Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Mass Effect Series's Shepard's Gender

Well. March 6th looms, and you know what that means. Or if you don't, you will, after finishing this paragraph, because I am about to say it. March 6th is Mass Effect 3's launch date, AKA the day The RPGenius will cut off all forms of human contact for however long it takes to complete this final installment in Commander Shepard's trilogy of ass-kicking. And since this is the last rant scheduled to occur before that day, what better way to celebrate the Mass Effect series than a rant that complains about it? A lot of things, really, but I can't be bothered to do any of them, so you're stuck with this.

A common aspect to Western RPGs is the option for a player to choose the general traits of the game's main character at the game's beginning. You almost never see this in Japanese RPGs,* but that can be a real benefit to them at times, since a malleable protagonist is more difficult to strongly connect to the plot. One of these traits of the protagonist that the player has the option of determining is the character's gender. Typically this decision doesn't actually change all that much about the game's proceeding's, save for the protagonist's potential romantic options--in Dragon Age 1, for example, one of the love interests for a male hero will be Morrigan, while a female protagonist will be able to court Alistair instead.** Sometimes the gender of the protagonist doesn't even affect that much--it's basically negligible in Fallout 3 and Baldur's Gate 1, for example. Either way, it's usually an enjoyable little feature, I suppose, and usually the only harm I can think coming from it is what I implied before--the fact that leaving so much of a protagonist up to choice means less potential for him or her to get significant character development. Otherwise, I generally don't think much about this feature.

There is, however, one game series where this gender ambiguity is problematic to me: Mass Effect.

Now, just to reiterate what anyone who reads these rants with any regularity already knows: I am not a gender-biased kind of person. And I am all for feminism, for female empowerment in my video games. I have many times mentioned in my rants mentioned dissatisfaction with how many more male protagonists there are than female ones. I am always annoyed when female characters aren't allowed to fulfill anything beyond a cliched, traditional, often insultingly limited female role. I hate the way video games force female characters to dress in ridiculous, ineffective outfits clearly designed only to arouse a male audience. I don't deny that gender may have an influence on a person's character, but I oppose the notion that it is the defining trait of that person's character, and that a character role has to be gender-specific. That's why I've made rants of admiration for Wild Arms 3's Virginia as a female effectively fulfilling a particular brand of heroic role that most would associate only with males, and for Tales of the Abyss's Ion as a male effectively fulfilling a damsel in distress role. So I hope you will believe me when I say that my statement below has, to the best of my ability to gauge, absolutely no gender bias associated with it.

Commander Shepard needs to be a man.

I'm sorry, but it's just how it is. The female model for Shepard just doesn't work for the feats Shepard performs during Mass Effect 1 and 2. The best piece of evidence for this is in Mass Effect 2, concerning the battle against the Shadow Broker. If you have played it then you will recall that the Shadow Broker is...big. He's real big. He is to a Krogan what a Krogan is to a Salarian. There are times during that battle--awesome times--when Shepard goes in close for hand-to-hand combat, striking physical blows and body-slamming the big jerk. Well, seriously, now, let's look at this. It's only barely believable that the male model of Shepard could summon enough physical force to knock the Shadow Broker around as well as he does, and the male model of Shepard is a decently sizable guy with some (not really enough, if you ask me) muscle tone to him. The idea that the female Shepard model could perform the exact same physical feats is...well, it just lacks credibility.

I am NOT saying that females cannot be strong, large, and capable of great feats of strength. Hell no. I fully believe that a woman could, with comparable training and naturally gifted physique, do what male Shepard does in this fight (at least, I believe it as much as I believe he could). But not the woman that the female Shepard is. Because Bioware, for some idiotic reason, decided that the female Shepard would conform to stupid societal expectations rather than to common sense and the Shepard character history, and have a less solid frame and show basically no indication that she even exercised regularly, let alone went regularly into combat situations and had relevantly recent military training. I believe that the physical prowess to knock the Shadow Broker around isn't limited to a man--but I believe just as strongly that it sure as hell ain't possible that some casual soccer mom could manage it.

