Monday, November 11, 2019

ATTENTION READERS

The new rant, updated on every 8th, 18th, and 28th of the month, is right below this post. Enjoy! But before you do, I have a quick announcement...


Friday, May 18, 2018

General RPGs' Dialogue Archiving

Something that a few RPGs do to varying degrees that I want to give a brief shout out for: dialogue archiving. Sometimes, an RPG will have an option for you to scroll back up through dialogue or other text that’s been said previously, so you can reread something the characters said.

This is obviously useful, particularly to a story-junkie like myself. First of all, if you have to get up and do something in the middle of a conversation in an RPG, being able to scroll back up through what’s been said gives you a chance, once you’re done with whatever distracted you, to much more easily get back into the game and situation that you left. Life is unpredictable, and RPG conversations are long--this has been very useful to me more than once. It’s also handy in the sense that if for some reason you aren’t sure what a character’s talking about, you can go back and review the text that brought you to this point in the conversation, and maybe find some clarification from it. And sometimes, an RPG conversation is heavy and dense enough that it just is useful to be able to reread parts of it over again, once you’ve finished it and have a general idea as to where it was going--sort of like rewatching a movie or anime a second time and understanding it better now that you know what it’s trying to express.

Heck, it can be useful for something as small as having found a particular exchange between characters hilarious, and wanting to read said hilarity out to your sister so she can enjoy it. This is how I first realized how useful this feature was, in fact, as I simply had to share Aegis’s comments on Yukari’s fanfiction habits in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q, and suddenly realized the utility of the button that brings up all the text you’ve seen previously.

In spite of the fact that the first time I really came to notice this feature for its merits was in SMTPQ, this is something that western RPGs seem to have a much longer history with than JRPGs. It’s actually a pretty common thing for you to be able to scroll up in a dialogue box to see an archive of everything that’s been said to you, going back in chronological order. The feature goes pretty far back--I remember finding it useful in Fallout 1 and 2 (although those little boxes also archived all battle action descriptions, too, so its utility was somewhat lessened). It’s something I especially appreciated (even if I didn’t really think about it specifically) for Planescape: Torment and Torment: Tides of Numenera, since narration and dialogue are the primary points of interest for those 2 RPGs, and just about all of it is incredibly heavy and thoughtful.

Still, props to JRPGs where it’s due--several of them have started implementing a feature that has a separate screen for keeping track of all that’s been said to date (as I mentioned, I was quite pleased with this in SMT Persona Q). Maybe not all of them are good enough to actually warrant it (can’t imagine why anyone would feel the need to reread any of Conception 2’s text), but it’s nonetheless great to see it becoming a regular JRPG feature. It’s definitely not just a western RPG thing. In fact, I think the earliest example of it I know of is from a Japanese RPG, Energy Breaker. Although the dialogue archive feature is in its infancy in EB, it is present, in the sense that, within every conversation, you have the ability to press Up as characters are talking to see everything they’ve said during that particular branch of dialogue until that point. Only good for parts of conversations rather than being a true archive, of course, but still, an early step toward this great idea.

Still, although there are a few JRPGs out there that include dialogue archiving to some extent, most do not, and I hope that more will implement this feature as time goes on. I likewise hope to see it in more western RPGs--they may have the lion’s share of games that have this handy characteristic, but they are still not nearly as common as I wish they were. For a gamer like myself, who plays specifically for the story and the humanity to be found in the genre, dialogue archiving is a great feature, and I appreciate every game that employs it.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Sweet Lily Dreams's Use of the Kingdom Hearts Method

Sweet Lily Dreams is a sequel of sorts to Whisper of a Rose, both indie RPGs created with RPG Maker. You may recall that I had several issues with WoaR, and unfortunately, it’s much the same with Sweet Lily Dreams. In some regards, SLD is a little improved, I admit, but it still suffers from the same lackluster writing that fails to bring its characters or subjects alive in any way, as well as the same difficulty in avoiding confusions in its lore and events. And unfortunately, SLD also brings a new set of problems to the table, with an even less engaging cast than WoaR, an ending more flat and lifeless than an unsalted Saltine as it abruptly ends the game’s main conflict in the most unlikely way possible* so that it can then immediately toss you into a spontaneous and unwanted sequel-bait plot twist, and some truly fucking horrible mandatory minigames (more on at least 1 of them in a future rant).

Among the issues that Sweet Lily Dreams suffers from which its predecessor did not is that it’s not using its storytelling method well. Whisper of a Rose’s was a fairly generic approach of its protagonist traveling from 1 place to another in its world (dream world, at any rate), with the story’s events motivating her to go from 1 place/plot point to the next, in typical RPG fashion. Certainly not innovative, but functional enough that you kinda can’t mess it up. Sweet Lily Dreams, on the other hand, has a setup in which the majority of the game is a large crossover, in which the game’s characters visit the settings and meet the casts of several other stories to take part in those stories’ events. Basically, it’s like Sora visiting various Disney settings in Kingdom Hearts 1 + 2, except Sweet Lily Dreams does classic old literature and movies, like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Dracula, and The Mummy. Maybe Roseportal Games intentionally used Kingdom Hearts as a template for Sweet Lily Dreams’s approach, or maybe they didn’t and it’s just a coincidence.

...But since SLD opens with its protagonist** choosing what kind of fighter she’ll be on a series of big stained glass platforms floating in a void, I’m gonna bet on the similar narrative approach to Kingdom Hearts being maybe not a complete coincidence.

Here’s the problem, though. Kingdom Hearts did this journey across familiar worlds well. Sweet Lily Dreams doesn’t. If I had to take a guess, I’d say Roseportal Games didn’t realize that there was more to making this method successful than just the act of having it at all. It’s like if you bought a car with an empty gas tank and found yourself utterly perplexed by its refusal to drive you anywhere--all the parts are there and assembled, so why doesn’t it work?

See, here’s the thing. It’s kind of cool to move along from 1 dream world to the next, hanging out with Swamp Thing, helping Dr. Jekyll conquer Mr. Hyde, and battling against Dracula, but nothing of substance comes from these adventures, story- and characters-wise. Of the few times that members of the party get developed during the course of the game, few to none of these occasions have any significant ties to the world and story they’re currently experiencing. None of these worlds have any part to play in the game’s events after you leave them; they’re solely plot obstacles that have no lingering effects--Swamp Thing isn’t going to return later to assist you in thanks for trying to help him, the Mummy’s not gonna return later for revenge, the Hypercube has no bearing on the finale’s events, etc. And even though these are worlds created by the game’s antagonist, The Writer, from his own mentality from the stories he cares most about, none of them actually tell you very much, if anything, about his character. I mean, they’re all darker stories, and he’s a pretty troubled guy, so there’s that, but that’s far too general to be considered character development. You could look at the Swamp Thing and Mummy stories as indicative of his feelings about being unable to protect someone he loved from the cruelties of the world, I guess, but since none of the other stories you visit appear to have any substantial connection to The Writer’s headspace beyond being gloomy, it seems much more like these stories only happen to connect to him out of chance, rather than design.

See, what makes Kingdom Hearts work is that, despite being a dozen different little stories in succession, they’re all strung together by a feeling and depiction as being important vignettes of a larger story. In Kingdom Hearts, the major characters, Sora in particular, learn and grow from their experiences in the worlds they visit, and their character bases and developments are solidified through the mini-adventures that each world provides. By the finales of KH1 and KH2, it feels like the experiences of Sora and company have led them to these final points and contributed to the growth of them and the plot. Additionally, several plot points and characters in the various Disney worlds visited come back to contribute to the story overall; they’re not just left behind and forgotten as though they had no actual importance. The specific events of each Disney world are relevant vehicles for the main characters’ long-term development, and the characters and plot points of those worlds frequently maintain a relevance to the overall story of Kingdom Hearts after the fact.

And Kingdom Hearts 2 did make use of Organization 13 in many of the stories of the different worlds Sora visits, which made the attempt to develop the villains of the story. I mean, KH2 failed miserably on this part, but that’s because what it was trying to develop were a bunch of 1-dimensional morons so bland they were barely distinguishable from each other, not because the game didn’t have the right idea, storytelling-wise.

