So if you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you’ve been using the internet long enough to have heard the phrase “strong female character” -- and if you’ve been on even longer than that, then you’ll have seen rebuttals of the phraseso biting that you’d think they were straight outta Ace Attorney. You’d think that given those arguments, the rest of this post would be about how video games need more strong female characters. And you’re half-right. All things considered, is there ever a time when we SHOULDN’T be asking for that? Besides, you know, when it consistently happens in fiction?
But let me step back a bit. Yes, women need better representation in fiction, including -- if not especially in -- video games. It’d help if they appeared more often, but at this stage I’d take quality over quantity if it came down to it. But you know what? Male characters need better representation, too. No matter the gender, any given hero or heroine could stand to get a boost in quality. It’s more obvious with the ladies, yes, but I don’t think my demands are unreasonable.
Well, usually. Maybe. Possibly? Well, whatever. Let's get back to strong characters.
If you’ve read some of my stuff before, you probably know that I’ve grown weary of the whole power fantasy aspect of video games. That’s not a recent development; I’ve felt that way for years now. It seems like a stupid-ass thing to whine about, considering that it’s hard to divorce games from the power fantasy/wish fulfillment/escapism aspect, but it’s not impossible.
Games have either thrown them out entirely (Shadow of the Colossus), or created scenarios where the aspect is less obvious (any given Zelda, but let’s go with Majora’s Mask in honor of the remake). And then there are those that turn that power into a core conceit, gameplay-wise and/or story-wise; Okami is my go-to example, but I could make a pretty strong argument about The Wonderful 101. Don’t worry, I promise I’ll talk about it in-depth someday.
At this stage in the game (ha), I don’t think it’s wrong to hope for more -- especially when the standard-fare stuff has started showing some serious signs of age. We’ve getting close to the limit of what we can do (or enjoy) when games are just about one-sided displays of power and strength. A game like Street Fighter where you test your skills against an opponent who’s as good as or better than you? That’s cool. A game like Assassin’s Creed where you stand in a circle and counter everyone into oblivion? Not so cool.
A game like Resogun where your life is on the line every second as you struggle to save the last humans? Awesome. A game like Resident Evil 6 where you can power-bomb mutants and give zombies elbow drops? Awesome in theory, but in practice it’s one of the biggest tonal inconsistencies ever committed to a disc. A game like Mass Effect where your words are as important (if not more so) than your bullets? Sick. A game like Watch Dogs where a number of your actions tangibly make the lives of others worse, directly and indirectly? Makes me sick.
The exception to the rule is that if you’re going to make a game that puts a huge emphasis on power, it has to be so unbelievably thrilling that no one would even bother thinking critically. But since not every developer can be Platinum Games (and even then, I wouldn’t write off the rest of what their titles offer), we’re stuck with games that try to impress us with sheer displays of power, but end up falling short. Call it a misappropriation if you will, or shortsightedness if you prefer; I’d prefer to imagine that creators can’t break out of modern-day conventions because -- executive meddling aside -- they haven’t considered the possibilities available. And there ARE possibilities. You don’t need me to tell you that.
“Voltech, you hot dog-munching fool!” you bellow as I muse on the proper temperature needed to cook said wieners. “Enough of your eagerness to go on complaint-filled tangents! If you don’t have a point to make, then my time is better spent elsewhere on the internet!” And to that I say, calm down. Before you leave a comment (or just leave in general), I need you to understand where I’m coming from on this. Games and power are almost always going to go hand-in-hand, but that level can be controlled. The reason I’m so concerned about them is because that power has a distorting effect. Its context informs the content built around them, and that’s not always for the best.
So let me ask another question: do we like the characters we like because of their perceivable strength?
I’m sure I’ve said this before in some capacity, but I’ll say it here again: a character’s worth is NOT tied to how much harm they can bring to others. The lines get blurred because generally speaking, video games express themselves via combat (among other things, like exploration); so by the logic of some games, a character who contributes nothing to combat might as well be an NPC or a damsel in distress -- the ultimate failure state, right? I mean, just think of BioShock Infinite; to this day I can’t help but wonder what people would think of Elizabeth if she didn’t toss items to Booker or screw with reality for the player’s benefit. Would people still love her? I would, but that’s because I’m weird. (Yukiko's my favorite Persona 4 character. Draw from that what you will.)
I’m generalizing, of course. I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this, you’re not so gauche as to think less of a character because he/she isn’t some battle-hardened brawler. But my concern is that there’s a perception where “power = quality”. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a belief held by real people, even if that’s incredibly likely. It doesn’t even have to be a mindset that creators hold in their hearts during production. No, it’s all about the perception -- the idea that “strength = a good character”. It’s a nebulous cloud that hangs over every medium, not just video games; because of that, there’s potential for a product and its particulars to get distorted.
The common theory is that when people ask for, say, “strong female characters”, they’re actually asking for well-written female characters -- ladies with depth, agency, variety, and more. I agree with that, and I’d say that you could apply the sentiment to every character, regardless of gender. That in mind, I’d like to both redefine and broaden the concept. What matters most, I think, is that a character -- through whatever means necessary -- starts off as or becomes (or stays as) one who can earn something of immeasurable importance from the audience: respect. It’s easy enough to earn some praise by making a character do something “badass”, but that strikes me as something of a shortcut.
Think of it this way: do we need every president to be a frontline fighter or war hero to take a seat in the Oval Office? No, of course not. Granted it wouldn’t hurt the cause (a good number of presidents have been war vets), but in most cases, presidents are chosen because the majority of voters perceive them as the right person for the job. Their intelligence. Their charisma. Their courage. Their composure. Their decisiveness. Their assertiveness. All those things and more feed into the respect that earns them the keys to the White House. Characters -- video game or otherwise -- are more or less on the same axis. If given a chance to express themselves, they can make an argument for your love. For your respect. And they don’t have to hit a single man.
I know that video games don’t exactly have processes that lend themselves to creating good characters. From what I’ve heard, the story (such as it is) is only there to glue together levels and assets that have pretty much already been made. That’s kind of a problem, but for now it can’t be helped. Still, I’d like to imagine that at some point, the games industry will reach a point where the large-scale creation process will get a lot easier, and devs can work in different angles and directions.
Imagine booting up a game for the first time, and you immediately understand that everything in it was built around scenarios custom-made for a unique character, instead of slotting a character into standard conventions. Games small and large have done that before, but if that happened on a wider scale and/or more frequently, just think of what sort of stuff we could get. Not all of them would be perfect, but they’d at least be different.
Here’s a hypothetical game for you. You play as Emily, a sweet -- if awkward -- young lady who just wants everyone to get along…and who accidentally destroyed the world. But as she comes to, she discovers that it’s not just her world that’s gone; it’s every world, across every dimension. She winds up in a concrete version of the Akashic records, and reasons that she can use the data stored within the mystic library to reconstruct the world.
The trick, however, is that she’s not the only one in the library. Every other Emily from every other alternate dimension is there as well -- and some of them aren’t so willing to use the library for altruistic purposes. It’s up to you to figure out how to bring back your world, whether that means cooperating or clashing with the other Emilies. And, you know, the materialized, vengeful embodiments of the lost worlds’ vestiges.
But basically, she’s got no choice but to face herself -- in both abstract and literal terms. As one should.
That’s a pretty nebulous premise, I know. I can think of ways to put that stuff into a semi-cohesive (if smaller-scale) game, but you get the idea, right? Games can define themselves via their systems. That much is obvious. But we can make those systems based on the natures and tool sets of characters…which is also obvious. What can they do? What do they want to do? What will they become? What were they before? Who are they? Those are all questions that anything with characters -- i.e. too many fictional products to count, finished or not -- can answer. That can be done with combat or displays of power, in all fairness, but that’s not the only way. That should be the ketchup on top of the hot dog.
Now, I’ll be honest. I’ve been trying to link the gameplay and stories into a cohesive unit (if only in theory) with this post. But as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m doing so with a strong lean towards stories. Characters can be -- if not are -- the starting point for any product. Almost inevitably, that’s what people are going to latch onto first. I understand that for now, there’s a certain level of futility in asking for more out of our developer overlords gathered atop mountain summits that stroke the stars. And I understand that if we’re hungry for good stories, we’re better off reading books first and playing games second. Or third. Or fourth. Or fifth.
Here’s the thing, though: we’ve reached a point where no one can claim that “the story doesn’t matter in games”. Nintendo foresaw years ago that at some point, better hardware and graphics wouldn’t be enough to win favor. It’s looking as if the Big N bet on the wrong horse with alternate control schemes, but there’s a point to be made in there. The PS4 and XB1 haven’t been tapped to their fullest yet, but given the sheer number of games that have fallen apart in every department except graphics, it’s safe to say that there needs to be a change. Thrilling gameplay can offer that, no question…and it would be fine if we could get away from the conventions plaguing damn near everything these days. So one possible avenue is to make games with -- gasp -- better stories. A good story can save less-than-original gameplay, after all.
But you don’t need me to sell you on the importance of a good story and good characters, and here’s why. If “the story doesn’t matter in games”, then answer me this: why is it that more and more games are trying to give us narratives and create cinematic experiences? How can the story not matter when games like Tomb Raider, DmC, The Last of Us, God of War, Infamous, BioShock, Dead Space, Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed, Destiny, The Evil Within, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Bayonetta, Killzone, Guilty Gear, Transistor, Braid, Shadow of Mordor, and even Call of Duty at least try to tell a competent story? And even that’s not a complete list? And even THAT’S ignoring the armada of games half-built on telling stories?
Look. There’s always going to be a place for games that put the emphasis on action and button-presses over everything else. I understand that, and appreciate it. Likewise, there is a place for games that put power in the hands of players -- but that’s a tool that needs to be used responsibly. With skill. It can’t be the go-to in every situation, and it sure as hell can’t be the only thing a game is built on. So let it be known that, contrary to popular belief, there is a method to my madness; I like games that give me control over a central character that’s respectable, not just powerful. And because I’m playing as such a character, I can create an intimate connection that’s hard to match in other mediums. Reading a story about a deer trying to survive? That ain’t bad. Playing as a deer trying to survive? S-tier stuff.
I don’t expect anyone reading this to suddenly drop everything and start making a game based on one rambling-ass post. I’m not even begging that you take my words to heart, and assume that what I’ve said here is “how it should be”. But what I’m hoping for is that I’ve at least given you a chance to appreciate games in a different light. Not just to divorce quality from power, but to think back on the stuff you like, understand why you like it, and enjoy it even more because it’s not just a love based on intangibles. This post may be full of my ideas, but I hope that it’s a post that gets the gears in your head going -- makes you eager to reminisce and realize things instead of assuming the worst of an industry in flux. After all, hope never dies.
So, take what I’ve said here as you will. Agree, disagree, whatever. But if nothing else, I hope you’ll do me a favor: if you can, think of one of your favorite video game characters and talk a bit about why that’s the case in the comments. Do you know why you like them? Can you explain why? I’m eager to hear it, whether it’s from fondness based on respect or just admiration of their power. I’m guessing that you would’ve done that already even if I didn’t ask, but I just thought I’d make that more explicit.
And that’s about all I’ve got to say for now. Thanks for reading, and here’s to 2015 -- a brand new year for video games.
And Persona 5. It’s gonna be so awesome, you guys.
This is usually the part where I go on a multi-paragraph tangent to set up “context”, but let’s not dilly-dally this time. So, let me say this to start: SPACE IS AWESOME. There may still be plenty of mysteries left here on Earth, but the stars are the premiere source of adventure in both fiction and real life. Anything could be out there, but the one surefire thing is the potential for exploration.
Space can scratch that itch, and take us to whole new places. Admittedly, that adventure is only possible with some hyper-rigorous training and skill in real life (a sobering truth for six-year-old Voltech), but a good story can compensate with ease. And of course, the same thing applies to a good game.
Which brings us to Pikmin 3 -- the game you should have played already if you love games. And/or space.
Here’s the skinny. The planet Koppai is in the middle of a food shortage, and in a desperate attempt to survive, expeditions are led to the far reaches of space. That puts you in control of three explorers: the dorky yet good-natured Alph, sharp-tongued botanist Brittany, and macho captain Charlie. Well, in theory, at least; as Pikmin games tend to go, the touchdown on new soil goes awry and leaves the crew separated. You start off as Alph, and -- with the help of the native Pikmin you meet early on -- your adventure amidst the worst (and best) nature has to offer begins.
Still, there’s an important wrinkle to the story and gameplay alike. See, the three explorers only have a finite level of resources -- which is to say, they’re low on food. With each completed day in Pikmin 3, the team (be it one, two, or three members) consumes one stock of food -- or juice in this case -- from their reserves. So keeping the game going is made possible by finding fruit in the field; you can apparently go back to an earlier point in your journey if you put yourself in an unwinnable situation, but the point still stands. If you don’t keep finding food, your team will die of starvation.
Sooooooo...Pikmin 3: rated E for Everlasting Nightmares.
You can think of the game’s plot as a three-pronged mission. Obviously, the immediate objective is to keep gathering fruit so your crew stays alive. But on top of that, Alph and the others will have to keep scouring the land for clues on Olimar’s whereabouts -- because the way things are looking, the only way they’ll be able to return home is if they get some of his parts/data.
And of course, there’s the whole reason the crew blasted off in the first place: they need to find a solution to the hunger crisis. Given how the game plays out, I’m guessing that if the crew’s going to save their home, they’ll have to be saved by the plot find some hidden bonanza that’ll offer up sustenance on a global scale.
In any case, I’m actually kind of surprised by how much I like the story -- and the characters, more than anything. Nintendo’s not usually the one you think of when it comes to sprawling tales (remember the Other M debacle?), and while what’s here is…slight, more or less, it’s full of charm. Alph is the straight-laced smart guy of the group, but he’s dedicated to the captain to a feverish degree, to the point where he tried to copy his hairstyle.
Brittany’s very goal-oriented, and while she’s just as curious about this alien planet as Alph (maybe more so), several of her lines imply she has been -- or is -- considering mutiny. Captain Charlie’s a macho, macho man with plenty of confidence and bravado…which lets him shrug off getting carted off by a flying monster minutes after touching down on the planet’s surface. They sell themselves with their dialogues in the field, but what I really appreciate is how you can have them talk to one another before starting a new day. Party synergy is simply the best.
If for some reason you’ve never known how Pikmin works -- in which case I wonder why you’re even here -- here’s a rundown. You play as an explorer and take command of the planet’s indigenous creatures, the Pikmin -- bipedal plant-men of varying properties, but with furious loyalty and the work ethic of the average assembly line. You can travel around with a squad of up to a hundred of them, so they’ll fight on your behalf, clear obstacles, and cart resources back to the home base centered on your ship.
In exchange, you’ll give the Pikmin commands and keep their numbers strong by feeding their Onion (their personal ship) pellets and downed enemies. Pull the seeds that pop out from the ground, and you’ve got more soldiers. Or leave them in the Onion and build up a reserve in case something goes wrong. Chances are that you’ll need some reserves, especially if a Beady Long Legs catches you unaware.
Man, I hate those guys and all their kind. The bastards are like death incarnate.
The big wrinkle in the gameplay is that you’ll be controlling all three explorers simultaneously -- or maybe “asynchronously” is the word I’m looking for. While Alph, Brittany, and Charlie all play identically (as far as I know), each one is capable of taking control of a fragmented Pikmin team to complete separate objectives. So if you want Alph to hang back and harvest pellets while Brittany tends to a wall and Charlie builds a bridge, then you can do that. In fact, that’s pretty much how the game will play, even before you fully reunite the team; multi-tasking ensures that you get the most done in a single day.
It’s worth noting, though, that you’ll have to use your explorers to clear certain obstacles -- to the point where you can’t progress in some early areas until you’ve got a team of three. You can forcibly separate them by tossing your other two teammates as you would any other Pikmin, and toss some Pikmin to them so they can continue on the other end. To be fair, that mechanic was a part of Pikmin 2 with the Olimar/Louie duo, but it’s nice to see that it’s back again and taken to the next step…even if that next step was just “the same, but more.”
I was thinking about calling Pikmin 3 “industrious”, but now I’m not so sure if that fits. Sure, when you’ve got all your pieces moving, you’re a hundred-three-man machine. But being industrious implies being surrounded by and dependent on technology -- and while you do make use of it (in-universe and out of it), the emphasis is on nature. And as it stands, that might be the secret to the game’s quality; even if you don’t exactly get to go from planet to planet, or use space as much more than a safe haven (in-universe) and a level select screen (out of it), it’s still the game that makes you into an explorer. An adventurer. A player who can walk away with some REAL experiences, not just the buzzword version thrown around these days.
It’d be downright silly to call Pikmin 3 an open-world game, because even if its areas are surprisingly large (I constantly find myself thinking, “Wait, you mean there’s MORE?!”), they’re self-contained stages with challenges and obstacles to call their own. Still, that’s something that helps keep the focus; you go out in search of fruit, figure out what needs to be done, and do it with your Pikmin squad. Considering that the explorers are technically no bigger than a quarter, the levels aren’t just window dressing; they’re puzzles to be solved, even if they are broken into dozens of spread-out micro-challenges.
It’s true that there are deadly creatures you have to deal with in your quest for fruit -- including story-advancing boss battles -- but there’s a de-emphasis on combat in general. The game puts more focus on nature, and treats that as the enemy instead of some alien horror. Really, that’s how it should be; generally speaking, beating enemies comes down to “throw Pikmin at it until it stops breathing”.
And technically that’s true for a lot of the obstacles in the field, but there are still plenty of things you have to manage and plan out and solve on the fly. That’s a form of conflict you don’t see every day in games; you can’t beat nature, especially in Pikmin 3. Instead, you have to maneuver through it. You have to be wary of it. You have to make use of it, and even change it -- however slightly -- so that it suits your fancy.
It’s a conceit that works wonders for the gameplay. You’re discovering new things on a regular basis, whether it’s a new obstacle to overcome or a new sight to be beheld as you fill in an area’s map. It should go without saying that the environments are beautiful, but the world feels alive in more ways than just “Yo, check all this nature, bro”.
I think this is the game that best sells Nintendo’s design philosophy -- or to be more precise, its intentions with the Wii U GamePad. As always, it’s not detrimental to gameplay, or the player’s hands; it’s true that it’s larger and weightier than the average controller, but it has yet to hamper my ability to play any given title. More to the point, it adds more than it takes away, especially in Pikmin 3.
The most common use, for me at least, is to use the touch screen to send a B-team Pikmin squad to a different area while the A-team (under my command) went somewhere else. Coordinated attack patterns, and all that -- the perfect way to solve a puzzle or position my forces without the hassle of sifting through menus and button presses. (It certainly helps that the action is paused whenever you get ready to do it, or when you’re just checking the GamePad map.)
There’s some additional stuff, of course. If you’re looking for more in-depth stats and data, you can check all that on the touch screen just as you would the map. You’ll be able to find info on the enemies you’ve faced, tips on getting the most out of your Pikmin, and info from Olimar, just to name a few things. On top of that, every now and then -- i.e. in story moments -- you’ll be asked to look at the touch screen to receive messages from your teammates or your ship. So if you’re talking to Brittany (as much as one can) via the GamePad, Alph will be doing the same in-game on his “KopPad”, AKA his all-purpose explorer’s tool. It’s a cute little touch that helps the player synergize with the game.
The more I think about it, the more I realize Pikmin 3 has a hidden element that can really resonate: being able to take pictures in-game. At first I didn’t think much of it, and just showed some friends that you can take Pikmin selfies with the GamePad as your camera (however strange it may feel). But now I realize that it’s part of the mindset. It’s not just about taking selfies; it’s about making the player feel even more like an explorer, and even more like a part of some strange alien world. But you can claim ownership of tiny slices of it -- turn the sights you see into digitized memories.
Take away the conflict in this game and what do you have? A straight-up expedition. An adventure. And guess who’s holding the scrapbook?
That really is the best way to play it. Alph, Brittany, and Charlie have a reason to be on that planet: to find a way to survive, to escape, and ensure that their planet survives in kind. That’s their mission -- but it’s not yours. Even if you can identify with them and synergize with them, you don’t have any reason to care about the fate of their world. You’re only there as an observer -- as a way to have fun. It sounds selfish, but really, even the best, most engrossing video games have that as their core conceit.
But Pikmin 3 makes true on its understood promise. The player wants an experience, so it provides. It gives you an opportunity to explore, and learn, and discover new things, and -- maybe most of all -- see mundane, everyday things in a whole new light. Why else would you be able to see grapes rendered lovingly in HD with full camera control as computers scan each piece? Why would there be an entire subsection of the menu dedicated to analyzing beasts and fruits alike, and have it be awesome?
Hey, can you tell I love this game yet?
I suppose for completion’s sake I should talk about the combat. Like I said, you can resolve a lot of conflicts just by throwing enough Pikmin at an enemy -- so with that in mind, you can play the button-mashing card and nobody would fault you. A big change from the other Pikmin games is that (as far as I know) you can’t move your soldiers around with just the right stick. It’s a strange choice, and while it does feel like a loss sometimes, it’s not a game-breaking one. You can still toss out and call back Pikmin, and one of the most notable additions is the ability to dodge roll your entire squad to escape from trouble. Makes me wonder if someone on the dev team is a fan of Kingdom Hearts 1.
