Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Shadowrun Series Theory: The Shadowrunner's Motto

“Watch your back, shoot straight, conserve ammo, and never, ever cut a deal with a dragon.”

This is the classic motto of the Shadowrunner, a combination of survival advice and well wish that those who live outside the tyranny of corporate law in the Shadowrun universe espouse, the closest thing to a common code that those who run the shadows possess. It’s an iconic phrase of the Shadowrun franchise, which its fans recognize and hold dear the same way fans of Planescape: Torment do for the question, “What can change the nature of a man?”, and fans of Fallout do for “War. War never changes.” It’s a cool phrase, summing up the survivalist mentality and reality for a Shadowrunner in a manner that’s simple and straightforward. there something more within it?

This motto of the Shadowrunner is meant to be interpreted literally, yes. To survive as a free soldier of fortune, you must be wary and ready for attack, you must be competent and possess sharp skills, and you mustn’t be wasteful of your resources. And of course, to survive, you must not let yourself fall into the clutches of that which is too powerful and too clever for you to overcome, the mighty dragons who rule society and claim the world’s resources and people as their treasure hoards. And maybe that’s all there is to it, the literal interpretation. Still...I think that this motto, at least its final part, is also metaphorical. The motto is not just advice on how to stay alive as a’s also the guideline to how to live as a Shadowrunner.

It comes back to what dragons are in Shadowrun. On the surface, the great dragons of Shadowrun are both major characters in the overall story of the Shadowrun world, and essentially a foundational part of the series’s lore. Through one method of control or another (though most commonly via heading the mega corporations that rule and spiritually enslave humanity), the dragons have become the puppet masters of the world, using humanity and metahumanity as resources with which to play a long game of global chess against each other to see who can hoard the greatest wealth of resources.

But it might also be that we’re meant to see the dragons of Shadowrun as something other than just powerful, scaled overlords. More than just physical players in the plot, entities unto themselves and separated from humanity, dragons might also be allegories, representations of greed and covetous control in its highest form. After all, the Shadowrun dragons have, in their short time in the world of humanity, quickly positioned themselves into the places of power over countless others. They are the heads of government, they are involved in organized crime, they head social and religious organizations, and, most importantly, they head the colossal, international businesses, the “megacorps,” that control the peoples of the world over any other force. Follow the trail of any influential and powerful organization, particularly those which are for profit, and you’ll almost surely eventually find a dragon at its end, pulling the strings and consolidating the world’s resources and people as its own, its only true competitors in global manipulation its draconic peers. Sometimes, as in the case of the infamous Lofwyr, you don’t have to follow the trail for very long.

And yet, the ones who cut the trail, who pave it, who serve as its cobblestones, are humans, selfish, short-sighted, power-hungry, greedy little humans. It was no dragon that created the concept of a corporation that puts profits before people, no dragon that invented the concept of political groups and national governments, no dragon that first organized religion. These tools for holding humanity in place and subjugating the everyman were thousands of years old before the dragons arrived on the Shadowrun world scene, created, enacted, and even perfected by human beings. Dragons simply play the game better than people, and seat themselves in the throne that mankind thought it was building for itself. Or at least, its own elite.

In a sense, then, dragons are more than just the characters that the Shadowrun series’s surface presents them as. Dragons are not an alien, outside force, but a foe that lives within our own creation, our own being. I submit that the Shadowrun dragon is intended to be a representation of the extreme of certain faults within humans. They are the embodiment of greed, of corporation, of power lust...they are the embodiment of the desire for the one to make the many dance to his or her whims, and for no sake but simple, covetous want.

Having established that, then, let us look at what a Shadowrunner is. You can find a Shadowrunner in any person. The crusader against social wrongs. The narcissist desiring a bigger piece of the pie than his day job allows. The survivor trying to get out of a bad situation. The ex-soldier who’s lost her way through a combination of circumstances and bad decisions. The anarchist out to disrupt the dragons’ puppet show. A shy computer nerd. A framed cop. A light-hearted street rat with no taste. A selfless community leader. A former lead vocal from a punk band. A psychopath with a vision for humanity. From the virtuous to the deeply disturbed, for grand reasons or petty, it seems that you can find just about any kind of person running the shadows.

