Archive | Theme Party RSS for this section

Theme Party: In the Beginning…

                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.

Image

In the beginning, God created localization, and it was good.

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.

Image

Good to know!

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.

RESURRECTION MAN

                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.

Image

It’s a little bit of a fixer-upper.

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.

Advertisements

Theme Party: The Outsider

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?

Image

It’s probably not the outfit.

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.

Image

No, really, I’m totally the protagonist.

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.

Image

Tell me THAT doesn’t look inviting and homely.

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?

Image

Oh.

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.

Image

Hey look, more green.

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.

MOOD MUSIC

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.