begin with.  In my estimation, there is little to be gained by insisting that Minagho pay for her crimes, the concept of justice isn’t really satisfied by punishing a demon for being the only thing she ever could have been to that point, and denying her the potential to someday ascend is inconsistent with the other actions most typically taken by players not to mention against the theme of the game and the path in question.  Instead, letting her have her happy ending may actually wind up adding some good to the world--it’s probably the only way to derive any kind of good at all from her having existed, really.  There you go.  This rant and I both have clearly gone off the rails and it is way past time to end this thing.

I have GOT to get this nerdy wordiness thing under control.

* Now, to be fair, Minagho’s role in the fall of Drezen means that she had to have at least a little non-combat interaction with the alien, non-Evil culture of Golarion over the course of her seduction of Staunton Vhane.  So she’s not quite as ignorant of alternatives to the Abyss’s ways as, say, a minotaur fresh out of the labyrinth.  Still, she probably wasn’t traipsing down main street hand-in-hand with Staunton every day for a year, delightedly taking in the sights and sounds of these quaint human folk as she set to manipulating his heart for her own purposes, so it’s still fairly safe to overall judge Minagho by the standards of moral ignorance that apply to most demons.

** Although admittedly Azata is totally the best Mythic path in the game and you absolutely SHOULD be playing it.  I mean there’s some great and fun content for several of the other paths, and the dedication that Owlcat Games had to making this a very different game if you’re a piece of shit Lich or Swarm is impressive, but it’s clear which route the writers had the most fun and devotion to.  The rest of them are fine and fun options for subsequent playthroughs, but if you’re only gonna play Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous once, it should be as an Azata.  If for no other reason than the fact that Aivu is a treasure.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

General RPG Lists: Stupidest Weapons

Goddamn, is this rant actually 14 freaking years old?  What the hell am I doing with my life?

Anyway, while this isn’t exactly a high-priority subject, it’s certainly high time we update and expand this list a bit.  There have been ever so many advances in the world of stupid weapons technology, after all.  And honestly, some of the existing entries could’ve been a bit more involved, anyway.  And thus I present to you the new, the improved, the still completely pointless, Stupidest Weapons List!

If there's one thing I could say is the most varied and creative part of the RPG genre, I would probably say it's the cast. You get just about every conceivable kind of person in RPG casts sooner or later. Some games kind of go crazy with it (ever look through the list of party members for Shining Force 1? Actual human beings are outnumbered something like 2 to 1; hell, there's about as many centaur characters in that game as normal people), but most have at least one quirky cast member that stands out.

But the second thing I would say is the most varied aspect of RPGs is definitely the weapons. Be they modern, futuristic, or of the past, weapons are everywhere, pulled from cultures across our globe. And not just actual weapons, either. Even humanity's impressive ingenuity for creating implements of death in the real world can't seem to satiate RPG creators' thirst for creative ways to smack people, so you quite commonly see even regular objects never intended for battle being used to kill stuff, and encounter weird weapons the RPG creators thought up themselves.

While this does give us a more varied RPG experience in general than just seeing a random hero poke stuff with a sword thousands of times in every game, it also means that we come across a great many characters armed with items that are just ridiculous for use in combat.  Some are clearly just shitty, ineffective weapons, some are just cringe-inducingly idiotic in concept or appearance, and plenty are both.  These are the dumbest RPG armaments!

15. Keyblades (Kingdom Hearts Series)

Oh, Keyblades.  You’re just always the exact right way to start this list.

Ignoring how dopey it is to be hitting things with a large key to begin with, look at the general shape and way that one holds a Keyblade. These things seem to be weapons that you grasp like a sword, with a similar heft and architecture, but they have the limited damaging area of an axe.  The handle is at the bottom and only the bottom, and it seems relatively lightweight, but the actual part you want to hit enemies with is usually a small, damaging area near the top.  So...basically, it is an Axe-Sword. You get the lighter weight and limited handling area of the sword, which lowers how much force you can apply to your swing, and also the very limited range of the axe, which lowers both how versatile it is and how dexterous you can be when using it at close range. All the negative parts of both axe and sword, with none of the positives!

14. Books (General RPGs)

I can almost understand a mage being armed with a magic book if they're shown to need to read it before casting a spell, but:

A: Most of the characters who use books as their physical weapon don't actually seem to look in the things at all for their spells.
B: What would be the point of having to flip through the damn book to the right page every time they wanted to use a spell, anyways? Even with bookmarks, that's a waste of time in battle.
C: It really wouldn't kill them to keep a knife or something in a pocket. Even a freakin' paring knife is going to be more effective than trying to bludgeon someone to death with bound paper.

I'm not asking for RPG mages to suddenly become great physical fighters or anything, but could we at least be given the impression that they're TRYING to defend themselves?