I mean, for God's sake, look at her. Now look at the Shadow Broker. Now compare them when put face to face. How the HELL are we supposed to buy that she could physically attack that guy and have any effect at all?

The Shadow Broker fight's my main line of argument here, but only because it's where the discrepancy is most noticeable. There are plenty of other occasions in both Mass Effects that have Shepard engaging in physical activities that rely on a body type and level of physical fitness that female Shepard just doesn't have. And hey, again, I do admit that there are times when I find myself thinking that the male Shepard should probably be a bit bigger or more noticeably strong than he is, but at least he's got something to him that he can throw around. The female Shepard model just doesn't work.

Maybe I'm being a little too nitpicky on this; I can't rightly say. I mean, if you look at the Fallout games, which also let you determine protagonist gender, it's not like your female character is physically impressive, and those games involve lots of similar action to Mass Effect. And yet...it just doesn't seem the same. For one thing, the build of the female models is fairly comparable to the male ones; you don't have the female protagonists so significantly less sturdy than their male counterparts. And the physical demands just don't get so glamorized with Fallout characters as they are with Shepard. One of the many ways that the Mass Effect games emphasize what a badass Shepard is is by showing Shepard's physical feats in dangerous and combat situations from time to time; Fallout just slow-motion captures killing blows (ones which are already usually pretty ludicrous, as opposed to the realism that Mass Effect tries to convey). Then look at Dragon Age--there's a fair difference between the male and female models, yes, but the parts that emphasize physical prowess do so using weapons and abilities more than just physical power and endurance. Knights of the Old Republic, you've got Jedi, who fight using the Force and nearly weightless weapons more than they do with any physical prowess. Baldur's Gate, everyone's too damn small on the screen to really tell anything anyway and the fighting is again not emphasized the same way. So I don't know, but I don't THINK I'm holding Mass Effect up to any standards that I don't hold up to the other Western RPGs I've played where gender is an option.

I guess the problem really just is that ME wants to convey that sense of realism in its confrontations, particularly those it emphasizes in special scenes, and this winds up just really emphasizing the (completely unnecessary, not to mention morally questionable***) differences they've made between the male and female Shepard models, making one fairly viable and unfortunately making the other one realistically unsuited for the demands that will be placed on it. A female model with a better physique would have been just fine, and made a lot more sense for the character anyway.

It's all the same to me for my playing style, since A, I am a hardcore Shepard - Tali fan and thus need Shepard to be male anyway, and B, male Shepard's voice actor has a feeling of a strong, demanding, and capable presence (at least in ME2; I've mentioned before he kind of came into his own in that game after a less impressive performance in ME1), which is what Shepard is regardless of how you play the game, while female Shepard's voice actress sounds like a tired, mentally detached traffic cop at the end of a long day. It doesn't affect my run through the game either way. Still, this is one of those inconsistencies that bug me, particularly when it really shouldn't be there anyway.

* Games where you choose at the beginning between 2 or more characters of different genders (such as Star Ocean 2, or Children of Mana) don't count. These are games with multiple possible protagonists that you choose from, not games with a single protagonist whose gender does not significantly change the protagonist's role and personality in the game. You can choose between a few different characters at the start of Seiken Densetsu 3, for example, but each one has a different character history, different beginning, different personality...you're picking which already complete person will be the hero, rather than determining the characteristics of the 1 hero of the game, like you do in Western RPGs.

** Man, did the male protagonists ever get screwed over in that trade-off.

*** Because, I mean, seriously, what reason COULD there really be for having the exact same character, who has done and must be able to do the exact same things, be smaller and have less physical presence, that doesn't boil down to mild sexism and/or fanservice? If anyone's got one, and it's reasonable, then I'm all ears.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

General RPG Maker Nintendo: Why I Respect It So Much

I've always liked Nintendo, ever since I got my NES so many years ago. So, so many. Too many. I don't like to think about how many.

