I have a long and amicable relationship with the Saints Row series. While I didn’t play the first one (not a bad thing, from what I hear) I’ve done multiple playthroughs of both Saints Row 2 and Saints Row: The Third. The games taught me what it was that I’d really been getting from Grand Theft Auto all along: a free open sandbox to completely goof around in and go crazy.
There’s been an escalation in that since Saints Row 2. With each new game, the series goes more and more off the rails, and in Saints Row IV we’ve blasted off into space, leaving the rails behind and obliterating them with an orbital death ray. Frankly, I couldn’t be happier. Saints Row IV is a solidification of everything I really loved about the series, with some more insanity thrown on top in superpowered fashion to make the freedom the game provides truly ascendant. However, it isn’t without costs.
THE FLAWED DIAMOND
Saints Row IV is the only destination for the journey that started in SR2. Once we got ahold of the third game and saw the direction we were going in, there was nowhere to go but up on the crazy scale, and the fourth game in the series provides the player with virtually endless opportunities to unleash havoc, with the superpowers your character gains in the simulation granting the best urban superpowered freeroamer since Spiderman 2. Jumping through the world, gliding around and getting clusters to increase the potency of abilities, meandering from diversion to diversion, all of it is just pure distilled fun pumped right into your eyeballs.
So what’s the problem, then?
The problem is in execution and, sadly, bugginess. The gameplay that is there is great, but it’s been marred for me by a constant struggle with glitches; we’ve had to restart countless missions because of triggers not firing or someone crashing to desktop in the middle of the mission. Every time I’m really, really getting into a groove and loving the game, it decides to throw something at me that’s not functioning properly or it breaks a mission and I get sour on the whole experience. On top of that, the progression of the game’s story content falls into the same problem as Saints Row: The Third. There’s too much emphasis in the story missions on filling up time by breadcrumbing the player around to tutorials for various diversions and activities instead of unique missions. Much like the previous game, a large amount of story missions are devoted to simply teaching you how to play the game outside of the story. There’s even a particular mission near the end where the game literally admits that the mission you’ve been assigned is just padding out the hour count. It’s pretty funny, but still, it shines a spotlight on the game’s pacing issues and the stretches of sidequests you’re forced to do in between the missions that matter.
But when those missions come, they’re brilliant. Every one of the primary story missions revolving around rescuing a crew member or the loyalty missions afterward are hilarious, unique, and purely fun in a way that resonates with the rest of the gameplay of the series. One of my co-op partner’s mantras in the experience was “I would play a whole game of this” when we were dropped into a special gameplay mode for a mission. There’s a lot of really great, hilarious stuff there, and the game’s switches into mini-games or alternate gameplay modes for them are seamless and effective. None of the extra special gameplay modes feel tacked on or clumsy, and they’re fun enough that when they show up as diversions later on, we’re glad to revisit them.
ONCE A SAINT, ALWAYS A SAINT
The game’s other shining point is its writing. I expected there to be a lot of hilarious antics and over the top comedy action, but what I didn’t expect was so much emphasis on character development and reconciliation of inconsistencies with the previous games in the series. There’s a huge emphasis on the individual members of your crew; between their rescues and their loyalty missions, you get a very clear picture of every character’s personality, history, and motivations, and on top of that, there are audio logs for each one spread throughout the game world that provide additional context.
Even the original Saints Row is given the full treatment, as its events are heavily referenced throughout the story and brought to reconciliation with the insanity of the later games in the series. It really ties the games together in a way none of the previous entries managed (or even tried) to do, and it surprised the hell out of me that Volition put so much effort into the characters this time around. Things like the sudden shift in Shaundi’s behavior between the second and third games, the absence of characters like Benjamin King after the first game, and even the player character changing from a silent to talking protagonist between Saints Row and Saints Row 2 really drive home the game as a coherent series for the first time. As someone who didn’t play the first game, the context I was given by all of these backstory references was really helpful in tying together the story, and I can’t commend them enough for how entertaining and likeable they’ve made the cast.
ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS
Beyond that, the game owes most of what makes the normal trappings of the series work to its predecessor. There are a lot of comments on the internet referring to the game as “Saints Row 3.5” due to a heavy similarity in the engine and the re-use of the same Steelport we conquered in the third game. I think this is an exaggeration; the powers and the incredible amount of crazy sci-fi assets and environments that were created outside the city itself give the game enough to stand on its own merits, but there’s no denying that the game is heavily dependent on Saints Row: The Third. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (reusing the same city, for instance, really puts your new powers in perspective), it creates an almost tangible feeling of disconnect or shifting when switching from say, powers to guns.
There isn’t a huge amount of smoothness when it comes to the merging of old and new gameplay concepts, and so the game can feel a bit disjointed at times when you transition, especially before you have a lot of pure combat powers and have to awkwardly switch from running around at 100mph to plinking with a pistol. The other thing that I have to point is how terrible the gun switching interface is; it inexplicably blots out the entire screen whenever you switch weapons, leaving you extremely vulnerable and blind. There was a very unobtrusive and clean weapon switch interface in the third game, and I have no idea why they dropped it in favor of this jarring and blinding full-screen weapon wheel.
