Wednesday, May 28, 2014

General RPG Lists: Greatest Deaths

I broke my toe this past weekend. I had never exactly thought doing so would feel pleasant, but I discovered that it hurt considerably more than I would have thought--also, seeing a part of your body bending the wrong way is kind of gross. Anyway, this event has served as definitive proof that I am not invulnerable. And is there any better way to celebrate the sudden, crippling mental trauma that is the realization of one's own mortality than to make a rant about death scenes?

Probably. But my imagination's limited strictly to solutions involving RPGs, so this is all I got.



Death scenes. While they’re a universal part of storytelling, there’s no denying that RPGs are very fond of killing characters off over their story’s course, perhaps more so than most other vehicles of artistic expression. I see some deaths in cartoons, a good portion in movies, plenty in anime, and a few in television shows (although that number’s risen substantially in the last few years thanks to Doctor Who and Game of Thrones), but I probably couldn’t name a full 10 RPGs I’ve played in which there wasn’t at least a single tragic character death to keep the plot moving, at least not without sitting down to think long and hard about it. I’d say the only media form that’s got more wholesale character carnage per capita would be comic books--although I’m not sure that even counts, since the person dying always just comes back to life somehow or other within a few months, or at the very least gets replaced by a new person using their name and schtick.

So which ones are the greatest of all? Which deaths are the very best? Well, I’ve put together a list here of the ones I find most impressive. Perhaps you will agree with some of them. Perhaps not. Doubtless someone or other will be shocked that I’m lacking such classic death scenes as (SPOILERS ALERT) Mareg from Grandia 2 or Aeris from Final Fantasy 7, among many others. But, well, it’s my blog, so you’ll just have to deal with it either way. Neener neener neener!

As a couple of notes before we start. First of all, it has to actually be a death scene. It can’t be a scene where a character appears to die but we learn later that they did not. Don’t get me wrong, there are some absolutely amazing fake-death scenes out there, such as the ones (SUIKODEN 2 AND GRANDIA 2 SPOILER ALERT) for Nanami in Suikoden 2, and Aira in Grandia 2 (well, that was a supposedly irreversible coma, but I reckon that’s good enough). If either were really gone when it appears they are, they would SO be on this list. But it turns out that Nanami survived her wound and Aira awoke, so they don’t count. Now, this does not necessarily mean that a death scene can’t count if the character is later resurrected somehow, or if the death only stays permanent by one route of the story. But it DOES have to be one HELL of a great death for that to count, because I’m a stickler for death being, well, death.

Also, a great death scene doesn’t have to be the same from one character to another. Generally it’s going to be emotionally moving deaths being shown here, but a death that creates great positive feeling (intentionally; the relief and satisfaction of a really annoying character dying, such as with the possible off-screen death of Mass Effect 3’s Diana Allers, doesn’t count if the game didn’t specifically want you to feel that way) is fair game. Oh, for the opportunity to have choked the life out of Earthbound and Mother 3’s Porky...Anyway, what matters is that the death is one that accomplishes exactly what it should in terms of emotional impact and effect upon the story and theme, and that it is in all relevant ways executed well.

As another note, this list includes any and all characters of RPGs. Be they for hero, villain, or NPC, the death of any character can be a powerful experience. In fact, as you’ll see, over half of the greatest deaths in RPGs that I’ve seen have been those of non-party members! Strange, but then again, party members do tend to die far less often than bystanders in these games. In fact, the rate of bystander death in RPGs is pretty much the highest you’ll ever see outside of...oh, shoot, I already made this same Doctor Who joke a few of paragraphs ago. Darn. Oh well. Anyway, I guess the number of NPCs on this list makes sense enough given the higher volume of deaths in their population.

Lastly, it should be patently obvious, but SPOILERS in a major way. In the interest of fairness, I will tell you in advance which games will have plot points spoiled for you, and let you decide on whether you want to risk reading ahead, in alphabetical (NOT below-listed) order: Breath of Fire 2, Breath of Fire 4, Disgaea 1, Final Fantasy 6, Final Fantasy 10, Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon, Lufia 2, Mass Effect 3, Mother 3, Planescape: Torment, Shadow Hearts 2, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, Suikoden 5, and Wild Arms 3. In the further interest of preventing spoilers, I’m going to change the way I usually list these for this rant, and each entry will state the game first, character dying second. This way, you can see which game each entry is from before seeing the name of the character who dies in it, and can thus skip ahead if you don’t know the game. I don’t want to spoil any of these scenes for you guys, especially not the top 15 or so, after all. And I’ll trust you guys not to let yourselves be spoiled, too--when you see a game listed that you haven’t played, don’t read that entry! These moments are all too great and powerful to be experienced for the first time through my insufficient words alone.

And now, on with things.



25. SUIKODEN 5: Roy

It’s funny--most players won’t see this event, because it only happens when you’ve made the wrong choices in the story; Roy will live and the circumstances of his death will never come to be in a proper playthrough. On the one hand, it saddens me a bit that this is the case, because Roy’s death is easily the greatest moment in this otherwise largely phoned-in Suikoden title. On the other hand, I’m happy that canonically he gets to live, because I like Roy a lot (mostly, paradoxically enough, because of the person he reveals himself to be in his death scene).

Roy goes out like a champ. Knowing that reinforcements are on the way to save the denizens of the lake castle in which all the heroes are holed up under siege, Roy, who serves as a body double for the game’s prince protagonist, takes advantage of the enemy commander’s demand to face the prince in a duel, hoping to buy more time for the rescue of all his comrades--Lyon in particular, who he (for some inexplicable reason) is sweet on. Roy goes out and faces the enemy leader in battle, and defeats him, but is betrayed as another enemy leader (thinking that Roy is the protagonist) has his archers take aim and fire a volley at him. Roy valiantly tries to fend the arrows off, but can’t stop them all, and is fatally wounded a dozen times over. Meanwhile, the prince that Roy is protecting struggles to run out to help him, but Roy’s friend strikes him and shakes his head with finality--Roy has made his choice, the choice to die in the prince’s place, and to reveal his deception now would make his death for naught. Collapsing as the life drains out of him, Roy catches sight of something in the distance, and grins in triumph--he bought just enough time for the reinforcements to arrive. He dies, satisfied that his sacrifice has been worthwhile and has saved the lives of his friends, and the life of the girl he loves, Lyon, whose image is the last thing Roy sees in his mind before he’s gone. It’s sorrowful, yet an inspiring sacrifice, particularly when it comes from a character who has until now been a scoundrel and ne’er-do-well. It transforms Roy from a mildly appealing scamp to a noble, selfless hero, and it’s beautiful.


24. FINAL FANTASY 6: Cid

Keeping Cid alive is no easy task, and at least as dependent upon luck as understanding what you’re doing. And though the player can, through Celes, nurse Cid back to health successfully, I’d almost say that it’s better not to (sorry, Cid). The scene of Celes’s discovery of Cid’s death is excellently done, a portrayal of not just incredible sadness at the loss of one she’s close to, but also the only known fellow survivor of the world’s end. Her grieved disbelief is realistic, but even more hard-hitting is the hopelessness that Cid’s death breeds, such that Celes, overcome by the grief and doom of a lifeless world, attempts to take her own life. We feel that anguish with Celes, understand how the loss of Cid has been the last straw in this destroyed world, and that’s why Cid’s death is remarkable.


23. LUFIA 2: Maxim and Selan

And I mean the REAL Lufia 2, not SquareEnix’s abhorrent remake.

Well, they both die in close proximity of one another, and the moments that make their deaths so great are all done as a couple, so we’ll double this one up. Tragic yet inspiringly heroic, Selan dies pitting the strength her soul against the souls of malevolent gods in order to prevent the destruction of all the world, and Maxim drives himself to fatal exhaustion after doing the same, then having to use what remains of his spiritual energies against the device that seeks to crash the floating Doom Island down onto his home to destroy his son, in the end so weak that he can only strike the final blow by resonating his energies with the those of the infamous Dual Blade. Maxim and Selan both die heroes defending the lives of innocents. What makes their deaths all the more tragic than they even normally would be is that they leave their infant son Jeros parentless...yet this death is not just purely sad; it is also uplifting. Maxim and Selan’s spirits fly over the world they gave everything to save, observing the places and friends that their sacrifice preserved, visiting their son one last time, before they’ll finally rest in peace, knowing their work is done, and done well. And finally, we see Maxim’s oldest friend Tia, weeping without consciously knowing why. It’s a powerful scene and one of the greatest endings of RPG history, poignant yet satisfying, sad yet so happy, combining some of the most important parts of a great ending (being shown the results of the heroes’ work for all the places and people of import to the tale) with an already greatly touching death.


