Sunday, February 20, 2022


The new rant, updated on every 8th, 18th, and 28th of the month, is right below this post. Enjoy! But before you do, I have a quick announcement...

Saturday, September 18, 2021

General RPG Populaces Are Dumb as Hell

A fairly common component of the RPG genre is the puzzle.  While not as ubiquitous as battles, you’re nonetheless almost guaranteed, at some point, to encounter some mild brainteaser to solve while traversing a dungeon.  There are crates to push into the correct spots, switches to pull, passwords to infer from clues, gaps to (somehow) cross with whips and monkey arms, tiles to move into place, ice to slide on, connected floor panels to turn the correct color, golden rings to rotate while tearing your hair out of your skull at how unintuitively designed they are, card sequences to memorize, items to combine into the right tool, walls to lay bombs in front of, riddles to solve, enemies to kill or spare in designated order, piano keys to play in a specific order, mazes to navigate, and so, so much more.  Hell, even combat in an RPG often has a puzzle element, as you’re expected to ascertain bosses’ weaknesses and conceive strategies to deal with new circumstances and scenarios.  Yes, puzzles of all forms are everywhere to be found in RPGs, and if there is 1 thing that can be gleaned from their existence, it is this:

Everyone who lives in an RPG world is a frickin’ moron.

I mean, take a moment and LOOK at the level of difficulty for most RPG puzzles.  These are not exactly stumpers, more often than not.  The majority of switch-flipping puzzles’ solution just involves backtracking until you find a door that’s opened now.  Most mazes are single-tiered and half the relative size of the ones made for childrens’ activity books.  Quite often, if you have a grasp on which colors mix together to form other colors, you know the answer to at least 1 puzzle you’re gonna encounter in the game.  Half the time the solution to crate-pushing puzzles is just being able to understand the concept of height--they’re less complicated than the tests we administer to monkeys to see if they can figure out how to stack stuff high enough to reach a banana, and the monkeys ace those things.

Can you distinguish shapes?  If you can, a good 10% of RPG puzzles are going to be utterly defenseless against your mental might.

And yet these fundamentally facile puzzles are considered, by countless ancient temple-building civilizations in RPG worlds, not to mention quite a few organizations in the present, to be adequate defenses for all their most important places and stuff.  And keep in mind, the extinct cultures that build dungeons in RPGs are usually the smartest ones, known for all their lost knowledge and wisdom.  The lauded Ancients who had mastered science and magic are also the ones that designed a door and key both clearly marked with the same symbol, and then considered the door secure enough if its key sat prominently on a glowing pedestal 2 rooms away.

And the ancient temple-builders were actually right. That’s the thing! These temples with their Fisher-Price puzzles are left safely undisturbed for centuries at a time by any intruder!  Until some adventurer who’s uncommonly clever (by comparison, that is) comes along, these dungeons and towers and so on are just largely left alone, because not a single visitor ever thought to move a statue a few paces to the right so that the room is symmetrical.  I mean, you’d think by mere chance someone with OCD would happen along at some point or other and open the dungeon entrance just by accident, but nope.

There’s a sealed temple in Pokemon Generation 8 whose clue for entrance, written on the outside, directs the reader to “walk together with a living crystal of snow.”  Basically, if you approach with a Cryogonal following you, it’ll let you in.  Even assuming a reader somehow didn’t know what a Cryogonal was and couldn’t on his/her own infer, while living in the Pokemon world, that a living crystal of snow might be some kind of Pokemon, Cryogonal are indigenous to the area surrounding the temple! Anyone looking to get into the temple has already SEEN the damn Cryogonal merely during the act of arriving there!  And yet somehow, by the time the game’s protagonist gets there, who knows how many years after the temple’s creation, the place is still locked up tighter than Bobby Kotick's ass clenches at the word "ethical."  How is this possible?  The only explanation has to be that the people of the Pokemon world--or at least the Galar Region--are basically all knuckle-dragging dipshits.  Considering that this is the land that idolizes Leon, it’s not exactly at odds with the canon.

And make no mistake, it’s not just low-energy yawn-fests like Pokemon Generation 8 that have these infantile puzzles.  Genuinely great RPGs are filled to the brim with’em, too.  A bunch of the locked doors you find in Horizon 0 Dawn, for example, have pass codes that are invisible to the naked eye...but brightly displayed in neon holograms to anyone looking at them with a Focus device.  For context, at the time these holo-locks were created, that’d basically be like writing your password down in invisible ink that reveals itself if you hold your cell-phone up to it, or really just anywhere in the same room.  Great security system if you’re trying to keep a pathetic Luddite like myself out of your secret base!  Maybe not so great if your intent is to bar access to any of the remaining 95% of the planet’s population, though.

Okay, look, every now and then, yes, you will get an RPG that has a few genuinely difficult puzzles that bar passage, which take a goodly amount of thought and intelligence to pass through.*  Maybe not so much that it seems likely that no one in over 100 years has managed to solve it, but still more legitimate a security measure than a rotating panel puzzle that anyone could brute-force their way through because it has less than 100 total possible combinations.  However, worlds like that of Alundra 1, with these actually challenging brainteasers, are relatively few in number.

And I do get why, from a developer perspective.  The focal story elements of RPGs may invite an older audience, but gameplay-wise, the genre is a pretty all-ages one, in no small part due to just how many of its combat obstacles can just be overwhelmed by the simple process of level-grinding.  So to have all other elements of the playing process be simplistic baby-stuff, and then suddenly some fiendishly difficult puzzle is gatekeeping the next area of the game from anyone who isn’t thinking about applying to Mensa, would be problematic.  Hell, I’d probably be annoyed if I had to hit Ecosia 5 times per dungeon in every game I played.

Still, there probably is a happy medium between needlessly frustrating stumpers and the ones where the big secret is to put an object on a button so it stays pressed when you move away.  Because as things stand, the IQ of the average NPC in an RPG is probably about the same as their shoe size--or even lower, if Nomura was doing the character designs.

* Ones which aren’t just outright unfairly cryptic, that is.  “Palm trees and 8” can go to hell.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

General RPG Music Lists 3: Chime Really Feeling It!

We've covered battle themes and environmental songs thus far, which means our next step on this little journey through the best of RPG music will be emotion music.  This category is kind of an "all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares" sort of thing--or, to keep it RPG-related, an "all of Pete Hines's statements are lies, but not all lies are Pete Hines's statements" situation.  Because when you get down to it, all battle and environmental music is trying to create and tap into a certain emotional mindset--hell, that's basically ALL the music in RPGs, and just about every other genre and form of media in which music is used as background.  It's basically the fundamental reason to have songs in your work at all: to provoke an emotional response that assists in telling the story and keeping your audience in the right frame of mind.  Battle and environmental music just happen to be subsets with easily recognizable situational qualifiers.

Today's categorization covers the broad bases that battles and settings don't: sequences, scenarios, and situations.  Basically, this is the music that plays when a mood is called for in an RPG that has nothing (or at least very little) to do with the surrounding area, and is instead defined by what's going on, what's being discussed or remembered, what's being felt.  When a protagonist finds out that his long-lost brother is a villain out to destroy the world, you don't want the same calm, cool, tranquil music of the forest setting to play, even if that happens to be where this revelation takes place.  When a hero and his best friend have a sincere heart-to-heart that energizes each with determination thanks to the reassurance that he'll always have a buddy in his corner, you want the music for the scene to be determined by the content of their conversation, not the fact that they happen to be bandying feel-good sentiments in the midst of a bizarre alternate reality where the trees are purple pigs' feet and the water is lemon marmalade that flows up waterfalls instead of down.  The narrative demands special music for such occasions, to underscore the emotion of such scenes.

So anyway, here's all the mood music of RPGs that I love most!

Note: I do not in any way care about what the actual name of any of these tracks is. I organize the songs I listen to by their function, essentially what I'll remember them for. So if you really love the Fables of Zestfullycleansia song, "Genuflect Before God's Radiance (Meatball Sub with Buttercream Frosting Instrumental)", which played during scenes of awe and mysticism, then just assume that I call it Fables of Zestfullycleansia Mystic, as that's the game of origin and its actual function.

Also Note: As with last time, if a category doesn't have an A+ song within it, I'll just do a little opinion piece on my favorite of the ones it does have.


Spiritual music covers moods of reverence and awe, of a religious or otherwise mythological nature.  Some magical plot girl communing with deities, a protagonist's totem spirit relaying advice and direction to him, the soul of a warrior being initiated into the afterlife, the heroes being told the legend of a holy maiden, these are the sorts of scenarios in which Spiritual music sets the mood.  Creating an atmosphere of wonder, which underscores the divine, the unknowable, and/or the realms and entities beyond mortal grasp is the name of the game for Spiritual songs, and they tend as a matter of course to be heavy, but in a peaceful and epic way.

It's kinda like if Place of Worship setting music wasn't so high off the fumes of its own divine farts.

- Breath of Fire 2 Legend

- La Pucelle Tactics Maiden of Light
- Stella Glow Legend
- Suikoden 2 Legend
- Tales of Symphonia Martel
- Valkyrie Profile 1 Birth of Einherjar
- Whisper of a Rose Mystic

- Bahamut Lagoon Dragon Hymn
This is a great mix of humbling mysticism, the grandeur of dragons, and just that barest undertone of melancholy that seems inherent to all Yoyo says and does.  Really cool and beautiful piece!

- Shadowrun SNES Spirit
- Wild Arms 3 Legend



This rant is easier than the previous ones, because most of the categories pretty much explain themselves.  Happy music, for example, is pretty much just that--it's the music that plays during scenarios that are generally positive, cheerful, and intent on putting you in a good mood.

...Which is actually kind of rare, weirdly.  I guess stories do thrive on conflict, but I still was kind of surprised, when I looked over my collection of RPG music, to realize just how much more attention is given in RPGs to music related to conflict and unhappiness than to songs indicative of a good time.  And the quality clearly skews to the former, too--you can see below that there's not much in the way of really great Happy music.  Plenty of good Happy music out there, I suppose, but nothing that earns a B+ or higher.  Maybe it's just hard for composers to figure out a way to give earnestly blithe tunes some compelling depth?  I dunno.  It is possible, though.






Love music is a subset of the Happy category, because, I mean, presumably love should be a fairly pleasant feeling, right?  Obviously it doesn't always work out that way in RPGs, but in theory it's 1 of the greatest emotions a person can feel.  Love themes tend to be slow, tender, and sometimes sweet, and piano tends to figure heavily into this song type.  Although the general feeling is (and should be) uplifting, there can be a lot of depth and variations to this kind of music, too, to imply the hardship that the love overcomes, the longing that comes with it, the overwhelming power of the emotion, etc.

