the artistry and psychology of gaming




If you haven’t yet, it’d likely be prudent to check out the first article in this series; it provides a proper context for what you’re about to read.  You may also wish to read the previous article.


The following article contains massive spoilers for many of the games involved.  Before reading, it might be prudent for you to check the works cited at the end, to see which games I’ll be covering, so that you can avoid them should you have any intention of playing them.  You have been warned.  In bright red.

Ah, the scenario; to many, it is the most important part of an RPG.  Scenario is sort of a programming term that essentially means “stuff that happens”; your story, character development, text, any and all events, even ones as inconsequential as “character moves a few steps that way”, and the like.  Since, to most, the term presentation carries the connotation of graphics and sound, using such a term would be ambiguous, but just saying story would be insufficient, because some games don’t have much story, but carry themselves more in terms of their overall style.  Given that my first attempted major in college was computer science – though I decided to jump to the opposite end of the spectrum with Spanish and Education (only to become a pharmacy technician) when that didn’t pan out – I decided to use scenario to describe this weird amalgamation of concepts.

With that out of the way, I’m not down on this aspect; I do understand and agree with its importance.  However, I don’t think that it should be the primary focus of any game.  A good story does not excuse a poor game; if you disagree, then pick up a good book – I recommend Marlys Millheiser’s Nightmare Country – and a silverware drawer, and jam a fork into yourself and leave it stuck in there every five or so pages.  The metaphor might be a little extreme, but I think it gets my point across.  That said, I love a good story in a video game.  My favorite game of all time also has one of my favorite stories in a game.  I’ve already spent plenty of time griping about focus on scenario over gameplay, so I’m going to gripe about something else instead.  Today’s JRPG climate drives me up a damn wall, and that’s mostly because, despite its being the primary the focus of the games, the scenario usually isn’t very good.

I can partially understand how the focus of an RPG has come to rest upon its story.  As with a Horizontally- or Vertically-Scrolling Shooter genres, the basic structure of the games within it is essentially the same.  When discussing these Shooters, the most common question is, “What’s the hook?”  What usually makes them stand out against the others is a gimmick, usually something to do with the way your ship fires its weapon.  With RPGs, it is often the story that makes it unique, particularly during the Third Generation of gaming, during which the games were referred to as “Dragon Warrior Clones” due to their lack of diversity in gameplay.  This sort of mentality continued just long enough for the story to inextricably become the focal point of what makes an RPG unique.  So many of us bemoan what that means to the genre, but on the bright side, it has allowed the genre to develop a proud tradition of strong storytelling.

My main gripe with a lot of stories today is that they hold little value as stories, but try to give the illusion that they’re important.  Most of these manifest themselves in what boils down to a political struggle between two groups in an imaginary world or a soap opera of angst-ridden teenage melodrama; sometimes, it is both.  What was your least favorite Star Wars movie?  Was it Episode 2, the one with all of the space politics?  Did it fail to hold your interest because political matters that do not concern you are boring to you?  That was certainly the case with me.  The Suikoden series uses this type of story to drive its game along, at least in its first two entries.  They’re great games, but the only interesting bits of the scenario are driven solely by the characters.  That’s fine, even though it’s greatly diluted by having well over one hundred main characters, but despite the fact that they try to play up the political strife, it falls flat because the character interactions carry so much more weight.  There have, however, been games that have centered their story around a real world issue and done extremely well with it; yes, I’m about to use the F-word.

Final Fantasy 7, despite a translation so poor that it makes the game difficult to follow at times, has an excellent story.  It starts out as nothing more than the massive cliché that is a small group of rebels trying to take down a massive empire, this time a corporate one.  While being the plot of the vast majority of JRPGs, the game takes it in a direction that holds a great deal of significance and depth.  The basic plot is that an evil corporation is quite literally sucking the life out of the planet and using it to power their customers’ homes.  Sound familiar?  That is where the story goes from hackneyed to resonant; it allegorically addresses a problem in our world, much like a respected piece of film, literature, or other work of art might do.  If video games are to be taken seriously as an artistic medium, then tackling important issues like this is a step that the industry needs to continue taking.

We’re so deeply sorry.

