Long-time gamer, aspiring writer, and frequent bearer of an afro. As an eternal optimist, I like to both look on the bright side of things and see the better parts of games; as a result, I love a game with a good story and awesome characters...and anything that lets me punch the heresy out of my enemies.
I'm a big fan of Atlus' games, and I've enjoyed my fair share of fighters and RPGs. Just...please, keep Final Fantasy XIII out of my sight. It never ends well for anyone involved.
You can check out some of my game musinga/stories/random stuff at my other blog, Cross-Up. I've also got a TV Tropes thingamajig, and I'm trying to get some freelance work going. Among other things. Like a web serial novel. And getting books published. If ever there was a time for the world to learn the joys of ghost-punching, this is it.
I have a sneaking suspicion that it was (the great) Jim Sterling’s review of Final Fantasy XIII that led me to discover Destructoid one fateful day. In a universe where eights, nines, and the occasional perfect score orbited the game like Saturn’s rings, that one glorious 4.0 shone brighter than the sun, and to this day stands as proof -- a totem of fans’ and gamers’ outrage. That game has come and gone, and for those who felt wronged, there have been plenty of titles that have helped heal the wound. But with the third game in this saga looming large on the horizon and Square-Enix in dire straits -- and news of Lightning getting a bunny suit, because of course she gets a bunny suit -- I think it’s time for me to make an assertion I’ve had in mind for a while.
That famous review started with this line: “If you're a hardcore Final Fantasy XIII fan, prone to emotional outbursts and so defensive of Square Enix's latest effort that you'll get upset by harsh criticism, then you're advised to not read this review.” The same applies here...to some extent, at least, considering that this isn’t a review. In fact, you can almost consider this a refutation.
One thing that (the great) Jim Sterling has asserted a few times in the past -- like right here -- is that Lightning has no personality. That’s a point I can’t quite bring myself to agree with. I understand what he’s getting at, yes, and it’s a valid interpretation, sure…but I have a different one in mind. I’ve made it no secret that I consider Lightning to be the worst character I’ve ever encountered in anything, but even with my bias I say Lightning DOES have a personality. It’s just that it’s so terrible, it pins her as the villain of her games.
I'm a firm believer in -- oh wait, hold on.
(Spoilers for FFXIII and XIII-2 incoming. You’d best bail now if you want to see the games fresh. Also? You probably shouldn’t take this thing too seriously, seeing as how the last time I proposed a theory I suggested a certain princess was some blood-thirsty demigoddess. Just being honest here.)
I’m a firm believer in the idea that a strong cast is one of, if not THE most important part of a story, video game or not. I’ve even said that if the main character of a story is bad, the story is bad. No exceptions. That’s part of the reason why I disliked DmC as much as I did -- because even at the endgame, I felt like Dante was still a huffy, short-sighted tough guy…maybe less so than at the start of his game, but the circumstances of the ending only highlighted how out of his element he was for everything to come.
Meanwhile, Metal Gear Rising gave me a Raiden I wasn’t expecting to like, but ended up gleefully following on his road to revengeance, getting new insights and new depth from a grown man wearing metal bikini bottoms. It’s almost sad that the game that should have been smart ended up stupid, while the game that could have been stupid ended up smart. In my humble opinion, of course.
In any case, what’s important to note is that a main character defines a story. With his/her actions, ideas, and development, the story at large takes shape around them. How do they interact with others? How do they change the world around them? How do they solidify and spread their ideals? All questions that a good story should have answered -- with overwhelming evidence -- by the endgame.
Even if vanilla XIII put on airs of an ensemble cast where no one character was more important than the other, it seems obvious to me that Lightning always was and always will be the star of this subseries…which, you know, has been retroactively called “The Lightning Saga”. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that in order for the games to even approach being good -- which in this case I’ll call “universally enjoyed”, a task that isn’t as impossible as it sounds given other games elsewhere -- Lightning has to make a strong argument for herself, for her world, and her saga.
…In my humble opinion, of course.
In a nutshell, vanilla XIII’s story pins Lightning and company as fugitives on the run. After a riot to save her little sister Serah goes awry, Lightning and the party are branded as l’Cie -- slaves of the gods -- by fal’Cie -- the biomechanical might-as-well-be gods in question -- to do their bidding, and are given the magical power to do so. But since being a l’Cie in their canon is a big no-no, the military hunts them from one corner of their cushy paradise Cocoon to the next. The gang ends up discovering the true nature of their mission and the machinations of the fal’Cie (to bring Cocoon hurtling to the ground, killing everyone in it), so they decide to take a stand. So they march on to the capital, they fight some, stuff…happens, and the day is saved. Lightning gets reunited with her sister, and all is well. At least until XIII-2, but we’ll get to that.
If you ask me, one of the notable facets (and greatest vices) of Lightning’s character is her relationship with power. Think about it -- her backstory paints her as a highly-trained, highly-skilled soldier who specializes in and is rewarded -- mentally and emotionally as well as organizationally -- for murder. Prior to the start of the game, she’s given more than enough reason to see the world in black and white. She’s a soldier, so she fights criminals and monsters. And she’s pretty good at it. Probably.
That’s not only her mindset, but the very concept her life and livelihood are based on. The idea is supposed to be that Pulse -- the world outside Cocoon’s borders -- is full of schemers and malcontents looking to disturb the peace, so if they were to launch an invasion, Lightning would have every right to crush them under holy orders. (It certainly helps that there’s been propaganda against Pulse for who knows how long, brainwashing the populace.) Lightning herself admits in one cutscene that “she didn’t want to think” and one of her battle quotes is “target’s a target”. All she needs is an enemy, the black to her white, and she’ll strike them down. No questions asked.
Now here’s a question that I have to ask -- not just Square-Enix, but to anyone who has a commanding understanding of the canon. What is the difference between Lightning with l’Cie powers and Lightning without l’Cie powers? The implication is supposed to be that a l’Cie is several times more powerful than the average human, and not just because he/she can use magic (especially since the soldiers you fight use magic anyway via portable containers and grenades). But at the start of the game, Lightning is capable of moving at near-superhuman speed, shooting a machine gun one-handed with pinpoint accuracy whether she’s upside-down or not, and drop-kicking grunts across a train car.
That all happens in the opening cutscene; when she’s out of the opening cutscene, the first thing she does is take on a laser-blasting mech with a sword and back flips. It’s arguable that being a l’Cie is supposed to remove the limiters on a person’s body, letting their potential climb to infinity -- even though there’s not much reason for a fal’Cie to let its gofer gain enough power to destroy it in an act of rebellion -- but that just highlights the problem.
In a cutscene a little later, Lightning slides around a soldier and hits him with a Tekken-style combo before he can even hit the ground. Where do you go from there? Well, you could give her an Eidolon, but what good would that do? Give her free reign to stomp down on a race track she didn’t even need to visit and murder everyone that looks at her funny?
Like any RPG, the gameplay makes a character’s growth a key part of the experience (you can’t clear the adventure without getting that sweet, sweet EXP). The problem is that story-wise, there’s nothing to make that growth -- that need for growth -- ring true for Lightning. She’s already right where she needs to be but gets stronger regardless, and doesn’t face the struggles needed to understand the purpose of that power.
She doesn’t get the challenge she needs to spark her character development; there’s no rival character that serves her a barrel’s worth of humble pie, and while there is a dedicated antagonist, he doesn’t show up for what has to be nearly two dozen hours. (The whole game is reluctant to give its cast dedicated antagonists or rivals; there was setup to give Sazh one in Jihl, but she got axed without fanfare because reasons.) The external force pushing Lightning to change and evolve is a tangential one, not a perceivable one; there needed to be a face and a name to push her farther -- and push her down -- but even with the villain’s reveal it doesn’t amount to nearly as much as it could have. Because of it, Lightning’s development is stunted…in my humble opinion, of course.
That all said, it’s not necessarily a game-breaker to lack those elements. It just means that the other elements have to work that much harder -- the internal struggles and realizations that Lightning comes to could compensate several times over. Or should I say, they could have compensated, but didn’t. Lightning’s black-white vision remains ironclad throughout the game, with the key change being who she considers in the white and who she considers in the black.
Her rigid definitions put every character that doesn’t agree with her in the black, no matter how good their intentions are (Snow), how justified they are (the soldiers), or even how inconsequential they are to Lightning’s ultimate goal (every other party member prior to roughly the start of the game’s second half). She has no attachment to anyone in the black -- i.e. her party, with the debatable exception of Hope -- until the plot arbitrarily decides to make her attached to the others even though she spent huge swaths of time separated from them, ensuring that her black-white worldview remains unchallenged and sacred. In fact, one of Lightning’s key character-development scenes was triggered by Hope on accident, in a scene that completely defies my faith in humanity to this day.
I could point out the problems with that one cutscene and everything leading up to it for a solid hour, but I haven’t even gotten to XIII-2yet, so let’s move on. To make a long, dumb story short, prior to that cutscene Lightning is 100% okay with killing off everyone in Cocoon -- or if not the people, then the government who in turn maintain the peace and safety of the people -- as per the fal’Cie’s wishes; humanity has been moved into the black thanks to one simple order. She argues that her hopes and dreams have been stolen away from her, but what those entail is never established in the game proper, even in the flashbacks.
Does she want to become the greatest soldier ever? Does she want to retire to the countryside? Does she want to take up pottery, the noblest of all pursuits? There’s no telling, so all that’s left is conjecture. So, based on her status in the military and what we know of her goals story-wise, the only things we can be sure of are A) she wants to survive, B) she wants to crush her enemies -- those in the black -- and C) she wants Serah by her side. And it’s that last point that pushes Lightning even further into the role of the villain.
With the exception of a superior officer who shows up in one, maybe two cutscenes, the only person we can fully ascertain to be in the white -- besides Lightning herself -- is her younger sister Serah. Fair enough. But again, what’s established about Lightning in the game doesn’t paint her as a stable or even intelligent character, much less a nurturing older sister.
This is a character that thinks she needs to “forget her past” because reasons, takes on a name that she thinks symbolizes pure destruction (even though lightning -- or electricity, if you prefer -- is kind of important), and complains about Snow just as much as the fourteen-year-old chained to her leg. I know people give Snow a lot of flak, and he’s not exactly peachy-keen either, but at least he had some semblance of a goal in mind from the get-go. At least he worked toward it in his own, stupid way. At least he didn’t win several Darwin Awards at once with this cutscene…in my humble opinion, of course.
It would be easy -- too easy -- to call Lightning bland and leave it at that. Viable, but easy. Cut just a little bit deeper and you find further layers to this character. Her behavior and reasoning don’t seem that much more evolved than a sixth-grader; she’s petulant, thoughtless, selfish, and outright eager to ram her gunblade down the throat of decency or common sense. Serah had no reason to lie to Lightning -- and likely couldn’t, considering the nature of the l’Cie brand -- and yet the pink-haired powerhouse decides it’s a good idea to outright reject Serah in her time of need because…say it with me now…reasons. So you could probably add “dumb” to the list of character traits, or even “brutish” when you remember that the answer to most of her problems is to aggressively attack anyone or anything that disagrees with her.
But I’d like to take it a step further. Lightning’s black and white world is one of concepts. Of absolute ideas. If this character does this, then they’re in the black and must be rejected -- or if not that, then destroyed. If this character does that, then they’re in the white and must be protected (alongside Lightning) and their whims attended to. Lightning reasons that the fal’Cie made her a l’Cie to bring about the destruction of Cocoon, and because of those holy orders from a higher power she has every reason to move what should be a reluctant partner at best into something to be revered and protected.
For the longest time, that divinity is something she doesn’t bother to question until it’s time to flip-flop and play hero, as one would expect from a Final Fantasy lead. Compare that to Serah; she has a more mundane presence and a more mundane understanding of life -- one that might as well be alien to her older sister. As long as Serah performs actions that please Lightning, she’ll remain in her white. But if she dissents -- if she, for example, decides to marry Snow -- then Lightning will go out of her way to reject her, even if it means leaping over every logical barrier to do so. She’s now in the black. And part of me wonders if the only reason Lightning didn’t attack her was because of the plot…and the whole sisterhood thing, but mostly the plot.
Thankfully Lightning realizes the error of her ways -- even though that conflict shouldn’t have been there in the first place -- but the damage has been done. If not for that act, it’s very possible that the plot of vanilla XIII as we know it wouldn’t have happened. The fal’Cie could have roped in some new candidates for the plan, yes (although that’s not quite as likely, given that it’d mean another half-dozen band of idiots would have to get in close contact with a biomechanical god), but the main cast would have been dropped. Serah is the instigator of Lightning’s venture and Snow’s venture, and the other characters have their lives impacted by her presence to a lesser extent. But by and large, what’s happened is mostly Lightning’s fault because she provoked Serah to run in the first place. Her act of rejection pushed Serah, the one person she’s supposed to protect, in harm’s way. And given how she acts about her throughout almost the entirety of the game after that, I wonder if she’s even all that hung up about it.
Serah gets turned into a crystal statue and appears primarily in flashbacks to flesh her out. It’s suggested that by becoming a crystal, she’s effectively become immortal -- and given a fate worse than death, arguably -- but I have a hunch that this is exactly the way Lightning wants it. Think about it. Serah can no longer talk, which means she can no longer talk back. She can’t progress any further in her life, and remains stuck in stasis precisely as Lightning remembers her -- a perfect embodiment of beauty, innocence, and purity.
She has ceased being human, and has become a concept. She is at once the ultimate embodiment of Lightning’s white, and a release from it; with no one to protect but her own life and self-interests, Lightning is free to cut loose and destroy to her heart’s content. She’s free to fight and to destroy, cutting down anything and anyone that doesn’t agree with her. Lightning is the world’s only source of white -- and everything else is jet black.
You could make the argument that “she gets better” over the course of the game because of the JRPG trappings. Given her archetype and the structure of the plot, you could say that A) Lightning’s heart grows three sizes and she realizes how crazy she’s been, B) there’s a bigger enemy and catastrophe that need to be stopped, and C) she has the power to find new dreams if she fights on and believes in miracles. But for me, none of those ring true. I don’t think Lightning has a single meaningful moment with any NPCs besides Hope’s dad (if that), meaning that if she was supposed to realize and stand up for humanity’s potential, she has no basis for it besides hearsay.
Setting aside the fact that she was willing to spark a catastrophe in the game’s earlier hours, the antagonist that ultimately appears is as stock a villain as they come, negating the impact and merit of both the characters and the story. And even in the later goings of the game, Lightning at best comes off as someone begrudgingly tolerating the characters and events around her…between bad one-liners, of course. I would sooner expect to hear Vanille or Snow (or Kamina) talking about fighting to make the impossible possible, making her mentions of anything besides the mission at hand jarring. On the other hand, reminders of Gurren Lagann are always appreciable.