Final Fantasy 7 Gondola

- Mass Effect 3 Love
I like the poignantly sweet but perhaps slightly desperate tone to this.  The song skillfully imparts the beauty and deep fulfillment that comes from loving and being loved, and does so with this kind of...I dunno, mortal tone?  Like it's aware of just how short-lived the love between Shepard and Tali (or Shepard and 1 of the other love interests if you're some kind of heathen) could be during a brutal war.  It's not just trying for the beauty of love, but for the beauty of what could be preciously finite, too.  And it really works well for a love story that's continued from previous installments (Tali), too, capturing a weight that coincides well with a romance that's had history, has seen and survived much already.  Very nice stuff.




Comedy is the other sub-category for Happy music.  When wacky happenings and whimsical hi-jinks are the order of the moment, Comedy music is there to confirm that, yes, it is time for you to laugh.

Which is very convenient, because sometimes the audience could use some direction on this matter.  If it weren't for these songs hitting you over the head with a toy mallet and screaming "IT'S FUNNY STUPID, WHY AREN'T YOU LAUGHING" into your face, I daresay you sure as hell wouldn't even recognize the crass, out of character sexual harassment at the hot springs, or a female character do the unthinkable and not be absolutely perfect at cooking, as something meant to be jovial.  Comedy music has a hell of a tough job, because not only is a little song-and-dance routine theme not likely to be the kind of memorable and moving tune you want to listen to again, but it's saddled with the nearly impossible task, at least 30% of the time, of convincing you that decades-stale anime gags are still funny--or ever were to begin with.






When protagonists are exiled from their village, when family and friends realize that they must take opposite sides in a conflict, when Magical Plot Girls are taken captive by villains and look to be beyond rescue...when everything's bad and hopeless, Sad music is there to sell you on the mood.  I daresay that of all the genre's mood music, Sad is probably the 1 found most universally.  Sooner or later some unpleasant shit is going to go down in a story, and while you can get away with just regular setting tunes for a lot of other story scenes, you really can't avoid underscoring a sad scenario with appropriate music.

It's also probably the most consistently high-quality form of emotional music, too.  Maybe composers try harder for these pieces because they're the lynch pins in most RPGs' plots, or maybe we just naturally have a greater compulsion to value and seek out dramatically weighty feelings over most other mental sensations, but 1 way or another, Sad music has a good, strong chance of being the standout hit of the soundtrack's Mood themes.

- Arc the Lad 2 Sad
- Breath of Fire 2 Sad
- Crystareino Sad
- Glory of Heracles 5 Sad
- Phantom Brave Sad
- Suikoden 5 Sad

- Barkley, Shut Up and Jam Gaiden Sad
- Dark Cloud 1 Regret
- Final Fantasy Tactics Sad
- Live-A-Live Sad
- Neverwinter Nights 1 Wyvern Crown of Cormyr Sad
- Radiant Historia 1 Sad
- Trials of Mana Sad
- Tales of Phantasia Sad

- Disgaea 1 Sad
- I Am Setsuna Sad
- Pier Solar and the Great Architects Illness
- Rakuen Yami's Pain
- Suikoden 2 Sad
- Terranigma Sad
- Tales of Berseria Velvet's Anguish
- Tales of Zestiria Sad

- Eternal Senia Finding Magaleta
I can't deny that some of this song's placement has to do with the overwhelming emotional power of the scene it plays over, rather than being strictly about its quality alone.  But A, an inescapable association with the game's greater scenes is an indication of success in a song, and B, it's still an undeniably heavy, heart-wrenching, and lovely tune, regardless.  Jeez, Eternal Senia is a hell of a sentimental punch to the gut, I tell you.


While standard Sad music is often tasked with covering all unhappy events, many RPGs opt to have a separate mournful song in their arsenal to play when characters in their drama die (or, sometimes, when a specific character kicks the bucket).  Which seems fair to me; there's enough difference in emotional magnitude between a scene of some bounty hunters sadly admitting that their current job is beyond their capabilities and a scene where the protagonist's father figure dies after telling the hero that he's proud of him to warrant some musical distinction.  Additionally, though it doesn't happen often, a death scene doesn't always have to strictly be sad--sometimes death is a release, or a contented moving on once one's work is fully done, so it's good to give the act a category that allows for that variation more than just throwing it all under Sad would.  Sorrowful or otherwise, though, Death music is almost always designed to evoke a powerful emotional response, possibly the strongest of all these mood tunes, and composers tend to bring their A game to this category.

Oh, and by the way, since the titles of the songs give it away here, be aware that this category has Spoilers for:
Mass Effect 3
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3
Xenosaga 3

- Xenogears Death

- Breath of Fire 2 Death
- Valkyria Chronicles 1 Death

- Chrono Trigger Sad
- Mass Effect 3 Anderson's Death
- Rakuen Fukushima 50
- Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 Minato's Death
- Suikoden 1 Death
- Xenosaga 3 Pellegri's Death

- Rakuen Leaving for Rakuen
Yeah so I still cry sometimes when I listen to this.


Reflection/Remembrance music is kind of interesting.  It's any melody which is meant to accompany or create a sense of introspection, of mulling over things.  This tends to involve a review or a recollection of events which have happened before now, whether in-game or prior to the story's opening.  At the same time, though, music associated with memories, in RPGs at least, is very frequently painful and/or regretful, which means that this category has a lot of overlap with Sad music.  There's enough specifically memory-oriented music that it feels at times like it should be separated from introspective themes, and yet every time I try to do it, there's too much content that clearly is both a song of reflection and remembrance to really distinguish them.  So, messy though it may be, it remains a single category, which stretches over scenes of meditating over one's beliefs and next action, remembering the good old days of valor with comrades, recalling mournfully the days spent with one's best friend before an evil wizard took his life, and more.


- Final Fantasy 5 Memories
- Final Fantasy Tactics Ovelia's Worries
- Kingdom Hearts 2 Memories
- Sakura Wars 5 Reflection

- Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure Kururu's Memories
- Skies of Arcadia Reflection

- Suikoden 2 Memories
Suikoden 2 was already clearly going to be a great game, from the get-go, but I think it was when I heard this song, and watched Riou and Nanami waiting at the gates of Muse with hope and dread in their hearts for Jowy to return to them, that I realized that this game was going to be the kind of masterpiece that would stay with me forever.  There's no scene that involves this theme which isn't excellent, and part of that is just due to the quality of the song itself.  You listen to this, and you yourself feel the morose yearning for the happy days of family and childhood, lost forever to war and destiny, that the game's characters experience.

- Xenosaga 1 Bitter Memories
This is 1 of those songs that just blows me away.  Those strings, that mournful, leaden lilt...if I ever hear a song better and more beautifully, hauntingly representing the concept of raw, painful recollections, I'll be pretty damn surprised.


When your mad, jilted ex-girlfriend has you strapped down on a table and intends to take out her frustrations on you with a scalpel, Fear music is there to help the terror burrow all the deeper into your heart.*  When the overrated villain needs a pulse-stopping, chilling sound to make up for what he lacks in genuine screen presence, Fear music is there to pick up Sephiroth's slack.  When an equally annoying villain's terrorizing some poor kid by ripping his own head off and waxing moronic about sinful peaches and peachy sins, Fear music is there to make Albedo seem more spooky-creepy than call-Chris-Hanson-creepy.  This category of emotional music is there to immerse the audience in how unnerving and/or outright terrifying a situation is, less about actively destructive and dangerous events (that's the next category) than it is about the threat of such things.  This tune tends to be heavy, slow, and penetrating, reverberating within you but doing so at its own pace, which just increases its ability to create tension.

Unfortunately, while Fear music does often represent quite skillful enterprises by composers, it's kinda hard to make an effective Fear piece that's also something you would want to hear on your own time.  It's not usually especially catchy, nor does it inspire a sensation that most people want to experience casually.  In fact, I think it's pretty safe to say that the better a frightening tension song is, the less likely it'll be something you'll like to listen to.  So, sadly, this category is currently empty for me, and is like as not to remain so.  Unlike most other empty groups in these rants, though, that's really through no failing of the composers; if anything, that could be a healthy sign for Fear music.






Catastrophes, disasters, and so on, Emergency music covers situations of eventful, action-filled panic.  If regular Fear music describes a scenario of personal horror which you cannot overcome or escape, Emergency music is more along the lines of calamities that call for action (even if it's most typically escape), or at least, large enough cataclysms that everyone's in the same boat and it's less of an intensely fearful effect on you yourself.  This type of song tends to be fast, sometimes even frantic, and forceful, made as it is to accompany such things as races against a ticking clock, fires raging out of control, and, most often, villains wreaking havoc on structures and towns.  Interestingly, this is often fairly catchy, and/or gives the listener a pleasant shot of adrenal energy, so there's a lot more opportunities for ditties you'd actually want to listen to on your own time with this category than its Fear parent.

- Breath of Fire 3 Weretiger
- Final Fantasy 9 Ambush Attack

- Barkley, Shut Up and Jam Gaiden Emergency
- Chrono Cross Emergency
- Mother 3 Forest Fire
- Suikoden 5 Nether Gate Attack

- Wild Arms 3 Emergency
- Xenogears Emergency
The rushing intensity to this piece is great.  You can hear the frantic footfalls of heroes running for all they're worth, rubble and rocks falling all around, vehicles speeding out of control as their operators grasp desperately at the wheel, militants exchanging fire in a desperate battle of urban combat, and all manner of other adrenaline-soaked conflicts and disasters you can imagine; it all goes great with this tune.



Encouragement, confidence, heroism with a can-do attitude, the Determination tune is basically the opponent of Emergency music.**  While there's once again an urgent sense of action and important events unfolding, this time they're in the favor of the forces of good.  Determination music is plans being set in motion, armies marching, and a mildly stupid teenager who has somehow found himself leading them both making speeches about the power of friendship.  This kind of song is pumped, boisterous, hopeful, and ready to take on the world with a confidence that comes from favorable fortunes--or the will to make one's own opportunities.  It can make for some pretty cool pieces that energize you and buoy your spirits...when it's not being a little too heavy-handed with the ALWAYS DO YOUR BEST TO DO YOUR BEST thing.