But in the end, Saints Row IV is the logical progression of the series’ gameplay and it retains much of what made the old games great while nonetheless making advancements in a wild new direction. While it is marred by technical issues and some really questionable interface changes, the game’s writing, fun factor, and general ability to make literally whoever you want and not be in any way inhibited in terms of sexuality, gender, or body type. Whoever you are, you’re the hero in Saints Row IV. And what a, uh, special kind of hero you are. Saints Row IV is worth the flaws.
Saints Row IV is available on Steam, as well as the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.
After my feature on ActRaiser I got to thinking about the overarching plot of the game, and of the longer running themes of Quintet’s SNES offerings taken as a whole. The one theme that really jumped out at me in all of the Quintet games was the idea of the creation myth. It’s exhibited extremely strongly in ActRaiser and its sequel, as well as in Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia, and Terranigma. Every one of those games, in some way or another, incorporates the idea of either creating or recreating the world from scratch, usually involving visiting places one at a time and restoring them.
It’s an effective plot device, and it creates a strong sense of atmosphere in all of the games. But I want to talk about why it works so well, and how each one of several of Quintet’s SNES games manages to vary the theme slightly in order to suit the personal story of the individual games. Between ActRaiser, Illusion of Gaia, and Terranigma, you get three interpretations of how the world was created or recreated, and three different ways the player interacts with the evolution of the world in the player character’s role.
MASTER AND COMMANDER
ActRaiser, of course, puts you right in the driver’s seat of the world’s birth from the very beginning. As the Master you are more than just a hero in the world’s creation, you’re the engine of it; your godlike actions cause the world to change from a monster-ridden hellhole into a place worth inhabiting. As I pointed out previously, the merger of the two styles of gameplay really helps express this. Everything you do as the Master is essentially cleaning up the world to make it worth living in, whether it’s going down to kill the monsters yourself, or utilizing miracles to terraform things around for the people.
So what makes ActRaiser’s creation myth work? Well, the whole game, for one thing. Unlike the two later Quintet games, the creation element here is the entire point of both the narrative and the gameplay; ActRaiser is a game about making the world, from start to finish. At no point does ActRaiser’s gameplay or narrative take the time to deviate from that driving point at all, unlike the Soul Blazer trilogy’s later entries.
There’s literally no way ActRaiser could have existed without the trappings of the creation myth, and so it relies on it on a much deeper level. This is what makes the game succeed: an instant sense of the scope of what you’re dealing with, and a complete refusal to ever deviate from the goal of cleaning up and creating a habitable world.
How could it have gone wrong? Well, for one thing, the game’s developers could have let it get wrapped up too much in other stories and personal elements in an attempt to humanize the Master. It’s precisely the Master’s lack of human qualities that makes ActRaiser work. I could very easily see how a misguided developer might have been tempted to try to bring the Master down to our level, but Quintet didn’t and ActRaiser is better for it.
THE FLUTE OF EVIL’S BANE
So after ActRaiser and its sequel, Quintet moved into the adventure RPG arena with Illusion of Gaia. A game that’s something of a Zelda-esque dungeon crawler mixed with RPG elements and a surprisingly compelling plot, Illusion of Gaia casts you in the role of Will, a young man out to discover his father’s legacy and the secrets behind some of the world’s most ancient ruins. Oh, and he fights with a flute. Yep.
Illusion of Gaia doesn’t seem to be about any kind of mythical world creation at first. It’s surrounded by the trappings of normal fantasy for a while, but eventually it becomes clear what you’re dealing with when you enter the first dungeon and starting hearing about Incans. Incans, you know, a civilization from our history. The revelations then continue: Mu, Angkor Wat, the Tower of Babel, the Great Wall. All of the game’s dungeons are embedded in our own cultural history, be they real or mythical, and it becomes clear that the game is about generating a modern world out of a fantasy one.
What makes the creation aspect Illusion of Gaia work? Will’s role as the protagonist and our eyepiece into our own history. Will becomes our gateway into the myth of our own world, and it’s very evident how well this works. Illusion of Gaia connects fantasy into reality, and as players we instantly identify with the world as our own, but because of the fantasy, we’re able to discover the magic and craziness behind our own collective cultural mythos. It’s a fascinating way to approach what could have been any other JRPG or adventure game of the time. By being a part of the recreation of a mythical world into our own modern one, we connect with our world on a level that would have been impossible in a purely fantastical setting.
Like ActRaiser, there are a lot of choices Quintet made here that could have easily gone wrong and squandered the whole thing. The biggest mistake they could have made would have been getting too heavyhanded about the whole thing really being our own world the whole time. It’s there if you’re conscious of history and human mythological background, but they don’t beat you over the head with it. The game only really bluntly tells you about the creation of our world close to the end of the game, and by that point at the climax of the story it’s an appropriately direct revelation. If they had taken that direct approach the entire time, it would have come across as hamfisted and forced, but they keep it to an appropriate level of allusion and leave it at that until the ending.