That’s how this style of narrative needs to be--it needs to use the specifics of each crossover world in a way that develops the cast, that holds relevance to the overall story, and that develops the antagonist(s) of the game where possible. And Sweet Lily Dreams just doesn’t really do that, at all. Each story world you enter, you’re just there to get through it and move on, as you occasionally witness spurts of character development that could have occurred anywhere. Your goal in SLD is to get to the end of The Writer’s dream worlds to confront him, and the game handles itself in a way that makes this goal the clear focus. Each world in Sweet Lily Dreams is just an obstacle to be overcome, not a part of the greater storytelling process, and since these literary/cinematic sidestories take up the majority of the game’s play time, that makes this an RPG in which you spend most of your time just trying to get to something that matters. And that, sadly, makes for a pretty dull time.



















* So, wait, the evil dream cult that wants to destroy everyone who took up residence in the central city because they consider that city part of their heritage...was actually totally fine the whole time with just sharing it? These extremists who experiment with creating out-of-control phobia monsters and have no qualms whatever about trying to destroy the psyches of other people, including those of children...these guys are just totally fine with a compromise the first time it’s offered? And no one else thought to just check with them at any point to see whether they’d be reasonable about the matter?


** At least, the game wants you to think she’s the protagonist. Given that she is the most passive and superfluous, as well as least-developed, member of the party, has the least effect upon the game’s events and other characters, and doesn’t really have any substantial connection to the plot, though, I’d say she’s no more the main character of her game than Vaan is of Final Fantasy 12. Lily’s really just along for the ride.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Fallout Series Theory: Why the End of the World Didn't Matter

Polishing up a Youtube comment of mine and selling it to you all as a rant? I really am evil.

I noted a series of videos by an individual going by Oxhorn a little way back in another Fallout rant as being thoughtful and worth watching for any diehard fan of the Fallout series. In 1 of his videos, he talks about how there have been some people who have left comments on his videos about the evils of prewar society, who have said that perhaps the great war of Fallout that brought about the end of the civilization was actually a good thing, in bringing an end to a society so filled on every level with evil. Classy guy that Oxhorn is, he uses this video to highlight the fact that the tragedy and cost of the war to good, decent, average people could never be justified no matter how much evil it also wiped away, an opinion I completely agree with--no victory over evil can ever be achieved when it comes at the sacrifice of innocent bystanders.

But I’ll go a step further than that. Because I believe that even in terms strictly of punishing the wicked, the nuclear war of the Fallout series was utterly meaningless.

You see, punishment is not, nor should it ever be seen as, a goal in and of itself. Punishment exists for the purpose preventing wrong behaviors (or at least, behaviors perceived as wrong), whether preventing them before they occur, or preventing them from occurring again.

- When your child does something wrong, you shouldn’t be punishing him solely because he did it--you should be punishing him with the intention of making sure he knows that there are negative consequences for wrongdoing, and the hope that the knowledge of these consequences will keep him from doing it again. You’ll still punish your son again if he pulls this shit once more (and probably punish him more harshly, since he now should really know better), but the purpose each time is to find a level of consequences that will prevent him from doing wrong.
- When the government warns you that there will be a fine for littering on public property, the intention isn’t supposed to just be drumming up some extra revenue for Town Hall--the purpose of the fine is to dissuade you from polluting before you have a chance to do so, preventing wrongdoing prior to its happening. They’ll still fine the shit out of you if you do it, but the expectation is that knowledge of the punishment will keep that from happening at all.
- When you’re sent to prison, the intention isn’t supposed to just be to make you miserable for months or years--the idea is to put someone whose presence is dangerous to society into a place in which he/she cannot harm that society again before learning not to do so. That’s why prison education and rehabilitation programs were so vital--they’re accomplishing what the institution is meant to do, which is to improve and preserve society’s order and welfare by removing behaviors that threaten it, and remaking those who engaged in such behaviors into potentially productive members of society. Such programs are sadly almost entirely gone, now, since corporations have made the process of incarcerating American citizens into a profitable business rather than a necessary social function, but that’s a whole other subject, for a more meaningful rant blog than mine. The point is, though, that prison is not meant to be the purpose of its own existence, it's meant to be a functioning means to the purpose of maintaining society.

When you punish based on simply wanting to cause suffering to another who has done wrong, you lose sight of what punitive measures are meant to accomplish, and lessen yourself as a person in the process by embracing hurtful malice that doesn’t help you or anyone else. Punishment, and the threat of punishment, must exist as functions of preventing/eliminating wrong behaviors. When it becomes just about making someone who has done wrong suffer for their actions, it ceases truly being punishment, and simply becomes the useless, self-destructive concept of revenge, which serves no one, and lessens or harms everyone it touches.

So now that we’ve established how I see punishment, how I believe punishment must be seen if we are to successfully persist as a society, let’s bring it back to the topic at hand. The world of Fallout before the day of nuclear devastation is a world nearly exactly like our own, one in which corporations carelessly harm countless human beings with their policies and single-minded dedication to profits, in which politicians lie to the masses and use human lives like currency to satisfy their own vanity and lust for power, in which criminals both petty and organized prey on the weak and give into their base impulses at the expense of others, in which cultural factions attempt to divide and confuse the masses through the tools of paranoia and bigotry...and, it’s important to remember, it’s a world in which the majority of people are decent and honest, a world whose reason for being so flawed and terrible is not that most people are, but rather that the engines of capitalism and politics that rule society favor and elevate dishonesty, greed, narcissism, and psychopathy.

With this understanding in mind, with our knowledge of Fallout’s lore leading us to fully realize the terrible sins of the political and economic rulers of the prewar world, we might initially think that nuclear punishment was an acceptable, even necessary solution. Get rid of the organized crime bosses, get rid of the corporations that used and abused people on every level without a single care so long as it was profitable, get rid of the government that used the hopes and anguishes of its citizens solely to promote its own interests. Get rid of it all, give humanity the punishment it has brought on itself, and ring in a world without the complex social vices that the old one had built over the centuries.

But unfortunately, as punishment for the old world’s evils, the bombs were a complete failure. Because war never changes.

Oh, certainly, many of the horrible people of countless heartless corporations met their just ends, as did many of the evil social leaders and criminals of the world. But Fallout shows us that humanity after the bombs is, at its core, the same as humanity before the war.

What was the point of nuclear punishment for the world’s criminals? The same acts continue unabated in the new world. Raiders and organized factions like the Gunners still steal and murder for their daily needs, as surely as any petty mugger or violent thief does. Some individuals do it for even less than that--Allen Marks, of Fallout New Vegas, steals and murders from people not because he needs their resources to live, but because they have special bottle caps that he collects in the hopes of trading to a prewar machine for a fabulous treasure. Countless raiders torture and destroy people for their own twisted satisfaction as much as any prewar serial killer, like the Fens Phantom, did. And there’s only more organized crime in the Fallout world than ever before--from Junktown’s Gizmo to New Reno’s families to Diamond City’s Triggermen, with hundreds, thousands of raider groups and mercenary gangs mixed in, the nukes accomplished nothing if they were meant to punish the evils of organized crime. They simply traded the Eddie Winters of the old world for the Gizmos and Darion Khans of the new.

What was the point of nuclear punishment for the world’s evil governments? The same kinds of corrupt groups in power persist after the war. The NCR, while admittedly not outright evil just yet, uses unjust economic pressure to annex territory and force all the world around them to play by their rules, just like the US government. Cruel, horrible culture-destroying warlords still violently overtake all they come across, as evidenced by Caesar’s Legion. Fanatical, totalitarian bigots still seize control and warp the minds of entire societies, as seen with the east coast Brotherhood of Steel by Fallout 4. Self-important tyrants still decide that the rest of the world should hold their values and engage in the societies that they feel are correct, and attempt to force that new world on others violently, if The Master is anything to go by. Political leaders still lie to, manipulate, and betray those they are sworn to protect and represent the way the prewar senators did for their corporate masters, if Mayor McDonough’s sniveling ambitions to please the Institute are any indication. And those with power still seize the lives of those without, snuffing out their culture and forcing them to live as lowly workers in the conqueror’s culture, as seen by House’s transformation of the tribes near New Vegas into the 3 families running his casinos. Arrogant societies still dismiss those who are different as less than human, and look for any reason to control or destroy them, if Vault City is indicative of anything. The nukes accomplished nothing if they were meant to punish the evils of corrupt and oppressive politicians and governments. They simply traded the Genghis Khans of the old world for the Legion’s Caesar, the Adolf Hitlers for the Overseer Lynettes and Arthur Maxsons, of the new.