13. Knife on a String (Paulette, Arc the Lad 4)

Paulette’s out here, surrounded by people armed with swords and bows and guns and claws, and she’s just sincerely whirling around a steak knife she taped to a length of fucking yarn with all the confidence in the world.  Like she somehow hasn’t noticed that what she’s using to survive life-or-death combat situations is just a meaner version of that nickel yo-yo thing that old-timey cartoon characters use to cheat coin slots.  

For heaven’s sake, it’s not even attached to something sturdy like a chain or a rope or something.  Nor is the knife large enough to have any decent heft; if she doesn’t hit her target dead on, exactly on the point, it’s just gonna glance off them and cause maybe an unpleasant cut at most.  At least with, like, a flail or a kusarigama (those ninja-y blades on chains), there’s some mass and surface area.  Even a yo-yo can be weighted and deal decent blunt, breaking damage, without requiring a perfect bullseye.  And what happens if you DO get a perfect, straight knife stab in someone with this thing?  If it’s going deep enough to cause any real damage, the blade’s probably gonna get partly caught in some flesh or bones or something, making yanking it back a pain in the ass.  Even more of a pain since the shoelaces that Paulette’s tied to the knife don’t exactly look sturdy to begin with, so the line’s probably gonna break after a few good enough tugs.  This was deemed better than just carrying around an extra few knives and throwing them?

12. Blitzballs (Wakka, Final Fantasy 10)

...Fuck it.  I’m done fighting this.  Alright, internet, you’ve convinced me.  I accept it.  Blitzballs are fucking stupid as a weapon.

Are Wakka’s weapons of choice capable of dealing significant damage to an opponent?  Yes.  At least, some of them.  That’s the reason I defended them for so long.  Plenty of Wakka’s armaments have blades running along them that’ll slice something to ribbons, or spikes studding the things on all sides.  These are not like Paulette’s butter knife lanyard; these things would cause definite harm when thrown against an enemy by a reasonably athletically fit guy.

But Wakka’s holding these stupid spheres close to him, cradling each near and dear to him with the same nurturing instinct to keep it warm and safe that I assume all athletes express towards their Freudian sports equipment...which means that the man should basically be plunging serrated blades through his ribs and spikes through his arm from wrist to shoulder every single time battle breaks out.  And let’s not forget, he attacks by throwing the ball into an enemy, then catching it on the rebound; he should realistically be impaling or amputating his hand probably at least 20% of the time he attacks.

For that matter, these balls shouldn’t be rebounding to begin with.  If they’ve got all kinds of sharp sticky-out bits, then they ought to be getting stuck, or at least moderately impeded, whenever they make contact with the enemy, not smoothly bouncing back.  And for the ones that don’t have the sharp stuff to get in the way of this, well, then you’re just attempting to use a goddamn volleyball to protect yourself from bloodthirsty beasts and monsters--if I could live through getting hit in the head by a stray soccer ball in Phys Ed as an adolescent, you’d better believe it’s not gonna do much against a hostile sea titan the height of half a dozen men.  Unless the non-bladed variants of these things are supposed to be super heavy, but then they probably wouldn’t be bouncing back to Wakka, and I’d  sure as hell include “A Cannonball But You Throw It And Also It’s Got A Soft Exterior” on this list, anyway.

Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden gets a pass for its basketballs because it’s going for comedy.  FF10, though, plays this ridiculous concept straight, and I’m out of excuses to make on this, so Blitzballs’ place here is earned.

11. Nunchucks (General RPGs)

Oh, yeah, that’s what I want.  Yeah, I want a tool that’s slightly more likely to seriously damage me than it is to hurt the guy I’m fighting.  I want an armament that simultaneously needs clear space immediately around me to maintain its necessary momentum and rotation, and is so incredibly short-range that there’s about a 3 inch difference between “Within Attacking Range” and “Too Close To Attack; Just Surrender Now And Save Us All Some Trouble.”  I want to spend as much time as it would take to thoroughly master a different weapon just to reach a point of no longer being a danger to myself with this one.  Fucking sign me up, baby, it’s time to trade the most fundamental, basic tenets of function in for the chance to tap someone with a stick that’s going just a bit faster than it otherwise would be from simply manually swinging it!  Booyah!

10. Gunblades (Final Fantasy 8)

Hey, here's a great idea: stick a sword onto a gun handle. This way, you'll have to specially learn how to swing it, since the weight and holding angle are completely different than a sword, it'll be more complicated and less usable in close combat than just a regular sword, and you'll have a lot of trouble using it for long-distance battling since your aim's thrown off by the fact that there's a solid metal blade on your barrel both adding tremendous weight and disrupting vision.  Sure, you'll need twice as much training to use it competently than you would to totally master using a sword or a gun separately...but hey, it's a gun that is a sword, so it MUST BE COOL, AM I RIGHT MY FELLOW ADOLESCENTS?