There is only one thing that unites them all, and that is the basic definition of a Shadowrunner: one who chooses to live outside the social system, by their own rules. Whatever else a Shadowrunner may be, at the core of their being, they refuse to live within the absolute control of another, refuse to be a cog in the machine, and desire to live free and true to themselves, with only the masters they themselves choose.

“Watch your back, shoot straight, conserve ammo, and never, ever cut a deal with a dragon.”

Thus, I think that the Shadowrunner’s motto is more than just advice or a slogan. I think that when it avows to “never, ever cut a deal with a dragon,” it’s an affirmation of the core principle of what it is to be a Shadowrunner, and thus, a free man or woman. The “dragon” is the system, the means by which the many are controlled by the few, and it is an absolute. You can give into it and be a part of it, or you can stand on your own and never relinquish your autonomy; there is no middle ground. Once you engage with the “dragon,” you are no longer a Shadowrunner, but a cog in the machine and a pawn in someone else’s manipulations, no matter what you may believe. To me, this motto does more than tell how to survive as a Shadowrunner--it also tells how to live as one.

I leave you now with Harlequin’s words of wisdom from Shadowrun Returns:

"The lesson is this - the game is rigged. The cards are stacked. The dice are loaded. It's the same as it always was. Every cycle. People in power exert power. Little people cower in their homes, think what they're told to think, and buy whatever product will help them forget how horrible their lives are for another day. And that's why we don't *play* their fragging game. We don't swallow their drek sandwich and politely ask for another. It's why we run the shadows. That's where real life is, kiddo."

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Undertale's No Mercy Let's Plays

So, for this and any future Undertale rant, I’m just gonna go on the assumption that you know most of the important lore and details of Undertale, have played the game through to its end on at least one path, and that I don’t have to censor myself of spoiler material. Fair warning.

Oh, and get ready for the heaviest load of Taking A Game Too Seriously that you’ve ever seen. Seriously, hardcore Trekkies would say, “Dude, you know this isn’t real, right?” That’s how bad this is. I mean, this rant is basically me seriously engaging in an argument with a fictional character. If you're okay with seeing just how deep the rabbit hole of Utter Pointlessness goes, though, then by all means, continue reading to watch me fall to its very bottom, and then dig that rabbit a new basement.

On with the rant!

It’s okay to watch a Let’s Play of Undertale’s No Mercy path (also known as the Genocide path), rather than play it yourself. You don’t need to feel the lesser for it.

For anyone not in the know, towards the end of a No Mercy playthrough of Undertale (as in, a playthrough in which you intentionally and systematically kill absolutely every last individual that you possibly can), Flowey starts appearing sporadically as you walk through Asgore’s castle to fill you in on some of the game’s interesting lore, most of it specifically related to him. There is a point at which he states, while speaking about how liberating it is to just freely murder those around oneself,

“At least we’re better than those sickos that stand around and WATCH it happen...
Those pathetic people that want to see it, but are too weak to do it themselves.
I bet someone like that’s watching right now, aren’t they...?”

It’s a line that probably just seems like an odd bit of dialogue that means nothing in particular to someone actually playing the game, but to someone who’s watching the No Mercy run via someone else’s gaming video, it’s pretty damn obvious that Flowey is calling him or her out. I gotta hand it to Toby Fox, creator of Undertale: the guy really does think of everything. I saw that line, and I slammed my fist onto my desk because DAMN IT, EVEN THROUGH YOUTUBE FLOWEY MANAGES TO FUCK MY SHIT UP! I swear to Thanatos I hate that little dandelion asshole so damn much!

Ahem. So, here’s the thing. I find this little “Gotcha!” moment amusing and clever, to be sure, and I admire Mr. Fox for being sharp. But I don’t actually feel bad about watching a Let’s Play instead of playing through the No Mercy run myself. And I don’t think anyone else should feel bad, either.

First of all, consider the source of this criticism. I may be being told that I’m no better for watching rather than doing, and in fact that I’m actually worse for it, but...I’m being told this by Flowey. This guy is not exactly the mouthpiece of all that is just and righteous, now, is he? It’s like being rebuked about something by Suikoden 2’s Luca Blight, or Earthbound and Mother 3’s Porky. If Emperor Palpatine started lecturing you sanctimoniously about what was and wasn’t polite, how much attention would you pay to him, really?