Now let’s get serious for a moment. There’s something that’s been on my mind for a while when it comes to XIII’s story, but it revolves around a tricky subject matter. I’m going to try and be delicate here, but it’s not something I or likely anyone can talk about comfortably. So fair warning: if you’re the type who gets easily bothered by difficult topics, you might want to consider leaving now. Go listen to…I don’t know, The Lion King soundtrack or something. All right? All right.
Personally, I think suicide is a concept that XIII needed to tackle. Sazh actually does look like he’s going to go through with it at one point, but the scene’s impact is immediately diffused by the fact that he just got his Eidolon and there are still several dozen hours left in the game by that point (and the notion that “shooting himself in the head” is apparently a bloodless affair). If the game actually had bothered to bring up the concept seriously -- which it could have, considering how seriously it takes itself -- it would have turned the histrionics into something meaningful. Something weighty.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the l’Cie/fal’Cie system is completely bogus. The masters give their gofers tasks that could very well be impossible to have done, accomplishing nothing. Meanwhile, the gofers either complete their mission and turn into crystal sculptures, or fail their mission and turn into shambling rock-zombies. There’s no incentive for them to clear the mission if both roads lead to death…so why even bother? If neither option leads to a happy ending, then why not take a third and final option?
The system seems to have a mechanism like that built into it. It’s explained that the Eidolons are the judges of their summoner’s will; if/when they face their darkest hour, an Eidolon will appear to fight them. If the gofer beats them, the beast’s power becomes theirs. If the gofer loses, they’re dead. So when Sazh thinks he’s lost his son, he’s lost all hope -- that is, until his Eidolon shows up and he shoots it into submission.
Each Eidolon fight is supposed to signal a key point in each character’s arc, but I’m hard-pressed to understand the reason why some of the beasts descend when they do, let alone their impact. Snow’s just appears when he’s tired and surrounded by grunts, and I sincerely doubt he even understood what the fight was supposed to mean at the time (and I doubt the player did, either). There are ways to make a heavy topic like suicide or other internal conflicts into physical threats -- Persona 4 was built on them -- but for a game like XIII, they needed to make the discussion overt instead of...
As fugitives tasked with destroying what amounts to the majority of the world with (at first) no hope of escaping their fate, the issue could have been a real proving ground for each character. If faced with the choice of completing a mission at the cost of your life and the lives of millions of others, or the choice of purposely failing a mission to live out your life as a horrible monster, OR the choice of dying with what remains of your dignity and all of your sanity, what would choose? Is the greater good worth more than your life, especially if your life is forfeit anyway? Is the greater good worth more than your life, especially if your sole chance at salvation -- taking the fight to your master’s doorstep -- doesn’t even have a one percent chance of coming to pass? Do you have the resolve to take your own life?
Those are heavy questions -- VERY heavy questions, with even heavier consequences. But thinking back, I don’t feel as if XIII handled them very well, if at all. It just feels as if the cast jumped from aimless survival to blind optimism. They figured everything would be all right if they just kept fighting. It worked out in the end, but only because of the JRPG trappings. Only because “defying fate” and “overcoming the gods” are just things you do in a video game. And the characters follow the “rules” just as closely as the player. By design, there’s no room for dissent. No room for exploration.
But what does all of this have to do with Lightning? Am I saying that she should have considered suicide just to make the story good? No, obviously not. It just feels like something that could have contributed to her arc. Sazh brought up the topic, and for the most part he was the only character of the core six to genuinely act on it; the other characters went through bouts of confusion and worrying (or angst, if you prefer), but Sazh was the only one who even entertained the thought of taking action, not just trot about the subject while it sat miles away.
It showed a level of desperation that the game hadn’t really established, even if it was just a meaningless gesture in the end. Sazh had likely been thinking long and hard about what he was going to do, and prior to his Eidolon fight actually spells out his plan to Vanille. For him to dash those plans means that he weighed the options and considered what would happen if he continued on his forced quest, and decided he only had one option left. Maybe that’s why so many people think Sazh is the best character to come out of this Saga -- because he’s the closest to being a genuine human.
You would expect, then, that of the six cast members, three of them would be the passionate, idealistic sort. The other three would be the rational, contemplative sort. Snow and Vanille are easy enough to peg, as are Sazh and Fang…for the most part. Hope probably belongs to the former camp, which for the sake of balance would put Lightning on the cool-heads’ team. But I have a hard time buying it, and the fact that suicide is made a non-issue for her only highlights both her weaknesses as a character and (paradoxically) her strengths as a villain.
To me, Lightning comes off as a character that puts on airs of calmness and rationality, but I’d like to think that there’s more than enough evidence -- here, and in the games to come -- that she’s not quite the voice of reason she pretends to be. It’s true that the will to live is an important part of human nature, and it’s a thought current in every third story, video game or otherwise, ever released. But I get the sense that Lightning’s will to live is just a concept to her -- a right that she holds dear, merely because it exists and she recognizes it. I have sincere doubts that Lightning understands what life means, much less respects it. Unless the game was being extremely subtle (which I doubt, for obvious reasons), her Eidolon fight is more about learning to accept help from others and stop being so cold, not forcing her to face true despair. Other Eidolon fights are similarly…confused, but considering the sore lack of notable moments in her character arc, I think Lightning gets hit hardest.
I don’t feel as if Lightning has struggled any more than the other cast members -- certainly not on a personal level. She may admit throughout the game that she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do, but that doesn’t stop her from footnoting each cutscene with either a fight against the next enemy or a trek to the next random destination. She has no aim, but she has no reason to stop. No reason to consider the weight of life -- hers, her comrades’, or the people she shares a world with. She has power, so why would she ever think she has a chance of failure? Of dying? Of not getting her way? As long as she keeps swinging that sword of hers, she’ll live on. She can keep ensuring that she has exactly the life she wants. Breaking everything, breaking anything.
I will be fair, though. The concept of suicide DOES eventually get brought up again in XIII-2. It’s just that it’s such a broken application that it very nearly comes off as an insult. Then again, I feel that way about the entire game. But I’ll get to that next time.
The takeaway from all this is that the so-called Lightning Saga got off on the wrong foot. Setting aside the fact that making a saga probably wasn’t the intention at the game’s reveal all those years ago, attempts to paint Lightning as the saga’s hero come off as hollow and insincere -- and flat-out wrong. I could accept her being the main character of these games, sure, but the hero? No. Squeenix is asking too much of its audience. The evidence it gives far outweighs the JRPG conventions, and just goes to highlight one of two things: either how little they understood the character and her game(s), or how much they wanted to bend everything to suit her. Neither option makes for a very good product; vanilla XIII comes off as confused, contradictory, and…well, kind of crummy. In my humble opinion, of course.
But as bad as I consider XIII to be, XIII-2 is worse. Phenomenally worse. And just as the Lightning Saga dips into the darkness, so too does its leading lady. And I’ll gladly explain what I mean…next time. I get the feeling that I’ve typed enough for one day, so I’ll go ahead and give my fingers -- and your eyes -- a rest.
See you guys soon. Because we’ve still got a looooooooooooooooooooong way to go.
And the “Silliest Post Title of the Year” Award goes to…
In all honesty, I can’t think of a more appropriate title for a post. I consider myself a gamer of some degree of -- for lack of a better term -- “hardcore-itude”, but I’ll be the first to admit that there are gaps in my skill and knowledge. That said, I do have Grand Theft Auto V in my possession (as I should, because I exist), and while I haven’t gotten around to playing it yet, my brother has. And from what I’ve seen, it looks like a pretty cool game. Playing as this fabled creature the Elders call “Trevor” looks like it will quite literally be a blast.
But that puts me in a bit of a bind.
To date -- and excluding GTA5, if only temporarily -- I’ve played three other installments in the franchise: GTA3, San Andreas, and GTA4. And to date, neither I nor my brother (the completionist between the two of us) ever managed to see the end credits. He’s tried remarkably hard, though, to the point where he repeatedly deleted and reinstalled GTA4 while simultaneously swearing to finish it…though as fate would have it, he always got stuck on the same mission and lost interest shortly after. Conversely, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten past the first hour’s worth of story in any of the games. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that across three games I’ve only seen an hour’s worth of narrative. That’s not to say I’ve never played the games; on the contrary, I’ve played my fair share of them (with San Andreas probably holding me captive the longest).
You can probably guess what that means I did.
Here’s how pretty much every session with San Andreas started for me. First, I’d find a motorcycle and steal it. Next, I’d drive over to the downtown area and find a certain building -- one of a very few you could enter, but one that you could enter while riding atop a motorcycle. Then, when I appeared on the rooftop of the building (or skyscraper, if you prefer), I drove off at top speed and did some sweet flips while the world blurred around me. If I got lucky, I survived, and even landed safely wheels-first on the street below. If I didn’t, then the only thing I lost were a few precious moments of easily-restored life. (Side note: more often than not I found myself flinging Carl Johnson off that same building -- with or without parachute -- just to hear him shout lovable lines like “I hate gravity!” Bonus points for CJ if he actually survived the fall.)
And after that? It was just an hour or two of me goofing off. Career highlights: 1) finding a plane and taking off so I could skydive face-first into a pool…unsuccessfully. 2) Inexplicably driving into a river -- and the same river, no less -- while trying to go anywhere to do anything. 3) Punching out the Ballas, AKA the scum of the earth. 4) Punching out other people, because as you know punching = manliness. 5) Flying around on a jetpack. 6) Singing along with Faith No More’s “Midlife Crisis” while engaging in the occasional strut about town. 7) Trying to steal a tank. 8) Trying to raise my wanted level high enough to steal a tank. 9) Using the tank’s blasts to propel myself down a road several times faster than the average car. 10) Dying spectacularly.
I’m…not wholly convinced that I’ve been playing GTA right.
I’m not wholly convinced, but I’m not wholly dissatisfied. I know I’ve taken shots at plenty of other games in the past, but strangely enough, GTA has never been one of them. I’ve never gotten the full story in any of the games, but from what I’ve seen, there’s a reason why people like it beyond just being the prophesized prostitute slayer of our age. It IS likely called a sandbox game for a reason, so maybe the fact that I can ditch the story and play for dozens of hours without getting my progress halted is entirely the point AND the draw of the franchise. Or to put it another way, maybe the fact that I’d rather eat the sand than play with the Tonka bulldozer in the corner is one of the franchise’s strong suits.
That all said, I’m more than a little apprehensive about starting up GTA5. I’m more than ready to play it like I did Skyrim (or more appropriately, the other GTA games), forgoing everything and everyone for my own cockamamie adventures. But then again, if I do that, I feel like I’ll be missing out on something truly special -- cool characters, a cool story, and more. The alternate title for the game might as well be Terrible People Doing Terrible Things, but while lesser games have tried and failed to win me over, there’s an unmistakable sense of energy, spirit, and dare I say it charisma that makes me think GTA is a cut above the rest. There’s much that remains to be seen and proven, obviously, but at a glance it seems more than a little intriguing. It’d just require a level of effort that frankly, I’m not sure I have in me. I still need to clear Dragon’s Crown-- and poor Ni no Kuni is still waiting to be played for more than a few hours…
Besides, would it really be so bad if I set aside the story? I can YouTube anything that I want to watch, but those moment-to-moment freak accidents are ones that only I can create (and indeed, my brother constantly egged me on to play GTA JUST to watch me find new ways to blow myself up). So I guess I’m at an impasse. Should I pursue the story and barrel-roll my way through whatever crazy missions the game will put me through? Or should I go down the pure gameplay route, and create scenarios far more insane than anything the game could offer? It feels like the ultimate battle between good and evil is raging in my soul.
So I guess the most I can do right now is refer back to the title of this post -- and its double meaning, in retrospect. How do YOU play Grand Theft Auto? And by extension, how DO you play Grand Theft Auto? In theory, it should be all about unleashing your inner deviant, but in practice, could it mean something more? Does it mean something more to you? Is it the ultimate fantasy, or perhaps the ultimate stress reliever? What is Grand Theft Auto, and why the hell is it so popular?
Let me know what you think in the comments. Hopefully it’ll give me a fresh perspective on what these games mean to others, and how I can use that for my own purposes. In the meantime, I’ll start laying plans for my own GTA adventures…starting with finding a way to ride a motorcycle atop a speeding train.
…I saw it in a movie once. And by movie I mean I might have made it up right just now.
You know, I’ve been thinking. (Cue the panicked shrieks of the masses as they run desperately for cover.)
So word on the street is that Senran Kagura is coming to the West. That’s interesting, I suppose. I can’t personally summon up too much interest in the game, but if it’s set to make plenty of gamers happy -- and of course let the devs offer up something to a wider audience -- then I’m glad this is something that’s happening. Of course, I can’t help but get a little nervous about reactions to the game being released; the whole Dragon’s Crown brouhaha is still a sore point for a lot of people, and has opened up debates that have likely done nothing more than spin in circles at 8000 RPM.
I’d argue that Senran Kagura has its own merits as a game and a series -- artistic merit, creative liberties, etc., etc. -- but even so it’s a bit harder to defend than Dragon’s Crown. That game has more overt throwbacks to fantasy artists and games of the past, with its eyebrow-raising designs a consequence of applying the amped-up aesthetic and design philosophy to everything and everyone. It’s very likely -- probable, even -- that Senran Kagura exists on the same axis (as an over-the-top parody of fanservice-laden elements, or if not that then winking tributes), but the line between playing it straight and playing it for laughs is…er…hazy.
So why is it that the more I hear about the game, the more I’m intrigued by it?
Don't make that face just yet; let me explain. I should back up and say that, even though I know of the game, I don’t know much about it. As a frequenter of Siliconera and TV Tropes, virtually everything I know about the game comes from random posts, basic summaries, and a small potpourri of gameplay videos. That’s about it. Well, that’s not 100% true; I know there was an anime of it semi-recently, but as I’m terrible at committing to watching anime -- I’ll finish watching you someday, Heroman-- I haven’t seen a single episode. I don’t know if I’ve dodged a bullet or missed out on the greatest masterpiece of our time. But I suspect only one of those options is viable, and you can guess which one I’m leaning toward.
That said, I’ve heard that the games are actually pretty good. I guess I was watching the wrong videos, because what I saw looked functional, but a bit clunky. It must have been the YouTube transition; it’s distorted my perception of plenty of fighting games prior to release in the past. I guess for whatever reason, the games have been doing something right consistently. And while I’d like to think that they succeed independent of the space-time-distorting-bosoms, I’d be lying if I said that the fanservice wasn’t a part of the package. It’s hard for me to approve with anything more than a nervous smile and unsteady clap, but hey -- they’re allowed to express themselves, gamers are allowed to enjoy what they may, and as long as they’re not actively forcing the world to see everything their way (to the point of attacking other players, artists, and styles), that’s fine. We can coexist. We can all go on our merry way.
