Sunday, April 28, 2013

Embric of Wulfhammer's Castle

Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle is a good RPG.

That’s a hard sentence for me to type; at least, it’s hard to type when I know I’m doing so as a matter of public record. I’d much rather I could say that Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle is mindless crap. Nothing more than a load of base, degrading fanservice. Man would I like to be able to say that. Things would be much simpler. But what can ya do.

Alright, so, let’s just get this out in the open. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle--and I imagine that’s probably most/all of you, as it’s not, to my understanding, all that widely-known--it’s an RPG created using RPG Maker 2003, available for free download via that mysterious device known as “Teh Internetz.” I’m a bit leery of counting a legally unofficial and unrecognized work as an official entry in my list of completed RPGs, but EoWC is a sizable, self-contained, complete product, so I reckon it more or less qualifies as being “real” enough for my standards--after all, I count Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden as a “real” RPG for my list of conquests, and that one, if anything, is even less legally stable. So Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle is a free, downloadable Independant RPG. And it is...well, frankly, it’s pretty heavy on the lesbian fanservice porn. If that’s not just outright the basis of the game, it’s at least a very major part of it.

If you have any familiarity with these rants, then my reticence to acknowledge EoWC in a positive light probably comes as no surprise to you. I hate bath scenes, I get extremely angry about inexplicably skimpy outfits and the over-sexualization of female characters, and I even take issue with the fact that homosexual characters and relationships in RPGs are so much more often gay women than men (since I suspect this makes it more about the titillation of the assumed male-dominant audience than about any intent of equal representation). Well, don’t misunderstand me here--the explicit content of Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle by and large does still annoy me. It’s usually excessive and unnecessary, and the weakest parts of the game (such as the Scheherazade and Hurraine arcs, along with the stupid Duchess-can’t-keep-her-dress-intact-for-5-minutes-straight running joke) are invariably the ones that rely almost entirely on the fanservice and sexual content. Even in cases where I actually feel like it’s not unwarranted, it’s still more explicit than it needs to be.

But if I may shock myself for a moment, I’d actually like to defend it to a small extent, at least by comparison to sexualized fanservice found in other games. Needless and overbearing as the sexual nature of this game is at times, I have to give Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle enough credit to point out that it’s not pretending to be something greater. What I mean is, you take a game like, say, Mass Effect 3, and you’re taking a product which makes the claim in its method and matter of being dignified, having value as art. Mass Effect 3 is clearly a story that the audience is meant to take seriously, is clearly something we are meant to believe its creators took seriously, and as such it wants to be seen as having some intellectual weight. This is the case for most RPGs--their creators want their product, their story, their intellectual creation, to be taken seriously, and we players expect to do so unless given reason early on to do otherwise. So when Mass Effect 3 changes the appearance of the character Ashley to suddenly look 300% more like an underwear model and has EDI sporting a camel toe so prominent it looks like an arcane portal to the otherrealms, not to mention also tosses us the big-titted, easily-bedded Diana Allers, who dresses and looks like a reject from Jersey Shore, it stands out as a break from the character of the game, an oily film of sleaze coating what’s supposed to be something better.

This sort of thing is, of course, by no means restricted to ME3; that’s just an example. But there’s the classic bath scene idiocy of anime-styled RPGs, if we want to look at RPGs from the other side of the Pacific. When a band of heroes start acting like hormonal lower primates at a hot spring in an RPG that until that point has held itself with some basic composure, it stands out as a lowering of its characters to a state they normally are too dignified to stoop to. And don’t even get me started on the fucktarded swimsuit competition in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. And so on; I imagine you’re getting my meaning.

Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle really makes no such pretenses. At the start of the game it spells out to you pretty clearly what content the game’s gonna have in it. Additionally, its main character, the Duchess Catherine...I wouldn’t exactly call her promiscuous, per say, but she’s not reserved by nature, and it’s clear early on that she’s pretty open, both emotionally AND physically. And maybe this isn’t entirely fair of me, but it somehow feels different to have fanservice in a game that’s 100% free and has no aims of making money whatsoever. I guess it makes it seem less disingenuous to know that the needlessly sexual content isn’t some crass, insulting marketing scheme to sell to the lowest common denominator--it’s there because it’s meant to be, not because some chortling, greedy scumbag assumes the worst of his audience in order to encourage better sales. Does that actually make it a little better, or is it all in my head? Can’t say for sure, but my head’s the one coming up with all these words that keep appearing on the screen, so I gotta go with it. Lastly, while you can’t turn off the tiny little naked sprites and the sometimes explicit dialogue, the game DOES provide you with an item which will prevent the explicit cutscene art from being shown, so if adult visuals genuinely bother you, the game’s at least taking a step to be accommodating.