OFF doesn’t tackle any particular issue of society, so much as it tackles all of them, or, at the very least, the human condition. While the actual narrative of OFF is vague, disorienting, and leaves the player with more questions than answers, the allegory is extremely sharp, if hidden below a thick layer of surrealism. The game is split into three different zones, each of which tackling a different aspect of society’s ills, and finishes up with an area that does its very best to make sure that the player has absolutely no idea what it is trying to say. The game begins innocently enough in a small tutorial area known as Zone 0, in which the protagonist, The Batter; a mysterious, bombastic cat, The Judge; and you, the player, are introduced. Yes, when you input your name at the beginning, it is not for the protagonist, but for you, and you are often referred to throughout the game, most often by the “What is this ‘fourth wall’ you keep mentioning” merchant, Zacherie. It seems like just an oddity in this strange new land at first, but it becomes very important at the end of the game.

Zone 1 is a manufacturing area, in which you learn about the world and the four elements that govern it. Earth, water, air, and fire? Not at all; they’re smoke, metal, meat, and plastic. The first real site you reach in Zone 1 is the Smoke Mines, where the inhabitants chop away at metal deposits, just like in a real mine. However, they throw away those worthless metal deposits; they’re after the real prize: smoke. Smoke is what the people of this world breathe, and so, they must capture it in bottles and ship it to the people of the other zones. The next site is the farm, where cattle are butchered. The meat is thrown away, because the true purpose behind butchering them is to gather the metal deposits within them. Yes, this is the very same metal that was discarded as worthless at the mines. I think that you can see where this is going: just like in our own world, we gather resources from the most inefficient places possible, throwing out the good stuff, so that we can get it from some other inefficient place; there is so much waste in both of our worlds.

Zone 2 is a residential area, and so, we get to better know the people of this world: blithering idiots afraid of their own shadows. Not literally, mind you, but they may as well be. The first thing that you will undoubtedly notice is the library, where you will hear whisperings of things like, “That man is tearing the pages out of the books; that could be dangerous.” My favorite part of Zone 2 is the amusement park. Like most amusement parks, it has a roller coaster, but the path is blocked off, because it’s too scary. Instead, right before the gate is a series of chairs where people sit in lines and remain completely motionless. As a friend and former student of mine pointed out, it is the world’s safest roller coaster. The deep criticism hides behind a wall of hyperbole, but the next time you’re out in the real world, just take note of how quickly, frequently, and perhaps even panickedly people whip out their little bottles of hand sanitizer due to their intense fear of germs. Sure, being sick – at least what I remember from the few times it has happened to me – is unpleasant, but doesn’t warrant such a level of fervor when warding it off, never mind the fact that the stuff actually decreases the strength of your immune system, because it does all the work, allowing your leukocytes to become lazy and atrophy, but I digress.

Well, you could bang your shins getting up...

Well, you could bang your shins getting up…

Zone 3 is another manufacturing area, but a of a different kind. This is where they make sugar, which does not make up the world in any sense, but they claim that without it, the inhabitants would go insane from the soul-crushing reality of life. Call it drugs, alcohol, pornography, video games, or even just sugar, but in the end, it all boils down to the same thing: factory-manufactured pleasure-turned-addiction. It is even referred to as the fifth element, despite being completely artificial. So, how is sugar made in this world? The game is a bit vague, but there is some sort of process that involves distillation of the vapor that comes from tossing dead workers into the incinerator: it’s a self-sustaining, vicious cycle that exists solely for its own sake. This zone is also home to a particularly disturbing scene in which you have to clear the tracks of an obstruction, so that the transport can continue its travels. This obstruction comes in the form of a human, and you defeat this vicious monster, bracing yourself from his furious assault of screaming “HELP!”, which, of course, harms you in no way whatsoever. The manufacturing process is claimed to be for the people, and yet, you murder an innocent person to get it working again, and it is comprised of the dead workers that slaved to create it.

Your mission thus far has been to purify the zones, destroying specters as you go. Along the way, you accrue party members called Add-Ons, which are just open circles with the names Alpha, Omega, and Epsilon, the warrior class of which are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, respectively. This holy mission also puts you against the mysterious queen, who rules over this world. Now, you can return to purified zones, but they change: instead of one solid color with a sprinkling of humans and solemn, atmospheric music, they lose all color and life, becoming desolate voids with specters best described both as disturbing and powerful and unnerving music. In fact, the battle “music” in this area is nothing more than a collection of abrasive industrial noises; I wouldn’t even say that it has any musical qualities. While returning to these areas is completely optional, it does make you wonder what it really is that The Batter is doing.