…Is what I would like to say. But I think we know how this story plays out -- if it hasn’t already.
Let’s pretend that Senran Kagura is pretty much just a big joke. Let’s pretend that the game isn’t necessarily geared toward getting players’ engines revved up, and that anything beyond its purpose is just a happy side effect. Let’s pretend that what the devs are after is to put forth a game with giant-breasted ninja girls in an OTT game…and that you’re not supposed to do anything else besides laugh and have a merry old time. Even IF the intent was to make a joke out of the game, it’s a joke that’s not designed to have everyone laughing. In the same sense that some people find political jokes hilarious, others are turned off to them merely by design. “Ew, politics!” they’ll say out of reflex. And they’ll show disdain for whoever might make a joke like that. I know it’s not exactly a one-to-one comparison, but there are similarities. Bring in an offender, and people, gathered from all walks of life but many of them sharing similar tastes and ideals, will get offended. That’s just how it goes, no matter how much rationalizing you try to do. Is it fair? Unless the “joke” is seriously tasteless, no. It’s just life.
So is it fair to hate on Senran Kagura because of its intended goal? Moreover, is it fair to hate the game because of what it offers? Probably not. After all, I’ve not only heard that the gameplay is pretty good, but there’s more going on under the hood. Just looking at the non-spoiler-tagged stuff on TV Tropes says that there’s more than a little darkness to the cheery proceedings (the life of a ninja is not just about doing sweep-kicks and flip-flops), and the stuff that IS spoiler-tagged implies that a high percentage of the characters have grim backstories and reasons for why they fight. The fact that they got the guy who worked on the stories ofOkamiden, Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney, and Chaos Rings has to stand for something.
On the other hand, I wonder if it’s enough. Dead or Alive also has a cast largely dominated by its full-figured females, and while they’re largely capable, strong-willed, independent of men, and have their own personas/backstories, sometimes I wonder if those are token additions. Kasumi’s wiki page is more than four thousand words long, but I feel like could sum her up in almost the space of a tweet: “runaway ninja who seems timid, but bravely and skillfully gets the job done.” (If you’re feeling facetious, you could add “probably has a brother complex.”) I’m no expert on the canon, but I suspect that in spite of the things that we’re told about her and the things that have happened to her, Kasumi hasn’t significantly evolved as a character from where she started back in the nineties. And I suspect that she won’t evolve because the devs would rather backpedal on their “I’m a fighter” mantra and put her and the other girls back in sexy costumes.
It seems that Senran Kagura is in a very tricky territory -- a gray area where the rules are just as hazy as the shinobi world it takes place in. At what point does the fanservice become a detriment, or nullify the creators’ intent? Has it gone far enough to offer up something more than questionable fanservice, or are its attempts at making its merits as developed as its cast ultimately a shallow affair? Can it win over the hearts of even rightfully-jaded gamers, or is it destined to become yet another sore point in gaming discussions everywhere? Without question, this is an extremely difficult topic to even talk about, let alone peaceably sort out. I’m hoping for the best -- if not with this game, then whatever draws heat next time -- but I know that there’s still a ways to go. I know that nobody has an answer that can lay this conversation to rest…and there shouldn’t be, so long as we have something to debate. Conflict can (not does, but can) give way to organized thought, rational discussion, an impetus to learn, and conclusions that people might not have considered on their own. If we can discuss, then by all means, let’s discuss.
Now then. Let’s talk about breasts.
It seems like whenever the topic of women in games comes up, someone usually says that when women appear, it’s as barely-clothed, big-breasted beauties. It’s very true that there’s a severe issue with the portrayal of women in games, and I can only hope that things get better as time passes. That said, every time the allusion does come up, I’m left more than a little confused. Where ARE these improbably-buxom clusters of data? Maybe this is just a consequence of women becoming increasingly-absent in the games industry, but for now let's just consider this a thought experiment. Strictly speaking, it’s hard to decide just what exactly the bar is for “improbably buxom”, but let’s go ahead and expand the scope to “remotely sexualized” female characters. The ones that seem to pop up most are pre-reboot Lara Croft, post-Soul Calibur 1 Ivy Valentine, Bloodrayne on occasion, and all the DOA ladies. And…who else, exactly? I’m not trying to take the piss out of anyone here; I’m genuinely curious. I want a record for future posterity from as many gamers as possible. (So yeah, comment as needed to shut me up.)
Still, I can think of more than a few on my own. Blaze from Streets of Rage and Tyris Flare from Golden Axe are a couple of old-school examples, and not too long ago we had Shahdee and Kaileena from the almost-hilarious Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. There's also Lulu from Final Fantasy 10, Tifa from 7, and (disturbingly enough) Rouge the Bat from the Sonic universe. If you’ll let me play the role of my own worst enemy, it seems like a LOT of the examples -- at least those that spring to mind -- are those from fighting games. Which is to say, almost all of them.
Street Fighter has Cammy for sure, but I’d assume that Chun-Li, Sakura, Elena, R. Mika, and C. Viper have to cater to someone’s tastes. BlazBluehas nearly every female character “remotely sexualized”, starting from the top with resident Boobie Lady Litchi and working down to Noel Vermillion, a character that many gamers assumed wasn’t wearing underwear…to say nothing of her Mu-12 form. Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance made a note of inserting jiggle physics, and the most recent version put some of its ladies in costumes destined to make opponents blush. And let us never forget the great legacy imparted upon us by SNK, for they willingly unleashed Mai Shiranui upon the world. And then unleashed her again in HD. I sincerely hope there are laws in place to prevent anything like Mai's sprite being created ever again.
I know there are more examples than that outside of fighting games -- WAY more, I’d guess, but I’m at a loss to name as many as some of you out there -- but there’s a specific reason I bring up fighting games. Remember, kinetic motion is a form of expression; that’s why dance is an art form, to the point of having entire schools built around it. And on top of that, we gain more data from non-verbal communication than from merely spoken words. So with that in mind, think carefully about the application of fighting games. I know for a fact that in Street Fighter 4, telling Ryu and Ken apart could be done by more than just their designs. Ryu’s default stance has a slower, straighter bounce, while Ken’s is a bit more active and swagger-laden. Simply put, there are things we can get from characters in ways we might not have expected. If memory serves, King got some...physics in King of Fighters 13, but that doesn't stop her from being awesome in terms of both her character and her motions.
In an ideal world, video game writing would be enough to satisfy us, and turn every character -- the women included -- into the “strong female characters” we’re all searching for. But alas, that’s not yet the case. (I honestly think we’re getting there, though; even if some of its ladies are notably chesty, the Tales Series has always made a note of making them more than breast-carriers -- as seen in Symphonia, Legendia, Abyss, Vesperia, and most recently Xillia.) But I know what video games are about. It’s not just a matter of telling a good story; it’s about making an input-output device that performs satisfying actions using its myriad elements. Simply put? Press buttons, and cool stuff happens. In its distilled, hyper-generalized form, that’s what a game is.
And believe it or not, I think Senran Kagura has the right idea.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that games need more improbably buxom women. And indeed, I’d say that the franchise is doing something you don’t usually see, buuuuuuuuuuut it could still do more. Much more. (Though in its defense, from what I’ve gathered it’s also a game about camaraderie and living life to its fullest.) What I’m arguing for isn’t necessarily about embracing fanservice -- to an extent, at least -- but more about applying that fanservice. Games are going to keep throwing more stuff, and bigger stuff, at us in the future; much like the triple-A market and company opulence at large, it’s going to be a matter of how you use what you have, not what you put in. The command shouldn’t be “We made a mountain. Look at it.” We should be able to do something with the mountain. Climb it. Search it. Go inside it. Slide down it. Or perhaps the mountain should do something independent of our input, or in-game triggers. Maybe erupt for whatever reason. Or have an avalanche. Or barf out some wooly goats. It shouldn’t be a static element…not entirely, at least.
Now imagine that concept applied to fanservice. The problem here is that the mindset is “There are breasts here. Look at them.” That’s not enough anymore -- not for everyone, at least. You can throw that stuff in haphazardly and get a few stiffened trousers, but you can take a shot at earning respect if you go a step further. Use elements for expression. Use them to make a statement. Use them to make your intent clear. Use them for originality, and make yourself stand out from the crowd. Use them to make the command “There are breasts here. Do something with them.”
…That came out a lot more sexually-charged than I would have hoped.
Maybe this is the product of my hot dog-addled mind, but I can’t help but see possibilities and ask questions about Senran Kagura’s universe -- things that could elevate the world-building and push its potentially-joking nature to insane levels. So let's see if we can get the old noodle working...with the proper music, of course.
I’ve said this about games in the past -- Devil Survivor 2 comes to mind -- but I’ll say it here again: in a world where everyone is improbably buxom, no one is improbably buxom. What might make the average gent crane his neck in our universe is barely worth a shrug in their world…and as such, their world must accommodate their norm. What would that mean for clothes-shopping? Or better yet, clothes production? How much more fabric would have to be produced just for the average department store catalog? How would that affect prices? How would that affect the fashion industry? How would that affect the economy, and the resource management needed to support such industries?
And I can’t help but wonder how it’d affect society at large. The ladies of the canon are ultra-skilled ninjas in the process of furthering their training -- so what if the struggle to become a splendid ninja is as much a measure to support certain organizations as it is a means to alleviate back pain? Could it be that athleticism is merely a means to allow these ladies a chance at simply living a normal life? Or could it be that said athleticism -- the myriad styles of each character -- is merely a means of expression, independent of bra size? Is it artistry personified? Are they trying to make their bodies art personified? Are they just trying to express themselves on the battlefield, ergo their unique costumes and propensity to get blown into their swimsuits? Is that how they view themselves?
How DO they view themselves? How do they view others? If “improbably buxom” is -- give or take a few inches -- the standard of their world, then what happens for those notably above or notably below the curve? Are they ostracized? Made into walking punchlines? Shamed and harassed? Genetically speaking, how did they inherit the potential to be above or below the curve? How are any of the characters as well-built as they are now? Is it dietary? Supplementary? Is there something in the water? Is it all a part of some hidden organization’s scheme to overwhelm the world with a torrent of estrogen? Or could it be that -- as per my theory on the DOA universe -- the series actually takes place in a totalitarian future where all the women are given nanomachine-filled injections to make their chests swell up? (It’d certainly explain the why the physics are bonkers -- their tissues are filled with tiny machines programmed to move asynchronously.)
Let it be known, then, that there are a lot of different ways you could explore the concept of a world full of hyper-bosomy ladies. You could take an investigative route and figure out what you can do with the setting and characters. Or you could take those ideas (and more) and play them for laughs. There’s just so much you could do JUST with the concept besides just shoving fanservice in someone’s face. Sure, you can find some fans with that alone…but you can do more. You can always do more with a creative outlet. Style, substance, whatever -- it’s one’s duty to explore a creation with as much skill as one could muster. That’s what being a man is all about.
But you know what? Even beyond Senran Kagura, there are still ways you can play with concepts and conventions. And I’ll prove it. So let’s shift the concept from merely “fanservice” to something with a bit more of a positive connotation: beauty.
This should be obvious to anyone who’s read my posts over the last year or so, but here I go again. I consider it the greatest idiosyncrasy of the gaming industry when, with all the technological prowess we have today, so many developers would fill their games with destruction, decay, and despair. Okay, sure, there’s creative liberty and the need to stick to an appropriate tone and canon’s demands, but I have a hard time believing that every dev and every company out there wants to make another war-torn or post-apocalyptic environment just for kicks. As gamers -- critics in our own right -- we’re on the lookout for the much-adored “beautiful graphics” seen so often in reviews. The problem is that in terms of aesthetics, sometimes that’s not quite as easy. I’m not trying to heap (too much) hate on modern games; this is just common sense. Flowers? Beautiful. Crumbling walls? Not beautiful. Babbling brooks? Beautiful. Glass shards strewn all over a street? Not beautiful. Golden, picturesque sunset framed perfectly on the horizon? Beautiful. Chest-high walls? A masterpiece of the modern age…but still not beautiful.
Obviously, this is something that applies to characters as well. Say what you will about any given lead in a Final Fantasy game -- especially post-Dissidia -- but the designers have to really try to make someone who’s not attractive on some level. Granted those designs have become improbable and bordering on self-parody in recent years, but the intent is there: make something pleasing to the eye while simultaneously expressing something about the character. It’s an effort that goes beyond just creating a character to fulfill a function while being as inoffensive as possible. It’s an effort meant to make a character -- and if possible, a world -- memorable to a gamer, as he/she is a person that can appreciate beauty wherever and however it pops up. Simple, yes? Common sense. Something worth pushing towards, without a doubt. BUT, I feel as if there’s more to it than that. More that can be done. It feels like there’s an entire untamed wilderness just itching to get tapped and shared with the people, if only some brave -- and only slightly-crazy -- pioneer is willing to venture in.
So I guess I’ll go ahead and give it a shot. Here’s a possible example: make a game centered on beauty pageants.
Don’t raise your halberds yet, people. I know that sounds a little too on-the-nose, and there is the possibility that people will shoot down the concept immediately (or just call it sexist outright), but hear me out. Consider this a little “what-if” exercise. Or if not an exercise, then a reimagining; after all, IIRC Gen III of Pokémon-- and to some extent, Yakuza 4 -- made entire gameplay segments around putting out the best beauty you could. And really, what is a model if not a well-trained Pokémon? (Please don’t answer that; I don’t think I want to hear the answer.)
Now then. Let’s start with our lead -- we’ll call her “Rally” for now. At the start, she’s just whittling away her days -- she’s lazy, unmotivated, scatterbrained, and more than ready to play games all the way to her grave. But when her carelessness leads to an accident that leaves a young model injured, said model’s coach/manager -- let’s call him “Jimmy Hotpants” -- furiously demands that he reimburses her. And since Rally can’t offer him the money he’s demanding, she offers her services instead; she agrees to enter the local pageant in the model’s place, so that Jimmy Hotpants can lay claim to fame. But what starts off as getting dragged into the “world of beauty” ends up becoming something more for Rally. And so begins the duo’s whirlwind adventure to make Rally into The World’s Most Beautiful Woman. (And if at all possible, Universe.)