22. SHADOW HEARTS 2: Alice

While Alice’s death before the game starts has strong consequences upon all of the game’s story and in particular its main character Yuri, I actually refer here to the scene in the game where Yuri and Roger try to bring Alice back from the dead, but fail. So technically I guess this means she’s not actually dying here, as she’s already dead and hasn’t been brought back to life properly, but it still more or less counts, I think. All the same, since it’s technically not a “death” so much as it is a reaffirmation of death, I’m putting it lower than it might have been otherwise (I’d guess it would have made it into the late teens).

Anyway, this scene is one of the most heartwrenching that I have ever witnessed in an RPG. It brought me to tears the first time I watched it, and I still get pretty choked up every time I’ve watched it since. This scene brings to Yuri and the player a moment of hope as the process begins, and Alice’s body begins to materialize from the ether...and then so, so cruelly rends that hope to shreds as the process goes wrong, and Alice’s body begins to dissolve back to nothingness. To see the failure, to know how what it means to Yuri, who’s been able to live for nothing since the loss of Alice, is hard enough, but then, in the final moments, Alice...damn blasted watery eyes make typing hard...Alice opens her eyes, and tells Yuri that she loves him, and he, tears streaming down his face, returns her love with his own, pain and remorse twisting his face. It’s as beautiful as it is tragic.


21. MOTHER 3: Hinawa

The funny thing is, you don’t actually see Hinawa’s death, you only hear of it from a villager who discovered her with a monster’s fang through her heart. But the reaction that Flint has to his wife’s death is so real, so powerful, so full of hurt and confusion and rage, that it hits you and it hits you hard. It’s also, I think, the first moment in Mother 3 that shows how truly effective and penetrating you can make an emotional scene when you’ve presented it with a modicum of the quirky, humorous nature that Mother 3 and Earthbound are known for--Hinawa’s death is related to Flint in the form of an “I’ve got good news and bad news” statement, which prepares us for a quick chuckle and then slams us over the head with a 2-by-4 of anguish. Mother 3 is a game full to the brim with this narrative style, using quirky nonsense as a means to get us from one emotional powerhouse scene to the next, both helping us to cope and making it all the harder to do so each time. Finally, Hinawa’s death is powerful for the legacy it leaves behind--its after effects are felt keenly throughout the game, tied to the main plot, with the grief and loss dominating the actions and development of Flint, the protagonist Lucas, and his brother Claus. This is no death to be felt keenly and then dropped--this is a loss whose significance is portrayed through Flint’s utter devastation, and which lasts for the rest of the lives of Hinawa’s sons and husband, haunting them every step of the way. Powerful stuff.


20. MASS EFFECT 3: Miranda

I don’t even really like Miranda. Honestly, my logic has to keep reminding my emotion that she’s actually a reasonably okay character, because everything in her demeanor, appearance, and personality just scream of a mediocre, shallow character created solely for fanservice.

But man, if Shepard doesn’t give her the resources and heads-up that she needs to avoid dying by that loser Kai Leng’s attack...Miranda’s death is just incredibly heartfelt and genuine. She gives her life to keep her beloved sister Oriana safe, reinforces how great her love for Oriana is as she spends her last words speaking of how much she wanted Oriana to have the good, normal life that she herself never could...very, very touching and genuine, all of it. It’s incredibly sad, but at least we can see that Miranda dies with the satisfaction of knowing that her sister is safe.

You know I’m quick to lash out against the bad parts of Mass Effect 3, but I’ll give it this--it really, really knows how to tug on your heartstrings as a crucial character dies...as will be evidenced again before we’re done.


19. MASS EFFECT 3: Legion

Right now, I mean. ME3’s knowing how to tug on your heartstrings as a crucial character dies will be evidenced again right now.

By this, I mean Legion’s death under the circumstances of the Quarians being convinced into a cease-fire by Commander Shepard, and Tali being alive and present. Although the variations of this scene, including those involving the VI reconstruction of Legion, are pretty much all emotionally potent.

It sort of comes out of nowhere, which is why it’s not higher up, but Legion’s sudden realization that he can only complete the transfer which will raise his people to the height of artificial life that they’ve always yearned for by disseminating his own programs into them, effectively dissolving his own existence, is a sudden and painful loss to have to bear, just when things were finally looking up. But what makes this scene so profound and beautiful is what Legion says, how he acts, and Tali’s words to him. In his expressionless non-face you can genuinely see his regret as he explains with true sorrow and apology to his friend Shepard what he must do in order to see this through and bring his people into a new state of liberty and self. He refers to himself as an “I” instead of a “we” for the first and only time--in his final moments, Legion is more than an AI consensus; he is a person. And Tali, representative of the Quarian people whom the Geth’s rebellion against had earned the seemingly eternal enmity of, steps forward, and answers the original question of centuries’ past, “Does this unit have a soul,” with the simple, all important answer of “yes.” And Legion thanks her, and tells her that he knows already.

Just...I can’t commit to words the gravity and power of these final words, how immensely grand a gesture it is for Tali to say this to Legion, how epic a thing it is for Legion to acknowledge its own identity as an individual, how amazing it is that we, the audience, have been brought to care for this artificial mind as much as we have, and how great a loss it is to us for him to die...and yet how great, how monumental a moment this is for the Mass Effect universe, for any science fiction storytelling of the created trying to understand, become like, and win the respect of its creator, while keeping its essence as something different intact. All I can say is that this is a truly great scene, and Legion’s end is not one I’ll soon forget.


18. SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI: DIGITAL DEVIL SAGA 1: Jinana

I dunno what to say about this one, really. It’s an incredibly poignant and tragic end, one which truly injects our first real, powerful element of emotion into this game as Argilla weeps over her dying friend, and they both awaken to their humanity through their coming to fully recognize and feel the power of affection and camaraderie for one another, only just as this newfound connection is ripped away from them by the ravages of war and senseless brutality. The loss of Jinana is felt by Argilla for the rest of both SMTDDS titles, not only by her conscious remembrance but in every act of decency and kindness, every gesture of goodwill, made by Argilla. Argilla’s loss, Jinana’s happiness at being cared for and close to Argilla in these final moments, Argilla’s awakening to her humanity in this loss, the sorrow of the whole thing...this scene really hits you, and hard.


17.BREATH OF FIRE 2: Daisy

This scene starts as party member Rand is caught in a trap, a wall trying to crush him to death against another. He manages to hold it at bay with his great strength long enough for his friends to get out of the way, but cannot push it away entirely, and cannot move out of its way without losing his grip, which is the only thing keeping it from killing him. He begs his friends to leave, not wanting them to watch him die. They do so, and he stays behind, gradually losing strength, the wall bearing down on him bit by bit. It’s looking bleak...when Daisy, Rand’s mother, comes on the scene. Scolding him harshly for letting himself be caught in such a way, she tries to help him push the wall back, adding her own considerable power to his...but it’s no use. Rand is at his limit, and she can’t stop it on her own. He tells her to leave, and she backs up...then rushes forward and slams into him, knocking him clear and leaving her in his place. He tries to get back in as the walls begin to crush her, but she tells him to stay away.

Until now, Daisy has only ever been harsh and critical of Rand, insulting him, smacking him over the head at times, and forcing he and his friends to interrupt their own (pretty important) business to labor for her. She hasn’t been so cruel as to seem like she doesn’t love him at all, but at the same time, it’s clear that she’s never been encouraging or kind to him. Yet now, at the end, as she has given her own life for his, she speaks gently to him, kindly, telling him that he’s a good boy, a good son, and that good sons listen to their mothers, and she tells him to leave her behind, to save himself. It breaks your heart to watch these final moments of a mother who could never properly express her love for her son until her dying words, but who made the ultimate sacrifice out of that love for him. Just...damn, what a tear-jerker.


16. WILD ARMS 3: Werner

I haven’t mentioned how wonderful Wild Arms 3 is for a while. It’s incredible. Go play it.