Terranigma is, in perhaps a thematically appropriate way, a forgotten thing. The final game in the Soul Blazer trilogy was never released in North America, but found an audience over here after its PAL localization made the emulation rounds in ROM form. In many ways, Terranigma is similar to Illusion of Gaia, but with something of an ActRaiser spin on it. Illusion of Gaia is about transition stages and moving the world from myth into modernity. Terranigma, however, concerns the recreation of a world from a forgotten ruin, much like ActRaiser revolves around turning a monster-ridden nightmare into a paradise.
Terranigma concerns the very purposefully named hero Ark and his journey into the blasted remains of the world in order to resurrect it and return it to a habitable state one area at a time. Terranigma is a fusion of Illusion of Gaia and ActRaiser in many ways. Like Illusion of Gaia, you play in a top down adventure/rpg environment, and the game concerns the journey of a normal human throughout trappings of our own geography and civilization. However, like ActRaiser, it concerns the cleansing and repopulation of the world, and the restoration of the environment to something livable.
Terranigma, then, represents the culmination of all of this. It’s Quintet’s last shot at the creation myth, the idea of a scion of civilization restoring the world to livability instead of a god figure swooping in from heaven to do so. Ark represents, obviously, Noah – he’s not an outsider bringing life, he’s the last hope of a dying race, sent off into the world to restore his own people’s glory and bring the world back to what it should be. Whereas Will represented bold progression from myth into reality, Ark represents a resurrection of a time long gone.
So what makes it work? Atmosphere. Terranigma’s world feels extremely bleak when you get into a new area, and it really sets out the direness of your task and the reason your mission is so important and compelling. Terranigma is a game about hope against the desolation of the world, and so it was absolutely critical to set the table the way that Quintet did. Ark’s mission feels desperate and doomed because of the world, and it’s what sets Terranigma apart from the earlier games.
It could have gone sour, too. If Quintet had chosen to make the world any less desolate or ruined, the game would have felt too much like a recreation along the lines of Gaia and not its own independent project. Instead, we have something that blends ActRaiser and Illusion of Gaia while still maintaining its own feel, and it makes an appropriate capstone to this sort of thematic run in Quintet’s games.
The creation myth here in these three games is compelling, and I think a lot of us may have missed how well Quintet managed to run this motif through so many of their games in such compelling, unique ways each time. ActRaiser, Illusion of Gaia, and Terranigma are all sort of forgotten gems, but in a way, that’s thematically fitting. Quintet’s not around anymore, but I hope someday, someone revisits this kind of thing in the same way, and manages to create a new world out of an old and forgotten one again.
ActRaiser can be purchased on the Wii’s virtual console. For Illusion of Gaia or Terranigma, you’ll likely have to take to eBay, and hope you have a PAL SNES on which to play the latter.
ActRaiser is a strange beast. Released in North America in November of 1991 for the newly christened Super Nintendo Entertainment System, ActRaiser marks the beginning of a series of underappreciated but still great games made by Quintet and published under the Enix banner, before they moved on to make the equally forgotten Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma.
So what makes ActRaiser stick out in my mind so much? At first glance, the game looks like a myriad of other sidescrollers from the time, with hack and slashy action platforming reminiscent of the Castlevanias of the day. But ActRaiser is a peculiar fusion: after the jumpy-slashy business is done, you have to engage in what is essentially a proto Black & White style god simulation. So what is the game, then? It’s an action platforming hack and slash god simulation. Yep.
In ActRaiser the player is cast in the role of the Master, a godlike being who interacts with the world in a number of ways: in the action sections, you descend from heaven to possess statues in your form in order to kill powerful demons, while in the top-down simulation portions, you control a cupid-like angel avatar who is able to direct villagers, manipulate the world’s environment, and fight off demons with arrows. The whole crux of the game revolves around something that is an ever-present theme in Quintet’s games: the restoration or creation of a new world, from myth into reality.
And ActRaiser is heavily grounded in myth. The whole experience exudes a kind of Greek legend atmosphere, from your Cupid avatar to the archetypal Minotaurs and Chimeras you fight in the action stages to the clothing and behavior of your loyal subjects. There’s some Egyptian stuff mixed in there as well, as well as various other mythos’ emblematic monsters and entities, but the primary trappings of the game are Greek, and it causes the game to take on all of the great aspects of a creation myth in the making.
But the most striking thing to me about ActRaiser is the way in which the two drastically different aspects of the gameplay manage to merge without feeling jarring or sudden when the transition takes place. In a way, the simulation levels are framed by the action sequences while still encompassing them. Every section of simulation is both preceded and ended by an action sequence involving first killing enough monsters to enable settlement, followed by fighting a powerful monster to enable the new civilization to move forward in peace. But all of this is still just the means to the end of establishing a civilization and getting it up and running so that you can move on to the next part of the world and get to work on it.