So what does that all add up to? Well, I’m still not thrilled about the amount of sexual material in Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, and I still see it as almost entirely unnecessary to have it to the extent the game does,’s really not as bad as it could be, all things considered, and it doesn’t really feel particularly degrading, either. It’s not so hard to look past it all to recognize EoWC’s good qualities. And really, even if it was, I’d be a hypocrite twice over if I didn’t do so anyway--I’ve always advocated judging an RPG for its storytelling content rather than its bare surface qualities, its window-dressings per say, after all, and in all honesty, I’ve written a few explicit fanfics in my time that I think, if I may say so myself, are nonetheless fairly decent stories.

So, that said, and said in probably way more paragraphs than were really necessary, what are Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle’s good qualities? Well, the first one I encountered is that it’s really quite amusing. Right from the get-go, Duchess Catherine’s comments and dialogue as she examines various objects in the background and interacts with other characters are very funny. Sometimes they’re funny on their own, often they’re funny commentary about RPGs in general (both video games and the tabletop variety). If you’re familiar with Dungeons and Dragons and video game RPGs in general, you’re probably going to find several moments of this game quite amusing. While EoWC has no small number of serious, touching, and dark moments to it, the pervading feel of the game is a lighthearted one, and the fact that it got a chuckle out of me so quickly was a lot of what drew my interest at first, gave me the inclination not to just dismiss it outright.*

Of course, the amusement factor is just the icing on the cake, the preliminary fun factor to butter you up and get your attention. More important than that is the quality of the game’s protagonist. Catherine at first seems very simplistic, very damsel-in-distress-esque, very...princess-y, but as you progress through the game, you can begin to recognize some strong depth to her, along with some subtle but solid character development. Her exceptionally dark, tormented back history, her craftiness and more than adept skill at political maneuvering and diplomacy, her enthusiasm and wish to form a positive connection with all those around her, the interesting ambiguity about whether she is, in the end, a good or evil character, her insecurities about her future and related subconscious resentment against princesses, her fleeing from the title of being Greyghast’s heir and whether or not there might be some truth to it...there’s a lot of angles to Catherine’s character, a lot of fronts that she grows as a person on, and nigh all of them are pretty interesting. The only criticism that I might have about it is that a lot of this character development is understated, left somewhat to the audience to contemplate and recognize...but I don’t really make that complaint, because I feel that this is one of those rare times in an RPG where this light touch is done skillfully and adequately. This isn’t the common case of a writer mistaking insufficient explanation and exploration as subtle writing; Catherine’s multifaceted character and her development actually ARE subtle.

The rest of the cast is not as interesting to me, I must say. To be sure, the characters by and large are adequate. But while several of them have at least a little something of interest to their characters, such as Louni and Carmina, no one in the game is as deep or well-written a character as Catherine by far. That said, though...well, they don’t really need to be. Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle is pretty much completely a personal story, not a wide-reaching one. Catherine’s not the main character caught up in a story, as is typically the case with RPGs. Rather, this is a story about her; she’s the central figure of all its events, and it’s told entirely from her perspective. This is a story which in its entirety revolves around her, not the events she happens to become involved in, a fact that is even more emphasized and logical once one has seen the True Ending and knows the truth of the game’s events. To that end, the worth of the cast is not necessarily so much dependant on the characters’ worth in their own right, but rather their worth as contributors and foils to Catherine’s character through their interactions and relationships with her.