Anyway! I've always liked Nintendo and supported them, but in recent years, I've come to really appreciate the company as a game developer as a whole.* They seem to really strive to put artistically creative quality into their titles as a general rule, they aren't afraid to make family-friendly titles in a world where other media creators of all kind are often terrified to try to make a product that can be enjoyed by more than one age group, and you can tell that they make a solid effort on nearly all the titles they create. These are the qualities from which classics are born.

First of all, the creativity. Now, I wouldn't call almost any Nintendo game art, per say. Off the top of my head, I'd say the only Nintendo games I've played that qualify as art are Mother 3, maybe Earthbound, and possibly The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, although that's really stretching it. But even if it doesn't lead to art, Nintendo's creativity with their games is unparalleled. The gameplay is creative, the settings are creative, the characters are creative, over and over and over again. They invent and revolutionize game genres like Platformers and Action RPGs, create memorable and unique characters like Samus and the Mario brothers, and come up with terrifically original game concepts like those in Pikmin and Kirby: Canvas Curse. And this is to say nothing of the innovation they often display with the game systems themselves, such as with the DS's stylus and the Wii's motion sensor.

And to try to tie this relevantly to the subject of these rants (RPGs), there's certainly a lot of creativity to be found in their RPG offerings. The puzzles and mazes of Startropics 1 and most The Legend of Zelda titles? Pretty creative! Fire Emblem 4's having a plot that starts with 1 generation of heroes and then continues on to conclude with the focus on the original heroes' children? Creative! The Paper Mario series? Very creative! The tone, look, characters, and general plots of Earthbound and Mother 3? Insanely creative! Even a lot of their lesser RPG titles have strong innovation attached to them. I mean, just because The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks and Mario and Luigi 3 are fairly boring, that doesn't mean they didn't have some creativity in their idea of train themes and having half the game take place in Bowser's stomach, respectively. Maybe the ideas couldn't save the titles from uninteresting writing, but they're still creative, at least.

Then there's the effort that Nintendo exerts in making its games. Whatever else you may or may not say about Nintendo games, it's hard to deny that they control pretty much exactly as they're meant to. The gameplay in a Nintendo title is tight, it works the way it was meant to work, and the challenges you face are against the game's obstacles and potentially your own limits and reflexes, not against poor design. The tricky bits like slippery ice, wall-jumps, and really annoying countdowns until the moon hits the world are difficult and even frustrating because they're supposed to be, not because the control of the character isn't up to par. And while I won't say Nintendo has NEVER half-assed a title (the plot of the RPG Mario and Luigi 2 is extremely forgettable, not to mention the story and characters of most Pokemon games), they nonetheless maintain the level of quality that comes with solid effort to make a good game pretty consistently, even when they don't have to. I mean, let's face it--you can slap Mario's name on any platformer and it'll enjoy at least moderate sales. Yet even on titles Nintendo is practically guaranteed to do well with, they still clearly go to great lengths to make games that are better, or at least very interestingly different, than their predecessors. Rarely (admittedly not never, but rarely) is the time that I play a Nintendo title that feels at all like a slapped-together attempt to cash in on a franchise name with little real care for the quality of the product. Compare that to a company like SquareEnix, which has its own franchises that basically sell themselves, and as a result the company produces boring and/or crappy installments like Children of Mana, Final Fantasy 12: Revenant Wings, and dozens of insanely over-priced re-releases.

Again, tying this to the RPGs, the same is basically true of Nintendo's RPGs. Again, everything basically works exactly as it's meant to (even when you don't like it, like the Sailing in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker), and as I said, new titles in a franchise are given just as much attention as any other game, not just halfheartedly thrown together and then shipped to fill store shelves. How big a departure in style and substance was The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess from TLoZ: The Wind Waker? And that from the previous Zelda title? Earthbound had quite a cult following, but instead of just relying on that and a quick copy-paste to sell its sequel, Nintendo took Earthbound's quirky, fun, bizarre nature and injected powerful emotion and creative plot into it, making Mother 3 an even better RPG than its predecessor. Nintendo could have done just about anything to make its first Mario RPG since Squaresoft's original Super Mario RPG a reasonable success, but they went the extra mile and gave it a pop-up storybook look and feel with Paper Mario. No moss grows on this stone, no sir.