What was the point of nuclear punishment for the world’s self-important psychopaths who set themselves and their purposes above the good of their fellow man? The same kinds of arrogant, inhuman disregard for life and morality didn’t end. The Institute ignores the plight of the Commonwealth’s people as they pursue some intangible, undefined future of humanity that sacrifices the species’s heart and soul for technological advancement, just as Vault Tec designed horrific social experiments in its vaults to abuse those who came to them for shelter in the interests of discovering new understandings of social dynamics and ways to increase productivity. The original Brotherhood of Steel has, by the time of Fallout 3 and New Vegas, fallen so far as to mistake their purpose and ignore the plights and needs of humanity, in favor of dogmatically following the letter of their law rather than its spirit, withholding the aid and technologies that the people around them need, just as, prewar, food and other resources were withheld from the populace so that they could instead benefit the military,* whose purpose in fighting the Chinese was supposedly more important to the welfare of the USA’s citizens than having a decent meal. Ashur of the Pitt works his slaves to the bone, assisted by his violent gang of enforcers, for the sake of building an empire around his precious cure, ignoring the needs and welfare of his slaves in favor of his vision of what they and the rest of the world needs, which is much the same as countless logs we can find throughout the series that show employees being expected to work unethical hours to advance the interests of military research in the name of patriotism that would never benefit them. The nukes accomplished nothing if they were meant to punish the evils of those who use and abuse humanity in its own name. They simply traded the Stanislas Brauns and Lieutenent Governor Grahams of the old world for the Fathers and Elder McNamaras of the new.

What was the point of nuclear punishment for the greatest of mankind’s evils, the corporations? The same kind of soulless, careless pursuits of money and power at any cost continued undeterred. Tenpenny, Porter Gage and the Nuka World raider gangs, Eulogy Jones, Iguana Bob, Theodore Collins, Griffon, Talon Company, Set, Kellogg...from coast to coast, throughout the 200 year period after the bombs dropped through to Fallout 4’s events, the wasteland has no shortage of swindlers, of cheats, of those who put profit above the wellbeing of their customers, of those who will not hesitate to kill for the sake of money, who will overtake the honest work of the innocent and steal or destroy it for their own benefit, who will sell out their fellow human beings for the sake of economic gain, and who use their money and influence to destroy anything inconvenient to them, regardless of who it hurts. The nukes accomplished nothing if they were meant to punish the evils of those who bring harm to others in their pursuit of wealth. They simply traded the Nuka-Cola Quantums of the old world for the Bob’s Iguana Bits of the new.

And finally, what was the point of nuclear punishment for the evil members of humanity when so many of those sinners escaped that retribution altogether? The US government, the controlling, manipulative entity that detained citizens for their heritage and opened fire on peaceful protesters, wasn’t wiped out; it simply hunkered down and became the Enclave, re-emerging decades later to once more terrorize the people of the country from coast to coast. Bradburton, the head of Nuka-Cola who overworked employees, overcharged customers, and put money over human beings’ safety, survived for 200 years after the end of the world. So did Eddie Winters, infamous crime boss of the Commonwealth. Stanislas Braun, Professor Calvert, both powerful men whose actions and influence harmed others, continue to cause suffering after the end of the world and the beginning of the new one. If anything, Braun’s evils only bear their true fruit from the nuclear rain, as the Vaults began to perform their horrific tests upon humanity and he began to personally torment a dozen people’s minds for over a century, and Calvert’s intent to control the Maryland area only begins to move forward in the decades after the bombs drop. And even if the heads of Vault Tec are (perhaps) destroyed by the war, the evil intents and methods of the company live on in at least 1 employee who survives, Overseer Barstow. The most the nukes did to punish them was to bring on terrible boredom and loneliness for many, but even then, we see no indication that this isolation taught them anything. Winters is still an ass, Braun becomes shockingly cruel before finally becoming tired of life, and Barstow carries on Vault Tec’s mission as though nothing happened. Maybe Bradburton gained some humanity, but we’ve no indication one way or another. The nukes were such a failure as punishment for the evils of the world that they could not even wipe many of those great evils clean.

The Fallout series makes it a point to prove that the human race is flawed before AND after society’s nuclear reset button is pushed; War Never Changes because humanity never changes. I’ve always loved the fact that the series bases itself so strongly around 1950s aesthetics, because we have a tendency to idolize that age of American culture as somehow safer, more moral and upstanding, than everything that came after, while in reality it was no better. The darkness in human beings was still exactly as present as ever, before and after. And similarly, the evils of humanity before the war are those of humanity after the war, simply given new faces and new nuances of the world to twist to their vile purposes. And thus I say that anyone who views the nuclear devastation of the Fallout series as just and effective punishment for the evils of the prewar society is wrong...because to succeed, punishment must end and prevent bad behaviors. But the evils of humanity continued, as they always had, as they always do.














* Well, the military, and those high in power. Mayor Hildenbrand might’ve been doing dick all to actually benefit the people of Boston, but he sure as hell made sure he wasn’t going hungry himself.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Tales of Series's Naming Oddity

Is it just me, or is the Tales of series very weird in how they name their games? No, I don’t just mean how some of the titles lately are just nonsense words with no meaning (what the fuck is a ‘zestiria’?). Others have poked fun at that far more effectively, not to mention succinctly, than I could. I mean in the sense that every game in the series I’ve come across to date* seems like it’s been mis-titled with the name meant for another installment of the series.

Like, take Tales of Symphonia. Now, given the name, you’d think the game would have a major theme of music, right? Like, the symphony. Symphony --> Symphonia, right? And the game isn’t totally unrelated to music, but...it’s not really a huge part of it, as far as I can glean. Which isn’t by itself odd or a bad thing or anything; it’s not like, say, Vandal Hearts or Legena: Union Tides have titles that really make much specific sense, nor do several dozen other RPGs. It’s kinda the genre’s thing. Still...well, wouldn’t Tales of Symphonia have been a better title for Tales of the Abyss? I mean, Tales of the Abyss makes some decent sense as a title, since the abyss is an actual plot point to the game, but after a while, said abyss is sort of not really that big a deal to the plot. Just becomes a part of the world that you take in stride. But think about it--music is a huge, thematic component to the plot of Tales of the Abyss, because the game’s central, thematic conflict revolves around the question of whether destiny can be (or even should be) resisted and broken, and in TotA, destiny takes the form of a score, as in a song, laid out by some god thing trapped in the center of the earth or some such fanciful RPG gobbledegook. Point is, wouldn’t you think that for a game whose major plot point is a song of destiny, a name like Symphonia would have been a better choice, rather than for a game whose connections to music, tangible and abstract alike, are slight, even tenuous?

And the examples just keep piling up the more I look at the series’s history. Tales of Destiny, for example. Nothing especially strong, fate-wise, in ToD’s plot. But again, Tales of the Abyss would have been a great choice for the name Destiny, since, again, its primary concern is a question of mankind’s reaction to and conflict with inevitability. For that matter, Destiny would have been a fine name for Tales of Legendia, too, since the main point of its second half is that the heroes are opposing a recurring cycle of destiny that will destroy their world. Hell, it’d still work better for ToL’s first half than for ToD’s entirety, since the first half is about whether or not different peoples can come together to work and live in peace, in spite of the conflict and suffering that seems, historically, to be their ‘destiny.’

And heck, while the Abyss might be an alright name for the game it’s given to, and relate to something real and basic in the game, it might be, from a narrative standpoint, a better name for Tales of Zestiria, since that game’s ostensibly about purifying the human heart and pulling people and society up from the malevolence of their darker instincts, which is sort of like the abyss of their hearts. A bit of a stretch, sure, but I personally would like the thematic appropriateness over the simple fact that there’s an actual abyss in Tales of the Abyss. Or Tales of Zestiria could have been more appropriately named Legendia. Legendia is an okay title for the game that actually has it, in the sense that it’s a throwaway RPG title that wouldn’t conflict with like 95% of all fantasy RPGs in existence...but Tales of Zestiria’s got a lot of emphasis on the fabled history of the Shepards, and the events of the past having led to the game’s current conflict. Which would make Legendia fit quite well to it, while the actual Tales of Legendia doesn’t really have much in the way of legends...in fact, it’s unusual for how little it has to do with legends. Most RPGs have at least a couple! And for that matter, Tales of Symphonia also has a lot of its plot focus on events of the past and various legends, so that would have been much more aptly named Legendia, too.