When viewed in that light, the cast is pretty solidly good. Through the Duchess’s conversations, adventures, and often courtships with Alice, Louni, Carmina, Grettel, the Good Dwarf, and most of the other characters both major and minor, we get an understanding of Catherine’s character, and come to know the world she lives in and her relationship to its workings. Even characters who have little to no significance and/or interesting qualities can be worthwhile at times for the perspectives they give us of Catherine, such as with Rain--despite her being onscreen for only about 5 minutes, Rain’s history with Catherine and the way the two of them discuss it is well-done and feels very emotionally realistic. Another example is found with Scheherazade--her story arc is kind of meandering and ultimately kind of negative, but even it has a little redeeming value for the decent scene it has wherein Catherine talks to Alice about the pain of being dumped for the first time, and Alice reveals that Catherine’s innocent polyamory** can be similarly hurtful to the ones who love her. It’s a nice scene.***

Speaking of the way the cast interacts with Catherine, that brings us to my next point as to why this RPG is good: the romances. Admittedly, Catherine’s explorations of love with the people around her are not always great. Gwearst gets way too little quality time with the Duchess for the love on either side to seem convincing, and some of the others are just not particularly interesting. But there are also some really great romantic moments in this game. Catherine’s connection with Alice winds up being pretty touching, even though a lot of it is sort of unsaid, and the similarly subtle love she shares with Louni has some very nice moments, and is even, at times, kind of intriguing. The Nereid seems silly and pointless at first, but I actually found myself very moved later at the strength of the devotion and affection she and Catherine hold for each other, one which cries out across and pulls them together from opposite ends of time and even dimensions.

And Carmina...the love story of Catherine and Carmina’s got it all. They share their histories and personalities with one another, they share a touching chemistry, they’re each willing to give absolutely everything up for the other (Catherine’s willing to make herself the enemy of the most powerful adventuring group in the world for Carmina and to use every resource she has to protect her, and/or go with her to the lands of the Dark Elves (the Drow, essentially, which any Dungeons and Dragons player knows is not a pleasant prospect for a human), Carmina’s willing to restrain her natural inclinations of evil for Catherine’s sake and give up on returning to her home in order to be with Catherine, etc), there’s a very touching aspect of Catherine’s taking a leap of faith in trusting her love to Carmina, and generally I’d just have to say that everything about Carmina’s and Catherine’s romance is emotional, moving, authentic, and natural. This is honestly the best love story I’ve seen for quite a while, actually and easily beating out most of the romances of other, “real” games I’ve seen in the past few years, including those of The Last Story’s, most of those of Mass Effect 3’s, and those of Sakura Wars 5, a game designed specifically around love interests. Seriously, I may very well find myself at the end of this year changing my Greatest Romances List to include this one.

And as a final note about the cast, what about the villains in this game? Well...Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle is very, very unconventional, because the three major villains of the game, whose actions actually have the most impact on either the game’s heroine or the world around them, are virtually non-entities. Vecnatrix the lich lord is the world’s major villain, but he only actually shows up in the game a couple times, and then only for a moment or two--not to mention that it’s called into question at one point just how truly dangerous he actually is. The main villain of the game is unknown until you meet them at the very, very end, and while their hand is in all things until that point, they also, at the same time, have not really manipulated much of anything. And then there’s Bad King Greyghast the Terrible, who, at the opening of the game, has been dead for many years. Aside from these three, the most you see for villains are incidental vehicles for plot/character development.

Yet unconventional does not mean bad, at least not in this case. As I said, this RPG is a personal story, not a far-reaching one, and as far as I’m concerned it needs no more villainous presence than it has. Vecnatrix serves an adequate purpose simply by existing in the capacity that he does. The final villain is not just your standard last-minute superboss thrown in for no reason, like Final Fantasy 9’s Necron or every single goddamn numbered Suikoden’s last boss--this one is properly tied to the secretive and layered plot, and more interaction with the events of the game before the final confrontation would have jeopardized the integrity of that plot. That said, I feel like Greyghast really pulls his weight the most as a villain, even though it’s all after the fact. The legacy of torment he inflicted upon his family, Duchess Catherine in particular, is shown very effectively through flashback, nightmare, and unhappy remembrance at various times in the game. Greyghast’s evil is shown only very subtly, only through small windows and through the scars it left upon Catherine, but you know something, that’s enough to make him one of the darkest, sickest evildoers I’ve seen in RPGs, and the dark legacy he leaves in the scars upon Catherine's psyche has more of a hand in her personal journey postmortem than the other, still living villains have.****