- Final Fantasy 5 Warriors of Dawn
- Quantum Entanglement Determination (From what I can understand, this is an original composition made freely available to anyone who wants it, which was used by Quantum Entanglement, and possibly other games. Since QE is what I know it from, I just categorize it as such)
- Romancing Saga 3 Castle Assault
- Sailor Moon: Another Story Determination
- Terranigma Royd

- Arc the Lad 3 Alec
- Eternal Senia Determination
- Lufia 2 Last Chance
- Suikoden 1 Army
- Suikoden 5 Army
- Tales of Legendia Chasing Shirley

- Cosmic Star Heroine Secret Agent at Work
This is a really fun piece.  It captures a feeling of rushing activity, but also a heroic, action-y confidence.  Like, there's intrigue and danger, but also an assurance that the heroine's got this.  Very cool.

- Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 Determination



Everything in this world has a beginning, and a point at which it ends, even intangibles like human relationships.  While most partings between people in RPGs given any narrative significance tend to involve the death of 1 or both parties, sometimes characters will luck out and have an important, emotionally significant goodbye that doesn't involve anyone croaking.  Such moments may necessitate their own unique music to fully reach their potential for moving the player, and so Farewell music comes into play.

Farewell songs most often seem to follow the old saying that parting is sweet sorrow.  By and large they'll be sad, to some degree, but at the same time, there's usually an element of hope, happiness, satisfaction, or closure, as well.  You're generally meant to be sorry to see the character or community go, but it's not an outright, pure downer the way that its sister Death music usually is.

- Darkblood Chronicles Saying Goodbye

- The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Fi's Farewell
Okay, so maybe not too many of us were too terribly sad to no longer have to deal with Slow Text Robo-Navi, but it's still a really pretty, poignant song of adieu.



* Used in the game Quantum Entanglement, since the page itself doesn't mention.

** Although they don't really HAVE to be separate entities; you can occasionally find a really awesome tune that's sort of both Emergency AND Determination.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Fallout 4's Use of Religion

Hide your children and delete this blog from your bookmarks, because I’m about to commit that grave sin once more: I’m recycling a comment I made on Youtube into a rant.  Because I’m fucking evil, that’s why.

A few months ago, a small quest mod for Fallout 4 showed up on the Nexus, and as I still like to keep up with promising user adventures for the game, I checked it out.  It was a fairly decent little adventure, centered around religion (specifically Christianity), and its creator clearly put some time, effort, and most of all, sincerity into the work.  I didn’t personally get a lot out of it, but I can appreciate the work for what it is and intends.  The thing that interested me most, however, wasn’t within the mod itself, but rather the stated intent of the creator--he essentially was surprised at the lack of religious themes and content in Fallout 4, compared to previous games, and felt that there should have been more, making the mod to fill that gap a bit.

This interests me, because I feel that it’s quite the opposite.

Now, to clarify, the gentleman isn’t wrong on the point that religion has been a significant theme in the Fallout series prior to Fallout 4.  It certainly has.  The original Fallout 1 and 2 made mention occasionally of prewar Christian beliefs having slight holdouts here and there, albeit now passed along more through family than outright cultural communities.  More significantly, The Master’s army is as much a cult worshiping him and the ideals of super mutation as it is an actual military force in Fallout 1.  Fallout 2 ups the religious theme quite a bit by making the Hubologists (basically the Scientologists) a significant entity, incorporating tribal spiritual and paranormal beliefs frequently into characters and groups (such as Sulk* and Arroyo), and establishing a (largely ignored, admittedly) pseudo-Christian priest as a prominent figure in the major city of New Reno.  Fallout 3’s entire plot centers around a verse from the Bible, and introduces a cult of radiation worshippers, while Fallout New Vegas incorporates a decent smattering of tribal beliefs, introduces the Bright Brotherhood (which is yet another cult, but a refreshingly benign one), has a few more references to Christianity here and there, and gives Mormonism a substantial.background presence in its Honest Hearts DLC.  So yeah, while it’s never really a huge focal point of the game (the Master’s cult is a secondary revelation to the discovery of his military ambitions so the religious side isn’t the major mental image the player has of his forces, and Fallout 3’s Bible passage is significant for its poetic concept, not specifically for its religious nature), religion’s a definite part of the series.

And in a sense, he’s not completely wrong in thinking that there should have been more religious content in Fallout 4.  I agree from the perspective that Fallout 4 is about Boston and the surrounding area, and the fact of the matter is that the cultural history of Massachusetts, and by some extension the United States as a whole, is (unfortunately) hugely influenced by having been founded (or invaded, depending on your perspective) by the Puritans.  Given Fallout’s core premise of analysis of American culture and history, there really should have been some thematic spotlight shed on the whole Puritan thing.  Preferably one that emphasized what a bunch of self-important, philosophically self-defeating whiny dickweeds they were, but I’m not picky, I’d take whatever as long as it’s written well.

However, to get back to my main purpose, I strongly disagree that Fallout 4 is lacking in content utilizing religion.  I think, in fact, that it is the installment of the series with the most focus upon and influence of religion!

It’s just not blatant and outright proclaimed, that’s all.  Like, if you’re looking for narrative road signs spelling out who’s believing in what and which holy book’s influencing what faction, then yeah, there’s not much to be found--there’s a preacher in Diamond City who can wear whatever religious hat you want him to, the Children of the Atom are unfortunately mucking about here and there, and you can do a couple minor quests for some Hubologists in the Nuka World add-on, but that’s about it, and it’s all exceptionally tiny and mostly irrelevant.  If what you want is some overt, surface representation of religion, yeah, Fallout 4’s pretty weak.

But just because you don’t see it as obviously, that doesn’t mean it’s not there, and in great quantity.**  Remember how Shin Megami Tensei 3 didn’t so much directly analyze and fixate upon any specific, outright belief system (like most of the rest of the series does), so much as it made its focus the underlying, core approaches that religions are built off of?  Similar situation here with Fallout 4.  If anything, I would argue that the theme of religion plays a greater role in Fallout 4 than it has in any previous entry of the the form of the Institute.

They may not wrap it up in the usual trappings that we think of being religion-related, but the Institute is basically a corrupt religious institution, in all the ways that matter. Its members blindly follow its single leader (even when they’re privately unsure of his vision), for starters.  Next, the leader they’re virtually unquestioningly following is a man who has used carefully selected language and rhetoric to refine the group's behaviors, and viewpoints on other people, very specifically to serve the organization's convenience and restrict the ability for different viewpoints on human nature to grow--this can be primarily seen in the Institute's terminology regarding Synths.  While not solely the property of social faiths and belief systems, there’s no denying that these kinds of manipulatively dogmatic behaviors are most iconic of religious groups (especially, though not exclusively, cults).

Then there’s the fact that the Institute is utterly, adamantly convinced that it is the sole salvation of all humankind, whether the rest of humanity agrees or not. It sees those not within it as unenlightened and in need of guidance because they're simply unequipped for self-determination.  From little grassroots compound-based cults on up to world-spanning titans of faith like Christianity, that one there’s a particular favorite of religions.  Tell me you’ve ever, ever seen any group wholly unaffiliated with a social religion engage in as much self-congratulatory back-patting over being the autonomously-appointed saviors of humanity (again, regardless of how humanity itself feels about the matter) as the Institute does.

Additionally, the Institute operates with fanatical devotion to ideals and goals that are almost completely undefined, described in vague terms of a better, shining tomorrow that only they know how to bring about, while having no concrete description of what that 'better world' end result will look like or how they'll know it when it comes about. And, for that matter, they carry on with this certainty of being the ones who will bring about this completely nebulous utopia also while lacking any concrete plan or set of steps specifically and logically leading to their desired conclusion.  Essentially, the members of the Institute all labor out of faith and faith alone that they're going to save the world.  Again, pretty big, signature behavior and belief of religious organizations, here.

These are not just random quirks of this faction--they are the most signature characteristics of the Institute and the ways in which it is run! And not a single 1 of them represents or even resembles the behavior of an actual scientific organization. These are the actions, mentalities, and methods of a religion, and a very worrying one, at that. Technological progress and fixation on scientific discovery are the Institute's trappings, yes, but these clothes don't cover up the fact that its members' behaviors, goals, beliefs, attitudes, and hierarchy are that of a cult , with Father as its charismatic leader.

And since the Institute functions as the faction upon which the strong majority of the game's lore, personal conflicts, philosophical questions, and narrative events are based, and as both the home and, effectively, genesis of the game's primary antagonist Shaun, I think it's reasonable to say that religion has never been a greater factor in a Fallout game than it is in Fallout 4.

* The game even commits to canonizing some degree of Sulik’s belief in the spirits as a fact of the Fallout universe.  While the Hubologists are as full of crap as the real-life cult they’re based on, and you can kind of disregard certain minor paranormal events and quests as being questionable at best as to whether they’re meant to be taken seriously, Sulik’s spirits are straight-up spitting facts.  When you ask Sulik what the spirits tell him of locations you visit, he occasionally relates insights about the area that he really couldn’t possibly know on his own.  And it’s hard to discount these as something intended not to be given real consideration as canon, because a lot of these bits are fully voiced, major lines of his dialogue--quite a lot of resources to put into something not intended to have any weight.  It’s certainly not the only time the series validates paranormal factors (The Sight of Mama Murphy and that Ug-Qualtoth nonsense, for example, are both validated to differing degrees on multiple occasions), but it’s significant for being the first, and perhaps setting the precedent that allowed those other examples to come about at all.

** As my sister, who graciously wasted way too much of her time listening to me blather on in this rant and is at least 90% of the reason it’s not garbage, as she is for almost every rant, pointed out, this is actually a good bit of Christianity right here--finding the non-overt factors of religion in Fallout 4 is perhaps not dissimilar to the whole thing of seeing God in the subtle and understated happenings of His works, and whatnot.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Horizon 0 Dawn's Expansion

Well, I finally got around to, and finished, playing Horizon 0 Dawn, and while the setting didn’t initially wow me, which made its first third seem kinda slow, it turned out to be a really great RPG once the story really started to unfold itself and its themes started to line up.  I can definitely see why it was successful and lauded.  But of course, with even the slightest whiff of monetary reward comes the inevitable extra cash-ins, and so, H0D has a downloadable expansion.  The quality of the original game makes me hopeful that its add-on would be good, too, but of course, past experience has proven conclusively that that doesn’t mean much.  Let’s see how H0D’s shakes out.