One of the key elements of the game would be attending to -- and altering -- Rally’s appearance. Ideally, every player starts out with the same Rally -- a very tall, if lumbering and sleepy-looking, strawberry blonde. But depending on choices, training, and events, the Rally at one player’s endgame will be incredibly different from another player’s endgame. The real world has plenty of different aspects that affect one’s appearance -- diet, exercise, stress, good/bad habits, hygiene, esteem, and more -- so those aspects could carry over in some capacity to the game.
I imagine some sort of Sims-styled meter management, where you’ll have to cater to a few of Rally’s base desires, but everything beyond a certain point (and a notably low threshold, so you won’t have to spend the entire game just making sure she goes to the bathroom on time) is up to you. On one hand, you decide things like how often she goes to the gym and what she does, such as more strength training or more cardio -- and in addition, keeping an eye on what food she eats and how often. On the other hand, you still have a healthy degree of control over outward appearance. Makeup, hairstyle, clothing…and if you so deign, plastic surgery. Or since this would be a video game, perhaps some sort of herbal enhancers are on the market.
And even beyond that, there’s more to be done. You still have to balance Rally’s normal life with her newfound career -- i.e. taking care of business and earning some extra cash (and winding down with video games) while taking time out to do charity work/good deeds to increase your standing with others. It’d be a system that fuses the fundraising minigames of No More Heroes with the schedule management of Persona 4. Preparation is vital -- but if you got the skills and the savvy, you can always carve out a win.
“Now hold on there, Voltech!” you cry out, reaching for your halberd once more. “I thought you were trying to propose a game, not some virtual act of voyeuristic godhood! You’ve clearly underestimated me; as a virile man who demands a set of blades forged by Hephaestus just to tame my illustrious beard, I’ve no interest in playing with a digital doll! Away with you!” And to that I say…you’ve got a point as nice as your beard. But don’t shrug me off just yet. Training is as vital as the combat itself -- and if that’s the case, then I’d advocate the advent of beautiful combat. Because if there’s one thing I love in games and stories, it’s a heaping helping of absurdity.
I brought up that Yakuza comparison for a reason. In the same sense that Kazuma Kiryu and friends will get thrown into sudden brawls on the street, so too could this game play to its theme to an absurd degree…in which there are impromptu “beauty battles.” In this world, beauty means everything, to the point where people will do their damnedest to prove their beauty if and when the need arises. But instead of throwing hands, as Rally you’ll be engaging in appeals to the audience for victory. Think of it as a hybridization of Pokémon, Elite Beat Agents, and the Ace Attorney series; you’ll select your “attack” -- a cute smile, or a sultry strut, for example -- from the outset in a menu, and then execute it via well-timed button presses. It’d be something like this (albeit a bit quicker in pace):
The better you press the buttons, the more effective your attack will be, and the more points you’ll earn from an audience. And there would be a risk-reward system; simpler moves have simpler (randomly-generated) sequences, but won’t net you as many points as a complex move. Of course, if you have the energy for it you can change the momentum of a battle (even during an opponent’s turn) by appealing to one of your Rally’s Charm Points -- a physical or mental attribute that can steal away favor. Basically, it’s a system that demands decision-making, tactical use of one’s tool set, and a bit of rhythmic skill to earn the points needed to finish a battle. You know, just like a real beauty pageant!
And indeed, the beauty pageants -- such as they are -- would be the true test of skill and beauty, not unlike a Gym Battle. You’d have to work your way up through several rounds, as if you’re part of a tournament bracket. You’d be going up against entire groups of opponents instead of just one, and to qualify for the next round you have to garner enough points. And of course, each pageant would conclude with a climactic, OTT final showdown/boss battle with the rival du jour. (You’d get to save, cram in prep work, or quit the game between rounds, of course.)
The key difference? Instead of an undiscerning audience, for pageants there are judges that’ll put the contestants to work, pressing them with questions and demands as well as having tastes that you can play toward. In the same sense that you can interrupt opponents with your Charm Points, judges can interrupt you or your opponents with their supreme authority. What you can answer with will depend on how you’ve prepared Rally up to that point, and how you meet their challenges will affect both the character and her chances of victory at large. Again, think of it as something along the lines of Ace Attorney-- or if you prefer, Dangan Ronpa. It’d be a simple-enough process given a bit of flair by virtue of absurdity.
But make no mistake -- just because this all sounds like an idiot’s fever dream doesn’t mean that there aren’t ideas to take away from the game. The theme of beauty is one that’s being explored by virtually everyone and everything. As Rally goes from place to place and encounters new friends and rivals, they’ll each have their own answer to the question of “what is beauty?” Pride in one’s body. The courage to present something before others. Vanity that breeds conceit and corruption. A duty to gain favor and use it to change the world’s circumstances. A desire to put smiles on the faces of others. Many people, many answers -- including ones that you and Rally will offer over the course of the game. She’ll be changing on the outside (naturally), but she’ll change on the inside as well. Will she become a better person, and use her blooming fame to make the world a better place? Will she turn into a beautiful beast, and sit atop her throne as a wicked queen? What happens when the model whose place she took gets back into the action?
And there you go. That’s just one way you could do it -- take a theme, put a new spin on it, and turn what might have been repulsive to some and pointless to others into something that demandsfurther exploration. It’s not impossible. As with all things imaginative, it just takes a little thought and ingenuity. Be willing to explore the possibilities -- and have the open mind to do so besides just shouting “ew, gross!” and there are plenty of new avenues to explore. Or…hell, I don’t know. It might make a heartwarming story, at least.
So. What’s the moral of this story? Uhhhhhh…I forgot. This post kind of got away from me. I think it had something to do with ninjas at one point, but then I migrated to theoretical beauty pageants or something…
…You know what? I just realized I’ve made more ruminations on the female form in one post than most gamers will do over the course of their entire lives. I’d say this is a cause for celebration. Or despair.
I think I know you pretty well by now. I’ve been playing with you since before I could tie my shoes (God bless Velcro). And I know what you’re planning to do. See, we gamers have been lucky to get at least three games in rapid succession that have managed to blow away our expectations -- or if not blow away, then at least impress, or demand a bit of praise. Or the occasional backhanded compliment. And the connective tissue, the common thread behind all three? Young female companions.
I see that gleam in your eyes, video games. And I’m telling you right now that you need to cut it the hell out. Now.
Listen to me. No, seriously, listen to me. We’ve had a good thing going with these three games. But I know that you’re eyeing these trends like a greedy coyote. I know you’re looking at the numbers, and the praise, and the word of mouth, and planning on getting in on this Gold Rush (or Girl Rush, now that I think about it). And I say, no. No, DON’T do it. If I have to bop you on the head with a rolled-up newspaper, I will. Don’t make this a recurring trend, because not only will it diminish the effect and cheapen the end product, but I’ve got a pretty strong hunch that you’re going to screw up as often as -- or let’s face it, more than you’ll succeed. So let me be the first to say…NO. NO. STOP IT. NO. THAT’S A BAD VIDEO GAMES. NO. BAD VIDEO GAMES. NO TREAT FOR YOU.
Ahem. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk (tangentially) about The Last of Us.
I’ve been trying to avoid getting into too deep a discussion about the game here on Destructoid as best I can. Part of that is because I haven’t beaten the game yet; I’m working on it, and before I put anything up here I want to make sure I’ve got plenty of evidence to back up my opinions. And on that note, part of my self-imposed censorship is because I know there are going to be some strong opinions about the game for a while…and at times I prefer not to get too entrenched in arguments if I can help it.
But I think I’m far enough in the game to make some statements -- my thoughts and opinions on the game (for anyone that, you know, cares about what I think). But before I go any further, let me just say...ROYAL GUARD!
There we go. Perfect. Now that I’ve got my defenses up, attacking me would not be in your best interest. Not unless you want to eat a Royal Release. So let’s keep things civil, yes?
Okay. Right then. I guess I should start by saying that as it stands, TLoU is a disappointment. I’m not going to say that it’s terrible, but I was honestly expecting a lot more from it. Or if the “good parts” are tucked away in the back half or third of the game, then I was expecting more from it sooner. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s a terrible game (I tend to look at a lot of things favorably after suffering through Final Fantasy 13-2); I just don’t think it’s lived up to its potential, its aims, or its hype. It’s decidedly average, if you ask me…and at times not even that.
Now put down your halberds, people. Hear me out on this. I can’t say that I bought into the hype (which is consistent with pretty much everythingI’ve ever played), but I can’t say I’ve ever been repulsed by it either. I’m even on record of saying that I was intrigued and ready to see more of the game during last year’s E3. I’ve been cautiously optimistic about the game for a while now -- and while I can’t say I was enamored with it even when actual information and gameplay footage trickled in, I didn’t have any problems with it just because it existed. I just wanted a good game out of it, hyped or otherwise.
What I expected was a game that would make me wish I’d been more excited for the game -- something that would make me go starry-eyed and shout “GAME OF THE YEAR!” from atop a particularly-tall building. What I got was a game that leaves me wondering “Where’s the Game of the Year in this Game of the Year?” And that’s on a good day. For the life of me, I have a hard time understanding just what makes this game so special. I have a hard time finding the tension against enemies in this game when I can one-shot anything with a little patience and a cornucopia of weapons. The graphics are good, but it seems like the world doesn’t have much to say besides “See this? This is to show that in the wake of an apocalypse, everything you love is gone!” The characters feel like they dropped out of The Walking Dead TV series (and take that as positively or negatively as you want), with the central relationship between Ellie and Joel almost reluctant to make an appearance. To paraphrase a Dunkey video on the subject, there “isn’t enough game in this game” -- but to me there’s not enough story, either. It’s to a point where I genuinely believe that the game would be better if it was half as long.
Aaaaaaaaaaand now you know why I was hesitant to give my thoughts on the game.
I can (and have, to the point of absurdity) gone into greater detail on why I have issues with the game, but for now let’s go with some positive thinking. Like I said, I don’t think TLoU is a bad game, and even though I have issues with it I can see the intent. I can see the potential, even if it’s not fully realized. And…honestly? I think I know how this game could have been something truly remarkable.
Ellie should have been the main character for the whole game. And not just the main character; the player character.
Let’s be real here. Even if you’re the sort that likes Joel as a character, you have to admit that he’s been done AT LEAST once before in games. And recently, in fact; you’d be forgiven for thinking that Joel is a bearded, Texan version of Booker DeWitt, thanks in no small part to having the same voice. I’m utterly convinced that even if the game tries to make Joel look and act like the protagonist (for a given definition of protagonist, given his penchant for murder), Ellie in my eyes always has been and always will be THE main character…just as Elizabeth was in Bioshock Infinite. That aside, Joel’s saga is a character arc that we’ve seen before, and even if it’s executed well it would pale in comparison to something that, while not 100% original, is significantly fresher. And you could say the same about a lot of the gameplay elements as well, to the point where you could consider the next few paragraphs as a “what-if” imagining.
So here’s what I’m thinking: kill off Joel in the game’s opening hours. Have the game start shortly before Ellie and Joel’s first meeting (since the game proper does that anyway), and let things proceed as both a way to establish the setting and act as the tutorial. Give the player a taste of power -- the skill and savvy that Joel has picked up in his adventures, along with no shortage of equipment even at an early stage in the game. And then, shortly after he meets Ellie, have him get killed in a skirmish.
THAT’S the big divergence point from the real game and my what-if game; in my version, Ellie spends just enough time with Joel to get her mission, and more importantly start learning how he does what he does through osmosis…but even with all his skills, he ends up biting it. So now for a large percentage of the game -- barring the odd-comrade here and there -- Ellie has to go through the world alone in the hopes of presenting a potential cure for the outbreak hidden within her blood. Or alternatively, have Tess and Joel abandon Ellie from the outset (remember, they don’t believe her at the start), and make them into the game’s final antagonists. Joel especially; it’d be the perfect chance for Ellie to show she’s become the superior hunter.
Playing from Ellie’s perspective seems a lot more appealing, impactful, and full of potential. Imagine the possibilities here; Ellie knows what her final destination is, but she has no clue of how to get there. She has to explore America one step at a time, taking in the sights and trying to piece together what the world was like before everything went to hell…even if she does come up with some out-there theories. (I’d imagine that she’d end up keeping a journal of some sort, or if not that then commenting on what she finds in her travels.) It would change the nature of TLoU’s road trip, but it could work, and even change it for the better.
Moreover, since Ellie’s alone out there, it could change the dynamics of combat. Remember, this girl doesn’t have nearly as much experience or equipment as Joel -- and even in the late-game she’s got decidedly-fewer arms -- so the conflicts she faces won’t be met with the same callous acknowledgement of routine as Joel. She’s allowed to be scared. She’s allowed to show shock. She’s allowed to tremble behind corners at the game’s start, and by game’s end have her motions mimic (or even surpass) Joel’s -- a sense that she’s overcome the ideal that drives her to evolve her efforts. Weakness is a strength in its own right -- and being able to see and hear that for ourselves in our proxy would do wonders for changing our interaction with the game.
And indeed, the game would change. For all the emphasis put on survival in TLoU, too much of it is focused solely on killing whatever’s standing in your way or rummaging around for gear that will help you kill more efficiently. I find it baffling that it took hours -- literally hours -- of gameplay for Ellie to even mention that she was hungry. So why not make that an element of the game? It could work like Snake Eater, or to a lesser extent the survival mode of Dead Rising; you need to find food out there in the world to keep your stats, your combat ability, and even your perception of the world in equilibrium.
And sleep could get thrown into the mix too, along with a day/night cycle; the time of day determines how you can (and should) proceed through an area, but more importantly you can sleep in-game to get extra bonuses, converse with allies, write in your journal, or just plain get a breather from combat…assuming you don’t get attacked during the middle of the night, of course. It’d be something that rewards exploration and awareness of your surroundings, and create moment-to-moment events that others might not necessarily experience in their adventures. Simply put, you take TLoU, sprinkle in a bit of Fallout(or Skyrim, if you prefer), add a pinch of Metal Gear Solid and Zelda, and mix thoroughly. Now you’ve got yourself a tasty zombie cake.
To be fair, just because I’ve offered up an alternative doesn’t mean it’s automatically a BETTER alternative (especially since all I can do is type out a basic outline). I can see some execution problems already; certain story elements would be lost and replaced by something potentially inferior. What I’m prescribing would change the ways in drastic ways -- and end up taking on the same flaws that plague other games. Additional survival mechanics could break the flow of the game. Expanded exploration could make the rest of the game shallower, or if nothing else demand more resources from the developers. A rebalance of Ellie’s tool and skill set would be a must, and end up frustrating players as a result.
But if there’s one problem above all others, it’s a simple one. It’s an annoying one, but a viable problem all the same. Ellie SHOULD have been the protagonist, but if she was, it would likely invite hell.