And there's the fact that Nintendo games, as a whole, are family titles. I really, really appreciate products that are made for children, but are made with such quality and integrity that there's plenty for an adult to enjoy, as well. Things like most Pixar films, Batman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Tangled, Hey Arnold!, most Muppet ventures, these are all products made for children that are so excellent, so created with care for the audience and the product, that they appeal to individuals of any age. In fact, I daresay I have enjoyed all of the things I just mentioned more as an adult, who can appreciate their subtleties and artistic merits, than I did/would have as a kid. And Nintendo games are generally the same. Mario 64, Donkey Kong Country, Super Smash Brothers, Kirby's Adventure...these games are innocuous fun, suitable for basically any age at which a controller can be held, yet just as enjoyable for an adult. And again, the same holds generally true of Nintendo's RPGs. I'll grant you that the plots and general goings-on of Fire Emblem titles lend themselves much more to a mindset of someone of an age in the double digits, and the same is true of a few The Legend of Zelda titles, too. But Paper Mario, Mario and Luigi, Pokemon, Earthbound, most The Legend of Zeldas, Startropics, these are all RPGs that are accessible to kids of whatever early age at which they can solve puzzles and manage turn-based combat. Even Mother 3, though loaded with emotional themes more in tune with adult sensibilities, doesn't have anything I can immediately recall that would make it kid-unfriendly.** Nintendo's are the kind of games that prove your product doesn't have to be bristling with sex, violence, and special effects to be worth experiencing.

So yeah, Nintendo is one of the best game developers out there, in my opinion, and that's why I've always held some respect and loyalty for them. What really impressed me and earned a huge dose of respect from me, however, was a decision by the company made last year.

Last year marked the launch of the 3DS, the next of Nintendo's long line of awesome portable game systems. Apparently, its initial sales were sluggish. For whatever reason (and I imagine there were quite a few, honestly; I know I had no need for an upgrade at that time), it just wasn't selling all that well.

So how did Nintendo respond? After laying off countless underpaid bottom-rung employees who had nothing to do with anything in an effort to make up for the loss with their meager paychecks, it put all the blame on the consumers, whining about gamers not properly appreciating the 3DS and completely dismissing any and all concerns and criticisms with the company's approach to the product as insignificant or ignorant, doing all but openly insulting the people whose money supports the company's existence. It completely refused to take any responsibility for its own failure and turned it around on the customer.

Oh, no, wait, I'm sorry, that's not what Nintendo did. That's what Sony, and SquareEnix, and countless other major companies would do and have done in similar circumstances. Because their representatives are assholes.

No, what Nintendo did was a little different from the corporate norm. The head honcho of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata, officially announced that he took the blame for the company's losses, and cut his own paycheck in half to help make up for it. Not only that, but the other upper executives of the company also lessened their own salaries by varying percentages to make up the difference. In addition, given how lousy the times are economically for everyone, the company also slashed the price of the 3DS to make it more affordable for the common gamer, who is not exactly flush with cash at the moment.

How amazing is that, really? I mean, seriously, this is a case where a major company is admitting that it made poor decisions with its approach to its product and apologizing for it--good luck getting even that much from most other companies and individuals who create products, who often seem to think they're living gods. For example, you make even the slightest allusion that Marvel Comics writer Dan Slott is less than an icon of perfection--and really, it's hard NOT to suggest such a thing in any discussion about his work--and the guy comes screaming to your internet doorstep to hurl personal attacks at you in a fit of childish rage.***

More than that, the company is taking responsibility for the problem it's apologizing for, owning up to it--that in itself is also rare. I mean, look at the official "apology" that the CEO of Netflix gave a few months ago to his customers who were (justifiably) angry with how the company was handling its price increases--he basically gave a very phony-sounding "sorry" and then immediately launched into his new (and terrible, though that's not relevant) idea for splitting his business up, which had absolutely nothing to do with the problem he was supposedly apologizing for and basically seemed to just be a distraction so he didn't really have to address the real issues.