The Frozen Wilds: This expansion sees Aloy traveling into Banuk territory, and exploring Yellowstone National Park as she sorts out a matter of aggressive, “possessed” machines separate from the main game’s events.  There’s a main quest, and several sidequests, errands, and exploration...basically, The Frozen Wilds is like a smaller iteration of the game as a whole.

The main story’s alright, I guess.  I mean...a lot of it is sort of a retread of Horizon 0 Dawn’s main narrative, with the whole malevolent-outside-entity-taking-control-of-and-creating-an-aggressive-army-of-machines thing.  And honestly, it does have a bit of a weakness in that the 2 major entities who drive the plot of The Frozen Wilds forward, Aratak and Ourea, aren’t all that interesting.  They’re not boring, mind you, but the best personalities of this adventure are all relegated to sidequests.  Likewise, of the stories of the Old Ones’ you find in the vocal and log entries, the ones connected to the main quest left the least impact on me.  Again, none of it’s bad (and that’s an accomplishment for an add-on right there, sadly), but only the very ending of The Frozen Wilds’s main story (being able to speak to CYAN) really held my attention.

With that said, the surrounding elements of The Frozen Wilds are really good!  The sidequests have a lot of compelling characters who are fun to interact with--the hunting trio’s name gimmick was quite amusing, the conversations with the painter and the pipe-player were cool, the stories of Ikrie and Inatut are interesting glimpses into the Banuk culture, the payoff for finding the animal figurines is fun, the story of Concrete Beach Party was really touching and easily the equal of even some of Fallout’s best examples of posthumous log-entry storytelling, and I just absolutely loved Gildun.  Getting to hang out with Gildun probably makes The Forbidden Wilds worth it all by itself.  If there is any justice and joy in this world, we’ll see more of Gildun in Horizon Forbidden West, because he is honestly just great, a laugh-a-minute character who’s thoroughly, gently endearing.

I also like the fact that you can talk to CYAN at the end not only about the events of The Frozen Wilds’s main story, but also about the content of its sidequests, and even about major elements of the main game’s plot.  CYAN’s conversations are a great little way to acknowledge the side content of the expansion as relevant and important to its whole, and I really appreciate that they deepen the lore of the game, and tie The Frozen Wilds more significantly to it.  It reminds me of some other really great add-ons, like Fallout: New Vegas’s Lonesome Road, in that way.  Likewise, the fact that once you’ve completed the main quest of The Frozen Wilds, Aratak will show up as an ally during the finale of the main game, is a good way of making TFW seem like more than just a disconnected side story to the game--while still maintaining enough distance that H0D doesn’t feel incomplete without it, which is important (screw you and your Dragon Age 2 Exiled Prince, Bioware).

Finally, there’s an element to The Frozen Wilds that I appreciate, which wasn’t really present so much in the main game: the Fallout Americana approach.  1 of my favorite parts of the Fallout series is that 1 of its core focuses is an examination, analysis, critique, and celebration of the culture, history, and soul of The United States.  Each major Fallout title (besides that worthless festering colostomy bag 76) shows off the region in which it takes place, doing its best to capture the physical and emotional essence of that part of the USA, and I really love that.  This isn’t something that Horizon 0 Dawn does to any great degree, past portrayal of basic ecosystems and certain similarities of its tribes to indigenous North American tribes of the past.  And don’t get me wrong, that’s not to the game’s discredit; H0D isn’t Fallout, and it isn’t intended to be.  It’s its own thing.

Still, it’s kind of neat that The Frozen Wilds represents a Fallout-esque treatment of Yellowstone National Park!  While not nearly as in-depth as a Fallout title would get, TFW seems to be taking a similar approach in its portrayal of and appreciation for Yellowstone--the posthumous logs are specifically related to the setting, the area is clearly designed with an intent to show some appreciation for North America’s wilderness, the main quest and some of the sidequests are founded on the signature geology, fauna, and physical ecosystem of the area, the most notable new machines of the expansion are based on arguably the most iconic animal of the North American wilderness, the bear...

Hell, even the choice to use the Banuk as the focal tribe of this expansion is thematically tied to the heart of Yellowstone National Park.  The Banuk, after all, are largely defined by their spiritual respect for the machine creatures of their world, and the machines in H0D are sort of the stand-ins for natural animal life.  As the predators, primary vehicles of ecosystem recovery, and prey to be hunted in Horizon 0 Dawn, the machines are thematically far more the animals of the world than the actual flesh-and-blood critters you encounter.  So the fact that the Banuk are the stars of The Frozen Wilds is, I would say, a neat thematic tie to the setting, because the Banuk’s philosophies and beliefs of reverence for the machines are, ultimately, similar to the very foundational idea of Yellowstone National Park--conservation of and appreciation for the natural wildlife of North America.

So, The Frozen Wilds feels like a light, but very artful and elegant, tribute to and celebration of Yellowstone National Park and the spirit behind its existence, and I really like that.  If Fallout: New Vegas's Honest Hearts DLC (which featured the Grand Canyon) had been much better, I think it would've looked quite a bit like this.  Really, this expansion is like I got a tiny nugget of some of Fallout’s best qualities, and it’s a precious gift in these times of Bethesda bungling.  I kind of hope we’ll see more of this approach in the upcoming sequel.

Oh, yeah, 1 other thing that I applaud this expansion for?  It’s more of a personal thing, but I’m really happy to finally see some major piece of media actually paying some attention to the Yellowstone Caldera.  Because, like, it is just me, or should we really be more concerned with the fact that there is a supervolcano hanging out a few feet under the middle of the USA, just waiting to blow, that could goddamn END OUR CIVILIZATION?  How the hell doesn’t this come up more frequently in pop culture?  All we have to do to avoid like 60% of apocalypse scenarios is just make the choice NOT to be giant dicks to each other, but by all means, writers of various mediums, keep focusing on nuclear wars and genetically engineered virus outbreaks and so on, and ignore the seething ash-and-arson armageddon currently bubbling beneath our toes that we’re doing basically goddamn nothing about!

Anyway.  The Frozen Wilds is a solid, high-quality expansion, and even if its main event isn’t especially anything to write home about, the sum of its total parts is a respectable piece of work.  Now, originally it was, to my understanding, sold for $20, and I do take a bit of issue with that, because I’m pretty sure you’re only gonna get about half of that many hours out of it, maybe 15.  You should never be expected to spend more dollars than you’ll get hours out of an add-on, in my opinion...but The Frozen Wilds is good enough that one could reasonably argue that it’d still be worth that much.  And it’s an irrelevant concern nowadays anyway, because as of this moment, it is, to my understanding, sold for $10 if you buy it through the Playstation store (and it’s automatically included with H0D if you buy the game for the PC, or buy the game new altogether through Playstation).  $10 is definitely a fair price, so The Frozen Wilds gets an enthusiastic thumbs-up from me.

Well, that was nice!  It’s an all-too-uncommon treat to find a high caliber add-on, and one that’s actually priced appropriately.  This was just the sort of pleasant change of pace I needed after the crap of the last couple games with Downloadable Content (Deus Ex 4 and Fire Emblem 16) I played.  I’ll be sure to savor this experience for as long as I can...

...because my next add-on rant will be about the DLCs for Pokemon Generation 8.


Sunday, August 8, 2021

General RPG Lists: Worst Romances

I suppose it was inevitable, really, that my list of the greatest romances in the RPG genre would, someday, get this companion piece.  Inevitable because I’m lazy and unoriginal, certainly, but inevitable also because, to be honest, love stories are not where RPGs shine.  Yes, to be sure, there are quite a few good romances to be found in RPGs, and a decent handful of truly great ones!  But the fact is that by and large, RPG love stories are subpar.  You’ve a better chance of the major love stories in an RPG being uninteresting, unconvincing, unimportant, and/or outright unhealthy, than you do of finding a believable couple with good chemistry.

It’s a problem as likely to affect a good RPG as it is a bad one, interestingly.  Sure, you’d expect a halfhearted, unnecessary, undeveloped, insincere romance like Cless and Mint, and Arche and Chester, from a game with as little significant character development as Tales of Phantasia, or Kid and Serge from a game with as little skill or care for its writing as Chrono Cross.  But is Chaz and Rika’s out-of-nowhere infatuation in a great game like Phantasy Star 4 any better than Freyajour and Lyon’s limp little thing in a subpar title like Suikoden 5?  Is Agnes and Tiz’s forced, trite, out-of-character romance in the otherwise excellent Bravely Default and Bravely Second superior in any regard whatsoever to a Kemco game’s tepid, boring little love subplot?  From its worst to its best, the entire RPG genre is beset by spontaneous, lazy couplings between characters who have no mutual spark nor any noticeably great emotional bond.

Still, it could be worse.  Cyrille and Toma from Shining Force EXA may not strike me as a good example of 2 people falling in love, and there may be no real point or positive quality whatsoever to Alette and Egil getting together in the The Banner Saga trilogy.  Edge and Rydia’s love in Final Fantasy 4 may not actually seem compelling or believable.  But at least such couples don’t actually cause harm to their games, even if they don’t contribute to them, either.

The RPG love stories below, though?  They are actively negative things, trash that doesn’t just contribute nothing to the playing experience--they actively worsen it.  The horrible, rotten perversions of the concept of love to be found in today’s rant are toxic, venomous, corrosive; they significantly worsen everything they touch.  These are the worst 10 RPG romances, and the world is a poorer place for their existence.

Important Note: Intentionally bad love stories do not qualify here.  A romance that was written with the conscious decision to be an example of a damaging, unhealthy love, will not be included--for example, romances like Final Fantasy Tactics’s Delita and Ovelia, and Planescape: Torment’s Diadora and the Nameless One, wherein 1 individual is heartlessly manipulating the other for his own ends rather than engaging earnestly in love, don’t count, because we’re not supposed to view these as acceptable examples of love.  This list is an indictment on every single writer whose work contributed to its occupants, not a validation of effective storytelling of something bad.

10. Arnaud x Raquel (Wild Arms 4)

Wild Arms 4 clumsily mashed the wonderful, deep, nuanced Raquel into an inexplicable romantic entanglement with the obnoxious, self-important Arnaud, a man who has embodied the title Captain Moron like no man before or since...and you tolerated it.  WA4 told you that, for no apparent reason, this intelligent, dignified woman with an artist’s soul found something to be attracted to in a cocky nitwit whose plans and strategies are so embarrassingly poor that Suikoden 4’s Elenor Silverberg actually looks halfway competent by comparison...and you choked it down.  You suffered the indignity of a genuinely great character, the 1 and only shining light of quality in this godforsaken heap of trash game, being romantically flung at a fumbling idiot that Elmer Fudd could justifiably scorn.