And it even seems weird for the games of the series that I don’t know about. Like, maybe Tales of Eternia is, in fact, appropriately named. I wouldn’t know; it’s on my To Play list. But in case it’s not, then Eternia would have been a fine title for Tales of Phantasia, since ToP involves a fair amount of time travel in its plot, and the name Eternia sort of implies a focus on time. Tales of Hearts probably is well enough named, since hearts are a vague enough thing that most RPGs that involve any sort of dynamic characters could apply, but on the off-chance that Hearts doesn’t really have much to do with that title, it sure as hell would have been a great one for Tales of Zestiria, what with ToZ’s focus being on this poorly-explained ethereal miasma that’s born of and/or infects human hearts to make people into secret invisible monsters and so on.

It’s not like it matters or anything, of course. But this unique trait that the Tales of series seems to have of giving its games titles that would have worked better for other installments in the series did seem odd enough to be worth making note of.









* In fairness, that’s less than half the series, but still.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Millennium 5's Spontaneous Attention to Romance

Yes, I know none of you have played the Millennium series. Well, too bad. How am I going to keep my Followers count’s slim figure if I start making rants that anyone wants to read?

The Millennium series is an odd little quintology in numerous ways. The dialogue’s written crudely, with a seeming prejudice against many types of punctuation, yet frequently it’s well-spoken and witty enough that it doesn’t seem like there’s any particular lack of understanding for it that might come from a non-native speaker. It’s a 5-game series, yet feels pretty strongly like it’s just a single slightly long game that’s been chopped into pieces in a very arbitrary fashion...and yet it also does feel very right as a saga rather than a single title. Its setting seems pretty haphazardly thrown together according to what the plot needs when, but at the same time, it sort of does have a decent amount of lore going on with it. Altogether, it’s not a good series, only decent, and yet I found that I came away from Millennium with distinct fondness for the series.

But 1 of the weirder things about it, which I can’t really understand and think is vaguely detrimental, is the sudden decision partway through Millennium 5 to start throwing questions of romance into the mix of the party’s dynamics.

I mean, for the span of 4 games, we’ve got no hint of romantic interests in the cast. Well, besides Jack, of course, and to a lesser extent James, but I don’t qualify “strikes out with every female he sees with every other breath he takes” as romance. Obnoxious, yes, romance, no. Everyone else in the sizable party has better things to do with their time, and there certainly doesn’t seem to be any real chemistry between anyone present. Heck, most members of the party don’t even seem to especially like each other, even by the end of the game. Which is another of those oddities I mentioned about the series; rare is the RPG in which there are multiple characters in the main cast who don’t ever start getting along. Romance is just not on anyone’s radar from Millennium 1 - 4, completely unmentioned, not even vaguely hinted at, and honestly, it’s not really missed at all, when so many members of the cast barely even manage to work together as peers.

So, for 60 - 80 hours of the series, no one’s interested in anyone else, save Jack and James wanting to screw anything that owns a vagina. And then, a third of the way through Millennium 5, Benoit spontaneously develops a crush on Karine.

There’s absolutely no lead-up to this. Like, whatsoever. Completely out of left field. I mean, I’ll grant you, Karine and Benoit have been part of the team the longest, so he’s had the most time to know and appreciate her over anyone else, but no part of their interactions for 4 entire games have given any indication that he’s been developing feelings for her. The majority of their interactions have been Karine urging him to man up and stop being so pessimistic and cowardly, which doesn’t really strike me as the sort of thing that would inspire strong feelings of affection and attraction.* The rest of the time, they’ve just been putting in their 2 cents on the situations that come up around them. Where the hell have these feelings suddenly sprung from?

But eh, alright, whatever. If Millennium wants to suddenly add a forced, nonsensical crush into the narrative, so be it. Rapid Onset Romance is an old RPG tradition, after all.

Except that that’s not the end of it. For some reason, after this point, the game seems to feel it absolutely necessary to make romantic feelings and musings a repeating focus, potentially pairing up the ladies in the cast like they’re overstock items that have to be moved out of the warehouse at all costs. Marine gives Jack a moment of actual consideration, for some odd reason, and indicates that maybe she’ll seriously consider his advances if he does well in the upcoming tournament that they need to win (which doesn’t really speak well of Marine’s character, I have to say). A quiet moment between Blondie and Marine that actually provides some much-needed lore and character development for each of them devolves into an unexpected discussion of which boys in the party are cute, with Blondie talking about how Abu is totally her type. And of all the ridiculous things, Salome actually starts acting interested in the Bear. Uh, yeah, okay. No pairing in the history of video gaming has ever stunk so badly of ‘Writer Felt Obligated to Just Pair Every Woman Up with Someone’ as that.

What was it that really got your engine running about the Bear, Salome? Was it the unending stream of verbal abuse that flows from his mouth to every single person he meets, yourself included? His constant insistence that everything you and the rest of your friends are doing is completely futile and that you’re all worthless? Maybe you’re really into men so eternally pissed off that Vegeta himself would say, “Dude, chill the fuck out”? The guy has less emotional depth than Oscar the Grouch, for Kallu’s sake!

This unexpected and out of place focus on hook-ups even goes as far as the ending of the game, in which we’re told (in the cannon, good ending) that Marine eventually falls in love with and marries Lord Dragon. Which, I mean, is fine, I guess; if anything, their brief interactions still manage to form a stronger basis for possible romantic interest than Benoit’s and Karine’s, and certainly anything is better than throwing Salome at the Bear. But it still seems odd that there’s enough time for the ending to tell us what Marine’s love life will be, but not to let us know most other standard, expected ending things. Does her father ever come out of his coma? Does her mother ever have the curse on her lifted? How does every other party member’s life go? Who does what in Marine’s new government? How about some more details about how things progress for Mystland in regards to the rights of the peasantry, and how Mystrock’s society and economy change to deal with this?

Why do I come away from this series with a more complete understanding of the course of Marine’s love life than the resolution of her entire blasted quest!?

I dunno. I know it’s a small thing, but this really does bug me, because the sudden, uncalled for attention to schoolyard crushes in this last leg of the series takes a substantial portion of what little real development of characters’ interactions we get in this game. Maybe if Salome hadn’t been busy poking the Bear about his feelings on the ladiez, and then lamenting to Karine afterward about how it didn’t go so well, we could have instead gotten a scene that actually developed Salome and/or the Bear a little (Gaia knows he could have used it) as they have an honest conversation, followed by a scene in which she and Karine interact about something actually substantial and relevant to them or their quest. Maybe if we didn’t have to make Blondie and Marine’s conversation devolve into a “Well which boy do you like?” chat, we could have gotten more of the serious lore and character solidifying that it had been providing up until that moment.

Then again, maybe not. There’s no guarantee that anything better would have replaced this sudden, inexplicable romantic attention. It’s not like adding this RPG equivalent of preteen slumber party gossip took any actual effort that might have been applied to something else. Still, I hate the RPG standard of viewing romantic feelings as no more than a box to check off, and these insubstantial and completely spontaneous little flirtations with flirtation in Millennium are certainly no more than that.













* Then again, there’s precious little that Shion says to Allen throughout most of the Xenosaga series that doesn’t boil down to the same sort of emasculating criticism, and he’s inexplicably in love with her, too. Is this just a thing? Some trope I’m not aware of in anime/RPG culture, in which a guy just falls in love with a woman for the fact that she constantly criticizes his courage and worth as a man? Because it’s stupid, and offensively unhealthy. I’m not saying that Allen and Benoit aren’t whiny little milksops that need to get their shit together for quite some time in their respective franchises, mind you--they totally are. But I am saying it’s a big problem when those criticisms form the majority of the interactions off which romantic feelings can be based.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Mass Effect 3's Padok Wiks

Occasionally, when an RPG has multiple paths through its story and the gamer’s decisions make a difference to the events that unfold, but of these paths, 1 is clearly the better/best, something that’s legitimately good gets lost in the shuffle. Like, say, Roy’s death scene in Suikoden 5. There’s precious little about Suikoden 5 that’s memorable or interesting, but there is 1 part of the game that’s just legitimately great, a moving moment of selfless courage: the scene in which Roy gives his life in noble sacrifice and buys enough time for the heroes’ reinforcements to save the day. It’s easily the best part of the game, but the funny thing is, it’s not something that’s actually supposed to happen. You only see the scene if you’ve made a mistake and are headed down the wrong plot road. For anyone aiming at the better, true story path and ending, the heroes are never put into the situation that results in this scene, and Roy continues to live on, no one ever knowing what heroism truly lies within him. Which I’m fine with, I suppose, because I like Roy, even if a lot of that affection for him is, paradoxically, born from his death scene that never happened. But it’s still the best part of Suikoden 5, in spite of being 1 that you’ll never know exists if you’re making the right choices and experiencing the true storyline. But you get the general idea here--sometimes there are bits and pieces of non-cannon or otherwise ‘wrong’ story paths in RPGs that are actually real gems, gems that it seems a real shame to miss out on.