What this means is that battles are chaotic as all get out -- in a good way, and a bad one. It’s good in the sense that, in a lot of cases, you can’t just sit around and hammer that button; you have to stay mobile, bobbing and weaving as you avoid enemy attacks and pick up Pikmin that get tossed around (or worse). Couple that with the need to take advantage of specific Pikmin abilities at times, AND targeting certain body parts/sides, and there are some strategic wrinkles to combat. One of the early bosses has you taking on an armored worm, meaning that you have to toss heavy-hitting Rock Pikmin to shatter its shell pieces, and throw damage-dealing Red Pikmin at the soft spots you uncover. Don’t expect said boss to make that easy for you, though.
Still, I’m not a hundred percent sold on some of the underlying mechanics. In normal situations -- in a fight and out of it -- you have to manually aim Pikmin to where you want to throw them, as shown by a bright reticle and trajectory arc. It works, for sure, but at times it doesn’t exactly feel the most precise; that lack of precision -- and the general need to aim -- is the last thing you want when you’ve got some massive beast trying to chew you up like a doggy treat.
You can make things a lot easier on yourself by using a lock-on feature, but at times it felt as if I had to switch between lock-on and lock-off in order to get the exact tosses I wanted. It could be that I just need to adjust to the learning curve, and that’s where the skill in the game comes on. Even if that’s true, though, is Pikmin 3 really the sort of game where you’d want a learning curve to the controls?
Still, I’m not about to dock metaphorical points at this stage. Even if there are flaws, what I’m concerned with most right now is the core concept. It’s the design philosophy that the game is built around -- and excels at selling that philosophy to the player.
Here’s the interesting bit. When you find files out there in the field, you won’t just get tips from Olimar; you’ll find his personal logs, detailing his expedition of the planet. I know it’s hard to imagine Olimar as anything more than a silent protagonist -- he has a whopping zero voice clips in Smash Bros. Brawl -- but the logs show just what sort of person he is, at least right now. He’s a die-hard treasure hunter, and there’s a level of fervor to his words that suggest maybe, just maybe, he’s gone off the rails. He’s willing to brave the risks of the planet for the sake of some new trinkets…which might be a problem because as far as I can tell, there aren’t any salvageable treasures in Pikmin 3.
It seems strange to make Olimar’s side story a straight-up retread of Pikmin 2 -- that is, until you realize that it’s a way for Pikmin 3 to completely disown the philosophy of Pikmin 2. Taken as-is, Pikmin 3 can be interpreted as a way to completely refute the loot-fests spread throughout the gaming canon.
Am I reaching here? Probably. But hear me out. Destiny (or its marketing at least) promised us the stars, but in the end it boils down to “shoot aliens and get loot”. It’s a disservice to the extreme amount of effort and resources from an army of artists and programmers. Worse yet, it railroads players even without sticking them in some endless hallway or set of corridors; the only thing that matters, however subtly, is getting better stuff so you can…get better stuff again. And again. And again.
The stuff in games needs to matter again. It needs to do more than just make players go through the motions -- and that’s what Pikmin 3 strives for. Olimar’s story is there to remind players that they’re not on that planet just for glory; they’re on a mission, and a dangerous one full of traps and terrors. If you screw around, you will die. The “loot” in this case isn’t something you can use as a symbol of prestige; at most, you can find utilities that give you more HP or the aforementioned dodge roll. You’re using that loot to stay alive, and earn the right to continue your perilous journey -- a journey that may very well put your explorers’ home on the line.
All of that makes Pikmin 3 sound like some harrowing, desperate struggle. It is, but that’s only one side of the coin. The intent with this game, no doubt, is to make that expedition into something fantastic; the weight of danger, failure, and doom are there to make the positives shine that much brighter. You can discover some horrible monsters, but there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from finding glistening fruit, and hear the delight of your explorers as they wonder how it tastes.
There’s nothing stopping you from appreciating a gentle snowfall as you toss your soldiers back and forth across a shifting creek. There’s nothing stopping you from listening to the chants of your Pikmin squad as you trot amongst towering foliage, with the sun beaming overhead, as you uncover new and yet-unexplored territories on the map. And meeting a new color of Pikmin for the first time may as well be its own reward.
You’re not adventuring for the loot. You’re looting for the adventure. And that right there is the secret brilliance of Pikmin 3.
Frankly, I’m surprised a game like this even exists. Against all odds, it’s the game I’ve more or less been asking for since I realized, “Hey, maybe focusing a game around bland, run-of-the-mill murder is pretty dumb.” This one game has given me more than plenty of other games in the past few years, almost without trying. Obviously, it’s given me a more exciting world than Destiny. But it’s given me more frightening moments than The Evil Within. It’s gotten me to care more about its cast than Infamous: Second Son. I’d bet that if it had hacking, it’d do it better than Watch Dogs -- but I suppose it’ll have to settle for being better than Watch Dogs in every other conceivable way.
I’m not so star-struck as to say that Pikmin 3 is the greatest game I’ve ever played. But taken as-is? It’s thoughtful, rewarding, enticing, surprising, and most of all fun. It’s a game that can say a few words once every hour or so and still stay full of meaning -- all while letting you dig in your heels and put your leaf-headed soldiers to work. Given all that, it’s hard for me to walk away unsatisfied. And I’m hoping that if you decide to pick it up, you’ll feel the same way.
Disclaimer: all things considered, you can’t really call me a fan of the Dead or Alive franchise. The only one I’ve ever really played is DOA4, and while I had plenty of fun with it, I’ve since moved on to…well, pretty much every other fighting game this generation. (Though right now, I’m captivated most by Smash 4 with some Guilty Gear Xrd on the side.) I skipped out on DOA5 in its entirety, and even with the new editions that have popped up, there’s never been much of an impetus to jump in.
Still, I kept an eye on the news surrounding Last Round because of the prospect of a new playable character. Who would it be? I mean, Ultra Street Fighter 4 blew it with its hyped “fifth fighter” by just serving up Cammy clone Decapre, so surely competitor Team Ninja/Koei Tecmo wouldn’t make the same mistake, right? And the potential was limitless; rumors and theories about a fighting female pirate made the rounds, so maybe -- oh, it’s just a schoolgirl. Well, that’s still something totally fresh and interest-
I will be fair, though. No matter what form new challenger Honoka took, it was a given that she would be a fitting addition to Chesty O’Ninja and the Busty Bunch. It’s a legitimate problem that the guys behind DOA feel that the only way they’ll put food on the table is by sexualizing the crap out of all its female characters (even if they’ve “compensated” by doing the “same” to its men). But if nothing else, at least there ARE female characters. There are people in the canon who matter. People like to pretend that there’s no story, but there is, and I respect that; I want to believe in the franchise because it has the potential to do more.
I think that it’ll happen someday. But today is NOT that day.
I don’t know what Team Ninja’s financial status is right now, but I’m going to guess that they’re at least doing better than “we can’t even afford to make a game” Capcom. Team Ninja and Koei Tecmo aren’t the biggest around, of course, but I’d think that they have the resources to make someone beyond a Decapre analogue. I’m not going to play the laziness card because there’s an insane amount of work that goes into making just one fighter. On the other hand, I AM going to say that the effort was misguided -- because that’s the word of the day. But I’ll get to that.
Team Ninja teased the new fighter months in advance. They kept their cards close to the chest, and in doing so hoped to generate interest. They probably should have known that -- as per the informal golden rule -- the fruits of fan speculation are almost always going to be more interesting than the revealed product, but let’s set that aside. There are two things that are important to note. The first: that there was going to be a brand new female fighter. The second: that she was going to be the “biggest” character yet.
I don’t know the canon in and out, but outside of the Spartan guest fighter from DOA4, the two physically largest and strongest fighters are Tina and Rachel. (Christie’s the tallest at 5’10”, so adjust your perceptions accordingly.) Imagine if Team Ninja decided to put on their best trollface and made Honoka as big as or bigger than a faux-Master Chief; logically speaking, she’d have the biggest bust by a country mile.
But the additional benefits -- a ripe opportunity, without question -- are that it’d be a chance to create a character with a more unique, if eclectic move set. Okay, sure, leave her a schoolgirl for the lulz, but keep her huge; have her rely solely on brute force so she can fling ninjas around like she’s trying to win a pillow fight. Make her slow and clumsy, but give her devastating power and range by virtue of her size. That’s interesting, if you ask me. And they didn’t have to stop there.
When a Famitsu article leaked what Honoka was really like, I was plenty disappointed -- and I can only imagine what hardcore fans felt. But there was a glimmer of hope; translated articles explained that Honoka had a secret, mysterious power. It’s par for the course when it comes to DOA, more or less, but it struck me as something with real gameplay potential.
Some forum posters joked that her power would be to make her breasts bigger mid-match (which, to be fair, WOULD make use of Last Round’s new engine), but I took it a different way again. What if she started out as a simple schoolgirl mid-match, but by making use of that power she went from sweet little girl to giant grappler? The player wouldn’t be forced to use it, but it’d be a way to technically change her stance -- and certainly her stats/parameters -- in an unusual way. How do you fight someone who can go from tiny to titanic over the course of a match? How do you play as someone who ends up as big as Marvel 3’s Sentinel? Or even Tatsunoko vs. Capcom’s Gold Lightan, if you really want to go nuts?
I guess we’ll never know. Honoka’s just a schoolgirl. And her “power”? Pretty much translates to “I have the same moves as most of the cast mashed into one move set”. And she gets to hit people with some kind of burning hand attack.
Look. I don’t care if my headcanon ended up getting dashed, because DOA as a franchise and Team Ninja as a developer know what they’re doing. They probably understand that, hey, maybe introducing some wacky new character with special mechanics in a game that’s struggling to stay relevant isn’t the best idea; maybe save that stuff for DOA6. I get it. But even so…cripes, is Honoka really the best they can come up with? Really? In a universe filled with ninjas, wrestlers, assassins, a geisha-in-training, a slew of martial artists, and a damn opera singer, they couldn’t come up with anything more exciting than a schoolgirl with a mysterious power?
Setting aside the fact that comparisons havealready been drawn, what’s the strategy here? How is this character different from any of the other DOA girls? So what if she’s reportedly the bustiest when A) there’s virtually no difference in the girls’ body types, meaning the very concept of bustiness is worthless, and B) there’s not much to set her apart from other characters, DOA or otherwise, besides her measurements?
Assuming that there’s no story for Honoka in Last Round, the gameplay footage released thus far hasn’t made an argument as to why this girl is different from the other girls -- and that’s even before you factor in her patchwork quilt of a move set. Her profile sets her up as a Blood Knight, and I can’t imagine someone with explosive hand attacks avoiding some form of corruption. But watch her mannerisms in matches and art, and there’s no trace of that. She’s just a kind, earnest, hardworking schoolgirl who’s a little clumsy, but always tries to do her best…which you can use to describe a deluge of recent anime heroines.
It’s not enough anymore. I thought that Team Ninja understood that; say what you will about the hyper-sexualization of the women (which, again, is a problem that doesn’t need to be there), but at least the games had the freedom to let its ladies do more. Be more. Tina’s a wrestler hungry for fame, be it via fighting, acting, or trying to be a rock star. Leifang is a college student who perpetually sought out Bruce Lee fanboy Jann Lee to prove her strength to him -- and did, conclusively. Honoka…is just a schoolgirl that wants to fight. Oh, sure, she’ll get her story fleshed out someday, but…really? This is supposed to be a compelling argument for Last Round?
Note the word choice there. I could have said “she”, but I used “this”. Call me butthurt if you will (which is more than a little legitimate, all things considered), but Honoka just strikes me as a HUGE missed opportunity here. This was Team Ninja’s chance to do something different -- to convince everyone that they could change, however minutely. I thought that that was what they started with vanilla DOA5’s Mila, an MMA-style fighter and a push toward the “I’m a Fighter” tagline they wanted to codify once upon a time. What happened to that? Why did they back off? Why resort to hundreds of dollars’ worth of sexy costumes almost immediately after claims of turning a new leaf?
Okay, sure. There was another iteration of DOA5 that introduced the little lady Marie Rose, but that just plays to a similar set of…preferences. The franchise should be evolving by now, but I’m struggling to give it the same goodwill and benefit of the doubt I once did. I’ll concede that the gameplay is probably the best it’s ever been -- if reliant on/lambasted for button-mashing -- but DOA isn’t part of the conversation because A) it can’t decide what it wants to be, and B) it’s not doing “what it does best” very well.
The premiere franchise built on sexy, busty girls fighting has routinely failed to make its girls sexy -- just a bunch of virtual dolls that STILL have creepy soulless faces…which to the untrained eye is just the same face copy-pasted and recolored. And again, what’s the point of having the biggest bust when that’s info you’re likely only to know by word of mouth and wikis? Although according to the wiki, Honoka has a thirty-nine inch bust…while being only 4’11”. I’m not one for anatomical correctness, but I don’t think that girl’s exactly built for fighting. Or moving.
I’m 100% convinced that Team Ninja goofed with Honoka, but they’re just one group out of many whose creations have gone awry. That should be obvious by now; DOA might not be a part of the fighting game conversation, but that’s because we’re all too busy having a legitimate conversation about women in games. Frankly, I’d take it up several levels and just say we have a problem with women in fiction in general -- and the sad thing is that that isn’t breaking news. This is something we’ve all had to deal with for a while, and the fact that there are still so many struggles across the board means that we probably haven’t made as much progress as we could.
I know the score. I know the constant outcries. “We need female protagonists!” “We need strong female characters!” “We need female characters that aren’t just damsels in distress, and don’t just get stuffed into fridges!” “We need women that aren’t just sex objects!” Those are all valid complaints. Let’s face it: generally speaking, the treatment of women in fiction is bullshit. It’s not fair, and it needs to change. The common question that follows is how that change is supposed to happen, which is pretty viable…buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut I’m of a different opinion.
Maybe we don’t always need to ask how to change the poor state of affairs. Maybe we need to ask why it happens in the first place.
Let’s go back to using DOA as an example, because there’s no better whipping boy right now. It’s pretty easy to assume that the developers are -- in the worst-case scenario -- just a bunch of perverts who are convinced their job is literally just to make Las Chicas de las Pechos Grandes. If you don’t buy into that, there’s always the more reasonable conclusion that they do what they do to stay afloat; considering how many studios have shut down in the past few years AND how expensive game development can be these days, it’s hard to blame them for banking on what they know will sell (i.e. sexy costumes for every member of The Boobs McGee Experience). If nothing else, they’re at least upfront about it.
But here’s the phrase that’s worth keeping in mind for the rest of this post: “Oh, I never thought of that.” As the self-proclaimed Eternal Optimist, I don’t want to assume that Team Ninja or any other creator with botched heroines did it out of malice, or laziness, or pandering, or even just to make a quick buck. They did it because they didn’t realize that there were other options available. In DOA’s case, they considered the possibilities and chose the ones best suited for the franchise, but ended up overlooking possibilities that would have made said franchise more than just a laughing stock.
If I remember right, the first DOA -- breast physics and all -- was made as a desperation move to keep a struggling Tecmo in business. It worked, apparently, and it became a launching point for the rest of the franchise. That sexuality (or a facsimile of it) courses through its veins, but there was the potential to be more than just “boobs on boobs on boobs” that to some extent was at least touched on. Clashes between ninja bloodlines and traditions; corporations enacting world-ruining conspiracies; even beyond that, fighters striking out to make their desires a reality, and from that emerged the thematic conflict of tradition versus free will. Duty versus freedom. It’s when DOA5’s story explores that theme -- not the hokey action movie fluff -- that it’s at its strongest and most entertaining.
So DOA is in the prime position to give us something special because theoretically, it has every tool it needs. Yes, I would absolutely love it if it could offer a stronger story; I would love it if Kasumi’s DOA4 ending had anything to do with the plot or her character arc -- what with her being ostensibly the main character -- instead of just having her dream about being a singing topless mermaid. I’m not exactly asking for the moon here.
But you know what? Even if Team Ninja didn’t, and even if they wanted to keep going down Tight Trouser Alley, then they could at least mix it up a little. The only cards in their hand at this stage are “big boobs”, “less clothes”, and “more clothes, only this time they’re themed costumes”. They’ve worn out what they’re famous for, and if they want to be the kings of eroticism, they need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to capture the essence of sexiness. I’m thankful that all the girls have different stances and fighting styles, but in a game that earns favor by dint of its bodacious bodies, why is it that their definition of “bodacious” is so bland? How do you make boobs boring?
The answer that comes to mind is that DOA tries to make the boobs -- and tangentially, the bodies attached to them -- interesting. The problem is that they should be trying to make the female form interesting. It’s a strange day indeed when a Nintendo game understands that better than a game designed to get a rise out of its players. Seriously, pay close attention to the animations of Smash 4’s female fighters, Palutena’s chief among them. You’d be surprised.
The easiest fix I can think of for DOA6 is to just add a character creator, and let players handle the sexiness on Team Ninja’s behalf. I don’t just mean loading up a fighter with your favorite attributes; I mean giving the player the chance to explore possibilities that the parent company won’t. If pro wrestler Tina can’t be rendered with a suitable tone and musculature, then let the player make a fighter that can. If sultry assassin Christie isn’t sultry enough, let the player make someone as tall, or willowy, or elegant as they can imagine.
If there can’t be a schoolgirl who wouldn’t snap in half in real life, then leave it to the player to do the heavy lifting -- up to and including full clothing options (which to be fair DOA5 offers, but that got buried by skimpy DLC outfits). After all, I was under the impression that sexiness implied a set of qualities above the norm. Putting those qualities in player hands to create the out-of-the ordinary? Not a bad idea.
Here’s the thing, though: it should never reach a point where the tools should be put in player hands -- because offering up something bodacious is what Team Ninja should have done a loooooooooooooooong time ago. And regularly. And not just with a loli girl.
Audiences trust creators with more than just their money. They trust creators to put forth the best effort possible -- to take a concept, choose the best possible options, and bring it all together for an affecting piece of art. That’s how it should be, and how it has been pretty much since art’s inception. On some level, even a bunch of goofs like Team Ninja understand that; the flashes of competence and potential are there, even if they are hidden in the valleys of the Teton Range. The problem is that maybe they haven’t considered how things could be different -- or even that things can be different. Sit them down and explain some of those possibilities, and I’d bet that at least one member would go “Oh, I never thought of that.”
They -- Team Ninja, or just creators in general, game devs or otherwise -- just do what they think is best for their creations. DOA5 could have been the game that established its ladies as more than just character outlines, but instead put most of its effort into an ersatz, limp-wristed summer blockbuster. Why? Not because they were idiots, but because that’s what they thought would win favor. Granted that’s a misguided notion in its own right, but they had good intentions. Conceptually, they weren’t wrong. It’s just that they focused on the wrong things, when the right things -- those character interactions outside of non-canon beach lounging -- slipped into the background.
Why did it happen? Why is DOA’s story at large still irrelevant? Why are the ladies still saddled with the stigma of being sex objects? Because Team Ninja didn’t go far enough; the devs didn’t use its tools effectively, because they didn’t even realize they had tools. Again, if someone would explain to them what they could do -- gameplay-wise, story-wise, whatever -- then maybe they could make something out of effectively nothing. Maybe they could realize the problem, and do better.
Let’s be real here. The pitfalls associated with that blindness to possibilities -- to making good female characters -- is an easy one to stumble into. And I know this because I’ve made a lot of the same mistakes. Probably mistakes that would even have Team Ninja laughing at me.
Well, among others.
Speaking personally, I want to be a creator someday as well -- a writer above all else. Or rather, a GOOD writer -- which means that if it seems like I’m super-butthurt over the tiniest things in video games, it’s because A) they stick out intensely to me, and B) I probe others as a means of probing myself. It’s the only way for me to learn not to make stupid mistakes and stupider decisions, because I will if left unchecked.
Once upon a time, I had a female character whose role and personality in the story could be summed up in two words: “the girlfriend”. That was it. No part, no charisma, no dynamism, no arc -- just a rung on the ladder to propel both the lead and the story to where it needed to go. She was a non-player in the events that transpired -- which extended to every other female character in that story. Not even a spread of furious editing sprees could salvage the story, which kept the ladies on the wrong side of the fence during virtually every climactic moment. It became pretty obvious that I was pretty much just polishing a turd. So I had to flush.
I’ve gotten significantly better about things since then, but in order to do that, I had to understand that I screwed up in the first place -- and by extension, how it happened at all. I can see why; the ladies didn’t get much attention because a lot of the focus and development went toward the lead. Maybe a couple of other guys if you’re feeling generous, but outside of that lead, the overall development of the cast was pretty shallow.
Only one character really got to shine or change, and while he did end up in a good place, the scope of the story was too narrow. I didn’t use the very tools that I had created, and the story suffered for it. The world was too small. The plot was too small. The conflict was too small. So inevitably, the characters -- the most important puzzle piece -- ended up being too small, too. I’m 100% convinced that it was an abject failure, and no amount of consolation will convince me of otherwise.