And why did you bear the tiresome frustration of Captain Moron x Raquel, all throughout Wild Arms 4?  Why did you accept the distasteful sting of this idiotic romance in a game already filled to the brim with infuriating, incomparably awful characters and writing?  Because Arnaud promised Raquel--promised the audience--that he would find a way to cure her condition.  That was the deal.  We give up a small piece of our soul to accept the idea that Raquel would stoop so low as to return Captain Moron’s affections, rather than collapse into a convulsing fit of rage and vomit at the very notion--and in return, Raquel gets to live.

That was the deal.

That bargain was broken.  Already the worst RPG, Wild Arms 4 used its primary love story as a way to hurt an audience that had thought they’d experienced every possible frustration the game could come up with.  It used Captain Moron’s affections to promise a happy ending for Raquel, and then it broke its own promise and killed Raquel in the ending anyway.  There was only 1 single, solitary way that Wild Arms 4 could have gotten any worse than it already was, and by golly, it sure as hell figured that way out.  Tacky, stupid, groundless, and inept, Arnaud x Raquel manages to lower what’s probably already your worst RPG experience by promising a single, shining moment of decency in its course, and then robbing you of it.

9. Edea x Ringabel (Bravely Second)

Poor Edea gets a real shit deal in the romance department.  I wrote a whole rant about this, so I’m gonna let you refer to that for the main details, but to summarize it: Edea, a person who is clearly shown during the game’s course to feel the pain of being romantically alone, is expected to be completely and fully contented with a love interest who intends to only be present in her life at times when she is in mortal danger and needs Ringabel to save her.  And given that Edea’s the greatest warrior in the world, either a friend or commander of almost all the subsequently strongest fighters, the head of the strongest military, and an ally of all the other major militaries, she is effectively the least likely person on the planet to find herself in a situation more dangerous than she can handle.

Again: woman who emotionally suffers from being romantically alone, expected to settle for a boyfriend who will only be around her when her life is in danger, circumstances which are less likely for her than literally any other person in the world.

8. Eclair x Homard (La Pucelle Tactics)

This is a love story between Homard, a guy whose age I can’t find listed but who gives every appearance of being a fully grown-ass adult man, and an emotionally-sheltered 13-year-old.**  The stages of this relationship are as follows:

1: Eclair meets Homard and they argue.
2. Eclair clearly dislikes Homard.
3. Eclair and Homard continue to argue.
4. Homard’s position, despite being logically inferior, turns out to be the one that the game is going to go out of its way to prove true.
5. Homard makes sure to point out his rightness to Eclair.
6. Somehow this means they’re into each other.
Bonus: At some point Homard drools over how hot the 13-year-old’s dark half is.

The romance between Eclair and Homard is classless.  It makes no sense whatsoever for either of them and makes no attempt to explain its transition from mild hostility to unquestioned mutual affection.  It’s creepy as hell--because even if it turns out that Homard is somehow a minor as well (it’s a JRPG, for all I know the guy’s just an unusually tall 6-year-old who shaves), the fact is that Homard presents as a fully grown man, while Eclair, in spite of her C-cups that 50% of all anime girls develop by the age of 10 because Japan, definitely does come across as an underage young woman.  And it’s got a disturbing emotional power balance even outside the age thing, because Eclair has had to admit to Homard’s knowing better than she does about what they’ve argued over, while Homard has had no need to concede that Eclair has any respectable knowledge or expertise.  The most he’s had to give for their relationship is barely restraining himself from making a cartoon wolf howl at seeing Dark Eclair for the first time.  This side love subplot is truly just garbage.

...And this isn’t even the worst romance that La Pucelle Tactics has to offer.

7. Byleth x Jeritza (Fire Emblem 16)

What you have here is a “romance”, if you really want to irrevocably abuse the word by associating it with this garbage, which is built entirely on a foundation of Jeritza really wanting to kill Byleth.  And this foundation is as far as they go; there’s no structure built upon it: killing Byleth is Jeritza’s reason to be around her/him, it is the desire from which all his feelings for and understanding of Byleth develop, and it is the ending goal and intention of their relationship.  This relationship has every vice and weakness of any 1-dimensional love story where a romance is built on a single, solitary factor and nothing else, and the extra bonus of that 1 factor being homicidal urges.

And man, does Jeritza ever yammer on and on about this stupid shit.  Jude in Wild Arms 4 has less of a fixation on the evils inherent with being an adult than Jeritza has on stabbing Byleth and/or being stabbed himself.  And since Byleth is a shitty conversationalist even by silent protagonist standards, there is nothing to distract Jeritza from this subject, ever.

Honestly, where the fuck does a romance like this come from?  What slobbering, deranged dipshit at Nintendo believes that a desire to kill someone is an adequate basis for a love story?  And why is this sick imbecile allowed near a word processor?

6. Rinoa x Squall (Final Fantasy 8)

There can’t possibly be anyone that didn’t see this coming.  Hell, I would be legitimately shocked if even a single reader saw the title of today’s rant and didn’t immediately think of Rinoa and Squall, first and foremost, by knee-jerk instinct. Because it’s obvious.  It’s obvious that Rinoa x Squall is going to be here.  Their romance is sincerely awful, on every level, in every way.

As a piece of writing, it’s utterly incompetent--if other romances that come out of nowhere do so from a starting point of 0, Rinoa x Squall starts from further back than that, in the negative numbers, because right up until the very second before the I Love Her Now switch is flipped in Squall’s brain, he genuinely, demonstrably finds Rinoa to be annoying, and little else (and who could possibly blame him?).  There’s no reasonable, emotional basis for their feelings of affection, nothing about their personalities that mixes well, nothing about how they interact that gives any indication that they actually love who the other person is--it’s all tell, no show, unless the intent was to show us 2 dimwits in love with the concept of love that they’ve clumsily stapled onto their mental image of one another.

As a love story, it’s nauseating, and unhealthy.  “By-the-numbers cringy teen romance” barely describes this crap; I’m genuinely shocked there isn’t an “I love YOU more” scene at some point.  And nothing is gained for either of them, as people--Squall is just replacing his first 1-dimensional archetype with another equally shallow non-personality, and their relationship actually feeds some of Rinoa’s worst qualities, since Squall is heaping undivided attention onto an obnoxious, dysfunctional psyche that already can’t allow for anything not to be about her.

And as a part of the story as a whole, it’s damaging.  Once Rinoa x Squall is on the scene, it is center stage at all times, chewing the scenery and violently shoving all competing character dynamics and plot threads out of the limelight.  The game is about their love and that is IT; any other subplot or narrative factor is secondary, a hound begging for scraps of screentime from the main romance’s table.

There is 1 reason, and 1 reason only, that this romance is not further down on this list: the fact that Final Fantasy 8 was already an awful mess of an RPG, and that Rinoa and Squall were already terrible, shallow, thoroughly dislikable characters well deserving of one another.  Their romance completely overtaking every other aspect of the story worsens the game, but, to borrow a quote from Community, ruining Final Fantasy 8 is like letting poop spoil.  Really, the losses inflicted by this romance are so low that if it were just a little less nauseatingly, infuriatingly terrible to have to sit through, it might not have been on this list at all.  But it is, and it does richly deserve its place of shame.

5. Julian x Luciana (Laxius Force 2)

The romance between Julian and Luciana is the kind of love story that makes you feel deeply uncomfortable to witness.  It so clearly, unequivocally shows an emotionally harmful, destructive mindset toward relationships, and yet, the way it presents itself is so earnest and blithe that you find yourself genuinely concerned that some more impressionable audience might see this kind of relationship and think that it’s as okay as the game indicates--and even if that never happens, it’s legitimately worrying that the writer himself seems to view this as an acceptable approach to romantic affection.

Julian is a scumbag who does not take no for an answer, and is incapable of considering that Luciana’s comfort and wants are things that have any relevance to her own love life.  This romance kicks off with him staring at her and creepily approaching her when she thinks she’s alone to confess his interest--you know, 1 of the classics of the narrative playbook for love stories--and progresses into a series of extremely pushy, inconsiderate interactions in which Luciana is badgered into progressing further and further into a relationship, regardless of her own misgivings and its feasibility.  It basically goes like this:

Julian: We should be together!
Luciana: This is so sudden.  With the world at stake and our lives in constant danger, maybe it would be better to concentrate on the matters at hand, than divide our attention on a sudden physical attraction.  As the only 1 of the main 4 cast members with anything approaching a functional brain, I have the actual weight of the world on my shoulders.  And frankly, I’m not sure how I feel, or whether I’m ready to be in a relationship at all.
Julian: There’s no need to hesitate on this.  I’m sure of my feelings for you.
Luciana: Yes, okay, that’s very nice, I appreciate it, but as I said, this is sudden and I’m just not sure of my feelings for you.
Julian: But I’m sure of my feelings for you!
Luciana: ...Yeah, got that, hear you loud and clear, message received, roger that.  Your feelings are not in question.  My hesitation is coming from my own doubts and--
Julian: But I’M sure of MY feelings!
Luciana: ...

This exchange repeats itself, until Luciana is finally bullied into accepting Julian as her boyfriend.  And then it happens again when, 20 minutes later, Julian proposes to her, and she refuses, and he tries again, over and over, until finally she resigns herself and gives in.  Every time Julian wants to move forward with their relationship, Luciana, as a person who isn’t mentally incompetent, makes the very rational observation that they haven’t known each other for long enough, that there are WAY more important issues to concentrate on, and that she can’t be sure whether what she feels for Julian is the real deal.  And every time she does, Julian just responds the same way: HE’S sure of HIS feelings, HE’S sure that this is the right move.

The idea that Luciana’s feelings and consent to be dating are a factor isn’t just something Julian doesn’t view as important--he seems to actually be incapable of acknowledging its existence.  Her feelings are such a non-factor that he can’t even consciously register them--he doesn’t hear her telling him that she’s not sure that her love is the real thing, he hears her telling him that she’s not sure that his love is the real thing.  It’s like the concept that another person could autonomously exist, complete with their own mind and feelings, is an impossibility to Julian.  His mind just isn’t even capable of processing it.

It’s tiresome and awful to witness, not to mention legitimately disturbing, because you know that its creator saw absolutely nothing wrong with the idea of 1 individual in a romantic relationship steamrolling the emotional and logical concerns and hesitations of the other.  In the mind of Laxius Force’s creator, there seems no discernible difference between courtship, and selling a used car.