Alright, with that obligation out of the way...the death of Werner (the AI hologram of him, that is, the “real” Werner died long before the game’s opening, but for all intents of the plot and his daughter Virginia’s mind, this is as much her father as the one who is deceased) is a fantastic moment between he and Virginia. It’s sad, certainly, but more than that, it’s a moment of clarity and distinction for Virginia, the moment in her life that everything, her youth, the gift and responsibility of ARMS that her father gave her, her character development over the course of the game, all that we’ve seen of Virginia, has led up to. This is the moment of heroism and self-empowerment, the final goodbye to her father in all ways, that she has been building up to. To save the world’s memories, Virginia must shoot and destroy the machine that maintains Werner’s existence--she must, in essence, end this memory of Werner, with her own hands. As a metaphor both for the child leaving the safety of the parent to stand on her own, and for the necessity of moving beyond memories of the past in order to stand in the present and walk to the future, this scene is top-notch. As a cumulation of everything Virginia is and shall be, this scene is top-notch. I love how strongly you can feel their love for one another, I love how Werner explains that the reason he gave Virginia ARMS was so that she could understand and better care for life by knowing exactly how easy it is to harm and end it, I love that their final interaction is to shake hands as equals, I love the way that Virginia does not shy away from what she’s doing at all--she doesn’t just shoot the machine while Werner watches, she shoots the machine that is behind Werner, meaning that in her eyes, in her line of sight, it is her father she’s shooting. I love everything about this scene just as I love everything about this game. Yes, it’s sad and it stays with you, but more than that, it’s empowering, inspiring, a satisfying conclusion and first step into a new way of life.


15. FRAGILE DREAMS: FAREWELL RUINS OF THE MOON: Personal Frame

It really hadn’t ever occurred to me when I first played this game that the Personal Frame might not always be with Seto when he first found it--I figured the PF was going to be this game’s version of the Fallout series’s Pip-Boy 3000. So maybe part of my being so affected by the dying of the PF’s batteries comes from the fact that it surprised me...but I think most of it simply is that it’s a deeply moving scene. The death of the PF is the death of the first friend Seto’s ever had, the first thing he’s found in this silent world that has been gentle, conversational...alive. Their time together was so sadly short--as is obvious, perhaps in a painful way, by how limited the PF’s recollections of the memories she’s shared with Seto is--but it’s clear that it truly meant the world to her to have met him, to have been able to spend the last hours of her existence having experiences with a friend, instead of alone. His intense sorrow, contrasted to her gentle acceptance, her final question to him of his name as she fades away and his answer, the fact that Seto buries her as one would any person deserving such respects...this is a death that grabs your heart and squeezes mercilessly, makes you want to go find your friends and give them a hug.


14. SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI: PERSONA 4: Nanako

No, no, Nanako DOES count here. Yes, if you play the game normally to the Normal or True Endings, then she does live, yeah. But, if you make the wrong choices during the scene with Namatame immediately after Nanako dies, her death is real and permanent, and you get the Bad Ending. It’s not like Nanami of Suikoden 2--with Nanami, even if you have Riou pursue the ending in which he never knows that Nanami survived, that doesn’t change the fact that she did--Riou was just never told, presumably because he dedicated his life to serving the state, and as such, his important duties never ended, and Nanami specifically requested that Riou only be told of her survival when Riou’s work was done, since he otherwise was distracted from it by her. I guess. Regardless of whatever the reason he wasn’t told in that ending, the events were exactly the same leading to her being wounded, and immediately after it, so unless directly evidenced otherwise, we must assume she lived. Nanako, on the other hand, is very definitively deceased for real during SMTP4’s Bad Ending.

Anyway, enough quibbling over details. Nanako’s death is devastating, both to the game’s cast and to the player. Watching her gently fade away in her hospital bed, before her father can reach her to be present for her final moments, tears your heart out and stomps it into mush. But in addition to that, like Hinawa’s death as we discussed earlier, it’s the immediate aftermath that drives the intense, unreasoning sorrow and anger home to us. Rise sobs helplessly, Kanji slams his fist into the wall in helpless rage, Yosuke alternates between anger and sorrow, and Dojima, in a grief-stricken fog of anger and even madness, goes to find the room of Namatame, the man (supposedly) responsible for Nanako’s death. The rest go after him to stop him from recklessly doing the unthinkable...yet when Dojima is restrained and removed by police guards, and they’re all alone with Namatame, the Investigation Team’s grief and anger overpowers their rationale, and they begin to seriously consider ending Namatame’s life themselves, knowing that they have the ability to do so without being caught or stopped. Unconcerned with guilt beyond reasonable doubt, unconcerned with the process of the law, the team debates with growing fervor the merits of taking the matter into their own hands, making sure themselves that this man will never take another life. Their reason is so lost in grief over Nanako’s passing that they, themselves, are getting closer and closer to becoming murderers. The protagonist can manage to talk them down (in order to pursue the Normal and True Endings), or step back and condone this vigilante justice. But either way, seeing the emotional extremes to which the death of Nanako has pushed her friends and family is enough to truly sell just how painful and wrong and terrible her loss is.

Y’know...just in case you’re an inanimate object that isn’t already teary-eyed over this state of affairs.


13. FINAL FANTASY 10: Tidus

At this point in our list, things begin to take a turn. Though we’re not done with intensely sad and moving death scenes, this is when much (not all, though!) of our list is going to be more than just sorrow-inducing...this is the point where we’ll be more often seeing character deaths that are, though still sob-worthy, more satisfying, inspiring deaths that for all their sadness are nonetheless moments of triumph, where the passing of the character is for the better, and uplifting, and celebrates them and their work in some way, or is otherwise for the greater good. This, I feel, is even more an important part of a great death in fiction than sorrow for one’s loss. To be satisfied with one’s life at its end is important; indeed, it is perhaps the greatest thing we should hope to achieve, to be able to look back or around at one’s legacy and accomplishments and be pleased, and/or to die in a way that makes a positive difference. Death can and should be a good moment in one’s life, when one can, in his/her final moments, look back and see that their existence made a difference, that it mattered in a good way to the people and ideas that they cared about, that the world is better for having had them in it. To be sure, many of the previous characters on this list have deaths with elements of this to them...but going forward, we’ll be seeing many deaths where this positive aspect, this focus on a life well-lived and/or a death for great purpose, is the defining note of the death scene.

Tidus is the perfect way to kick this off. Although Auron, too, is lost at the end of Final Fantasy 10, Auron is already dead, and took upon himself this quest (indeed, he engineered it) with the full understanding and intent of its ending with his being laid to rest. It is Tidus, however, who has gotten caught up with a journey to his own death without having known it at first, Tidus who has convinced his beloved Yuna to follow a different path in defeating Sin, a path where she will not have to sacrifice herself, and no one else ever will, either...save for Tidus himself, who, composed of the same ethereal essence as Sin, must be ended as well to keep Sin from returning. He has taken Yuna’s sacrifice as his own to keep her safe and sound, to protect her, and to guarantee that none shall have to follow her. He dies so that she may live...and though it hurts him to leave her and to accept his own death, and it hurts his friends, and it devastates her to have to watch it happen--to have to make it happen!--he leaves, after a final, loving embrace, with a smile, leaping into the afterlife where his father and Auron await, knowing that he’s succeeding in saving the woman he loves and preserving the world she lives in. This is a death that is incredibly sad, incredibly touching, but also, rewarding, satisfying, a death in which one has found purpose to one’s existence, and followed that purpose through fully, leaving the world a better place for those that one loves.


12. FINAL FANTASY 6: Rachel

Locke has lived for one purpose for years: to find a way to revive Rachel, who perished during an Imperial attack on her town with his name on her lips. Though he had been driven away from her at the time by the belief that being around her as she struggled to restart a life she didn’t remember would make the process more difficult for her, Locke blames himself for her death, believing that he should have been there to keep her safe, that he could have stopped her demise. This loss and determination defines nearly every aspect of his personality in the game; he is a man obsessed with making right by what he considers his unforgivable mistake, both by searching for an item to revive Rachel and by protecting the innocent he encounters with dogged persistence.

Once Locke finds the Magicite of Phoenix, he gets his chance to bring Rachel back...but even then, it’s only for a few minutes, and even that much shatters the magical stone to shards. But these minutes are beautiful, as Rachel reassures him of her undying love for him, of how happy he made her. Most importantly, she urges him to understand that he is not to blame for her passing, that he must not let himself be further burdened by it, that he has to move on and live his life well, and find happiness again. It’s heartrending, yes, but at the same time, Rachel uses this second chance at her final moments to save the man she loves from his own guilt, to release him and give him another chance to enjoy his life. In her final words, she gives Locke one last gift, bringing Phoenix’s Magicite back together so that he may use its powers for good. It’s sad, sure, but more than that, this scene is cathartic, emotionally uplifting, a scene of goodbye but also of a fresh start with a clear heart. Yes, I would say this is the greatest death scene in the entire Final Fantasy series, without question.


11. BREATH OF FIRE 4: Elina

Taking a quick break from uplifting deaths with this one, but it certainly does earn its place in the upper half of this list.