The final area is known as The Room, and the very fabric of reality breaks down the moment you step inside. Nothing makes any sense, and at first – and even after finishing the game, at least, for me – it seems like the story of an entirely different game. There is some manner of tale of a neglected child, a comic book that features a boxer battling a hideous caricature of The Batter, and some other… stuff. The game does everything to screw with you, going so far as to make up a chapter in which you explore three mock save files. Oh, and the chapters go backwards in The Room, beginning with five and ending with zero. At the end, of course, you meet with and destroy the queen, who turns out to have been The Batter’s wife all along; evidently, the two of them were supposed to be planning a birthday party for their son. After killing her, you find their son, and The Batter reassuringly tells him that it will be okay and that there will be no more darkness from now on, as he – I assume gently and lovingly – bashes in the baby’s skull and walks through to the final room of the game. In here, The Judge confronts both you and The Batter for your obvious crimes, and gives you, the player, the option to switch sides and end The Batter’s murderous rampage in his usual, eloquent diatribe. After calling out to you – basically saying that you’re God and that he needs your help to complete his holy mission – The Batter’s only response to The Judge’s accusations is, “I like it better this way,” and once you make your choice, the world is either “purified” or remains the wasteland that it has now become, and the credits roll as Judy Garland sings Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

I hear ya, Judy!

I hear ya, Judy!

So, what just happened? My interpretation is that the game’s creator is critical of the conservative agenda. If you think about it, The Batter is trying to whitewash – fairly literally, in this case – the entire world, making it into his utopia. He calls upon God (i.e. you, the player) as the hand that guides him in his holy crusade, which, in this case, isn’t entirely inaccurate. Keep in mind also that his party members are basically God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost, even if they do look like giant Breath Savers. Normally, we attribute references to God by these modern crusaders as an excuse to justify their actions, but here, you are, in fact, controlling The Batter. It could also be argued that you are not God, so much as you are a voice in his head, in which case, you are still controlling him. In this scenario, it could be argued that The Batter is mentally ill, but regardless, his actions are not his own, so perhaps, it is more a criticism of blind faith in any kind of movement, whether it be religious or otherwise. The music that plays, though, truly seals it, in my opinion. When I first saw The Wizard of Oz, I was at the exact wrong age to appreciate both the movie and the song – I was going through a heavy Goth phase – but when I heard it at the end of OFF, it became clear what the song was about. It is a song of yearning for a beautiful world in which our problems are no more, and how far it is out of reach. As I listened during the second ending I received, The Batter’s words, “I like it better this way,” resonnated endlessly through my mind. I cannot tell whether the game’s creator is trying to criticize these modern crusaders for this childish yearning, or to justify it by criticizing the loud bleeding hearts that make up their opposition, or both, or neither, but it certainly does give one a broader perspective of the whole political spectrum. In any case, there is one message here that is unquestionably clear: Dear Humanity, What the expletive are we doing!?

Shin Megami Tensei 2 tackled a great number of issues, and wove them competently into a single narrative.  The game is an immediate sequel to its predecessor, and takes place after nuclear warfare has devastated Tokyo.  A group called the Messians has created an advanced city known as Tokyo Millennium right on top of the ruins of the old Tokyo.  More typical of a Western RPG than of a JRPG, you have three separate alignments from which to choose, and you do so by the choices you make throughout the game.  There is the alignment of Law, to which the Messians are allied; they follow logic and care little for people’s feelings.  Opposed to them are the Gaians, who live solely by emotion and follow the path of Chaos.  You also have the option to remain Neutral, following neither of these belief systems in their entirety.  When you beat the game, the followers of whichever path you’ve chosen will live happily ever after.  Now, the “nice guy” path should be pretty obvious; if you remain Neutral, you side with the mutants of old Tokyo, who got a bit of an unfair deal when the Messians built a freaking city on top of them, but it is a fairly early game to offer a moral choice system that actually makes a difference.  Not only does the game tackle morality and the consequences of nuclear warfare, but also the issue of religion; when you get to the end of the game, your final task, regardless of which path you follow, is to kill God.  I think I know why this game never made it to North America.