Luckily, it all does actually work out pretty well for Luciana, in the end.  Julian gets brutally murdered by a giant mosquito (no, really) fairly soon after their wedding, meaning that Luci only had to put up with the jackass for a couple days, most of which she was out adventuring and working on stuff that was actually important, and she gets an entire kingdom at her command out of the deal.  Nigh-invincible, man-eating mosquitos notwithstanding, however, this is an incredibly shitty love story defined by an extremely unhealthy attitude toward romantic partnership.

4. Croix x Priere (La Pucelle Tactics)

In and of itself, this romance is stupid, pointless, and lacking any substance, but it’s not truly awful.  It basically just amounts to Priere arbitrarily deciding 1 day, with no emotional preamble, that she’s in love with Croix, and her spending the rest of the game in gutless emotional constipation which both prevents her from thinking about any other thing whatsoever than her crush on him, and gives her a mortal fear of actually giving Croix any indication of her feelings.  Seriously, Priere is such a tiresome romantic coward that even Lita from Atelier Iris 1 would tell her to goddamn grow a pair and tell Croix she likes him.  The average person has less hesitation about publicly admitting that they’re into Sonic the Hedgehog OC incestuous inflation porn than Priere has about admitting that she likes some guy.

With that said, while that’s annoying as hell to watch, certainly it’s not so horrible that it deserves the shame of a spot on this list.  But what is that horrible is just how incredibly damaging to La Pucelle Tactics this romance is.  I did a rant about this a while back which covers the bases adequately (and also reiterates my disdain for Eclair x Homard), so you can check that out, but the gist is, the game’s shift to fixate entirely on Priere’s cowardly crush greatly lessens the quality of the story as a whole, and it utterly ruins her as a character.  And unlike FF8’s Rinoa x Squall, LPT had the potential to be a solidly good RPG, and Priere gave every indication, during its early chapters, of being a singularly likeable, interesting heroine who could likely have been 1 of the greatest protagonists in the genre.  Croix x Priere strongly worsens an RPG that could have been great.

3. Felicia x Jakob (Fire Emblem 14)

Jakob is a vile, egomaniacal pile of refuse who wouldn’t be able to string together 2 successive sentences if he couldn’t be verbally and/or emotionally abusive in either.  I’m certainly not interested in devoting more mental faculties to thinking about him than are strictly necessary, so I’m gonna just quote myself with some excerpts from a previous rant on this matter:

“Jesus Christ, Jakob! What the fuck is your real, actual problem?

As unpleasant as he is to others in general, as much of a jerk as he is to Hana and Setsuna, it’s his “romance” with Felicia in which Jakob truly hits his stride as a veritable superhero of douchebaggery. Jakob’s “love” for Felicia begins with reinforcing her low self esteem by reminding her of how awful she is at her job, and then develops this foundation through the next few conversations by expressing that she is not only completely terrible, but also hopeless, incapable of improvement without his help, and later he even goes further and indicates that she’s hopeless even with his help.

...not only is he insulting Felicia at every turn for her completely harmless shortcomings, he’s going a tremendous step beyond that and saying that her flaws are inescapable no matter how hard she tries.

...And then, of course, once he’s been a merciless asshole for 3 conversations, the S rank proposal starts with him reaffirming how utterly hopeless she is of improving herself, and suggesting...that he do Felicia a favor and marry her because only a husband would be able to devote enough time to Felicia to make her less of a monumental fuck-up.

...In this entire conversation chain from start to finish, in only a single line, at the end of the S rank marriage proposal, does Jakob express any actual, significant positive feeling for Felicia, when he claims, completely without basis, that he does want to marry her out of love. And he immediately follows this single, solitary moment of positive emotion with another low blow by reaffirming that her tea-making (a part of her job and thus something personally important to her) is “truly a nightmare.” The ending line of this romance--not making this up--is Jakob reassuring her that together, they’ll be able to wake up from that nightmare.

Just...what an unspeakable, monstrous piece of shit this guy is. Corrin and Gunter may be unhealthy and disturbing to the very core, but by God, at least it isn’t horrible, abusive garbage like this. Congrats, Jakob, you really are just the fucking worst.”

That about covers it.  Jakob is seriously the most hateful, shitty romantic partner in Fire Emblem, and an outright, unequivocally abusive boyfriend.  A decent human being encourages his beloved, raises them up; Jakob tears Felicia down.  A healthy lover wants his partner to depend on him out of love and desire for him; Jakob wants Felicia to depend on him because she feels herself too worthless to persevere alone.  A respectable, affectionate person proposes marriage to his equal; Jakob makes it clear to Felicia that he’s marrying an inferior, a failure, a project.

I feel nauseous.  I’m not kidding.  I am not exaggerating.  I have actually made myself ill by describing Felicia and Jakob’s relationship, by acknowledging how sickeningly horrible it is.  I’m actually, really upset, physically upset, by it.  I am going to go lie down for a bit.

2. Aerin x Tommy (The Princess’ Heart)

It took me more than 2 hours to come back to this rant, after Jakob, and you wouldn’t think that there could actually be a worse couple than 1 that physically nauseated me.  But against all odds, against all hope for decency and dignity in this world of ours, not only is there an inferior RPG relationship than Felicia x Jakob, there are 2, and they are both exponentially worse.

I’ve gone into the morally repugnant nature of Princess Aerin’s actions and relationship with Tommy, in multiple rants.  So I’m only going to summarize here, and you are more than welcome to check those rants for more details.  The long and short of it is, Aerin makes a contract with the devil to brainwash her ex-boyfriend into loving her again, then, when she gets cold feet about giving up her immortal soul as part of that bargain, she hauls her mind-controlled beau along with her on a life-threatening journey to beat up the devil and avoid all consequences of her actions.  When she’s finally successful, Tommy wakes up, is mildly put out about having his right to self-determination and consent violated for months on end, and leaves Aerin...for all of like a single evening, until, in the morning, he changes his mind and decides that he loves her after all, because they’ve both grown as people to the point that they can make this work.  I’m not sure HOW they’ve grown as people, since Aerin didn’t experience any repercussions for her actions whatsoever and Tommy was a little too busy being mentally and emotionally compromised for the entirety of the journey to have the opportunity to develop as a person...

...But who am I to question true love, right?  The (Princess’) heart wants what it wants!  And what Tommy’s heart wants is a remorseless sociopath who demonically roofied him for weeks, put his life in danger without a thought, equally carelessly endangered the immortal souls of her friends and innocent bystanders, and indirectly caused the deaths of her devoted servants.  And Aerin’s heart wants a guy who, she thinks, cheated on her, and who, to get some alone time with Aerin, poisoned his own attendants, drugged her, and kidnapped her into an abandoned cabin in the woods (let’s be clear here: while nowhere near Aerin’s level, Tommy is a thoroughly awful human being in his own right), all without even the faintest hint of hesitation or regret.  Truly, a goddamn love story for the ages.

The silver lining, I guess, is that this rant was pretty heavy with relationships made horrible and disgusting by the man involved, but Aerin is an atrocious enough girlfriend and human being to completely balance the gender scales all by herself.  Hooray for equality.  Wheeee.

1. Kevin x Shion (Xenosaga Trilogy)***

Sometimes, you’re just untouchable.  You’re at the top, or bottom, and you’ll always be there, because nothing could even come close to challenging you.  There’s never going to be a better villain than Knights of the Old Republic 2’s Kreia.  There’s never going to be a better add-on than Neverwinter Nights 2’s Mask of the Betrayer expansion.  And there will never, ever, ever be a worse romantic partner than Kevin Winnicot.  

I’ve joked before.  I’ve said Jakob gave Kevin some competition for Best Boyfriend Ever.  I’ve said that Aerin and Tommy’s romance might actually unseat Kevin’s and Shion’s for how ethically horrifying it is.  But that’s all they were: jokes.  There’s never actually been any competition.  No question who was going to be seated here.  It’s Kevin.  It’s always Kevin.  It always will be.

And it’s not even a close call.  Kevin x Shion is the worst RPG romance of all time by virtue of just 1, single part of it.  Forget everything else about it, this couple is the worst ever simply because Kevin knowingly, intentionally, and without any indication of regret causes the woman he loves to experience the most powerful pain in the universeFor a second time.

You may think that’s an exaggeration, but according to Xenosaga’s own lore, it’s not.  The Gnosis were summoned by Shion as a child, and then, thanks to Kevin, Shion as an adult, when she experienced a psychological, emotional pain so unimaginably great that it broke the walls of fucking existence itself.  By Xenosaga’s own word of God, Shion experienced the greatest pain a human being ever has or could.  And Kevin deliberately, willingly, of his own decision and accord, caused her to relive it.

Try to wrap your head around that.  Because if you can, if you can actually fully comprehend the full scope of just how disgusting a thing that is to do to someone, let alone someone you claim to care about, then you’re certainly my mental superior.  Ringabel’s carelessness means Edea might get a little lonely sometimes.  Julian’s impatience and inability to consider others’ needs made Luciana uncomfortable and, had he not died in a satisfyingly grisly manner, could have lowered her sense of self worth over time.  Jakob made Felicia feel like incompetent dirt beneath his heels.  Aerin did all but rape Tommy.  But none of them consciously devised and executed a long, drawn-out plan with the specific intention of causing their significant other to experience mental torment so great that reality itself backed the hell away from it.  None of them knowingly gave the most intense emotional pain in all the universe to the person they claimed to love.  Depending on where you stand regarding torment vs. death, what Kevin did to Shion is either the first or second worst thing it is humanly possible to do to another person.

And while that by itself earns Kevin’s place at the top of the Shit Romances list, now and forever, let there be no mistake: that’s not the end of what’s wrong with Kevin x Shion, not by a LONG shot.  This thing’s almost some kind of miracle of toxic, unhealthy relationships; you can look at it from any and every angle and find something repulsive about it.

Dangerously possessive?  Kevin manipulates Shion into turning away from her friends, and convinces her that her strongest and most positive relationship, that being her connection to KOS-MOS (which should have been romantic, goddammit I am not going to let go of this), is killing her with plot sickness (which, by the way, never did seem to be provable, or go anywhere).  The end result, of course, is that he’s the only person she’s got left.  He’s also more than willing to beat the shit out of her friends in front of her when they won’t give up on her.