So the game’s fun and funny, the protagonist is really good, the rest of the cast is adequate, the villains’re good enough, and there’re some very good romantic parts. Sounds spiffy so far. So how’s Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle for plot? Turns out it’s quite good, at least by my reckoning. Like many other aspects of the game, it’s pretty unconventional. The setting has a lot more thought and background put into it than seems needed--there’s a lot of background to Aresland that has barely any relevance to the actual game events and characters, yet knowing that the game’s maker has put unnecessary thought into his setting pleases me, because that’s the sign of someone who genuinely cares about the story he’s telling and has enough plans for it to give it depth. A lot of the game is kind of non-linear, in that you can determine a lot of what order you do things in, and whether you do some things at all. The nonlinearity is fairly easy to pull off, since there doesn’t seem to actually BE much of a story for most of the game--you basically are just watching Catherine go about her daily task of building relationships with those around her as she waits for Embric to return. That said, the game does gain some direction after a time, with a certain number of these nonlinear events coming to a head in an attack by 1000 Anti-Paladins, after which, if you’re clever enough and have been thorough in your playing, you can set yourself on the track to the True Ending. Getting to that point (and past the false trail the game throws at you) allows you to see and understand the true nature of the game’s events (though it’s a little hard to suss out at first). It winds up being a small story, really, but emotionally powerful and layered enough that it packs a hell of a punch.

THIS PARAGRAPH IS SPOILERS. GO STRAIGHT TO NEXT PARAGRAPH. DO NOT PASS GO. DO NOT COLLECT $200. I have to also note here that this is probably the only time where I’ve really liked an “It was all a dream” ending. I’ve seen some before that were okay and appropriate, but we all know that this kind of ending is infamous for being lame and cheesy.***** But when you add the fact that Catherine’s gift of prophecy makes that dream a set of events yet to come, examples of what could be, you get a case where anything and everything can be as real as she wants it to be, where she can use her foresight to manipulate events later (such as with Gizmod) to (presumably) create a better kingdom, and still arrive at Wulfhammer’s Castle to experience the joys and meet the people she’ll love during the events that she has (and we have) seen during the game’s span. In other words, you get every positive of the all-a-dream scenario does, and none of the downsides (after all, you can’t feel that the time in the dream was wasted or get upset over the fact that it all wasn’t real, because it prepared Catherine for what was to come and let her know that her life would have some happiness (an important thing given her state as her uncle’s captive) and it all WILL be real in as much capacity as she wills it). And I like the fact that she must struggle to return to reality, and keep her wonderful memories of things to come. I also like that there ARE some subtle hints to the nature of the game being a dream and Catherine’s foresight in the game, small enough that they don’t tip you off as anything unusual at the time but connected enough that they suddenly make sense in whole new ways once you know the truth. Good stuff.

So yeah. That’s Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle. It really, honestly is a very good RPG. Maybe not for anyone who’s not comfortable with explicit adult content (or anyone who, for unfathomable reasons, really enjoys RPG battle systems--there’s fewer than 10 battles in the whole game; it’s almost entirely story-driven), but if you can stick with it long enough to give it an honest chance, you may find yourself really into it. Saint Bomber (the guy who created the game) said in an email conversation with me that he “set out to write a naughty story with some heart, and ended up writing a hearty story with some naughtiness,” and that’s exactly what this is--and I love a hearty story. And hey, it’s free. I’ve paid to play many, many worse RPGs than this one, and chances are good that you have, too. So if you’re interested, why not give it a shot?

You can download it at  You may also want to check out the closest thing this game has to a guide, found at if you’re interested--I actually do advocate using this guide (although it’s a bit confusing to follow), because you can easily miss quite a few endings and other things if you don’t know what you’re doing (including how to get the True Ending).

Goodness, I’ve been having a wonderful time with Indie RPGs. Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden, Bastion, Geneforge 1, and Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch have all been enjoyable. Maybe these hipsters are on to something...