That kind of merging of objectives makes the points where you go down and do the dirty work yourself feel like an organic part of the process, not just a different game awkwardly stapled onto the first one. The central objective of world creation/restoration is always kept front and center, so whether you’re in the simulation screen or in the action stages the game never feels like it’s giving you whiplash from the sudden gameplay transitions. It’s a somewhat herculean task when you consider how few modern games manage to blend drastically different gameplay styles without losing something along the way.
It’s too bad, then, that ActRaiser flies somewhat under the radar these days. The series did get a sequel, ActRaiser II, but that sequel was somewhat less ambitious and dropped the simulation element entirely in order to focus wholly on the action segments. Quintet went on to produce the excellent Soul Blazer trilogy, which I’ll be discussing more closely in tomorrow’s Theme Party, but sadly the developer seems to have faded into nothingness not long after.
Still, ActRaiser is a deeply interesting footnote in gaming history. Very rarely since has a game managed (or even tried) to merge two severely different genres in such a seamless way, and the mythical creation tone that ActRaiser shares with the Soul Blazer trilogy seems to have fallen by the wayside for the most part as well. Still, the game exists today on the Wii’s Virtual Console, and is definitely worth a look if you want to play a very enjoyable slice of gaming’s mostly forgotten history. It’s unlikely we’re ever going to get another ActRaiser, so we may as well enjoy what we’ve got.
CONCEPT ART PICK: The freaking Japanese box art. I miss 90’s game box art. Also pictured: that damn chimera.
SONG PICK: Birth of the People. It’s a nice atmospheric tune that has a fantasy fable feel to it.
ActRaiser can be bought from the Wii’s Virtual Console. It costs 800 Wii points.
Coming off of the European LoL Regionals this weekend at Gamescom, I didn’t have a great deal of difficulty selecting the player to profile for my first weekly e-sports feature. The performance of Fnatic’s mid laner Enrique “xPeke” Cedeño Martínez this week decisively solidified his team’s place as the number one team in Europe, and xPeke himself is the tip of the spear that Fnatic has driven into European LoL in Season 3.
But for xPeke, success is old hat. As one of the two remaining founding members of Fnatic’s League of Legends team (the other being his jungler, Cyanide) xPeke carries with him the legacy of being the original champions of Season 1, beating out Against All Authority back in 2011 to be the first team to claim the Summoner’s Cup and achieve complete dominance in the LoL scene. While the team struggled in season 2, failing to qualify for the world tournament entirely, they’ve been on the rise again ever since, and are currently poised to become the biggest European threat to the Asian dominance of the LoL scene with xPeke at the forefront .
THE INCREDIBLE SPLIT-PUSHING MID
Of course, it’s impossible to mention xPeke without discussing his peculiar playstyle and the maneuver that shares his name. xPeke is the one of the more “split-push” oriented mid-laners in the LoL scene. With split-pushing, xPeke tends to utilize a style that revolves around detaching from the rest of his team and creating pressure in another lane. By pushing a lane singlehandedly, xPeke forces the enemy team to choose between detaching from a teamfight to stop him, or moving to engage 4v5 fight against his team while xPeke destroys the structures in the lane uncontested. Generally in doing so, xPeke will choose either the Teleport summoner spell or a champion who can function similarly, enabling him to act separately from his team but still teleport into a teamfight at a moment’s notice.
The extreme end result of a successful split-push is what’s called a “backdoor”, which refers to sneaking into the enemy’s base and destroying their structures and eventually Nexus when they’re occupied with other members of your team elsewhere on the map. For reasons that will quickly become evident, this is also referred to as “pulling an xPeke.”
The most famous example of a back door in League of Legends history came during the group stage of the IEM Global Challenge Katowice in January of 2013. Fnatic and xPeke were up against SK Gaming and had just come off on the worse end of a teamfight when the incredible moment happened. xPeke managed to, using the teleport spell, warp back in behind the triumphant SK and destroy their open Nexus while deftly dodging all attempts to stop him and surviving with a scant amount of health. From then on, anyone who manages to sneak in and destroy the enemy Nexus is referred to as doing “an xPeke,” with shoutcaster Leigh “Deman” Smith even going so far as to refer to it as doing “a Peke on Peke” when the technique was used on xPeke himself by Evil Geniuses.
The final game of the European finals highlights why xPeke’s strategy is so devastating under the proper circumstances. In game 4 against Europe’s number one seed Lemondogs, xPeke picked up the champion Ahri, an ability power champion heavily oriented around strong minion clearing and extremely high mobility. While the split pushing role is normally reserved for top lane champions like Shen (who can escape attempts to stop him and teleport into fights with his ultimate), xPeke is one of the few who really secures the split-push advantage on the AP champions like Ahri.