Unhealthily clingy?  Kevin wants to undo reality and remake it to only include him and Shion.****

Inconsiderate of her needs and feelings?  Kevin lets Shion painfully mourn his loss for the better part of a decade before bothering to tell her that he was brought back to life--and even then, he only let her know because it was part of his plan to give her the mother of all mental breakdowns.  Already a horrible thing to do to someone who loves you, this only becomes worse when you consider the pain of loss that Shion’s already suffered in the past, with the violent, terrible deaths she witnessed of her parents and Febronia--Kevin’s loss no doubt affected her all the more for its reminder of the losses she’d witnessed in the past, and he just let her live with it for years.

A generally bad influence on Shion’s mental state?  The first time Kevin met Shion, when she was 8, he berated her for trying to make people she loved happy and attempted to get her to believe that people are terrible and the world is a dark, cruel place.  My mind still boggles at the idea of being such a worthless trash heap of a human being that you’d go out of your way to pick a fight with an 8-year-old in an attempt to destroy their ability to enjoy human connections for the rest of their lives.

Just vaguely creepy overall?  It hardly even registers as a problem compared to the rest of this crap, but a friend of mine that I made recently (yes, I was surprised, too), named autumnmycat, pointed out to me that Kevin is, at the time of their initial relationship, Shion’s boss, and there is the whole thing of his having met her when she was 8 and he was 14.  I mean, any halfway decent relationship-writing can very easily clear the hurdles of those scenarios, but halfway decent relationship-writing ain’t what Xenosaga’s about, so yeah, it IS a bit creepy.  But it’s nice to know that Kevin x Shion is bad in all the little ways, too; don’t want to lose sight of that while we wrest with his inflicting dimension-shifting agony on her.

Doesn’t respect Shion’s right to make decisions of her own?  The moment Shion’s mental state starts to pull itself together enough to decide that she’ll side with her friends after all, Kevin decides that she’s only saying that because her friends are confusing her (relating to the possessiveness I mentioned above).  That’s fucking rich, too, considering that part of his reasons for utterly destroying her psyche was to make her more compliant to what he wanted.

Doesn’t respect Shion’s right to be a part of their decisions as a couple?  Kevin didn’t bother consulting Shion about whether she’d want to undo every other living thing in the universe in order to get some ultimate alone time together.

There is just no level of their romance in which Kevin is not a perfect example of a toxic relationship red flag.

Do you know, when I thought about it, I realized that in the entire Xenosaga trilogy, there is only a single, solitary scene of Kevin interacting with or being in the same place as Shion that does not directly cause her stress and/or anguish?  There’s the scene of him giving her the necklace (which, by the way, still feels hollow and manipulative, even if I can’t objectively point to anything specifically wrong with it, so don’t get the idea that this is a positive scene or anything, it’s just not outright negative for her), and that’s it.  Every single other time in the Xenosaga trilogy that involves some interaction between Kevin and Shion, whether he intends it or not, be it in a major or minor way, Kevin is responsible for Shion feeling worse.

Jakob x Felicia might shake my belief in the idea of love.  Aerin x Tommy might make me sure it doesn’t exist.  But Kevin x Shion is so utterly horrifying that it has renewed my faith in love as a concept.  For -1 to exist, we must acknowledge the concept of 1.  For there to be such a thing as debt, there must be the existence of currency, or you could not owe it.  And so love must, indeed, exist, for if it did not, how then could we witness its utter, outright antithesis in Xenosaga?

DISHONORABLE MENTION: Plot-Centric Bad Romances (Various)

While the romances on this list have generally been way beyond the mundane, standardly bad love stories that the RPG genre is unfortunately riddled with, it bears noting that even otherwise inoffensive, only-mildly-poor ones can still be damaging to a game, when the game decides to hinge too much of its plot to them.

You take a game like Lunar 1, for example.  If Luna and Alex’s joyless little infatuation had been just a side-story, thrown in to check a box off a list more than for any purpose, then it would just be a forgettable, pointless little waste of time, and nothing more.  But, about a third of the way through Lunar 1’s entire story comes to revolve around Alex’s supposed love for Luna--rescuing her is his main motivation for his journey, and their fit of Since We’re Not Related, It’ll Be Okay is the game’s final, major bid for dramatic weight in its end, with their love conquering all so that Alex can go home with Luna and blah blah blah.  And all of that falls flat because Alex’s love for Luna is flat, as is basically everything about Alex.  Guy’s got the personality of a bran muffin, and similar interpersonal skills.

Likewise, RPGs like Lufia 1 and The Legend of Dragoon stake major hinging points of their plots and protagonists’ character development upon notions of heroes and love interests defying destiny based on their feelings for one it lessens the power and enjoyability of those games when their main romances are soulless and, fairly often, kind of annoying.

Basically, if the most important, driving aspect of your story and/or message is tied to the romance, then you should endeavor to make that love story believable, enjoyable, and emotionally stirring.  “Good”, in other words.  And if you think this is obvious, then there’s a good chance you’ve never been on the writing staff of an RPG.

* Of course, I suppose that this mindset of romance as a necessary box to check for an RPG’s story isn’t entirely unwarranted.  The audience is and always has been pretty damn clear about what they want.  Even if a game contains not the faintest trace of a love story between its 2 main characters, players en masse will often just assume there is one regardless.  It’s not even intentional, really, it’s just a reflexive assumption people seem to make.

Don’t believe me?  Look at The Legend of Zelda series.  There have only been a bare few titles in the franchise that make even just a soft implication of any romantic feelings on the part of either Link or Zelda for the other, and those titles have almost all been ones released in the last decade of a 25-year-old franchise.  Yet the unquestioned, hard-coded assumption in its audience’s mind since Day 1 has always been that every iteration of Link and Zelda hook up.  Never even occurs to most people that Skyward Sword was the first game in the series to unambiguously even hint at Link and Zelda having romantic interest in each other (ironically also the first TLoZ where Link can actually romance a character, and she isn’t Zelda).  So while it’s an example of bad writing, without question, I can’t really say, I guess, that there’s no cause whatever for a creator to feel like a romance is a requirement to an RPG, because clearly it’s the general sentiment of the audience that it is.

And that’s all before you even factor in fans’ unquenchable lust for shipping.

** And by the way, I’m not sure that Eclair actually IS as old as 13.  That’s what the Wikipedia lists for her, so I’m going by that, but when I originally played the game, my own mental reckoning figured her to be 11.  Now, that was ages ago and I’m not great at even basic maths, so I definitely could be wrong about that, but I still have my doubts that Eclair is even a technical teenager.

Although I guess it’s not all that much more or less creepy either way, really.  1 way or the other, the writers behind this romance are overdue for a Chris Hansen sit-down.

*** You could argue that, since Kevin is a villain and it’s part of the story of the game that Shion get over him and move forward to the bland, unfulfilling emotional porridge that is a romantic relationship with Allen, this couple shouldn’t be on the list, as it’s not as earnestly and mistakenly seen as “good” as the previous entries.  That’s a decent point, but I would counter that A, Xenosaga very much treats Kevin as a sympathetic antagonist, and his being a villain is not really for any of the horrifying nasty things he does to Shion, and B, Shion’s decision to leave Kevin has nothing to do with how he treats her.  Her 1 and only given motivation for turning against him is that, regarding his plan to restart the universe with only her and him in it, she couldn’t allow herself to be happy at the expense of others.  The implication is ENTIRELY that she ONLY opposes Kevin’s intentions for the sake of others; there is absolutely no indication whatsoever given that she or the overall narrative voice of Xenosaga considers the way that Kevin has treated her to be in any way objectionable--to the contrary, she still regards being with him as something pleasant.  So Kevin x Shion absolutely does still qualify, because the only parts of it that the game views as bad have almost nothing to do with the scope of what is actually wrong with the romance.

**** This isn’t relevant to him as a romantic partner, but this is also proof that he’s the biggest asshole in existence, too, as he basically wants to kill every person in the universe who is alive, has ever lived, or ever could live.  So, y’know, just an awesome guy altogether.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Quantum Entanglement's Romance

When all is said and done, there’s 2 overall approaches to writing a love story.  The first is the Meant to Be angle.  This covers scenarios like love at first sight, unexpected and spontaneous attractions/hook-ups that seem more to do with checking off a box on a narrative To Do list than anything to do with the characters themselves, pre-existing romantic engagements whose validity you’re just required to accept, and destined love--love stories that fate determined would happen, or a couple falling in love because they’re reincarnations of lovers in a past life, etc.  And the second approach is the Doing the Damn Work angle, which covers love stories that are formed over time between characters who have a demonstrably solid shared dynamic, observable chemistry, and a coming together of personality and affection, all of which has been both constructed and organically grown by the creators.  This second method generally takes a good deal of effort, and some talent.

You can guess which approach most writers decide to go with.

That’s not to say that there aren’t certain benefits and laudable qualities to Meant to Be romances, mind you.  The idea of 2 people who are just right for each other, immediately, by some inscrutable will of destiny, does tap into some primal part of our emotional brain and please us to think about.  Even if real, lasting love is more often something forged through a developing, mutual process involving a truly dizzying array of factors of understanding, appreciating, assisting, attracting, working for, accepting, supporting, trusting, validating, and enjoying one another, we still seem, as an audience, to be hardwired to thrill to at least some small degree over the concept of romance being something immediate and decreed by some inexorable higher power.  And our feeling that way even makes sense!  Because no matter how you slice it, love is a thing more indefinable than otherwise, and though we may be able to recognize what kinds of people we trend toward for romance, we don’t actually get a whole lot of say in who we fall in love with.  Religion and mythology were most often born as ways for human beings to explain the phenomena of the world around them which they didn’t otherwise understand--it makes sense that we similarly cling to concepts of love at first sight and fated romance in response to an emotion which is still so much beyond our ken or control.

With that said, most of the really great love stories, the ones that last and inspire, are ones whose creators put in the time and effort to build and develop.  You can keep your Auroras and Phillips, your Snow Whites and Princes Charming; I’ll take my Beasts and Belles and my Flynns and Rapunzels, thanks.  I find the idea that some jackass prince having a single dance with some lady who runs off at midnight to be of far less romantic substance than the concept of a military captain questioning and then re-questioning his sexual orientation over the course of a few months because of that 1 weirdly effeminate recruit in his squad.*  Whether it’s showing their ability to come together as a couple to overcome all obstacles thrown at them, working through personal and emotional difficulties and becoming an inseparable part of who one another is, or just getting to know each other over time and being shown to have a vibrant, flavorful, and genuine chemistry, the couples created by the Doing the Damn Work angle will always stay in your mind more strongly than those reliant solely upon the Meant to Be approach.  It’s similar to Show, Don’t Tell--1 method of storytelling’s almost always got the upper hand on the other.