* It also got MAJOR brownie points for the fact that one of the peasants at the castle, who all initially just parrot one-line NPC catchphrases, says “Times are tough.” As a general rule, game developers, if you want to get on my good side, a humorous reference to the old, discontinued, but pretty awesome webcomic RPG World is very effective. The only thing that could possibly beat it out is a reference to the equally old, completed, and even more awesome Adventurers! webcomic.

** It’s a strange concept but I really think that it’s a fairly accurate way to describe the way the Duchess romantically connects with multiple people.

*** Sadly, what Catherine takes from this conversation is “have sex with all your love interests at the same time to avoid jealousy.” But aside from that, it’s a good scene.

**** Side Note Because Not Everyone Cares About Ponies: I’m actually reminded a bit with Greyghast of King Sombra from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Though I wouldn’t say Sombra is a particularly great villain, I would argue that he was perhaps the very nastiest of the ones we’ve seen as of the end of Season 3, for the same reason that I find Greyghast so effective: the subtle way the villainy he enacted is shown. We don’t really see much of what Sombra did as tyrant of the Crystal Empire, nor do we see much of note in his actual presence in the show, but the way the crystal ponies act is a huge indicator of just how horrible he truly was--they’re dulled, introverted, joyless, and even just remembering how things were before they were liberated from him is a frightening prospect. Same deal with Greyghast--it’s the torment in Catherine’s recollections that give us a picture of just how bad he really was. It’s a more subtle way of telling the audience how evil a villain was, but if you’re smart enough to really pick up on it, consider it, then it speaks volumes.

***** Which made it all the more amusing that a HUGE amount of Mass Effect 3 players sincerely believed that Mass Effect 3’s ending was secretly going to be revealed to be an “all a dream” scenario--and that they would have preferred that to the ending Bioware actually did create. What does it say about writers when the most absurd cop-out of all time is actually preferable to the ending they created?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Xenosaga 3's Scientia

Oh, dear, I think it’s that time again. Yes, you know the one. It’s time to talk about the frenzied insanity that is Xenosaga 3’s narrative.

What to talk about today, I wonder? Perhaps the way that the series’s subplot questioning what human rights Realians deserve just fizzles out after a while? Or I could mention the meaningless, canned symbolism of having the Elsa sprout wings in Xenosaga 3’s ending, which doesn’t even make sense since wings shouldn’t really increase one’s speed in outer space. Maybe how distracting it is for the U-TIC Organization’s battleships to look like huge barbed penises? And then there’s the absolute jaw-dropping absurdity of resurrecting Albedo, the main and iconic villain of both Xenosaga 1 and 2, and then having only one single scene in the entirety of Xenosaga 3 in which he is at all relevant--and having that scene be his redemption through (sort of) death, which comes, from the perspective of his total screen time over the course of all the games, about 10 minutes after his death as a disturbed and evil villain.

Wait, I know! I’ll rant about Scientia! That’ll do nicely.

Ah, Scientia. Where would Xenosaga 3 be without Scientia, I wonder? Actually, I don’t wonder that at all. I know where Xenosaga 3 would be without Scientia. It would be more or less at the exact same place.

Seriously, why is the Scientia organization even included in Xenosaga 3? The biggest contributions to the plot that Scientia makes is that its leader, Doctus, helps Shion and Miyuki to hack Vector during Xenosaga 3’s opening, later on Scientia analyzes some of the information Shion helped to extract (which turns out to be information relating to overly complex and largely unnecessary plot threads, just like every other goddamn thing in this game), and also Doctus has a hard time remembering Canaan’s name because it is super important to establish that she is too cool for school. Or maybe that her brain is so incredibly hard up for processing power that it could crash just from trying to remember those 6 letters in order. Hard to say, really.

But yeah, that’s pretty much it for Scientia. Doctus and her group (a group we never actually see much evidence of other than Doctus, incidentally, lessening even further its ability to make an impact) do almost nothing overall, and spend the majority of the game completely forgotten by the main plot. Yeah, okay, the group’s goal is discovering the truth about, warning people away from, and seeking the destruction of the U.M.N., the cosmic network that all human culture is dependant upon in the future, yet even after being detailed and explained over the course of 3 separate games still is incredibly vague and puzzling in nature (the best way of going about understanding it, really, is to think of the U.M.N. as a magic psychic internet). And a (sort of) major plot point of Xenosaga 3 is discovering the problems and darker parts of the history of the U.M.N., so you could, I guess, say that Scientia has some relevance by introducing you to the idea that this inexplicable interweb could have drawbacks early on...but that’s a real stretch. In reality, Scientia is a mere shard of plot that slips through the fingers of a game trying to hold way, way too much stuff at one time.