Breath of Fire 2 tackled the issue of religion, as well, and it was released in North America.  I was in Junior High when I first played this, and it totally blew my mind.  Nintendo of America had censored religion from games to such an extent that the crosses were removed from the revival clinics in Final Fantasy.  Here it was, though; a not-so-subtle allegory to the Catholic Church, complete with priests and nuns in their traditional garb, sprinkled throughout the towns of the world.  You have the choice of saving at either the Dragon God statues, as in the previous game, or at the Church of St. Eva.  You can donate to The Church, and if you don’t have enough money to donate, they’ll take pity on you and give you some; I actually felt so bad the first time this happened, because it is so easy to just walk outside and fight monsters to get money, that I donated it all back.  Your father was even a priest, or so you think; you seem to be the only one who remembers that you were born and raised in Gate, as even the people that live there now don’t remember you.  As is standard in an RPG, it becomes gradually apparent that something is not right; horrific demons disguised as people are popping up everywhere.  It is not until you reach the homeland of Rand, a character in your party, that you start to suspect that The Church might not be the loving, benevolent entity you had thought it to be.  Rand’s mom, Daisy, keeps refusing to join St. Eva, and they’ve become increasingly annoyed with her, often issuing threats to her.  Eventually, you discover that St. Eva is behind these demon attacks, and that their god gains power by siphoning the souls of his followers right into his belly.  While it’s a great deal less morally gray than it is in Shin Megami Tensei 2, your goal is, once again, to kill God, this time because God is evil.  Now, the message of Breath of Fire 2 is, of course, not that Christianity and its god are evil blights upon the world that should be eradicated, but that forcing someone to join your religion and abandon their own beliefs is wrong.  Despite not belonging to any one organized religion myself – and having spent a significant portion of my childhood being tortured for my beliefs – there are people I greatly love and respect that do follow one, and I have no problem with that; just don’t try to convert me.

The sequel does the whole “kill God(dess)” thing, but put a very unique spin on the whole situation.  Though the plot, once again, exposes itself a bit more gradually, two things become apparent: Ryu, the main character, is a member of The Brood, a race of humanoid beings who can turn into dragons (big shock there; so could the last two protagonists); and that the goddess, Myria, had The Brood wiped out a long time ago.  When the plot finally gets it together, your goal is to travel across the sea and the dangerous wastelands of ancient, long-forgotten technology to meet her and find out why.  When you get there, the answer is shocking, but not for the reason you might expect: she’s just a well-meaning ditz.  She wiped out The Brood because she thought them to be dangerous, even though the only reason she was able to do so is because they refused to fight back, as they were a peaceful race.  Like the Greco-Roman deities, she lives in a place inaccessible to humans, but unlike them, it’s because she thinks that humans cannot survive without her, not because she likes to lord her power over them.  You’re fighting her to prove to her that you can survive without her guidance and technology.  The message is the same as that of the Renaissance: it’s time to put God away and focus upon earthly matters.

Billy, it’s time to put God away and come to dinner.

Speaking of long-lost technology, it’s a very interesting idea that’s much older than one might think.  The first RPG I can recall that postulates this theory is the original Final Fantasy, which many don’t remember as having much of a story (I’m referring to the NES version, not any of the myriad remakes).  The story goes something like this: there was once an ancient civilization that was far more advanced than our own.  They had an absolutely staggering level of technology, including flying ships, teleporters, and gigantic fortresses in outer space.  This technology became their undoing as they used it to wage war, which eventually destroyed them all, causing civilization to regress technologically, and understand the remnants of this society as nothing more than “magical artifacts”.  There isn’t a whole lot of story in the game, but what’s there exists as a cautionary tale that we, out here in the real world, should be careful of the direction in which we develop our own technology, lest we be destroyed by it.

Oooo! The humans are coming in quite nicely this year.

Plot twists like that are neat, but something that irks me about today’s RPG climate is that it is expected that there be many plot twists; it’s mandatory.  It has gotten to the point at which I’ve seen people describe their progress through an RPG as, “Just got to the first plot twist.”  They’re supposed to be special events; not progress markers.  It’s about quantity over quality, too; plot twists are about causing absolute shock, and the more of them you throw into a story, the less of an impact they will have.  Aside from that, not only can a plot be deep and engaging without them, but they’re also not necessarily a mark of quality.  Immediately, Phantasy Star 2 springs to mind.  The plot progresses very slowly and deliberately throughout the game.  You do your thing, traveling from planet to planet in an attempt to solve the problems being caused by the malfunctioning Mother Brain, which regulates environmental conditions.  You go up to a castle floating in outer space meet her, having already slain Dark Force (as is customary), and do battle with her.  So, after killing the final boss, the next thing that happens is that you wander into a room full of people.  These people are from Earth, which has been destroyed by pollution.  They were attempting to wipe out the people of Motavia in order to take over and live there.  Wow!  What an incredible twist that’s relevant to our potential future!  So what happens next?