But that’s fine. What’s important is that I did realize that I could do more. I found ways to get the most out of my characters, and the elements surrounding them. Granted I’ve got an easier time of it than others (I’m not a dozens-strong team handling either technology more advanced than a word processor or enough money to weigh down an armored truck), but the overall lesson here is the same.
Because of that, I’d argue that there is something any of us can do, regardless of our place in the game industry and beyond: be aware that there is a problem, and we don’t have to accept it. More importantly, there need to be talks about more than just “this is a thing that is wrong and bothers me”, though that helps. Heroes stand strong, after all.
Collectively, we need to be open-minded. It’s easy to dump hate on distant creators or seemingly-faceless organizations, but it’s worth remembering that there are people at work -- people who can make mistakes, just like the rest of us. Maybe every word spoken and every post typed up won’t reach them, but they will reach others down in the depths. Those people -- scorned so often by those they trusted -- can go on to become creators themselves, and take plenty of lessons to heart.
Or, maybe those voices will end up reaching higher powers. Maybe one outcry will lead to one million. Maybe twenty years from now, people will be explaining why DOA15 is a stroke of artistic genius -- precisely because it has giant breasts. Somehow. Potentially. I don’t know anything about art.
But seriously, Team Ninja? Fix the faces, please. All of your women look like they’re dead inside.
Let me start off with a question: at what point does a topic cease to be relevant?
I only ask because time and time again, it feels like I’m jumping on the train late. By the time I come up with something substantial to say, I always end up thinking, “Man, does anybody even care at this point? Isn’t the topic played out by now?” It’s a mental block for me, whether it’s a real issue or not. So even though I consider Watch Dogs to not only be the most abysmal game of 2014, but also one of the worst games I’ve ever played, explaining as much in a timely manner seems like a fool’s errand. I can go on for thousands and thousands of words, but I’m always worried that I’m obsolete by word one.
But there’s hope. After all, there’s nothing more relevant and timeless than hating on stupid bullshit. And -- in the most brilliantest segue ever -- there’s never a bad time to bring Kamen Rider into the discussion. For comparative purposes, and not just solely to push a secret Rider agenda.
Kamen Rider as a whole may masquerade as a shill for toys and merchandise (and let’s face it, it is), but in my eyes that’s always struck me as a byproduct of a genuine attempt to tell good stories -- albeit stories married to over-the-top costumed combat. It’s little wonder, then, that there are plenty of TV Tropes regulars that seem to get into it so regularly. That’s how I got into it, at least -- and a quick search told me that Kamen Rider W was one of the more popular -- and presumably high-quality -- installments. So I watched it from start to finish ages ago.
Needless to say, I enjoyed it. It’s not my favorite in the franchise -- that honor goes to Kamen Rider OOO, which I SWEAR I’ll bring into a post someday -- it’s still great. Given the chance, I’d watch it again. But the reason I’m linking it to Watch Dogs is because I feel like there’s a lesson in there that needs to be imparted. Not a moral for impressionable minds; no, there’s a moral in there for anyone with aims to tell a story. Or just plain enjoy it.
One of the most notable things about W is that it banks HARD on the detective theme. The story, the music, the characters, the concepts -- hell, one of its most common phrases is “hard-boiled”. It helps lend the show a different air from its franchise compatriots, though that’s also helped by the setting having more of a presence in W overall. Still, what really clinches it -- and what probably helped it become a real fan favorite -- is what should typically be the deciding factor. That’s right, it’s the main character: Shotaro Hidari.
He’s the private eye of the Narumi Detective Agency, and takes on jobs for the people of Fuuto whenever they come marching up to his doorstep. The show being what it is, that usually has him getting involved with the monster of the week and resolving crimes with liberal amounts of punching. In this installment? He’s up against the Dopants, monsters born from using USB-stored data from the planet -- Gaia Memories -- that wreak havoc, commit crimes, and “fill the city with tears”. Naturally, Shotaro ain’t havin’ that, so he uses his own Gaia Memories along with the Double Driver to become Kamen Rider W. Or HALF of W, at least; he handles the left side, while his partner Philip beams his consciousness into the right so they can fight as one.
Thankfully, not all of them are that goofy, but…man. Somebody had pretty shit luck to draw that.
Like Fourze before it (well, Fourze came years later, but I watched W after Fourze), the successes of the show are bred from the lead and the people around him. But there’s something interesting about Shotaro that’s worth noting -- and like I said at the start, there’s a lesson shown off with him that everybody looking to make a story should take to heart.
See, when I first heard about the show on TV Tropes, I checked out the character page. I knew that W was made from two guys instead of just one, but I think I might have misread or misinterpreted something. So when I started the show in earnest a while later, I went in with the wrong expectation. I went in thinking that Shotaro would be a cool, unflappable, suave and stylish guy; meanwhile, his partner Philip would be the bright-eyed, spirited, passionate one. Imagine my surprise, then, when the reverse turns out to be true; Philip’s actually the cool one, while Shotaro is the one who’s relatively hot-blooded. I say “relatively” because there’s a facet to him that really makes the character work. And THAT’S what others need to learn from him.
Here’s the crux of Shotaro: he’s a character who tries to be cool, but is decidedly uncool. But paradoxically, his uncoolness is part of what makes him cool.
Do you know why the phrase “hard-boiled” keeps popping up in W? It’s because Shotaro keeps spamming it. In his eyes, being a hard-boiled detective is synonymous with being a Cool Guy™, so he’s done his best to style his entire persona around it. He wears the clothes. He types out the reports (and narrates to himself and the audience alike) in a detective style. He does his best to be as hard-boiled as he can. The problem is that A) he kind of sucks at it, and B) the universe would rather make him look like an idiot. Though to be fair, he does that himself more often than not.
As early as the first episode, you see the mile-wide chasm between the ideal and the reality. Shotaro does some hard-boiled narration and sets himself up as a Cool Guy™ almost as soon as the opening is done playing…but then it turns out that his Agency is facing bankruptcy, and the fact that he spends so much money on detective novels doesn’t help matters. His attempts to do something cool are thwarted on a regular basis, too. Tracking down a bus as part of a case lead? He loses it and does his best Darth Vader “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Trying to consul the daughter of his MIA mentor? She leaves long before he even finishes his cool speech. Gets an offer to protect a young starlet? Skips down the street and jumps to click his heels together.
It’d probably help Shotaro’s case if he wasn’t delusional and being some tryhard detective. But then again, I suspect that it’s a commonality for every Kamen Rider to be in sore need of a few therapy sessions.
Don’t worry, Eiji. You’ll get your post someday.
Now, all of that and more would suggest that Shotaro is some moron for an audience to laugh at (plenty of characters justifiably call him “half-boiled” instead). And in a sense, you’d be right. It really says a lot about a character when people can point out how his actions and his words don’t match. But that’s not to say that he’s some clown dancing with his pants around his ankles. This is a Kamen Rider we’re talking about, and he gets plenty of opportunities to show that.
Even if he is put-upon and rarely taken seriously and constantly undermining his attempts to be a Cool Guy™, he’s still more than capable of ruining anyone’s day -- in and out of his suit. As W’s left half, he’s the one in charge of the actual offense via his Gaia Memories; Philip acts more as support and gives W different elemental properties. That, of course, sets aside the fact that in nearly every instance W’s based on Shotaro’s body instead of Philip’s…though of course, one can take the lead as needed.
As a Rider, it’s a given that Shotaro’s a professional ass-kicker. But what I find really interesting about the character is that even if he’s a delusional goofball, he’s also one of, if not the most level-headed and emotionally mature member of the cast. He ends up learning a lesson or two in the show’s run (there’s a reason why one of the show’s songs is “Nobody’s Perfect”), but all told he’s a source of stability and strength to other characters -- incidental or otherwise. Even if the universe is constantly booting him face-first into a brick wall, his Cool Guy™ lines come in when he’s offering emotional support. Well, that, and when he actually DOES get to prove that he’s a detective for a reason.
If you’ve seen my stuff before, you should know I’ve been talking about “highs and lows” for a while now. Here’s the gist of it: in order for the beats of a story to have maximum impact, there need to be moments of joy and levity and good fortune and the like to offset (and highlight) the downturns. Likewise, defeat, sadness, misfortune and the like keep an audience on their toes, and keep the story from resting on its laurels. But if Shotaro is any indication, it’s not just a story that needs highs and lows. A character needs them, too. It’s what lends them a sense of dynamism. It makes the strengths visible as well as the flaws. It’s what makes them surprising, interesting, and in a lot of ways, human.
Which brings us back to Aiden Pearce.
Now, I’ll be fair. Aiden Pearce is probably not the only or worst example out there. But he is semi-recent, and an outstanding example. So I hope you don’t mind me piling on the hate even more than I already have.
Like I said, I consider Watch Dogs to be an absolute embarrassment of a game. It’s barely even a game; it’s just a great big package of things to do, a fraction of which are connected to a plot that has you, “the vigilante”, running errands for damn near everyone else. It would help if said vigilante was even remotely interesting, but alas. ‘Twas not meant to be.
The devs got as far as “hat and trench coat” and “magic phone” before they called it quits and went on an indefinite lunch break. Aiden’s the weak link of the game -- and while I’ll accept that maybe there are other interesting characters in the game (hopefully beyond just throwing in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo X Catwoman), it doesn’t change the fact that they have to orbit around -- and ultimately get sucked into -- a narrative black hole like Aiden. I know writing a story isn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world, but sometimes it seems like people make it infinitely harder than it needs to be.
The phrase that gets thrown around a lot (for Watch Dogs, or for less-than-airtight products in general) is “design by committee”, and that’s probably the case for the game. Admittedly, I prefer using the term “indulgent design”; instead of following the whims of a creative vision or the passion to put something before an audience, creators would rather try to earn success by deluding potential buyers. That is, rather than giving them something truly exciting -- something they didn’t even know they wanted -- indulgent design would rather have them grow fat off pandering and appeals to the basest sensibilities.
Aiden is indulgent design personified. I hate to make assumptions about the devs’ intent, but even if they had the best intentions, they botched this character hard. The big issue is that I can practically feel the notes and outlines printed all over the vigilante’s virtual skin. I can see what’s scribbled all over, and it tells me that he’s only allowed to be two things: cool and powerful. It comes off as incredibly disingenuous; instead of letting the players decide and judge Aiden as cool, it’s as if Ubisoft tried to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. “People will think Aiden is cool because we made Aiden cool.” But vicious cycles don’t always work as well as intended; there’s no guarantee that hype alone will ensure --
It’s my understanding of Watch Dogs that Aiden is supposed to be a scarred and hurting hero (relatively speaking, given his penchant for crime -- cyber or otherwise) by virtue of his dead niece in the backstory and his sister and nephew presently in danger. Clichéd as they may be, there’s potential to be had in those relationships as long as they’re used effectively...but in Watch Dogs, Aiden’s family issues come off as a carte blanche excuse to go do whatever the hell he wants, up to and including ruining -- if not ending -- the lives of innocents who undoubtedly have families of their own.
If the intent was to have Aiden deconstructed -- to show what sort of monster it would take to commit the acts he does in Watch Dogs -- then it’s botched from the outset by giving him some innocent and flawless family he has to take care of. It turns the game into an awful revenge fantasy that completely squanders its potential. But it’s a no-win situation; if the intent was to humanize Aiden and make him sympathetic, then it flies in the face of all the murder the player might end up committing just to get to the next mission, let alone what happens in it.
You don’t play as Aiden Pearce in Watch Dogs. You play as you. More than plenty of other characters, he’s just an avatar for you to indulge in whatever your heart desires. That was probably the optimal state in terms of the game’s design, but in terms of the narrative, the gameplay undermines the story and the story undermines the gameplay. But setting aside that discussion, there are three things that we can say conclusively about Aiden. One: he’s ruthless. Two: he cares about his family. Three: he has what he needs to fulfill his mission.
Only one of those definitively counts as a unique personality trait (because I’d like to think that lots of people care about their families). So if that’s the case, then it means Aiden is in the perfect state to wreak havoc as he sees fit. He’s a character ready and waiting, speaking in narrative terms, to do harm to others. And as such, the player is ready to do the same. No need to worry about others. No need to worry about collateral damage, especially when you end up killing a dozen innocent people just to catch one person.
Just smash and kill and hack and blow up, and don’t ever bother thinking about what you’re doing. Aiden doesn’t, so why should the player? For all the lines and grey areas Aiden crosses and treads through, he’ got nothing to say about cyber-crime and privacy invasions besides “these things exist”. What’s his stance? He doesn’t care. They’re just tools for him and him alone to use.
Aiden doesn’t give a shit about anything. I’m not even wholly convinced that he cares about his family; I’d argue that he only wants to protect and save them because they’re concepts to him. Things. HIS things. Nobody touches them but him. He’s figuratively and literally out to play big brother (subtle, Ubisoft), and what little comfort he offers feels token at best when he’s willing to lie and manipulate the people around him just to get what he wants. Given his unduly selfish nature in the game, isn’t that a fitting interpretation?
It is true that being a villainous character doesn’t automatically ensure a bad character (see: Grand Theft Auto and ostensibly BioShock Infinite). But the requirement for a character, good or evil, is that they do what they do with charisma. There has to be something that appeal, not just plays to indulgences. That’s where Aiden fails. He is, undoubtedly, a character solely designed to be cool…AND NOTHING ELSE. Denying that it’s his default setting is something I’m hard-pressed to do.
The evidence is all there. He can commit crimes without impunity (until the plot says so, maybe). He’s an expert fighter and gunman, and can engage in some light parkour. He’s a whiz with technology, to the point where almost nobody can touch him. Immediately after meeting The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the sexual tension flares up to supernova levels of intensity. (I’m hesitant to count that given how their story ends, but said ending is troubling in its own right.) He gets to play hero if he (you) wants to, and he can bust the crimes that the big dumb police force can’t. He can hack anything, and make stuff explode just ‘cause. He’s a rebel who, by completely cutting ties with society, has become more than just an outlaw; he’s earned some ultimate sense of freedom, but has the strength to affect the world at his leisure. Just because he can.
You know, for all the planning (or lack thereof) that went into Aiden, there’s a question I have to ask: did Ubisoft actually think this character was cool?
Think about what the word implies. To be cool is to be stylish. Impressive. Admirable. Enviable. Aiden Pearce is a whopping zero of those things. He’s got no style on his own, because that would mean that he’d have a personality besides “generic gravel-voiced anti-hero”. He’s not impressive, because hacking stops being impressive fifteen minutes in, and the ease of it removes any sense of perceivable reward when it happens.
He’s not admirable, because he’s a complete shitbag who’s responsible for most of the problems in his life (but damned if he acknowledges his failings). And for all those reasons and more, he’s not even close to enviable. Is he supposed to be the good guy, or the bad guy? Because it seems like the game wanted it both ways, and ended up failing on both fronts. It all leads me to believe that Aiden only tries to be -- and is designed to be -- one thing. As it so happens, that’s the one thing he can’t do. Or hack…even though that’d probably just lead to him blowing it up.
I suspect that there are some people out there who would tell me to stop stressing out so much about a character like Aiden. They’d probably say something along the lines of “So what? He’s just a power fantasy, so just shrug it off and move on.” Or “What did you expect, dude? It’s a video game. It’s all about making players feel cool.” And I only have one response to such a mindset: FUCK THAT.
First of all, not every video game has had or needs to have some ego-feeding, desperate scrapes at coolness. Second, if a character’s going to be cool, then that’s fine -- but they have to earn the right to be called cool by way of doing something worthwhile. Third, regardless of the medium we can get something more out of any given character and any given story as long as they -- and their creators -- show respect for their audiences.
It’s a strange day, indeed, when a multimillion dollar game tackling modern-day controversies and aimed at mature audiences is somehow less substantial than a toy-shilling show that managed to work in promotions for CDs.
You know, I keep talking about the endless possibilities of storytelling, and how it’s a creator’s duty to explore them as best as he or she can. And while I stand by that, there’s one thing that I suspect is going to be a common byproduct of “a job well done”: someone, somewhere is going to look at a quality release and say “man, that’s so cool”. And that’s the way it should be. The people should be the ones to decide if a product is good or not. The creator should put up the strongest effort possible, but there’s always going to be a gap. It’s in the product’s hands -- and any number of elements it has to its name.
When all’s said and done, Shotaro’s just one of those elements of Kamen Rider W. Even if he is just a fabrication -- a character written on paper, and brought to life by an actor way too eager to make funny faces -- he succeeds and becomes cool by way of being credibly cool. Like any good character, he goes beyond just being the tool of his creators. The line between “This is someone’s character” and “This is my favorite character” starts to blur. As it should.
Posts like these may be obsolete in an hour's time. But a good character will ALWAYS be relevant.
But it doesn’t for Aiden. And that’s the clincher. For all of Ubisoft’s talk of making him an “iconic” character, they forgot to make him anything more than a stand-in. And by doing so, they failed to make him cool…which means the game failed as a result. Now, far be it from me to launch an assault on the creator, because I prefer to point fingers at the offending product instead.
So with that in mind, I’ve got one more thing to say to you, Aiden Pearce.
Now, count up your sins!
Oh man. Does saying the line make me a Cool Guy™ now?
I’m pretty sure that at some point, I promised to do an in-depth look at this game -- which a couple of people apparently wanted, for some reason. (Masochism, perhaps?) I didn’t forget, of course; to make a mostly-stupid story short, let’s just say “blame Watch Dogs” and strike the record. And let’s not delay any longer. Ready for a long-ass post on Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze?
I sure hope so. I can’t think of a better way to close out the year -- if only to fulfill self-ordained informal contracts. Well, that, and to erase the lingering, pus-soaked taste of this year's worst games from my mind. The best of them heal all wounds.
So here’s the setup. DK and pals -- Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky -- are all about ready to get their party in full swing (ha) complete with a banana cake-type thing. But before DK can dig in, their island is invaded by the Snowmads -- a bunch of Viking-style baddies out to seize the island for themselves. And before DK can even take the first swing, that’s exactly what they do; their boss uses his giant horn to plunge the island into a new ice age, and exile the Kongs from the Snowmads’ new home. Now DK and the gang have to take back what’s theirs -- one jump, roll, and barrel toss at a time.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Tropical Freeze is the same game as the Wii’s DKC Returns, because they’re pretty much the same. They didn’t even bother with the GamePad, so unless you do some off-TV play, the screen will go dark. And even if the game looks better than its predecessor, it still follows the guideline spread out -- i.e. be pretty much the old DKC games, only with better graphics. Progress, right?
As is usually the case, the object of each level is to head from the start to the goal -- in this case a floating barrel -- with as many lives intact as your skills will allow. So if you want to be a little salty, you can pare Tropical Freeze right down to the basics and leave it at that. But even if I made it sound like an issue at the start, it really isn’t when you get down to it.
In the same sense that (Ultra) Street Fighter 4 isn’t the same game as (any given version of) Street Fighter 2, TF is not JUST DKC with better graphics. So really, it’s hard to heap hate on a genre as long as it’s creating a sense of progression; it’s either that, or each individual game’s execution is so high that it doesn’t make you think about the nitty-gritty. See: Guilty Gear Xrd -- because it’s poetry in motion after Hugh Jackman’s training regimen.
What I like about TF is just how involved the levels are in the experience. It’s pretty much a given that most of the dangers you’ll face come from bottomless pits, so making your jumps count is more than a little important. But the game is constantly tossing in these variations on the formula, so you have to adapt. Thunderstorms, factory machines, massive persimmons, fires, and even giant octopi are threats you’ll have to deal with along the way, complicating each leap over a bottomless pit.
But the thing about the levels is that it makes better use of spectacle than most spectacle-driven games. Example: I played a bit of The Evil Within a while back, and there was a sequence where you had to run down a hallway to escape blades of doom. The music swelled, the camera shook, the scenery was all kinds of uninviting, and…I barely felt the fear the game wanted me to. Why? It’s because all I had to do was walk down a hallway. Hardly engaging stuff. Comparatively, TF has you engaging in the platforming -- interacting with a level changing before your eyes -- while the sequence-based threat approaches you. So basically, you’re facing certain death as you face certain death.
It’s stuff like that -- and more, all things considered -- that makes the classic platformer still have worth in the modern gaming world. I’ve had more scares and heart-stopping moments in TF than in The Evil Within, The Last of Us, and Resident Evil 5 and 6put together. I’m involved in what’s going on! I can actually die because of my lack of skill! Cool stuff is actually happening besides “run from point A to point B”! And the levels look so freakin’ good! And the music is just so NGHNNNGFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF --
It’s probably best to learn your movement options before the end of the first world. You’ve got your basic run and jump, but learning how to roll into a run -- and by extension long jump -- will seriously help you out in a pinch. Or ensure your doom, potentially. But the interesting thing about TF (and something that feeds into its fear-inspiring ability) is that DK’s movement is structured in such a way that sometimes you just barely feel like you made it onto a ledge. All things considered, it kind of makes sense; I don’t know much about gorillas, but I don’t imagine them being the most agile of creatures.