I'm really just waiting for webcomic Adventurers!'s joke about combined weapons to come true with SquareEnix, at this point. After key sword-axes and emo pistol-swords, you just know the Sword-Bomb is inevitable.

9. Musical Instruments (General RPGs)

Look, I'll be the last person not to acknowledge how painful bad sound can be. I’ve heard Maroon 5, same as the rest of us.  I’m aware that Jason Derulo exists.  Hell, I hail from the dark years of the early 2000s, the heyday of t.A.T.u.  But you know what? If some talentless Russian chick imitating a cat being drawn and quartered by unlubricated robot tigers running on a chalkboard with their claws out can't inflict physical wounds on me, then some bard managing to hurt a monster by plucking on a harp is stupid.

And using musical instruments to inflict physical trauma is even worse. I'm not anything even approaching knowledgeable about the things, but I'm still fairly certain that instruments are meant to be reasonably delicate tools relying on careful balance and structure to produce their sounds correctly, so taking your guitar and smashing people over the head with it is going to ruin it for its intended purpose of creating music,* and if you don't want to use it for music, then why the hell would you carry it around instead of a club or dagger or something?

8. Ridiculously Huge Weapons (General RPGs)

If you can’t lift it then it’s not a weapon.

Hell, even if we allow for the fact that RPG characters inexplicably CAN actually wield swords and boomerangs and whatnot that are as big or bigger than they themselves are, these things are still usually pretty stupid.  I mean, take that absurd inferiority complex that Final Fantasy 7’s Sephiroth is swinging around.  It may seem dangerous for just how much length it’s overcompensating with, but realistically, it’d be unwieldy to the point of uselessness in half the environments we see him use it in as it bounces off of, or worse, gets stuck in, walls and general decor.  And frankly, even in an open area, something like that’s easy to block with a shield or other sword, since, once you’re within 15 feet of the idiot, it can really only come at you in wide arcs.  If Nomura didn’t simp so goddamn hard for his bishy dreamboat, any halfway decent combatant with a sword, shield, tonfa, gauntlet, spear, bo staff, or a number of other weapons with blade-stopping capacity, would be able to easily get up in Sephiroth’s space and wreck his shit thanks to his inferior weapon.  Because, crazy as it sounds, human weapons might just be sized appropriately for human use for a reason.

7. Dolls (General RPGs)

Despite what the horror film genre would have us believe, dolls are not very menacing. They're small, they lack flexibility in their limbs, and they're usually made of either very soft or very breakable materials. If an evil doll is trying to kill you with a knife or something, you really shouldn't have all that much trouble with surviving. Just kick the damn thing away as it stiffly toddles up to you and then go somewhere else. Simple.

And it's not even like RPG characters who use attack dolls do so as competently as the stupid horror film ones. Lulu of Final Fantasy 10 just has her diminutive, cute plushie tackle an enemy. Yeah, because a cotton-stuffed foot-high muppet wannabe is really gonna meet with success when body-slamming a dragon. I know mages are meant for magic, but come ON. And Shadow Hearts 2's Gepetto's no better. If you're gonna have your damn doll do your attacks for you, ARM it with something; don't just change its dress and pretend that makes a difference.

6. Scrolls (Rita, Tales of Vesperia)

Scrolls.  As weapons.

Not implements of strangulation, mind.  Rita isn’t out here garroting her enemies.  No.  She is using scrolls and sashes and ribbons as melee weapons.  When Rita aims to strike her foe, she reaches for a scarf.  When she’s fighting for her life, the tool she wants in her hands to meet her opponent’s blade is a piece of parchment.  When it’s time for the party to upgrade their implements of death and destruction, the rest head to a blacksmith, but Rita?  Rita hones in on the nearest Jo-Ann Fabrics.

Isn’t Rita supposed to be the smart one in the group?  She’s arming herself with a weapon that has less damage output than just not having a weapon at all.

5. Figure-Skating Mecha-Pegleg (Serina, Conception 2)

I refuse to believe I have to elaborate on why this is here.

4. Headdresses (Red XIII, Final Fantasy 7)

Seriously? You have a lion dog wolf thing with claws and teeth, and the way he inflicts damage is...hitting people with his headdress?  I mean, it’d be idiotic no matter what character were using it, but they gave it to a combatant that already has his own built-in weaponry!

The funny thing is that even FF7 seems to know that there’s no possible physical way you could make a headdress an effective weapon without also making it a self-inflicting concussion machine.  I mean, look at how they have Red XIII attack with it!  He leaps forward and does a double somersault roll in midair against the enemy, because the only way to even pretend that a headdress can cause significant harm is apparently to buzz-saw it against someone while telling the laws of gravity and inertia to fuck right the hell off.