Nintendo, on the other hand, has executives who take the blame for their company's problem, and accept the consequences for it themselves. Any other company I know of would have rather downsized like crazy than let its precious execs miss out on even a dollar of their bloated bonuses, but Nintendo has the guys at the top, the ones actually conceivably responsible for the problem AND the ones who can actually afford to take a pay hit, foot the bill. That's a far cry from the infamous bank executives who used the bailout money funded by the American people to give themselves bonuses as a reward for running their businesses into the ground.

And while I recognize that lowering the price of the 3DS makes good sense for promoting its sales, that's still something deserving of a certain amount of respect, I think. I mean, they ARE basically lowering their opportunity to profit from selling a product that has already cost them more money than it's made for them. It is, at the very least, a level of awareness of their customers' financial considerations that you won't find in, say, SquareEnix, who re-releases games over 10 years old at the same price of a brand new title, then complains about customers not buying enough of them (even when they outsell many newer games released and considered successful by this same company).

People, we live in an age where providers of goods and services are typically callous toward we consumers, and often outright abusive. Just finding a company that genuinely wants to treat its customers well and values them is getting more and more difficult, but one that will step up, take responsibility, and make morally admirable choices when the going gets tough? Nintendo is some kind of corporate miracle.

So yeah, there you have it. Nintendo has a shocking amount of integrity as a business, and its creativity and effort in its creations are consistent. Aside from perhaps Atlus, I'm not sure I've seen any other RPG developer (or game developer, period) that so reliably makes quality its primary focus with its products, and the way they reacted to the 3DS situation last year was incredibly respectable, maybe even noble. And that's why I'm a Nintendo man for life.

* Yes, this means that the rant's more about video games in general, but Nintendo DOES make quite a few RPGs like Fire Emblem and The Legend of Zelda, so I figure it's legitimate.

** Yes, yes, I know the game's wise mystical folks are all male cross-dressers. I don't think it's really a big thing. It's not delved into enough in the game for a kid to see it as anything more than something humorously weird (assuming he or she isn't already familiar with the idea). You get more questionable antics from Bugs Bunny when he disguises as "pretty" girls and lays big juicy kisses on Elmer Fudd, for heaven's sake.

*** Luckily, this blog is so obscure and unknown that even he may miss this dastardly and completely accurate attack on his character, so I should be safe.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Pokemon Generation 5: Why I was Disappointed with It

As a whole, the Pokemon series is...not a shining example of powerful storytelling, deep and involving characters, or artistic ingenuity. While Generation 4 (Diamond/Pearl/Platinum) did have a somewhat decent plot and a surprisingly respectable villain, everything up until that point had been a varying blend of generic and silly. Yes, yes, most people like the Pokemon games, and I can see why they tend to addict their players so effectively, but keep in mind, I play RPGs, including Pokemon, with an interest in their intellectual content: the quality of storytelling, the depth and emotional strength of their characters, their creativity, the worth of their plot and setting, and so on. Whether or not I can catch'em all and get to Level 100 and so on isn't important to me, so you can see why most Pokemon games don't impress me.

So, basically, I wasn't expecting much from the 5th Generation of the franchise when I started it. But the game has nonetheless been quite a disappointment to me. Remember my La Pucelle Tactics rant, where I basically explained that my disappointment with the game wasn't that it had let down expectations I'd had for it before playing, but rather that it so utterly failed to live up to its own potential even though all signs early on indicated that it would be great? Same basic premise here (though to a lesser extent). Pokemon Generation 5 fails to live up to the expectations it gives us early on.

The heart of the matter lies with the premise of the game's story. Basically, the conflict of Pokemon's 5th Generation games is that a group named Team Plasma is out to get trainers to free their Pokemon and no longer keep them as...partners? Friends? Pets? Slaves? Whatever you'd call them. Team Plasma claims that Pokemon suffer when kept by Trainers and must be liberated, and is willing to force the issue through theft and violence.