And no character better embodies this idea of lost excellence, I think, than Padok Wiks of Mass Effect 3. Most players will never get to know Wiks, because he’s a character whose role in Mass Effect 3’s story is simply to fill in for Mordin Solus, if Mordin died during the events of Mass Effect 2. But the vast majority of players are going to go through the lengths that Mass Effect 2 requires to keep their whole team alive and earn the best ending from that game. Heck, even in the case of players who choose not to finish ME2 with everyone on the team alive, Mordin’s the kind of exceptionally likable character who they’ll probably have made sure survives even when others didn’t. I mean, I can see someone who doesn’t care all that much about the ME2 cast shrugging as they see Jacob kick the bucket, but being much more likely to quit and reload a previous save if the same happens to Mordin, simply because Mordin is far more universally appealing.

So, for most people, the role of salarian hero and visionary who cures the Genophage in Mass Effect 3 will go to Mordin. And that’s good! Because it has more thematic weight when tied to Mordin, and his final and greatest act in life being the salvation and second chance for the krogan as a species and as a culture, is the perfect end to Mordin’s character arc. It completes arguably the greatest and most thoughtful character and personal journey in the series in a way that is satisfying and right. But it does mean that for most players, Padok Wiks will be no more than a minor NPC that Shepard converses with momentarily, never to be seen again. And that’s too bad, because Wiks is actually a terrific character, 1 of the best in the Mass Effect series and, by logical extension, 1 of the best in the RPG genre. So today, I want to make a rant in appreciation of this guy, and whoever the folks were on Bioware’s team who wrote him.

First of all, I want to say kudos to the writers for Padok Wiks just in general for making an awesome character. Padok Wiks manages to walk that line between funny-quirky and deep-meaningful perfectly, with amusing and engaging speech mannerisms and jokes that make his presence enjoyable and allow him to interact with and fit into the cast well, but also frank and creative philosophies governing his actions that draw you in and make you think, give him the depth he needs to stand as a legitimate part of the Mass Effect universe. And it’s such a creative depth, too! Padok’s musings on evolution and cosmic design as higher powers are fascinating to listen to and contemplate. He’s a character of faith in greater designs and fates, whose beliefs and evidence for his religious outlook stem from science itself--very cool. And he manages to be a character of great faith and beliefs without it being the defining trait of how he acts, which is pretty damn hard to pull off--how many other characters do you know for whom religious beliefs are the core of their motivations and depth, but who are subtle and well-rounded enough in personality that they seem as personable and conversationally nuanced as every other character in their group?

I also appreciate Wiks for being just an overall stand-up person. Without seeming like a deliberately over-ethical kind of guy, Wiks puts his career and very life on the line without a moment’s hesitation to right what he (correctly) sees as a great cosmic wrong: the slow extinction of the krogan people due to the Genophage. His view of the universe and the grand, overarching purpose of evolution tell him that to destroy the krogan for being what they were both evolved and called upon to be is a heinous mistake, and that they have a purpose and destiny that they must be given the opportunity to fulfill--a perspective which is, once again, quite interesting to hear him speak about, and makes him ultimately a very laudable hero.

Yes, Padok Wiks as a character is terrific, among the best that Mass Effect can offer--and 1 of ME’s major selling points as a story is its engaging and well-rounded cast, so that says something. But I also appreciate the fact that Bioware managed to fit him into the role he has to play as well as they did. First of all, they managed to make a significantly engaging, deep character that you can easily grow emotionally attached to, with only about, what, a fifth of the game’s time to work with? Padok has the screen time and role in Mass Effect 3 that in other RPGs would be relegated to an overall forgettable secondary or tertiary NPC who’s used as a plot device more than a character. No player is going to have anything more than a faint amount of respect and affection for, say, Dr. Emma from Wild Arms 1, or Sergei from Tales of Zestiria, because while these characters fulfill significant roles in the plot, and are overall basically likable, they don’t really have a lot of time to develop in, nor is there any real interest on the part of the writers in having them do so. Characters given the time and significance that Padok Wiks is afforded tend to just be static, reliable friends to the heroes who do and say little that makes them stand out as someone interesting or layered. They’re functional, they’re perhaps mildly likable, but that’s it. So the fact that Bioware makes so much of Padok in such a limited time is impressive.

Of course, that probably is largely because, let’s face it, Padok’s a stand-in for a well-known, well-beloved character in the franchise, so the room and focus is already there on that role in the game--it’d be a dick move, not to mention probably even a little challenging, to fill the role of such character-driven weight as Mordin’s with a character written carelessly. Still, they didn’t have to go as far as they did for Padok to make him work--just look at the Legion VI that can replace Legion in the next major arc of the story--so I do applaud Bioware on this point.

On the subject of how well Padok fits into Mordin’s role, let’s also look at the quality of his motivations and beliefs. I have to once again tip my hat to Bioware on this point, because Padok fits flawlessly as a character into the role of Genophage-curer created for Mordin, for reasons that are entirely Padok’s own. That has got to be tough--to have designed a role to perfectly fit the personality, history, development, and motivations of 1 character (Mordin), yet then have to find a way to fit another character, who has to be substantially different, into the same role, and make it work. We know why Mordin feels compelled to cure the Genophage and save the krogan people--the guilt that he’s become less and less able to rationalize away from the period of ME2 through ME3 about his involvement in continuing the genophage, and the firsthand experience he’s had with the krogans and Tuchanka that has helped him understand the horrors of not just what the Genophage has done to them physically, but spiritually. It’s why the completion of his character arc, which started in Mass Effect 2, is such a profoundly moving and meaningful part of Mass Effect 3, possibly the greatest component of its excellent (until-the-last-second) story.

And yet, somehow, Padok manages to comfortably fit into this story slot written for Mordin, yet for reasons entirely his own! Padok owns none of the guilt of Mordin, and we’ve never seen him experience the Genophage’s horrors up close. His reasons for his unassailable need to restore the krogans are, as far as we can tell, purely philosophical and belief-based, in no way personally motivated, the way Mordin’s are. For Padok, it’s a question of the bigger picture of the universe, a (well-reasoned) faith in the need for each species to serve its purpose or die out naturally. It really is a fascinating blend of the spiritual and the scientific...but in so being, Padok’s cause for solving the Genophage is completely divorced from Mordin’s, yet fits just as well. Mordin is motivated to risk his all for what he has come to understand is right, emotionally, while Padok is motivated to risk his all for what he has come to understand is right, spiritually and logically.* Padok’s sincere belief that all species have a part to play that they must allowed, and in evolution as a form of fate and higher power, gives him just as great a cause to wish to end the Genophage, an artificial limiter placed on a species’ development, as Mordin has. So long as we believe that either character is willing to give everything he has and pursue his cause to the end, each fits exactly what is needed for the game’s role of Salarian who sacrifices himself to save a people not his own. Again, impressive work on the part of ME3’s writers.

Oh, and as an aside, I like the fact that this confirms that the Genophage is an atrocity on every level, in that we see a character that feels its wrong in Mordin, and a character that knows its wrong in Padok. And hey, beyond my personal feelings, that fact does kind of strengthen the impetus that the plot gives us to guide Shepard and company in curing it, so in a small, indirect way, Padok is good for that, too.

I also appreciate Bioware’s making Padok a character that, despite needing to be available to replace him physically, doesn’t attempt to replace Mordin emotionally. Although the characters of the game cannot know, of course, that they were supposed to be working with Mordin in this part of their tale, the presence of another quirky Salarian scientist on the Normandy is understandably enough to remind Shepard, Joker, and several others aboard the ship of their fallen comrade, and even as they talk about Padok and the player gets to know this new character, everyone also reminisces about Mordin. Mordin is not forgotten by the characters, and the player clearly isn’t being asked to ignore him and his history with the series. Joker even calls Padok ‘Not-Mordin.’ If anything, it’s another perspective we’re given of Mordin as a character, to see the emotional hole his absence creates. Hey, don’t knock that--sometimes a huge part of a character, and other characters through their relationships, can only be understood and explored after death. Shadowrun: Dragonfall does this quite well with Monika, and Alice’s death creates a far better and more nuanced character of Yuri in Shadow Hearts 2, for examples. Anyway, Mordin’s far from forgotten with Padok Wiks in his place, and that’s an appropriate, believable, and respectable thing.