3. Twin Fenrirs (Dean, Wild Arms 5)

The blades of Dean’s pistols are coming out of the handle and going downward.  As idiotic as a gunblade is, at least both the gun and the blade are pointed at the bad guy!  And if you’re gonna have the blade of your silly combination weapon pointing somewhere else, why the hell would it be down!?  Especially when they’re so damn long!  Not only is it an awkward position with which to mount an offense using them, but all you’d have to do is push Dean’s arms down a little and his blades would get stuck in the ground!  No fucking wonder he holds these things up and at an angle all the time during battle; he’s probably afraid that if he actually pointed his guns properly at an enemy, he’d stab himself in the foot.  And what happens if his hand slips downward just a bit?  There’s no guard separating the handle from the giant fucking razorblade jutting down out of it.  A little jolt throws off his grip at all, and Dean’s gonna slice his hand down to the bone.

He doesn’t even USE the gun part as part of his regular attack for some reason, even though that’s the only part that can be easily and immediately brought to bear against any enemy that isn’t a fucking mole.  And you can’t even imagine that he uses the impractical blades because they do more damage somehow, the way people theorize that Squall does with the gunblade, because Dean’s critical hits show him firing submachine-gun-style, and doing huge damage as a result.  Yeah, no shit, dumbass, turns out you can do more damage if you stop stiffly banging a sword pointed the wrong way into your enemy and actually PULL THE FUCKING TRIGGER.

2. Tales of Legendia Mage Weapons (Grune, Shirley, and especially Norma, Tales of Legendia)

A future edition of this list might separate these, but for now, I’d really hate not to have keyblades on here, so we’re lumping ToL’s mages’ insistence on not being able to physically defend themselves all together.

Grune is going at people with an urn.  I mean, I get a minor background character in a movie grabbing a vase in a pinch to get a sneak attack on some goon while otherwise unarmed, but this ain’t a weapon of circumstance.  Pottery is Grune’s weapon of choice.  And that’s even stupider than it has to be, because these are implied to be the ceramics in which Grune is keeping the seeds of the summoned spirits until she finds the right place to plant them.  Remember how I said it was dumb to go using a finely-tuned, sensitive musical instrument to inflict blunt trauma?  Now imagine if instead of future performances of Wonderwall, you were jeopardizing the fetal states of the beings that maintain the forces of nature itself.  Grune’s just here bashing the flowerpot containing the balance of reality against some guy’s skull and it doesn’t bother her in the slightest.

...Well, I guess that DOES seem true to her character, actually.

Shirley attacks people with writing implements.  Do you really need me to explain why brandishing a quill against some dude with a battleaxe is a dumb idea?  And I swear to Urgathoa, if 1 of you assholes even THINKS about cracking wise about the pen being mightier than the sword...

And lastly there’s Norma.  Norma walks around knowing that at any given hour of the day, there’s a good chance she’s going to be accosted by armed soldiers, wolves, bears, and heaven knows what else, and with that in mind, she chooses to bring a drinking straw with her for protection.  Who fucking wakes up in the morning knowing that they’re going to be attacking a goddamn dragon later that day, and thinks, “Well, as long as he gets close enough that I can blow some bubbles on him, I should be golden”?

Jesus Christ, do magic-users in the Tales of series just not WANT to live, or something?

1. Trumpet Gun (Lyude, Baten Kaitos 1)

One is a firearm that propels objects at lethally high velocity at a target to penetrate its defenses and fatally smash its internal workings apart.

The other is a comparatively high-pitched member of the brass family of musical instruments, known especially for its prominent role in classical and jazz music.

Together, they are

Seriously. It's a gun. That is a trumpet. Trumpet Gun. A trumpet that shoots things as a gun. Trumpet. Gun. A gun that is also a trumpet.

Why have you forsaken us, God?

Dishonorable Mention: Fatman and Experimental MIRV (Fallout Series)

Okay, now, this one kind of doesn't count as a stupid weapon, because, well...the Fatman and Experimental MIRV in Fallout basically fire small nuclear bombs. So unlike the rest of the attack tools on this list, they're actually extremely effective weapons. I mean, if you want to kill stuff, and you don't mind a hintof overkill, you won't find many better options than tossing a nuclear weapon at someone. It's usually the most destructive attack in the game, as it sure as hell should be, and I daresay most people who play Fallout have plenty of fun with it (myself included, I fully admit).

The stupid part that puts them on this list in some way, however, is that these weapons' throwing range barely qualifies them as grenade launchers. They seem closer to kids' slingshots, really. So basically, someone developed a weapon that would launch a nuclear bomb to land about 20 feet away from the holder. Raise your hands if you can think of a reason why this wouldn't work out so great, class!