The core conceit -- the reason for DK’s less-than-mobile nature -- is because the player is supposed to make use of the other Kongs to bolster his movement, via letting one ride on his back. Think of it as a sort of Kong-gattai. Join with Diddy, and you can use his jetpack to go farther. Join with Dixie, and you can use her ponytail to go higher. Join with Cranky, and you can bounce off obstacles and enemies. Having a gattai partner certainly makes things easier on you -- because you also get a screen-clearing super move -- but the tradeoff is that if you’re not careful, you lose your extra Kong and the extra mobility it affords.
If you can hold onto a Kong, you’ve proven that you’re good enough to handle the game -- and because of it, get to progress more easily and quickly. If you can’t hold onto a Kong, then you can still make it through the game, but you’ll have to learn how to make it through levels without a crutch. The only advantage I can possibly think of that DK might have over the others is that his roll maybe goes farther. So basically, you run the risk of having one player “crippled” -- and by extension, one player constantly yammering about how DK is so bad.
But maybe that’s the point.
Far be it from me to promote antisocial behavior, but hear me out on this. Yes, TF is 100% playable and beatable with two players, so you don’t have to worry about some unfair advantage -- just the usual concerns about who’s pulling the team and who isn’t. But for a while now I’ve been thinking that there’s a disadvantage to playing every game with friends, and by extension making every game based on/around multiplayer.
Admit it: you experience things differently with friends than you do on your own. Watching Twilight by yourself? A miserable, headache-inducing experience. Watching Twilight with friends? Guaranteed to bring on the laughs. But that doesn’t make Twilight good (and by extension doesn’t make multiplayer games -- hello, Destiny -- inherently fun).
What I’m getting at here is that sometimes you need to experience certain things on your own -- without anyone or anything to color your perceptions. Think about it -- don’t you think there’s a reason why movie theaters put you in the dark, promote relative silence from the audience, and are extremely against cell phone use during the movie?
It’s because even if you are with friends/family, the setup is such that you get to engage with the movie on a solo, personal level. You get to observe its subtleties in a way you might not with a bunch of jokers. Granted, that means that the product in question has to hold up to scrutiny. And you know what? TF does.
The draw of TF comes from its levels -- the visuals, aesthetics, layout, music, what have you. (Especially the music, in a lot of cases; some of the music from the Africa-themed world will practically staple a smile to your face.) I don’t think there’s a single line of dialogue spoken outright in this game, and outside of the opening and ending cutscenes there’s little in the way of a straight narrative. If you’re looking for weight, you’ll have to fill in the story for yourself. You’ll have to make use of what the game DOES provide in order to get more out of TF than just “this is a fun game”. And I’m wholly convinced you can do that.
The thing separates TF from Super Mario 3D World is that Mario’s latest adventure pretty much requires exploration in order to advance through the game -- but paradoxically, it can feel like you’re punished for doing so. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not devaluing 3D World just because DK’s latest is in our midst. I’m just saying that the two games are out to accomplish different things, and I prefer one approach over the other. 3D World runs the risk of trivializing its worlds because the players are only looking through it to find Green Stars; couple that with a persistent timer, and you can’t digest each level -- and the world at large -- as much as you’d hope.
When you’re not being chased by an incoming threat, you get to take in TF at a more leisurely pace. You actually do get to digest it -- enjoy its elements as deeply or as superficially as you wish. Okay, sure, you’re incentivized to have a look around to find puzzle pieces, but A) that’s for unlockable art, and B) it’s not required. The KONG letters are there too, but they’re less about scouring every inch of the level and more about testing your abilities -- asking if you’ve got the skills (and the guts) to grab them in the middle of your run. There’s a difference. The line blurs at times, yes, but there is a line; TF wants you to feel the world, not just conquer it. The question is, why?
Well, let’s step back a bit. See, the thing that I can’t help but come back to again and again is the Kong-gattai mechanic. That was put in there for a reason, as antithetical it may seem to modern-day sensibilities. You have to play as DK. You aren’t guaranteed to have a buddy Kong with you to make things easier. You can -- and likely should -- take control away from Player Two so that Player One can have a slightly better time. Why? Those are some very specific design choices; they can’t possibly be an accident.
Because they aren’t.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that DK is the star of the game. Setting aside the fact that his name is in the title, he’s also the largest of the Kongs by a wide margin. The apes may have clothes, shelter, and some of the fixings of modern society (and beyond, considering that Diddy has a working jetpack), but it’s safe to assume they still operate under basic rules. The chief rule? The biggest and strongest ape gets to lead the pack. So all things considered, that means either Funky Kong is in charge, or DK is. Three guesses as to who’s the one true King of Swing.
The alternative theory I have -- absurd as it may be -- is that DK rules because he’s inherited the power from his ancestral Kong kings. To be more specific, he rules because he can’t die in a conventional sense. Sure, if he falls down a pit in the game he’ll lose a life, but what does that mean contextually? You lose a balloon and go back a few paces, and get to do it again and again until you get it right. DK may die, but he’ll just be reborn so that he can learn from his past mistakes and rectify them. In other words, being the king means being trapped in a cycle of death and rebirth -- a cruel fate, but one that bestows great knowledge to a rightful ruler. And as the saying goes…
I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t buy into my theory of DK being trapped in some metaphysical ouroboros, because even I think I’m reaching farther than Mr. Fantastic playing a game of pin the tail on the donkey. But even if there’s no direct cycle of rebirth, I’d still argue there’s a symbolic one -- or more precisely, a cycle of injustice and justice. Redemption of crimes through crimes, and justifying past crimes. In simplest terms, the rules of nature weave their way through the game, ensuring a never-ending conflict between the Kongs and any other takers in their universe.
Consider the Snowmads. At first glance, they’re just a bunch of bullies eager to muscle in on Kong territory. And while that’s more or less true, when viewed with a broader scope they’re only doing what they need to for their survival. They need food. They need shelter. They need a place to call home. And what better place to set up shop than an island brimming with resources? They have to do a little remodeling, sure, but the tradeoff is that it’s almost as simple as tooting a horn.
Jeez, is there any instrument more hilarious than the trombone?
Anyway, what’s consistently bothered me about TF -- and I suppose the other DKC games, by extension -- is this: where the hell did all the machines and vehicles come from? Seriously, there are pirate ships all over the place (and not all of them from the Snowmads, I’d bet), fruit processing plants, miles’ worth of mine cart tracks, and at least one full-on, fully-functional factory. And let’s not forget Funky sets up shop in a series of downed airplanes. So did the Kongs make all of this stuff? I’d like to say yes, but that just begs the question of why they live the way they do -- in treehouses and such -- instead of in towering, industrialized cities of their own creation.
My theory on the subject is this: the Kongs aren’t the first ones to inhabit that island, or the islands (i.e. most of the levels in TF) surrounding the main one. Rather, the chain of them collectively represents a territory fought over for generations, and occupied by different creatures/cultures. The wars of old simply left the islands mostly uninhabited, with all the machines and mechanisms left to decay, and the land itself forcibly uncultivated. Only pockets of resistance remain -- a porcupine here, a bird there -- and the Snowmads are trying to capitalize on that. They’re trying to systematically occupy all of those islands to harvest the remnants of the past -- the things that DK has forgotten are of incredible importance.
Remember how I said earlier how the only one who could have been king was either DK or Funky? Well, my theory is that Funky willingly stepped away from the throne so he could devote himself to archaeological pursuits. He’s an ape devoted to uncovering the mysteries of the past, even if that means putting him at odds with DK. (That’d probably help explain why he charges you for supplies; behind that smile lays a wellspring of resentment.) The King of Swing lives for the moment, with only the slightest care for the future. Content with a life of banana-themed cakes and eternal summer weather, he’s more than willing to let his brethren Kongs live as they see fit.
The Snowmads change all of that. The exiled king and his closest friends have to fight their way back to their stolen peak, with the fate of the other Kongs up in the air. (It’s true that there’s not enough evidence to say anything conclusive about their state of affairs; on the other hand, there’s at least one level featuring a raging avalanche, so draw your own conclusions.) They know about the resources left practically untouched by the Kongs, and are more than willing to use it in their stead; because of that, you tend to see penguins, walruses, and other wintry foes making their rounds through each level. Of course, they’re after more than just a few whirring gizmos.
It’s worth noting that there are secret exits in some of the game’s levels, marked not by a floating barrel but instead by a swirling portal of light. On top of that, there are special trinkets you can find and collect to unlock a bonus world, just in case you aren’t satisfied with the beating the game gives you on a regular basis. The important thing is that the history of these islands is multi-layered -- and below the technological layer that we can obviously spot, and below the evidence of travelers who set up shop, there’s a layer that implies some sort of precursor race.
That is, there was an ancient civilization that used a magic variant of technology to construct ruins, temples, and more. I’d bet that that’s what Funky is after, even if you never see him leave his shop(s); by extension, the Snowmads might be eager to harvest those secrets for themselves, if only for the sake of saying “Ha ha, it’s mine now!”
DK may be strong and (ostensibly) kind, but he’s still something of a slothful leader. He’s grown lax on his throne, and the Snowmad invasion has forced him to remember what it means to be a King of Swing. There’s no doubt that he’s got the power to face the future, but he doesn’t have the wisdom gained from observing the past -- from the ancient, bloody struggles of his forebears. He may have secured the island from threats past (there’s probably a reason why the recent games have to keep making new enemies, and for more than legal issues), but he has yet to learn firsthand what it means to know true hardship. That is, until the events of this game.
Even if you don’t believe in (or care about) the worldly struggles of the Kongs, there’s still plenty of weight in the implied personal struggle. Consider this: Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky have to rely on DK to see them through plenty of struggles, up to and including riding on his back. He gives them power -- via their screen-clearing attack -- and they in turn give their liege increased mobility. So on a practical level the Kongs draw strength from one another so that they can one day make it back home.
But it goes beyond that. DK is their leader, and there’s pressure on him that can’t be applied to anyone else. It’s fortunate that the four Kongs managed to stick together despite the Snowmads’ sneak attack, but they’re still an absurd distance away from home. Forced to say goodbye to everything they know and love, while contending with both the sins of the past and the threats of the present, they have no choice but to press on through dangerous territory. And you could argue that the journey’s not even worth it; the final world has the Kongs returning to a frozen DK Island, rendered nigh-unrecognizable by enough snow to fill South Dakota.
Human or ape, that doesn’t strike me as the sort of thing you just shrug off. It’d probably help my case if the Kongs didn’t universally cheer and shout “WOO-HOO!” at every opportunity, but in exchange, some of the music in the game -- in the later levels most of all -- really helps paint the direness of the situation. Still, imagine what it would be like if there was just one more cutscene in the game -- one sequence designed to establish rapport. For example, imagine the Kongs find a frozen banana after a level overflowing with traps. Think of how they might react.
Diddy tries to play it all off as a laughing matter, but you can hear how rattled he is as he tries to pal around with DK. Dixie’s more visibly shaken, and says out loud (relatively speaking) what no one else is willing to: “Do we have a home to go back to?” Cranky stays quiet and contemplative, as does DK -- the latter of the two saying that it’s time to start pressing forward, albeit curtly.
But while DK puts up a front when he’s around Diddy and Dixie, he’ll confide in Cranky between levels, or when the night sets in. I can just imagine him admitting that he’s worried, and shocked by the world of the past the group is travelling through, and (naturally) voicing his concerns about his worthiness as a king. The Snowmads’ assault has left his confidence shaken, and he’s become wary of the consequences of his actions -- or lack thereof. And Cranky, wise as he is, supports DK by telling him tales of kings past -- that merely by doubting himself and by caring about his closest friends, he’s proven himself worthy of the throne.
DK acknowledges that, and chooses to move forward even if his friends’ high hopes weigh down on him. Both he and Cranky understand that the Snowmads, and the countless other enemies out there, are eager to destroy the Kongs’ way of life -- to destroy their culture (by smashing bananas, for example) simply because they can. Because of that, DK fights on with renewed vigor to reclaim his homeland, with the potential of the past, present, and future setting his simian heart ablaze.
That’s pretty much all my headcanon -- the validity of which is pretty debatable. But even so, that’s hardly the important thing about TF. No, the important thing about it -- about any game, arguably -- is its ability to inspire that headcanon. To transcend the limits of pixels and platforms, and become something that provokes thought. Provokes discussion. Provokes theorizing. You can do that with a million worlds, a thousand, one, or even zero; what matters is that it IS possible.
It reminds me of what Sun Tzu once said: “It is best to win without fighting.” The game’s straight narrative is so bare you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s no story at all -- but if you pay even a shred of attention to what’s going on around you, then you can make your own. You can turn off the console and walk away with something meaningful gained each time. Every time. And if games are going to get better -- if they’re going to reach their full potential as a medium -- then maybe that’s what they should be doing on a regular basis.
Maybe. Just maybe.
But seriously, those rocket barrel levels are bullshit.
So my brother picked up a copy of Assassin’s Creed: Unity on day one, because of course he did. And he asked me to play through it from start to finish, because of course he did. And I played it for no more than an hour the night of release before getting bored and frustrated and going to bed, because of course I did.
Okay, I know that’s not exactly fair to the game. I’ll give it another swing somewhere down the line, because I want to give it -- and the series at large -- a chance. But Unity hasn’t made that easy for me so far. I’ve been lucky enough to avoid some of the now-infamous glitches so far (barring getting glued to a chair for a few seconds during a chase), but so far it’s been kind of scattershot. By which I mean pretty scattershot. And, you know, not great.
The game starts with some guy using a lightning sword (huh?), and then cuts to Arno as a kid so players can putz around, and then cuts again to him as a hyper-smug Aladdin wannabe who walks around with a sword in broad daylight and can naturally do the standard parkour because…uh…is he already an assassin? Or is he just that good already? Well, whatever. I guess it’ll be explained. But what’s happened so far hasn’t clicked for me. I can say it’s not as aggressively awful as Watch Dogs, but the tradeoff is that it’s aggressively boring.
Weirdly, Unity made me think back to The Wind Waker. You start off as a sleepyhead hero in a lobster shirt, but you’re given an objective -- get a present from Grandma -- to advance the plot. You have all the time you need to do that, but until then you’re free to explore Outset Island. You can jump on rocks to get Rupees, chat it up with locals who’ll chat back (and teach you gameplay mechanics, like crawling and carrying pots), swordfight with Orca, and just plain enjoy the sights. Humble beginnings, for sure, but stronger because of it.
Compare that to Unity. You’re playing as some guy in red and white who’s suddenly tasked with chasing some other guy while there’s a big fight happening all around you. So you follow that guy and beat him, but you get stabbed by cutscene’s end. Then you flash forward to kid Arno, and you have to follow some girl and steal an apple (so a guard who I swear wasn’t there before can spot you and teach you some of the stealth mechanics). Then you get another cutscene where Arno’s dad is found dead, which would be a bit more impactful if we’d spent more than three minutes with the guy. Just a bit, though.
And then you’re adult Arno (who looks eerily similar to Jake Gyllenhaal for some reason) and have to escape from some smithy brutes. And then you have to go follow a carriage. And then you have to sneak into a manor or whatever because there’s a letter that has to be delivered right now. And then those same brutes catch up to you somehow -- setting aside the fact that they had to sneak in too, albeit through an open door -- and they fight you. And then I lament having to go through a combat sequence in an AC game while hot off the heels of Bayonetta 2. And then you escape again. And then you have to sneak into a ball.
Don’t worry. It’s about 5% more riveting than I make it out to be.
What really gets to me about Unity is that despite popping up on these spiffy new consoles, I don’t feel like the game is even trying to sell itself. Okay, sure, I’ll concede that virtua-France looks good, with all the awe-inspiring architecture and attention to detail you’d hope for, but it all rings hollow. Unless there’s a mission to be dished out, you can’t have any meaningful interaction with NPCs other than bumping into them. In all fairness you can watch them interact with each other -- a couple being lovey-dovey, for instance -- but you’re an observer and nothing more. You’re invisible to the world before you even put on the hood.
I understand that adding in Zelda-style interactions for everything and everybody would be impossible. And on top of that, I understand that games -- AC or otherwise -- are all about creating illusions, and giving the feeling of depth without actually providing it. But the illusion in Unity wore thin from the get-go. It’s a feeling I share with AC3; I broke off from following some dude to chase after a thief who stole an apple, and followed him into an alley. But when I finally made my approach, the thief stopped cold, dropped the apple, and went straight back to walking aimlessly -- just like the hundreds of NPCs lining the streets.
I just don’t get it. I can’t get a handle on the design philosophy here. Okay, I’ll give the franchise the benefit of the doubt and assume that I’m just the square peg getting mashed into its round hole. But even so, am I being crazy here? Am I really so wrong to wonder what the appeal for this franchise is? Am I really, considering how much dissent there is and how many comments express concern at best? I have issues just with that philosophy; it feels like for all the effort put into rendering these worlds, it’s all for naught because the core of the game is largely “go here and kill this guy”. And if Unity’s start is anything to go by, you could charitably add “follow this guy” or “avoid those guys”.
It seems like Unity is the straw that broke the camel’s back, but if you ask me that camel was already a shambling corpse. I mean, didn’t AC3 pretty much flay everyone’s expectations and become a black spot on a franchise noted for issues notable since AC1? I know there’s some kind of blind faith in the franchise that keeps the zombie camel trucking along, but at this stage in its life can we at large keep pardoning it? Should we? If Ubisoft is content with doling out stories of varying quality and gameplay with long-noted faults, why is it that a bug-riddled, microtransaction-pushing, embargo-abusing game is some perceived “last straw” for a franchise that saw fit to push three incrementally-changed editions of a sequel?
And so I have to ask: do we need Assassin’s Creed anymore? Because the way things are now, I say no.
I want to like this franchise. I really do. I like history, like my father before me -- and the idea of exploring fully-realized worlds leaves me chomping at the bit. But that’s the clincher; I want fully-realized worlds, not just facsimiles of them. Maybe that’s why I like the Zelda games; they’re exponentially smaller, sure, but even the decade-and-a-half-old, single-town Majora’s Mask managed to infuse a level of character into its world that you’d never expect, or even ask for.
The impending doom affected them, and they in turn affected you, while you --the hero -- went on to affect both by resolving the conflict. There was weight to be had there, even if you spent a day talking with the apologetic Anju, or a night with the postman. (Don’t think too hard about the sexual implications of that line; I know I didn’t.)
But as much as I praise Zelda, I recognize that modern games -- AC well among them -- have the potential to go WAY farther. You get to be a part of history, conceptually speaking; you get to experience life in that world, learning and understanding what it was like to be in colonial America, or revolutionary France, or whatever comes our way next. And I don’t mean having an assassin forcibly inserted into the midnight ride of Paul Revere, or being there for the signing of the Declaration of Independence; I mean making them a part of the setting. An active participant, rather than an observer.
It’s to the point where I find myself thinking, “Hey, maybe we don’t need Assassins, or Templars, or Animus, or Abstergo, or any of that. Just have the setting and be done with it.” I’m not even joking. Historical fiction is an established, viable genre, and it has been for years. It’s true that the games would lose their overarching plot and connective tissue, but sometimes I wonder if that’s really such a bad thing. Do you need assassins and ancient rivalries and conspiracy plots in history, which has more than enough exciting clashes in its own right? I say no. Cool stuff has happened in the past; you don’t need lords of stabbing and future VR to embellish what’s already interesting. If you did, then we’d all be hailing 47 Ronin as a cinematic masterpiece…which it is certainly not.
I’ll concede that (ideally) the appeal of Assassin’s Creed is the ability to chart out and execute the assassination plots of your design. I’ll also concede that combat and murder aren’t immediate failure-states in games -- because if I didn’t, I’d have to hate Bayonetta 2. And of course, I don’t have a clear-cut answer on how I’d handle conflict in a hypothetical, hyper-historical AC game of my own. I have ideas, but they’d probably only appeal to S-tier nerds (“Press X to Improve Your Social Standing”). So if you like that -- and the franchise in general -- then you’re not wrong for it. There is merit to the franchise.
That all said, I thought that the appeal of Black Flag was its ability to turn you into a pure pirate, and minimized the franchise’s conventions (the assassin storyline well among them) for the sake of making you a scourge of the seas. Likewise, I thought that Black Flag was one of the best-received games yet, if only because it eased the sting of AC3 while also being NOT about Ezio again. So what does it say about the franchise when one of the most well-received of the franchise is also one of the biggest departures from the franchise? And where do you go from there when you can’t rely on naval adventures without playing fast and loose with geography?
I’m not so cold as to say that Unity should be the last AC game ever. I agree with the common opinion: Ubisoft needs to stop with these yearly releases -- and yikesy mikesy, this year has two of them -- and spend time figuring out how to take the franchise to the next level. From what I can gather, Unity isn’t it; if anything, it’s a symbol of non-progression. It tells me that Ubisoft isn’t just content with staying in a rut, but letting the cement pool around its neck. That’s not a good place to be in, especially when the same company once implied that new hardware would promote innovation.
But I have to go back and ask the same question as before: do we need Assassin’s Creed anymore? Think about it: a lot of the mechanics it paved the way for, like stealth and parkour, have been co-opted by other games. Its combat can’t compete with games that have a stronger emphasis on it (the Arkham series) and/or style in spades (insert any given Platinum title here).
