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So not too long ago, I did a post on Xenoblade Chronicles that took a look at its story. That’s fine and all, but I’m wary of the fact that I didn’t really talk about the gameplay -- which, you know, is kind of important in a video game. I admit that I was worried about the MMO style at first, and I didn’t quite get the combat system at the outset, but didn’t take long for everything to click. There’s a reason why people think of it as one of the Wii’s best games.
It’s actually pretty fortunate that Xenoblade is fresh on my mind -- but unfortunately, that means I have to go into “whining about popular games” mode. In this case? I’ve been trying my absolute hardest to get into Dragon Age: Inquisition. And I can’t; I’m under the impression that I’ve been playing the game wrong this whole time, but seeing as how it’s been more than a week since I last touched it, I’m not exactly eager to give it the benefit of the doubt. Not with Xenoblade and plenty of other games behind me.
It’s because of Xenoblade in particular that I understand something extremely valuable -- something that Dragon Age: Inquisition lacks. But to be fair, it’s not just a problem with BioWare’s latest; it’s made me wonder if too many games in general are on the wrong track.
My understanding of DA:I’s flow is that in order to earn the right to continue through the story, you have to earn Power from sidequests, of which there are tons. So circumstantially, playing the way I did up to my stopping point -- building a surplus of Power so the player can proceed uninterrupted -- is possible, but not recommended based on my time with it…and the lack of progress therein. Weirdly, even if it’s possible to have a continuous stream of sidequests going, it’s felt like the game’s actual plot has a stop-and-go quality to it. You go to a place, maybe talk to some people, or fight off some baddies, and then it’s over.
Well, that’s a reductive way of putting it -- it’s about the quality and content of those missions, and there is something to them -- but there have been instances where I found myself asking, “Wait, that’s it?” My expectation was that (even if I’m at the start of the game), I’d be put into some weighty episodes -- chapters with a definitive start, middle and end. I’ll admit that I don’t expect a drag-out fight toward a boss in every instance, but so far it just feels like I’ve traveled the land for conversations I’m practically sleeping through.
I don’t expect every scene or every event to go from zero to sixty in seconds flat. But even then, I’m struggling to keep “it’s only the start of the game” as the primary excuse. The game’s opening -- from the sight of your avatar wandering a green wasteland to the birth of a world-saving Inquisition -- is solid enough to make me want to keep venturing out. I went in expecting to get more of that.
Sure, I probably will at some point, but the “story” stuff so far has felt so insubstantial. Have I made a difference? Have I done any good? Because the most I’ve done so far is find out that everyone who belongs to a named group is arguing and doesn’t want to work together. And in the interim -- before and after -- the game is bombarding me with sidequests. I can’t walk for thirty seconds down a road without getting a sidequest, even though I accepted another sidequest prior to it. There are dozens of little icons on the map begging to be tended to, with miniscule trinkets to be found just ‘cause; it’s to the point where it feels like I’m running through a checklist instead of exploring a brave new world. A conversation with a damn religious figure fed into her roping me into a fetch quest.
But you know what? I get it. I figured out why I have problems with this game, and what it can do to fix them -- if it hasn’t already. It’s very simple, really.
It all starts with the characters.
I barely even finished a conversation with Sera before I internally screamed “Get in my party right now.” Her general glee and Deadpool-style rambling set her apart from pretty much everyone I met prior to that point. It wasn’t necessarily about her injecting some levity into the game (though that helped), but because if nothing else, she was different. As a character, and no matter her…well, character, she added something new and appreciable to the proceedings.
That’s more than I can say about the starting party. Chalk this up to The Sidequest Trap keeping me from the downtime to have conversations with my party members (on this, my third file; I did talk to them on previous files, and wasn’t exactly endeared by anyone), but so far I’ve found them less than ideal. I don’t feel the impetus to go back to the base and talk with Cassandra, or Solus, or Varric, because I feel like I’ve gotten enough of them just by having their non-presences in the party.
Cassandra is tough and serious. Solus is calm and rational. Varric handles the snark. A part of me wants to keep playing the game just to get these people out of my sight. And this is coming from someone who gleefully did all of the loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2. Zaeed wasn’t my favorite character, but I leapt at the chance to run through his little arc. As soon as I got Sera, I dumped Varric. I haven’t looked back yet.
The game feels so cold and passionless. And I know, it’s not fair to say that at this point -- but on the other hand, it didn’t take plenty of other games nearly as long for me to get hooked. So at this stage, I have to say that Xenoblade did it better. Gameplay and story alike came together in battles; when Shulk and Reyn fought together, they would talk to each other -- giving each other boosts in confidence and congratulating one another when they landed critical hits. Shulk set up enemies for a fall, and Reyn knocked them over so they could go to town. They worked together via chain attacks -- once they had a third party member -- and by the player’s hand they could resurrect one another, pick them up after a nasty fall, or just cheer them up if their performance in battle suffered. THAT’S TEAM SYNERGY, AND IT’S AWESOME.
Confession time: because I was a clod who didn’t know how the game worked, I only got a small number of the Heart-to-Heart conversations littered throughout -- meaning that I missed a lot of bonding that could have made the game even stronger. But in my case, I didn’t really need that. The story did a fine job of selling Team Shulk as a team. Even if I skipped every cutscene, the gameplay would have been enough to prove that such a disparate cast needed each other. It’s not just about the power of friendship; it’s about the teamwork needed for a small unit to fight against a horde of mechanical killers. Cooperation and communication are kind of important -- which is probably true of real life soldiers, but I’ll withhold comment. Thankfully, life on the battlefield is beyond me.
On top of all that, the combat in Xenoblade is fun on multiple levels. It’s an audiovisual treat, even with the Wii’s lack of sheer graphical power; setting aside certain amazing tracks, the swirl of swords, lights, shots, and magic keeps the hype strong from the game’s start to its finish. Plus, the strategic options are exciting, no matter which characters you pick. It’s entirely possible to make a nigh-unstoppable Reyn -- one that can self-resurrect -- who tanks and builds aggro while readying his one-two combo of Magnum Charge and Sword Drive to deal tens of thousands of damage in one go.
And while he’s doing that, Shulk goes in with the sneaky hits to the sides and backs of enemies, and putting that Monado of his to good use. Even Sharla got to be more than just “the healer” -- her massive gun lets her tack on some extra hits, and she can throw in status effects to debilitate foes. It’s an active system with lots of flourishes, and (if nothing else) lets the game be an exercise in “press buttons to do cool stuff”. As it should be.
In DA:I? The combat feels like a fart in the wind. There’s no feedback when you’re shooting an arrow or firing a magic missile, and certainly not much in the way of visual flair (despite the mage’s staff-twirling shenanigans). I decided to stick with my archer -- the elven femme Suplex -- on the grounds that I should hang back and employ the tactics the game pushed me towards using, but I don’t see the need for that when my strategy has barely evolved from the first fight.
I hardly even need to pay attention to what I’m doing, let alone move; most fights I just spend watching the health bar empty. Frankly, the only way fights feel dynamic is if I lock onto an enemy and move the camera to a cooler position -- and even then it’s no guarantee.
And even with that borderline-useless Tactical Mode (good luck trying to snipe when the mode’s range is fixed!), it feels like my party of four is closed up in different rooms -- on different floors of a skyscraper. Oh, sure, they (i.e. Suplex) might chime in and say “Cassandra’s in trouble!” or “Solus is hurt!” when the time comes, but we’re effectively fighting in silence.
I don’t know what my guys are doing when a fight starts, and I can’t bring myself to care as long as they’re doing their class-specific roles and not dying. I can’t perceive the importance of my party not just because they feel so far away from me; it’s because it doesn’t feel like we’re struggling together, be it with the story or in battle.
Honestly, I can’t help but think of the Tales games -- specifically, Xillia 2. I’m probably nicer to it than I should be, given that it’s a game that shamelessly hides the main story behind sidequest-bred paywalls. To its credit, its gameplay is significantly more fun, but in the interim there’s more stuff for a player to sink his or her teeth into. A huge part of its battle system banks on linking with party members for both passive bonuses and unique combo attacks; even if it didn’t, the team of four still talks to each other on a regular basis mid-fight.
But even out of battle, there’s so much more to help build bonds between characters. In typical Tales fashion, there are optional skits that have the party members chat it up. Even if you ignore those, they’ll still speak while you’re out in the field. And in Xillia 2, their personal sidequests are so pronounced that they have icons signaling them in towns -- not to mention that said sidequests have multiple stages, with cutscenes (in-engine), that offer insights into who they are, and tack on bonus scenes to the main story once you reach the designated point. All of that helps to establish that the party isn’t just a bunch of jagoffs fighting demons and bandits. They’re a team. A family.
I’m not just bringing up Xenoblade and Tales so I can go “herp derp, JRPGS are better!” Case in point: I like how Mass Effect handled things. It had a major, overarching plot -- and while it didn’t necessarily go to as great lengths as the average Tales game to establish the whole “we’re a family angle” (not saying that it didn’t, of course), it did strive to have the player form a close personal bond with bunches of walking, talking polygons. And it succeeded.
It had that “save the universe” plot. It had sidequests. But its characters had enough charm and charisma to make you want to take time out to talk to them -- figure out what they were all about. I wanted to learn more about Miranda besides the amount of stress she puts on the backside of her pants. I wanted to hang out with Jacob and do cool black guy stuff. Hell, I’m still reeling from the death of Kaidan, and he must be the most boring of the bunch. The combat in those games was good enough (invisible sniping and freezing rounds, yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaah), but the characters? That’s what’ll bring me back for Mass Effect 4.
With DA:I, it feels like -- even at this early stage -- I’ve jumped right over some of the rungs on the ladder, and I’m dropping back to the ground because of it. I don’t feel like I’m anchored in the world; sure, I’m trying to protect it, but I don’t have a firm grasp of what it is. Chalk that up to me not spending a lot of time with the earlier DA games, but even if most of the bond was established back then, I should still be able to feel something for this new world. I should care about the struggle between the mages, the Templars, the Chantry, and the rebels. But I don’t.
Speaking strictly in story terms? It seems like the game is aiming for concepts and conditions, but those are the higher-level elements. Those are what you go for after you lay down the ground floor -- and there’s no element more basic and more vital than the characters. Sera is the only character introduced so far who made me feel that BioWare magic. As soon as I met her, I thought to myself, “Hey, things are finally looking up.”
So I guess the question I have to ask is this: can you care about anything before you care about something first?
That sounds like a weird question, I know. But let me put it this way: it’s been nearly a year since Infamous: Second Son came out, and at this stage I’m inclined to think that I was too hard on it. I think it’s flawed as all get out, of course; I’m not backing down on that. But the personal stakes and bonds that main character Delsin Rowe has -- and more importantly, establishes at the outset -- go a long way towards giving the motivation to start caring about everything else that happens. Whether it’s his brother Reggie or his ailing tribe, there’s someone out there that matters to him, and helps sway his actions.
I’ll admit that I would have defaulted to the Good Karma path no matter what, but Reggie’s presence -- a big brother and man of the law who’d want to do the right thing even without his badge -- made the choice a lot easier. Even so, I wanted to bond with him, and I felt the world a little bit more because I had a guy like him alongside me. So on a personal level, I enjoyed SS; what I didn’t enjoy was how it almost immediately fell apart in terms of its poorly-explored themes of personal freedom vs. security. Yo, Sucker Punch? Maybe a superhero game isn’t the best place to try and make a political statement, especially when your game features destruction porn that proves the mean ol’ government right.