* So, for that matter, will stuffing a rocket launcher and flamethrower inside of it. You and your stupid guitar weapon, Shadow Hearts 3's Ricardo.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Ara Fell's Heroes Get Subdued Too Often

I really like Ara Fell, and I certainly do recommend it as a solid, classic RPG.  But I have to say, I think the game’s heroes get bailed out of trouble too much.

The unexpected rescue is a staple of storytelling when it comes to just about any adventure, and for good reason.  It creates a situation that demonstrates how formidable the villain(s) of the piece is/are by showing that he/she/they can surpass the heroes.  It provides an easy and exciting opportunity to introduce new characters (someone’s gotta come and haul the good guys’ butts out of the fire, after all).  And it moves the story forward, creating new goalposts and giving the main characters direction on what their next move should be as they react to the threat they just escaped from and whatever the villain accomplished at that time.  There’s a lot of substantial benefits that this narrative tool can provide--but it still needs to be used in moderation, or it starts to devalue the stars of the tale.  And unfortunately, Ara Fell does, I think, cross into this territory.

Now, make no mistake: there are many clear, shining points in AF's sequence of events in which Lita and her friends win real, demonstrable victories.  There is a good, functional give-and-take in the plot’s course in terms of whether good or evil has the upper hand; never do you feel like the game’s heroes are completely powerless to accomplish their goals.  This is not Xenosaga 3.

But still, there’s an awful lot of occasions in which Lita and company are fully overcome, helpless before their foes, and only survive by the good graces of miraculous circumstance or the arrival of an unexpected ally.  The main villain has to be a big deal, I know, but it starts to get disappointing when he’s able to get the better of the hero every time!  The fact that Lita and company are so frequently subdued, and have to be bailed out by an unexpected ally or event, lessens how reliably heroic and impressive they seem to the audience, and it starts to feel like a narrative cop-out past a certain point.

It’s honestly irritating at times.  In particular, 1 instigator of these situations* is that the game’s main villain, though not talented at destructive magics, specializes in a spell that paralyzes his targets, and Lita’s team has no counter to this problem.  And what’s annoying is that they never try to find one.  Multiple times do they acknowledge that he’s got an edge over them in this regard, and recognize that this advantage has very nearly led to their destruction, and yet never once does Lita, Adrian, Seri Kesu, or Doren ever think, “Gee, maybe we should figure out a way around this problem.”  I mean, if there really is no defense possible against this spell and tactic, no counterspell/ward or way to devise one, no protective amulet or method of creating one, no adjustment of approach or tactics that could help them get around it, then fine, I guess that’s something the audience must reluctantly accept--but the heroes never put enough thought into the matter to be able to come to that conclusion anyway!  It’s not just that they can’t save their own bacon in the moment of danger, they also don’t take any adequate steps to prevent that moment to start with!

And it’s further irritating that this problem persists right up to the game’s end.  At the moment of Lita and company’s final victory, they once again get taken unawares by this immobilizing spell, just as easily as the first time, to disastrous consequences as the villain achieves his goal now that the path to his desired plot mcguffin is clear.  He didn’t have to up his game, didn’t have to adjust his tactics whatsoever to do it, just did the same thing as he’s done multiple times before: got the drop on them while they weren’t expecting it, and disabled them.  By the game’s end, no one’s left to rescue Lita’s crew, so this time the story HAS to allow them to overcome the spell’s effects in the space of time it takes the antagonist to accomplish everything else, but it’s still a bit frustrating.  All the more so when even in the final battle the heroes can’t finish the job themselves; eventually they get overpowered and have to rely on Lita praying for enough deus ex machina to win.  Yeah, that’s not an unheard-of trope for the final conflict of the game, but it becomes kind of grating when the preceding narrative makes it less a moment of a heroic higher power’s triumph than it is just 1 last iteration of a bad habit of lucky breaks.

Now look: Ara Fell, as I mentioned above, is not Xenosaga 3.  I’ve never, ever seen this problem so harmfully pronounced as it is in Xenosaga 3.  The main characters of that game arguably almost never achieve a victory against any narratively significant adversary that is both clear and has substantial importance.  The Xenosaga heroes are completely ineffectual in the third title; their problems are resolved exclusively through circumstance and melodramatic faux-intellectual angst, never through the main characters’ merits and actions.  By contrast, there are, as I said, plenty of moments in Ara Fell’s narrative when the heroes accomplish what they needed to, when there’s cause for celebration, when they take down an earnestly powerful foe whose position in the plot is significant.  Even if Lita and her group don’t feel as powerful and competent as they should, they at least are a far cry from being demonstrably impotent accessories to the events of their own story like the Xenosaga 3 bunch.