But let’s consider the possibility that Flowey is more than just Flowey when he says this. Let’s say that this is meant, as is often the case with lines by Flowey and some by Sans, to be a direct message from the game to you. We’ll say that this rebuke is from the game, and Toby Fox himself, simply delivered through the mouthpiece of an obnoxious little bundle of tea ingredients. Do I feel a little chastised, now that the source of the reprimand is legitimate?

Still no.

See, here’s the thing. You can call it cowardice, sure. I did sate my curiosity about certain events of the No Mercy run, while being too cowardly to make them happen myself.* My reason for watching the Let’s Play was really more about learning the lore that only comes up in the No Mercy path, than “just seeing what happens,” so maybe I’m not even the real target of this line, but let’s say I am. You can call it cowardice. But it’s not equally bad to doing the act myself. Because drawing on the knowledge and experience of others who have done wrong helps us to avoid doing wrong ourselves. It is a GOOD thing to sate your curiosity in simulation rather than in practice. Reading others’ accounts of how it feels to commit wrong helps us to understand the criminal mind, which gives us the knowledge to recognize warning signs of potential criminal acts, and to better track down those who have perpetrated such deeds. It helps us to understand how terrible war is, so that we know better than to hastily wage it without just cause and no alternatives, and seek to bring its end about as quickly as possible. It helps us to find empathy with those who have done wrong, so that we can learn how to understand and help them to become better.

We learn best from mistakes. But they don’t have to be our own. When one commits a mistake to public record, it is for the benefit of all to learn it, to lessen how many times it must be repeated. I think it’s reasonable to say that the No Mercy playthrough of Undertale is “bad.” I would feel guilty (sick, really) if I did it myself. And if no one ever did, I still wouldn’t do it, even at the expense of not knowing what happened within it. But some people have played the No Mercy run of Undertale, and they’ve posted their experience online, and I’ll watch it, and satisfy my curiosity, and I won’t feel any less for it. Regardless of what Flowey’s incomplete and unexamined philosophy on the matter may be, there’s no shame in the knowledge of evil passed on by another, only in the knowledge of evil gained through experience.

Sorry, Flowey, but I’m not gonna feel bad about NOT killing people.

* I personally would call it simply loving the characters too much to commit harm against them myself, though. Of course, that opens up a whole new can of worms about what difference that makes, whether I’m a hypocrite for it, and so on. Oh well.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Legend of Heroes 6-1's Cassius Bright's Shadow

Well, I did my positive piece on The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. My debt to Humza is paid. Now for the fun stuff. On with the complaints! At least, sort of.

Be warned, this rant contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Cassius Bright, the plot jack-of-all-trades for the kingdom of Liberl. Brilliant military strategist who turned the tide of the Hundred Days War! Unequaled swordsman AND peerless master of the bo staff! Internationally celebrated Bracer superstar for whom the unofficial, classified S-Rank was invented! Savior and redeemer of child assassins! Devoted father of protagonist Estelle Bright! If there’s anything important that’s happened in Liberl within the past 20 years, Cassius Bright was a key player in the event or was good friends with someone who was. He knows everyone important everywhere and has a finger in every plot pie conceivable. And that...

Gets really, really old.

If I have any complaint about the story as a whole, I think it’s probably the inescapable weight of Cassius Bright throughout the whole game. Estelle cannot go anywhere or meet anyone without being in her father’s shadow. I’d say at least 75% of the important figures in the story knew Cassius Bright and have something to say about him, and as I’ve just said, just about every important thing that happened in the past and half the ones happening in the game’s present are directly tied to the guy. Introduce herself as a Bracer in training, as a person in her own right, and Estelle barely gets a nod from any plot figure. Let them know that she’s Cassius Bright’s daughter, and suddenly she’s a celebrity by association, and everyone magically now has confidence in her abilities. Estelle somehow manages not to develop a huge anxiety disorder from all of this, but it still gets kind of tiresome to just keep hearing all the damn time.