It’s just baffling that games keep trying to aim for these high-minded concepts, but don’t have the execution needed to do anything more than say “this is a thing that exists” or “look at how deep and meaningful this game is”. Watch Dogs tried to be “about something”, but couldn’t even give us one decent character. DmC tried to be the next stage of video game narratives, but had a plot that could’ve been out-written by an office chair. Year after year, Call of Duty fails on every front, as if its developers refuse to learn from past mistakes.
People get attached to characters, first and foremost. The setting plays into preferences, too, and a strong plot can only be beneficial. Still, characters create opportunities on a small scale and a large one; putting a hero or heroine through their paces and having them interact with other elements -- other characters, story-specific conflicts, gameplay roadblocks, whatever -- is what allows for interesting stuff to happen. I’m not saying that I need every character to be a laugh riot, or for every game to take time out for friendship, romance, or good cheer. All I ask is this: whatever a game decides to do, it has to do it well. And I’m inclined to say that DA:I doesn’t.
Once more, is it fair to judge the whole game based on a tiny snippet? No. But here’s the thing: regardless of the medium, everything needs a hook. DA:I’s gameplay isn’t nearly enough to provide that hook at its outset (which isn’t as unreasonable a demand as you’d expect), and hasn’t yet, making for a weaker game. Fortunately, as an RPG it can offer up that hook via its story; unfortunately, that doesn’t really come through. The beginning is solid, but it’s still just that -- a beginning. There’s a steep drop-off because the game pretty much tells you to run errands instead of figure out who ripped a hole in the sky.
The thing about DA:I -- and other RPGs, no doubt -- is that it’s built to make the player selfish. It starts with you being labeled as the chosen one, but it doesn’t stop there. Everything that happens is more or less in relation to you, and how it affects you. I can’t imagine Varric and Solus having a conversation with each other, and don’t feel like they enjoy each other’s company during their once-every-hour random chat in transit. Instead, they can only develop if you’re around, as if they suddenly take the stage.
You’re pretty much the only one that can solve the world’s problems (as its gofer), but you’re essentially its last sane man/woman who has to tend to the squabbles of enemy factions -- whose conflict, unless you’re entrenched in the lore, doesn’t affect you in the slightest. Why should you care about the mages or the Templars when you’re just some doof that A) is technically a blank slate, B) was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and C) can only have a history with those factions if you choose it via your backstory -- which you can’t really choose in the first place?
The implication is that the world is under fire, and you and your organization are going to keep the peace -- but the gameplay stands in contradiction to all of that. The tutorial area’s got some dead bodies, but once you clear that, it’s off to a place called Haven -- and true to its namesake, it’s pretty peaceful. As is the area around it. Same goes for The Hinterlands; it’s a forest with outlaws roaming around and pockets of enemies, but huge swaths of it have nothing going on. You visit a town where you might hear people talking about the “troubled times”, but there’s no visual evidence of it besides arguments between two factions firing jibba-jabba at one another. And then you can go to the canyons and find -- beyond the occasional demon-spewing rift -- even more nothing.
If there is a threat, it could simply be a thousand years away -- meaning that you’re invited to stroll at your leisure, doing whatever you want, with barely even the concept of immediacy. You’re free to do what you want -- and by default, what do you want in an RPG? To get stronger, and learn new skills, and get cool stuff (i.e. loot). That’s it. And sure, the prospect of a new level is thrilling, but it’s shallow. It can’t compare to the prospects of worlds and battles that get your blood going. Because it can’t compare, it isn’t long before even the thrilling becomes the routine. When you don’t have that anchor, you just end up floating adrift -- lost in a sea of cold, passionless, non-demanding misadventures.
Now, I’ll be fair. I feel silly for even thinking it, but just to be safe I’ll go ahead and say it: what I’ve said here is pretty much my opinion. So I can’t say that (right now) I like DA:I, but that doesn’t mean it’s objectively awful. It just doesn’t line up with my tastes. I’m the sort who’ll gladly hold up Reyn Time -- an engaging unity of gameplay and story -- over anything that makes me refer to its core conceit as “The Sidequest Trap”. So what does that mean for me and DA:I?
We’ll see. Maybe I will play it some more. Or, alternatively…
You know, sometimes I can’t help but think that more games could be improved by taking on some mechanics from fighters. Then again, I’m partial to the mere prospect of a well-placed Phoenix Smasher.
So Super Smash Bros. is threatening to make me hate Shulk.
Some bad experiences made me realize that he’s one of my least favorite characters to go up against. I’m not about to claim that he’s god-tier, but he’s got enormous range and respectable power even without his buffs. And his counter is a real problem; when you’ve got online players tossing out YOLO Falcon Punches, it means Shulk gets a high-powered attack that sweeps a huge chunk of the field and wrecks everyone nearby.
For me, Shulk ruins everything. Consistently. Well, maybe not as much as Lucina, but enough to make me groan whenever a Shulk pops up in a match. It’s pretty unfortunate, because his game of origin is utterly amazing -- as you probably know by now, making this post at large redundant. But with a sequel and a 3DS edition on the way -- and in an effort to talk about something positive instead of just going WAAAH WAAAH VIDEOGAMES MAKE ME SAAAAAAAAD -- here’s a chance to get in deep with one of the Wii’s finest.
Now. Let me say this to start: SPOILERS INCOMING. And now that that’s out of the way, listen to this song.
I’d argue that “You Will Know Our Names” is one of the key songs of Xenoblade Chronicles; that is, it carries within a four-minute loop the spirit and thrust of the story. This is something that I mulled over for a while, trying to find just the right word to sum up the experience (besides the obvious, “good”). I wanted to get all the characters and ideas and world under one umbrella.
And I went through a few potential choices. Discovery was one of them, and probably the strongest contender. Revenge might have worked as well. But I think there’s one word that not only encapsulates the game, but elevates it into something truly memorable -- and it’s as clear as the song of a thousand party wipeouts.
The spirit of Xenoblade Chronicles is triumph. In what capacity? Well, I’ll get to that. But for now, let’s move on to the star of the show.
Compared to plenty of other leads, Shulk is different. For starters, he’s actually a scientist, or at the very least an engineering student; that’s something you don’t see very often in games in general, let alone a JRPG. He’s made it his mission to figure out the secrets of the Monado, a massive red blade that’s one of the only weapons that actually works on the Mechon -- the robotic invaders that harass and threaten the human race.
He’s -- usually -- a calm, thoughtful person that asks the questions nobody else will, all in an effort to better humanity’s lot in life. He tends to get absorbed in his work, but he’s not without his humanity -- or the awkwardness that ensues whenever he’s brought out of his shell. He’s the type of person that’s fascinated by the world of Xenoblade -- as he should be, considering that the game takes place on a pair of colonized Gundams.
The hidden benefit to having Shulk be a man of science -- at least as much of a “man of science” one can be while atom-smashing robots with a laser sword -- is that science itself becomes a pervasive theme. And indeed, there are a lot of different aspects to science even outside of the context of the game. But for the sake of argument, let’s pare it down to some basic ideas:
1) Science is an understanding of facts about our world.
2) Science is an effort to understand the mechanics of our world.
3) Science is an application of processes and facts to alter our world.
Science -- the search for and application of knowledge -- is what helps one grow and even survive…and of course, helps them compete with or even surpass others. Remember, the Space Race was a thing that happened once upon a time, bringing with it not only rivalry and a frenzied rush to see the stars, but no shortage of other benefits -- some abstract, some tangible. The key word here, for better or worse, is progress.
The entirety of Xenoblade’s plot hinges on an arms race between Shulk and his party (and by extension the other biological races living on the Bionis, AKA Nature Gundam) and the robots that want to kill and harvest the humans (making a home on Robot Gundam, redundant as that sounds). Pretty much every event in this game is a goal post that just gets higher and higher the more you play.
At the start, Shulk and friends are struggling against one nasty Mechon; find a way to beat him -- albeit through cheap tactics -- and suddenly it’s revealed that he was just part of a mass-produced line, and you’re very nearly swarmed by a dozen more. Of course, before game’s end you’re able to take on the same model of enemy without too much difficulty, but that’s only because the real challengers just keep ramping up their power and their stakes. Each elite is such a massive leap in power and ability that you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d switched to the wrong file in the middle of a play session.
The lynchpin of the heroes’ efforts and hopes is, of course, the Monado. Shulk may be a smart guy, but if he’s out to win the arms race, he needs time, facilities, and resources that the gang just doesn’t have. (And even if he did, he’d be dragging the story to a sloth’s pace). It’s explained that the Monado, for all its mysteries, works on a simple principle: it’s the manifestation of willpower that allows its wielder to change his future as he sees fit -- assuming he’s up to the task, of course.
Over the course of the game Shulk learns new skills with the Monado that help him overcome new challenges, allowing the heroes to keep on competing in the arms race. The basic ability is the Monado Buster, which turns the sword into a giant glowing robot-swatter; that’s eventually followed up by a party buff that lets them fight robots, a shield ability that protects them from certain attacks, a speed boost that…boosts speed, a debuffing Genmu Zero, and a big whompin’ area of effect attack. (And as I learned right before fighting the last boss, you can unlock even more Monado abilities. That’s what I get for playing without a guide, I guess.)
What I find extremely interesting about this whole Monado business is that for the longest time, it’s the one getting the credit for the team’s victories, not Shulk. The dialogue reflects this repeatedly; when there’s a job well done, it’s not Shulk that’ll get the credit, but the Monado. “Thanks to the Monado, we managed to pull that one off,” someone might say. Or maybe “As long as we got the Monado, there’s no way we’ll lose!”
The sad thing is that they’re absolutely right -- they ARE only winning and surviving because they’ve got the Monado. Everyone -- even Shulk -- is putting all their faith into a weapon far beyond their understanding, but they know there’s nothing they can do about it. They’ve become dependent on the weapon -- on the tool, a piece of technology and nothing more, in order to eke out even a basic existence.
And what’s even MORE interesting is that it’s not just Team Shulk who’s putting all their faith in their technology. Team Robot is doing the exact same thing. As it turns out, the Mechon that you’ve been going up against for the entire game are just the foot soldiers of Egil, part of the Machina race -- which is to the Mechonis what humans are to the Bionis. In a nutshell, his plan is to have all life on Bionis erased as a means to steal away the life energy the Bionis is using to sustain itself and reawaken (among other things, but I’ll get to that).
So basically, all the technology employed by the bad guys is an effort on Team Robot’s part to win the arms race and the war at large. And because of it, you can start to see the price one might pay for devoting themselves too passionately to a cause, especially to technology, and double-especially to tools of warfare. Team Robot is the literal embodiment of discarded humanity, showing what could happen if war and destruction (and in Egil’s case, revenge for past slights) become all that matter to a person. And it’s no accident; Shulk himself very nearly loses his humanity for the sake of his mission and his revenge, entrusting his very being to a weapon nobody knows a damn thing about besides “it’s red” and “it breaks robots”.
(Now that's a YOLO attack.)
Virtually every playable character (except the little fuzzball Riki, maybe) and dozens of NPCs have every reason to want revenge against the Mechon. Shulk wants revenge because a Mechon attack leaves Fiona KIA -- and with Fiona being Dunban’s sister, the war veteran is looking to bust some mechs to compensate. Reyn is a friend of Fiora and Shulk, and he’s eager to get some payback after Mechon ransack the trio’s beloved Colony 9.
Sharla wants revenge because of what the Mechon did to Colony 6, along with her lover Gadolt meeting a grisly fate by their hands. Melia wants revenge because…well, Melia has any number of reasons to hate the world and everyone in it, but let’s just say it’s because her dad bites it in a Mechon attack and leave it at that. Maybe the reason these people can become so comfortable with one another is because they all seriously fuckin’ hate robots.