1 last thing I want to say in this appreciation for the unsung excellent character of Padok is that, and I know this is heresy but bear with me, in a couple regards Padok is actually better than Mordin. Yes, yes, I know I’m evil, but hear me out. In most regards, I agree that Mordin is a little better as a character, but there are a couple points that Padok beats him out in, minor though they may be. First of all, I would argue that Padok is actually an even better person than Mordin. Wonderful though Mordin is, a huge part of his motivation to do right and end the Genophage is a wish to make up for his past mistake. Now don’t get me wrong, that is a very noble and righteous motivation. But Padok? He has no personal stake like that. He just honestly believes that this is for the good of the universe, and for that, for no more than the very concept of right and wrong, Padok Wiks gives his life. Again, I am not knocking feelings of responsibility and the need to rectify past misdeeds, those are very good causes. But, to me at least, the wish to do good for no more than the sake of doing good is an even greater heroism. I suppose it’s subjective, but that’s how I feel, at any rate.

Secondly, well...as epic and inspiring as Mordin’s speech is, is pretty damn hard to top Padok’s final words to Shepard as he goes to give his life for his cause. They’re awesome in text form, but honestly, a lot of it is in the voice actor’s delivery, too, so I’m just gonna link you to it. 0:55 - 1:16 of this: https://youtu.be/7Sw1Pxn9Djo?t=55s. Damn if that’s not magnificent to me. Mordin’s great in this scene, but Padok’s is a final speech for the ages.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: when you discount the ending, Mass Effect 3 is a truly spectacular RPG. Really, you can see the transition from Mass Effect 3 into its ending as the symbol of Bioware’s transition from a dignified collection of storytellers capable of creating excellent products into the sloppy shit-show the company is now. But if I am to frequently point and laugh at the garbage Bioware presently makes, and criticize their now constant failures as creators and people, then I must be fair, and remember to credit them for what they once were capable of. And few of their accomplishments is as underappreciated as Padok Wiks. So I give full praise to Bioware for this character. Not many players may know Padok, and fewer still may care to pay attention to him enough to appreciate him for his unique traits...but to me, at least, Padok Wiks is as much and as worthy a part of Mass Effect as any other among its unforgettable cast.

If you’re interested in getting to know this character, and either enjoying him as much as I do or shaking your head in disgust and wondering what the hell I’m going on about, you can find a compilation of pretty much every part of Padok’s time in Mass Effect 3 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6O4iVhyNnKc









* Not to say that Padok is some stoic Spock type, or that Mordin isn’t thinking long and hard about the important long-term, or anything. Padok is very warm and engaging with everyone, including the krogan Bakura, and Mordin has clearly put significant thought into what the future holds for the krogan, as seen by his assessment, once the Genophage cure is about to be put into effect, of how the krogan as a whole will be as they go forward, depending on whether Wrex and Bakura have survived. I’m just saying that the primary motivation for Mordin is what’s morally right emotionally, while for Padok it’s what’s morally right intellectually, and what justifications they have beyond that starting point are simply built upon their primary motivator.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Fallout 4's Best Mods

Fallout 4 is awesome and I love it. I wouldn’t change a thing about it!

...

No, wait, I totally would. And so would quite a damn lot of other people, it seems, because the modding scene for Fallout 4 seems to be even more ferociously prolific than for the previous installments in the series. The mods for this game range from the useful (such as many fixes to bugs in the game--it may not seem like much, but those sparking wires and misplaced elevator buttons were really driving me crazy!), to the shamelessly bizarre (wanna fire baby-shaped nuclear explosives at Macho Man Randy Savage as you travel the wasteland with a supermutant wearing a milk vending machine, searching for hidden caches of cadbury cream eggs to steal from Doctor Zoidberg? Go right ahead, my friend).

Beyond outrageous fun and improvements to basic functionality, however, there are also many mods for Fallout 4 which legitimately improve it as a Fallout title, mods which I, personally, believe enhance the game to an extent that they should be included in any playthrough, not just for fun or utility, but because they make it a truer Fallout experience. And so, as I did for Fallout 3 and may at some point do for Fallout: New Vegas, I’m going to share with you all a list of the Fallout 4 mods that I believe are an essential addition to Fallout 4, which capture its essence and enhance it.

Do keep in mind, of course, that there are many enjoyable and well-made mods out there in addition to the ones below which are quite good--I’m quite partial, for example, to We are the Minutemen, which basically solves a bit of a logic hole regarding the representation of the faction’s strength over time, Diamond City Expansion, which makes Diamond City feel more like the major city it’s supposed to be, and The Secret of Huntress Manor, as it’s pretty much the only campaign mod I’ve seen in a Fallout game that’s immersive and captures the feel and style of the series. What’s below is just a list of mods that I believe, in 1 way or another, make Fallout 4 a more whole experience overall. Like, if a flavor mod such as The Secret of Huntress Manor is icing on Fallout 4's cake that enhances it without any contradicting flavors, then the mods below are the ingredients you add to the cake to make it the best that it can be.

I'm not sure that metaphor is especially good, but I'm hungry.



The Wild Wasteland: 1 of Fallout 4’s few real weaknesses as a Fallout game is that it’s largely forgotten that occasional random silliness is a core element of the series. From the very start, the Fallout series has been an entrancing mix of 90% serious, thoughtful storytelling and cultural analysis, and 10% ridiculous gags. Dead red shirts, seeing the TARDIS taking off, encountering characters from Monty Python or Pinkie + The Brain, finding a bar in which character models from the first Fallout gripe about their roles (or lack thereof)...the first couple Fallouts have tons of instances of wacky nonsense scattered throughout, and Bethesda just doesn’t seem to remember/know/care about it. Fallout 3 didn’t have nearly enough goofy little scenarios and references, and Fallout 4 has even fewer.

This mod, however, takes a page from Fallout: New Vegas’s book, and adds a ton of locations, encounters, and items to Fallout 4, scattered around the wasteland, that you can stumble upon and chuckle at, all denoted by New Vegas’s little weird sound chime when you find them. From a Steven Universe reference, to an alien outcast who seemed to go renegade for his obsession with Giddyup Buttercup, to a gaggle of callbacks to previous games in the series, this mod’s got a lot of fun stuff to find, and is a worthy part of the Fallout 4 experience by not only restoring the comedy to the soul of the series, but also adding a substantial amount of locations to the game to explore and enjoy. I will say that at times The Wild Wasteland feels a little like it’s going overboard, or adds an item or reference that does feel slightly out of place even considering the spirit of the mod...but ultimately, the increase and improvement to the Fallout experience that it brings to the table far outweigh these slight and insubstantial misgivings.


Beantown Interiors Project: Remember that great Fallout 3 mod, my favorite of the ones I outlined as improving that game, DC Interiors Project? Well, in that same spirit comes Beantown Interiors Project!

As I said while recommending its predecessor, a huge part of Fallout is the exploration of the post-apocalyptic wasteland. Fallout’s setting is the most integral part of the series, and exploring it is a vital part of Fallout’s soul. Much of the series’s gravity and narrative comes from its ambient storytelling, which is only accessible through exploration. Fallout 4 is leaps and bounds above New Vegas and 3 in this department, with far more settings to explore, dotting a larger map, than any other installment of the franchise to date. And yet, in spite of the vast number of buildings you can enter and explore in this game, there are still significantly more that are boarded up, inaccessible, just soulless scenery. Boston, Cambridge, Lexington, Concord, and so many other locations have so much more potential than is being used! So, any mod that expands this unused real estate into more immersive, interesting locales for us to explore and experience the postapocalyptic Commonwealth is a very good one, in my book.

With that said, Beantown Interiors doesn’t entirely live up to its legacy. DC Interiors, I think, had far more creativity and detail put into most of its locations...Beantown Interiors has a bad habit of simply filling the buildings it opens up with a tremendous amount of debris and clutter, and calling it a day. Which is still a positive addition, make no mistake, and admittedly does mesh better with the whole post-nuclear-war thing than much of the actual game’s content does. But it does seem like less thought went into this iteration than DC Interiors, at times. Also, I don’t really see the point of adding the lawn gnomes and the mad bomber items; it’s like someone just mashed 2 separate mods into this project because Beantown Interiors is the only mod of the 3 that anyone’s gonna pay any attention to. Nonetheless, it’s still a positive addition, and there are some spots that Beantown Interiors adds that are pretty neat, so I do definitely recommend it.