If you’re looking for a meaningful story with meaningful characters, you can get that from a handful of BioWare titles, at a bare minimum. Any given triple-A release is downright guaranteed to have big setpiece moments, and that cinematic appeal so often spoken so highly of. And if you’re hungry for innovation -- as we all are -- then, well, you can look virtually anywhere else. Anywhere.
The nicest thing I can say about Unity is that it looks good. And that it lets me visit Paris. And that I get to meet Napoleon at some point, I guess. But if I can replicate two of those three (maybe all three, ostensibly) just by cracking open a book or running a Google search, then maybe -- just maybe -- something has gone wrong.
So everyone here knows what “serendipity” means, right?
Pared down to basics, you can think of it as a synonym for “coincidence”. In my case, though? It tends to mean that somebody beat me to the punch in making poststhat steal my thunder so thoroughly that saying even a single word would make me look like a copycat -- that, or some sycophant. I know, I know, it’s probably not as bad as I’m making it out to be; still, I absolutely hate it when I match up with someone. I just have to be the premiere pretty little snowflake.
I want to put out as much content as I can, but sometimes it feels like I’m fighting against time itself. How much can I really talk about a game if its relevance falls to the wayside? I mean, I’ve wanted to toss up a post on The Last of Us here for a while, but does anyone care for something well over a year old? Alternatively, if I tossed out a post on something semi-recent like The Evil Within, what is it that would set it apart from someone who did another post on it -- and much earlier than I did? I’d be redundant, arguably. And I don’t want to be in that situation, so I try to consider my moves as carefully as possible. Think before you act, so to speak.
But this time my brother thought for me. One night he said, “You should do a series called ‘Why Do People Love Monster Hunter?’.” So I figured, why not?
Part of the reason why I do posts is to get feedback from others. I want knowledge, and ideas, and experiences, and opinions however I can get them. That’s going to help me in the long run, no doubt. After all, I’m just one person; I’ve had a finite number of run-ins with games, and there are HUGE gaps in my knowledge of titles past and present. So I need to learn more, and evolve more as a result.
I need perspectives -- the ability to understand others’ lines of reasoning. I mean, it’s one thing to say “People like Call of Duty”, but at this stage that’s not enough. Not for me. I can learn plenty from playing the game for myself and drawing my own conclusions (at the cost of suffering through the game, natch), but I need more than that. I need to ask questions as to why people like Call of Duty, or any given game, as a guideline of how to proceed. And who knows? Maybe if I ask others to explain why they like what they do, they’ll be able to better intuit the strengths and weaknesses of the games they digest. Maybe they’ll gain even more than I do.
But let’s not talk about CoD. Let’s talk about Monster Hunter -- as per my brother’s dear wishes.
Full disclosure: I’ve only played Monster Hunter for myself three times in my life. The first was a demo my brother grabbed on my presumably-melted PSP. The second was the release of Tri on the Wii. The third, and most recent, was the Ultimate version on the Wii U. As you can guess, it’s my brother who’s gotten the most mileage out of the franchise so far, to the point where (prior to the release of Mario Kart 8) it was the one Wii U game you could count on him to consistently play without complaint. He’s an ex-WoW player, after all, and as I type this I can hear him playing Final Fantasy 14; MMOs are right up his alley, for a number of reasons. But let’s assume the worst of him -- for the moment -- and say he’s just in it to get new pants.
My experience with MH was…not quite as pleasant. I started up a file in the Wii U game to try and see what the noise was all about. See the world, explore the systems, check out those monsters -- the standard stuff. Unfortunately, I didn’t get nearly as far as I wanted to -- or very far at all -- because in the tutorial section I went out and killed some baby dinosaurs instead of the parent. Then I figured I was some horrible monster taking advantage of innocent creatures and haven’t played the game since. The fact that (according to testimonies) you actually harvest the tears of monsters by beating on them doesn’t exactly leave me at ease.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Emotional trauma aside (i.e. the confirmation that I’m not the pure-hearted maiden I strive to be), I actually get the premise of MH -- and in a lot of ways, support it. I didn’t even have to play for an hour to feel the affect; it felt as if the game practically demanded me to get in touch with nature, even if it started me off in some bustling town. Okay, it’s true that plenty of games will have you go to the usual suite of “forest level, snow level, lava level”, but with MH I could feel the prospect of exploring these areas and interacting with the world on a level I haven’t gotten in a while. Barring Pikmin 3, but that’s a topic for another day.
Obviously, that’s a good thing; some of the strongest stories out there (games or otherwise) are those that can flesh out their worlds. They remember that the settings are characters in their own right -- and proceed to characterize them as best they can. I’d think that games like WoW accomplish that as well, but I can still appreciate MH’s ability to make me leave my world behind in place of its own. Untamed wilds. Frontiers aplenty. Traversing sprawling landscapes on my own two (virtual) feet. Being a part of something bigger than yourself. What’s not to love?
My guess with the franchise is that the people in it are heavily dependent on the materials gained from monsters to live their daily lives. It makes sense, really; if this is a world that takes us back to the past (or some facsimile of it), then it’s likely a society heavily dependent on natural resources on every level -- food, obviously, but clothing, shelter, craftsmanship, and more. The societal implications are staggering, and lends to a scope that’s ripe for telling plenty of potent stories.
Or maybe it really is just about getting some new pants.
I have issues with such narrow-minded thinking; it’s as if the game implies that the only thing that matters is getting loot and killing monsters -- and pushes you head-first into the hamster wheel. On the other hand, maybe that’s not so bad. It lends itself to a sense of ownership over a story…or to be more precise, it lets you make your story. It’s your adventure, allowing you to someday tell your stories of triumph as you crush down towering beasts. Or, heaven forbid, you can learn firsthand what it’s like to get ground into paste under a dragon’s heel. Either way, there’s potential there; you can have a new adventure and a new experience each time you play.
But that’s all based on my conjecture. Like I said, I don’t have a lot of experience with MH -- and given that I’m the self-proclaimed “Eternal Optimist”, I’ve probably painted the rosiest view possible of the franchise. How does it play? How’s the combat? Does it deliver on the scale, and the potential? Is there a point to making dragons cry, and unsuspecting fauna into orphans?
Uh…I’m gonna go ahead and say “probably”.
I suppose that’s where you all come in, then. What do you think of MH? If there are any diehard fans or experts reading this, what sort of nuances keep you coming back for more? Why is it, like, one of Capcom’s only breadwinners right now? And is it rightfully so? Go ahead and weigh in. Give me all your love, as the song goes.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that song was vaguely sexual. Just vaguely, though.
Whatever the case, feel free to give suggestions on what other games I can do these quick little posts on. I wouldn’t mind thinking critically -- however briefly -- on games I wouldn’t have considered otherwise. Plus, I’d like to try something different for once. Maybe find something new and different that works in terms of tossing out content. Could this be a thing? We’ll see.
In the meantime, please accept this collection of JoJo rush sounds.
Heh ha. Next you’re going to say “Man, they sure can talk fast.”
Have you ever woken up one morning and thought to yourself, “Wow! I’ve been a fan of this ongoing franchise for the majority of my life! Spectacular!” Yeah. That was me not too long ago. I can’t say I hate the feeling.
So, Smash 4, huh? You know, it’s funny; if I remember right, the original Smash was pretty much a low-budget, throw-it-out-there title with little in the way of expectations. Fast-forward to the present, and not only is it THE most high-profile release for the Wii U, but it’s also the one game that could convince people to even buy Wii Us. Even though The Wonderful 101 has long since made a strong case for the console, but whatever. I’m not salty at all.
I don’t know why I would be. Smash Bros. 4, y’all!
It’s safe to say that Nintendo’s got a lot riding on the game, and thankfully, they couldn’t have bet on a better title. If the reaction and love for the 3DS version is anything to go by, we’re looking at a fourth batch of lightning in a bottle.
But I think it goes further than that. In fact, I’d say that Smash 4 is one of this generation’s most important releases yet -- if not one of gaming’s most important releases, period.
Why? Well, here’s a hint. And by “hint” I mean “blatant answer”:
For those who don’t know (and why wouldn’t you, unless you actively avoid good things?), Kamen Rider Wizard tells the tale of Haruto, a man fighting to protect the people from the Phantoms -- magical monsters out to wreak havoc and spread despair. I mean that quite literally; see, the Phantoms are born when a Gate -- a normal human who awakens to magic potential -- reach their lowest emotional points. The human dies, and in his/her place emerges a Phantom (even though said Phantom can assume that human form at will…and yes, they DO exploit the hell out of that ability).
The trick is that if a Gate doesn’t fall prey to despair, they become a wizard. As such, it’s up to Haruto -- as “the ring-bearing wizard” -- to preserve, and in a lot of cases restore, the hope of people in need of a helping hand. And so begin his donut-eating, monster-kicking, henshin-filled adventures with his partner Koyomi and the allies he meets along the way -- a mayonnaise-loving archaeologist well among them -- as he pledges himself to others as, ultimately, “the final hope”.
It’s that kind of show. But if nothing else there’s a reason why he’s got a hand for a belt buckle. Why it sings? Not so much.
What I find baffling -- and a little distressing -- is that for one reason or another, a lot of people absolutely HATE Wizard. And unless I secretly have terrible taste, I don’t see the reason for the hate. Like, people realize that the story is pretty much one giant allegory for suicide prevention, right? So you can’t exactly say it’s not complex. Given that the Phantoms are pretty much trolls and miscreants that thrive on finding out your personal information and using it to harass you, I’d say there’s something eerily relevant about the theming there, especially nowadays.
Haruto’s development isn’t so much about him becoming a better person, but about him losing control of the situation he once had a handle on -- and the desperation that guides his actions from then on. He may start out as a Cool Guy, but it’s hard to be cool when you start getting your shit kicked in on a regular basis and your little lady friend is constantly minutes away from death. And on the action front? This is a character that does his best God Hand impression and kicks a Phantom into the sun. Also, not to spoil anything, but one of the baddies is literally a serial killer -- as in, a serial killer who arguably killed less people after he turned into a monster.
I guess I see a little bit of Wizard in Nintendo. Right now, it seems like the Big N’s got a thankless job right now, and takes plenty of heat just for being around. In all fairness, some of that heat is understandable. Nintendo’s in a bad spot, but some of that comes from their missteps, assumptions, and inflexibility. There are things that they can do, and should have done long before this point (get more third party support, revive established franchises, and FOR GOD’s SAKE, PROMOTE YOUR WARES!). They’re not exactly the innocent victims here. Much like Wizard, it’s far from perfect -- but to its credit, at least the Big N doesn’t have a second Rider who’s only there as a jobber.
That all said, if there’s any company -- and console, by extension -- I’d stay loyal to in this eighth generation, it’s Nintendo. It feels like they’ve got gamers’ interests at heart. Or to be more precise, it feels like they’re one of the only ones out to make genuine, quality games -- a far cry from others trying to sell us on “experiences” that are memorable for all the wrong reasons. This past E3 proved that for all its missteps, Nintendo hasn’t quite lost its handle on what (and who) matters most. I’d sooner count on that than promises -- and delusions -- of grandeur.
Speaking personally, Nintendo’s becoming one of my heroes of the game industry -- to the point where I’m about ready to shout “Nintendo, hallelujah!”
I don’t think I’m THAT far off the mark, my biases aside. Just look at Smash 4. Just -- just look at it, will you? Sure, there’s an argument to be made that it’s just another Smash game, i.e. the Big N banking on another established name to turn a profit. And that’s true, in a lot of ways. On the other hand, it’s not as if we get a Smash game every year, or even every two years. Unless the rumors of “Smash Bros. 6” amount to anything, chances are high that we’ll have to sate ourselves with this new release for a good half-decade.
But even setting that aside -- and setting aside the fact that this praise is coming from someone who JUST proposed that games can be more than shallow entertainment -- I can’t help but feel like in this day and age, Smash 4 is something special. It should go without saying at this point, but I have to appreciate the abject refusal to abandon a decent color palette. Moreover, plenty of the screenshots on the main site haven’t just highlighted the updated graphics; they’ve highlighted what can be done with them. Time, and time, and time again Sakurai and company have offered up pictures of those faces, and their reaction to oft-insane goings-on.
I’m sincerely hoping that in the full game, you can take pictures just as delightful -- if only so my brother can have something to stock on the console besides pictures of Captain Falcon. (You’re better off not asking.)
But really, though? Smash 4 is like a digital ambassador of goodwill, offering up plenty to gamers of all kinds. Let us count the many ways.
1) The triumphant return of Mega Man to gaming. (FIGHTING TO SAVE THE WORLD!)
2) The good humor shown by the devs in virtually every trailer, highlighting the fun instead of trying to be “epic”. Well, barring the Reggie/Iwata fight.
3) The sheer amount of content right out of the box -- up to and including a cast that numbers roughly fifty strong. Those are some MAHVELnumbers right there.
4) Almost as if trying to take a dump all over Ubisoft, there are nine playable female characters -- eleven if you count the alternate versions of Villager and Robin (again, taking that steaming dump), and twelve if you assume that Jigglypuff is female. Thirteen, if you refuse to accept Marth.
5) A marriage of simple gameplay and complex nuances to please every audience without catering to or dumbing down for any of them -- accented, of course, by a slew of customizable options.
6) A genuine celebration of gaming’s history, bringing in faces old and new to honor our beloved medium -- so that even if it IS a product out for your money, it’s a product full of meaning. That shouldn’t be anything worth getting excited about, but in this day and age, it is.
7) The ability to generate excitement by its own merits (through improvements, additions, and tweaks to the formula) through a steady drip of unfiltered information, instead of cheap hype-mongering and resignation. No “You will buy this because it’s the next big thing” or “You will buy this because you will buy this” here.
8) Seriously, DID YOU LOOK AT IT? THE COLORS!
A lot of people here on Destructoid have been claiming “dibs” on certain characters, and I respect that. Speaking from experience, I refuse to touch anyone my brother mains, plays, or has played because “they have his stink on them”. Beyond that, there’s the principle; when you choose a main in a fighting game, or even someone you’re willing to add to your stable of fighters, you’re making a commitment. You’re forming a bond between you and your avatar -- someone who, however temporarily, harbors your soul.
The thing worth remembering, though, is that in a lot of cases you can’t choose someone exactly to your tastes -- that is, you can find someone who suits you in Street Fighter, but you can’t create your own world warrior (yet). You have to adapt to preset characters. Because of that, you end up seeing things their way. In their eyes. In ways you never would have thought of before. It goes beyond just being a boxer or a wrestler; whether you know it or not, you’re considering every last one of their nuances. You take away something from them, even beyond their strongest combos.
It’s the same with pretty much every character in Smash -- but for me, it’s with Palutena most of all. It’s one thing to be able to play as a female character -- and make no mistake, I’m thankful this new game has effectively quadrupled its representation -- but it takes more than just adding in ladies.
It’s about the quality of those ladies, as it is with any character. What gives them that spark? What kind of characters are they, in a fight and out of it? What can you take away from a character from a world so separate from yours? Games are capable of showing that, even without a dense narrative built into their code. And while I’ve seen plenty of titles fail to offer up anything, I’m pretty confident that Smash 4 will offer up everything I could need and more.
Playing as Peach in the other games opened my eyes to some new possibilities, no question. And while I don’t intend to drop her in the new game, I’m eager to see things from Palutena’s perspective. I haven’t played as a goddess since Okami, so I want to see -- and feel -- what it’s like to have that potential at my fingertips.
Even if there’s no dedicated story mode, I’d wager that I don’t need one. Her animations, move set, and general appearance can tell me plenty. I know enough about her from Kid Icarus (and even her announcement trailer) to think, “Yeah, this is a cool character.” She’s got style, airs, and elegance -- and even some sass -- that you don’t see all that often. Damned if I’m going to miss out on it now. And thus, I call the greatest of dibs…at least I would if someone hadn’t beaten me to the punch. So I’ll act on my contingency plan and call auxiliary dibs on Peach.
A lot of people these days are sour over the state of games and the industry at large -- and I’m one of them. I know what games can be, but too often these days it feels like they’re refusing to even try to reach that potential because they -- and the minds behind them -- act as if they’ve got no more merit than the average bag of chips. But even before it hits store shelves, Smash 4 has proven that games can be more. They can offer more. You can have that simplicity, but you can offer up what matters most of all: a bond that goes beyond the limits of a simple disc.
It’s a game primed and ready to dispel all the cynicism and negativity swirling around us gamers -- the proof that there are games in the present and future worth believing in. It’s a willing bringer of hope, maybe even more than simple fun. And if that doesn’t make it a hero, then I don’t know what does.
And that’ll do it for now. So let’s end on a high note, shall we?
I can’t listen to that song without thinking of Christmas. Probably because Haruto saved Christmas for a bunch of orphans in one episode. It was the second greatest thing he did in the series, besides imagining himself in his Rider suit playing the piano while wearing a bow tie and top hat.
In summation, Kamen Rider -- much like Smash Bros. -- is too damn stronk. Because who else will push a secret Rider propagandist agenda, if not me?
Alternate post title: DURRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRp.
All right, let’s be real here. I’m pretty sure that by this point, I’ve made no shortage of my opinions known. Some of them are easy to agree with, I hope. Others, not so much. But that’s to be expected. People are allowed to disagree with me, because they’re coming from different places. Different perspectives, experiences, and whatnot. That’s part of the reason why I do these posts -- because those differences in opinion mean something to me.
So I’ll do it once more. Let’s gab about video games for a second.
Obviously, they mean something to me. If you’re reading this, then chances are high that they mean something to you. And they mean something to a lot of other people, across no shortage of generations -- console or otherwise. It’s a young medium, sure, but it’s left its mark on peoples and cultures across the world. That ain’t bad for something that isn’t even as old as some grandparents.
The definition of a game has come into question plenty of times before, recently as well as years ago. There have been questions about whether or not it qualifies as art, whether or not it’s harmful to players, and even if it has hidden benefits (like making us better doctors, for one). There are a lot of unknowns, and even more opinions on the medium. That’s the way it should be, at least for now. Questions beget answers -- and with them, strides to try and conform to those answers.
Still, there’s one subject that’s been on my mind recently. I’m the kind of guy who can (and often does) see things as they should be, and not always as they are. That’s problematic at times, but the tradeoff is that I have ideas as well as ideals. And that extends to something as seemingly-unimportant as video games. I know what they have been in the past, and because of that, I know what they can be. And that’s what I want them to be, from here on.
Each generation should be better than the last. I hope we can agree on that, at least.
There’s a current of thought among some gamers that suggests that “games are here just for fun”. And in some ways, I agree with that. It’s a section of the entertainment industry, so that’s only natural. And besides, it’s not all that different from any other medium. We watch movies for fun. We read books for fun. Even something as simple as looking at a pretty picture can be fun. So if there are any outsiders looking in reading this, I’ll be the first to confirm that pressing buttons and spinning sticks is a lot more exciting than you’d expect.
But if you’ll let me speak personally (as if you have a choice), I think there’s something important to keep in mind. Yes, games are here to entertain us; the question that follows is HOW do they entertain us? In the past, games could largely only accomplish that through its mechanics -- gameplay, and the difficulty that followed, and the layouts of levels, and so on. But once you get a taste of what they can do, it’s hard to go back to just a black-and-white picture of the medium.
So I’ll be frank. I think video games are for more than just “having fun”. Sure, they can do that, and quite well -- oh my God the wait for Smash Bros. 4 is unbearable -- but they can offer more. Think of it this way: why is reading a book fun? All you’re doing is sitting down and flipping through pages, right? It’s more like work than anything else to get through it. But what’s important is the content. The ideas. There’s stuff in there designed to engage you, and get you thinking in a way that a good piece of art should. As you’d expect.
Now, am I saying that every video game needs a compelling story to be good? No. It certainly wouldn’t hurt (and WOULD help matters, in a lot of cases), but it’s not a requirement. You don’t think about turning the pages of a book; you think about the content, and get engaged in it as you process its particulars. It’s the same thing with games. You don’t think about doing DPs or powerslides; you engage with the game because your input directly determines the output. If the mechanics are working as they should, then they can make a case for a game in the absence of some riveting tale.
That in mind, video games are trying -- however desperately -- to be more than just a chance to get high scores and top honors. (Well, some of them, at least.) The Tomb Raider reboot could have just dumped Lara Croft in the wilderness without a story to go by, but it did its best to give a reason to care about its leading heroine -- a narrative from start to finish. Given what’s come out before and after it, I’d say that games are trying to be more. Developers recognize that they can do more than just make arenas and stages.
But that’s the keyword. They can.
The medium’s taken some real strides, but it needs to take more. It needs to get out of this rut -- this perception that games are just murder simulators and power fantasies and whatnot. As others have argued, it can do that by taking on bigger themes. Bigger ideas. It can work those elements into the story and gameplay alike, with a decent level of subtlety or as overtly as reason will allow. If a game can, then it just becomes that much more engaging, and thus higher-quality. If it can’t, then it offers fleeting, surface-level thrills at best -- and sometimes not even that.