But once again, as the lead character Shulk steps in to change the nature of the story -- and he doesn’t even need to swing the Monado to do so. In fact, if he DID swing the Monado, he’d just be making things worse. A big reveal of this game is that the Mechon -- at least those that
are important enough to the plot have faces -- are forcibly piloted by abducted humans, with Shulk’s main squeeze Fiora being one of the prime candidates.
As soon as Shulk finds out the truth, suddenly revenge doesn’t become as captivating an idea; he starts to realize the implications of any rash actions (something that he, in fact, has to teach Dunban before he can make a big mistake). It’s easy to assume that Shulk is forced to a halt because of the reveal that Fiora is alive, if turned into a cyborg against her will. On the other hand, I think the idea goes a few steps further. And to explain what I mean, I’ll have to invoke the specter of a very obscure franchise.
In all fairness, the only campaign I’ve played is the one in Black Ops 2 -- and even then not to completion, as I wisely decided to leave the suffering to my brother -- but apparently, one of the main complaints about the games is that you’re just expected to shoot the enemy without any thought or consideration of who they are. They’re just Russians, or terrorists, or “brown people”. It’s dehumanization -- and really, you can’t blame the devs for it.
It’s a lot easier to hate or kill someone when you don’t know who they are or what they’re all about. It’s better to imagine them as faceless. But by giving enemies in Xenoblade a face -- and standing in contradiction to everything the cast knows -- it’s a way to make them stop dead in their tracks. It’s information that changes the way the fight plays out, especially for Shulk and his Monado-brandishing antics.
Stuff like this makes me wonder: could it be that Xenoblade isn’t as much a fantastic romp across worlds as it is an allegory about the threat of our obsession and dependence on technology? Or if not that, then an allegory about the nature of war and the corruptive effect of competition rather than cooperation? I mean, sure, the party of six (and eventually seven once Cyber-Fiora joins the fight) is working by themselves for the most part, but that’s only because they’re a sort of “advance guard”.
It isn’t long before they’ve got every sentient species on the Bionis banding together for the sake of waging war against the Mechon. Hell, the game STARTS with a battle the year before the game’s main events are set in motion. Who’s to say that Xenoblade isn’t just one big war story taking place atop a pair of Gundams?
There’s no way that the undercurrents of thought in this game were an accident. The devs had something to say here, even if they didn’t say it quite as loudly as the theme of revenge or the wonders of the adventure proper. No, what’s on display in this game has to be a calculated effort -- loud enough to get a point across, but soft enough to keep everything moving at a brisk and almost-cheery pace. Well, usually. Some parts are more padded than others.
In any case, what’s in the game gets conveyed by all the characters; they’ll stop to consider things and lament over the occasional sour turn of events, but there’s never the wall-to-wall angst that most people expect out of JRPGs. Nor is there stupid-ass conflict between characters over trivial matters. These people are acting as friends and comrades, but they’re also acting like adults and thinkers; even Reyn, the guy who’s supposed to be the lunkhead of the group, is just as mentally and emotionally developed as the rest. He knows what’s going on, even if he’s too eager to spew meme-tastic lines.
But like I said, the real draw of this game -- the spirit that defines it and transforms so many of its elements -- is triumph. And indeed, triumph is bursting out of every orifice.
The game is constantly trying to top itself in terms of what it can throw at the cast, up to and including pitting your team against an enemy that’s likely the size of an actual Gundam. Not to mention that the Monado isn’t the be-all and end-all weapon; time and time again, the Mechon find ways to suppress, outmaneuver, or outright shut down the Monado and leave Team Shulk scrabbling for a reprieve.
You know they’re going to succeed eventually, but the game -- again, as it should -- puts up a convincing illusion of struggle and hopelessness. Time and time again I found myself thinking, “Oh man, how am I going to beat THAT?” Especially because, this being a video game, I couldn’t finish it without beating THAT. But eventually, it reaches a point where it just gets downright ludicrous.
Going to the REAL villain of the game from the fight that preceded it -- the guy with his own personal Gundam that can pilot the Robot Gundam to destroy Nature Gundam, mind -- is like a kid who just got his first tricycle being forced to race in the Indy 500. Let me see if I can explain this succinctly, and have it make sense even for those who’d need about seventy hours’ worth of play time to even begin to understand the context.
It turns out that Shulk has been dead for more than a decade but because he came in contact with the Monado he ended up becoming the retainer of of Zanza, the ascended being and effectively god who, along with Meyneth -- who resides in Cyber-Fiora for a large portion of the game -- created the world of Xenoblade and is virtually the embodiment of the Bionis, and plans to absorb all life on the Bionis to start the world over, all while simultaneously enacting his plan of destroying the Mechonis and everything on it -- something he’s more than capable of doing by virtue of not only having virtually all of the powers of the Monado, but after a clash with Meyneth/Fiora, ends up wielding TWO SOUPED-UP MONADOS at his leisure -- and ultimately Shulk is left for dead, the gang is stripped of its only viable weapon, they’re betrayed by the people they trust the most, an entire race is transformed into Zanza’s killing squad of antibodies, the Mechonis gets wrecked, Meyneth is lost, and within minutes Zanza’s forces are knocking on your door.
You know, usually in fiction, it’s not very often where you’re left thinking “There’s no way they can beat that!” If there really was no way, then the story would be over and it’d jump straight to the Bad End. Of course they’re going to get out of it. Of course they’ll win. That’s what it means to be a hero in a story -- overcoming the odds with skill and strength of heart.
But this game does things differently. I don’t think there’s ever been a game that not only managed to strip the characters of their hope, but also strip ME of my hope. After watching the string of cutscenes that revealed the truth, I felt something I hadn’t before from a game: it made me sick. Physically ill. I honestly didn’t believe that there was a way for Team Shulk to win, especially since Shulk himself had been shot in the back and left a lifeless husk. There was just no way to make a comeback. And without that feeling of hope, that ability to bring about the happy ending I’d expected of the game -- a privilege I’d taken for granted in any given game -- I felt like giving up.
I didn’t, of course. I still had a game to finish.
(I love this screenshot. What is that pose even supposed to be?)
If there’s one major problem I have with Xenoblade’s story, it’s that it falls on the old “Hey, guys! Let’s go kill God!” shtick. (Or if not God, then the religious figure du jour.) I mean, haven’t gamers done that enough? Haven’t games in general done that enough? It seems like such a cop out to make God or the pope a main villain, especially when so much of Xenoblade was about a struggle between opposing yet largely-equal forces. It’d be like having the Cold War come to an end because a new group came to earth riding on Voltron. So in a lot of ways, it’s something that threatens to break the war motif in two.
On the other hand, having the gang decide to take on God and win supports the idea of changing fate that’s so obvious I feel silly even mentioning it. The game is a blend of mundane concepts and fantastic elements, after all, and as such it’s hard to heap too much hate on matters of deicide. I’d argue that the game could have stopped after the final fight with Egil -- making sure to weave some of those plot twists toward him, of course -- but for what it’s worth, I suppose Zanza’ inclusion isn’t exactly a deal breaker. There’s been worse.
Besides, the endgame reveal shows that Zanza isn’t exactly the god he’s made out to be; like Team Shulk and Team Robot, he’s a victim of the obsession with technology, only taken to an even further extreme. Turns out Zanza was actually a scientist named Klaus who, once an experiment goes wrong, destroys his world and has to create a new one alongside Meyneth. (Side note: having beaten Xenosaga but not Xenogears, I’d like to think that XB is an extension of XS, wherein Klaus’ efforts pick up on Shion’s efforts in her game to try and find a solution to the end of the universe.)
So basically, Klaus becomes so enraptured by what he’s wrought that he ends up forgetting who he is and what he stands for. And more importantly, he’s the sort of person who believes that as long as he’s got the tech -- the power, be it from godhood or ownership of the Monados -- he can do whatever he wants. He’s right, and everyone else is wrong.
Except he isn’t. The thing that Shulk’s trying to prove -- that the game’s trying to prove -- isn’t just a matter of technological might making right. It’s the intent behind it. The willpower. That willpower is what creates the drive to make those machines in the first place. It’s the drive to create the means to change one’s fate. Instruments that facilitate change, and make it easier, sure -- but in the end, they’re just tools. Corny as it may sound, the real power comes not from within --and with it, even the lowliest of men can bring about true triumph.
So. At the end of the day, what else is there to say about Xenoblade?
I know it’s good. Others know it’s good. Hopefully by reading this post, you know it’s good. It’s common opinion -- if not fact -- that this is one of the Wii’s greatest games. It’s got more than enough content, creativity, depth, and even deviousness to satisfy any given player. If for some reason you haven’t played this game -- or even watched a playthrough on YouTube -- you owe it to yourself to do so. This game is something special.
It took me well over a year of on-again, off-again sessions to clear it. And I enjoyed virtually every second of it. It felt complete. Thoughtful. Bursting with energy, but restrained by wisdom and focus. In an industry full of misguided efforts, shenanigans, and all-out disappointments, to get a game this complete and well-crafted is a triumph.
So, what else is there to say? Well, I can think of one thing, at least.
So if you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you’ve been using the internet long enough to have heard the phrase “strong female character” -- and if you’ve been on even longer than that, then you’ll have seen rebuttals of the phrase so biting that you’d think they were straight outta Ace Attorney. You’d think that given those arguments, the rest of this post would be about how video games need more strong female characters. And you’re half-right. All things considered, is there ever a time when we SHOULDN’T be asking for that? Besides, you know, when it consistently happens in fiction?
But let me step back a bit. Yes, women need better representation in fiction, including -- if not especially in -- video games. It’d help if they appeared more often, but at this stage I’d take quality over quantity if it came down to it. But you know what? Male characters need better representation, too. No matter the gender, any given hero or heroine could stand to get a boost in quality. It’s more obvious with the ladies, yes, but I don’t think my demands are unreasonable.
Well, usually. Maybe. Possibly? Well, whatever. Let's get back to strong characters.
If you’ve read some of my stuff before, you probably know that I’ve grown weary of the whole power fantasy aspect of video games. That’s not a recent development; I’ve felt that way for years now. It seems like a stupid-ass thing to whine about, considering that it’s hard to divorce games from the power fantasy/wish fulfillment/escapism aspect, but it’s not impossible.
Games have either thrown them out entirely (Shadow of the Colossus), or created scenarios where the aspect is less obvious (any given Zelda, but let’s go with Majora’s Mask in honor of the remake). And then there are those that turn that power into a core conceit, gameplay-wise and/or story-wise; Okami is my go-to example, but I could make a pretty strong argument about The Wonderful 101. Don’t worry, I promise I’ll talk about it in-depth someday.
At this stage in the game (ha), I don’t think it’s wrong to hope for more -- especially when the standard-fare stuff has started showing some serious signs of age. We’ve getting close to the limit of what we can do (or enjoy) when games are just about one-sided displays of power and strength. A game like Street Fighter where you test your skills against an opponent who’s as good as or better than you? That’s cool. A game like Assassin’s Creed where you stand in a circle and counter everyone into oblivion? Not so cool.
A game like Resogun where your life is on the line every second as you struggle to save the last humans? Awesome. A game like Resident Evil 6 where you can power-bomb mutants and give zombies elbow drops? Awesome in theory, but in practice it’s one of the biggest tonal inconsistencies ever committed to a disc. A game like Mass Effect where your words are as important (if not more so) than your bullets? Sick. A game like Watch Dogs where a number of your actions tangibly make the lives of others worse, directly and indirectly? Makes me sick.