Additionally, one has to wonder just how much need there was for Doctus and her organization even in the extremely small role they serve. I mean, does Doctus really have to be there in the game’s opening to start with? Since Xenosaga 3 already is jarringly putting forth the idea that Shion is secretly working against Vector now anyway, it would be as believable to have Shion and Miyuki doing their raid on Vector without Doctus’s help--Shion’s intelligent enough that it would be entirely feasible for her to be the one fronting the technological and intellectual resources necessary for the operation herself. There are other, better-established avenues and characters for going over the data she obtains in this event, so it’s not like Scientia’s organization is particularly necessary for that, either (hell, a simple time-consuming plot-convenient automated program would have worked just as well). And since the idea that the U.M.N. is something more than just Magical Space Internet is only truly being introduced and explored in this installment anyway, it’s a conclusion we could just as easily believe Shion or some other pre-established character coming up with themselves, rather than inventing an entire organization for it if that organization is going to lose relevance in the next 5 minutes.

The real problem here has its origins in the between-games story of the Xenosaga series. As you probably know already, the Xenosaga series was originally meant to be 6 games long, instead of 3, which explains a lot of the major flaws in Xenosaga 2’s mashing so much plot nonsense together and monologuing a full month forward at its halfway point, and more importantly explains why Xenosaga 3’s codex includes within it the details of an entire game’s worth of plot that happened between the second and third game that we’ll never actually see. Rather than doing the sane thing and trying to adjust the original 6-game-long story of the series so it would properly suit a trilogy by dropping its extraneous material (and there’s a LOT of that), the Xenosaga team tried to jampack every part of it they possibly could into half the games. I mean, obviously it would have been best if the series had had its full 6 games to develop over, but if they’d at least just tried to cut down on some of the peripheral plot arcs and ideas instead of smush everything together, the trilogy might have at least been comprehensible.

Anyway, this between-games story arc (let’s call it Xenosaga 2.5) is, according to the codex in Xenosaga 3 that summarizes it, where Doctus and Scientia originate in the series, and where they had a major role in Xenosaga’s events. Under normal circumstances (as in, Xenosaga 2.5 having been its own game), Scientia’s small role in Xenosaga 3 would actually be fairly sensible. I mean, the plot of Xenosaga 3 doesn’t require them in any real capacity, but if they were an established sect and Doctus an established character, as would be the case if Xenosaga 2.5 had been its own game, then the writers wouldn’t want to just drop Scientia altogether, because players would wonder why this group that was so important the last time was suddenly gone and forgotten. Abrupt absences like that actually tend to irritate returning audiences. So to have Scientia at least acknowledged, even if they aren’t important, and then have them relegated to non-screentime importance would have been a good way to get on with things without having the players wondering in mild annoyance where the group went.

But that’s IF Xenosaga 2.5 had been an actual game as was the original intent, IF it had been an actual product that the players had experienced to its fullest. And that isn’t how it wound up happening. So what would have been a minor but appropriate return of a previously well-established important group and character turns into an inexplicably important-seeming introduction of a character and group that has very little to do anything, and even what minor relevance they have seems forced.

So that’s the problem with Scientia. Like so many of the unnecessary and confusing variables of the Xenosaga series, Scientia is, in the end, basically unimportant and should have been removed altogether for the sake of a clearer and more sensible narrative. Given Scientia’s origin in Xenosaga 2.5, you can say the fault lies in Namco for refusing to give the series the time adequate to tell its story. But you can also say that the writers of Xenosaga are at fault for being unwilling to give up the extraneous details that had been planned, trim the fat of the plot so to speak, and/or for having no rational understanding of what plot devices are necessary and effective for a well-told story, and which devices just distract from and convolute it. Either way, it’s just another of the countless storytelling bungles to be found in Xenosaga 3.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Mass Effect Series AMV: Go Back to Sleep

Wow, I found another RPG AMV so good that it deserves its own rant, and it hasn’t even been a full year since the last one! Truly we live in wondrous times. Today we look at the first Mass Effect video to get its own spotlight here, Go Back to Sleep, by Xeriana11.