But it's nonetheless still a problem with the game's story that lessens the player's view of the tale's heroes, and inhibits the satisfaction the story provides.  Ara Fell is still a good RPG that I enjoyed and recommend, but it would have been well served had its writer(s) given more thought to creative alternatives to subdued-heroes-getting-rescued trope here and there.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Shin Megami Tensei 5's Chaos Route's Inferiority

The last time I talked about Shin Megami Tensei 5, I ranted about its greatest weakness, the fact that it’s just too damned light on its story to adequately function.  The game feels empty, with its plot rushed through, its characters narratively starved, its story beats too few and far between, and its ideas, concepts, and themes sparsely explored, if at all.  Atlus foolishly chose to exaggerate its traditional light touch with SMT’s writing into a nearly hands-off approach, and as a result, the game doesn’t manage to say what it wants to, has no emotional or philosophical grasp on its audience, and at many points is outright incapable of even connecting its plot elements.  If we were to liken an adequately, functionally voluminous story to, say, your average power plant, then Shin Megami Tensei 5’s narrative is the HELIOS One power plant when you first find it in Fallout: New Vegas--still technically functioning, but so neglected and mishandled by the drug-addled moron in charge that it’s running at 1% efficiency on a good day.

But beyond its major, glaring overall fault, Shin Megami Tensei 5 is also a bad RPG for its story’s significant components.  It’s not just that all the parts of the game’s plot engine were assembled together without care--those parts themselves are frequently of poor grade.  And I think the most painfully obvious example of this is just how ineptly executed the game’s Chaos route is.

First, and mainly, SMT5’s Chaos route is represented by the 2 least interesting, least developed, least expressive, least forthcoming characters in the entire game--and considering which game we’re talking about, that’s saying something.  Both Atsuta the Chaos Hero and his patron Director Koshimizu are austere, terse boards of wood defined by a single, completely static, largely undeveloped personality trait.  With Koshimizu, it’s a desire to restore Japan’s gods to their place as the nation’s protectors and caretakers, while Atsuta’s 1 guiding trait is a wholly undefined desire to protect Tokyo.

And that’s it.  That’s all there is to either of them.  Do you want an understanding of why Director Dumbass is pulling so hard for his version of Chaos?  Too fucking bad for you.  Do you want some background as to why Atsuta feels so strongly about protecting Tokyo no matter what?  Too fucking bad for you.*  Do you want a more rational, detailed explanation from Koshimizu as to how bickering pantheon factions (not all the Japanese deities particularly like each other, as the game itself notes) are going to be the best way to keep Tokyo safe?  Too fucking bad for you.  Do you want to see a scene, a conversation, a couple lines of dialogue, a single sentence of monologue, anything from Atsuta showing him thinking about the issue of the world’s future and coming to the conclusion that Koshimizu’s Chaos philosophy is in the best interests of Tokyo?

But hey, if you’re here to watch 2 guys make declarative statements in monotone, end the story as exactly the same people they started it without having grown in any way, and stare severely at each other while occasionally gritting their teeth in austere determination, then man has Atlus ever got the game for you.

Contrast this to Daizo and Abdiel, the Law Hero and his patron.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, the story of Daizo’s journey from fumbling, indecisive twat to laughably over-the-top sneering teleporting Scott Farkus is rushed, as awkward as he himself is, and falls apart under even light rational scrutiny--but his story is THERE, at least.  You actually SEE a couple of scenes in which Daizo is distraught over what to do about the state of the world, you actually HEAR him give a couple simple reasons for why God’s order is necessary, and you can TELL how he comes to his conclusion for what must be done in order to preserve Law, and why.  It’s rushed, it’s a line of logic that’s almost juvenile in its simplicity, it’s laughably over-the-top as Dazai flips his switch from Mewling Coward to Shonen Anime Badass, and damned if I can figure out why the hell he's so fucking hot for God’s order nor why he thinks that order's so damned necessary to keep humanity safe, but the game’s at least going through some motions of showing how and why Dazai takes on the Law Hero mantle.

That’s sure as hell a lot more than you can say for Atsuta, who starts the story fixated on Tokyo’s security and does not once change or question a single thing about that desire or how it’s to be achieved.  Dazai’s out walking in circles as he vocally works through the problem of the world’s future and reasons his way to the conclusion that he must corrupt the highest authority of God’s law to the point that she can break that law as the only means to preserve it--meanwhile Director Dipshit tells Atsuta that a squabbling menagerie of lesser deities is a good idea solely because they have home turf advantage, and Atsuta just unquestioningly snaps to attention like an army recruit caricature and that’s the end of it.