The exception to the rule is that if you’re going to make a game that puts a huge emphasis on power, it has to be so unbelievably thrilling that no one would even bother thinking critically. But since not every developer can be Platinum Games (and even then, I wouldn’t write off the rest of what their titles offer), we’re stuck with games that try to impress us with sheer displays of power, but end up falling short. Call it a misappropriation if you will, or shortsightedness if you prefer; I’d prefer to imagine that creators can’t break out of modern-day conventions because -- executive meddling aside -- they haven’t considered the possibilities available. And there ARE possibilities. You don’t need me to tell you that.
“Voltech, you hot dog-munching fool!” you bellow as I muse on the proper temperature needed to cook said wieners. “Enough of your eagerness to go on complaint-filled tangents! If you don’t have a point to make, then my time is better spent elsewhere on the internet!” And to that I say, calm down. Before you leave a comment (or just leave in general), I need you to understand where I’m coming from on this. Games and power are almost always going to go hand-in-hand, but that level can be controlled. The reason I’m so concerned about them is because that power has a distorting effect. Its context informs the content built around them, and that’s not always for the best.
So let me ask another question: do we like the characters we like because of their perceivable strength?
I’m sure I’ve said this before in some capacity, but I’ll say it here again: a character’s worth is NOT tied to how much harm they can bring to others. The lines get blurred because generally speaking, video games express themselves via combat (among other things, like exploration); so by the logic of some games, a character who contributes nothing to combat might as well be an NPC or a damsel in distress -- the ultimate failure state, right? I mean, just think of BioShock Infinite; to this day I can’t help but wonder what people would think of Elizabeth if she didn’t toss items to Booker or screw with reality for the player’s benefit. Would people still love her? I would, but that’s because I’m weird. (Yukiko's my favorite Persona 4 character. Draw from that what you will.)
I’m generalizing, of course. I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this, you’re not so gauche as to think less of a character because he/she isn’t some battle-hardened brawler. But my concern is that there’s a perception where “power = quality”. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a belief held by real people, even if that’s incredibly likely. It doesn’t even have to be a mindset that creators hold in their hearts during production. No, it’s all about the perception -- the idea that “strength = a good character”. It’s a nebulous cloud that hangs over every medium, not just video games; because of that, there’s potential for a product and its particulars to get distorted.
The common theory is that when people ask for, say, “strong female characters”, they’re actually asking for well-written female characters -- ladies with depth, agency, variety, and more. I agree with that, and I’d say that you could apply the sentiment to every character, regardless of gender. That in mind, I’d like to both redefine and broaden the concept. What matters most, I think, is that a character -- through whatever means necessary -- starts off as or becomes (or stays as) one who can earn something of immeasurable importance from the audience: respect. It’s easy enough to earn some praise by making a character do something “badass”, but that strikes me as something of a shortcut.
Think of it this way: do we need every president to be a frontline fighter or war hero to take a seat in the Oval Office? No, of course not. Granted it wouldn’t hurt the cause (a good number of presidents have been war vets), but in most cases, presidents are chosen because the majority of voters perceive them as the right person for the job. Their intelligence. Their charisma. Their courage. Their composure. Their decisiveness. Their assertiveness. All those things and more feed into the respect that earns them the keys to the White House. Characters -- video game or otherwise -- are more or less on the same axis. If given a chance to express themselves, they can make an argument for your love. For your respect. And they don’t have to hit a single man.
I know that video games don’t exactly have processes that lend themselves to creating good characters. From what I’ve heard, the story (such as it is) is only there to glue together levels and assets that have pretty much already been made. That’s kind of a problem, but for now it can’t be helped. Still, I’d like to imagine that at some point, the games industry will reach a point where the large-scale creation process will get a lot easier, and devs can work in different angles and directions.
Imagine booting up a game for the first time, and you immediately understand that everything in it was built around scenarios custom-made for a unique character, instead of slotting a character into standard conventions. Games small and large have done that before, but if that happened on a wider scale and/or more frequently, just think of what sort of stuff we could get. Not all of them would be perfect, but they’d at least be different.
Here’s a hypothetical game for you. You play as Emily, a sweet -- if awkward -- young lady who just wants everyone to get along…and who accidentally destroyed the world. But as she comes to, she discovers that it’s not just her world that’s gone; it’s every world, across every dimension. She winds up in a concrete version of the Akashic records, and reasons that she can use the data stored within the mystic library to reconstruct the world.
The trick, however, is that she’s not the only one in the library. Every other Emily from every other alternate dimension is there as well -- and some of them aren’t so willing to use the library for altruistic purposes. It’s up to you to figure out how to bring back your world, whether that means cooperating or clashing with the other Emilies. And, you know, the materialized, vengeful embodiments of the lost worlds’ vestiges.
But basically, she’s got no choice but to face herself -- in both abstract and literal terms. As one should.
That’s a pretty nebulous premise, I know. I can think of ways to put that stuff into a semi-cohesive (if smaller-scale) game, but you get the idea, right? Games can define themselves via their systems. That much is obvious. But we can make those systems based on the natures and tool sets of characters…which is also obvious. What can they do? What do they want to do? What will they become? What were they before? Who are they? Those are all questions that anything with characters -- i.e. too many fictional products to count, finished or not -- can answer. That can be done with combat or displays of power, in all fairness, but that’s not the only way. That should be the ketchup on top of the hot dog.
Now, I’ll be honest. I’ve been trying to link the gameplay and stories into a cohesive unit (if only in theory) with this post. But as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m doing so with a strong lean towards stories. Characters can be -- if not are -- the starting point for any product. Almost inevitably, that’s what people are going to latch onto first. I understand that for now, there’s a certain level of futility in asking for more out of our developer overlords gathered atop mountain summits that stroke the stars. And I understand that if we’re hungry for good stories, we’re better off reading books first and playing games second. Or third. Or fourth. Or fifth.
Here’s the thing, though: we’ve reached a point where no one can claim that “the story doesn’t matter in games”. Nintendo foresaw years ago that at some point, better hardware and graphics wouldn’t be enough to win favor. It’s looking as if the Big N bet on the wrong horse with alternate control schemes, but there’s a point to be made in there. The PS4 and XB1 haven’t been tapped to their fullest yet, but given the sheer number of games that have fallen apart in every department except graphics, it’s safe to say that there needs to be a change. Thrilling gameplay can offer that, no question…and it would be fine if we could get away from the conventions plaguing damn near everything these days. So one possible avenue is to make games with -- gasp -- better stories. A good story can save less-than-original gameplay, after all.
But you don’t need me to sell you on the importance of a good story and good characters, and here’s why. If “the story doesn’t matter in games”, then answer me this: why is it that more and more games are trying to give us narratives and create cinematic experiences? How can the story not matter when games like Tomb Raider, DmC, The Last of Us, God of War, Infamous, BioShock, Dead Space, Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed, Destiny, The Evil Within, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Bayonetta, Killzone, Guilty Gear, Transistor, Braid, Shadow of Mordor, and even Call of Duty at least try to tell a competent story? And even that’s not a complete list? And even THAT’S ignoring the armada of games half-built on telling stories?
Look. There’s always going to be a place for games that put the emphasis on action and button-presses over everything else. I understand that, and appreciate it. Likewise, there is a place for games that put power in the hands of players -- but that’s a tool that needs to be used responsibly. With skill. It can’t be the go-to in every situation, and it sure as hell can’t be the only thing a game is built on. So let it be known that, contrary to popular belief, there is a method to my madness; I like games that give me control over a central character that’s respectable, not just powerful. And because I’m playing as such a character, I can create an intimate connection that’s hard to match in other mediums. Reading a story about a deer trying to survive? That ain’t bad. Playing as a deer trying to survive? S-tier stuff.
I don’t expect anyone reading this to suddenly drop everything and start making a game based on one rambling-ass post. I’m not even begging that you take my words to heart, and assume that what I’ve said here is “how it should be”. But what I’m hoping for is that I’ve at least given you a chance to appreciate games in a different light. Not just to divorce quality from power, but to think back on the stuff you like, understand why you like it, and enjoy it even more because it’s not just a love based on intangibles. This post may be full of my ideas, but I hope that it’s a post that gets the gears in your head going -- makes you eager to reminisce and realize things instead of assuming the worst of an industry in flux. After all, hope never dies.
So, take what I’ve said here as you will. Agree, disagree, whatever. But if nothing else, I hope you’ll do me a favor: if you can, think of one of your favorite video game characters and talk a bit about why that’s the case in the comments. Do you know why you like them? Can you explain why? I’m eager to hear it, whether it’s from fondness based on respect or just admiration of their power. I’m guessing that you would’ve done that already even if I didn’t ask, but I just thought I’d make that more explicit.
And that’s about all I’ve got to say for now. Thanks for reading, and here’s to 2015 -- a brand new year for video games.
And Persona 5. It’s gonna be so awesome, you guys.
This is usually the part where I go on a multi-paragraph tangent to set up “context”, but let’s not dilly-dally this time. So, let me say this to start: SPACE IS AWESOME. There may still be plenty of mysteries left here on Earth, but the stars are the premiere source of adventure in both fiction and real life. Anything could be out there, but the one surefire thing is the potential for exploration.
Space can scratch that itch, and take us to whole new places. Admittedly, that adventure is only possible with some hyper-rigorous training and skill in real life (a sobering truth for six-year-old Voltech), but a good story can compensate with ease. And of course, the same thing applies to a good game.
Which brings us to Pikmin 3 -- the game you should have played already if you love games. And/or space.
Here’s the skinny. The planet Koppai is in the middle of a food shortage, and in a desperate attempt to survive, expeditions are led to the far reaches of space. That puts you in control of three explorers: the dorky yet good-natured Alph, sharp-tongued botanist Brittany, and macho captain Charlie. Well, in theory, at least; as Pikmin games tend to go, the touchdown on new soil goes awry and leaves the crew separated. You start off as Alph, and -- with the help of the native Pikmin you meet early on -- your adventure amidst the worst (and best) nature has to offer begins.
Still, there’s an important wrinkle to the story and gameplay alike. See, the three explorers only have a finite level of resources -- which is to say, they’re low on food. With each completed day in Pikmin 3, the team (be it one, two, or three members) consumes one stock of food -- or juice in this case -- from their reserves. So keeping the game going is made possible by finding fruit in the field; you can apparently go back to an earlier point in your journey if you put yourself in an unwinnable situation, but the point still stands. If you don’t keep finding food, your team will die of starvation.
Sooooooo...Pikmin 3: rated E for Everlasting Nightmares.
You can think of the game’s plot as a three-pronged mission. Obviously, the immediate objective is to keep gathering fruit so your crew stays alive. But on top of that, Alph and the others will have to keep scouring the land for clues on Olimar’s whereabouts -- because the way things are looking, the only way they’ll be able to return home is if they get some of his parts/data.
And of course, there’s the whole reason the crew blasted off in the first place: they need to find a solution to the hunger crisis. Given how the game plays out, I’m guessing that if the crew’s going to save their home, they’ll have to
be saved by the plot find some hidden bonanza that’ll offer up sustenance on a global scale.
In any case, I’m actually kind of surprised by how much I like the story -- and the characters, more than anything. Nintendo’s not usually the one you think of when it comes to sprawling tales (remember the Other M debacle?), and while what’s here is…slight, more or less, it’s full of charm. Alph is the straight-laced smart guy of the group, but he’s dedicated to the captain to a feverish degree, to the point where he tried to copy his hairstyle.