If you ask me, from what I’ve been through so far the best part of the game (note: minor spoilers) is when you actually get to control Ellie. Outside of temporarily running about with another partner character -- an issue I’ve had throughout the game, to be honest -- it offers moments of introspection. Quiet. Meditation. And when the action starts up in earnest, it creates a different interplay between the player and the game than when it has two or more people going at it. It creates a more knowable and recognizable pressure; it’s one thing to play the role of the protector (and you being the player, you WILL protect her or miss the rest of the game), but it’s another thing entirely to have to protect yourself. I’m frankly surprised -- and disappointed -- that Ellie ISN’T the player character; ignoring her role in the story, every time you open up the case for the game the first thing you see when you pull out the disk is Ellie’s face. Plus she’s standing in the foreground of the box art. And just how many promotional materials put some focus on her, exactly?
But you know what? I get it. I totally get it. I will argue until I’m blue in the face that TLoU would be better if Ellie had top billing and Joel was just an extra (if that), in that it could change the game’s dynamics in a way we don’t see all that often in games. It could make for a game that’s a lot riskier in its content, intent, and presentation than the game we have now. But it’s precisely because of those risks that TLoU is the game that it is today…and what leads into the thrust of this post.
Ellie as the star of the game could make for a radical departure from convention -- but just because that might be a good thing doesn’t mean it’s a good idea in the long run. Setting aside the industry’s…”issues” with female characters and protagonists, there’s a tyrannosaurus in the room that makes me want to forget even proposing the idea: the portrayal of violence against children. TLoU is a violent, grisly game, and while it won’t hesitate to show Ellie taking a lethal blow (a fact that I learned many, many times as I failed at certain sections of the game), it isn’t quiteas violent as what can or has happened to Joel. More to the point, what I’m prescribing isn’t just a sequence or two where Ellie’s in harm’s way; we’re talking about the entire game. We’re talking about a game where a teenage girl would get punched, clubbed, shot, burned, blown up, and torn apart for a quick zombie-meal. That would be a category five shitstorm.
And I know it would be a shitstorm, because it’s vaguely similar to one we’ve had in the past. Remember the Tomb Raider reboot, and how everyone was worried that it would be nothing but torture porn? Remember how the audience reeled when Conan O’Brien showed off the game to his audience, and the man himself jumped at the sight of seeing a spike run through Lara Croft’s head? Now imagine everything in TLoU being done to a girl that’s not even old enough to drive, without filter, and without restraint. Imagine everything being witnessed first-hand from Ellie’s perspective. And of course, imagine how many people would raise a stink over making the player character a g-g-g-g-girl -- and not even an improbably buxom one, at that.
Joking on that last point aside (though one can’t help but debate), it’s obvious that there are issues that need sorting out with violence and gender dynamics -- in games, and arguably in fiction at large. Are we at a point where we can make content in games more extreme, and genuinely explore certain ideas using certain elements? Well…I think we can, if not now then at least soon. The graphics are certainly there (though arguably they have been for more than a decade). The resources are there. The willpower is there. The talent is there. It’s just a matter of being eager enough to explore the possibilities. Well, that, and being able to explore them skillfully.
But is it a good idea? Or will it just make you and your creation look dopey?
We all know that video games, as they are today, have their issues. And plenty of us have made note of that; I’ve done so many times before. But for now, this isn’t a post to point fingers at others and say “Look how silly they are!” This is a post where I ask that we point fingers at ourselves…or if not ourselves, then certainly at me. We are the next generation; we’re going to be the ones that develop games, or stage performances, or pen movies, or sing music. By now I hope that the lot of you know it’s my dream -- and by and large my mission in life -- to become a writer of some renown. An author. Someone whose name is synonymous with tales of heroes and adventures. We’re going to be the creators that change the world; the question is, how do we go about it? Recklessly dive into topics and themes? Restrain and censor ourselves, so as to avoid backlash from an audience or our own missteps? Play it safe, and abandon our creative visions? Rely on trends that distort the meaning and impact, but suit the people we aim to satisfy? Forgo reason and empathy, and give the people what we want? What do we owe them? What do we owe ourselves?
What is a creator’s responsibility -- and how do you even begin to bear it?
Since it’s the issue right now, let’s focus on this in the context of video games and violence. The question of violence is getting asked more and more by the day, and someone’s going to have to offer a definitive answer on it soon -- not just in forum posts or statements ready for viewing in articles across the net, but where it really counts: in the games themselves. In an age where quasi-realistic murder isn’t just possible, but a commonality, what are we supposed to do? Offer up statements about the violence? Accept it and move on? Avoid it entirely? There are plenty of options, to be sure…BUT those options, of course, all have their drawbacks. More importantly, what option you choose could depend on the most important factor of all: you.
Like a lot of people, I don’t think every game has to be so keen on showing off HD stab-renderings. (The mere existence of games like Rez,Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and a host of others is proof enough of that.) You can do a hell of a lot with a good story, and put plenty of personal touches that not only make the world you create good, but irresistible to anyone who happens upon it. The two key goals of any creator are to make their work interesting and impactful (at the basest); if you can get those down, it doesn’t matter how exactly you do it. If it were up to me, though, I would at least try not to go with excessive violence and the usual trends; a more stylized approach seems like the better option, and certainly one with more lighthearted fare.
…Is what I would like to say, but I know myself pretty well. I know what I’ve worked on in the past, and what I plan to work on in the future. On one hand, I’m a guy who’s doing his best to make over-the-top comedies with no shortages of psychic powers, superheroes, and wrestling -- and for months now I’ve been toying with the idea of a story that wouldn’t be too out of place on a Saturday morning cartoon block (to say nothing of game ideas that may never go anywhere, but still amuse me). And on the other hand, I’ve got a story that features insanity as a plot point, widespread destruction and corruption of the planet, and one character that actually gets sliced in half. Every time I think about my dream project -- something that I’d prefer to be the tale of hot-blooded heroes romping across a metal-infused new world -- I find ways to make it darker and darker. Pretty much everything I touch turns into a nightmare world, where suffering and despair aren’t just expected, but damn near a requirement.
This “creator’s responsibility” I’ve mouthed off about is something that I’ll have to wrangle with in the future…if not right now. Given what I’ve learned and reasoned in the year that I’ve started blogging, if I don’t practice what I preach (and preach, and preach, and preach), then I’d be the biggest afro-headed hypocrite since Afro McHypocritterson strutted about Central Park in 1976. How am I going to reconcile violence in my works? What sort of statements can I make about the world, the past, the human condition? Should I even try? What’s the tone? Is it right for me? Is it right for others? What do I owe others? What do I owe myself? So many questions need answering; what I wouldn’t give to just be free to write about the occasional power bomb…
But with that said, those are questions that I’m eager to answer. Asking and answering questions can dramatically help one’s efforts when it comes to matters of creativity; it gives focus, along with a sort of road map for where to go in one’s pursuits. There’s an argument to be made that if game developers asked themselves more questions more overtly, we wouldn’t have to worry about terms like “design by committee” and “homogenization” being quite so rampant, but that’s neither here nor there. There’s only so much we can do about the present, but the future is where we can -- and hopefully will --dominate and transform art as we know it. Have a problem with excessive violence? Then in the future, work to tone it down in your product. Want more female protagonists? Have them take the reins as soon as you’re able in your creation. Want to say something different (or even anything at all)? Great; that’s what your magnum opus will be for. Whether you want a complete upheaval of creative norms or just want to make meaningful tweaks to the formula, you’re free to do whatever you want…that is, as long as you do it adroitly. Because “adroitly” is a fun word to write.
How does the saying go? “Be the change you wish to see in the world?” Fair enough; if I have my way, I intend to. I’ve done no shortage of saber-rattling against so-called “gritty” stories in the past, and it’s my sincere intent to fix that with what I put out in the future. (Or very-near future, hopefully.) It goes beyond liking funnier/more colorful/more idealistic stuff, even though that plays a part; in a way, it’s something that also plays a part in a creator’s responsibility.
See, I’ve always believed that on some level, it’s not the lessons we learn from our parents or teachers or friends that makes us who we are. I’ve always believed that in a lot of ways, we learn the most from the stories we take in. It’s one thing to have elders (or me) preach at you, but it’s another to sit down with your favorite tale -- written, filmed, or otherwise -- and subconsciously take in the ideas that it’s proposed. Intentional or not, there’s something to be learned and felt from even the simplest of video games. We feel it, learn it, accept it -- and somewhere down the line, we’re transformed by it. That’s just a part of art’s nature; not something to be feared, but explored. We have to figure out what to do, and how to do it. If we can crack the code, then we can put out something worthy of praise, no matter what elements -- grisly or not -- we put in. If we can’t…well, nothing will ever change, now will it?
Maybe that’s why I take video games -- the bad ones in particular -- so seriously, as if they’re an affront to my senses. Maybe that’s why I take so many potshots at others, acting as if I’m in the right and they’re in the wrong. Maybe I’m destined to make just as many mistakes, and worse ones, than they ever will. Hard to say for sure. But I guess the only way I’ll know for sure, and the only way I can do my part for others, is to give it a shot. Ask myself questions. Ask others questions. Figure out what’s best for me, for others, and for the story at large. I’ve been disappointed by games before, and will continue to be disappointed. But I’ll be damned if I don’t give it my all and surpass those I’ve railed against.
That’s a responsibility I’m glad to take on. And I hope it’s one you guys do, too.
I’d like to think that I’m not much in the way of biases or prejudices, but lately I feel like that’s no longer the case. It seems like more and more, I’m starting to develop an extreme distaste for anything “gritty” -- gritty, or dark, or post-apocalyptic, or grimdark, or what have you. You know what I’m getting at, I hope: the types of stories where the world’s in shoddy state, or the characters are just a smidge above being villains, or there’s nastiness, violence, and adult situations abound. Speaking as a gamer, I’m completely burnt out by them. I’ve seen them enough in this lifetime.
And yet they keep. On. Appearing. And frankly, I want to figure out why.
Let me give you a bit of context. I’m not going to say that just because a story is gritty means that I automatically hate it; in fact, I appreciate the good gritty stories whenever and wherever they appear. It’s just that I’ve seen certain characteristics and aesthetics so many times recently that they’ve started to leave me exhausted and even annoyed, even if the product is good (see: The Last of Us). And on the opposite end of the spectrum, there have been times -- several times more than I care to admit -- where the grit has detracted from the product’s quality, rather than add to it (see: DmC).
I think that it’s all started to come to a head -- for me, and for others, I’d assume. And remarkably, it’s not from my beloved video games, but from movies. This post is coming semi-fresh off of seeing Man of Steel on opening day, and to say that I was disappointed by it would not only be an understatement, but an outright misnomer. I wouldn’t say it’s an absolutely awful movie, and certainly not the worst I’ve ever seen (that “honor” goes to Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief), but it’s still one of the worst movie-going experiences I’ve had in a while. I could -- and have, in ludicrous detail -- gone on about just why I feel the way I do, but for brevity’s sake I’ll just say that the root of my issues stem from the most common complaint: the movie is dark and dreary when it doesn’t need to be, and suffers as a result. And I just can’t help but think to myself, “Why did the movie have to be dark? Why did they have to do things this way with this character?”
Man of Steel or otherwise, I’ve put a lot of thought into why people put out gritty stories -- gritty movies, gritty games, gritty…grit, and more. For me, the grit is becoming a central problem; it’s a package that, in my eyes, is more repulsive than a box full of piranhas. And I think I can pinpoint why.
I’m of the opinion that people consume stories -- wherever they may appear -- to have a good time. To be entertained. Why cry when you can laugh, after all? I know that’s not always the case (the concept of “catharsis” goes a long way), but I would think that it’s a general idea. We’re hardwired to seek out happiness. That’s why we have things like The Simpsons, The Avengers, and even My Little Pony. Or in terms of games, Super Mario Bros., LittleBigPlanet, and…er, My Little Pony.
But things are different with -- to use a blanket term -- gritty stories. Considering that they can (and regularly do) feature less-than-ideal environments with less-than-ideal-heroes in less-than-ideal situations, one would think that the aesthetics and goings-on would be an immediate turn-off. But I know that’s not the case. In fact, I can see the appeal. If gritty stories are going to refuse to offer us immediate good times, then the expectation is that they’ll offer up something in exchange. In other words, they need to offer up merit -- intellectual merit, ideally.
The expectation is that the characters, world, events, and themes can come together to explore ideas that a brighter story can’t. The grit should be in place to surpass limits. Leave no stone unturned. Demand and reward deeper thought instead of guttural, instinctual delight. A story shouldn’t be boxed in by its nature, gritty or otherwise, and ideally a gritty story should be the FIRST to try and break the mold. It should NOT just be a chance to revel in pessimism porn and have everyone become assholes while they bathe in blood, sweat, grime, and bad decisions.
That’s my expectation, at least. Now, I’ll acknowledge that there are not only gritty stories I’ve enjoyed, but gritty stories that are made stronger because of their grit (Spec Ops: The Line and Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and on a similar axis, Fallout 3 and Advance Wars: Days of Ruin). Hell, a buddy of mine just put forth ideas for a gritty reboot of Captain Planet, and it sounds awesome. So no, I’m not immediately opposed to something just because it’s gritty.
…Is what I would like to say, but I know myself pretty well. There are a few caveats to what I just said. First off, just because gritty stories CAN be good doesn’t mean that EVERY gritty story will be good. Gears of War was wall-to-wall grit from start to finish, and we all know how that turned out; ideas and themes and characters and the world at large went unexplored, either banished to side materials (comics and novels, from what I’ve heard) or ignored in exchange for focusing on Marcus Fenix yelling “Go, go, go!” for the eight hundred fifty-sixth time that day.
Second, even if every gritty story was a masterpiece of design and execution, the absolute glut of them does no one any favors, especially since the glut of them ensures that huge percentages of them are weak and full of problems, and end up becoming less mature in spite of (or even because of) the content therein. Would you rather play as the no-nonsense soldier in a torn-up warzone, a snarky-but-troubled superhuman fighting against the establishment as transparently as possible, or a scowling, unsympathetic warrior/god who murders his way to and through other unsympathetic gods? I don’t mind if some characters are unlikable and some worlds are harsh, but for fuck’s sake, let’s not make everything dark and brutal. We're not doing anyone any favors.
Tl;dr: grit + merit = a hit. Limit + grit = shit.