The monumental gap in quality between Abdiel as a character and Koshimizu is much the same.  Abdiel has an actual character arc(angel); she’s the herald of a dead god who’s stuck between a fanatical devotion to His decrees and the fact that those decrees restrict her to the point that she cannot successfully champion them, and it’s only when she allows a mortal to corrupt her into a fallen angel that she can work outside of God’s law freely enough to effectively fight for its cause.  I wouldn’t call it a great story--I wouldn’t even say it’s done well enough to be a good story--but an angel willingly becoming a monster and pariah because the only way to serve the will of God’s law is to defy its’s at least interesting in its concept.  You actually get to see the fall of Abdiel and understand why it’s a thing of glory for her and her cause rather than disgrace, and you understand how and why she got there as a character.

And by contrast, Koshimizu has...nothing.  No character arc.  No motivation or personality trait but that which is so superficial that it’s fully and completely expressed by a simple declarative statement or 2.  No explanation of how and why he came to his conclusion as to the best path for the world’s future.  We have an angel willingly fall to darkness out of necessity in order to be the champion of God’s light after His death in 1 corner, and in the other, we have a guy whose most impassioned appeals sound like an internal email statement from Corporate.

Jesus Christ, I can’t believe that we’ve got characters so static and boring in this game that they make Walter and Joshua in Shin Megami Tensei 4-1 look exciting and engaging by comparison.  Even their inadequate cases of character development can be more demonstrably charted than Atsuta’s.

Second huge, huge flaw with the Chaos route in Shin Megami Tensei 5?  It doesn’t even make sense for Atsuta or Koshimizu to believe in it.  These individuals may both have underdeveloped, forlorn, malnourished farces of character, but even the inadequate scraps of personality present in both Director Doofus and his mindless goon SHOULD stand in direct opposition to the world that Chaos is shooting for.  This isn’t just a case where these major characters are lacking narrative attention--they also suck because what’s there (and what’s missing) is poorly made.

First of all, Atsuta.  Atsuta’s whole thing, his ONLY thing, is that he wants to protect Tokyo and its people, including his sickly sister.  After Sahori is killed in the (long, tiresome, drawn-out) incident with Lahmu, Atsuta’s reaction is to express his regrets that he couldn’t save her, saying that the whole reason he got the demon summoning program was to prevent something like that from happening.  Atsuta wants to protect those who can’t protect themselves, to protect the weak from evil demons and from bullies alike.  And, uh, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the concept of the strong defending the weak 1 of the most important core tenets of the LAW side of Shin Megami Tensei?  Traditionally, Chaos in SMT means a cutthroat world where the strong thrive by taking from and subjugating the weak.  Even if, admittedly, the SMT5 Chaos route is somewhat different from the typical direction of the series, there’s no denying that Atsuta’s driving focus of defending the defenseless is definitely the behavior of a champion of Law.  Hell, SMT5 even had a sidequest early in the game in which the goddess Apsaras, established to be the representative of Law in that matter, was doing just that for various lesser demons--protecting them from the harsh world around them because they couldn’t do so themselves.  No damn wonder Atlus didn’t have Atsuta even faintly question anything Koshimizu tells him; the moment you even questioningly glance at the idea that Atsuta would be the proponent of Chaos, the idea crumbles to bits faster than consumer trust in Bethesda did on November 14, 2018.

And speaking of the incident with Sahori and Lahmu, Atsuta has witnessed through this event the ways in which the helpless are mistreated and trampled by gods who want something from them.  Yet we’re somehow supposed to buy that this supposed stalwart defender of the meek thinks, even after seeing how things went with Lahmu, that his best move to protect Tokyo is to create a world in which entire pantheons of these smaller deities are running amok with no higher force to keep them in check?

Frankly, the Chaos route doesn’t even seem all that logical for its patron saint Koshimizu to believe in, either.  I mean, this guy is adamantly convinced that the best thing for Tokyo’s welfare is to put it in the care of a gaggle of local gods, theoretically working together to benefit the city.  Yet...shouldn't every part of Koshimizu’s experience in the last 20 years tell him that this is false?  Because since the initial holy war in which his brethren were killed, Director Diddledick has been a 1-man show running Tokyo as both its civil and military leader.  He’s said to basically be single-handedly keeping the city functioning even while also personally directing its security efforts and coordinating with Abdiel and the other Bethel alliance leaders.  For 2 decades, Koshimizu has been calling every shot in Tokyo, unquestioned by anyone else in the city, surrounded only by underlings, never peers.  And he’s been doing a fine enough job of it; things in Tokyo have run smoothly enough that no one’s even aware of the true nature of the devastated world beyond their borders.  Koshimizu can’t possibly fail to see the benefits of the single, infallible leader structure of the Law side of things, as he’s been that leader to Tokyo for longer than most of the major characters of this game have even been alive.  Maybe if we’d seen some indication that he’s tired or hates the burden of being the sole leader who can keep the city safe and functioning, then his eagerness to have a world where he’s only 1 of many who oversee the city would make sense, but, well, as previously mentioned, the guy gets absolutely 0 in way of character development.  So all we’ve got is an absolute leader who has actively maintained the absolute nature of his leadership for decades to demonstrable success taking up arms against the philosophy that supports absolute leadership.  It’s dumb.