Brittany’s very goal-oriented, and while she’s just as curious about this alien planet as Alph (maybe more so), several of her lines imply she has been -- or is -- considering mutiny. Captain Charlie’s a macho, macho man with plenty of confidence and bravado…which lets him shrug off getting carted off by a flying monster minutes after touching down on the planet’s surface. They sell themselves with their dialogues in the field, but what I really appreciate is how you can have them talk to one another before starting a new day. Party synergy is simply the best.
If for some reason you’ve never known how Pikmin works -- in which case I wonder why you’re even here -- here’s a rundown. You play as an explorer and take command of the planet’s indigenous creatures, the Pikmin -- bipedal plant-men of varying properties, but with furious loyalty and the work ethic of the average assembly line. You can travel around with a squad of up to a hundred of them, so they’ll fight on your behalf, clear obstacles, and cart resources back to the home base centered on your ship.
In exchange, you’ll give the Pikmin commands and keep their numbers strong by feeding their Onion (their personal ship) pellets and downed enemies. Pull the seeds that pop out from the ground, and you’ve got more soldiers. Or leave them in the Onion and build up a reserve in case something goes wrong. Chances are that you’ll need some reserves, especially if a Beady Long Legs catches you unaware.
Man, I hate those guys and all their kind. The bastards are like death incarnate.
The big wrinkle in the gameplay is that you’ll be controlling all three explorers simultaneously -- or maybe “asynchronously” is the word I’m looking for. While Alph, Brittany, and Charlie all play identically (as far as I know), each one is capable of taking control of a fragmented Pikmin team to complete separate objectives. So if you want Alph to hang back and harvest pellets while Brittany tends to a wall and Charlie builds a bridge, then you can do that. In fact, that’s pretty much how the game will play, even before you fully reunite the team; multi-tasking ensures that you get the most done in a single day.
It’s worth noting, though, that you’ll have to use your explorers to clear certain obstacles -- to the point where you can’t progress in some early areas until you’ve got a team of three. You can forcibly separate them by tossing your other two teammates as you would any other Pikmin, and toss some Pikmin to them so they can continue on the other end. To be fair, that mechanic was a part of Pikmin 2 with the Olimar/Louie duo, but it’s nice to see that it’s back again and taken to the next step…even if that next step was just “the same, but more.”
I was thinking about calling Pikmin 3 “industrious”, but now I’m not so sure if that fits. Sure, when you’ve got all your pieces moving, you’re a hundred-three-man machine. But being industrious implies being surrounded by and dependent on technology -- and while you do make use of it (in-universe and out of it), the emphasis is on nature. And as it stands, that might be the secret to the game’s quality; even if you don’t exactly get to go from planet to planet, or use space as much more than a safe haven (in-universe) and a level select screen (out of it), it’s still the game that makes you into an explorer. An adventurer. A player who can walk away with some REAL experiences, not just the buzzword version thrown around these days.
It’d be downright silly to call Pikmin 3 an open-world game, because even if its areas are surprisingly large (I constantly find myself thinking, “Wait, you mean there’s MORE?!”), they’re self-contained stages with challenges and obstacles to call their own. Still, that’s something that helps keep the focus; you go out in search of fruit, figure out what needs to be done, and do it with your Pikmin squad. Considering that the explorers are technically no bigger than a quarter, the levels aren’t just window dressing; they’re puzzles to be solved, even if they are broken into dozens of spread-out micro-challenges.
It’s true that there are deadly creatures you have to deal with in your quest for fruit -- including story-advancing boss battles -- but there’s a de-emphasis on combat in general. The game puts more focus on nature, and treats that as the enemy instead of some alien horror. Really, that’s how it should be; generally speaking, beating enemies comes down to “throw Pikmin at it until it stops breathing”.
And technically that’s true for a lot of the obstacles in the field, but there are still plenty of things you have to manage and plan out and solve on the fly. That’s a form of conflict you don’t see every day in games; you can’t beat nature, especially in Pikmin 3. Instead, you have to maneuver through it. You have to be wary of it. You have to make use of it, and even change it -- however slightly -- so that it suits your fancy.
It’s a conceit that works wonders for the gameplay. You’re discovering new things on a regular basis, whether it’s a new obstacle to overcome or a new sight to be beheld as you fill in an area’s map. It should go without saying that the environments are beautiful, but the world feels alive in more ways than just “Yo, check all this nature, bro”.
I think this is the game that best sells Nintendo’s design philosophy -- or to be more precise, its intentions with the Wii U GamePad. As always, it’s not detrimental to gameplay, or the player’s hands; it’s true that it’s larger and weightier than the average controller, but it has yet to hamper my ability to play any given title. More to the point, it adds more than it takes away, especially in Pikmin 3.
The most common use, for me at least, is to use the touch screen to send a B-team Pikmin squad to a different area while the A-team (under my command) went somewhere else. Coordinated attack patterns, and all that -- the perfect way to solve a puzzle or position my forces without the hassle of sifting through menus and button presses. (It certainly helps that the action is paused whenever you get ready to do it, or when you’re just checking the GamePad map.)
There’s some additional stuff, of course. If you’re looking for more in-depth stats and data, you can check all that on the touch screen just as you would the map. You’ll be able to find info on the enemies you’ve faced, tips on getting the most out of your Pikmin, and info from Olimar, just to name a few things. On top of that, every now and then -- i.e. in story moments -- you’ll be asked to look at the touch screen to receive messages from your teammates or your ship. So if you’re talking to Brittany (as much as one can) via the GamePad, Alph will be doing the same in-game on his “KopPad”, AKA his all-purpose explorer’s tool. It’s a cute little touch that helps the player synergize with the game.
The more I think about it, the more I realize Pikmin 3 has a hidden element that can really resonate: being able to take pictures in-game. At first I didn’t think much of it, and just showed some friends that you can take Pikmin selfies with the GamePad as your camera (however strange it may feel). But now I realize that it’s part of the mindset. It’s not just about taking selfies; it’s about making the player feel even more like an explorer, and even more like a part of some strange alien world. But you can claim ownership of tiny slices of it -- turn the sights you see into digitized memories.
Take away the conflict in this game and what do you have? A straight-up expedition. An adventure. And guess who’s holding the scrapbook?
That really is the best way to play it. Alph, Brittany, and Charlie have a reason to be on that planet: to find a way to survive, to escape, and ensure that their planet survives in kind. That’s their mission -- but it’s not yours. Even if you can identify with them and synergize with them, you don’t have any reason to care about the fate of their world. You’re only there as an observer -- as a way to have fun. It sounds selfish, but really, even the best, most engrossing video games have that as their core conceit.
But Pikmin 3 makes true on its understood promise. The player wants an experience, so it provides. It gives you an opportunity to explore, and learn, and discover new things, and -- maybe most of all -- see mundane, everyday things in a whole new light. Why else would you be able to see grapes rendered lovingly in HD with full camera control as computers scan each piece? Why would there be an entire subsection of the menu dedicated to analyzing beasts and fruits alike, and have it be awesome?
Hey, can you tell I love this game yet?
I suppose for completion’s sake I should talk about the combat. Like I said, you can resolve a lot of conflicts just by throwing enough Pikmin at an enemy -- so with that in mind, you can play the button-mashing card and nobody would fault you. A big change from the other Pikmin games is that (as far as I know) you can’t move your soldiers around with just the right stick. It’s a strange choice, and while it does feel like a loss sometimes, it’s not a game-breaking one. You can still toss out and call back Pikmin, and one of the most notable additions is the ability to dodge roll your entire squad to escape from trouble. Makes me wonder if someone on the dev team is a fan of Kingdom Hearts 1.
What this means is that battles are chaotic as all get out -- in a good way, and a bad one. It’s good in the sense that, in a lot of cases, you can’t just sit around and hammer that button; you have to stay mobile, bobbing and weaving as you avoid enemy attacks and pick up Pikmin that get tossed around (or worse). Couple that with the need to take advantage of specific Pikmin abilities at times, AND targeting certain body parts/sides, and there are some strategic wrinkles to combat. One of the early bosses has you taking on an armored worm, meaning that you have to toss heavy-hitting Rock Pikmin to shatter its shell pieces, and throw damage-dealing Red Pikmin at the soft spots you uncover. Don’t expect said boss to make that easy for you, though.
Still, I’m not a hundred percent sold on some of the underlying mechanics. In normal situations -- in a fight and out of it -- you have to manually aim Pikmin to where you want to throw them, as shown by a bright reticle and trajectory arc. It works, for sure, but at times it doesn’t exactly feel the most precise; that lack of precision -- and the general need to aim -- is the last thing you want when you’ve got some massive beast trying to chew you up like a doggy treat.
You can make things a lot easier on yourself by using a lock-on feature, but at times it felt as if I had to switch between lock-on and lock-off in order to get the exact tosses I wanted. It could be that I just need to adjust to the learning curve, and that’s where the skill in the game comes on. Even if that’s true, though, is Pikmin 3 really the sort of game where you’d want a learning curve to the controls?
Still, I’m not about to dock metaphorical points at this stage. Even if there are flaws, what I’m concerned with most right now is the core concept. It’s the design philosophy that the game is built around -- and excels at selling that philosophy to the player.
Here’s the interesting bit. When you find files out there in the field, you won’t just get tips from Olimar; you’ll find his personal logs, detailing his expedition of the planet. I know it’s hard to imagine Olimar as anything more than a silent protagonist -- he has a whopping zero voice clips in Smash Bros. Brawl -- but the logs show just what sort of person he is, at least right now. He’s a die-hard treasure hunter, and there’s a level of fervor to his words that suggest maybe, just maybe, he’s gone off the rails. He’s willing to brave the risks of the planet for the sake of some new trinkets…which might be a problem because as far as I can tell, there aren’t any salvageable treasures in Pikmin 3.
It seems strange to make Olimar’s side story a straight-up retread of Pikmin 2 -- that is, until you realize that it’s a way for Pikmin 3 to completely disown the philosophy of Pikmin 2. Taken as-is, Pikmin 3 can be interpreted as a way to completely refute the loot-fests spread throughout the gaming canon.
Am I reaching here? Probably. But hear me out. Destiny (or its marketing at least) promised us the stars, but in the end it boils down to “shoot aliens and get loot”. It’s a disservice to the extreme amount of effort and resources from an army of artists and programmers. Worse yet, it railroads players even without sticking them in some endless hallway or set of corridors; the only thing that matters, however subtly, is getting better stuff so you can…get better stuff again. And again. And again.
The stuff in games needs to matter again. It needs to do more than just make players go through the motions -- and that’s what Pikmin 3 strives for. Olimar’s story is there to remind players that they’re not on that planet just for glory; they’re on a mission, and a dangerous one full of traps and terrors. If you screw around, you will die. The “loot” in this case isn’t something you can use as a symbol of prestige; at most, you can find utilities that give you more HP or the aforementioned dodge roll. You’re using that loot to stay alive, and earn the right to continue your perilous journey -- a journey that may very well put your explorers’ home on the line.
All of that makes Pikmin 3 sound like some harrowing, desperate struggle. It is, but that’s only one side of the coin. The intent with this game, no doubt, is to make that expedition into something fantastic; the weight of danger, failure, and doom are there to make the positives shine that much brighter. You can discover some horrible monsters, but there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from finding glistening fruit, and hear the delight of your explorers as they wonder how it tastes.
There’s nothing stopping you from appreciating a gentle snowfall as you toss your soldiers back and forth across a shifting creek. There’s nothing stopping you from listening to the chants of your Pikmin squad as you trot amongst towering foliage, with the sun beaming overhead, as you uncover new and yet-unexplored territories on the map. And meeting a new color of Pikmin for the first time may as well be its own reward.
You’re not adventuring for the loot. You’re looting for the adventure. And that right there is the secret brilliance of Pikmin 3.