Everyone’s Best Friend: Alright, which moron at Bethesda did it? Who was the guy/gal with the IQ of a mollusk who decided that you have to choose between having Dogmeat or any other companion accompany you? This is Fallout. You’re not supposed to have to make a tradeoff to have Dogmeat. You’re supposed to just be able to have a dog at your side, always! No questions, no sacrifice of having any other party member! 1 of the biggest inspirations for this series is the (fairly disturbing) 1975 film A Boy and His Dog, for Garuda’s sake!

Thankfully, this mod exists, and with it, you can have Dogmeat stay by your side, without having to go without a regular party member. Having Dogmeat by your side is a Fallout staple, and hearing the reactions of the various party members to new locations and situations is an important part of the narrative of Fallout 4, so this mod is definitely 1 that I think every player should make use of.


Combat Zone Restored: A lot of the intended content of the Combat Zone in Fallout 4 didn’t manage to make the deadline, and unfortunately, it shows. Sometimes stuff cut for time isn’t obvious--I like the mod The Lost Building of Atlantic, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell there was anything more that had been planned for Atlantic Offices on my own--but since the Combat Zone is where you recruit Cait, it piques your interest a lot more than a random raider location otherwise might, and this extra scrutiny highlights just how abrupt it seems.

This mod restores the content that was cut, and adds/fixes what’s missing/bugged to bring the place up to the standards that were originally set for it. The Combat Zone Restored makes the process of recruiting Cait more involved, which better fleshes out her character and the character of her manager, and recovers the Combat Zone’s functionality as an arena. It’s good for both the character and the lore, so it’s worth having.


Piper Interview Restored: Not everything can make the cut in any game. Hell, not everything should. Still, sometimes you have to look at what got left on the cutting room floor, scratch your head, and wonder why in the world it didn’t make it in. Such as the content that this mod restores. Some of the questions and responses during Piper’s interview early in the game apparently didn’t make it into the finished product, yet, from every way I look at it, they’re completely compatible to the lore, character integrity, and themes of the game. Not only that, but these extra bits make the interview better overall, and assist in developing the Sole Survivor, as well as potentially underscoring the major message of Fallout. Reminds me a bit of Bioware’s inexplicable removal of several lines from Anderson and Shepard’s final conversation in Mass Effect 3. Anyone playing Fallout 4 absolutely should have this mod installed, so they can hear the full thing.


Cut Content: Sanctuary Terminals: Another bit of content that it just doesn’t make any sense to have cut from the game, here. There’s a couple terminals that were created for Sanctuary which didn’t make it into Fallout 4, but they’re still coded and have the entries in them, and given that they better develop Nora and Nate as people (in ways that are completely compliant to their characters, I want to emphasize), I think it’s preferable, even advisable, to use this mod to restore them.


Stumble Upon Interiors: This, to me, is a truer successor to DC Interiors than Beantown Interiors is. This mod adds 8 new interior locations to the Commonwealth, utilizing several otherwise unused boarded-up locations scattered about Fallout 4 to provide you with a bunch of new places to explore and experience, all of which feel completely true to the game, in both their construction and in their light ambient storytelling. Great stuff!


MsRae's Commonwealth Interiors: In the same vein as Stumble Upon Interiors, this mod also adds several new locations to the Commonwealth that you can come across while exploring, all of which, again, feel authentic to the Fallout universe. I had an issue with a couple of the new locations causing slowdown for me, so be aware of that, but since this mod is pretty new, I can only assume that will be addressed in a future update, and all but 2 of the locations worked just fine. This is another mod that provides more of the classic Fallout exploration that the game, huge though it may be, could use a lot more of, so check it out.


Inside Jobs: Same deal as Stumble Upon Interiors, really, in that this, too, adds many interiors to those unused buildings in the game, which all feel authentic. And I gotta say, a lot of these locations look great; the author of this mod really knows how to create atmosphere with lighting. Seriously, some of these locations are basically art. I absolutely love this mod, and heartily recommend it.


Atomic Radio: The last mod I’ll be recommending today is also my absolute favorite of all the ones I’ve seen for Fallout 4, Atomic Radio. This is a rather simple mod that adds a new radio station to the game for you to listen to whenever the mood strikes you. Not a big deal, right? There are tons of radio mods out there. But what I really love about this 1 is that in between playing the standard Fallout music that you can find on Diamond City Radio, Atomic Radio has all kinds of commercials and radio shows which use Fallout 4’s lore. There are ads for dozens of the items you find in the game, from Nuka Cola on down to brands of the junk items you find, such as Suprathaw Antifreeze and Abraxo, as well as various prewar businesses whose locations are found in the Commonwealth, such as Wicked Shipping and Joe’s Spuckies. There are also various trailers for old timey movies, as well as for episodes of Grognak based on the covers of the Grognak comics you can find in the game. Added to that are various Cold War era-esque propaganda PSAs, a couple lore-friendly talk shows and game shows, and several radio skits dramas, including little Twilight Zone-styled episodes. Remember how much I liked the Fallout 3 mod that restored cut commercials to Galaxy News Radio? This is like a whole radio station of those enjoyable tidbits!

And it’s worth noting that the execution is as great as the idea itself. The voice acting in these is clean, clear, and spot-on, and the production value is so high that you would never know this wasn’t intended to be a part of the game. It’s all written really well, too, with most of these ads and programs having the same sort of commentary on American past and present culture as Fallout itself makes. Not to mention, almost all of it is really funny, and a few of those little dramas are actually pretty cool and/or compelling. And, of course, it checks out completely in that most important of categories to me: it’s completely, 100% immersive; Atomic Radio feels truer to Fallout than some parts of the actual game do! Kris Takahashi, the mod’s creator, clearly possesses a perfect understanding of and appreciation for both the lore, and the heart, of Fallout, not to mention a great sense of humor. This is professional work, no 2 ways about it, and it’s a great way to give yourself something new and fun to listen to as you explore the wasteland and build up your settlements--especially since this mod does not skimp out on the content; back-to-back, all the shows and ads and whatnot in Atomic Radio total to around 4 hours! When regularly interspersed by the normal radio songs, this mod will last you a good, long time. It’s definitely my favorite mod for Fallout 4, and I heartily recommend it. No playthrough of Fallout 4 should be without Atomic Radio.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Energy Breaker's Attention to Background Details

Energy Breaker, an SNES RPG that has had a fan translation completed for it, seems to be a big name in obscure 16-bit RPGs that never got a release in the United States, like Terranigma and Bahamut Lagoon. I’ve had a couple of people put it on my radar, including our very own Humza, with his neat guest rant a little ways back. And honestly, now that I’ve played it, I don’t see what the big deal is. It’s alright, maybe even good, but little about its story and characters really stands out to me. Playing it wasn’t a negative experience by any means, but I thought I’d get more from it.

There is, however, 1 aspect of Energy Breaker that I really was impressed with, small though it may be: the care and attention that the game’s background details got. As you go through this game, Myra can examine and comment on a remarkable number of objects and nuances of the background. She can complain about the dustiness of a bar’s counter, or admire how great she looks in the reflection of a bucket of water, or comment on the weather though a window...there’s all sorts of stuff she has to say about her environment. It actually serves to characterize Myra a bit, in that her flippant and spunky personality and outlook is quite well-cemented simply by the way she frequently cracks wise or grumbles about all sorts of stuff as she comes across it.

Now, of course, this is not unique to Energy Breaker. Plenty of RPGs do this, having protagonists comment on the various objects of interest in towns and dungeons as they come across them. Sometimes games even make it a recurring joke, like Atelier Iris 1’s odd thing of having party members shout “Barrel!” every time you investigate one, or make these comments on surroundings into an entire conversation, as some Tales of games have conversation skits devoted to landmarks and oddities you discover while wandering around towns and dungeons. And there are certainly some RPGs out there in which there are as many and as frequent opportunities to have characters comment on (or the narration do so) the various parts of the environment you can examine. Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle and Undertale are quite amusing and charming in this, with lots of quirky and funny comments to be found throughout each game, as are Earthbound and Mother 3.