The advantage that he gains by split pushing with a mobile AP mage champion is the ability to go 1v1 with people who come to stop his split-push. This was especially evident in game 4 against Lemondogs, where Lemondogs’s mid-laner nukeduck attempted to stop xPeke’s split-push top lane with Twisted Fate only to be easily outduelled and obliterated by Ahri’s burst casting. Rather than having to teleport away or escape, xPeke was able to force out a duel with nukeduck and annihilate him in the 1v1 under Lemondogs’s own tower. This advantage let him continue pushing, while forcing Lemondogs to have to send multiple people to stop him, leaving them vulnerable to the rest of Fnatic.
xPeke ranks with the best as one of the longest running and most iconic players in League of Legends. From the Season One championship up to the Season Three European Regionals, xPeke is poised to drive Fnatic to international dominance. With his strong split push, high dueling prowess, and an average Gold Per Minute rating that is virtually unchallenged in EU, xPeke will be a force to be reckoned with as the lynchpin of Fnatic’s chances on the international championship stage.
Photo credit to Leaguepedia.
A word of introduction: this feature is going to be oriented around showcasing three of my ranked games from League of Legends each week, with some explanation of how the game played out and what I feel about my own personal performance. In addition, once I feel I’ve reached the point where I’m comfortable soloqueuing it, you might see some accounts of Dota 2 games start to crop up here as well.
This, then, is something of a personal diary and as such I probably won’t go into a huge amount of detail explaining the lexicon entirely (although anyone with any questions is welcome to ask me in the comments or on Twitter.) As far as my League background goes – I’ve got about 250 wins in normal games, and around 500 games total. I tend to play support when I can get it, but I also enjoy jungling, top lane, and some ADC if I can be Ezreal or Miss Fortune.
In Ranked, I was placed into Silver V at the start of Season 3 but due to neglecting Ranked for Normals, I decayed down into Bronze I. Right now I am in Bronze I still, and this log will be a chronicling of my dubious journey up or down the ladder. Will I make it out of hell, or am I doomed to the Bronze mines forever? Only time will tell. It’s the Feeding Log!
WEEK 1 – BRONZE 1, 11 LP (-70)
Oof. Well, this is an inauspicious start. Three losses in a row! I don’t really feel like any of them are specifically my fault, but that’s the nature of the beast, isn’t it? I didn’t play great in a lot of these, at least, but I think they’re useful practice. Most of my teammates were pretty civil at any rate, which helps. Let’s, uh, hope next week goes better.
GAME 1 – THRESH – SUPPORT w/ TRISTANA, KASSADIN, KHA’ZIX, AND JAX vs NIDALEE, CAITLYN, KATARINA, LEE SIN, AND NAUTILUS
THRESH WASN’T BANNED. Unfortunately, I still lost. Ultimately a combination of some bad hooks on my part and the lack of lane presence by our jungle Jax caused the team to buckle. Katarina getting fed mid lane didn’t help, given how snowball she can be. Alas.
What I did well: I had some good lane presence and I hit a few clutch hooks. I think my vision was pretty on point too, although it didn’t help much in the end since the enemy pair of Caitlyn and Nidalee had our lane trapped to hell and back and made it impossible to get out of a gank no matter how early I saw it.
What I need to improve: I need to get more time on Thresh. This is hard because Thresh is banned every game. Maybe blind pick normals? I feel pretty good about my harass and lane presence but I still need to get better at hitting pulls. I also need to work on the whole Q->Q->R combo for setting up boxes. Other than that, it’s just a matter of getting more practice.
GAME 2 – ELISE – JUNGLE w/ YI, KASSADIN, VARUS, AND THRESH vs RIVEN, KARTHUS, SHYVANA, CAITLYN AND TEEMO
This one got off to a pretty good start, but sort of fell apart on us as Master Yi started running around the map feeding every lane. God bless him, the sword-booted bastard. I got caught out here a fair few times and fell waaay behind the enemy Shyvana in farm, although a lot of that is probably because her clears are so much faster than Elise’s.
What I did well: I ganked a crapton. I’m not sure how good the ganks were, but I was really busting my ass trying to get around to every lane and get people rolling. It didn’t really work, but there you go. I also had some great Rappels under towers, since people at my pathetic Elo don’t really understand what to do when the person they’re diving isn’t divable anymore.
What I need to improve: I still fall behind on farm and experience in games where I have to be all over the map. I need to learn to trust the lanes a little more and get some gold and experience going so that when I do show up, I’m more useful. Other than that, I really need to get better at hitting Cocoons and making sure I execute my combos properly. Elise is still in a good place in the jungle, but she’s not as facerolly easy as before.
GAME 3 – JANNA – SUPPORT w/ GRAVES, NUNU, ANNIE, ZED vs. LEONA, VAYNE, LEE SIN, WUKONG, AND GALIO
This one was frustrating to lose. Graves and I absolutely stomped the enemy Vayne and Leona, but when it came time to teamfighting we weren’t able to carry that advantage to a win. I think what our team comp was lacking was a real tank; Nunu built some tanky items, but too much AP to really withstand people. In the end some bad judgment calls and getting caught out cost us this one.