The sweet relief and victory of finally finding Princess Elina, the sister of Nina and Cray’s lover, the seeming final, victorious ending to the long quest of protagonist Ryu’s closest friends, turns to ashes in your mouth as the incalculably evil Lord Yuna reveals what he has done to her, that in seeking an ever more devastating Carronade--the already horrifying weapon of mass destruction he oversees which uses negative thoughts as fuel--he has transformed Elina into an immortal monster, planning to use the the fact that he can torture her eternally and as painfully as he wants because she cannot expire. Having asked to be alone with her beloved Cray, Elina begs him to take the Dragon Slayer, the only weapon capable of killing an immortal, and end her suffering. After all this time journeying to find her, the sacrifices he’s made and the difficulties he’s overcome, Cray has finally found his love only to have to become her executioner. A mercy killing by one’s lover...Elina is happy that she can be relieved of this painful existence by the man she loves, and we the audience feel that, but far more do we feel the soul-shattering anguish of Cray as everything he’s worked for the entire game--everything all the party has worked for--is killed by his own hand. And when we shift to see Nina outside, waiting, unknowing, but, as she narrates to us against a screen of black, somehow realizing when she sees Cray emerge from Elina’s room that she will never see her sister again...the terrible finality in that moment has stayed with me ever since I first saw this scene years ago.


10. SHADOW HEARTS 2: Yuri

Yuri must make a decision at the end of Shadow Hearts 2. The curse of the Mistletoe, ever eating away at his mind and soul, cannot be stopped, and it is not long now before it will finish its terrible work, and he’ll lose all his memories, everything that makes him who he is--including his memories of his beloved Alice. And he CAN choose to allow that to happen--but the true ending of the game is the one in which Yuri stays behind in the collapsing realm beyond time, and allows himself to die, impaled upon a rising spike of rock. Yuri chooses to die, rather than stay alive and lose who he is, and more importantly, who he loved. Death as himself is better than living a life not knowing everything that he ever did, all that ever mattered to him. It’s tragic, but at the same time, it’s right, fulfilling even, to see him choose to remain himself, true and whole, no matter what the cost, not to sacrifice his memories of his friends, his accomplishments, and his love out of fear of death. As we see his soul gently pulled from the Mistletoe’s engulfing bark by the soul of Alice, come to bring him to her, we know that the right choice was made: death for Yuri, release from an existence without Alice and escape from an existence where he has forgotten himself, is not a bad thing here. For Yuri, he has chosen wisely--he has chosen not the curse of the Mistletoe, the curse of existence at the cost of soul, but rather the blessing of a peaceful, satisfied end. And he’s rewarded for it, for all the good that he’s done, with a second chance--his soul is moved through time, and brought back to the first moments of Shadow Hearts 1...the moments when he first met Alice, and came to find meaning joy in life thanks to her. The best time of his life.


9. SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI: PERSONA 3: Minako/Minato

For the sake of clarity in my mind, I will refer to SMTP3’s protagonist as Minato, but obviously this applies to both he and his female counterpart. Also, I include him on this list currently because right now, his exit from the world is essentially the same as death--his soul is dormant, holding back Nyx the Destroyer from being summoned once more. This may, however, change in the future, as further SMT Persona games may wind up having him freed from this task and returned to life by Elizabeth. It’s kind of been hinted in SMTP Arena (from what I’ve heard; haven’t actually played the game myself) that this will be the case in the future. If that happens, I’ll have to decide at that point whether it counts as a resurrection or a “didn’t really die” moment, and whether he’ll qualify for this list. But for now, I’m keeping Minato here.

Minato’s death is essentially a long, drawn-out affair. It starts with him rising to meet Nyx head-on, given the power of the fully enlightened human being to do so. He draws upon the connections he’s forged with the many people whose lives he has bettered in the past year, who will forever remember him as someone very dear to them, and is empowered by their emotional ties. He has found the true wisdom of this journey, that life is made rich and meaningful by the connections that one forges with the people around one, and in so doing, Minato has become a Messiah, one who has reached a level of enlightenment above the regular condition of humanity, one who serves to show the path to all others of how life should be lived.

But in vanquishing Nyx as this avatar of the best of humanity’s soul, Minato exhausts himself, and (perhaps unknowingly) binds his soul to Nyx to ensure that he’ll be able to keep it from ever returning. It is this moment of triumph that is also the moment of his end. From that point on, Minato’s time on Earth is limited. He manages to make it to the final days of school, growing more and more tired with every passing day, and on those final days, as his life draws to a close, he goes out into the city he’s lived in for this past year, among the many people he forged deep relationships with, checking upon each of them one last time--a silent farewell to those he’s cared for and those who cherish him back. Seeing the good he’s done for them, Minato manages to live long enough to see the final day of school. He enjoys the beautiful day from the roof of the school, head in the lap of Aigis,* she who loves him most of all, listening to her gently reminiscing about the great thing they’ve done, and speaking about the beauty of life and friendship. Remembering now their adventure together, the rest of Minato’s allies and friends all rush to the rooftop to find him, to celebrate their victory with him, and he closes his eyes one final time, surrounded by the loved ones he fought alongside and gave everything to give a future.

Incredibly tragic. Tender beyond words. And also so, so very satisfying even in its sadness, uplifting in his being surrounded by all that he loves and all that he has achieved as he passes on. It’s one of the most beautiful and touching endings I’ve ever seen, one of the most incredible passings of a beloved character, so inspiring...and if you’ll excuse me a moment, I need to compose myself, because just having thought about this scene has gotten me choked up pretty badly. You should’ve seen me the first time I saw it. Bawling like a baby.


8. PLANESCAPE: TORMENT: The Nameless One

This one’s interesting because it’s almost completely devoid of sadness, at least to me. Yes, I’m sorry to see The Nameless One die to a certain extent, but the truth is, I’m more happy for him than anything. For The Nameless One, death is the proper end of his journey to discover himself and end his eternal suffering and confusion--he has conquered his own mortality, The Transcendent One, and forced it back into himself; what other conclusion could there be but to die? After living for so long, and causing so much havoc in the universe through the actions of his past selves, to die is a goal, a blessing, a righting of what was wrong with the universe and himself. To end centuries of living in fear and confusion, of traveling across the multiverse and sowing chaos with every step, to finally be whole and himself once again after untold ages of the torment of a half-existence, to no longer have to see the lives he’s ruined, leaving so much destruction of every kind in his wake that the only individuals that he can gather to himself now are those nearly as broken and anguished as himself...no, death is a small price to pay indeed, and even the afterlife’s punishment for his deeds is looked to with hope and satisfaction. The Nameless One’s death is everything that could be wanted in a conclusion to his long journey, and gives glad closure to his tale.


7. MASS EFFECT 3: Anderson

The death of Anderson is quiet yet incredibly emotional. As the staunchest supporter of Commander Shepard throughout the series, the first and loudest voice to lend encouragement to and trust in Shepard’s abilities and decisions, Anderson fulfills a role not just as a superior officer, but also of a mentor, friend, and father figure. In many ways, the struggle against the Reapers unwittingly began with Anderson, and the struggle to save the people of the universe from the Reapers and all their forces has always been as much his own to bear as Shepard’s. It is thus so fitting, so right, that here, at the end of this epic galactic conflict, Shepard shares the stage with Anderson. The death of the man who ultimately made possible every heroic feat that the great Commander Shepard has performed, the man who has always perfectly walked the line between being a gentle guide to Shepard while forever respecting and backing up Shepard’s independence and autonomy...it really hits you hard and deep.

But as Anderson and Shepard talk in these final moments, taking in the battle around them as Anderson reflects on how tired he is, there’s a certain overwhelming sense of acceptance from Anderson. You can feel that he’s prepared for this moment, and now that he and Shepard have succeeded, he’s alright with having earned his rest. Certainly doesn’t make it any less moving to watch, of course, but this is a quiet, peaceful heroic end that one can look back at later and respect, feel satisfied by, despite the sadness of losing Anderson. There is a certain level of joy that an audience can feel at witnessing a calm, peaceful acceptance of one’s end, and that certainly is the case here. And to seal the deal of how meaningful and touching this scene is, Anderson’s last words are that Shepard has done well, and that Anderson is proud of our hero. Ever the loyal, encouraging father figure even to the end--there could not be a better death scene for David Anderson.