Mass Effect Series: Go Back to Sleep:

Look. Look With Your Special Eyes: Top-notch visual quality on this one. Everything looks as good in this AMV as it does in the actual games, and anyone familiar with Mass Effect knows just how good that is. Along with being well-suited for the AMV’s story and the song’s lyrics and tune (more on that later), Xeriana11’s selected a set of clips of footage from the Mass Effect series that has a decidedly darker tint to it, even when it’s bright, which definitely accentuates the darkness of the music and the video’s intent. I don’t know how much credit to give her for this, since ME2 and 3 (from which most footage is pulled) have a generally darker visual tone anyway, but it works great for the AMV’s purposes, so kudos all the same.

As you’ve probably noticed by now, I’m very partial to AMVs who employ visual bells and whistles with moderation, keeping them simple but effective (not that more grandiose visuals in an AMV are necessarily bad, but they usually wind up just getting in the way, distracting the viewer from the video’s actual content). So it should come as no surprise to you that this AMV that I like so much is another case of a video with a moderate number of basic visual effects, used effectively to increase the effect of the AMV without going overboard. Some of the best instances of this come when the video starts out, with some quick blurs, discolorations, and jerky visual transitions, which effectively convey the subconscious mood set for both the song and video in those few first notes, finally getting into the song and video proper with a quick focusing upon the Illusive Man’s face, which brings to mind how the world looks when you first open your eyes after awakening--a simple but absolutely great effect to use to portray Shepard’s just having awoken and to visually set up the idea of The Illusive Man wanting Shepard to “go back to sleep.” The blurred zoom-in* that follows that scene at 0:34 is another example of a comparatively basic effect that coordinates really well with the AMV as a whole, this time mirroring the abrupt and violent change in the music to abruptly and violently bring us into the scene of Shepard’s death in ME2.

Those are the best examples of Xeriana11’s touch, visually, but the visual effects stay solid throughout. Lots of faded overlay transitions link one scene to the next in a more connected way than a simple switch would when the scenes should be associated together, some color-burny effects at times to coordinate with the song’s harsher notes, that sort of thing. It’s all well-placed and effective.

Your Music’s Bad and You Should Feel Bad!: This AMV employs the song Pet, by A Perfect Circle. This is the first I’ve ever heard this song, and I have to admit that while I don’t actually like it personally, it IS impressive to me--dark, creepy, powerful, even disturbing. This is one of those rare occasions I can look at a song and actually see it as an example of art.

There’s no denying that the music is the dominant force in this AMV, driving the visual component of the music video and its message. The AMV endeavors to follow along to the song on several different levels, and succeeds admirably on all counts. On its most basic level, the AMV follows the music’s tone and changes admirably with its visuals. The quiet and creepy parts are reflected by appropriate scenes, most often involving The Illusive Man, which fit perfectly with his bright and yet dark surroundings. As the music turns to a harsher, more hostile tone, we see the visuals reflect it, violently transitioning to scenes of destruction and the nightmarish situations and foes that Shepard faces off against. On the next level, the video also follows along and excellently compliments the lyrics of the song, as well. Practically every moment in the AMV during which there are spoken words is an example of this, but I’ll throw out a few exemplary moments anyway. Moments like 1:16 through 1:19, where “truth” and “choice” are represented by unpleasant moments of ME2 and 3 where Shepard learns that The Illusive Man knowingly allowed Shepard to walk into a trap because he wanted the potential prizes of information from the situation (the truth that The Illusive Man is only interested in what Shepard can do for him, rather than what Shepard can do for everyone), and where Shepard must choose whether or not to shoot a misguided old friend in order to save the council’s, and by extension countless others’, lives. Or like 2:56, where we see The Illusive Man’s dream of Control from the (horrendously awful) ending to the lyrics talking of a new world order, 3:12, which show Shepard’s visions of the Reapers to the lyrics “the boogiemen are coming,” and 4:01, showing Shepard’s loyal and good friends as the “other” and “evil” ones to The Illusive Man. It’s all good stuff.