What I did well: I got the pressure on Vayne immediately and never let up. I feel really good about my presence this game, especially for playing Janna against such an aggressive duo lane. I had all the bases covered with wards and Graves and I were able to keep the enemy really pushed to their tower, while still avoiding Lee when he came in to gank.
What I need to improve: A lot of my teamfighting was sloppy here. I didn’t get shields down on the right people and my ults were pretty late and mediocre. I also got caught in waaay too many Galio ults, and it hurt my ability to peel properly. I also probably should have stuck with Graves more into mid and late game, but I think he also spent a lot of time out of position. I should have also tried to direct my team more to where we needed to be, but that’s on all of us.
As will likely always be the case, the images above are courtesy of http://www.lolking.net.
There was a point while playing Papers, Please where the truth of “life imitates art” hit me in a blinding flash. My in game desk was too cluttered for me to really efficiently fit my rule book and other associated papers on it, so I resolved to make a cheat sheet on a real piece of notebook paper for the various bits of information I used frequently. I looked at my actual, real life desk.
There wasn’t room for a cheat sheet. Glory to Arstotzka, glory to my apartment.
Papers, Please is a brilliant exercise in the art of telling a story not by showing or telling, but by doing, which is something I feel is so important to the uniqueness of gaming as an artform, but so tragically rare in its true appearances. The game has no real cutscenes, no long exposition, no background lore to read. The game has a booth, a desk, and your bills at the end of the day. And that’s all you have the time to think about.
A NEW KIND OF CHECKPOINT
At its most core elements, Papers, Please is a game about fact-checking. The core activity of the game is examining people and citing contradictions between their appearance or story and their paperwork, as well as conflicts in the paperwork itself. By catching inconsistencies and having as accurate an approve/deny record as possible while simultaneously processing as many people as possible, you earn an income which you distribute amongst various expenses, chief of which is the whole problem of preventing your family from dying of starvation, freezing, or illness. At the end of each day, your profits and expenses are rounded up, and you get to make the choice of who gets what before progressing to the next day’s set of passports.
As the game progresses, more and more information comes your way, and it gets harder and harder to process a reasonable amount of people in time without making a few mistakes along the way. Either your accuracy or your efficiency is going to suffer, and it becomes a constant struggle to make ends meet while keeping your job and, more perilously, your integrity.
And that’s where the game really shines. The moral choices have no fanfare or alignment attached to them, and it all comes down to the same actions as the rest of the gameplay. You may be forced to do horrible things, and you do them the same way as the rest of your job: with one of two rubber stamps and a few buttons.
Rejection vs. detainment, approval of murderers and the splitting up of spouses, all of it is done by making you choose by doing, and that’s all so important to why the game is effective. There’s no detachment here; I don’t choose a dialog option and watch some other character turn my inclination into dialog or action. That person died because I took their passport and rejected it, end of story. The government of Arstotzka can prosper or decay based on the way you wield your meager administrative authority, and the game forces you to make a number of choices through your duties to the end of determining the future of the country.
But there aren’t many futures for Arstotzka that aren’t bleak. The game gains quite a bit of replayability by merit of the vast set of differing endings available, and most of them are pretty depressing. If you do manage to see all of the different fates for Arstotzka, there’s an Endless mode available, wherein you can stamp passports to your heart’s content, getting the game quite a nice bit of value for the low price tag.
The low cost shouldn’t be mistaken for an indication of lack of quality artistry in the game, though. Everything about the game oppresses you with hopelessness; as simplistic as a lot of the visuals are, they’re very muted and dreary, and the retro look somehow reinforces the straightforward depression of it all. The music isn’t much more hopeful, constantly bombarding you with songs straight out of a propaganda march. By the end of the game, you’re living and breathing Arstotzka, whether you want to or not.
Papers, Please is nearly perfect for what it sets out to do. The gameplay seamlessly merges with the story in some of the cleverest ways I’ve seen in a game. Even the cluttered nature of my in-game desk mentioned above really caused me to connect with my in-game situation on a personal level, like it was my real workspace. This is, at heart, a bureaucracy simulator that manages to make bureaucracy fun. If a lot of dystopian moral dilemmas and a healthy dose of perception based judgment calls are your cup of tea, I’d be hard pressed for a reason not to give Papers, Please a try.
MOOD MUSIC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=id16jH2Mlas Glory to Arstotzka.
STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND
Something I’ve been discussing with a lot of people recently regarding storytelling in games is the concept of the “outsider” protagonist. When I use the term, I’m referring to the idea that, in one way or another, the protagonist of the game is someone who has been transplanted into a different setting or group, and has to make do and adapt to his/her situation. I think when used correctly, there are a number of ways that this technique is effective, but that there are pitfalls to be avoided as well. In the inaugural theme park this week, then, I’m going to be examining two pairs of games that represent two benefits of the narrative device, with one in each pair using it to great effect, and the other coming up short.