6. FRAGILE DREAMS: FAREWELL RUINS OF THE MOON: Crow

Ohhh, so that’s why Personal Frame died earlier in the game--to give you a practice run for how it’s gonna feel when the game later rips your heart out of your chest and stomps on it with cleats. Seriously, I can’t...there’s nothing I can say about the tenderness and the sorrow of this scene, as Seto finds his brief best friend again only to have to say goodbye to him, reassuring Crow of his humanity and their friendship in his last moments, Crow’s mind fading as his battery runs out. And that last line…

“Mm...Come on, he shut down.”

“You’re wrong...he died.”

Oh God where are my tissues I need my tissues.


5. MASS EFFECT 3: Charr

Oh jeez. Good thing I just got these tissues, because hoo boy is this a tearjerker. In Mass Effect 2, one of the many memorable, teeny-tiny unimportant NPCs you could encounter was Charr, a lovesick krogan who was head-over-heels for a particular asari woman Eraba. In an attempt to woo her back after she hesitated to deepen their relationship, he was spouting corny poetry, calling her his “Blue Rose of Illium” (Illium being the planet they were on). It was funny and cute, plus kind of sweet. Shepard had the opportunity to convince Ereba to give Charr a chance, or to be a heartless bastard and tell her to stay away from him.

In Mass Effect 3, we see Ereba again on the Citadel, working at a shop whose profits go to the war effort and proudly telling her customers about how her husband is off fighting the Reaper forces. Just regular background NPC chatter, really, nothing you’d think too deeply about. But later on, Shepard goes on a mission to assist a company of krogan commandos investigate what happened to a team that hasn’t reported in for too long. During this mission, it becomes obvious that all the members of the first team died fighting the Reapers’ new ground troops, and by one of the corpses, Shepard finds an audio message, to be delivered to Ereba--a final message that Charr recorded for her once he knew that there would be no returning from his mission. When Shepard brings it to Ereba and plays it for her, we’re treated to a beautiful poem of farewell, as Charr speaks of his love for her, that she will be in his thoughts and heart to the very end, and his pride in having fought to protect Ereba and their unborn daughter. The emotion and the imagery of his poem together in this moment...yup, I cried. What a beautiful, tender moment of loss this is...and like so many of the conversations Shepard can listen in on around the Citadel during Mass Effect 3’s time of war, it feels very, very tragically real to me.


4. MASS EFFECT 3: Thane

This assumes that Thane’s son is alive and reconciled with Thane (thanks to the ME2 loyalty mission), that Thane himself is still alive by ME3 (as in, didn’t die at the end of ME2), and that Shepard is not a Renegade douchebag.

Look, I’m sorry that like a third of all the people on this list come from Mass Effect 3. It’s not my fault. Blame Bioware for killing all their characters off, but in amazingly excellent ways.

Thane goes out like a champ, protecting lives and fighting off the eminently loathsome Kai Leng, keeping up with and scoring hits on the jerk even though Thane is in the last stages of a crippling, mortal disease--because Thane is fucking awesome. Sadly, he still gets stabbed, which is bullshit because A, Kai Leng is actually a weak little shit, B, it really didn’t make much sense for Thane to run straight at a guy with a sword while he himself was still armed with a far superior pistol, and C, Shepard and company are in the midst of a severe case of Voyeuristic Paralysis Syndrome which is always stupid. Still, it’s not the act that kills Thane that puts Thane’s death on this list, but rather the later scene in the hospital as Thane actually passes away.

Thane’s death is...truly epic. He is calm, at peace with his end, knowing that he has, as he had hoped, left the universe a little better than when he entered it. Shepard gets to be there with Thane for his final moments, along with Thane’s son Kolyat, and so Thane is with those closest to him, those that remind him that he has achieved good with his life. Yet Thane feels there is one last thing he must do. In his final act in this world, Thane begins a prayer for forgiveness, which Kolyat and Shepard help him to finish. It’s a beautiful addition of spirituality to the intense emotion of the scene, made all the more poignant when Shepard asks why Thane, who died a hero, would pray for forgiveness...to which Kolyat responds that the wish was not for himself, but rather for Shepard. Even in his final moments, even knowing that his life wrought good for the world, Thane’s final thoughts are for the spiritual welfare of another.

Even this isn’t all there is, however. In the Citadel DLC for the game, Kolyat, Shepard, and Shepard’s crew hold a memorial service for Thane, and in my mind, such a ritual of remembrance for the fallen qualifies as a part of the character’s death worthy of note on this list. It’s a strong addition to the game, handled well and respectfully recalling to our mind the fallen Thane, in a much-needed moment of sober reflection in an otherwise overly jovial DLC package.

Thane’s death is an eminently moving one, one which is tear-inducingly tragic, richly spiritual, and shows an excellent combination of the deceased feeling satisfaction with his life and his final act, and being at peace with his end. You can’t ask for much better than this.


3. DISGAEA 1: Laharl’s Mother

Reincarnating out of one’s stay in purgatory counts as a death, right? Eh, close enough for me, at least in this context.

Well, you can’t ask for much better of a character death than Thane’s, but it’s still possible to get one all the same. Probably the best part of a game full of excellence, the chapter in Disgaea 1 where you learn of Laharl’s deceased mother, how she ended her own life to save her son’s, and realize that much of Laharl’s resistance to love comes from the pain it caused him at that time, all culminates with the Prinnies, reborn souls working off their sins as menial laborers in the underworld, being taken by the spectre of death to properly reincarnate, now that they have atoned for their past lives’ crimes. Though Laharl does not realize it at first, the pink Prinny who looks after the others is his mother, reborn as a Prinny because she must work off the sin of taking her own life. I...damn, I really don’t know how to describe this scene adequately to express why it is so incredible. All I can say is that the sadness of Laharl’s mother leaving just when her son realizes she’s before him, the happiness of knowing that she’s going on to something better, her gladness at seeing that her son is well cared-for and is on his way to being a truly good person, the heartfelt power of a mother’s love, our understanding of how full of both contentment and pain she is in leaving...it all comes together into one of the most touching scenes of farewell I’ve seen in a game.


2. MASS EFFECT 3: Mordin

Mordin’s death is that of a hero, that of a man satisfied and proud of his accomplishment and his life, and that of a man who knows that his death serves a great and worthy purpose, that he dies bringing hope to the universe and correcting his only great mistake and regret in life. Human or not, Mordin’s death is the picture of victory as a person, a portrayal of man’s only true triumph over death. He does not shy away from it, he does not fear it, he does not even wait for it to come to him--he strides toward it calmly, proudly, because it will be the culmination of his most important work, it will be the salvation of a people that he feels responsible for. He dies in the service of others, he dies at peace with what he has done in his life, he dies knowing that the legacy of his most valued work, of his knowledge, will be the future of an entire race. And perhaps most of all, he dies his own way, satisfied with himself, with a smile on his face and singing a song of triumph. Truly, if a man dies on his own terms and happy with who he is, dies doing good for the world and knows that the legacy of his life’s work was noble and worthwhile, fully at peace with where he is, who he is, and the fact that it is time to end...has he not conquered death in every way we can hope to? Sad though it is for us to have to part with Mordin--it’s definitely no less a thing to grieve over than any other character’s passing--he provides an inspiring example for us, a reassurance that death need not only be the last moment of our lives...it can also be one of our greatest.


1. SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI: PERSONA 3: Akinari

Sorry to cop out here, but I’m not going to even try to describe this and explain why it is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever witnessed in fiction of any format. Each and every time I witness the final scene of the Sun Social Link--and, for that matter, the Sun Social Link farewell at the end of the game, where you speak with Akinari’s mother--I just start sobbing uncontrollably. Every. Time. I’ve seen Akinari’s story from start to finish probably a dozen times now, and I weep no less now than I did the first time. Maybe even more! For heaven’s sake, I am getting misty-eyed just thinking about it. The passing of Akinari is monumentally moving, a masterpiece of the art of emotion, beyond words’ ability to describe.


Honorable Mention: SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI: DEVIL SUMMONER: SOUL HACKERS: Leader

I’m giving this spot to the death of Leader in SMTDS Soul Hackers because it was this one that gave me the idea of making this list in the first place. I was surprised as I sorted through the list of all the character deaths I’d seen in RPGs that Leader’s so quickly fell below the 25th spot, but I suppose that just speaks all the more for how great the ones that did make the list are. Still, as Leader’s passing was strong enough to make me think of making this rant, it deserves mention. Yes, I know that you can save him in the New Game+, but on your first playthrough, Leader dies, so it’s legit.