Frankly, I’m surprised a game like this even exists. Against all odds, it’s the game I’ve more or less been asking for since I realized, “Hey, maybe focusing a game around bland, run-of-the-mill murder is pretty dumb.” This one game has given me more than plenty of other games in the past few years, almost without trying. Obviously, it’s given me a more exciting world than Destiny. But it’s given me more frightening moments than The Evil Within. It’s gotten me to care more about its cast than Infamous: Second Son. I’d bet that if it had hacking, it’d do it better than Watch Dogs -- but I suppose it’ll have to settle for being better than Watch Dogs in every other conceivable way.
I’m not so star-struck as to say that Pikmin 3 is the greatest game I’ve ever played. But taken as-is? It’s thoughtful, rewarding, enticing, surprising, and most of all fun. It’s a game that can say a few words once every hour or so and still stay full of meaning -- all while letting you dig in your heels and put your leaf-headed soldiers to work. Given all that, it’s hard for me to walk away unsatisfied. And I’m hoping that if you decide to pick it up, you’ll feel the same way.
Because, as discussed, SPACE IS AWESOME.
Disclaimer: all things considered, you can’t really call me a fan of the Dead or Alive franchise. The only one I’ve ever really played is DOA4, and while I had plenty of fun with it, I’ve since moved on to…well, pretty much every other fighting game this generation. (Though right now, I’m captivated most by Smash 4 with some Guilty Gear Xrd on the side.) I skipped out on DOA5 in its entirety, and even with the new editions that have popped up, there’s never been much of an impetus to jump in.
Still, I kept an eye on the news surrounding Last Round because of the prospect of a new playable character. Who would it be? I mean, Ultra Street Fighter 4 blew it with its hyped “fifth fighter” by just serving up Cammy clone Decapre, so surely competitor Team Ninja/Koei Tecmo wouldn’t make the same mistake, right? And the potential was limitless; rumors and theories about a fighting female pirate made the rounds, so maybe -- oh, it’s just a schoolgirl. Well, that’s still something totally fresh and interest-
I will be fair, though. No matter what form new challenger Honoka took, it was a given that she would be a fitting addition to Chesty O’Ninja and the Busty Bunch. It’s a legitimate problem that the guys behind DOA feel that the only way they’ll put food on the table is by sexualizing the crap out of all its female characters (even if they’ve “compensated” by doing the “same” to its men). But if nothing else, at least there ARE female characters. There are people in the canon who matter. People like to pretend that there’s no story, but there is, and I respect that; I want to believe in the franchise because it has the potential to do more.
I think that it’ll happen someday. But today is NOT that day.
I don’t know what Team Ninja’s financial status is right now, but I’m going to guess that they’re at least doing better than “we can’t even afford to make a game” Capcom. Team Ninja and Koei Tecmo aren’t the biggest around, of course, but I’d think that they have the resources to make someone beyond a Decapre analogue. I’m not going to play the laziness card because there’s an insane amount of work that goes into making just one fighter. On the other hand, I AM going to say that the effort was misguided -- because that’s the word of the day. But I’ll get to that.
Team Ninja teased the new fighter months in advance. They kept their cards close to the chest, and in doing so hoped to generate interest. They probably should have known that -- as per the informal golden rule -- the fruits of fan speculation are almost always going to be more interesting than the revealed product, but let’s set that aside. There are two things that are important to note. The first: that there was going to be a brand new female fighter. The second: that she was going to be the “biggest” character yet.
Pretty much everyone jumped to the conclusion that Honoka would simply have the biggest breasts (which is true, apparently), but since I’m the same guy who argued that the latest Donkey Kong game was actually an unspoken tale of a king’s quest for redemption and knowledge, I didn’t exactly rely on common sense. I thought Team Ninja was actually being sly and playing with fan expectations. I imagined that the new fighter would be large proportionally -- but mostly because she would be large physically.
I don’t know the canon in and out, but outside of the Spartan guest fighter from DOA4, the two physically largest and strongest fighters are Tina and Rachel. (Christie’s the tallest at 5’10”, so adjust your perceptions accordingly.) Imagine if Team Ninja decided to put on their best trollface and made Honoka as big as or bigger than a faux-Master Chief; logically speaking, she’d have the biggest bust by a country mile.
But the additional benefits -- a ripe opportunity, without question -- are that it’d be a chance to create a character with a more unique, if eclectic move set. Okay, sure, leave her a schoolgirl for the lulz, but keep her huge; have her rely solely on brute force so she can fling ninjas around like she’s trying to win a pillow fight. Make her slow and clumsy, but give her devastating power and range by virtue of her size. That’s interesting, if you ask me. And they didn’t have to stop there.
When a Famitsu article leaked what Honoka was really like, I was plenty disappointed -- and I can only imagine what hardcore fans felt. But there was a glimmer of hope; translated articles explained that Honoka had a secret, mysterious power. It’s par for the course when it comes to DOA, more or less, but it struck me as something with real gameplay potential.
Some forum posters joked that her power would be to make her breasts bigger mid-match (which, to be fair, WOULD make use of Last Round’s new engine), but I took it a different way again. What if she started out as a simple schoolgirl mid-match, but by making use of that power she went from sweet little girl to giant grappler? The player wouldn’t be forced to use it, but it’d be a way to technically change her stance -- and certainly her stats/parameters -- in an unusual way. How do you fight someone who can go from tiny to titanic over the course of a match? How do you play as someone who ends up as big as Marvel 3’s Sentinel? Or even Tatsunoko vs. Capcom’s Gold Lightan, if you really want to go nuts?
I guess we’ll never know. Honoka’s just a schoolgirl. And her “power”? Pretty much translates to “I have the same moves as most of the cast mashed into one move set”. And she gets to hit people with some kind of burning hand attack.
Look. I don’t care if my headcanon ended up getting dashed, because DOA as a franchise and Team Ninja as a developer know what they’re doing. They probably understand that, hey, maybe introducing some wacky new character with special mechanics in a game that’s struggling to stay relevant isn’t the best idea; maybe save that stuff for DOA6. I get it. But even so…cripes, is Honoka really the best they can come up with? Really? In a universe filled with ninjas, wrestlers, assassins, a geisha-in-training, a slew of martial artists, and a damn opera singer, they couldn’t come up with anything more exciting than a schoolgirl with a mysterious power?
Setting aside the fact that comparisons have already been drawn, what’s the strategy here? How is this character different from any of the other DOA girls? So what if she’s reportedly the bustiest when A) there’s virtually no difference in the girls’ body types, meaning the very concept of bustiness is worthless, and B) there’s not much to set her apart from other characters, DOA or otherwise, besides her measurements?
Assuming that there’s no story for Honoka in Last Round, the gameplay footage released thus far hasn’t made an argument as to why this girl is different from the other girls -- and that’s even before you factor in her patchwork quilt of a move set. Her profile sets her up as a Blood Knight, and I can’t imagine someone with explosive hand attacks avoiding some form of corruption. But watch her mannerisms in matches and art, and there’s no trace of that. She’s just a kind, earnest, hardworking schoolgirl who’s a little clumsy, but always tries to do her best…which you can use to describe a deluge of recent anime heroines.
It’s not enough anymore. I thought that Team Ninja understood that; say what you will about the hyper-sexualization of the women (which, again, is a problem that doesn’t need to be there), but at least the games had the freedom to let its ladies do more. Be more. Tina’s a wrestler hungry for fame, be it via fighting, acting, or trying to be a rock star. Leifang is a college student who perpetually sought out Bruce Lee fanboy Jann Lee to prove her strength to him -- and did, conclusively. Honoka…is just a schoolgirl that wants to fight. Oh, sure, she’ll get her story fleshed out someday, but…really? This is supposed to be a compelling argument for Last Round?
Note the word choice there. I could have said “she”, but I used “this”. Call me butthurt if you will (which is more than a little legitimate, all things considered), but Honoka just strikes me as a HUGE missed opportunity here. This was Team Ninja’s chance to do something different -- to convince everyone that they could change, however minutely. I thought that that was what they started with vanilla DOA5’s Mila, an MMA-style fighter and a push toward the “I’m a Fighter” tagline they wanted to codify once upon a time. What happened to that? Why did they back off? Why resort to hundreds of dollars’ worth of sexy costumes almost immediately after claims of turning a new leaf?
Okay, sure. There was another iteration of DOA5 that introduced the little lady Marie Rose, but that just plays to a similar set of…preferences. The franchise should be evolving by now, but I’m struggling to give it the same goodwill and benefit of the doubt I once did. I’ll concede that the gameplay is probably the best it’s ever been -- if reliant on/lambasted for button-mashing -- but DOA isn’t part of the conversation because A) it can’t decide what it wants to be, and B) it’s not doing “what it does best” very well.
The premiere franchise built on sexy, busty girls fighting has routinely failed to make its girls sexy -- just a bunch of virtual dolls that STILL have creepy soulless faces…which to the untrained eye is just the same face copy-pasted and recolored. And again, what’s the point of having the biggest bust when that’s info you’re likely only to know by word of mouth and wikis? Although according to the wiki, Honoka has a thirty-nine inch bust…while being only 4’11”. I’m not one for anatomical correctness, but I don’t think that girl’s exactly built for fighting. Or moving.
I’m 100% convinced that Team Ninja goofed with Honoka, but they’re just one group out of many whose creations have gone awry. That should be obvious by now; DOA might not be a part of the fighting game conversation, but that’s because we’re all too busy having a legitimate conversation about women in games. Frankly, I’d take it up several levels and just say we have a problem with women in fiction in general -- and the sad thing is that that isn’t breaking news. This is something we’ve all had to deal with for a while, and the fact that there are still so many struggles across the board means that we probably haven’t made as much progress as we could.
I know the score. I know the constant outcries. “We need female protagonists!” “We need strong female characters!” “We need female characters that aren’t just damsels in distress, and don’t just get stuffed into fridges!” “We need women that aren’t just sex objects!” Those are all valid complaints. Let’s face it: generally speaking, the treatment of women in fiction is bullshit. It’s not fair, and it needs to change. The common question that follows is how that change is supposed to happen, which is pretty viable…buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut I’m of a different opinion.
Maybe we don’t always need to ask how to change the poor state of affairs. Maybe we need to ask why it happens in the first place.
Let’s go back to using DOA as an example, because there’s no better whipping boy right now. It’s pretty easy to assume that the developers are -- in the worst-case scenario -- just a bunch of perverts who are convinced their job is literally just to make Las Chicas de las Pechos Grandes. If you don’t buy into that, there’s always the more reasonable conclusion that they do what they do to stay afloat; considering how many studios have shut down in the past few years AND how expensive game development can be these days, it’s hard to blame them for banking on what they know will sell (i.e. sexy costumes for every member of The Boobs McGee Experience). If nothing else, they’re at least upfront about it.
But here’s the phrase that’s worth keeping in mind for the rest of this post: “Oh, I never thought of that.” As the self-proclaimed Eternal Optimist, I don’t want to assume that Team Ninja or any other creator with botched heroines did it out of malice, or laziness, or pandering, or even just to make a quick buck. They did it because they didn’t realize that there were other options available. In DOA’s case, they considered the possibilities and chose the ones best suited for the franchise, but ended up overlooking possibilities that would have made said franchise more than just a laughing stock.
If I remember right, the first DOA -- breast physics and all -- was made as a desperation move to keep a struggling Tecmo in business. It worked, apparently, and it became a launching point for the rest of the franchise. That sexuality (or a facsimile of it) courses through its veins, but there was the potential to be more than just “boobs on boobs on boobs” that to some extent was at least touched on. Clashes between ninja bloodlines and traditions; corporations enacting world-ruining conspiracies; even beyond that, fighters striking out to make their desires a reality, and from that emerged the thematic conflict of tradition versus free will. Duty versus freedom. It’s when DOA5’s story explores that theme -- not the hokey action movie fluff -- that it’s at its strongest and most entertaining.