THE PROXY PROTAGONIST
The first aspect of the technique I want to highlight is the use of the outsider protagonist as a vehicle for the player’s own unfamiliarity with the setting or situation. The games I’m going to be using here are Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XII, which I think represent a great use of the technique followed by a lackluster attempt to replicate it. One of the things you’ll hear a lot about FFX is that Tidus, the player character, isn’t actually really the protagonist. I think it’s more apt to say that the game is Tidus’s story, but the “protagonist” of the game’s events is, in many ways, Yuna. Almost all of the game’s major plot events revolve around things Yuna does as part of Yuna’s quest to fulfill Yuna’s destiny to save Spira, the game’s world; Tidus is mostly just a tag along in terms of the actual substance of the game’s events. So why does the game put us in Tidus’s shoes instead of Yuna’s?
Because as much as Yuna is the main character, so too is Spira itself. So much of FFX’s narrative is reliant on a gradual unveiling of key characteristics of Spira and its history – aspects of Sin, the church of Yevon, the Summoners, the Farplane. If you’re going to tell a story about the setting as much as the characters in it, what’s the perfect vehicle for a gradual exploration of the setting’s elements? A character who isn’t from there. And so voila, we have Tidus. Tidus is transplanted into the game’s world at the start and has no choice but to go along with Yuna and learn about the nature of the world he’s in and the place he holds in it.
Picture FFX without Tidus and how much needless exposition there would have been about elements of the setting directed at characters who are already supposed to know them. Spira is a bizarre place with some really off the wall characteristics of which no native denizen of the world could be reasonably expected to be ignorant. Tidus, however, circumvents the problem as an outsider, which enables the player to instantly identify with him, as we share his ignorance and gradual discovery. We see Yuna and Spira through Tidus’s eyes, and it helps the narrative and the setting take shape gradually and deliberately, with points of exposition that are logical for someone in Tidus’s situation. Yuna’s the main character, but Tidus is the player. Without that eyepiece into the world, FFX’s setting would be much harder to convey in a way that makes sense.
THE TAG ALONG
When looking at Vaan from FFXII, it’s tempting to consider him the same kind of eyepiece for the player. Vaan is largely an outsider to the heavily political world of FFXII and doesn’t have a lot of knowledge of the finer aspects of the setting. Vaan is swept up in events and carried along with people who are almost inarguably the “real” protagonists of the story. But there are two significant things that make Vaan fail where Tidus succeeded.
The first is that Vaan doesn’t have any real personal stake in the outcome of the story beyond some kind of vague revenge for his dead brother. While Tidus was an outsider, his own personal story was still deeply connected to the main events of the game’s plot. His father went to Spira too and is heavily embedded in the world (in more ways than one). Tidus’s very existence is tied to the events occurring in Spira, even though it’s not immediately obvious.
Vaan, however, is like Luke Skywalker without his relation to the Force or Darth Vader. He’s a kid that got swept up in things, but there’s no destiny there and he doesn’t have any real connection to the world or the story beyond simply existing in it. There’s a lot of discussion out there about whether or not Vaan was meant to be the main character or even exist at all in the story, and it’s a popular theory that Vaan was created out of a desire to shift the protagonist over to a character more likely to attract a core demographic. Regardless, Vaan lacks the clear link to the plot of the game that Tidus has, and it makes him feel like someone who’s tagging along for the ride rather than someone who is deeply connected to these events on a personal level. Basch, Balthier, and Ashe all have compelling reasons and backstory, but Vaan lacks that connection to the world and the plot.
The second failing is that Vaan isn’t a real outsider to the game’s story. Tidus is from Zanarkand and finds himself in Spira, a strange and alien world to him with very odd customs and aspects to it that need explanation. Vaan is from Dalmasca and finds himself in…Dalmasca. With Tidus, the explanations for the obvious bits of ignorance he has for the details of the setting make sense and are necessary because Tidus legitimately has no way to have known these things.
With Vaan, details of the setting aren’t given a natural conduit because Vaan really should know all of this junk already, or at least enough of it not to need the plot explained to him as it unfolds. We can’t really connect with Vaan as a result, as he’s not like us, but still needs everything explained to him.
Vaan is, unfortunately, more of an attempt to half-heartedly recreate Tidus than a worthwhile character on his own merits. Tidus might be grating at times and a bit of an annoyance, but his role in the way the narrative unfolds is paramount. The player needs Tidus to make the game’s setting and plot unfold. Vaan is an outsider for no reason, and the player fails to connect as a result.
A TALE OF TWO PROVINCES
The second advantage that an outsider perspective lies in the ability of the setting to present itself to a player outside of the plot itself, through the simple act of casting the player in the role of the explorer or visitor. By making the player essentially a tourist in the world, the outsider becomes a vehicle for the player’s curiosity about the world, and enables that player to discover the interesting aspects of the setting for his or herself. The most obvious example of this, of course, lies in The Elder Scrolls series, and I want to specifically highlight its third and fourth installments, Morrowind and Oblivion, as my opposed examples of succeeding vs. coming up short.