I mean, look, I can appreciate a story where an important figure’s legacy is a constant presence whose influence is frequently felt. Done right, it can contribute to the creation of a very strong and meaningful story. I think that Shadowrun Dragonfall did this terrifically with the character of Monica. So much of the story and setting was determined by the legacy she left behind after her death, and through that ever-present influence from beyond the grave, Monica was made into as well-developed and deep a character as half of the party members who were actually alive for the game’s events.

Rose Quartz from Steven Universe is another great example of this idea of a non-present character’s legacy nonetheless shaping and influencing a huge part of the story and characters. If you’ve seen Steven Universe, then you know exactly what I mean, and if you haven’t seen Steven Universe, then why haven’t you seen Steven Universe. Stop wasting your time with this drek I’m typing and go watch Steven Universe. Seriously, it is one of the highest works of art produced by humanity to date.

But Monica and Rose Quartz are characters whose presence is always there silently, remembered, referred to directly only sparingly and when naturally appropriate. You’re allowed to mull over how much of the characters and plot you see are because of their memory, their beliefs, and their passing--the game and the show will tell you to a certain extent, but allow you a lot of room to extrapolate and contemplate on your own. But no one will goddamn shut up about Cassius Bright! Everything, everyone, comes back to this guy, and the game wants you to know that fact beyond any shadow of a doubt! It’s like the nation of Liberl is entirely populated by 6-year-olds who are at that stage where they find 1 thing in the world that they think is super cool and talk obsessively about it to anyone who will listen. I GET IT. CASSIUS BRIGHT WAS AND IS A BIG DEAL. SHUT UP.*

...But, repetitive though this does get, I can’t complain too seriously about it. See, even though I find it annoying, it...kind of is thematically important in terms of the main villain’s role. In fact, it might just be the most intelligent narrative aspect of the entire game.

See, the villain’s entire motivation for his schemes IS that he, like everyone else, saw Cassius Bright as an unequaled hero who singlehandedly saved the nation and united its leaders together for the good of all. Colonel Richard’s motivation for his evil machinations is his inability to believe that the the nation can otherwise be safe without Cassius Bright’s leadership, and thus Richard must do bad things to gain tyrannical control of his country and gain control of (what he thinks is) an ancient magical super weapon. That motivation is kind of a hard sell under normal circumstances, but I found that I completely understood Richard’s perspective when his motives were revealed, sympathizing more with him than I have with any other villain this year.

And why is that? Because the game shows you, firsthand, how much the people of Liberl depended on Cassius, how they idolized him and saw him as the sole reason for the happy outcome of the war and the current freedom and security of the nation. And that reliance on Cassius by the nation’s leaders and military heads is echoed in the present with the Bracer Guild’s adoration and dependence on the man--capable Bracers lament that their obstacles would be easily solved, or never have arisen to begin with, if Cassius weren’t away on his secret mission, powerful and renowned Bracers like Scherazard and Zane consistently refer to themselves as small potatoes by comparison...even the Bracer who seems the most self-reliant, Agate, gives the impression that a major part of his motivation is just to equal and surpass the vaunted Cassius Bright.

In the face of a nation wherein its protectors, its leaders, and even its great scientific minds all idolize Cassius in such a regard that they minimize their own accomplishments and abilities, is it any wonder that Colonel Richard attempts his coup against the queen? You can fully understand why he feels his country is helpless and vulnerable without Cassius Bright to run its military. Even though Cassius himself believes and strongly states that the salvation of Liberl during the Hundred Days War was a team effort, that no matter how great his role was, he was unable to do anything alone and even failed in some regards (such as his inability to keep his wife safe), Richard and so many others see only a war won by a single man. To some degree, nearly every major figure of the nation of Liberl has convinced themselves of their own powerlessness by comparison; Richard just believes it to a greater and more paranoid extreme than most.

Man, Knights of the Old Republic 2’s Kreia would have a field day talking about Liberl’s situation.

At any rate, that’s pretty much all I have to say on this matter, in my long, winding, and ultimately pointless way. The constant references to Cassius Bright in TLoH6-1 do get tiresome, but that’s all part of a clever, larger narrative plan to really persuade the player of the authenticity of Colonel Richard’s motivation for his villainy, and it works.

* I am joking. Please do not actually tell 6-year-olds to shut up. Who are you, Kevin Winnicot?