The tragedy of this scene hit me hard as Leader awakens from being possessed to find himself mortally wounded, dying after being forced to attack his friends. As Nemissa breaks into tears over the fact that this man is dying--which is touching in itself, to see that Nemissa has grown to care about the people around her so much--Leader is gentle and forgiving, noble to his end, which makes the whole thing even more affecting. What really hits me hardest in this scene is when Nemissa desperately tries to awaken Hitomi (Nemissa is a spirit possessing Hitomi’s body, and Hitomi’s spirit has lately been becoming too weak to maintain consciousness). The desperation with which she rouses Hitomi’s consciousness, her tearful need for Hitomi to be able to say goodbye to Leader...it’s heartbreaking.



Well. That was fun. And by that I mean it was a nonstop emotional rollercoaster as I remembered and re-watched all these great, yet incredibly sad, moments. It was tough to write, too...difficult to keep it from just being 25 repeats of the sentence “It’s really sad.” But I think I’m pleased with this.

You know what was the hardest part of this rant, though? Figuring out which 25 were the best. When I first looked over the RPGs I’d played and started listing out every character death that was particularly good and worthy of note, I figured I’d be making a Top 10 list, 15 at most, and that it’d be easy to separate them all out. That was not the case. My end total of character deaths in RPGs that I felt were especially good was 63. Even with this list being a long 25 slots, I’ve still been shocked and dismayed by how many great character deaths didn’t make the list. I never imagined this list wouldn’t have (SPOILERS) Leo from Final Fantasy 6, Thyodor from Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume (during the B Ending), Nia from Infinite Space, Alys from Phantasy Star 4, Crono from Chrono Trigger--and I could go on. And even once I'd determined the 25 that would be on this list, it was still a devil of a time to try to order them. At first, I thought Daisy and Elina would be higher than they ended up being, while my original thoughts were to have Rachel much further down the list. I kept rearranging it as I went along, thought deeply about each character’s death, determined just how strongly it made me feel something and just how worthwhile it truly was for both its emotional impact and its message, if it had one.

This was easily the most difficult list I’ve ever written. I really hope you guys enjoy it, if you’ve made it this far. I’m sure I’ll be besieged soon enough with indignant cries of how I could dare not include Aeris, or Earthbound’s Star Fly, or so on, but nonetheless, I do think my choices have been good ones. Hopefully some of you will agree.














* Well, in a New Game+, you can actually have the protagonist here with a different love interest, now. But the first time around, it’s always Aigis, and in my mind, since she is both the one who loves him greatest and also the one to whom he passes the torch of journeying to discover oneself through the love of others, it’s her who should be here, period.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

General RPGs' Villains' Screen Time

There are many aspects of story and characters that can go a long way to making an RPG truly great, or truly terrible. It’s important that there be creativity, that the setting be interesting, that the protagonist be compelling, that the story be purposeful, and so on and so forth. Lots of factors contribute or detriment an RPG’s overall quality depending on how well they’re written, and one of those factors is most definitely the major villain of the work. Unfortunately, just like believable and touching love stories, really good villains are unusually uncommon in this genre. Even most of the good games manage to get by without compelling antagonists, by virtue of their other good qualities--Final Fantasy 7 and Disgaea 1 come to mind, as examples, though there are certainly many to choose from.

Nonetheless, RPGs have had their share of really excellent villains, and those villains have always greatly enhanced the game they’re in. Fou-Lu was one of the comparatively few memorable parts of Breath of Fire 4, The Transcendent One provides a thematically perfect climax to the utterly incredible Planescape: Torment, and I dare say that Darth Traya is responsible for 50% of the overwhelming excellence of Knights of the Old Republic 2’s writing.

There’s all kinds of ways to make a villain great, memorable, iconic, a powerfully positive part of the plot. Sometimes it’s as simple as look, attitude, and generally foreboding menace. Darth Vader, for example, did eventually get some backstory in the second and third movies of the original Star Wars trilogy, but even as an entirely unexplained bad guy in the original Star Wars, he was an iconic villain. Sometimes it’s having the villain properly reflect the hero’s nature, the way most of Batman’s foes represent the dark side to aspects of his own personality, or likewise having the villain represent and/or reflect the themes and purpose of the story, like Cato in The Hunger Games. Sometimes it’s having a villain whose fall to evil you fully understand and can even sympathize with, such as Demona from Gargoyles. And so on and so forth--there’s a huge number of ways to really make a villain work well.

One thing that really, really helps, though, is something that not nearly enough RPGs seem to understand: giving the game’s major villain(s) enough screen time. Too often, the villain of an RPG is kept out of the player’s sight for almost the entirety of the game, only showing up to twirl his/her metaphorical mustache menacingly and prove his/her evil by doing naughty things for a few minutes before vanishing again. Sometimes it’s not even that much--the 10 Wise Men of Star Ocean 2 are the masterminds behind all the major problems of the game, yet if you don’t count the actual boss battles against them, I’m not sure all of them put together have even a full 15 minutes of screen time over the course of a 40+ hour game!

Some RPG villains manage to be pretty decent despite this lack of screen time. Saren from Mass Effect 1 is as much an “only shows up to remind you that he’s there and a bad guy” villain as the next guy, but he’s got just enough characterization during those moments and just enough of a tie to the theme of “struggling against impossible odds for freedom instead of giving in to slavery in order to survive” to come out in the end as a decent villain. The Sinistrals of Lufia 2, as another example, manage to pull off the role of epic deities of destruction just well enough that it’s not significantly detrimental that they only actually show up here and there, and we more or less never see anything of note on their end.

Still, as a general rule, a villain with the qualities necessary to be great will only live up to that potential greatness if those qualities have their proper time to shine. I think an excellent example of this is Loghain, from Dragon Age 1. Now, Loghain is a very well-crafted individual, with easily understandable motives and paranoias guiding his villainous actions throughout DA1’s plot, who has many good qualities and good intentions that are interesting to learn of and make him a character with real depth, even if they do not outweigh his evil deeds. But, you’ll never know practically any of this throughout the course of Dragon Age 1 if you let him die during the Landsmeet (as, I would think, most players do, and as I do with my “true” playthroughs). It’s only if you choose to spare Loghain, and sacrifice Alistair’s friendship (and possibly life), that Loghain joins your party and has a chance through his dialogue with the main hero to become known, to explain himself and show his true nature and facets of personality. That’s why he makes such a good example of what I’m talking about. Play the game one way (the more common way, I should think), without knowledge of how it goes otherwise, and to you, Loghain is a fairly basic, unexceptional villain--not bad, has a little characterization by reputation, but ultimately there’s very little to him and he just moves the plot along as needed with his nefarious ways. But, play the game the other way, give Loghain the time on screen to capitalize on the depth of his character by conversing directly with the player repeatedly, and you suddenly have a very, very well-crafted villain who fulfills his role in a particularly human way, and fits interestingly into the setting of the game.

As another example, I have no doubt that Kreia (AKA Darth Traya) of Knights of the Old Republic 2 would have been a noteworthy villain either way, but compare her to the character of Ravel Puzzlewell of Planescape: Torment. Both are incredibly fascinating characters, both villains in a way that is ultimately for the greater good of the one they care most for (The Nameless One and The Exile) and even the greater good of the universe itself, in some ways. Both are masterfully wise and engrossing to listen to. Both are characters written by Chris Avellone, who is basically a living god of RPG writing. While certainly distinct characters from one another, there are certainly plenty of similarities between them. No one can say that Ravel Puzzlewell isn’t an incredible character and villain. Not without risk of getting punched in the face by me. But to me, Kreia far surpasses her.

The wisdom and insight of Kreia into the Force, people and their interactions with one another, the power of charisma and setting an example, the way one small act can snowball into a revolutionary action, the importance of striving for balance between the foolish old Jedi Order’s ways and the equally foolhardy ways of the Sith, the connection she forges with the protagonist, the way she manipulates people and destiny itself, the way she sets in motion the future of the galaxy so far that the effects of her actions are seen and felt even thousands of years later, in the actual Star Wars movies...it’s genuinely amazing, it really is. The thing is, you only truly understand all these facets of Kreia as a person and as a force of fate (and in some ways as the fate of the Force) is because you spend 4/5ths of the game in her company, listening to her words and watching her actions, and then that last fifth you spend pursuing her to try to stop her, so you’re sill seeing the effects of her machinations and encountering her as a force to be opposed. Kreia is a character of immense, utterly fascinating depth who has the time in the game to fully show that depth to us in all ways.