After this mind-blowing revelation, you’re “treated” to cutscenes of each of your characters (even the ones you left back on Motavia) yelling something snarky at the Earthlings with an explosion in the background and the game ends.  Wait.  What happened?  Did they win?  Did they lose?  Did any of my team members survive?  Did any of the Earthlings survive, leaving a valid threat to the people of Motavia?  Well, screw you, Gamer, because you’ll never find out; we decided it would be a good idea to shoehorn a plot twist into the game at the last minute and leave it unresolved.  Even a five-year-old can tell you it’s bad writing to end a story in the middle of a climax, even if he or she doesn’t even know what climax means.  Oh, and Phantasy Star 3 doesn’t even take place in the same solar system, so this is never resolved; you get to Phantasy Star 4 and the game acts like it never happened.

You mean like a story that actually goes somewhere?

Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria has an interesting plot twist, the nature of which breaks the fourth wall.  In the previous installment, you learn that there are 3 sister valkyries: Lenneth (the main character), Hrist, and Silmeria, whose soul was captured by Brahms, the lord of the undead, long before the events of the game.  As you might’ve guessed by the subtitle, this installment is about Silmeria’s time before being captured by Brahms.  This prequel starts out in a rather dull fashion; it details the events leading up to what you already know is going to happen, and they’re not particularly interesting.  You meet a few familiar characters, among whom is a young magician’s apprentice named Lezard Valeth, who you’ll remember from the previous game as being completely obsessed with getting under Lenneth’s… uh… helmet.  He’s the star of the show at this point, because all you can think about is how this (already maniacal; just listen to his laugh) character develops into the lust-driven raving lunatic you already know.  You’re anticipating how this is going to unfold, and at one point, you see Brahms (already in your party) go to steal Silmeria’s soul, and then something happens; you’re not quite sure what, but Lezard and Brahms are both gone.  You’re left wondering what just happened, and later in the game, you run into Lenneth.  However, it’s not Lenneth from this time period, but Lenneth from the future, as in after the events of the first Valkyrie Profile.  As it turns out, she has traveled back in time in order to stop Lezard, who has also traveled back in time to steal her soul.  It’s not a prequel at all; it’s a sequel set in the past with a time loop.  My mind was blown by this metatwist, though sadly, that was the highlight of the entire game.

Chrono Cross is also a story that does well with its plot twists, but unlike most games that do, this one has a lot of them, though perhaps they are not plot twists as much as they are high-impact reveals; they are have all been foreshadowed and are logical progressions of what is a very mysterious game that never really lets you know the whole story until the very end.  Unfortunately, I cannot discuss most of them without giving a very synopsis of the entire plot, lest they lose their gravity, however, I can safely give you the first half hour or so.  The game starts off on a lazy day; Serge goes out to gather scales for the necklace of his childhood friend and potential love interest.  Everything goes as it should, and it seems like yet another boring slice-of-life RPG until you get to the beach where you’re supposed to meet her.  She does meet you there and starts waxing philosophic until Serge starts freaking out.  He starts to hear a voice, and then he sees a tidal wave that Leena seems not to notice – it’s unclear, since she’s just a distant murmur to him at this point – and then he gets sucked into the sand and passes out.

When he awakens, he’s all alone, so he heads back to the village, but nobody knows him.  Even Leena has no idea of whom he is, and sends him to visit the gravestone on a nearby cliff.  He goes up there and reads it, and as it turns out, he’s been pulled into an alternate reality in which he had drowned ten years ago.  Just let that sink in for a minute; you’re sent to an alternate world in which you’re dead, and have been for more than half of your life.  After that, the story falls into a bit of a lull, but when it picks up again, it was enough to turn me into an absolute addict; I played through enough New Game + runs to get the best equipment for everyone.  That comes out to one hundred thirty-five items, only twenty-two of which you can forge on a single run, and that is if you happen to be both patient and lucky; just do the math on that.  So yes, the story is very good.