Now, this is a pretty loaded issue for a Pokemon game to bring to the table. The fact of the matter is that it very much IS morally questionable to keep Pokemon the way most trainers do in the Pokemon universe's games, anime, manga, and so on. After all, let's look at this issue. The most common way of acquiring a Pokemon is to forcibly remove it from its natural environment. Just that alone seems kind of immoral--presumably most of these creatures have an established life that they're being taken from. This capturing process is made worse by the fact that it usually involves battling the Pokemon until it's weak enough that it can't fight back against the Pokeball used to catch it. So we're not just talking about removing it from its natural environment--we're talking about doing so by hurting it until it's too weak to evade capture. Exceptions exist, of course, and some Pokemon, I believe, welcome the opportunity to belong to trainers, but most resist the process.

So once they belong to a Pokemon Trainer, what happens? Well, it depends on what the human's interests are. The Pokemon may be entered into beauty contests, or put on the stage in rinky-dink little plays, or just hang out with the trainer in normal life. I guess this is okay, sort of, provided the creature's cared for well enough. But, the most famous and presumably common thing to do with a Pokemon is to find other trainers and have one's own Pokemon fight theirs in physical combat, until one combatant is no longer conscious. Uh...that's...pretty hard to justify. One of the more vile and morally reprehensible acts one can perpetrate in real life is to force animals to fight and hurt each other for the amusement of human onlookers, and it sure seems a lot like what's happening in these games. Not just that, but consider the fact that many Pokemon exhibit a level of intelligence that makes them seem as sentient as any given human being. It's not just that these trainers are forcing helpless creatures to harm one another, they're doing it with intelligent, rational beings.

Now, this all paints the world of Pokemon to be pretty fucked up. To be fair, there's a lot of reasonable arguments defending its ways, believe it or not, like the fact that it's hard to conceive of how a Pokemon could really be forced by a human to do things against its will, given that most of them are capable of lethally powerful actions. I mean, if the fire-breathing lizard and super-powerful psychic whatsit really don't want to battle or even be kept any longer, all that needs to happen is for the lizard to turn around and blast his 11-year-old captor in the face with a skin-melting stream of fire, while the other Pokemon grabs its trainer's brain in a psychic fist and squeezes it like a stress ball. Nonetheless, it's certainly a pretty big moral question that's been brought up by many players, viewers, readers, and so on of the series, so the game making the focal point of its plot a conflict with a group advocating Pokemon freedom seemed quite a gutsy move by Nintendo and Game Freak, and I was looking forward to seeing the question finally explored.

Well, that never happened.

See, after introducing this huge concept into its game, of whether it's right to keep Pokemon, the game backpedals like HELL away from ever addressing it. I mean, it is like some kind of low-achieving ART, the way Game Freak manages to completely avoid the issue for the entire game. The sleaziest of politicians could learn something about dodging uncomfortable questions from this game. This total avoidance is achieved through 3 major cop-outs:

A. Non-acknowledgement by the good guys. While some NPCs allow themselves to question their lifestyles at the words of Team Plasma, the characters of importance to the plot (Gym Leaders, the protagonist's friends, etc) uniformly dismiss and ignore the question raised by Team Plasma. While they will sometimes mention a reason why humans and Pokemon living in this societal system is positive for both races (they are really fond of playing the angle of both trainer and Pokemon growing together through their experiences), they never really debate the points made by Team Plasma. And it's not the ignoring that comes off like the good guys are unable to get around the argument so they're going to just shun it and hope no one notices, like all those angry Anons who comment on my Fallout: New Vegas's Lousy Karma System rant. It's more like the narrative of the game itself just isn't going to bother with them, and so these quite reasonable arguments against keeping Pokemon as slave-pet-friends seem like they must be irrelevant.