With that said, it’s a pretty awesome thing when a couple like Gabby and Marine from Quantum Entanglement comes along: a romance that works on both levels.

The love story of Gabby and Marine has all the benefits of a destined love, you see.  1 popular Meant to Be trope of romance is the idea of 2 individuals who were in love in a past life reincarnating and falling in love all over again, based strongly upon lingering feelings from their lives before, or some prior life oath, or some other such thing.  Xeno- games seem fond of this approach, for example, what with Elly and Fei in Xenogears, and what KOS-MOS and Shion were clearly meant to be in the Xenosaga trilogy.  Sailor Moon stakes something like 80% of its content on the reincarnated lovers angle with Sailor Moon and that dingus Tuxedo Mask, as another example.  Sometimes you can even get a kind of interesting take on it, like with the Kalach-Cha and Safiya in Neverwinter Nights 2’s Mask of the Betrayer expansion, or Hawkman and Hawkgirl in the recent DC Superhero Girls cartoon.  Anyway, regardless of what happened in a previous life, however, these are, in the present, 2 new people who have found themselves thrown together into love by a fated force beyond their control; it’s almost the perfect representation of the Meant to Be style of romance.

And Gabby and Marine have that!  Because, as a result of the routine memory wipes they submit to at the mandate of their clandestine super-science employer, every 6 months there’s a new Gabby and Marine, who have to start over with who they are and what their relationship is and will be.  So the fact that they keep finding themselves drawn to one another, with only the very slightest of prompting (in the form of a letter) from their previous selves, means that their romance is effectively identical to the idea of reincarnated lovers coming together again and again as a fated couple with each life they live.  And Quantum Entanglement works this angle very skillfully.  Early in the game, the instinctive draw that Marine and Gabby feel toward one another is established well through their dialogue and Marine’s monologue, as well as their actions.  Marine and Gabby both mention lingering traces of interest and compulsion toward one another, both privately and aloud, and when confronted and put on the spot by Dr. Larsen about who she truly wants to pursue a potential love with, Marine’s response can only be Gabby.  And there are also several moments that emphasize this automatic connection without words--Gabby instinctively makes her way to Marine’s room the first night after their memory wipe, without realizing what she’s doing, because it’s so ingrained in her to be there with Marine, for example, and Gabby’s retaining the muscle memory of how to perfectly make Marine’s favorite breakfast food.  There’s a ton of stuff, early into Quantum Entanglement, that takes advantage of the Meant to Be angle of these being 2 souls destined to come back to each other over and over, and it all very effectively establishes the love they’re fated for.**

I absolutely love the scene of Marine finding the letter that she left herself.  That saying Gabby’s name aloud, that testing it out as an inquiry being made of her inner heart, could provoke such an acute, unconscious pang of emotions that it would bring Marine to tears, is an amazing and poignant idea to me.

I’m convinced that if that had been the end of it, just 2 women infatuated with each other because they were Meant to Be from their previous memory incarnations, this still probably would have been a fine love story.  I mean, the story of Catherine and the Nereid in Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle was basically no more than a fated love deal, and I adored that one; it would’ve been the best romance in the game had it not been for Carmina.  So obviously Saint Bomber could have pulled off something solid with just this alone.  

But he didn’t rest on his laurels.  He Did the Damn Work, too.  Quantum Entanglement is a short RPG, only a few hours long, but its creator packed those hours full of interactions between Marine and Gabby, interactions that show us time and time again how well-suited they are for one another.  Practically every object and detail of the environment in QE can be examined for a bit of reaction text, and the majority of that involves interactions between both characters.  There’s also a lot of scripted story events and conversations between them, so even if you squander your experience with the game by rushing from 1 step in the story to the next, you’ll still see a ton of character development for them.  And it all comes together into a really compelling romance.

First of all, their casual conversation is engaging and full of the kind of easy, organic banter you see between 2 people who are on just the right set of wavelengths to be beneficially similar and different at once.  They enjoy similar approaches to humor, ethics, and values, and tend to agree more often than not--you can totally understand why they get along, when they have so much in common.  But they also are quite different people, too--plenty of Marine’s interests are ones that Gabby indulges, but doesn’t share, Gabby has a peppier (but less forgiving) personality, etc.  You can totally understand why they get along, when they’re different in ways that compliment and even complete 1 another.  When you see them interact, Marine and Gabby strike you as a realistic representation of a couple who have found their groove with each other and are exactly alike and different enough to work.  Their banter in this game shows that off, and it’s a real treat to see.

It’s also neat to see how that banter, and their general interactions, evolve.  There’s a gradual curve to the way Gabby and Marine talk to and view each other over the course of QE that goes from a trusting, but unsure stage of feeling one another’s personality out, to eventually being fully in sync, depending and finding support in each other, and being able to openly express their deep affection for 1 another.  There’s no landmarks in this progression, no single conversation you can point to in which they progress from friendship and tentative affection to love and devotion, but somehow, their dialogue going from, in the beginning, talking about possibly liking each other, to, by the end, Gabby and Marine each being comfortable in openly stating her love for her partner and that statement being a reinforcement of feelings that are already known and understood, feels like it’s taken such a natural progression that you’ve barely noticed it happening.  I would give a lot for more RPG writers to be able to create so organic and smooth a progression of affections in their romances as Saint Bomber can; even Final Fantasy 9’s Dagger and Zidane, which are an excellent example of this kind of natural progression, needed more visible goalposts as they went about their romance.

I really like how well Marine and Gabby support each other, too.  Each woman is very encouraging to the other, and does whatever she can to help her partner stay safe, keep going, and maintain her spirits, whether that be through encouraging words or protective actions.  But what really takes it a step forward and impresses upon me just how strong their feelings are is how much work each woman puts into keeping ahold of herself for the other’s sake.  As I mentioned in my previous rant about Quantum Entanglement, the constant quips and wisecracks that Marine and Gabby engage in with their banter are in many ways genuine, but at the same time, are also a coping mechanism that they use to keep themselves able to keep moving forward and not succumb to their terror and despair at the situation they find themselves in and the terrible things they keep witnessing.  Beyond just overtly encouraging one another, Gabby and Marine also do their best to support each other by staying strong for the other.  What I really like about that is that this act for the sake of her partner also winds up being to her own benefit, too, as each woman might not have otherwise been able to find enough of a well of strength to carry on if it were only for her own sake.  I think that’s a really touching and romantic thing--showing that love is the sort of thing that buoys and empowers you even as it compels you to do all you can to support the person you care about.

There’s time and care put into showing us reasons for Gabby and Marine to love each other, too.  From what I’ve spoken of so far, you can obviously infer that they appreciate one another’s sense of humor, they get along well, and they each give their everything to support each other.  They go out of their way to better the life of one another, like Gabby having become great at making Marine’s favorite breakfast, and Marine frequently stepping forward to be Gabby’s protector, physically and emotionally.***  They’re clearly physically attracted to each other--a fact which each of them manages to convey without being creepy or otherwise unhealthy about it, yes JRPGs it actually is possible to do that--and each has moments in which they so greatly impress the other in some way that you can practically feel the other’s heart flutter and hear her intake of breath.  Everything just lines up for a genuine, natural story of an enduring and passionate love between these 2 people.  You’ve got the grandiose acts and events that satisfactorily bring your average RPG characters together in romance, and maybe more importantly, you’ve got the little gestures and connections that keep a couple happy and interested with one another in the long term, once the ardor of the game’s action and questing wears off.

I’d lastly like to point out that beyond just the fact that this is a well-written, sincere love story in its own right, it is, in addition, a good example of a romance in the narrative sense, too, for the fact that the romance does not get in the way of the story and characters.  See, there’s this thing that happens a lot where a love story in a game, or really any medium of expression, can collide with other narrative elements, rather than coalesce with them.  It may feel like it’s tacked on just for the sake of being there (Agnes and Tiz in Bravely Default 1 and Second), or the characters’ actions and personalities when in love are departed enough from what we saw before that they now seem out of character (Dart in Legend of Dragoon), or the romance begins taking focus away from the main story (Final Fantasy 8).  Or sometimes all 3 of those problems occur simultaneously (Priere and Croix in La Pucelle Tactics).  Not so with Quantum Entanglement--the romance was clearly an important and valued part of the narrative as a whole, it fits perfectly into the main story without taking any attention away from it, and in no way do Marine and Gabby’s feelings for each other lessen, change, or obfuscate their personalities.  Saint Bomber clearly valued the characters he had created, who they were as people in their own right, and wanted to create a romance between them, for their sake, not just forcibly build one around them, if that makes any sense.

And yes, I know that, on this point, I’m essentially praising the game for accomplishing something that should really just be basic, common sense in telling a story...but, as I’ve said, RPGs are just generally not great at romances.  Having the basic competence to write your love story into the game in a way that doesn’t somehow damage the other elements is surprisingly uncommon in this genre.

Anyway, I think I’ve said enough on this matter.  The point is, Quantum Entanglement has got a great romance, and I think it’s worth saying so, and why.  This is a love story that retains all the benefits of a destined love, yet also puts in the work of creating a realistic couple by showing their chemistry, giving them a lot of time and material to interact with and bond over, and displaying their causes for loving one another and their excellent capacity for supporting each other.  This is a wholesome, engaging love story, and this genre needs a lot more romances like it.

* “Somehow I’ll make a man out of you” indeed, amirite?

** Also, something that’s really cool?  The very title of this game can be seen as a reference to Gabby and Marine’s connection.  While Quantum Entanglement is obviously a reference to some of the scientific theories of many worlds and the multiverse and so on, which has surface relevance to the game’s events, it could also describe Gabby and Marine themselves, a statement that they are so intrinsically meant for each other that they are impossible to perceive as separate entities, like quantumly entangled particles.  Also, when broken down, you can see it as saying that their being together (their entanglement) is an immutable fact across all possible realities (the application of quantum theories regarding multiple universes).  I have no idea whether this is in any way intentional and there is every possibility that I just don’t understand higher sciences well enough to grasp what these terms actually mean...but I’m a goddamn romantic so these are the interpretations I’m sticking to.

*** Whether or not it’s strictly necessary.  Gabby...let’s just say she can generally take care of herself.