Ravel, on the other hand, is clearly a fascinating character as well, and might even be just as incredible a villain and person as Kreia, but in Planescape: Torment, we only ever meet a few of her shadows, hear a little of her actions, and meet her face to face a single time for a single conversation. And don’t get me wrong--the meeting with Ravel Puzzlewell is one of the many parts of Planescape: Torment that goes down in history as one of the RPG genre’s greatest moments. She only has one conversation, but it’s long, and it’s jam-packed full of intriguing character development, plot exposition, and great ideas and perspectives to think upon. As much as the writers do with it, though--and, again, they do a LOT with it--it still is only a single encounter for Ravel to be able to make herself known and understood. We can tell much about Ravel, be properly wowed by what a well-written, compelling character and villain she is, but even if she really does have the potential depth that she could match Kreia, she simply doesn’t have the time to fully explore that potential the way Kreia does, and so Kreia is by far the greater villain.

Giving a villain enough time on screen for the player to really understand them, even bond with them, just makes all the difference sometimes. Sure, we might have found Fou-Lu in Breath of Fire 4 to be an okay villain under normal circumstances, been able to at least take his word for it that the world he awoke to was populated by a pitiful, deceitful, and unworthy society of lower beings...but instead of just expecting us to accept Fou-Lu’s point of view on his word alone, Capcom took the time, had the good idea, to devote a significant amount of the game’s time to playing as Fou-Lu, showing us (instead of just telling us) his own journey and letting us see firsthand how the worst nature of people that he encountered shaped his opinion. It makes Fou-Lu not only a more complex and believable villain with a goal we can understand, but also a better counterpoint to the protagonist Ryu, who has on his journey experienced enough good and strong enough friendship that his point of view can justly be opposite.

And yeah, we would have been able to just go along with fighting an intangible evil force called Odio acting through some random corrupted knight named Orsted in Live-A-Live, but instead of just tossing Orsted at us and telling us “This is a villain, kill it,” Squaresoft gave Orsted a game chapter just as the rest of the cast got, wherein we see how Orsted became the fallen angel that we must oppose, how this innocent hero had everything, everything, cruelly taken from him by the dark side of humanity. By the time Orsted’s chapter concludes, he’s lost every good thing his life had, tangible and intangible, and it’s no wonder to the player that he gives himself over to evil.

And of course, there’s always Wylfred, of Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume. As the game’s protagonist, the one you’re with from start to finish, it comes as no surprise that he’s also one of the greatest RPG villains ever, since he’s getting the time and devotion to character development that a game’s main character typically does.

Hell, a proper amount of screen time can even work wonders for bad guys who are more like forces of nature than actual characters. You know, big monsters of legendary badness, that sort of thing. I mean, look at Lavos from Chrono Trigger. Yeah, he doesn’t have any real characterization, and there’s no reason to consider him even self-aware. But he’s kept relevant throughout the game’s course--every major arc the story has to do with Lavos, from seeking to stop Magus because of the mistaken belief that Magus created Lavos, to the seemingly unrelated battle for humanity in 65 Billion BC turning out to be the time that Lavos first arrived on the scene, to the story arc involving the magical kingdom of Zeal, which feeds upon Lavos’s power and goes too far with it. In as much capacity that Lavos can exist as a character, he is kept important to the story, on the characters’ and player’s minds, and extremely significant to the game’s world. There are few moments in this game where the threat of Lavos is not being directly shown, reference, or addressed, and that elevates Lavos as a big bad monster villain way above peers of his like, say, Giygas in Earthbound or the evil Genie in Dark Cloud 1.

Of course, don’t get me wrong. A lot of screen time is not ALWAYS needed for a great villain. I mean, Luca Blight from Suikoden 2 is one of the most iconic, monstrously evil villains I’ve seen in an RPG to date, and he only got a regular small amount of time on screen in the game. He simply had the attitude and actions to really sell it. I definitely think that Seymour from Final Fantasy 10 and The Master from Fallout 1 are very good villains, and they didn’t get an abnormal amount of time on screen (Seymour gets some, but not a large amount). In their cases, their reason for villainy (for Seymour, the belief that death is kinder than an existence in the perpetually ravaged Spira, and for The Master, the belief that humanity is incapable and unworthy of surviving in the hellish wasteland it has created for itself and should be replaced with a more unity-minded and strong race of super mutants) is given weight by the time the player spends in the environment. We see firsthand just how miserable and regularly lethal life is in Spira, where the greatest hope people have is simply for a couple years’ reprieve from their tormentor (and it’s bad enough that they’re willing to sacrifice human lives for that reprieve), and in Fallout 1 we see just how much the world has been ruined by humanity’s actions, how difficult it is to live in this world, just by traveling across its endless wastelands. And Greyghast in Embric of Wulfhammer's Castle gets essentially no screen time at all, because he's not even alive for the events of the game (sort of), yet he's close to being as monstrously evil and horrifying as Luca Blight, because his evil is seen after the fact in the protagonist Catherine, who has memory-nightmares and clearly bears the mental scars that serve as legacy to Greyghast's evil. In these latter 3 cases, the game’s setting, other characters, and story themselves are aspects of the villain, an indirect way of familiarizing ourselves with the villain’s motivation and goals, and that works more or less as well as actually learning these things through more exposure directly to the villain.

And of course, a poor villain is a poor villain, regardless of how long the camera’s fixated on him or her. If the villain you’ve made just sucks on principle alone, then extra time is not going to help. Mithos in Tales of Symphonia is a whiny, irrational, thumb-sucking little turd. The writers made a shitty villain when they made Mithos, one whose motivations are embarrassingly bad, one whose plans are stupid and silly. Namco obviously wanted him to be a standard kinda-tragic-because-he’s-misguided sort of villain, your usual JRPG bad guy, but they failed big time. Every damn thing this self-important, mewling little jackass says is annoying and idiotic, and his existence even detriments the other characters of the game, like how he makes a major point of Genis’s character development the dilemma of choosing between Mithos, a dude who Genis has known for maybe an hour, and the friends and family he’s known all his goddamn life. Ugh. Anyway, Mithos is a sucky villain no matter how you slice it, so giving him a lot of screen time does not actually improve anything. The time Mithos spends travelling with the heroes is only more time for him to prattle on and annoy us further. A villain has to actually be WORTH the time for it to do anything good for him/her.

However, as a general rule, I’d definitely say that more screen time for a villain is a very good thing. The best, most interesting, most compelling villains of RPGs are very often the ones that the audience has had time to really become familiar with and understand, and really, it just makes sense that a character playing such a crucial role for your story, providing much of, perhaps all, of the obstacles for your heroes to overcome, to get a significant level of characterization. Sadly, most games are so caught up with developing and portraying the heroes of the story (not that there’s anything wrong with that! Heaven forbid I give that impression; if anything, the major characters in RPGs STILL often don’t enough proper development) that they seem to forget the importance of the villain as a character, and use them only as a necessary plot tool. If only more games could follow the examples I’ve mentioned above.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Shin Megami Tensei Series's Recent Neutral Figureheads

Doubtless I’m making mountains of molehills here, but I cannot help but feel some slight concern over what I’ve seen with a couple of the recent Shin Megami Tensei games’ characters who embody the Neutral path.

In case you’re unfamiliar with this, most Shin Megami Tensei games have multiple story paths and endings, and usually, those follow a formula of Law, Neutral, and Chaos. Law is the path of those who believe in absolute order and submission to rules and regulations (which is usually, in SMT, represented by God and the heavenly host of Christianity), Chaos is the path of those who believe in absolute freedom and that the strong should decide their own destiny (which is usually, in SMT, represented by Lucifer and a wide mythological array of demons), and Neutral is the path of those who believe that too much law or chaos is a bad thing and that a balance between them is important, that humans should decide their fate for themselves without the oversight of God or the temptations of Lucifer, and ultimately hold out hope that there can be a better tomorrow of our own design. That’s a very rough summation, but it will suffice. Not every SMT with multiple paths has a distinct Law or Chaos route, but even the titles that lack either of those routes will usually still have a path of Neutrality (or even more than one) analogous to the one I’ve just described, one which sees the flaws and benefits of both other possibilities and seeks a less extreme middle ground.

Usually, for each path there is a character in the game who is the iconic representation of that path’s philosophies. For example, in SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2, it’s Dahn who stands for Chaos and Akane who stands for Order, and in SMT Strange Journey, Chaos, Law, and Neutral are represented by Jimenez, Zelenin, and Gore, respectively. And that’s where my problem today comes from: I find that, as representations of the Neutral path, Daichi and his followers in Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2, and Isabeau from Shin Megami Tensei 4, are disappointing, and since they’re some of the most recent Neutral Heroes, it troubles me that this could be the direction that the series is going to go in for this role.