But even if Energy Breaker isn’t the only RPG to use commentary on its environments as a method of characterization, or even the only one to do so to a major extent, I can say that it’s still the most impressive to me for how meticulous it is with it. Because, see, Myra’s observations on a bit of the environment around her are not necessarily static. Oh, certainly, some things never change--she’ll be forever annoyed with the lack of dusting the innkeeper does in Myra’s room, for example--but where appropriate, Myra’s commentary changes as the game marches onward. When looking out the window, for example, Myra may comment on how nice the day is...but later in the game, after there’s been some huge explosion, examining the same window will see Myra commenting on the plume of smoke she can see in the distance. Later still, when some serious plot shit goes down and the world’s ending with the sky turning red, examining the window again has her comment on the current situation.

The game’s even careful of details for small stuff. I mean, the window thing gives you an idea of how much focus Energy Breaker’s creators put on having the ambient details of the game line up correctly, but you could point out that the window is slightly connected to plot events (in that the changes to Myra’s observations always seem tied to things that are actually happening), so it deserves a little extra focus. But Energy Breaker even makes accommodations for the changes to game environments that are too tiny to have any story importance. For example, there’s a married couple who stay at one of the Olga Town inn’s rooms for...let’s say about half the game, or so. If you have Myra examine the beds in the room, she makes a comment for each on the state the bed is in. After the couple leaves the room, however, if you have Myra examine the beds, her commentary changes. Now, really think about how tiny a thing that is. The developers of this game wanted to make sure that, on the off-chance that a player actually cared to examine the beds not just once, but multiple times through the game, Myra would have a relevant observation to make at all times, whether it be noting that 1 of the beds smells of man sweat while there’s a man staying in the room, or later discovering that said smell is no longer present now that the room is empty of boarders.

Most other RPGs would just have Myra’s initial comments on the state of the beds stand, unchanged for the rest of the game. There’s no substantial cause to go to trouble to change examination script for any given object in the whole damn town each and every time the slightest event might, conceivably, alter how a character sees or otherwise interacts with that object. As far as most games care, no amount of washing and changing will ever remove those bedsheets’ saturation of masculine stink. But Energy Breaker has such incredible dedication to keeping every tiny part of its environment alive and flexible that even tiny things like this are carefully kept up with. And while the dividends of this focus and effort may seem quite meager, it nonetheless does promote a greater desire to keep interacting with Energy Breaker’s world in the player, a greater immersion into the game, and also assists in giving the protagonist a little extra personality here and there. I’ve said it before on issues like the skits from the Tales of series, or party members bantering with each other during/after battle, but when it comes to creating memorable characters in your game, the little stuff is at least as important as their major, plot-related character arcs. And that’s true here, too, for a lot of the quirks in Myra’s personality really come out and stick in your head through her interactions with the world around her.

So kudos to Energy Breaker on this point. Not a lot about its story and cast stands out to me overall, but I do think that its dedication to its ambient details is very laudable.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

General RPGs' AMVs 15

Yup, I was short on rant ideas again. Sue me.


FINAL FANTASY

Final Fantasy 8: Final Devotion, by Lunarstudios: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1My5qRNntQ
The music used is To the Moon and Back, by Savage Garden. This is 1 of those AMVs that’s so damn good that it’s really just barely shy of deserving its own rant. The timing and scene selection is excellent, perfectly following both the mood and rhythm of the song, and its lyrics. And the latter is a real accomplishment, because this is a long song, and it’s 1 of those songs whose focus is on telling its story, making the act of following along with said story much more challenging. The only flaw I can say this video really has is the fact that it’s kind of hard to sustain a roughly 6 minute song with FF8’s FMVs alone, particularly when they’re so carefully restricted to coordinating with the song’s nearly always present lyrics...but even as it gets a little old, it’s still really good. Really, this is just an expert AMV from start to finish; that’s all there is to say about it.

It’s a shock to me that this isn’t the best AMV of today’s lot, actually, but I suppose that really just emphasizes how truly excellent All About Us one further below really is.

Final Fantasy 8: Mentos, by Jimbo Studios Entertainment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWPQ6t4uQXw
The music used is from a Mentos commercial, by who the hell knows. There’s nothing to say about this. It’s just glorious.

Final Fantasy 9: Demons, by Argol: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYdb5DJzV_4&
The music used is Demons, by Imagine Dragons. This is a really well-made AMV that consistently matches the scenes of Final Fantasy 9 to the lyrics of the song extremely well, and has a good eye and ear for keeping the visuals of the AMV appropriate to the tone of the song, as well. It’s one of those cases where it’s more the game being worked to fit the song, rather than the song fitting to the content of the game, but there’s still plenty of synergy between them that goes both ways. Overall, this is just a really strong AMV.


FIRE EMBLEM

Fire Emblem 14: Believer, by TheHeroStainedRed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zhafaABIVdc
The music used is Believer, by Imagine Dragons. This is a solid AMV that shines for how well it pairs the game’s footage and action to the heavy, powerful beats and tone of the music. I hadn’t really noticed just how much of FE14’s cinematics were devoted to pain, death, and heavy movements, but apparently there’s enough there to adeptly coordinate with this entire song.

Fire Emblem 14: Hey Brother, by Artishe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4DJTP8ApLY&
The music used is Hey Brother, by Avicii. Alright, in fairness, when it comes to making a Fire Emblem 14 AMV, pretty much half the job is already done for you the moment you get a song primarily about brothers and sisters. Still, this is a skillfully made AMV which competently takes advantage of the automatic connection between song and game, and ties them together into a solid video about the focal point of Corrin’s character and motivations: her family. The tone of the song is pretty well connected to the scenes shown, too, which is also nice.

Fire Emblem 14: This is War, by Hawkscape: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYVobQRsY2o
The music used is This is War, by 30 Seconds to Mars. Again. Ugh. Okay, so this is a very strange AMV, because its first half is such a creative, thoughtful, and well-executed take on the lyrics of This is War that it actually makes the song seem fresh and interesting again. Awesome! And then...the AMV transitions into the second half, skipping to the end of the song and the end of the game, and it’s just boring. I mean, the scene and actions in it fit to the song well enough, but overall you’re just watching an almost unaltered video of the end of FE14, to a song which sucks. It’s baffling, honestly; this boring section is by the same guy who actually managed to breathe new life into the song in the first half of the AMV?

As it stands, the first half’s quality still outweighs the second half’s lack of originality or skill, to me, so I’m still sharing it here. But what started out looking to be a truly excellent AMV turned out to just be a fairly okay one, and that’s pretty disappointing.


KINGDOM HEARTS

Kingdom Hearts Series: Wide Awake, by Sarady: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axl1xw3SD_c
The music used is Wide Awake, by Katy Perry. Kingdom Hearts has a natural resonance with certain types of songs, and that’s definitely present here; Wide Awake definitely holds the kind of tune and lyrics that really just meld well with the game. That’s not to say that Sarady deserves no credit for this combination, however. To the contrary, this AMV’s creator has skillfully used the song and game footage to glimpse at the stories of the Kingdom Hearts series’s protagonist Sora, and 2 semi-protagonists Roxas and Aqua, and the result is a high-quality AMV that’s engrossing from start to finish.


THE WORLD ENDS WITH YOU

The World Ends with You: All About Us, by Digital Surgeon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfxe24iut1M&
The music used is All About Us, by t.A.T.u. Ugh, t.A.T.u. What is this, 2002? I thought I was done having to listen to this duo’s shitty music after my sister moved out for college. I guess I should just count my lucky fucking stars that Digital Surgeon didn’t go with All the Things She Said.

Okay, well, regardless of my at this point arguably lifelong dislike of t.A.T.u, this here is a damned good AMV. The tone of the song coordinates nigh perfectly with the style of The World Ends with You, both in terms of its art style and its sequential-art-esque animations, and the AMV’s creator does a spot-on job of coordinating scene changes so that almost all the actions and scenes shown are matched to not just the lyrics, but the beats themselves of this energetic, aggressive song. I just freakin’ love the part from 0:59 - 1:10, for example. The chorus...the obnoxious, incessant, so-repetitive-that-level-grinding-in-The-7th-Saga-is-starting-to-look-fresh-and-interesting-by-comparison chorus...obviously works very well conceptually with this game, a game all about finding the value in bonds with other people. This is one of those cases where you almost don’t know where the game ends and the song begins, because they’re fitted together so well that you can’t tell which is supposed to be the one supporting and emphasizing the other.

My one complaint is that the video uses a few lines of dialogue from the game, which should be a plus (why do AMV-makers shy away from this so much?), but unfortunately, the music isn’t adequately subdued during these moments, and so everything said is completely lost in the noise. It’s too bad, because a few well-placed lines from TWEwY would have doubtless been solid gold for this AMV. Even with this flaw, though, this is a really great music video.