I know I can sound a bit demanding in my posts, but I’m not all that much of a stickler for certain traits and techniques when it comes to fiction. All I want is a good story -- a good game -- and it doesn’t take that much to impress me. I have standards, but I’m plenty forgiving. But I’m finding it harder and harder to forgive grit when it seems to consistently fail to meet even my basic expectations. The design philosophy behind a gritty story -- if not by its nature, then by its proliferation in the public conscious/media zeitgeist -- is a limit in and of itself. In order to have that grit, certain elements have to be forgone in order to have tonal consistency. That’s fine to an extent, but after a while -- or at least, in my personal experience -- those elements end up being missed. The tradeoff for dealing with worlds and scenarios that are unpleasant by design is being rewarded and challenged intellectually -- to say that you’ve walked away with a new understanding of yourself and the world.
But I’m not getting that. Not as often as I should. It really says a lot about a tonal package when I can get more out of a Ratchet and Clank game -- or even LittleBigPlanet-- than I can out of games supposedly aimed at mature audiences. And that’s really the question of the day: if more childish, more cartoonish stuff is offering depth and themes and creativity and more, and a supposedly-mature, supposedly-darker game doesn't, then what’s the point of making a gritty story?
I’m not trying to be facetious here (well, not extensively). Just try to understand where I’m coming from on this. I’m not going to be so bold as to declare that every gritty story has the exact same environment and tropes, because that’s obviously not the case. There are similarities across the board, sure -- but unless the work in question is really bad, a sense of familiarity isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. That said, kid’s stuff has the advantage in my eyes. It also carries with it expectations, but on a different axis; success may very well come from realizing imaginative worlds, and characters, and scenarios.
Themes and messages have their place (especially in a high-quality production), but so is giving a creator’s imagination form. The unpredictability, the creativity, and the satisfaction therein are things that we thrive on, and things that can appeal to us no matter the age. As long as the story is competently told and explored -- and I STRESS “explored” -- I don’t think there needs to be so rigid a divide between certain classes of storytelling, or gaming by extension. Nor should there be an assumption that mature = good -- especially if that “maturity” is as shallow as it gets.
That’s about where I stand -- which is exactly why I need second, third and twentieth opinions to start coming in. I have my preferences, and in spite of good intentions and attempts at objectivity I know I have my biases. So I need people like you to start weighing in and offering some consolation -- especially if you’re the type that loves some grit. Give me some info. Why make a game gritty? What’s the end goal? What’s the expectation? What’s the vision? What, and how, and why? I have a lot of questions, but the sooner I can get some perspective on the central issue, the better off I’ll be.
And who knows? Maybe when all’s said and done, I’ll have a better opinion of grit.
…Or maybe I won’t. But I appreciate the sentiment, everyone.
(Well, people asked for it, and now -- after months of putting it off, because I am really lazy when it comes to technology -- I'm finally uploading a post that I should have uploaded a long time ago. I'm making minute strides on YouTube, and with certain files up and running, it seemed like I didn't have any excuses to keep this from interested readers. Also, this is apparently making the rounds, so...yeah, serendipity.)
(And so, without further ado, here's me gabbing on about The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. Read on to find out what I think about it, and what we can take away from it when all's said and done.)
(And be ready to regret wishing for this post. All right, now I'm going in-character. See you on the other side.)
The last time I put a Zelda game under the microscope, I declared it as one of, if not my favorite game of all time. I considered it to be an apex of Nintendo’s storytelling capacity, weaving subtle commentary on the nature of a destined hero with gameplay factors to make those lessons and ideas all the more effective. And it certainly helped that the game itself -- while not 100% perfect -- was still unduly satisfying. (It’s also worth noting that it’s more mature than what most people would expect from the Mii-peddling, seventh-generation Nintendo -- it’s a game where you gore a boss several times via multi-story jumps.)
But there was still something eating away at me. There’s no doubt that Skyward Sword is a fantastic game, and worthy of the Zelda mantle. But how did it compare to the other games? More importantly, what if there were traits and nuances in the earlier games that I missed the first time around -- especially since I never finished some of them? Twilight Princess, Wind Waker, Majora’s Mask, and of course, Ocarina of Time -- if I’d guessed right one of those was worthy of the title of “my favorite video game.”
So you can consider my next words to be extremely tentative -- tentative, but well-deserved. Right now, Majora’s Mask is my favorite game.
Such is the expected result. Humans are all too easily entranced by power they cannot hope to comprehend. And those that dare to grasp it are bound for a terrible fate. That’s true. And it’s because of it that they’re bound to meet with more than just misfortune. But let’s keep the pondering about the nature of man to a minimum here, okay? This post is probably going to be long enough without the musings of a cursed mask.
You seem to have found quite a bit of nerve all of a sudden. Has the puppet learned to pull his own strings? And how long can he do so before being tangled by his own wild dance? Who’s to say at this point? All I can do is write -- and that’s exactly what I plan to do.
Then by all means, continue. Do what you must, so that our game may become even slightly entertaining.
(Just keep your cool. Majora’s Mask is giving you the chance you need. Don’t waste it -- pull it all together, and strike back.)
Once upon a time, I focused more on the story aspect of Skyward Swordthan on the gameplay -- but this time, I feel like I have to say a little more about this decade-old game…namely, that it holds up remarkably well. The first thing that’s immediately noticeable is how fast everything moves; it takes maybe about an hour to go from the first text box in the prologue to getting the Deku Mask and starting your adventure in earnest. For the record, that means you get some backstory about Link’s past adventure (i.e. OoT), his encounter with the Skull Kid wearing Majora’s Mask, the pursuit, the transformation into a Deku Scrub, the entry into Termina, the meeting of the Happy Mask Salesman, helping Clock Town’s Great Fairy, meeting and catching the Bombers, exploring the sewers, grabbing the Moon’s Tear, trading it for a Deku Flower, using it to blast off to the big clock at midnight, facing off with the Skull Kid, getting your ocarina back, resetting time, and finally turning back into regular Link. Actually, all of that probably takes less than an hour, because I decided to explore the town for the three day period instead of skipping ahead when all the affairs were in order. It really says a lot about the design philosophy of past games -- Zelda game or otherwise -- when you can blast through a healthy chunk of it in less time than an episode of Monk.
That’s not to say the game is short, though. In theory and in overall game time, it might pale to, say, OoT. After all, its predecessor had eight main dungeons, while MM can only boast four. But like its distant successor SS, this game makes it so that just reaching the dungeons (sometimes literally) requires traversing other dungeons. The “key” to unlocking the main four is a song to be played on your ocarina, so once you have that you’re free to reset time and start a fresh set of days.
Or if you’re sharp enough, you can manage to squeeze in minigame and item-hunting time into those three days, collecting masks and Pieces of Heart and upgrades. It’s actually quite easy to get masks and such if you’re willing to explore, even if you don’t have a walkthrough in your lap (save for one or two instances, like the infamous Kafei sidequest). And given that time is at your beck and call, you’re free to plan out your adventure and heroism, and play things your way. Just don’t expect to get anything done in an hour’s time like the opening; after that, it’s almost required to play the Inverted Song of Time to cut the gameplay clock down to a fraction of its normal speed.
The reason for this is because the dungeons -- while theoretically short -- are much longer than you’d expect the N64 could produce. The puzzles aren’t exactly taxing mind-benders, but they will require you to put your brain to the test, as well as make good use of your spatial awareness and tool set. That’s all typical of a Zelda game, especially since it uses the tried-and-true formula of “explore dungeon, get dungeon item, use dungeon item to open up new paths in the dungeon”. But MM mixes things up by putting Stray Fairies in the dungeons. Basically, there are fifteen little creatures hidden in each dungeon, requiring some additional legwork on your behalf to save them.
Collect them all and take them to the right Fairy Fountain, and you’ll not only have them coalesce into a proper Great Fairy, but you’ll get a special upgrade -- an enhanced spin attack, an extended magic meter, boosted defense, and the Great Fairy Sword, respectively. How essential any of those are will depend on the player’s tastes (though I’d argue you shouldn’t even try beating the game without a greater magic meter), but it adds an additional addictive aspect for the completionist types. I can’t say that I’m one of them, but I figured it was worth a shot. And I decided that when it came time to collect the Stray Fairies, I’d do it in the same instance as clearing the dungeons. I wanted to have it all done in one fell swoop, you see.
It turned out to be one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve ever had in a game…but I say that as a compliment. See, playing the Inverted Song of Time makes it possible not only to clear most areas with time to spare (and multiple areas, most likely), but to completely undermine the tension that should come from the moon bearing down on you. You’re supposed to have only three days at a time to do whatever you need to do, and feel the tension as a result. But from the very second you get the ocarina (and learn the song, or know it from a past playthrough), that tension is pretty much gone. For a game that hyped up the “you have 72 hours” angle from the outset, in some respects you’d consider the complete dissolution of tension to be a failure. But that tension is back with a vengeance if you try and clear a dungeon while grabbing all the Fairies.
Imagine walking into a dungeon for the first time with a full 72 hours on the clock -- and slowed-down time, no less -- ready to both beat the boss and earn your power-up. You’re pretty confident that you can wrap up the whole dungeon with just enough time to spare, as long as you keep your wits about you. So you take a deep breath and start on your way, trying to figure out the “trick” of each dungeon -- the central hub, places you’ll have to return to, and the like, all while keeping an eye out for Stray Fairies (something you’re more than capable of doing, since you had the sense to get the Great Fairy’s Mask beforehand). And as you venture inward, solving puzzles and making your way to new rooms and setting up pathways for return trips, you manage to find some fairies -- some by way of spotting them in the distance, and others by way of sorting out devious puzzles. “I’m finding a lot of these pretty quickly,” you say to yourself. “I’ll be done in no time.”
But then things stop going your way. The Fairies are getting harder and harder to come by, and the dungeon’s rooms are getting trickier and trickier. You may have cleared a room, but the hair on your Great Fairy’s Mask is still sparkling; there’s still a Fairy you’ve missed. “How am I supposed to get it?” you say to yourself. And as you do, you realize that that’s not the only room you’ve left behind while your mask sparkled. “The rooms must connect somewhere else. I just have to search again from a different perspective.” But getting to just the right room proves harder than you expected. Getting to Room A requires manipulating Room B, which requires venturing back to Room C, but first Room D has to be taken care of.
So in addition to figuring out the dungeon, you also have to backtrack and figure out what went wrong -- why you haven’t gotten all the Fairies, and more importantly why you haven’t made it to the boss’ room yet. And while all this is happening, the clock is still winding down. Down, down, down, ticking away until you reach the second day. And then the third day. And you’ve still got plenty of Fairies left to find, with no boss room in sight. And suddenly, you’re faced with the possibility that everything you’ve done has been completely pointless.
“I can figure this out!” you tell yourself, trying to ignore the headache brought about by the still-ticking clock. “I’ve just got to stay calm, and think things through. There’s no way I’m doing this over again. I can do this. I can do this!” And then you realize you’re about fifteen seconds away from entering the night of the final day. And then you really start to feel sick.
And then you put that Bunny Hood of yours to good use as you hoof it across the entire dungeon to flip it right-side up, head back in to get the final Fairy, then head back outside to re-flip the dungeon so you can enter the boss’ room, necessitating another run through the dungeon, and then beat the boss by mashing as wildly as you can, hoping you’ll hit its weak point, and then finally running to the Fairy Fountain and getting your reward. And all of that with a few minutes to spare. And you’ll say to yourself “See? I knew I could do it! No problem at all!”
It’s actually a brilliant psychological move on the developers’ part. Not being a resident of Termina, the player is in no danger. So how do you make them feel fear, and drive them to go as fast as their minds and fingers can carry them? Easy: threaten them with failure. Give them something they want or need and put a mile-wide pit between them; it’s a true test of character, skill, and mental fortitude to see how far they’ll go to get what they want. Even if they aren’t the altruistic or empathetic sort, there are still ways to leave players genuinely affected by the game.
Incidentally, in spite of the focus on getting the player to do things as quickly as possible, the game falters whenever it has to handle speed. The most obvious example is that the frame rate isn’t exactly what I’d call rapid, and it tends to sputter during moments of high activity. I know it’s not exactly fair to point a finger at a game from two generations ago, but considering that it’s unplayable without an Expansion Pak, and that Super Mario 64 is virtually immune to slowdown AND has a significantly-higher frame rate, it just comes off as a little jarring. More importantly, Link + any amount of speed can quickly lead to frustration. Just putting the Bunny Hood on extends his jumps, sometimes to the point where he’ll completely screw up his distance and fall into the abyss.
If the game demands that you do anything besides traverse a wide-open space while rolling around as a Goron (the final “dungeon” comes to mind, but the mountain race is just as good an example), be prepared to screw up and bounce off walls into oblivion. The Zora Mask lets you swim quickly, but you’re occasionally required to navigate turns and tunnels, and it just turns into a mess of wall-bashing and under-turning -- and the less said about trying to pop out of water onto a ledge, the better. You only need to use Epona about three times in the entire game, because rolling as a Goron is likely faster and can be done virtually anywhere. Zelda games -- as I understand them -- are about deliberation and exploration, and getting in deep with whatever area you’re in; the idea that so much emphasis would be placed on quick traversal, and questionably-implemented at that, seems like a notable misstep. Not a deal-breaker, but more than a little annoying at times.
To be fair, it is more than a little refreshing to be able to play as several transformed versions of Link. Whereas the Hero of Time has used various tools to help him get from A to B, MM has him relying on innate ability to travel and succeed. Each form has dominion over a specific subset of the landscape -- land for the Goron form, air for the Deku Scrub, and of course the sea for the Zora -- and each one, as intended, requires a different approach to combat, traversal, and exploration. Gorons can’t jump and hate water, but don’t mind lava and are heavy. Zoras can’t handle getting frozen, but come pre-equipped with the boomerang and is probably the second-best at combat (falling short of human Link). The Deku Scrub is weak against fire, but can hop across water. In their specific regions, each form is indispensible -- and you’ll have to rely on their powers in the future. Granted it’s not nearly as often as it was at the start of the game, but the idea is there, and you’re better off playing mostly as Link in the long run. That said, the Scrub Form is my favorite of them all. It sparkles when it spins, after all.
I think it’s the coolest-looking of the forms, but I can’t help but think that Link looks more than a little sad in that form. Why? Well, if I remember correctly from Nintendo Power’s official strategy guide -- and the canonicity of this is suspect -- apparently Link’s favorite form is the Goron Form because of the power it gives him. If it IS true, then it says a lot about Link’s character…but I’ll get to that. For now, considering that Scrub Form is by far the weakest of the forms, you can understand why he might be a little dour-looking. Of course there’s the fact that he started out trapped in that form, but what’s important is that from the outset, Link’s got it rougher than he’s ever had it.
Scrub Form reinforces one of the game’s major themes: despair.