So on top of being an incredible racing game, Mario Kart 8 -- continuing the theoretical groundwork laid by Mario 3D World -- is arguably a story about the continuing industrialization of the Mushroom Kingdom, given a shot in the arm by Rosalina’s descent and subsequent offering of new technology; alternatively, it’s a metacommentary about the evolution of Nintendo and its struggle to evolve in (and even keep up with) an increasingly-mercantile industry.
And Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze can be enjoyed as either a top-notch platformer, or as the harrowing tale of a leader forced to bear the sins of his ancestors as he leads his family home, or as a means to take basic gameplay conventions and make statements on karmic retribution and rebirth. Xenoblade Chronicles might as well be renamed The Arms Race That Heads to its Not-Quite Logical Conclusion.
Those in-depth readings -- or reaching -- aren’t necessary to enjoy the games. But they do enhance them. And they -- the gameplay, above all else -- enhance us in kind. As it should.
So basically, I’d say that video games are for three different things, each one on different levels of thought. The first and shallowest is that they’re here to entertain us -- to give a chance to be someone else, and do something incredible. Fair enough. But after that, they’re here to engage us -- to draw us in with their myriad factors, and make us hang on every pixel. And last, they’re here to enrich us. Once we process the information, we come to our own conclusions, and walk away with something gained each time we set the pad down. That’s my theory, at least. And unreasonable as it may be, I hope that’s what games do from here on out.
But that’s just my opinion. And in the end, this is about you. So feel free to weigh in. Offer me some perspective -- and offer it for yourself in kind. Just give the best answer you can to the question at hand: what are video games for? What do you expect from them each time you sit down and play? Are they the best they can be right now? If so, why? If not, then why not? What should they do from here on out? What do you want most of all?
You know what’s next, right? Get those fingers nice and limber. Ready? Set…comment!
And that’s my cue to get out of here. I need to try and come up with some cockamamie theories about Pac-Man.
Oh GOD I NEED SOME WII U SMASH IN MY BODY RIGHT NOW. Palutena confirmed for sick goddess combos. (By which I mean my usual stable of sneaky survivalist tactics.)
It’s been a while since I’ve tossed a post up on Destructoid. Let’s change that…with yet another ill-advised discussion on gender politics in video games! Rejoice, sort of! Or, alternatively, despair!
There was an article on The Escapist a little while ago that discussed the controversy surrounding a recent cover for a Spider-Woman comic. Put simply, the art is what you’d call “buttnomenal”. With the emphasis on the butt. It’s not exactly what I’d call the greatest art I’ve ever seen, but then again my comic book collection couldn’t even fill a shoebox. All I know is that I can respect the apparently-famous artist, but the art itself isn’t exactly something I can get behind. Apologies for the pun.
In any case, the article got me thinking. It actually mirrored a sentiment brought up by (the great) Jim Sterling once upon a time: the portrayal of both genders kind of sucks in video games. But the key idea is that there’s a difference: men in games -- and fiction in general, a lot of times -- tend to be idealized. And of course, women (sometimes literally) tend to be objectified. There’s a difference.
So imagine my reaction, reading that article and agreeing with the opinions there. It should go without saying, but making the fabled and elusive “strong female character” is something that means a lot to me. A WHOLE LOT, but I’ll explain that another day, maybe. In any case, I have my doubts that enacting some sort of sweeping change in the game industry is going to happen just by writing one measly little post, and debating the issue at hand in WAY to many words. But as a would-be writing hero, I would prefer to write good female characters instead of, you know, bad ones.
If you’ve read some of my other stuff, you know that I actually have a pretty lax opinion when it comes to female characters and their design. That’s not to say I don’t believe there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed (Mu-12 from BlazBlue comes to mind, because what the hell ArcSys), but as is usually the case, CONTEXT IS IMPORTANT. Just because a character is improbably buxom or wearing a skintight blue suit doesn’t automatically make them the worst thing ever. The issue -- for me, at least -- is that it’s going to be my duty to come up with that context. There has to be some thought put into the character’s particulars. And as such, I had a thought. “So male characters are idealized, and people tend to be okay with that -- consciously or otherwise,” I said to myself. “So maybe there’s something to be gained by doing the opposite.” And then I asked myself a question.
“Wait, how the hell do you idealize a female character?”
Now, let’s be real here. The obvious answer is to not freaking try to idealize characters, male or female. Just make a character. Give him/her a solid personality. Give them strengths and weaknesses, physical and mental. Give them a chance to be more than just basic archetypes; let them do stuff, triumph, struggle, make mistakes, and more. I’ve always been under the impression that if a character is liked, it’s because an audience naturally decides “Wow, this is a pretty cool guy.”
Or to put it a different way: a “cool character”, in my opinion is someone a person would actually want to be around. Someone you’d want to hang out with, or meet in person. Could you do that with an idealized character? Sure, maybe. But (the great) Jim Sterling brought up Kratos as an idealized male -- and for all the fans he may have earned, I can’t imagine that there are too many people out there who’d want to spend more than five seconds around him. Or, you know, even stand in the same city-state.
But let’s get back to the matter at hand. Let’s go ahead and entertain the thought -- follow the line to its logical conclusion. How do you idealize a female character? That’s a question I’m hard-pressed to answer. I’ll be counting on those of you reading this to offer up some strong arguments of your own, but in the meantime, I figure I might as well try to stumble my way towards one possible answer. So bear with me for another few thousand words.
Like it or not, physical appearances are important -- in fiction and beyond. So a character’s look is definitely a factor that goes into the idealization process. But as many, many, many instances in the past have proven, it’s not enough to go MORE BOOBS, LESS CLOTHES and expect accolades. (It’s pretty much the opposite at this point, isn’t it?) So if creating an idealized male character -- who we’ll call IMC from here on -- is about creating a sense of power, then there has to be some sort of equivalent for an IFC, right?
It sounds reasonable enough. So what is it, then?
I’ve always been iffy about the concept of strength when applied to characters, because A) strength AND weakness is important to the process, and B) I’ve seen that quest to create a powerful character go awry all too many times. Sorting out those power dynamics makes a huge difference-- trust me, I know. But an IMC’s strength is likely different from an IFC’s.
Strength for an IMC means power. Domination. Control. They’re ideal because of their ability to stand above others in terms of ability, physical or mental. (I’d put the emphasis on “physical”, though, because at least in terms of games, there’s usually a push to make the player feel powerful -- and there ain’t no book learnin’ that can do that. Not as well, at least.)
It’s a slippery slope, if you ask me. Sure, giving an IFC strength can help, but it has to be the right strength, and not at the expense of everything else. So yes, Final Fantasy 13’s Lightning may be a no-nonsense soldier that can take on all of the bad guys, but at what cost? To what end? So she can get a trilogy largely reviled by the gaming masses?
I'll be the first to admit I've got a grudge, but I've yet to be convinced I'm off-base here. There's enough evidence to suggest that she’s such a terrible character, her awfulness -- which is never, ever discussed in-universe -- ends up causing nearly all of her trilogy’s problems. Even beyond that, what kind of statement is a reliance on strength making? “In order to be an ideal character, you have to have the ability to hurt others.” That doesn’t sit right with me.
I think that what’s important here isn’t just raw power (in the physical sense). Rather, it comes down to two things: agency and legitimacy. As gamers, we’re no strangers to the princesses, mages, and all-around girlfriends that need saving on a regular basis, and it’s a real problem that even now women are getting the shaft just so our games’ leads can have some sort of motivation. I won’t soon forget that Watch Dogs, claimed to be a major foray into the realm of “next-gen”, gave its leading man -- and I use that term lightly -- a push into action by killing off his niece and putting his sister in danger. Then again, I’m under the impression that Watch Dogs was made by a crack team of wombats, so that doesn’t count.
So the solution to the problem, at least a little bit, is to give the IFC agency. Make a character that doesn’t have to stand or hide behind anyone. It’s been done before with characters like Bayonetta and Juliet Starling, and while that does come coupled with their ass-stomping potential (their ASP, if you will), there’s enough to them so that they’re more than just vessels of power. They are people, even if they’re not exactly what you’d call realistic.
But what’s just as important -- maybe more so -- is the legitimacy of the character, in-universe and out of it. People still point to Ivy Valentine circa Soulcalibur IV as THE example of everything wrong with the portrayal of women in video games -- and they’re right to do so. There is absolutely no justification for that, given either by the character or the story (in SC4, Ivy wants nothing more than to die -- so why is she, a well-off aristocrat, alchemist, and maiden, running around dressed like that?).
Now, there are liberties that can be taken, but there’s always a limit. The IFC deserves to be considered as a legitimate character because of all the factors that comprise her -- words, actions, abilities, and yes, looks. Exaggeration of attributes is allowed -- how long are Bayonetta’s legs?! -- but every factor has to have its purpose. If we’re talking about “the ideal”, then everything has to lead to the IFC being someone that an audience member would want to be. They have to be the apotheosis.
So. Let’s beat a horse so dead, its zombified corpse is mush.
I’m going to be honest here: I actually like Zero Suit Samus’ alternate costume. I’m even not joking. I’ll admit that my perception at the time was altered (my dogs have a nasty habit of waking me up well before sunrise), but when I scrolled my way to her picture on the site, my first reaction -- the one that stopped every other thought cold -- was an unbridled “WHOA!” And the more I thought about it -- i.e. when my brain actually started working -- the more I came to my own personal conclusion. I think ZSS looks freakin’ hype. Not enough to play her, mind (Imma play the shit outta Palutena so I can use some sick goddess combos), but for me it works a lot better than it should.
Admittedly the curvature of her torso looks a little off in that screenshot, but I can look past that. (Darkstalkers and other 2D fighters mess with proportions all the time, in action or out of it; hell, Guy in Super Street Fighter 4 had his legs extended past the norm to get his look and motions right.) When I look at that version of ZSS, I don’t think “fanservice”. And I certainly don’t think of “betrayal” by Nintendo, or “disservice” to a legendary heroine. No, the first thing that comes to my mind is “strength”.
As others have pointed out, she looks like she’s ready for -- or just wrapping up -- a workout session. Coupled with a character renowned for her status as one of gaming’s greatest female icons, it’s a combination that leaves one hell of a strong impression. Does it give added emphasis to her femininity? Yes. Is that a bad thing? No. Are Nintendo, Sakurai, and Bandai Namco skirting a thin line? Yes (even if her costume isn't exactly dissimilar to the Wii Fit Trainer of the same game). Are they out to devalue their character? No. If anything, I think they’re trying to enhance her.
Samus means a lot to plenty of gamers. Even when she was just a mass of pixels, her space adventures left an impression -- as did her reveal. Not being much in the way of Metroid, I can’t comment too much about what kind of character she might be. But what I can say, based on my inferences, is that the separate traits -- the perceived masculine and the perceived feminine -- don’t have to exist behind walls as high as mountains.
In the absence of a game that satisfactorily advances either the Metroid canon or Samus’ character, all we have to go by for now are visuals. What can she tell us with her looks? Her moves? Her stances, her strategies, everything? And right now, the message that I’m getting is that she’s still the badass bounty hunter everyone envisioned, no matter what she’s wearing.
She’s just super-proud of her body, that’s all. Given the option, wouldn’t you be? I know I would.
I can’t shake the feeling that the “trap” that comes with creating a female character -- ideal or otherwise -- is that it’s a concept entangled with creating the perfect woman. Going back to FF13, it’s a long-standing joke that the director of The Lightning Saga treats its leading lady as his waifu. (I say joke, but it’s only funny because it’s partly true.) That’s the sort of thing that can cause one million billion problems for a creator and his work -- but the reason I bring it up is because it highlights the disparity.
Lightning is less than ideal for me; I’ve made that clear time and time again. And the same lack of appeal goes to others. But at the same time, even if I’m a guy who doesn’t mind the HD-boosted ZSS, there are those who have every right to believe that her alternate costume -- or even her main one -- is a step backward. It’s hard to come to, or even get a sense for the consensus.
Is the IFC a warrior, or a protector? A thinker, a fighter, or a nurturer? Striking in appearance, or more down-to-earth? Muscular, or waifish? Tall? Short? Colorful? Subdued? Outgoing? Reserved? Brilliant? Foolish? Passionate? Cold? Exotic? Familiar? And maybe most important of all: shattering gender roles and expectations, conforming to them, or twisting them as needed?
Even someone like Katniss takes heat as well as praise. Is she good? Is she bad? All I know for sure is that she’s popular. But popular or otherwise, she’s not the definitive answer to the question.
There may be no definitive answer, because as long as the execution of the character is on-point, they can ALL be viable answers…just not for everyone. Because of that, I suspect that this problem -- the debates that crop up, over and over and over again -- will keep resurfacing every time there’s a new screenshot or some new art.
There may be no definitive answer -- because there have been very few, if any, in the gaming canon that can or will provide one. More often than not, you find examples of what NOT to do.
Hold your horses. And your comments. I’ll come back to this point in a minute.
My gut instinct is that it’s easier to settle on (and accept) an IMC because the route there is a lot more well-defined. It’s true that Kratos in God of War 1 had some juice to him besides just being Anger McMuscles, but what’s the grand summation of the character right now, and what will it be years down the line? That he’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of giving in to desire, ambition, and fury? Or that he kills lots of monsters, screws plenty of ladies (guess he got over his late wife), and gets to be a god just by being the toughest guy in the room?
Conversely, the route to being an IFC is likely much more complex; even one step down a fork in the road -- a use of one of any number of factors, like the ones I mentioned earlier -- can lead to a dead end. Is Bayonetta as a character universally respected? Or are there those who, justifiably, take issue with her being Sexyhair Q. Crotchsplayer? (The less said about how a female character has to flaunt her body to star in a character action game, the better.)
Bemoaning the lack of female characters -- ideal or otherwise -- is pretty much part and parcel with being a gamer these days. That’s a shame. That’s not the way it should be. But I have absolutely no problems understanding why putting them in the game is perceived as such a big risk. No one has the perfect, one-to-one guide on creating an IFC. No one.
And as it stands, I doubt there is one. I’d like to think that the problem could be solved if developers would ask what sort of character women might want, or at least trying to keep a pulse on the matter. Understanding the needs of an audience is important, especially when said audience makes up a good half of the planet. But on the other hand, I was under the impression that caving to demands and “giving the people what they want” is what gave us such memorable titles as Fuse.
Let’s get serious for a minute. See, I’ve always thought that creators were supposed to bear the responsibility. That is, if they’re out for true success, they can’t just “give the people what they want”. They have to give the people something that they never even knew they wanted. The only way to do that is by tapping into their namesake -- by using their creativity, ingenuity, skill, and wit to offer up something that can please others. Maybe not everyone under the sun, sure, but more than enough people. You know, give them something for them to unite under.
Granted we live in a world where there are four -- and soon to be five -- Transformers movies by Michael Bay, so who knows at this stage. Still, that’s no reason to refuse to put in effort. It’s been done before, and it can be done again. It’s all in service of the fans. If you’re looking to entertain, then you’d damn well better do your best to entertain. No exceptions.
Now, you remember how I said there aren’t a lot of examples of an IFC? That’s true -- to an extent. But there is one that I feel like I have to bring up. No, it’s not Alyx Vance. No, it’s not Jade. No, it’s not Elizabeth. No, it’s not Ellie. No, it’s not whoever you’re thinking of right now, so please stop guessing. They're viable answers, but I have one in mind.
It’s Milla. Milla Maxwell.
The leading lady of Tales of Xillia is an interesting case -- because as it so happens, she’s idealizing herself. Relatively speaking (it’s complicated, and full of spoilers), she’s the god of Xillia’s world; her thought processes and concepts are miles past the norm. As it so happens, she mentions candidly in a conversation that she chose that form -- that of “a busty twenty-year-old”, as one party member puts it -- because she thought it would be appealing to men.
I’ll be blunt. You have no idea how much it means to me to have a character explain their looks in-universe. Especially when said appearance is a wild departure, and/or could raise some concerns for an audience out-of-universe. If you compare Milla to every other character in the game, you’ll notice that her waist is tiny, even taking the anime affect into consideration. And why? Because that’s what she thinks looks best. That’s her way of making herself ideal. To say nothing of her potential tastes.
But it goes beyond looks (and that hair, which probably weighs more than the rest of her body put together). She’s a god who lays claim to the ideal form of power, i.e. using summon spirits to guide her -- and when she loses them in the game’s opening hour, she’s left damn near winded just by walking. She seeks the ideal knowledge by reading all the books she can get her hands on. So in theory, she should be well-adjusted, right?
Nope. In practice, there’s a big tradeoff. She’s isolated herself from humans, and as a result lacking in practical applications of her knowledge. Moreover, for a hefty swath of the game sees humans as toddlers she can laugh at, coddle, or punish as needed. Her virtues and her very status are ideal -- but when the big reveals come and go, she’s left with everything she’s known challenged…though surprisingly, she handles everything like a pro. Up to and including a brief sequence where she’s paralyzed from the waist down.
Milla’s a strange character -- with her voice pretty much sealing the deal on her otherworldly nature -- but I’d argue she gets pretty damn close to reaching the optimal state. She’s an IFC in the conventional sense; de-powered or otherwise, she’s a magic swordswoman who can wallop any enemies that come her way, so physical ability isn’t an issue (once she learns how to walk and swim and eat, of course).
Her looks might raise an eyebrow or two, but that’s counterbalanced by her strong personality and development; she’s a decidedly-mature character who stands firm in the face of adversity. And while there is a romance element to both the character and the game at large, it’s done without any hand-wringing moments. Hell, Jude’s the one who’s pining for her, and spends most of the game trying to reach her level; Milla doesn’t have to suddenly get degraded just so Jude can swoop in and catch her in his arms. (Interestingly, Milla is taller than Jude -- officially by a couple of inches, but I swear the game and several art pieces exaggerate the difference.) So at the basest, you can say that she’s got the agency and legitimacy bits down.
But I guess it’s worth adding a third point to the list: originality. This one could easily be the clincher; it’s one thing to try and make an ideal character, but without that spark to call their own -- by just banking on the basic outlines and expectations -- there’s going to be a pretty big gap if you look any deeper than the surface level.
Considering Milla, she’s in a surprisingly good place; she has a unique perspective on the world, she’s got plenty of character (humor or otherwise), she meshes well with the rest of the cast, she has struggles that no one else in the game can have, and…well, it’s not every day you get to experience a story like hers. In a lot of ways, maybe that’s what it means to be ideal: being a character whose life you want to see unfold, however briefly.
…Shit, did I just answer my post’s own question? Maybe. Then again, you could argue I did that by making Black Widow the header image.
Well, I could be wrong on some accounts -- or maybe all of them. I hope it doesn’t come to that by way of some intrepid commenter, but that’s a possibility I can live with. What’s important now is that I get some insights from anyone who had the courage to see this post through to its end. (One day I’ll learn how to write something with a reasonable length. One day.)
So let’s hear it, then. What’s your take? How do you idealize female characters? Is there a secret to it? Some shining exemplar? Is it even worth it, or just a fool’s errand? Say whatever’s on your mind. And don’t think too hard on the fact that I’m purposely avoiding talking about some of my female characters. Just assume that they’re all based on fighting game archetypes, and you’ll be fine. Ish. Assuming you’re okay with grapplers.
Also? EVERYBODY GO PLAY SOME TALES GAMES. THEY’RE SO GODLIKE.
So you know that whole “turn your brain off” mentality that people throw out sometimes? You know -- the idea that if you just go with the flow, you’ll have more fun? I don’t believe in that. Setting aside the fact that such passive action is what allowed stuff like Michael Bay’s Transformers to rise up, that mentality is a disservice to any given art form and the viewers themselves. It’s okay to let nitpicks slide, but playing apologist and buying wholesale into movies and games and stories that don’t deserve it won’t help anyone.
That’s my golden rule. But I’m willing to bend that rule just once if it means getting my brother and buddy to play through Beyond: Two Souls.
The mere prospect brings out my trollface in full force.
Said brother already has plans to pick it up when the price drops, but I’m incongruously hyped over the prospect of him finally sitting down with the game. I might have sweetened the deal by mentioning the co-op aspect, and my buddy’s on board thanks to the presence of Willem Dafoe (and similarly, being able to wreck the world at his leisure as Aiden). I’m assuming that neither of them knows just what, exactly, is in the game. But I do. I watched the Super Best Friends LP, and actually started watching it again semi-recently.
And I know, without a doubt, that they need to see what’s in that game.
If you think I’m trying to endorse the game, DON’T. It’s like a thirty-car pileup on top of a train wreck on top of an oil spill on top of a forest fire, with a ruined birthday party thrown in for good measure. This game -- and I can’t even use the word “game” properly -- gets so much wrong it’s almost fascinatingly terrible. Almost. I’m pretty sure I never bore David Cage and his crew at Quantic Dream any ill will before; that’s true even now, but after seeing them at their “best” I can’t say I have even an eighth of the good will I had beforehand. Whatever they’re cooking up next, if it’s anything like Two Souls they need to start over.