So DOA is in the prime position to give us something special because theoretically, it has every tool it needs. Yes, I would absolutely love it if it could offer a stronger story; I would love it if Kasumi’s DOA4 ending had anything to do with the plot or her character arc -- what with her being ostensibly the main character -- instead of just having her dream about being a singing topless mermaid. I’m not exactly asking for the moon here.
But you know what? Even if Team Ninja didn’t, and even if they wanted to keep going down Tight Trouser Alley, then they could at least mix it up a little. The only cards in their hand at this stage are “big boobs”, “less clothes”, and “more clothes, only this time they’re themed costumes”. They’ve worn out what they’re famous for, and if they want to be the kings of eroticism, they need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to capture the essence of sexiness. I’m thankful that all the girls have different stances and fighting styles, but in a game that earns favor by dint of its bodacious bodies, why is it that their definition of “bodacious” is so bland? How do you make boobs boring?
The answer that comes to mind is that DOA tries to make the boobs -- and tangentially, the bodies attached to them -- interesting. The problem is that they should be trying to make the female form interesting. It’s a strange day indeed when a Nintendo game understands that better than a game designed to get a rise out of its players. Seriously, pay close attention to the animations of Smash 4’s female fighters, Palutena’s chief among them. You’d be surprised.
The easiest fix I can think of for DOA6 is to just add a character creator, and let players handle the sexiness on Team Ninja’s behalf. I don’t just mean loading up a fighter with your favorite attributes; I mean giving the player the chance to explore possibilities that the parent company won’t. If pro wrestler Tina can’t be rendered with a suitable tone and musculature, then let the player make a fighter that can. If sultry assassin Christie isn’t sultry enough, let the player make someone as tall, or willowy, or elegant as they can imagine.
If there can’t be a schoolgirl who wouldn’t snap in half in real life, then leave it to the player to do the heavy lifting -- up to and including full clothing options (which to be fair DOA5 offers, but that got buried by skimpy DLC outfits). After all, I was under the impression that sexiness implied a set of qualities above the norm. Putting those qualities in player hands to create the out-of-the ordinary? Not a bad idea.
Here’s the thing, though: it should never reach a point where the tools should be put in player hands -- because offering up something bodacious is what Team Ninja should have done a loooooooooooooooong time ago. And regularly. And not just with a loli girl.
Audiences trust creators with more than just their money. They trust creators to put forth the best effort possible -- to take a concept, choose the best possible options, and bring it all together for an affecting piece of art. That’s how it should be, and how it has been pretty much since art’s inception. On some level, even a bunch of goofs like Team Ninja understand that; the flashes of competence and potential are there, even if they are hidden in the valleys of the Teton Range. The problem is that maybe they haven’t considered how things could be different -- or even that things can be different. Sit them down and explain some of those possibilities, and I’d bet that at least one member would go “Oh, I never thought of that.”
They -- Team Ninja, or just creators in general, game devs or otherwise -- just do what they think is best for their creations. DOA5 could have been the game that established its ladies as more than just character outlines, but instead put most of its effort into an ersatz, limp-wristed summer blockbuster. Why? Not because they were idiots, but because that’s what they thought would win favor. Granted that’s a misguided notion in its own right, but they had good intentions. Conceptually, they weren’t wrong. It’s just that they focused on the wrong things, when the right things -- those character interactions outside of non-canon beach lounging -- slipped into the background.
Why did it happen? Why is DOA’s story at large still irrelevant? Why are the ladies still saddled with the stigma of being sex objects? Because Team Ninja didn’t go far enough; the devs didn’t use its tools effectively, because they didn’t even realize they had tools. Again, if someone would explain to them what they could do -- gameplay-wise, story-wise, whatever -- then maybe they could make something out of effectively nothing. Maybe they could realize the problem, and do better.
Let’s be real here. The pitfalls associated with that blindness to possibilities -- to making good female characters -- is an easy one to stumble into. And I know this because I’ve made a lot of the same mistakes. Probably mistakes that would even have Team Ninja laughing at me.
Well, among others.
Speaking personally, I want to be a creator someday as well -- a writer above all else. Or rather, a GOOD writer -- which means that if it seems like I’m super-butthurt over the tiniest things in video games, it’s because A) they stick out intensely to me, and B) I probe others as a means of probing myself. It’s the only way for me to learn not to make stupid mistakes and stupider decisions, because I will if left unchecked.
Once upon a time, I had a female character whose role and personality in the story could be summed up in two words: “the girlfriend”. That was it. No part, no charisma, no dynamism, no arc -- just a rung on the ladder to propel both the lead and the story to where it needed to go. She was a non-player in the events that transpired -- which extended to every other female character in that story. Not even a spread of furious editing sprees could salvage the story, which kept the ladies on the wrong side of the fence during virtually every climactic moment. It became pretty obvious that I was pretty much just polishing a turd. So I had to flush.
I’ve gotten significantly better about things since then, but in order to do that, I had to understand that I screwed up in the first place -- and by extension, how it happened at all. I can see why; the ladies didn’t get much attention because a lot of the focus and development went toward the lead. Maybe a couple of other guys if you’re feeling generous, but outside of that lead, the overall development of the cast was pretty shallow.
Only one character really got to shine or change, and while he did end up in a good place, the scope of the story was too narrow. I didn’t use the very tools that I had created, and the story suffered for it. The world was too small. The plot was too small. The conflict was too small. So inevitably, the characters -- the most important puzzle piece -- ended up being too small, too. I’m 100% convinced that it was an abject failure, and no amount of consolation will convince me of otherwise.
But that’s fine. What’s important is that I did realize that I could do more. I found ways to get the most out of my characters, and the elements surrounding them. Granted I’ve got an easier time of it than others (I’m not a dozens-strong team handling either technology more advanced than a word processor or enough money to weigh down an armored truck), but the overall lesson here is the same.
Because of that, I’d argue that there is something any of us can do, regardless of our place in the game industry and beyond: be aware that there is a problem, and we don’t have to accept it. More importantly, there need to be talks about more than just “this is a thing that is wrong and bothers me”, though that helps. Heroes stand strong, after all.
Collectively, we need to be open-minded. It’s easy to dump hate on distant creators or seemingly-faceless organizations, but it’s worth remembering that there are people at work -- people who can make mistakes, just like the rest of us. Maybe every word spoken and every post typed up won’t reach them, but they will reach others down in the depths. Those people -- scorned so often by those they trusted -- can go on to become creators themselves, and take plenty of lessons to heart.
Or, maybe those voices will end up reaching higher powers. Maybe one outcry will lead to one million. Maybe twenty years from now, people will be explaining why DOA15 is a stroke of artistic genius -- precisely because it has giant breasts. Somehow. Potentially. I don’t know anything about art.
But seriously, Team Ninja? Fix the faces, please. All of your women look like they’re dead inside.
Let me start off with a question: at what point does a topic cease to be relevant?
I only ask because time and time again, it feels like I’m jumping on the train late. By the time I come up with something substantial to say, I always end up thinking, “Man, does anybody even care at this point? Isn’t the topic played out by now?” It’s a mental block for me, whether it’s a real issue or not. So even though I consider Watch Dogs to not only be the most abysmal game of 2014, but also one of the worst games I’ve ever played, explaining as much in a timely manner seems like a fool’s errand. I can go on for thousands and thousands of words, but I’m always worried that I’m obsolete by word one.
But there’s hope. After all, there’s nothing more relevant and timeless than hating on stupid bullshit. And -- in the most brilliantest segue ever -- there’s never a bad time to bring Kamen Rider into the discussion. For comparative purposes, and not just solely to push a secret Rider agenda.
Kamen Rider as a whole may masquerade as a shill for toys and merchandise (and let’s face it, it is), but in my eyes that’s always struck me as a byproduct of a genuine attempt to tell good stories -- albeit stories married to over-the-top costumed combat. It’s little wonder, then, that there are plenty of TV Tropes regulars that seem to get into it so regularly. That’s how I got into it, at least -- and a quick search told me that Kamen Rider W was one of the more popular -- and presumably high-quality -- installments. So I watched it from start to finish ages ago.
Needless to say, I enjoyed it. It’s not my favorite in the franchise -- that honor goes to Kamen Rider OOO, which I SWEAR I’ll bring into a post someday -- it’s still great. Given the chance, I’d watch it again. But the reason I’m linking it to Watch Dogs is because I feel like there’s a lesson in there that needs to be imparted. Not a moral for impressionable minds; no, there’s a moral in there for anyone with aims to tell a story. Or just plain enjoy it.
One of the most notable things about W is that it banks HARD on the detective theme. The story, the music, the characters, the concepts -- hell, one of its most common phrases is “hard-boiled”. It helps lend the show a different air from its franchise compatriots, though that’s also helped by the setting having more of a presence in W overall. Still, what really clinches it -- and what probably helped it become a real fan favorite -- is what should typically be the deciding factor. That’s right, it’s the main character: Shotaro Hidari.
He’s the private eye of the Narumi Detective Agency, and takes on jobs for the people of Fuuto whenever they come marching up to his doorstep. The show being what it is, that usually has him getting involved with the monster of the week and resolving crimes with liberal amounts of punching. In this installment? He’s up against the Dopants, monsters born from using USB-stored data from the planet -- Gaia Memories -- that wreak havoc, commit crimes, and “fill the city with tears”. Naturally, Shotaro ain’t havin’ that, so he uses his own Gaia Memories along with the Double Driver to become Kamen Rider W. Or HALF of W, at least; he handles the left side, while his partner Philip beams his consciousness into the right so they can fight as one.
Yep, it’s that kind of show. But that’s to be expected when this is one of the first Dopants they go up against.
Thankfully, not all of them are that goofy, but…man. Somebody had pretty shit luck to draw that.
Like Fourze before it (well, Fourze came years later, but I watched W after Fourze), the successes of the show are bred from the lead and the people around him. But there’s something interesting about Shotaro that’s worth noting -- and like I said at the start, there’s a lesson shown off with him that everybody looking to make a story should take to heart.
See, when I first heard about the show on TV Tropes, I checked out the character page. I knew that W was made from two guys instead of just one, but I think I might have misread or misinterpreted something. So when I started the show in earnest a while later, I went in with the wrong expectation. I went in thinking that Shotaro would be a cool, unflappable, suave and stylish guy; meanwhile, his partner Philip would be the bright-eyed, spirited, passionate one. Imagine my surprise, then, when the reverse turns out to be true; Philip’s actually the cool one, while Shotaro is the one who’s relatively hot-blooded. I say “relatively” because there’s a facet to him that really makes the character work. And THAT’S what others need to learn from him.
Here’s the crux of Shotaro: he’s a character who tries to be cool, but is decidedly uncool. But paradoxically, his uncoolness is part of what makes him cool.
Do you know why the phrase “hard-boiled” keeps popping up in W? It’s because Shotaro keeps spamming it. In his eyes, being a hard-boiled detective is synonymous with being a Cool Guy™, so he’s done his best to style his entire persona around it. He wears the clothes. He types out the reports (and narrates to himself and the audience alike) in a detective style. He does his best to be as hard-boiled as he can. The problem is that A) he kind of sucks at it, and B) the universe would rather make him look like an idiot. Though to be fair, he does that himself more often than not.