There’s one last, overall level of the music that I feel the video meshes with excellently, too. As the song continues, there’s a point near its middle that seems...well, if I had to play musical interpreter, I’d say that it’s the point at which the singer’s manipulations seem to be failing. Eventually the singer’s vocals become louder, more insistent--he’s no longer soft and wheedling as in the song’s beginning, he’s now frustratedly shouting his manipulations, as the music itself starts to sound more energized and epic, and thus, hopeful--as though the one the singer is trying to control is breaking through the manipulations. This, of course, could be entirely a misinterpretation by someone who prefers the optimistic and positive conclusions to the dark and unhappy ones, but even if that’s definitely not what the song means to portray, the AMV uses the song in this way, going from primarily using ME2’s visuals halfway through the song to primarily using ME3’s scenes--in other words, going from the visuals of a game where Shepard was working for The Illusive Man to the game where Shepard is his enemy, using the scene at ME2’s end where Shepard has destroyed the Collector Base against The Illusive Man’s wishes and walks out on him as a transition between these two halves of the AMV. As the music becomes more powerful (again, like the manipulator is fully losing his control over the song’s subject) at around 3:23, we see scenes from the assault on The Illusive Man’s base, and scenes from the game’s finale where Shepard finally has the opportunity to break through his control and shoot him dead, as the singer gives one last whispered plea of manipulation. Again, maybe this more hopeful message of the manipulator’s illusions failing isn’t what the song intended, but that’s the direction the AMV’s interpretation of the song goes in, and it does work.

Guy, You Explain: The purpose of this AMV is to portray, and perhaps even explore, the relationship The Illusive Man has with Shepard in the light of the song. As the representative of Control for Mass Effect, The Illusive Man and his manipulations of Shepard, both successful and failed, are a great match to the creepy control the singer of Pet seeks, through threats and reassurances, to exert over the song’s subject. It’s interesting, even intriguing, to see The Illusive Man’s perspective of Shepard in this way, and casts him in a decidedly sinister light, one which fits him well. Xeriana11 also states that her intended purpose with this AMV was to show Shepard’s struggle to figure out whether or not to believe The Illusive Man, to show how his skillful manipulations of Shepard that would create doubts in Shepard’s mind, and that’s definitely achieved here, too, partially through use of scenes where the embodiment of Shepard’s connection to the Alliance, Kaidan (or Ashley; whomever survived Virmire--in this case, Kaidan is the one used), is cutting his ties with Shepard in ME2 and standing against Shepard in ME3, and partially just from the overall effect of having The Illusive Man be the narrative force of the video.

Now granted, this isn’t a perfect AMV in some respects. It’s an interpretation of The Illusive Man and Shepard that takes a certain amount of liberties in their interactions, liberties that perhaps separate it from being a perfect, literal match to the actual game’s characters. And I have to say it confuses me a little why a Male Shepard is not used in this video rather than the Female version of Shepard, because one of the opening visuals of the AMV has The Illusive Man looking, for a brief moment, at a dossier of Male Shepard, and one of the last lines of the song refers to the song’s subject (who is Shepard for the purposes of this AMV) as “son.” It wouldn’t be a problem for me if the AMV were forced to use a character who had no male version available, but there IS a male version of Shepard, so why not use him instead and simply avoid that incongruity?

Still, the gender thing is so small an issue that it barely even warrants mention anyway, so it’s not really a problem at all in the end. And regardless of how accurate you consider this video, it’s more than close enough that it works well as an AMV to the Pet song and provides an entertaining, and maybe even thought-provoking perspective on Shepard and The Illusive Man, whose connection is interesting to consider and explore. Ultimately, Go Back to Sleep is a very well made, interesting, and creepily powerful AMV, just great overall, and I think it deserves real recognition.

* Once again: I totally do not know anything about cinematography terms. I guess some day I should really attempt to learn them rather than have to keep making these apologies, but for the moment, you’ll just have to bear with my ignorant descriptions of visual effects.