A part of me was willing to start this post by asking “Has David Cage ever played a video game?” It was going to segue into how you could use the medium to tell or enhance a story, given that his game has been done, and done better. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that wasn’t the right question to ask. There isn’t even a question I need to ask. I have a theory.
David Cage doesn’t need to play more video games. He needs to watch something dumb.
WARNING: Spoilers for Beyond: Two Souls AND Kamen Rider Fourze coming your way. One of those is worth caring about. The other isn’t. Guess which one. Also? I FINALLY get to talk about Kamen Rider at length in a DToid post! YES!
Before I get too ahead of myself, let me say something upfront: when I say David Cage needs to watch something dumb, I don’t mean that in a way that makes 2011’s Kamen Rider Fourze out to be any lesser of a show. Indeed, I think Fourze is fantastic -- to the point where I’d say it has no right to be as good as it is, seeing as how it’s more or less a “kid’s show.” I’d sure as hell watch it (all over again) before I played Two Souls.
But with that in mind, I have no problem admitting that Fourze is a dumb, dumb, dumb series. Intrinsically dumb, that is; 75% of its soundtrack consists of blasting guitars, the first episode has a mech suit straight outta Robotech, the [s]collectible toys[/s] helper robots are based on fast food, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the show is pretty much Gurren Lagann meets The Breakfast Club…especially considering that the lead writer for the former is the lead writer for this series.
It’s worth noting that by designFourze is about a guy in a weird suit punching out guys in weirder suits as flamboyantly as possible. It’s a show full of catch phrases, over-the-top personalities, overflowing machismo, and the overriding theme (of course) being the power of friendship. From start to finish, it’s completely unapologetic about what it is and what it’s trying to do.
And in a way, that’s kind of what makes it brilliant.
If you’re wondering what this bout of gushing has to do with Two Souls, then it’s probably because I want to delay talking about that “game” for as long as possible. (It’s not even worth talking about how it botches its game aspect.) Or to be more precise, I want to give the proper setup. If I were to make a straight post about 2Souls, I’d be doing posts on it for several months. So to counteract that, I’m going to do things differently.
There are lessons that we can take away from both stories, regardless of their form and source. As such, this is going to be a compare-and-contrast sort of post. I think I can pare down my complaints and the major issues with 2Souls into three points -- and I can explain what I mean more thoroughly by using Fourze as an example. So, like the Goofus and Gallant comics of old…and new, apparently…let’s go ahead and put these two stories side-by-side, and see what we can learn.
I’ll go ahead and give you the crux of this thing, though: 2Soulsis awful because of its lead character, Jodie. Fourze is awesome because of its lead character, Gentaro. Why, you ask? Well, I’ll gladly explain why…in a whole lotta words. Strap in.
Jodie has no personality. Fans of Mr. Plinkett/Red Letter Media are probably pretty familiar with some of his more poignant ideas Namely, if a person can’t describe a character’s personality, independent of what they look like, what they can do, or what their position in their world might be, it’s a big red flag. I’d like to think it’s a rule that’s more of a formality than an ironclad measure, but when I think aboutthe number of charactersthat don’t pass what should be a simple test, can’t help but get a little nervous. And now I can pretty confidently add Jodie Holmes to that list -- which is a game-breaker when the main character of the game has no personality.
I’ve heard the argument that in a game like 2Souls, the player character(s) can’t have a personality because it would create a divide between the player and the game -- the independent thought versus the narrative. I don’t think that’s necessarily a dead-end (like others have), but this game doesn’t do anything to make an argument for itself. Jodie is caught in a purgatory, torn between being a puppet for the player and a slave to the plot…but neither of them works well together. At all.
What you say and do with Jodie only has the most tangential effect on what kind of person she becomes at story’s end, and that’s not helped by the fact that the story is told in a fragmented form. What could have happened to turn the shy bookworm Jodie into the rebellious punk rocker Jodie? We’ll never know, because there’s no connective tissue between one and the other.
Worse yet, it just highlights how little your input matters; the Best Friends immediately opted for revenge so bookworm Jodie could get back at the teens that mistreated her. So why, post-time skip, would she want to go out and hang with anyone? Wouldn’t she become a bitter recluse after that and other events? If not, then why would she go through the transformation that did? What events made her the person that we see at endgame, and long before that?
With 2Souls, there is no character arc. Just a bunch of random Ellen Page clones strung together.
But the biggest sin that Jodie commits is that she’s got zero emotional range. I’m not trying to take shots at Ellen Page here -- she’s a better actor than I’ll ever be -- but she’s pretty only allowed to have four modes throughout the entire game. The most common two are teary-eyed despair and fury over being slighted. Incredibly pleasant stuff, to be sure.
The other two, eerily stoic behavior and cloying awkwardness, are lucky to appear in more than two chapters -- and that’s a generous estimate. None of those four are very compelling. Nothing noteworthy, nothing to get excited about, nothing to enjoy. And as a result, she’s nothing to enjoy. And that just feeds into another set of problems…but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Let’s switch over to something good.
Gentaro has a simple but effective personality. It’s a strange day indeed when a character with hair like thatis more believable than someone whose face was LITERALLY scanned into a game. But here we are. Now, to be fair, I’m not going to say that a character like Gentaro is one hundred percent possible, or even fifty percent possible. But compared to the sad-sack taking top billing in 2Souls, he might as well be a revelation.
I can describe this guy in three words: passionate, friendly, and forgiving. Those might be the only three words that can be used to describe him (besides dumb, maybe), but that’s all I need out of a character like this. From start to finish, Gentaro’s goal -- something else Jodie lacks consistently, now that I think about it -- is to “be friends with everyone in his school”. And how is he going to do that? With almost manic, feverish dedication. And the occasional experimental weapon module. Times four.
He’ll get in the face of every student he comes across, forcing himself on them and demanding their friendship. He’s consistently entertaining to watch, because his passion has him doing things that no normal person would do. He’s the embodiment of the larger-than-life spirit a fictional character can show. He’s overflowing with conviction and good intentions…and that’s precisely what lands him in trouble on several occasions.
He’s a dumb character, but believe it or not he actually goes through some (subtle) character development. At the start of the show, Gentaro’s got good intentions, but they also make him incredibly inflexible. He wants your friendship, but he wants it on his terms -- he wants you to follow his lead, and screw whatever concerns you might have.
Over the course of the show’s run, he realizes that in order to be friends with a few of the more prickly students of his school (his foil, along with another Rider), he has to understand and accept their circumstances. He needs to learn how to listen and solve their problems, not just march past -- or even over -- them. Does he mellow out? No, of course not. But he does get better about his methodology.
Bear in mind that this is all independent of when Gentaro puts on his suit. But it is worth noting that his personality informs his fighting style -- a head-on attacker who’ll use every weapon he’s got (and then some) to bash the Zodiart of the day. Incidentally, this means that he’ll also willingly use VERY experimental technology -- the Astro Switches -- as his primary weapons. Some of them work out, while others lead to him getting blown up, electrocuted, or otherwise bouncing around like a doof. But over time, he learns the value of practice and preparation, and using his head. Well, somewhat. Relatively.
…Give him a break. He got a 4 on his test.
Jodie is barely a presence, even in the scenes she's alone in. If I had suddenly forgotten everything I know about 2Souls, and you showed me the game from start to finish while telling me that Jodie is the main character, I would have asked you “Really?” And then I would have hit you with a Death Fist straight outta Tekken.
It’s bad enough that Jodie can only be reliably counted on to cry or rage, because the definition of a good character has apparently become “someone you should feel sorry for, so cry for her. Cry, you fools! CRY!” It’s even worse when you realize that her actual effect on the plot is either minimal or contrived -- and no matter which road it takes, it (and she) is never compelling. This is a character that’s put at risk of sexual assault AT LEAST four times throughout the game, forcing the player to step in as her [s]Stand[/s] ghost-buddy to protect her from the big scary men.
She’s constantly getting strung around by forces beyond her understanding -- a patsy who gets used by scientists and the CIA to clean up dumbass evil ghost experiments and kill off African presidents because reasons. Stupid reasons, given that you’d think Jodie the CIA agent would read up on political affairs before going on a mission…but in her defense, she had to make goo-goo eyes at her superior officer, which I’m pretty sure is not something CIA agents are allowed to do. But hey, she’s a female character, so of course she has to fall in love with a plank of wood, right?
Remember when characters were allowed to have agency in stories instead of just getting jerked around by the demands of the plot? I miss that. Oh well. Bring on the faux-epic tales of misery!
Jodie has absolutely nothing of interest about her when it comes to her personality…but things only get worse when it comes to her skill set. As you’ve probably heard by now, players take control of Jodie as well as Aiden, her ghost-buddy who acts on her behalf to possess/choke enemies or interact with the environment. But he has more problems than that; he can put up a shield that protects Jodie from everything, he can use his magic to cure Jodie of anything, and his movement range varies from a few dozen feet to infinity.
So basically, Jodie can solve any problem she comes across. She’s invincible. Her struggles don’t ring true because there’s no tension. No chance of failure, unless the game contrives reasons for danger by way of omission. (Why doesn’t Aiden steal money for Jodie when she’s homeless, since we know he can act autonomously? Why doesn’t Aiden just pull up his shield whenever Jodie’s in danger? Why doesn’t Aiden just kill everybody?)
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the game warps around to make Jodie useful, at the expense of the player’s suspension of disbelief. A five-foot, hundred pounds soaking wet girl can punch out soldiers? And suddenly wear the uniform made for someone a foot taller than her? And tries to sneak into a Chinese underwater ghost base in spite of being white…when there’s a Chinese guy five feet away from her?
I don’t believe for a second that Jodie is capable of anything but crying and flipping out. And because of that, I don’t see her as anything more than a walking, talking, weeping pain in the ass. Why is she the main character, besides the fact that she’s the person the camera follows the most? That’s a question no man is equipped to answer, at least not without severe brain damage and a swimming pool’s worth of beer.
Gentaro dominates in nearly every scene he's in. There is never a doubt in my mind that this is Gentaro’s show. It goes beyond him being the titular Kamen Rider Fourze; he’s the character that defines and pushes forward the show’s ideas, as any main character should. He is the show’s premiere asskicker, seeing as how the only other character that can even hurt the Zodiarts is another Rider (and the occasional power armor-piloting comrade), but he’s playing a mental game of tug-of-war in-universe and out of it that sets him up as the lead character.
He’s loud, boisterous, and determined. He’s THE embodiment of hot blood, and exactly the sort of character you’d expect from the mind behind Gurren Lagann (so I guess it’s appropriate to call him Kamina 2.0). His passion is undeniable, but it’s part of what makes him a character worth getting invested in. Gentaro strikes me as the type of person who thinks that if you flap your arms hard enough, you’ll be able to fly.
You know it’s wrong, and stupid, and goes against nature, but you can’t help but shake your head, smile, and say “Bless your heart” -- because you know by the time you do, he’ll be leaping off the roof to give it a shot. But he’ll leap right back up, smile, and the two of you can laugh about it over manly discussions on what’s the greatest enka song ever created.
That all said, I feel like it’s important to remember that just because Gentaro is passionate doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s got no emotional range. Granted he’s usually hot-blooded, but he is capable of being quiet, or introspective, or respectful. He just tends to go about things his own, usually dumb way. More to the point, there’s a concept that he (and the writers of Fourze) understands that Jodie (and David Cage/Quantic Dream) doesn’t: the power of going out of character.
The expectation is that at almost all times, Gentaro’s going to be a loud, grinning idiot. And in many cases, that’s true. BUT in the moments when he isn’t -- when he does something you wouldn’t expect of him, like engaging in a rain-soaked duel with a friend-turned-Zodiart with none of his usual gusto -- you know something’s up. And it carries more impact.
I don’t want to spoil too much about what happens in the show (because you need to watch it, otherwise you’re doing the internet wrong), but I will say one thing. When Jodie cries in 2Souls, you just go with it and move on to the next scene, wondering when you actually get to play the game. When Gentarocries in Fourze, you know damn well he’s got a good reason to. And believe me, he does. There are a couple of scenes late in the show’s run that not only exemplify his character development, but make incredible use of going out of character.
Simply put, characters that have been happy, smiling idiots from minute one of episode one are trying and failing to fight off tears -- and you can’t help but do the same. “No, no, no, don’t do that, you’re not supposed to be this kind of character,” you might think (because that’s what I thought while wiping my soaking face). To say nothing of what happens a few scenes later, as well as the final episode at large. Fair warning: the final few episodes may or may not utterly destroy your soul. If nothing else, I get misty-eyed just remembering a few snippets. It’s that powerful, because it understands how to make use of different tones, emotions, and natures of characters.
Fourze -- and Gentaro, by and large -- masquerades as a loud and brash moron, when in reality he and the show have an understanding of emotional depth that a “serious drama” like 2Souls wishes it had. The “kid’s show” has proven its intelligence years before gamers were greeted by Jodie’s immensely zoomed-in, open-mouthed face shoved into the screen. (Because I’m working under the theory that David Cage has some kind of zoomed-in, moist face fetish.)
There’s something wrong with the situation when I get more out of a show with a conehead-suited protagonist than a multi-million dollar pity party starring a Stand user.
Jodie is only someone you care about because otherwise there would be no game. You know, it’s not often that I think to myself, “Gee! I sure know what I’m talking about in this situation! I must be a better writer than I thought!” But I sniffed out a BIG problem early.
See, I didn’t feel like I got the context I need from the demo, and that made me worry that I wouldn’t get it in the full game. So here's a question: in the context of the demo, why is killing the primary option? I didn’t know who Jodie was or what she’s been through besides the experiment and training in a gym. I can deal with her trying to escape, but why did I get railroaded into murder? Besides "because video games"?
If Jodie is so desperate and/or resolute that killing is her primary goal, then aren’t the police and SWAT teams justified in trying to capture her? Why was I supposed to sympathize with someone who choked an officer to death with her handcuffs? Was it supposed to be a bit of subversion? Was the intent to actually have me play as the villain? I sure as shit hoped that was the case, because a tragic backstory isn’t enough to justify the murder of people just trying to do what they think is right, and it shouldn’t be enough.
So, having seen the game played in full, what do I think?
Here's the number one question: is Jodie the villain? Not directly, but that’s only because the plot (such as it is) makes its antagonists into strawmen we’re not allowed to sympathize with -- and before you ask, yes, Willem Dafoe suddenly decides to become the bad guy at the end because A) he’s the number-two actor in the game, and B) rrrrrrrrrrrrreasons! But Jodie doesn’t make a very good argument for herself. There’s no internal consistency to this character, and not just because of the time skips. She’ll flip-flop in the middle of scenes, deciding to punch out or kill people just to fill some “you go girl!” quota.
Remember, no matter what you do the demo ends with Jodie threatening to kill people just trying to do their job, and this is after she’s already taken a few lives. But as it turns out, the context for this is that, because she was betrayed by the CIA and killed one person -- setting aside the dozens she had to hurt, kill, or possess along the way, AND the people she let Aiden harass in chronologically-previous chapters -- she suddenly has the right to hurt everyone in her path. What about their friends and families, Jodie? What about laying low until the heat dies down? What about not using your powers to effectively burn down a block of a town? If you’re going to be a remorseless killer, then there’s a reason why the cops are releasing the hounds on you.
The ending of this game has Jodie (and the player) making the one of, if not the only choice that really matters: deciding whether Jodie, after destroying the government’s big stupid accidental doomsday device -- don’t ask -- elects to go back to the world of the living, or stays dead and travels to “the beyond.” The Best Friends actually discussed this for a moment, and ultimately decided to leave Jodie dead…as a screw you to the game for forcing a romance on Jodie no matter how much they tried to resist.
Now, normally I’d disagree and choose life no matter what, but in this case, they made the right choice. They absolutely made the right choice. In a situation like this, the implication is that Jodie should wave away the beyond -- shown to be a fluorescent paradise -- and head back to the real world to start a new life. She should find new freedom, and new happiness. And above all else, she should believe that she has hope -- and a future created by her own hands. She made it through the rain.
The problem is that in the context of 2Souls, there’s absolutely no reason for Jodie to go back. There’s no reason to believe there’s any hope for her. This is a character that’s consistently under threat of sexual assault, consistently beaten down and lied to, consistently betrayed, consistently left unloved, feared, or hated, consistently forced to face nightmares beyond human comprehension (and nightmares well within them), and consistently shown to be suicidal.
Granted some of those problems are ones she created herself, but the damage has been done. The sheer oppressiveness of the “story” has completely invalidated the message. The intent. The one choice that matters. Why should the player believe that Jodie’s life will get any better when she’s probably in danger of being pinned to a wall as soon as she walks out of the building?
This isn’t just my reasoning. The Best Friends realized the same thing. Any gamer would, too. Any idiot would. Why David Cage couldn’t do the same makes me question the very foundations of reality.
Gentaro is a character anyone would gladly ride with to hell and back. How does the saying go? Every man is the architect of his own fortune? I don’t know how you’d say that in Latin, but it’s still a pretty good line regardless.
It’s true that in spite of being played by a real person, Gentaro is as fictional as they come. He’s the construct of a slew of writers, and probably more than a few business decisions (though in this case, that might actually be a good thing). But as I said, he’s a more believable character than Jodie will ever be. Why?
Because even though he appears in a medium that has an even more passive format than the common video game -- even 2Souls, albeit very slightly -- I believe that this character is living, breathing, and moving on his own. I believe he’s making his own choices. I believe he’s acting not just to fulfill the writers’ wishes, but for his own beliefs and satisfaction. I believe he’s free to choose for himself what he wants to do.
All he wants -- besides punching out the bad guys to protect his school and those in it -- is to make friends with everybody. Why? Because when he was a kid, he told his parents that he made a new friend, and that made them happy, so he kept on doing it. That's it. That's all there is to it, and part of what makes him the character that he is. Besides the hair. (Looking back, I think his pompadour got even MORE outrageous over the show's run.)
It’s true that his parents died in a car accident (something that he mentions off-handedly, and to my surprise didn’t feed into the main plot vis a vis some big reveal), but he doesn’t let his grief make decisions for him. He just believes steadfastly in his goal, whether he strides or stumbles toward it. Not a lot of people, real or fictional, would go to the lengths he does to befriend someone. But that’s precisely what makes him so charming. That’s what makes him such an interesting -- and dare I say it, GOOD -- character.
Gentaro is free in a way that Jodie isn’t. The only reason Jodie saves the day (after spending so much of the game faffing about) is because she just happens to be in the exact place she needs to be to stop the big dumb doomsday machine that shouldn’t have been built oh my God why are you people so stupid.
She has no plan. No will, no personality, no presence; she’s almost as invisible, and unknowable, as her ghost-buddy. She’s just a plot device, and a punching bag whose only merit is giving David Cage a chance to indulge in his face fetish by zooming in every chance he gets. (Seriously, Heavy Rain? 2Souls? That PS4 tech demo? Zoomed-in faces aplenty.)
Jodie is just terrible. Gentaro isn’t. He’s energetic. He’s dynamic. But most importantly, he has something that every character should have, regardless of whether they’re smiling heroes or stone-faced avengers: CHARISMA. If they can do what they do in a way that makes them compelling -- an irresistible force that you can’t help but get swept up in -- then they’re more likely to be a character worth remembering, and help make a story worth adoring.
It’s not that hard. Fourze shows this in every single episode; there are students in trouble, so Gentaro jumps in to help them, be it by taking on their problems or by beating the monster transformation out of them. (It makes sense in context.) He’s the kind of guy you want to see more of…while Jodie’s the kind of thing you can’t look at for long thanks to some uncanny valley swan-dives. And, you know, being kind of shit.
I don’t know how much effort went into 2Souls or Fourze. Nor do I know the exact budgets for each. (I’m guessing marketing cut deep into the wallets of both.) But it’s pretty obvious which one used its effort, talent, and resources a lot better.
I could go on and on about both. I could talk about all the failures of 2Souls, be it with the game design or that ramshackle thread they called the plot. Likewise, I could talk all about what makes Fourze a blast from start to finish, along with what makes it a deeper show than it appears to be at first glance (fun fact: revenge, filial piety, and the effects of drug withdrawal all make appearances.)
That's not to say that there aren't stumbles (example: if you thought the Clark Kent/Superman issue was bad, wait till you get a load of the second Rider). But it’s as I’ve said a hundred times before: the main character defines the story. The main character makes or breaks the story. And for all the effort that went into covering Ellen Page’s virtual face with blood, sweat, and tears, she’s been outdone a thousand times over by a grinning moron with a pompadour.
David Cage? Quantic Dream? Next time, be reasonable. Act within your means. Learn how to make your audience smile before you think you can make them cry.
And that’ll do it for now. See you guys around…when I figure out how to work Kamen Rider W into a post.
All right, look. Can I be honest with you guys for a second?
Sometimes I feel a little iffy about drawing comparisons to other games when I’m trying to illustrate a point. It’s an effective method, no question, but I’m worried about potential backlash. I mean, think about the last post -- when I brought up Gears of War and DmC, it definitely wasn’t in a positive light. I’ve always felt like I have to be wary about how I talk about those games and others; setting aside the fact that calling out those two is like making a joke about Twilight, I’m certain that the games have their fans. People like them, even if I don’t. And I have to respect their wishes as well as their opinions. And I’m going to as best I can.
