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The Memory Stick – Investigative Journalism

A likely shoddy ripoff of a popular Destructoid series.

I'm a new arrival at Destructoid, and as such I am still getting acclimated to the site. I've been reading a lot of articles on the site to get up to speed, and I've found that one series, “The Memory Card”, has really resonated with me. It's got me thinking about gaming moments that have had a big impact on me personally. I figured I'd take a crack at writing something like it about one of my own favourite moments (one that I'm sure will never be covered in the official feature) in my favourite game of all time,Steambot Chronicles.

I must warn you before we begin that this post will contain some massive spoilers. If you haven't played the game yet and plan to, I suggest you do that before reading this. It's the kind of game you really should experience fresh.

The Setup

Steambot Chronicles begins as many Japanese Games do: with a dominatrix pirate teaching the controls to some brunette kid. After this humorous tutorial is over, the game proper begins, and we are thrust into one of the most startlingly original openings in the history of gaming: a young, teenage amnesiac is awakened on a beach by a beautiful girl.

Normally, this clichéd intro would piss me off, but in the case of Steambot Chronicles, having an amnesiac protagonist just works. For one thing, it allows the player to control who the protagonist, Vanilla R. Beans, is as a person. This basically means that every conversation gives you the option to be a nice guy, a greedy indecisive prick, or a total asshole.

The other reason it works is because Steambot Chronicles is an exercise in world building. As this is the first entry in the series, you as the player are presumed to be going in with absolutely no prior knowledge of the fantastical world you are entering. It's fitting, then, that the protagonist knows as little of the world around him as you do. You meet all of the characters as he does, and you discover a spectacular world through his eyes.

The first character you meet is Corriander, (people call her Conny for short) the pretty girl who found you unconscious at the beach. After talking to her for a while and getting your bearings, you try to leave the beach, at which point a giant robot knocks a boulder off a cliff and traps you there. Fortunately for you, there is a beat up old Trotmobile, a mecha evolution of the early automobile, in a trash pile nearby. You and Conny get in, smash the boulder, and start the long journey home.

You pass a farm on your way to the nearest town. The fields are being tended by a farming trotmobile, which is basically a giant robot with tractor parts. Irem uses this image to subtly introduce you to one of the central elements of the world: these giant robots have practical, everyday uses. They are not just weapons for fighting, but tools of industry and transportation. They are more practical than cars, and so they have surpassed them as the default method of transportation for the average citizen.

The flipside of this technology is shown almost immediately afterwards, as you encounter a bandit on the way to town. The bandit accosts you with a “rooster,” a heavily armoured trot armed with a single cannon and designed for mass production. This robot, the imp of the game, represents the dark side of new technology. It shows us how evil people will take a useful but dangerous technology and use it to their own ends. The subject of how trotmobiles fit into the world around them is one of the central themes of the game, and in exploring it Irem crafts one of the richest steampunk settings in all of fiction.

After trouncing the bandit, you enter the small town of Hayabusa and are introduced to a few members of the Garland Globetrotters, Conny's band. These characters become key players in the events to come, and can either be your best friends or your worst enemies depending on the choices you make. Your journey across the land mirrors their concert tour, and at points you will even play alongside them. Regardless of whether you end up with or against them, you will get to know them intimately, and their personal history plays an integral role in the events to come.

For the moment, though, they are your allies regardless of how you act. You journey with them toward the city of Nefroburg, taking down a giant Elephant tank along the way. This first boss fight is one of the most epic moments in the early game, essentially playing out like Shadow of the Colossus with giant robots. It helps to demonstrate the true potential of trotmobile technology, even moreso once its true purpose is revealed later on.

Once you reach the city, the world opens up and the game proper begins. You are given a lot of freedom to dick around, seeing the sights and making money by busking or by trading commodities. Eventually you'll continue down the main story path once again, meeting the rest of the globetrotters and learning more and more about their past. You'll get caught up in a battle against a secret organization, or perhaps join them if you so choose. Many mysteries are discovered and solved along the way, except for one very important one. That, you have to solve on your own.

The Moment

Throughout the game you really get to know the Globetrotters as people. You learn the band's history and that of its past members. As you get to know them, you hear a lot about Dandelion, former leader of the Globetrotters, and his brother Chicory. It seems that Chicory was a rather nice boy, beloved by everyone. He was a constant companion to the band, and to Conny in particular. All of this raises the question: where the hell is he now?