As early as the first episode, you see the mile-wide chasm between the ideal and the reality. Shotaro does some hard-boiled narration and sets himself up as a Cool Guy™ almost as soon as the opening is done playing…but then it turns out that his Agency is facing bankruptcy, and the fact that he spends so much money on detective novels doesn’t help matters. His attempts to do something cool are thwarted on a regular basis, too. Tracking down a bus as part of a case lead? He loses it and does his best Darth Vader “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Trying to consul the daughter of his MIA mentor? She leaves long before he even finishes his cool speech. Gets an offer to protect a young starlet? Skips down the street and jumps to click his heels together.
It’d probably help Shotaro’s case if he wasn’t delusional and being some tryhard detective. But then again, I suspect that it’s a commonality for every Kamen Rider to be in sore need of a few therapy sessions.
Don’t worry, Eiji. You’ll get your post someday.
Now, all of that and more would suggest that Shotaro is some moron for an audience to laugh at (plenty of characters justifiably call him “half-boiled” instead). And in a sense, you’d be right. It really says a lot about a character when people can point out how his actions and his words don’t match. But that’s not to say that he’s some clown dancing with his pants around his ankles. This is a Kamen Rider we’re talking about, and he gets plenty of opportunities to show that.
Even if he is put-upon and rarely taken seriously and constantly undermining his attempts to be a Cool Guy™, he’s still more than capable of ruining anyone’s day -- in and out of his suit. As W’s left half, he’s the one in charge of the actual offense via his Gaia Memories; Philip acts more as support and gives W different elemental properties. That, of course, sets aside the fact that in nearly every instance W’s based on Shotaro’s body instead of Philip’s…though of course, one can take the lead as needed.
As a Rider, it’s a given that Shotaro’s a professional ass-kicker. But what I find really interesting about the character is that even if he’s a delusional goofball, he’s also one of, if not the most level-headed and emotionally mature member of the cast. He ends up learning a lesson or two in the show’s run (there’s a reason why one of the show’s songs is “Nobody’s Perfect”), but all told he’s a source of stability and strength to other characters -- incidental or otherwise. Even if the universe is constantly booting him face-first into a brick wall, his Cool Guy™ lines come in when he’s offering emotional support. Well, that, and when he actually DOES get to prove that he’s a detective for a reason.
If you’ve seen my stuff before, you should know I’ve been talking about “highs and lows” for a while now. Here’s the gist of it: in order for the beats of a story to have maximum impact, there need to be moments of joy and levity and good fortune and the like to offset (and highlight) the downturns. Likewise, defeat, sadness, misfortune and the like keep an audience on their toes, and keep the story from resting on its laurels. But if Shotaro is any indication, it’s not just a story that needs highs and lows. A character needs them, too. It’s what lends them a sense of dynamism. It makes the strengths visible as well as the flaws. It’s what makes them surprising, interesting, and in a lot of ways, human.
Which brings us back to Aiden Pearce.
Now, I’ll be fair. Aiden Pearce is probably not the only or worst example out there. But he is semi-recent, and an outstanding example. So I hope you don’t mind me piling on the hate even more than I already have.
Like I said, I consider Watch Dogs to be an absolute embarrassment of a game. It’s barely even a game; it’s just a great big package of things to do, a fraction of which are connected to a plot that has you, “the vigilante”, running errands for damn near everyone else. It would help if said vigilante was even remotely interesting, but alas. ‘Twas not meant to be.
The devs got as far as “hat and trench coat” and “magic phone” before they called it quits and went on an indefinite lunch break. Aiden’s the weak link of the game -- and while I’ll accept that maybe there are other interesting characters in the game (hopefully beyond just throwing in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo X Catwoman), it doesn’t change the fact that they have to orbit around -- and ultimately get sucked into -- a narrative black hole like Aiden. I know writing a story isn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world, but sometimes it seems like people make it infinitely harder than it needs to be.
The phrase that gets thrown around a lot (for Watch Dogs, or for less-than-airtight products in general) is “design by committee”, and that’s probably the case for the game. Admittedly, I prefer using the term “indulgent design”; instead of following the whims of a creative vision or the passion to put something before an audience, creators would rather try to earn success by deluding potential buyers. That is, rather than giving them something truly exciting -- something they didn’t even know they wanted -- indulgent design would rather have them grow fat off pandering and appeals to the basest sensibilities.
Aiden is indulgent design personified. I hate to make assumptions about the devs’ intent, but even if they had the best intentions, they botched this character hard. The big issue is that I can practically feel the notes and outlines printed all over the vigilante’s virtual skin. I can see what’s scribbled all over, and it tells me that he’s only allowed to be two things: cool and powerful. It comes off as incredibly disingenuous; instead of letting the players decide and judge Aiden as cool, it’s as if Ubisoft tried to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. “People will think Aiden is cool because we made Aiden cool.” But vicious cycles don’t always work as well as intended; there’s no guarantee that hype alone will ensure --
Let’s…let’s just move on.
It’s my understanding of Watch Dogs that Aiden is supposed to be a scarred and hurting hero (relatively speaking, given his penchant for crime -- cyber or otherwise) by virtue of his dead niece in the backstory and his sister and nephew presently in danger. Clichéd as they may be, there’s potential to be had in those relationships as long as they’re used effectively...but in Watch Dogs, Aiden’s family issues come off as a carte blanche excuse to go do whatever the hell he wants, up to and including ruining -- if not ending -- the lives of innocents who undoubtedly have families of their own.
If the intent was to have Aiden deconstructed -- to show what sort of monster it would take to commit the acts he does in Watch Dogs -- then it’s botched from the outset by giving him some innocent and flawless family he has to take care of. It turns the game into an awful revenge fantasy that completely squanders its potential. But it’s a no-win situation; if the intent was to humanize Aiden and make him sympathetic, then it flies in the face of all the murder the player might end up committing just to get to the next mission, let alone what happens in it.
You don’t play as Aiden Pearce in Watch Dogs. You play as you. More than plenty of other characters, he’s just an avatar for you to indulge in whatever your heart desires. That was probably the optimal state in terms of the game’s design, but in terms of the narrative, the gameplay undermines the story and the story undermines the gameplay. But setting aside that discussion, there are three things that we can say conclusively about Aiden. One: he’s ruthless. Two: he cares about his family. Three: he has what he needs to fulfill his mission.
Only one of those definitively counts as a unique personality trait (because I’d like to think that lots of people care about their families). So if that’s the case, then it means Aiden is in the perfect state to wreak havoc as he sees fit. He’s a character ready and waiting, speaking in narrative terms, to do harm to others. And as such, the player is ready to do the same. No need to worry about others. No need to worry about collateral damage, especially when you end up killing a dozen innocent people just to catch one person.
Just smash and kill and hack and blow up, and don’t ever bother thinking about what you’re doing. Aiden doesn’t, so why should the player? For all the lines and grey areas Aiden crosses and treads through, he’ got nothing to say about cyber-crime and privacy invasions besides “these things exist”. What’s his stance? He doesn’t care. They’re just tools for him and him alone to use.
Aiden doesn’t give a shit about anything. I’m not even wholly convinced that he cares about his family; I’d argue that he only wants to protect and save them because they’re concepts to him. Things. HIS things. Nobody touches them but him. He’s figuratively and literally out to play big brother (subtle, Ubisoft), and what little comfort he offers feels token at best when he’s willing to lie and manipulate the people around him just to get what he wants. Given his unduly selfish nature in the game, isn’t that a fitting interpretation?
It is true that being a villainous character doesn’t automatically ensure a bad character (see: Grand Theft Auto and ostensibly BioShock Infinite). But the requirement for a character, good or evil, is that they do what they do with charisma. There has to be something that appeal, not just plays to indulgences. That’s where Aiden fails. He is, undoubtedly, a character solely designed to be cool…AND NOTHING ELSE. Denying that it’s his default setting is something I’m hard-pressed to do.
The evidence is all there. He can commit crimes without impunity (until the plot says so, maybe). He’s an expert fighter and gunman, and can engage in some light parkour. He’s a whiz with technology, to the point where almost nobody can touch him. Immediately after meeting The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the sexual tension flares up to supernova levels of intensity. (I’m hesitant to count that given how their story ends, but said ending is troubling in its own right.) He gets to play hero if he (you) wants to, and he can bust the crimes that the big dumb police force can’t. He can hack anything, and make stuff explode just ‘cause. He’s a rebel who, by completely cutting ties with society, has become more than just an outlaw; he’s earned some ultimate sense of freedom, but has the strength to affect the world at his leisure. Just because he can.
You know, for all the planning (or lack thereof) that went into Aiden, there’s a question I have to ask: did Ubisoft actually think this character was cool?
Think about what the word implies. To be cool is to be stylish. Impressive. Admirable. Enviable. Aiden Pearce is a whopping zero of those things. He’s got no style on his own, because that would mean that he’d have a personality besides “generic gravel-voiced anti-hero”. He’s not impressive, because hacking stops being impressive fifteen minutes in, and the ease of it removes any sense of perceivable reward when it happens.
He’s not admirable, because he’s a complete shitbag who’s responsible for most of the problems in his life (but damned if he acknowledges his failings). And for all those reasons and more, he’s not even close to enviable. Is he supposed to be the good guy, or the bad guy? Because it seems like the game wanted it both ways, and ended up failing on both fronts. It all leads me to believe that Aiden only tries to be -- and is designed to be -- one thing. As it so happens, that’s the one thing he can’t do. Or hack…even though that’d probably just lead to him blowing it up.
I suspect that there are some people out there who would tell me to stop stressing out so much about a character like Aiden. They’d probably say something along the lines of “So what? He’s just a power fantasy, so just shrug it off and move on.” Or “What did you expect, dude? It’s a video game. It’s all about making players feel cool.” And I only have one response to such a mindset: FUCK THAT.
First of all, not every video game has had or needs to have some ego-feeding, desperate scrapes at coolness. Second, if a character’s going to be cool, then that’s fine -- but they have to earn the right to be called cool by way of doing something worthwhile. Third, regardless of the medium we can get something more out of any given character and any given story as long as they -- and their creators -- show respect for their audiences.
It’s a strange day, indeed, when a multimillion dollar game tackling modern-day controversies and aimed at mature audiences is somehow less substantial than a toy-shilling show that managed to work in promotions for CDs.
You know, I keep talking about the endless possibilities of storytelling, and how it’s a creator’s duty to explore them as best as he or she can. And while I stand by that, there’s one thing that I suspect is going to be a common byproduct of “a job well done”: someone, somewhere is going to look at a quality release and say “man, that’s so cool”. And that’s the way it should be. The people should be the ones to decide if a product is good or not. The creator should put up the strongest effort possible, but there’s always going to be a gap. It’s in the product’s hands -- and any number of elements it has to its name.
When all’s said and done, Shotaro’s just one of those elements of Kamen Rider W. Even if he is just a fabrication -- a character written on paper, and brought to life by an actor way too eager to make funny faces -- he succeeds and becomes cool by way of being credibly cool. Like any good character, he goes beyond just being the tool of his creators. The line between “This is someone’s character” and “This is my favorite character” starts to blur. As it should.
Posts like these may be obsolete in an hour's time. But a good character will ALWAYS be relevant.
But it doesn’t for Aiden. And that’s the clincher. For all of Ubisoft’s talk of making him an “iconic” character, they forgot to make him anything more than a stand-in. And by doing so, they failed to make him cool…which means the game failed as a result. Now, far be it from me to launch an assault on the creator, because I prefer to point fingers at the offending product instead.
So with that in mind, I’ve got one more thing to say to you, Aiden Pearce.
Now, count up your sins!
Oh man. Does saying the line make me a Cool Guy™ now?