B. Mustache-twirling Team Plasma. What's the best way to make a point of view seem absolutely wrong with no room for exceptions or gray areas? Probably to make the people advocating it into one-dimensional bad guys. Eventually the player finds out, from speaking to Team Plasma members, that more or less every single member of the group, with the one exception being their semi-puppet leader, does not actually believe in the cause that Team Plasma claims to be for. As it turns out, Team Plasma's goal is to convince the rest of the world to separate from Pokemon so that the only people left in the world who have Pokemon are the Team Plasma bunch. At that point, the masses will be, by and large, helpless to stop Team Plasma's rise to world domination, as the group will be the only ones with the overwhelming and deadly powers of Pokemon at their disposal.

Making Team Plasma turn out to be simple villains is a masterful way of avoiding dealing with any issues they might have otherwise brought up. First of all, it eliminates any possibility that the player could question whether the protagonist should be fighting them, because it shifts the focus of the conflict completely away from the rights of Pokemon to a quest to prevent evil world domination. Even if the player (and thus, protagonist) would normally advocate Pokemon freedom, it's now their heroic obligation to stop Team Plasma.

Secondly, and far less subtly, this dismisses the issue by associating the idea of Pokemon freedom with one-dimensional bad guys. It would be different if the members and command of Team Plasma were villains with some depth of character; we could at least take their perhaps misguided ideals seriously enough to give them a little thought were that the case. But by having them just be simple, nefarious jerks, no shades of gray? The obvious course of action then is to just ignore anything they say, and so, the issue raised by them can and will just be dismissed as evil-talk.

C. The manipulated antagonist, N (yes, N is the only name we're given to refer to him as, and no, I don't really know why). N is the one and only member of Team Plasma that we see who earnestly believes that it is wrong to keep Pokemon and that they will be better off if freed, and maintains that keeping the creatures is harmful to them. Where most see Pokemon battles as a fun pastime or inspiring experience, all N sees is his friends being hurt. He's the figurehead and token leader of the group, and he fights only for ideals, not for the underlying villainy that the rest of the group secretly does.

So why would N be a tool for Game Freak to avoid properly addressing this issue of whether it's wrong to keep Pokemon and battle them, you might wonder? Because Game Freak comes in at the last moment to completely and totally undermine N's credibility through his origin story. Late in the game, the details of N's life are revealed to the protagonist, and it turns out that N was raised by Team Plasma's leaders, kept isolated from the rest of the world in his room with nothing but carefully selected entertainment and Pokemon to keep him occupied. The Pokemon brought to him were always ones who had escaped abusive trainers (which the game is very quick to claim are rare aberrations). So the message here, which the game itself is all too happy to point out, is that N has a perception of the world and its ways regarding Pokemon that is extremely incomplete and has been designed to give him a bias. And thus, his concerns about the welfare of Pokemon can be and are dismissed as naive misunderstandings of the world, instead of the legitimate moral issues that they should be and are.

So you see, both overtly and subtly, Game Freak completely minimizes any and all possibility for considering and debating the loaded issue it introduced as its main source of conflict for the game. The potential the game promised by connecting the issue of Pokemon rights to the plot is completely passed over. Why? Why even HAVE the question of whether it's right to keep and battle Pokemon if it's going to be so totally ignored? You can't tell me they couldn't have thought of some other schtick for Team Galaxy. Team Magma and Aqua in Pokemon Generation 3 showed that the game makers would accept just about any idea for a team's goals, no matter how ridiculous they may be. Did they put this in because they actually did want to address this issue? Because if that was the intention, this is the biggest RPG storytelling failure I've seen since Rogue Galaxy tried to convince its audience that it was interesting in any way. You can't address an issue and put it to rest if you childishly refuse to legitimately engage any of one side's arguments.

Speculative intentions aside, what matters here is that the game's conflict, the foundation for its plot, is massively disappointing, because it promises an examination of an issue that has great potential for intellectual exploration, and then backpedals the hell away from it faster than Sarah Palin from a question requiring knowledge imparted in the second grade.* Bad show, Nintendo and Game Freak.

* Actually, I suppose that's not totally fair. She doesn't retreat from basic knowledge questions she can't answer so much as blunder blindly into them.