Nobody really wants to answer that question, although an astute player can figure out that it has something to do with Mallow, the rich brunette kid from the tutorial. No matter who you talk to, nobody will give you a straight answer, either dodging the question or feigning ignorance. Despite the fact that Chicory's apparent death is the primary motivation for the main villain's actions, at no point in the main plot does anybody tell you just what happened to him. If you want to find out, you need to do some sleuthing.

Now, where would one find record of a tragic incident that occurred many years ago? Why, at the newspaper archives of course! If Vanilla goes into the archives of the Urban Times in Happy Garland (the main city in the game) and examines the bookshelf within, he will find a newspaper from the day of the incident. The article is intentionally vague, only telling you that Chicory was hit by a car outside the train station, but it tells you enough to point you in the right direction. You ask the Station Master about it, and he gives you another clue that leads you to another witness. Eventually, you get to the town priest, who spills the beans about the whole sordid affair.

It seems that on that fateful day, chicory was waiting outside the train station with a present for Connie. Mallow, the son of a rich hospital director, came along and decided he wanted to bully Chicory. So what do you think he did? He took the gift Chicory had bought for Conny and threw it into the street. Chicory ran out into traffic to retrieve the present and was hit by a car.

Wait, it gets worse.

Because at the time it was practically a death sentence to go against the rich, nobody tried to help Chicory for fear of crossing Mallow and his father. By the time Dandelion and Conny arrived at the scene, it was too late to help him. The boy died while an entire city watched, too scared of Mallow's father to do anything about it.

Holy shit.

I can't find a video of this scene and screenshots of this game are more than a little hard to come by. If anyone wants to help me out it would be greatly appreciated

The Impact

Now clearly this is some pretty heavy shit. Not only does it add an element of tragedy to the world, it also gives Dandelion solid motivation for wanting to destroy Happy Garland. None of that is what makes this a defining artistic moment in video game history, however. What makes this a Memory er... Stick moment is the way in which it is presented.

As I said before, this moment doesn't crop up in a melodramatic exposition. Nobody in the main cast wants to talk about it, and understandably so. It was, as I said before, some pretty heavy shit for the Globetrotters to deal with. Part of the band's character is that behind all of their cheeriness there is this horrible event that none of them want to talk about. It's equally understandable that the townspeople don't want to talk about it. I mean, really, what are they going to say? “Oh yeah, the time we all watched as that kid died in the street.” I don't fucking think so. If it were me, I would keep that shit hush hush.

In forcing the player to investigate and find out the truth for themselves, Irem makes the event feel more real, and the characters involved seem more human. The way the information is delivered shows us wordlessly exactly how harshly it impacted the whole city and the Globetrotters in particular. They don't need to tell us that it still fucking hurts because it is evident from their actions that it's a really painful memory for them.

This is interactive storytelling at its finest. Not only does it force the player to involve himself in discovering the truth, it also shows the player the impact of the events that he is investigating. Better yet, all of it is completely optional. You can go through the entire game never knowing what happened, and as a result the meaning of the plot changes dramatically. Irem has managed to convey meaning and emotion not just through dialog or imagery, but through interactivity itself. Just ponder that for a second. Really think about it. If this isn't the Citizen Kane of video games, it's certainly a massive step in the right direction.

There are a multitude of moments in this game that I could write articles about. In the first 20 minutes alone we have the farm scene, which instantly establishes the game world, and the battle with the Don Elephant, which is probably one of the coolest first boss fights in history. The game is literally packed with multilayered moments like this that express their messages through symbolism and dialogue simultaneously, or that are otherwise just really awesome. If the response to this is positive, I'll probably write another one of these in the future talking about some of them. It's just that this moment in particular really stands out in my mind, which is a testament to its emotional impact on the player.

Steambot Chronicles is a masterwork; A truly shining example of what's possible in the medium. It may have a few control issues (as would, I argue, an actual giant robot whose design was based on a vehicle without power steering) and it may lack a little bit of big budget polish, but it more than makes up for its shortcomings with moments like this. If you consider yourself to be a gamer, you absolutely MUST play this game.
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About g-offone of us since 12:04 PM on 11.17.2009

Features Editor of Hardcore Gamer now. You can read my stuff there.
Xbox LIVE:G Off xp
PSN ID:xtreme_phoenix


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