The problem I have with Isabeau and Daichi and company is quite simple: they’re figureheads of indecision, not balance. Look at Daichi’s band in SMTDS2. Once you reach the point in SMTDS2 where the factions are starting to distinguish themselves from one another, the point at which we see that the major choice of the game is between a world of equality or meritocracy, Daichi begins to question whether either world is truly a good idea, pointing out the flaws of a society of both utter equality and complete meritocracy.* And that’s fine. I expect someone, particularly the Neutral figure of the game, to see the problems of the game’s major paths, and to seek out and offer a third, middle-of-the-road solution.

But that’s just it--Diachi never offers that solution, never has any idea of what it might be. I give him credit that he seems to be thinking about it and trying to come up with a solution, but when the day in the game comes where all must choose their sides, he’s got nothing. True Armegeddon is approaching fast at this point in the game, and the only way to prevent all existence from being reduced to utter nothingness, a white void of nonexistence, is to approach the entity causing this situation with a plan for recreating and reshaping the world. It’s Yamato’s plan to take this entity’s power and make a world where only those who have strength, intellect, or do something useful to society have any power. Ronaldo opposes Yamato, and intends to instead make a world where all people share all resources equally and harmoniously, where the strong protect the weak and all are valued exactly the same. At this point in the story, with only a day or so left before the last small piece of the world left is erased, everyone must make a decision on which side they will follow.

Except for Daichi. Still insisting that neither side is ideal, and that if a philosophy makes you fight against those important to you then it can’t be a good one,** Daichi, and the friends who then follow him, refuse to follow either Equality or Meritocracy. Okay, fine. So what’s his middle-ground solution?

“I dunno.”

Yes, that’s right. One day from the erasure of all existence, when all the lives that ever were and ever could be are on the line, when everything and everyone will be blanked out forever if a leader does not step forth and provide the blueprints of a new, ideal world, Daichi just wants to sit on his hands. Not only that, but he wants everyone ELSE to do so, too. Daichi insists that there must be some better way than to force friends to fight each other over which flawed world to enact, but when outright asked by Yamato what this alternative is, Daichi can produce no answer. Just...what the hell? It’s 24 hours to the end of existence, dude! If you don’t like either Yamato’s or Ronaldo’s option, fine, that’s your choice, but if you’re going to actively oppose them and encourage others to do the same, you’d sure as hell better have an alternative plan of action beyond “sit tight and hope things work out” in mind! Good God, I’m all for the “finding a better way” approach to things, it’s an RPG story staple, but if you don’t actually find that better way by Go Time, and the universe and all its history and future is on the line, that is not the time to cross your arms over your chest, pout, and whine, “I don’t wanna!”

Yes, if you do support Daichi, a different option besides Equality and Meritocracy does present itself, but that’s beside the point, honestly. The point is that when the chips were down and it was time to nut up or shut up, Daichi, and the characters who choose to follow him, had no plan, no idea, just the dislike of the options presented. The fact that another path does present itself eventually if the player chooses to follow Daichi feels more like a lucky break than some sort of reward for his commitment, a blind gamble with all of existence as the ante, that thankfully just happens to pay out.

Ugh, and Isabeau in SMT4? Pretty much just as bad. It’s not noticeable at first, but when you watch her for the entirety of the game, you come to realize that she is completely, utterly incapable of making a decision or picking a side at any time of significance during the story. The Passage of Ethics? Can’t make a decision on any of the questions; doesn’t even try--Jonathan and Walter are the ones who mull over the philosophical ramifications, and Isabeau just stays silent. When the time comes that Jonathan and Walter split, one to kill Lilith and the other to do her bidding? Isabeau can’t choose either and instead chooses to go fool around with some NPCs she’s met all of twice because she has no convictions about the matter at hand beyond a vague disapproval. Even once the protagonist, Flynn, has set his path at the end of the game to Neutral (assuming he doesn’t go Chaos, Law, or Nihilism), and Isabeau joins him as his only fellow who also sides neither with angels nor demons, she STILL doesn’t know what to do. Seriously, Flynn comes back to his own world, and Isabeau finds him, and says she’s going to hang out with him during this crisis of heaven and earth, and the reason she gives is just a flat-out confirmation that she doesn’t know what to do. Doesn’t know her priorities, doesn’t have any idea of how to do the fence-straddling act she wants to pull, just wants to dump it all on Flynn and have him do her thinking for her.

If Daichi’s bunch and Isabeau are any indication, it seems that Atlus has begun to mistake paralyzing and incredibly irresponsible indecision for the balance and self-determination that Neutrality is supposed to be known for. Yes, the first half of the Neutral path in SMT games is a denial of the extremes of the other paths. But that’s not ALL there is to it; there has to be an actual plan, conviction, even just the faintest wisp of an idea as to what should be done instead! The most proactive action either Daichi or Isabeau takes in the end is to inspire someone else (Flynn and what’s-his-name, SMTDS2 protagonist) to do the figuring-out-a-different-path legwork for them!

I mean, compare this to those characters who have previously represented the Neutral path. When the party splits apart in SMT Persona 3’s The Answer continuation on whether they should change the past for the sake of their late friend Minato, Aigis walks the middle road, refusing to make a decision on this matter. That seems like indecision, but we see soon after that Aigis was not refusing because she felt unable to decide--she’s refusing because she won’t make the decision until she knows more about what, exactly, it was that happened the day that Minato banished Nyx and was in turn doomed to be taken from his friends. Aigis is a character whose ethics have been clear by this point for quite some time, and she’s walking the Neutral path on the decision her friends are warring over with an actual plan in her mind, having thought of an important angle to the situation that no one else has. Like Isabeau and Daichi, she doesn’t know enough to comfortably decide the best course of action with their chance to change the past. But unlike Isabeau and Daichi, Aigis is proactive in her lack of understanding, and moves to correct that indecision, to give herself the knowledge she needs to make an educated choice. Isabeau and Daichi are people who don’t know something and sit there stagnating in that ignorance, and Aigis is a person who doesn’t know something and so goes out and finds the answer.

Gore in SMT Strange Journey? Once he’s back in the game and ready to take up the mantle of the Neutral Hero, he has an ideal and a plan for his path. Atsuro and Gin in SMT Devil Survivor 1? Each comes up with a way to put control of the city and world back in the hands of humanity, proactively dealing with the situation of Babel and the war between demons and angels. These are characters who have strong feelings of what is best for humanity, characters who make choices and actively seek ways to do what they think is right and act upon their convictions.

Even the unnamed Heroine of Shin Megami Tensei 1 is better than Daichi and Isabeau. The SMT1 Heroine’s only ethic and plan of action eventually is to stick with the protagonist and support him no matter what course of action he chooses, and yeah, that obviously ain’t a stunning example of a strong, iconic character, but at least she’s showing consistency and loyalty, at least she’s making the choice to follow the SMT1 protagonist. It’s not much better than Isabeau’s joining Flynn because she doesn’t know what to do with herself, but still, it IS a step up. A paid servant and a slave may perform the same tasks, but the fact that a servant has chosen to do so makes for a world of difference between them, and so I say that the decision to follow another and trust his judgment is different from being led because you cannot self-determine. And the SMT1 Heroine’s decision is, at least, thematically appropriate, since the SMT1 protagonist is essentially the avatar of humanity, the one who will decide what path humanity will follow, so you could see her putting her faith in him as putting her faith in humanity itself. And since Neutral is, y’know, about humanity standing on its own to make its own decisions and whatnot...I dunno, it sort of works, right? At any rate, since it’s a case of the Heroine actually choosing to put faith into someone, rather than Isabeau’s desperately turning to someone else to find her path for her, it’s a point in the Heroine’s favor over Isabeau.

Anyway, that’s all I really have to say about this. Being unsatisfied with the obvious paths offered, that’s a natural part of the SMT Neutral figurehead. But the point is for them to go from there to taking action, asserting their views, addressing their lack of knowledge, doing SOMETHING about the situation, taking SOME step toward the future. And that’s a level of proactivity that Isabeau and Daichi never reach; they just stall at the dissatisfaction stage. And that does concern me, because it’s a strike against their games’ storytelling value, and that strike has come both times against some of the series’s newest titles. I’m probably worrying over nothing, but nonetheless, I do hope that characters based entirely upon indecision and choking at the finish line aren’t going to become the norm for future SMT titles’ Neutral figures.






* At least, he tries to point out those flaws. If you’ve read my SMTDS2 rant on the supposed major flaw of the world of equality, you’ll remember that the major criticism of that path doesn’t hold any water whatsoever.

** Which is hypocritical idiocy, of course, since, if you follow Daichi, the protagonist will be leading a campaign against his friends in the other factions anyway.