There are countless places on the internet that sing of the brilliance of Morrowind. But what I want to emphasize here are two things: the nature of the player’s avatar in the world, and the nature of the world’s design itself, both artistically, and from a gameplay perspective. In all of these elements, Morrowind excels at creating a player character that is generated from outside, and then transplanted inside the confines of the setting.
I HEARD THEM SAY WE’VE REACHED…
The opening lines delivered by Jiub are perhaps some of the most famous lines in gaming, and it’s for a good reason. Jiub instantly tells you exactly what you are and where you’re coming into the story: you’re being brought here from outside on a ship, like an immigrant or a settler, and you’ve just arrived at your new unknown home. The game’s dialog reinforces this: “You finally arrived, but our records don’t show from where.” A clever way to segue into your character creation, but it reinforces the narrative element: you’re not from around here. Realistically speaking (absent mods), there’s no way to create a character that will be treated as he or she is from around here, as even if you create a Dunmer, the denizens of Morrowind will treat you like you don’t belong there.
Why is this important? Because it justifies why you’re so damn sucked into running around all over the island. The game instantly possesses you with an explorer’s spirit because it practically neeners in your face that you don’t know jack about where you are. The game, in a way, calls you a noob and challenges you to go out there and learn about the place and prove it wrong. It’s an almost irresistible pull and it’s what’s caused Caius Cosades to be repeatedly stood up by players for a decade. The world is out there, and you haven’t seen it. Get to it.
And what a world to see. The most immediate word that comes to mind when considering Vvardenfell is “alien.” There’s a distinctness to every city, every place; to this day, I can identify the culture or House that rules over a territory just by the architecture of it all. Morrowind is immaculately bizarre, not in a silly way, but in a way that pushes you over the next hill just to see what kind of craziness is on the other side. It reinforces the lessons of the game’s narrative that you are profoundly an outsider, but that if you play your hand right, you can embed yourself and become an immortal part of Morrowind, and at the same time, it can become a part of you as well.
TO BOLDLY GO WHERE EVERYONE HAS GONE BEFORE
Then there’s Cyrodiil and Oblivion. Take everything I said up above about why Morrowind works and turn it around and you’ll get how I feel about Oblivion’s attempt to use the same style of gameplay and plot devices. I don’t think Oblivion is a bad game, honestly, but the setting almost inarguably pales in comparison to Morrowind’s, and the visual impact of it all seriously suffers as a result.
So, I said up above that one of the reasons Morrowind works is that it casts you in the role of an outsider who is in the process of being transplanted to Vvardenfell, and that transplanting and alienation is what drives you to immerse yourself in the world. So what do we get in Oblivion?
You’re just some kind of dude in the jail, I guess. It’s never stated where you’re from or how you got here, just that you wound up in prison somehow until the Emperor showed up and bailed you out. When you get out of the prison, there’s no one challenging you to strike out into the world. It’s a beautiful image and sense of freedom when you escape the prison, but that’s all it is: freedom without drive. The world doesn’t care if you explore it, and doesn’t dare you to go out and look around.
On top of that, if you do go outside, there really isn’t all that much to see that you haven’t seen before. Morrowind drove you to adventure because Morrowind was a spectacle. It was strange and compelling and interesting. Cyrodiil is just bland. It’s vanilla western fantasy, idyllic grassland countrysides, and little hamlets and towns. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all very pretty, but that’s all it is. It’s not compelling in any way, and I don’t have any reason to explore the vast majority of it.
Even when the game does make you a stranger by transporting you to Oblivion itself, it goes too far in that direction. Oblivion isn’t a place to explore, it’s just a hell. It’s all red evil badguyness, and nothing interesting comes out of it. Oblivion in general just misses the point of the perspective Morrowind gave. It goes through the motions, but takes out all of the context that made those choices meaningful. As a result, the use of the player as an outsider is mostly negated; it’s unclear if the player is an outsider, and the game doesn’t make you feel like one in appearance or narrative, but the world still wants you to behave like one and wants to treat you like one by being designed to be explored and revolving most of the gameplay around that.
The outsider situation is, as seen above, a very useful tool in storytelling, especially in games, where the goal is in many cases to merge the player’s perspective with the character’s. The key is execution. By keeping in mind what makes the working examples in FFX and Morrowind above successful and the other examples in FFXII and Oblivion fall short, it’s possible to see how this narrative device can be used to great effect in the future.
Part One: Sprouting Confusion from the FFX soundtrack. The perfect sort of running melancholy track for Spira.
Part Two: The obvious choice from Morrowind’s title. Was there any other option here?
Photo credit: Square Enix for the two bits of Final Fantasy artwork, UESP for the Morrowind shots, and The Elder Scrolls Wiki for the bits from Oblivion. And Bethesda for the games themselves, of course.