I just thought that I’d give that little preface. Because now I want to talk about Watch Dogs. And those of you who like the game MIGHT want to skip the next few paragraphs.
I don’t have any problems thinking of Watch Dogs as one of the WORST games I’ve ever played. It is, in my eyes, a spectacular failure in every way imaginable -- a dull, confused mess of a game devoid of ambition or vision, and tries to jam in elements from other, better games without understanding how they work or why they were good in the first place. The gameplay is a mess, the story is dead on arrival, and it squanders all its goodwill in the time it takes to reach the end of this sentence.
But the reason why I bring up Watch Dogs is because it’s emblematic of the exact problem I’ve had with so many other games in the past -- and only goes to prove the case of Devil Survivor 2. Ubisoft’s latest was brimming with promise, and had a chance to intelligently explore its themes -- among them, the perils of a wired world and a projection of the future we could be heading for. That’s not going to happen in a game where some of the most harrowing things you do are make things explode and plaster “U MAD, BRO” on freeway signs. Certainly not in a game where the inciting incident is a revenge fantasy/IMMA PROTECT MUH FAMILY bit ripped straight out of the RoboCop reboot…itself ripped from any number of other stories.
I don’t understand how you make a game that cost at least sixty eight million dollars for an eighth-generation console, yet somehow manage to make it feel smaller and definitely dumber than a years-old DS game. I just don’t. Wait. Actually, I do. It’s because in this day and age, it’s not enough to just build some shambling chimera from the pieces of other games (even though Watch Dogs has already become a top-seller, but copies sold don’t always equate to satisfied customers). It’s about measures. You measure by design, and judge based on the complexity of the concepts therein. And on top of that, you measure by execution, i.e. how well a game manages to explore its mechanics -- story-wise, gameplay-wise, whatever -- for your entertainment.
So will Watch Dogs be a financial success? Undoubtedly. It’s already left its mark on sales charts, so I doubt we’ll be seeing the last of Aiden Pearce, The Most Boring Man in the World. Will it have earned a moral victory, or an emotional one? Will it have earned loyalty that matches the hype surrounding it? We’ll see. But whether it does or not, that doesn’t matter as much to me as you think it would. Oh, sure, I think we gamers can do a HELL of a lot better than throwing money at such gormless products, but to compensate, we have games like Devil Survivor 2 that can show everyone how it’s done.
And I guess it’s up to me to show you why…while pointing out its faults.
And also, SPOILERS. INFINITY SPOILERS.
One of the things I couldn’t help but praise in the last post was DeSu2’s forward-thinking. The underlying question was “how do you rebuild the world?” And it’s a valid question -- one that I wish more games would tackle instead of fading to black with little more than flimsy promises of hope and better days once the big baddie’s buried. Mind you, this wasn’t just something tacked on in the last hours of the game; this is an overarching element of Desu2’s story that, while not the key element at the outset, is still one that weaves its way through the entire game.
The choices therein are as much a slew of interesting story routes as they are a judge of character. Given the choice, would you support a world of absolute equality, where everyone supports one another but there’s no drive to excel or improve yourself? Would you support a world based on merit, where the strongest and wisest are given their rightful chance to rule, but at the cost of using a pile of bodies to build your ladder to the top? Would you forgo the chance to remake the world (even for the better) just so you can bring back the status quo? Would you kill a god regardless of the consequences? And even beyond all those options, would you fight -- and even kill -- a friend just for the chance to realize your vision of a better tomorrow?
There are difficult questions being asked here, without a doubt. Now, admittedly, I think that the issues at hand (meritocracy vs. egalitarianism) are incredibly simplified versions of their usual selves, or at least what Wikipedia might suggest. There are probably a lot more societal and political issues here, and plenty more beyond that. But even so, it’s not a deal-breaker; after all, the new world is going to be created by a supreme administrator that looks like a fusion between a giant ice pick and a dreidel and has no qualms about brainwashing humanity to suit your needs.
Likewise, the people proposing these ideas -- JPs chief Yamato and ace detective Ronaldo -- are repeatedly called out for being too extreme and too stubborn for their own good. It’s only natural that they oversimplify things and assume that their ideals will fix the world’s problems. (It’s worth noting that in Yamato’s route, he willingly admits that it doesn’t matter if he’s the one ruling in his merit-based world; all that matters is that the best man for the job takes the throne…though in his ending, he’s the one with his own towering skyscraper, and he stands triumphant while flanked by his comrades.)
As it should be, the deciding factor for whose world ends up being built -- note that I didn’t say “who’s right” -- is the main character. Or rather, the player; it’s through the efforts of said main character (who for the purposes of this post I’ll start referring to as Hibiki Kuze, in “honor” of the decidedly-awful DeSu2 anime) that the game not only gets its ending, but a couple of its strongest weapons. Unfortunately, it also comes with what I believe to be one of the game’s biggest faults.
Hibiki’s presence, first and foremost, contributes to the idea of “leadership” that runs throughout the game. Whether you agree with Yamato/Ronaldo or not, there are others in the game that do, and for valid reasons. Maybe they wouldn’t if the status quo wasn’t in place, but the world has been wrecked almost beyond repair, and the implication (well before game’s end) is that beyond Japan’s borders, there isn’t even a world anymore.
In times of crisis, the people need strong leaders -- and there’s no one better for the job in this case than the man spearheading an organization designed specifically to counter the threat of demons and alien invaders. Well, except for the guy who’s doing his damnedest to gather food and medical supplies and offer his own counter-offense against demons and the organization that’s trying to hoard supplies. In any case, they’re men with vision, passion, intelligence, charisma, and most of all power.
And that’s where Hibiki comes in. See, in the DeSu games the stats of the main character are decided solely by you. Every level-up gives you one point to put into your strength, magic, vitality, or agility. In theory, this means that with enough patience (i.e. grinding), you can build a character that’s well-rounded, or even one without any weaknesses.
But I’m convinced that the best build for these games is one that maximizes two stats: magic and vitality. I find magic to be more useful in these games than physical attacks, because you gain easy access to elemental spells that’ll let you hit enemy weaknesses/earn extra turns, AND boosting your magic stat boosts your highly-critical MP.
Meanwhile, boosting your vitality stat boosts your HP and defense, and -- much like boosting the magic stat -- gives you access to some of the best offensive and defensive skills in the game. Think about it: one of the biggest dangers of using a mage in most RPGs is the fact that they can’t take a hit. That's part of that horrid thing they call "character balance".
If you remove that weakness, then you’re left with a character that can dish out huge damage, hit enemy weaknesses, and not only have the defense to shrug off most blows but also equip skills that further reduce damage from all but one or two attack types. Simply put, my Hibiki was nigh-unkillable. Except if he got turned to stone and then got attacked. Then he shattered like an egg.
The takeaway from all this is that, if you build a proper character and make use of the possibilities available, you’ll be able to make Hibiki into the most powerful member of the entire cast. You’re ensuring that the potential he has is fulfilled, and justifying his ability as a frontline fighter. But it’s not just strength that makes him the main character; thanks to the player’s guiding hand (assuming that you can pull off a win), Hibiki is a tactical genius that ensures victory after victory. Even if Yamato and Ronaldo are the visionaries, and even if they have talent in their own right, it’s Hibiki who’s got the leadership qualities needed to save the world.
And I mean that quite literally. See, there’s a catch to rebuilding the world via Polaris: the administrator will only do it if humanity’s will is unified. That is, those with the ability to even make it to his throne have to have a singular belief. If Yamato goes to the throne with aims of creating a meritocracy, but space-case Joe comes along and he wants equality, then it doesn’t work. Everyone present has to believe in a singular vision (the lack of which may what caused Polaris to start erasing the world in the first place). So, how do you get the best of the best to reconcile? How do you get them to forgo their own beliefs without slaughtering them outright?
Easy. You use Hibiki’s second great weapon: kindness.
One of the major additions to DeSu2 (though admittedly one ripped right out of Persona 3 and 4) is the Fate system. Basically, the more you talk to the cast outside of battles, the more bonuses you all receive. They’ll get elemental resistances, the ability to trade demons on the fly with Hibiki, and unlock more powerful demons for you to use, assuming you get strong enough demons to fuse into them. Really though, it’s incentivizing the player to actively seek out character development moments -- a dirty trick on Atlus’ part, but a smart move all the same. The option to get closer to your party members was there in DeSu1, but the sequel takes it up a notch.
Each character gets a mini-episode to get fleshed out and face a development-inducing dilemma. Joe has to deal with the pressure of facing his sick girlfriend in the wake of a collapsing world. Best bud Daichi learns to be a man, and learns that his inaction could easily lead to the death of the weak and helpless. But special mention has to go to Io, who not only learns to become more confident, but (if you’re with her at the right time) gets to find the corpses of her dead parents. And she’s just in time to see one of them die before her eyes, all while surrounded by rows of body bags.
Consider that just one of several kicks to the balls delivered by DeSu’s narrative.
But the key to advancing each character’s fate (from rank zero to rank five) is going out of your way to heal the wounds in their hearts and minds. The more kindness you show to your comrades, the stronger they -- and you, by extension -- become. If you get them to rank four, you’ve got comrades that’ll follow you even if you don’t align with their ideal of choice. And indeed, you’ll need them for the boss battles that follow; I’m convinced that I was only able to beat the game by exploiting an array of skill combinations and sending in my units to effectively cheat.
The Fate system is there for a reason, even beyond just aping the most recent Persona games. If you ignore your party members, then they become impossible to recruit no matter how much you beg. (Parting with them is a brief, but surprisingly sad affair.) But it goes beyond that. I’m pretty much convinced that if you don’t rank up at all, some of them will outright DIE. And while you’ll have a few strong party members to pick from no matter which path you take, by the time you’ve reached that point you’re probably got a go-to party you want re-assembled ASAP.
In any case, it’s Hibiki’s kindness as much as -- and likely more than -- his strength and intelligence that wins people to his cause. Remember, Yamato and Ronaldo are extremists; the former is damn near villainous in his pursuits, the latter is a verifiable terrorist, and both of them are destructively determined. It’s also worth noting that there’s an unmistakable hollowness to both their creeds; Yamato is in control of JPs precisely because his family and lineage put him there, i.e. the exact thing his meritocracy is partly trying to remove.
Meanwhile, Ronaldo is trying to create a world of equality, but incidentally he’s the leader because he’s the strongest and most capable of the bunch. Neither leader comes even close to being relatable…at least, compared to the kind, considerate, trustworthy kid roped into this mess like everyone else. You know, the same kid who has a first-hand account of what’s going on without any dilution via the lens of power, and goes well out of his way to form precious bonds with everyone. We should be thankful Hibiki didn’t try to install his own new world order.
In any case, the overarching message here is that even beyond societal ideologies, the key to making a better world (or just plain restoring it) is kindness. Being able to trust in one another and cooperate is a key element, regardless of what you believe in. Say what you will about society at large, but I think there’s merit to my words considering the amount of effort, manpower, and coordination it takes just to build a house. Hibiki’s presence lends an element of humanity to whatever side he chooses.
Hell, just being around Yamato probably works wonders for mellowing out the chief’s self-confessed coldness. Ultimately, that’s the developers’ end goal for showing how to rebuild the world -- an idealized and optimistic version, sure, but if nothing else it makes you want to believe and play along. It’s thanks to Hibiki’s efforts -- YOUR efforts -- that, no matter which ending you get, you’re bound to have a glimmer of hope sparkling before your eyes.
But for all my praise up to this point, there’s still a major issue I have with the presence of Hibiki -- and you can consider this a problem that extends to the Persona games and the original Devil Survivor. The thing is…well, Hibiki is pretty much a messiah.
I mean, really. That’s what he is. He’s almost immediately established to be one of the strongest demon tamers. He immediately earns the respect and trust of every character -- even Ronaldo, who at the outset is irrevocably an enemy. Damn near every girl shows some level of attraction towards him, whether you max out their Fate rank or not. Even beyond that, the fact that only Hibiki can sort out their emotional baggage (male or female) is kind of distressing.
You can shift his characterization to be a straight-laced and intelligent leader, a hot-blooded fighter, or a moron, which I approve of…but if you try and act intelligent, too often the game will give you answers to questions that, occasionally, you have no way of knowing the answer to. And yet the others will applaud you just as quickly. Actually, they’re quick to applaud you for pretty much waking up in the morning. There’s being kind and trustworthy, and then there’s being worshipped like a deity.
Now, I know that this isn’t exactly a universal problem; it’s more of a matter of preference. And indeed, there are theme-related reasons for making Hibiki out like this. And on top of that, the whole universe doesn’t revolve around him; he’s a silent observer most of the time, and the other characters are more eager to interact with each other instead of just you. But I can’t shake this feeling that the game’s narrative is warping around to accommodate you and Hibiki, making it so that it’s incredibly difficult to do something wrong.
It doesn’t matter what the other characters want; it’s all about what you want. And this feeds into making the Fate system a little insincere (again, a complaint that I could make against the Persona games). Are you helping Hinako rediscover her passion for dance because you genuinely care about her, and want to hear her story? Or are you just doing it so you can tick off numbers on a list, or get bonuses in battle? Do you even care about Jungo’s cat, or Fumi’s research, or Otome’s daughter? Or do you just want to build their trust so they’ll follow you down your path? I only ask because it could decide whether you're a hero or an asshole.
I’m willing to let it slide because these points aren’t game-breaking. Nor are they things that detract severely from the quality of the game. But they’re still things that should be considered, especially when the point of the game is to rely on and establish strong leaders. How are we supposed to fully understand and accept the elements here if there’s an inherent selfishness to the proceedings? How are we supposed to believe that we’re pulling together as a team when your actions are almost saintly?
Taken on a deeper level, DeSu2 runs the risk of undermining itself by way of its game-based, player-aggrandizing elements. What if I want to work a little bit harder to build bonds with comrades besides just being a yes man? What if I want my comrades to disagree with me? What if I want to struggle to find an answer to the problem, and not just have the best result handed to me?
What I’m getting at here is that (outside of the punishing gameplay, because Atlus secretly gets sexual thrill out of the pain it brings its players), you don’t really have to work for your happy ending. It’s just a matter of choosing the right option, or the option you want, from a handful of items. And in a game where there IS no right answer that’ll save the world absolutely, that’s a bit of a shame.
That’s not to say that DeSu2 is completely worse off for it. It isn’t. But there are faults. The gameplay straddles and occasionally crosses the line between fair and cheap. You have ZERO ability to plan for what happens in missions on your first playthrough, because some fights change the rules on you in the worst ways. And story-wise, one can't help but wonder how "deep and meaningful" these characters are, especially since some bank pretty hard on popular anime conventions (looking at you, Airi). But I can look past those flaws because of the overall package. And I can present to you, dear readers...
SEVERAL MORE UNSORTED POINTS AS TO WHY
DEVIL SURVIVOR 2 MAKES MY BRAIN STIFF IN THE TROUSERS
1) Makoto Sako Easily my favorite character by a long shot -- not just in the game, but one of my top 10 favorite game characters, period. She’s what you’d expect from a military official, in that she’s tough, competent, determined, and loyal -- BUT the game is eager to remind you that just because she’s part of JPs doesn’t mean she’s not human. She’s kindhearted, she’s considerate, she’s more than capable of getting flustered, she has her own dreams and opinions…and man, that pixilated smile of hers gets to me every time. I think I’m in love, guys. But you didn’t hear that from me.
Seriously, let’s just pretend I didn’t say a word about her being mai waifu. Not a word.
Story-wise, Makoto’s an important character because she lends a human aspect to an organization that could easily come off as self-serving and, well, evil. She helps prove that just because you’re on the side of order (relatively speaking) doesn’t mean that you’re automatically a villain; rather, you can use that order to make the world a better place. It certainly helps that Makoto’s one of the key damage dealers in the game, to the point where my version of her could single-handedly slay a dragon and outperform the average god. I guess she does some serious heavy lifting in between missions.
2) Jungo is pretty cool, too And then there’s this guy. Man, I love this guy.
He’s just this simple-minded chef who wants to be friends with everybody and loves the cat he finds…but he will absolutely wreck anything that crosses him. Make him one of your main combat units, and you’ve got a guy who can smash damn near everything in the entire game. Make him an enemy, and he WILL one-shot you for a critical hit that does two thousand points of damage…and by that point you’re lucky to have four hundred HP. Long story short, if you need something smashed, JUNGO SMASH.
Just don’t do what I did in my first playthrough and lollygag when it comes to finding more RAM for Fumi’s computer. If you do, Jungo WILL die. And that would suck. So don’t do it.
You’ll need him for guys like this.
3) The Septentriones are a good-ass idea I didn’t know what to make of the Septentriones when I first heard about them (and I still don’t; calling them alien invaders almost seems like a misnomer). But you know what? Strange as they may be, I get them. I get what the developers were going for.
There’s an element of “facing the unknown” that’s woven through the narrative thanks to the Septentriones. These are incomprehensible, irreconcilable creatures that have neither the desire nor the capacity to compromise. They’re beings created solely to destroy the planet, or at least have it sink into the void as part of Polaris’ task force.
Their power and their very presence are to be feared (and indeed, whenever they show up several characters have the requisite “Oh SHIT!” reaction). A huge part of the game -- pretty much every day of the story -- is dedicated to finding countermeasures against them…and said countermeasures get bigger and more destructive as time passes, to the point where the main cast is semi-responsible for the end of the world. They’re more than just bosses to be conquered; they’re a vital element to the game.
4) This game is more lighthearted than DeSu1 This is something that’s to be expected. Part of the pressure and stress on the cast of DeSu1 came from them being completely without creature comforts -- food, shelter, electricity and of course a safe place to sleep at night were all in short supply. In DeSu2, however, Yamato has accommodations prepared for the cast from the night of Day 1 onward. It contributes to the disparity between the demon tamers -- Japan’s newfound cream of the crop -- and the unlucky civilians/rioters fighting to survive.
So yes, you get a bit more downtime and ability to relax than the original game. And because everyone’s not stressed all the time, it creates more opportunities for events that wouldn’t be tonally consistent in a more serious game. So if you ever wanted to see a whiny Hindu deity get flung into the sky to be shot by another Hindu deity, then you’re in luck. Or maybe an event where an Osaka mascot murders demons to take their money? Or a sequence where Hibiki, Daichi, and Joe get the chance to peep on the girls during their physical exams (in an event called “Secret Garden”)? And that’s ignoring all the moment-to-moment jokes and conversations that’ll put a smile on your face.
5) It’s edutainment! I actually didn’t know about this until I started fiddling with the menus, but apparently you can find out more about the demons you summon/buy through an option in the compendium. That’s actually pretty interesting, because a lot of names might be familiar to you. Thor, Odin, Heimdall, and Fenrir all get expanded details (though it seems like the definition of “demon” has been broadened here), so Norse mythology lovers might get a kick out of that. I haven’t exactly gone through every description -- and can’t until I start a new file -- but from what I gather, pretty much every demon in the game is based on a supernatural creature/deity that exists in a real-world culture.
Take Hamsa, for example (otherwise known as MY SWORN MORTAL ENEMY). Just a pain-in-the-ass duck soldier, right? Nope. Have a gander at this:
“A holy white goose which serves as the steed of the Hindu god Brahma. During winter, geese migrate over India. These majestic white figures flying through the sky became symbolic of Brahmin dignity as they tried to reach Brahma, the god of knowledge. This may be how Hamsa came to be seen as Brahma`s steed.”
See? It’s actually a goose.
6) Go buy this. Just...go buy this. Really. What the hell else can I say?
I will gladly admit that this game isn’t perfect. I know that it’s got some flaws. I know that it’s hard. I know that it’s not the most visually impressive, ergo why I’ve been using pictures from the F-tier anime tie-in. I know it has a distinct Japanese flair (which I still can’t believe is a problem for some people, but whatever). But a good product has the right elements to overcome its flaws, or at the very least make you ignore them. And to that end, Devil Survivor 2 succeeds. IN SPADES.
This is a game that’ll make you think long after you’ve put it down. Even if you clear the game, there’s still plenty of content you’ve likely missed out on. The sheer number of combinations available encourages freedom and experimentation. The challenges on parade here will put you to the test, and push you well beyond your limits. The characters who you’ll meet will stick with you, and drive you to do everything to help and protect them -- because rest assured, if you drag your feet in certain sequences, they WILL die.
A lot of people will tell you that the JRPG is dead, or that they’re all too clichéd and obsolete to be worth anything, or that they’re all incredibly infantile when you get down to it. That, or just an offhand remark about schoolgirls. But don’t you even think about making a mistake on this one: Devil Survivor 2 is a fantastic game. Seek it out and get your hands on it, no matter who or what stands in your way. When there are games out there as good as this, don’t EVER settle for less.
Get in there. See if you have what it takes to survive.
Wow, that’s a corny line to end on. Play me out, Japanese Spider-Man!
About Voltech One of us since 10:40 PM on 02.06.2012
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 a web serial novel, too. Maybe my stuff here and there will be the start of things to come. Hopefully good things, but things all the same.