Despair…such a beautiful thing to be observed, and such a horror to be felt. But I consider myself quite fortunate -- I have no need, no ability to feel despair. Only joy...and the delight derived from one’s despair.
You wouldn’t be much of a villain without a sick sense of ethics.
Ethics? You misjudge me. Ethics are nothing more than a safeguard -- a barrier to prevent one from embracing their lust for elation. But it is a barrier I have long since discarded.
(This thing sure likes to brag…but then again, that’s what I’m hoping for. I just might have it right where I want it.)
(I just need a little bit of luck…)
You can’t talk about MM without talking about the three-day period/time loop that it’s built on. It’ common knowledge that you have 72 in-game hours to do whatever you need to do (get the right song, clear the dungeon) before the seconds tick away, and the moon comes crashing down on Termina. Before the last moment, you play the Song of Time to jump back to the start of the three-day period, with your key items intact and certain measures of game progress -- the dungeons you’ve cleared, the songs gained -- still in your name. After clearing a dungeon once, you unlock a warp that’ll immediately take you to the boss room, and restore the order that your sword has won from the clutches of chaos.
But therein lays the problem. As the player -- and as the hero -- you remember everything you’ve done up to that point. No one else does. Even if you save their ranch, Cremia and Romani will never remember your exploits from one cycle to the next. Even if you help Gorman reconnect with his sensitive side, when you see him again after playing the Song of Time he’s back to his curmudgeonly ways. Even if you end the eternal winter that plagues the Gorons’ homeland, all it takes is one reset to put them back into an extinction-level event. In more ways than one.
In spite of your best efforts, there’s an unmistakable level of futility to your actions. It’s made clear as soon as you walk outside Clock Town’s gates and into Termina Field. The first enemy you’ll likely encounter with that spiffy Hero’s Sword of yours in tow is a ChuChu. It’s one of the most basic enemies in the game -- all it can do is bounce around, it only takes one slash to kill it, and it always dispenses an item that’ll fill your hearts or MP right up. But barely ten seconds after you kill it, the ChuChu comes back to life, and bounces toward you again. If you want, you can kill it. But it’ll just come right back. You can kill it again if you want, but it’ll be back within seconds. There’s no point in killing it, because no matter how hard you try it’ll always return. It’ll always be there, ready to cause trouble for you. Or, from an in-game perspective, it’ll always be there to make trouble for any Termina civilians. Link can’t stop it -- he can only offer a temporary solution.
And that’s this game for all but its final minutes -- everything Link does is just a temporary solution. Theoretically, after getting all the necessary items you can go into every dungeon and beat down the four main bosses, but what’s the point? By then you’ll have earned the right to challenge the main villain, and you’re not really doing much good in the long run until your ultimate mission is complete. In some ways, you’re better off ignoring everything and everyone for the sake of taking down the cursed mask. Things are a lot easier that way, right? And besides, that’s the best thing you can do as the Hero -- tackle the big problem at the source, instead of slapping Band-Aids on all the little ones. Not exactly a sympathetic route, but a practical one all the same. Even heroes are allowed to have grudge matches.
Except the game does everything in its power to put people who need your help in your path. Even if you somehow manage to ignore all the townsfolk of Clock Town, you’re still obligated to help a family of monkeys, a royal family of Deku Scrubs, the entire Goron population (specifically an elder and his crying child), a band of Zoras, one of which has just given birth (meaning that you’re saving an additional seven newborns), a father and daughter surrounded by evil spirits, and at least a half-dozen ghosts of a forgotten age seeking rest and peace. Refusing to help them means refusing to see the ending credits. Help them out, and you get a temporary fix…and then it’s back to zero when the “Dawn of the First Day” flashes across the screen.
Link’s efforts aren’t being undermined by an evil force. He’s just going up against nature, and the way of the world. All his efforts, all his kindness, all his gained bonds and all the smiles he sees along his journey are erased, again and again and again. The question, then, becomes “What’s the point”? From a gameplay perspective, clearing the same boss over and over just to get a slight change to the world is the definition of tediousness. You’ve got more of an incentive to ignore everything and complete the bare-bones requirement of the game rather than explore what it has to offer. At least, that would be the case if not for…
It’s a remarkably devious system. If there’s one thing that motivates gamers to see everything a product has to offer (or shell out more money, if DLC is anything to go by), it’s incentives. The masks are a way to slyly suggest that gamers get in deep with Termina -- it’s the classic “do good things, get a reward” mentality that’s been engraved by hundreds of titles. With an entire section of the menu devoted to masks, and a special spot reserved for some unknown, likely-supreme item, there’s more than enough reason to explore what the game has to offer. And in doing so, the player ends up getting roped in.
What was originally a quest to become the owner of the full set of items has you becoming Link in a way you never would have expected. You’re not just in it for the masks. You’re listening to these people. Hearing their stories. Lending a hand. Offering your services in simple yet meaningful ways. What may have started as a business affair becomes a chance to form a personal bond with characters -- characters with names, schedules, and of course their own minor stories to tell. As the Hero, you’re obligated to help them.
And that’s when the trap gets sprung. Because even if you get the requisite mask (and keep it), their problems don’t vanish instantly. They’ll face them again, and again, and again. They’re beyond help, and beyond the reach of a Hero. Unless you can break the cycle, they’re doomed to suffer eternally. Unfulfilled dreams. Secrets that die with them. Love that fails to transcend adversity. Families broken. Memories buried. Justice left undone. Hope stolen away.
It’s worth noting the reaction of the different races as doomsday draws near. The Deku Scrubs become highly-insular, highly-self-serving creatures of habit who always believe they’re in the right. The Gorons are completely helpless in the wake of disaster, and are content with standing around and freezing to death (or just being annoyed to no end by a crying child) in spite of being the most mobile and potentially-nomadic race in all of Termina. The Zoras pretend like nothing’s wrong, and focus almost-single-mindedly on a concert that’s almost certain to never happen -- or perhaps they know the end is near, and just want to make their last moments their finest, in spite of Link’s intervention being the only effort put towards that goal. The dead of Ikana roam the land and terrorize whoever appears there, save for their long-dead and peace-seeking masters. The humans, for the most part, react the most naturally: fleeing for their lives and hoping their meager shelters will protect them from the falling moon. But even so, it’s very likely that apocalypse or not, suffering is part and parcel of the last three days of every living being’s life in Termina -- no matter how they choose to spend them.
If you don’t take action, they will suffer. But even if you do -- even if you lend a hand and give them the boost they need -- suffering is the only option left to them. Suffering, and the embrace of despair.
Such a shame…if only you mortals would give yourselves to chaos. If you were to become like me, then you would so easily escape the suffering you so detest. But perhaps you feeble beings are unable to overcome your binds. Perhaps falling prey to your despair is the only facet of your nature that matters, when all is said and done.
For something that’s never really understood humanity, you sure act like you know its foibles in and out. Just where do you get off?
Have you forgotten so quickly? I am the one that brought about that chaos and despair. I did it as tribute -- as a means to bring as many potential playmates to my side as I could.
In the end, my tastes, and my desires, are simple enough. I want people to come to me. To play with me, and provide me with the entertainment that I so desire. If that means I have to sever the cords that bind my puppets to such mundane lives, then so be it. I would gladly spread discord for even a miniscule chance at some fun. Surely you, as a “gamer”, can understand my mentality?
I’m no stranger to the “villain causing chaos just for fun” bit. But I would’ve figured that you were just a creation by a bunch of Japanese game developers -- and better yet, a boss beaten by plenty of gamers across the globe. Are you telling me that Termina and all the Zelda games are real, and you’re trying to cross over into the real world?
Hardly. It is as you said: I am the creation of a certain group of people. Their ideas, their intent, their insanity…all of it has coalesced, and allowed me to come into being as they envisioned. I am here by the hand of a certain group willing me into existence, with all the necessary knowledge and memories engraved into my being as thoroughly as my passion.
(So this Majora’s Mask is the result of people’s mental energy coming together…but who brought it here? Who would help give a monster like this life and free reign?
Guess I can’t worry about that now. I have to find a way to stop it here -- because if I don’t, we’re all in for a rough three days.)
So, bottom line: your plan is to wreak havoc and turn the human race into puppets -- toys you can play with for your amusement alone?
I do more than just entertain myself. I do it to free them -- to let them embrace the state they so naturally occupy.
All right, I’ll bite. What are you getting at this time?
Exactly how much do you understand the nature of a hero? As a gamer, you have likely played the role of savior many times. But do you understand all the nuances? The essence, the reasoning, the failures, everything?
Not being a hero in my own right, I can’t say that I do. But I’ve dipped my hand in a lot of fiction, so if nothing else I have ideals and standards to go by.
Ideals and standards…how cute. Have you ever given thought as to the dark side of a hero? What lies beneath that noble veneer they so commonly put forth? I have -- for I have seen what lies beneath in the nude. I know the corruption that hides within the heart of a hero…an unmistakable darkness, and a maelstrom of chaos that rivals anything I could ever hope to produce.
That’s right. You know Link pretty well. You faced off with him, but you rose again and came here. And…let me guess. This is the part where you reveal his true nature?
Do you think you could fare better than the one who saw the heart of the Hero?
I guess not.
Then allow me to indulge you. I know the Hero rather intimately, as a result of our skirmishes. I could see clearly into his heart, and the depths therein. I knew his despair -- his desperate search for a lost friend is what drove him to his limits. To say that he remained immune to the pain and suffering of others would be a fallacy -- for he very nearly plunged into absolute despair. Alas, he soldiered on. He could see no other alternative; his past adventures across two tumultuous epochs gave him the courage, the wisdom, and the power needed to believe in himself. He had gained so much -- and as a result, he became corrupted. [b][color=red]
What is a hero without some ability, some superhuman force that sets him above the average man? Nothing more than the damsel a hero is obligated to save. And it is precisely that fact that gave the Hero his reason for being; his power became a part of him, a reason as to why he could act on behalf of the innocent. His trials against the King of Evil codified his existence; to save the people of Termina meant saving his very being from a life of mediocrity. He had everything he wanted and needed…or so it seemed. And that is exactly why I saw fit to steal away his power -- to condemn him to life as a mere Deku Scrub. I would drive him to despair by way of sealing such an essential part of himself…but there would be a more entertaining effect to follow.
“You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” You made him realize that he needed power, however he could get it. And as a result, you made him focus more on his power than he ever would have in Hyrule.
I wish I could try and deny it, but I can’t. I know how the saying goes.
The entire point of the game -- of any game, arguably, Zelda or otherwise -- is to gather enough power to take down whatever enemy comes Link’s way. Gaining new tools, gaining new moves, gaining new magic, gaining ancient artifacts that may contain incredible amounts of evil power…it’s all a means to increase Link’s abilities. He’s doing it because he’s the Hero, but somewhere along the line he has to be doing it for himself.
In his default form, Link’s just a kid -- but after the events of OoT, he knows what it’s like to be an adult -- an adult, a warrior, a savior, the chosen one, all that and more. The problem is that he got a taste of that, and can’t divorce himself from what he was. He needs more of it. He needs to be more than just a kid again; if clearing dungeons and helping others is all just a means to become more than just a boy, then he’ll gladly do it. He’ll embrace with open arms whatever new source of strength he can find.
And you knew it all along. It was all a part of your plan -- you wanted him to become corrupted, and be your ultimate playmate. And you gave him just the tool he needed, at the very end of his journey.
Ah, yes...the Fierce Deity’s Mask. Precisely the counterpart I had always wanted, strapped so securely to the puppet I always wanted. Are you familiar with its strength? Its ability to command you, compel you to seek it out and use it as you see fit?
I can’t say I know how it feels to wear it, but I’ve dealt with it before in the past. I remember playing my brother’s file just to give it a spin -- and we gave the glitch that let you play as the Fierce Deity a shot as soon as we found out it existed. Of course, doing so meant that you couldn’t use the ocarina, meaning that you couldn’t go back to the first day -- and as a result…
Everything laid to waste -- all for a brief taste of power.
But then again, that is to be expected of you mortals -- and precisely why I can always count on you to entertain me. If you are as bonded to the Hero as you say, then you must know that my fun extends beyond virtual dimensions. To corrupt the Hero is to corrupt the player; his lust for power consumes him, corroding the ethics and virtues he holds dear. In the face of a world that cannot be saved, and people forever doomed to suffer through their soon-to-end daily lives, the futility is made apparent. All that matters is gathering the items that will bolster your strength. With each cleared event comes a reward. Rewards breed strength. Strength breeds enjoyment. And in the end, I know that I will always have a partner to play with. [b][color=red]
I will never be alone. Because everyone in this world -- real or unreal -- is just like me. Everything humanity holds dear as a testament to order -- ethics, virtue, ideals -- is nothing more than an illusion. A justification to help separate the men from the beasts…or more appropriately, the just from the wicked. But society itself is built upon the same tenets that I embody. Chaos. Control. And most of all, fun. All that we do is for our own benefit, our own propulsion into higher states of being and elation; acts of altruism are merely acts made for the sake of reciprocal gain, or to avoid the backlash of those that would decry you for inaction. In the end, man is nothing more than a self-justifying devil.
But you gamers -- those who play freely in fictional worlds -- have a better grasp of reality than any other being. You know that you exist to benefit yourselves, and are regularly given playgrounds to do so. But step outside your virtual worlds and what do you receive? What do you comprehend, day after day? A world built on one gaining all he can for himself. Fame. Fortune. Furnishings. Food. Feelings. Fun. That is all there is to life. That is all there is to the nature of man.
That is why I exist. Not only to obtain all that I desire, but to prove the truth that unites us all. Heroes are nothing more than a fantasy.
Heroes, a fantasy…?
Precisely. You will never find a hero beyond the confines of a story -- because in the end, that is the only place they can roam. They can never, ever exist.
There is no maybe. What I have spoken is the truth -- a truth as evident as I. As an embodiment of chaos, I know the truth…I know it, because I have seen the flaws apparent in reality. And I am the one best suited to reveal them, as a result of my own unerring power. I am chaos itself. I am perfect.
…Now you’ve gone too far.
I’ll gladly let you go on and on about the nature of humanity like any villain would -- but if you’re going to make a case for yourself, you’d better make a good one. Don’t go spouting philosophy lessons when you’re doing so with some massive contradictions. And you sure as hell better not throw out any bogus phrases like “I’m perfect” or “I’m chaos.” If you do, you’re just setting yourself up for a big fall.
So, you think you can stop me, merely by taking note of these contradictions?
Yeah, I think I can. Because if my guess is correct, the key to taking you down -- at least with my zero-combat toolset -- isn’t going to be a one-on-one fight. If thought energy is what’s making all this possible, then it’ll be by my thought energy -- and yours, too -- that’ll get you out of my hair once and for all.