And you know, not for nothing, but the narrative itself doesn’t exactly make a great argument for Chaos.  I mean, as I mentioned, Chapter 2 of the game basically shows us that when other gods are allowed to pursue their own goals, human beings are the collateral damage that comes with that--or helpless commodities to be acquired.  Dazai’s take-away from seeing the dissolution of the Bethel alliance is a crude one that doesn’t bother accounting for mitigating circumstances, but his criticism of Chaos born from that scene isn’t entirely wrong--the only example the game has shown us of a group of deities working together to protect their human charges is one which, immediately after being introduced to the audience, dissolved because there was no longer a higher power to keep them from pursuing purely selfish aims (and in Odin’s case, that aim involves, like Lahmu, human beings being helpless victims of his pursuit for power).  The closest thing you might get to a positive spin on Chaos’s world is the sidequest where Khonsu is trying to make Miyazu a demigoddess or whatever so she won’t die from her illness, but while well-intentioned, even that’s not really a positive example of the whole “lesser gods watching out for humanity” thing, because he’s ignoring her own wishes in the matter and basically has to be beaten near to death before he even thinks about respecting her autonomy as regards her own actual life.

By contrast, you get positive examples of Law in the game.  For all its failings, Bethel has managed to tenaciously endure a war against the demons for 20 years in which all of its highest generals and even God Himself were eliminated early on.  God at least did Tokyo and its people a solid by using a miracle to save it from annihilation before He kicked it.  The source of the protagonist’s victories in the game is invariably attributed to the fact that he’s a Nahobino, rather than the fact that he also commands a bunch of demons to fight alongside him--putting the emphasis of success on an all-powerful leader alone, rather than on a joint effort of several individuals working together.  The only continuously functional and positive community we see is that of the Fairies, and they’re a monarchy, a decidedly Law-styled system of government.  Even Koshimizu himself, if you judge him by his accomplishments and his role in Tokyo’s stability, is, as I mentioned before, an icon of Law’s idea of a single, infallible leader protecting and watching over the many.  

Similarly, there’s positive data for choosing the Neutral path(s).  The world’s terrible state is undeniably a result of the interference of gods, angels, and demons, and the majority of crimes and tragedies that occur over SMT5’s course are the fault of demons.  If you can get past what a tiresome unlikable self-important arrogant douchebag piece of shit Yakumo is--admittedly quite a challenge; the guy’s like a less emotive Albel Nox--then there’s plenty of evidence in the game for why Neutral’s goal of getting all these demons to fuck the hell off once and for all is a viable path.

But Chaos just doesn’t have anything in the game itself that significantly supports it.  There’s plenty of examples of Law’s failings in SMT5, to be sure, and even the Neutral route has some major glaring flaws at its conclusion (to be discussed in a future rant about SMT5’s endings), but there’s at least some cause, narratively, to support ideals for each, which the player can point to for rationale in choosing either Law or Neutral.  The same can’t be said of Chaos; the idea of a joint pantheon of lower gods being the ones protecting and guiding humanity has only negative associations within the game’s events and characters.

It’s frustrating.  Admittedly, of the standard Shin Megami Tensei philosophical doctrines, Chaos is the one I usually buy into the very least, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate and want it to be a reasonably equal, viable competitor to Law and Neutral.  Yet in Shin Megami Tensei 5, Chaos is easily and transparently the option with the least attention or consideration given by the writers, championed by characters that are each a poor fit for it, whose rationale and association with it are utterly unexplored, and who possess all the depth and charisma of a sheet of plywood, as well as the route that the game’s own direction and events uniformly contradict and condemn.  And this really isn’t even the end of the story of how the Chaos faction of Shin Megami Tensei 5 sucks; it’s just that the remaining reasons are related to broad enough topics that they’re gonna be a part of additional rants forthcoming.  No part of Shin Megami Tensei 5 is good by any stretch of the imagination, but some parts are definitely worse than others, and the Chaos route is easily 1 of its weakest areas.

* Technically there’s some very softly understated implication that it’s tied to Atsuta’s fixation on protecting his ill sister Miyazu, but considering how little he interacts with her--and most of those interactions occur offscreen, to boot--and how her being his motivation quickly stops being brought up, and that the entire little sidequest arc about her poor health never once involves Atsuta for even a single line of dialogue, it’s pretty fucking safe to say that she is effectively irrelevant to his character.