Is that right? Well then, if you think that I am something that can be stopped, then by all means try. I welcome your foolish bid at heroism.
All right then.
There’s no denying that Termina’s in a shoddy state when Link visits -- and arguably before that. The name of the land is one letter off from “terminal”, so you can expect some problems Link’s sword skills can’t hope to fix. The most obvious is the undercurrent of racism; as a Scrub, Link finds himself mistreated more often than any other race. The toddler vigilantes, the Bombers, want the Scrub to prove himself -- and even then they’re more than a little annoyed by his very presence.
The guards at the gates won’t let him pass, but they’ll gladly let human link go by…this, in spite of being the same age, with the only difference besides race being that he has a visible sword. The dog in South Clock Town will try to tear the Scrub apart every chance he gets. It’s no wonder, then, that the Scrubs -- outside of those looking to make it big with their real estate and small businesses -- are isolationist, and just as likely to reject the other species. The castle guards will immediately reject human link, but Scrub Link is allowed inside without escort in spite of being a complete stranger. The only other time race becomes a problem is when only a specific form can handle specific tasks; for example, there’s a Goron in Clock Town who will only sell Powder Kegs to Goron Link due to safety reasons. Because "safety" is the first thing I think of when it comes to a transformation following this:
It says a lot about a world when it’s not only troubled before you even set foot in it, but troubled in spite of your antics. Things have gone down long before Link was even born -- race relations that likely won’t be ironed out for decades. The blood-soaked history of Ikana, driving all but a thief and a father and daughter to live in the eastern canyon. The exact identity of the Zora septuplets’ father -- implied to be Mikau, but I like to think that it’s possible one of the other band mates might have done the deed, and Lulu isn’t sure who’s responsible. Link can only reset time to the point where he first arrived, and not a second before. By that logic, there’s only so much that he can do. He’ll enter Termina, lend a hand, and then exit silently before anyone knows he was there.
Except people do know he was there. Or at the very least, one person: the player.
A means to validate wasted time, and nothing more.
I’m not done yet. There’s a big gap in logic that you’re leaping over. It’s like I said earlier: not every gamer is the altruistic sort. Or maybe they are, but they don’t have the time or patience needed to scour the earth for every item, or do every good deed imaginable for a reward. So maybe they won’t. Maybe they will. Hard to say for sure.
More proof on the true nature of humankind.
Not quite. See, a funny thing happened while I was playing the game. When I started, I told myself that I wasn’t going to get all the masks; I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it -- not quickly, at least -- without a walkthrough, and in the interest of wrapping up the game and making a post as quickly as possible I figured I could let it slide. I’d already seen the endgame once before, and the rewards, and the masks. No need to get them again.
Except halfway through, I DID have a need to get them again. I wanted to see the stories of these people. I wanted to see their reactions. I wanted to see their joy, their relief, their release. Realistically, the masks aren’t all that important or even useful save for a handful. The most you can do with a huge number of them is get some Pieces of Heart, or change Link’s appearance a bit; the All-Night Mask has no merit outside of that. The Mask of Truth doesn’t offer anything a walkthrough can’t offer better, especially if you use a walkthrough to find out where it is. There’s only one situation where the Bremen Mask, Kamaro’s Mask, and the Giant’s Mask come in handy. And for all the hype given to the Fierce Deity’s Mask, it’s all but useless outside of the first boss fight and the final one. Goht is too fast to slash at, you can maybe snipe Gyorg if you’re lucky and the camera permits it, and Twinmold is best beaten with the Giant’s Mask. There’s actually not much point to getting it besides bragging rights -- certainly not for the sake of feeling powerful, which, as I’ve explained before, can get downright boring when it comes to video games.
So what’s the point, then? Why did I bother to collect all the masks? That’s easy. The reason is that there was no reason.
A contradiction? I would have assumed you of all people would avoid those.
And I would have assumed you of all masks would learn to let me finish.
You’re over-thinking this whole hero business, Majora’s Mask. You don’t need a reason to be a hero. You don’t need to endlessly fret about whether what you’re doing is pointless, or insincere, or beneficial only for you. If someone needs your help, you offer it. Even if it’s useless…no, because it’s useless…that’s what this game is getting at.
There’s no denying that a major theme in this game is despair. At every turn, you’re reminded that the world is coming to an end -- there’s a clock at the bottom of the screen that winds down. Hanging clocks grind on and on. You can hear the bell of Clock Town, no matter where you are in the world. The ever-ominous title cards that tell you what day it is have been engraved in the memories of countless gamers. But even with all that in mind, despair is NOT the essence -- the spirit -- of the game.
There isn’t a single thing you do in the game that’s pointless. Yes, you are gaining more power, and it’s the only way to clear a path to the endgame. But you can’t -- youmost certainly can’t ignore the world around you, and its cries for help. You’re compelled to lend a hand however you can, even if it’s just a temporary fix. Even if no one remembers you -- even if your deeds go unrewarded, and unrecognized -- you do. You know there are people out there that need help. People you can help. People you do help. And the memories you have of them don’t fade. Not just because of the masks on your inventory screen; it’s the experiences you had together, however fleeting, and the glimmer of hope you offered them.
At a glance, it seems like a world that continuously resets isn’t worth saving. But the efforts of one person -- and one player -- make waves that can be felt for years to come. You’re free to ignore these people and go about your way to the endgame…but can you really? Can you deny these people of even momentary happiness? Or do you, out of some unexplainable drive, want to give them the strength they need to face the next day? To see their father’s legacy honored, or their chicks fully matured? To feed a helpless Goron, or to give a soldier the eternal rest he deserves? Can you turn your back on two lovers separated by a curse -- lovers so strongly connected that they’re willing to face the apocalypse together? I say no, you can’t. You’re Termina’s last hope, from the rescuer of its guardian spirits to the perpetuator of the latest dance craze. To be a hero is to become hope itself -- the ultimate bringer of happiness.
Such beautiful words…empty, but beautiful. If you were hoping to persuade me, I am afraid you have failed. Triumphantly. Oh, I’m not trying to persuade you. I’m trying to beat you the only way I know how: you’re about to get nitpicked to death.
I wouldn’t say that. Let me start by asking you a question: what are you?
I believe I already answered this question. I am an embodiment of chaos.
No, you’re a mask -- the embodiment of some particularly devious Japanese developers’ thoughts given form. But in a canon context, you’re a mask created for rituals and hexes.
And yet…for years now, I’ve been wondering something.
Who the heck is Majora?
There are a lot of gaps about the nature of Termina, and especially the game’s titular villain. It was something that drove me up a wall when I was younger, but now I’m all right with it. There are some mysteries that don’t need an ironclad answer, especially for a being like you. One approach is to offer hints and mysteries; leave juuuuuuuuust enough material to give a player ideas, but never flat-out say who or what you’re supposed to be. So at the most, all I can do is come up with theories about your true nature.
My true nature is clear enough.
Is it? I wonder…actually, maybe you have a point. Because after all these years, I think I’ve got you pegged. And if I do, then that means you’re about to bite it hard.
The obvious answer is that you were created by someone -- preferably, someone named Majora. But I’d like to think that your existence was made possible thanks to the efforts of a certain someone:
The Happy Mask Salesman’s method for creating masks is to use the Song of Healing -- taking wounded spirits or souls and condensing them into a wearable form. So it’s entirely possible that the “Majora” in the equation is someone who had died or was near death, and the Song of Healing saved them…so to speak. But if that’s the case, then where did the original body come from?
The final fight inside the moon gives some clues. If you look closely at the masked children, each one is a redhead wearing white clothes. The first fact is most important; it immediately calls for the image of the Mask Salesman, to the point where I suspect there’s a relation between them. So my theory is this: what if the Mask Salesman, in spite of his unnerving nature and grisly methods, is actually one of the good guys? Based on conversations with him, the cursed mask was sealed away by someone else -- sealed away in terms of the Song of Healing, I’m guessing.
He just searched for it so he could keep it safe, knowing the corruption effect it might have had on anyone that put it on. He was doing Termina -- and Hyrule, by extension -- a service by seeking it out. It’s a service that he took upon himself, to some extent…but I’d argue that he knew about the mask, the dangers it posed, the Song of Healing, and all the particulars, because he has an intimate connection with it. Namely, because he’s a descendant of Majora’s clansmen. And because of his connection to the mask, he knows he has to right the wrongs that have occurred and will occur. He wants masks to be remembered as joy-inducing, hopeful things, not causes for planetary cataclysms. Ergo, the Song of Healing.
It’s possible that the Song of Healing was a treasured ability amongst the Mask Salesman’s ancestors. It’s also likely -- probable, even -- that masks have been a part of Termina’s culture for centuries, necessitating the need for a song like that. But Majora’s Mask -- and Majora himself -- represents what happens when things go awry. The teachings, the culture, whatever you want to call it, all those things and more were lost when it came to dealing with him. It got to a point where he started lashing out, and brought a few others along for the ride. It didn’t pan out, of course, and Majora and his partners in crime -- Odolwa, Goht, Gyorg, and Twinmold -- were sealed away. Maybe forcibly so -- as in, someone decided the best way to deal with Majora was to kill him first, and then turn him into a mask. Just to be safe.
But in the end, what is Majora? Well, I think that what we see of him inside the moon is exactly what we get: a lonely child that refuses to play well with others. And when given a chance to play, you have to do so by his rules -- you’re the bad guy, and all you can do is run away. Run away, and fall prey to his onslaught. In fact, it’s almost uncanny how much the final boss fight plays out like a child’s fantasy. The first form has a child spinning around doing whatever he wants; it’s hardly lethal or even frightening stuff, given how lazily the mask just kind of flies around. Pressure him enough, and he’ll call on his friends -- the other masks -- for help…but you can knock them aside pretty easily. The second form has the mask getting frustrated, spazzing out, and just trying to play its games -- in fact, attacking it only serves to make you look like a monster, and the second form to be unprepared to actually fight.
The final form, however, is when things get serious; you’ve spoiled its fun for too long, and now it’s ready to fight you in earnest…relatively speaking. It may be the form most likely to kill you, but it has a very distinct “keep your distance!” and “get away from me!” fighting style reminiscent of Street Fighter’s Dhalsim. It’s also notable for being one of the few enemies that ignores the invincibility frames Link gets to avoid being hit multiple times -- the reason being so it can flail at you with its tentacle-whip tantrum attack. It’s enough to make me believe that Majora isn’t some angry god or cruel sorcerer, but just a child -- either physically or at heart, though more than likely the latter -- that always has to have his games go his way.
And where is the fault in that? What reason is there to interrupt -- to disturb the delight derived from my games? As we are all the same, we are all enjoying them at some level --
I wouldn’t try changing the subject if I were you. Because if you keep it up, it’ll just look like you’re starting to crack under the pressure.
Inconceivable. You earnestly believe that a mere mortal, a foolish and weak puppet such as you, can try to unravel me with little more than words?
Hey, aren’t you the one who wanted me to give it a shot? I would’ve figured this is exactly what you wanted. Unless…you weren’t expecting me to be able to fight back, were you?
Impossible. Simply impossible. I am chaos. I am --
That’s it, isn’t it? I’ve seen how you work in-game -- you mess around with people, knowing that they can’t do a thing to stop you -- but in reality, you’re gone before they can even take the first swing. But you weren’t expecting Link to stand up to you, and even take a few swings at you, now were you? You turned him into a Deku Scrub when he followed you into Termina, just to make sure he didn’t have a chance of beating you. But you underestimated his resolve; he not only chased after you, but confronted you on the night of the third day. You didn’t know what to do, so you tried to drop the moon on him -- and you would have killed yourself in the process, but kids throwing temper tantrums aren’t known for rational thought.
As long as you had the moon, you automatically won -- you knew Link wouldn’t let it fall, and once he used the Song of Time he had his own absolute defense against you. But you were content to just let him build up his power, so you could play a new game with him when the time came. And even if you had a chance of losing, you always had the moon. Your ace in the hole that could beat rock, paper, and scissors in one fell swoop. But by letting him experience those three days over and over again, you gave him a power well beyond the Fierce Deity’s Mask. Well beyond any mask.
Letting him explore Termina, letting him realize the stakes, letting him meet and bond with people of all races, ages, shapes and sizes gave him the one weapon he needed: drive. He wasn’t just being a hero for his own sake; it was his courage, his will to bring the dawn of a new day that brought him before you, ready to finish the fight no matter where it ended up. You threatened him and the world with despair; he fought back with hope. And you lost.
And you know why? It’s because you underestimated a hero, and overestimated yourself. You could have put an end to him at any moment. You could have sealed that door to Clock Town and put a stop to his adventure right then and there. But you didn’t. You challenged him and you lost, all because you had something to prove. All because you played a game against someone better than you.
You’re not just a lonely child -- you’re a stupid one.
You have no proof. All you have is conjecture -- circumstantial evidence. Nothing concrete. Nothing worth your excitement and bravado.
You’re sure? Because there’s one thing I’m curious about. Why the Skull Kid?
The Skull Kid? Ah, yes, that discarded puppet. I merely needed a…
A host body, right?
…It was random chance and nothing more. He merely happened upon me, and allowed me to…
I had no need for a puppet. My power far outstrips his -- and that of anyone else in this feeble world.
I don’t buy that for a second. The Happy Mask Salesman had you right where he wanted you, and you couldn’t do a damn thing about it. If the Skull Kid hadn’t intervened, you would have stayed on the Salesman’s sack until he decided to throw you in the fires of Death Mountain. But the Skull Kid put you on his face, and you got everything you needed. You not only got a host to siphon energy from and reawaken, but a kindred spirit -- two lonely children, going up against the world for the sake of games and mischief.
Except the Skull Kid had an advantage over you.
He had friends. Tatl, and Tael, and the four giants -- and eventually, Link. No matter how much you tried to keep him bound to your side, and drag him down to your level, you couldn’t do it. You couldn’t get him to play along forever, as long as he had his own mind, body, and willpower.
Face it. You can’t beat Link, you can’t beat the Skull Kid, and you can’t beat me. Know why? Because at the end of the day, you’re not nearly as powerful as you make yourself out to be. Heroes may have their flaws, but I know for a fact that they’re real. Both your game and your actions have taught me that.
I will teach you nothing but despair -- despair, and the full extent of my pow-
Will you shut the hell up, already? That act has gotten WAY old.
Listen up, Majora’s Mask. There’s one last lesson I have to thank you for. The proof that I need to shut you down once and for all.
You’re not perfect. In fact, you’re downright suicidal.