There are some plot twists that develop slowly through the use of foreshadowing, perhaps the greatest of which is from Live-A-Live.  Now, I’m about to spoil what is likely to be the biggest plot twist in video game history, so read on at your own risk; I cannot do justice to it in words alone like experiencing it through playing the game can.  The game gives you the choice to play though any number of different scenarios, each taking place in a different time period: Prehistoric, Kung-Fu, Bakumatsu (Ninja), The Old West, Present, Near Future, and Science Fiction.  These stories seem to have nothing in common, unless you look very closely.  The final conflict in each is against a being that, in one form or another, is called Odio.  Whether it’s a feudal lord named Ode Iou or a CPU with the identification number of 0D-10, there’s an Odio in every chapter.  Those of us who speak Spanish (or a number of other Romance Languages, I imagine) will note that odio means hatred.  It seems like just a little quirk until you reach the Medieval Chapter.

After such thematic variety, the Fantasy setting seems pretty boring, and when you win the tournament, the prize of which is the lovely princess’s hand in marriage, you start to sigh.  When she declares that, “No matter what, I believe in you,” you groan to yourself, and when the demon king snatches her up and flies away to the evil looking mountain in the distance, you start to nod off.  So, you, the noble knight, Oersted, take your best friend, Straybow, and set out to find Uranus and Hash, the priest and hero who defeated the demon king in the last conflict.  Uranus is willing to help, but Hash is bitter that his status as a hero has been forgotten.  After Uranus convinces Hash to join by insulting his manhood, the four of you storm the mountain, and defeat the demon king with great ease, but things don’t turn out as you might expect.

Hash says something about the having been too easy for it to have been the real demon king, when the ceiling begins to collapse.  Straybow pushes Oersted and Uranus out the door just before the room crumbles and Hash and Straybow are presumed dead.  Oersted is forced to return empty-handed and spends the night in his room.  In the middle of the night, Oersted sees Straybow walk through the halls.  He chases this ghost to the throne room, only to see the demon king himself sitting on the throne.  Oersted saves the day, slaying the beast where he stands with little effort.  The chancellor comes in and the truth is revealed; you just murdered the king and the entire kingdom now wants you dead.  Uranus sacrifices himself to allow you to escape, and you leave the castle.  If you visit the town, the kid that used to idolize you also hates you, as do the rest of the townspeople.  You head back to the mountain, and into the collapsed room, only to find that it is completely intact.  Something is clearly amiss.

You push on, reaching the summit, and through a door at the base of a particularly ominous statue steps your old friend, Straybow, who is alive and well.  He has clearly lost his mind, admitting that it was his jealousy of you that caused him to trick you into committing regicide, and he attacks you.  You have no choice but to kill him in self-defense, and just as you deal the fatal blow, the princess, your long-lost bride, steps out of the statue to witness it all.  You’re relieved to have her back, and go to embrace her, when she pulls away.  Straybow has brainwashed her, and she now hates you for killing poor, innocent Straybow.  She screams that she’d rather take her own life than be with you, and as she plunges the dagger into her own heart, Oersted flashes back to the night on the balcony.  The last person who believed in him – the one who loved him above all else – now hates him so much that she killed herself to avoid being with him.  At this point, he has lost absolutely everything, and vows that henceforth, he shall be known as the demon king, Odio, and will travel through time to defeat the heroes of history to show them the despair that he has known.  You’ve just played as the villain of the final chapter.  However, you can also choose to play the final chapter as Oersted, giving you the opportunity to fight the final battles of every other chapter, this time playing as the boss.  If your HP drops low enough, your escape option becomes Armageddon, and using it destroys all of existence in absolutely every era of history, destroying even time itself.  We’re not talking about the destruction that Final Fantasy 6‘s Kefka wrought upon the world, where some mountains are rearranged and a lot of people die; we’re talking about the complete annihilation of all space and time out of sheer hatred for humanity, and you, the player, are the one doing it.  Greater still is the notion that, if you feel for Oersted, you will likely want to; you’re committing the closest thing to justifiable omnicide that has ever been explored in any medium to my knowledge.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you write a plot twist.

He’s not kidding; have you seen his endings?

Rudra no Hihou, often translated as Treasure of the Rudras, while paling in comparison to the above example, has a fantastic plot twist at the very end of the game.  However, unlike that of Phantasy Star 2, it actually resolves the plot, rather than leaves it hanging.  The world is going to be destroyed in a very short amount of time, and the humans, along with the few survivors from the four other races of legend – from eldest to youngest: the Danans, the Merfolk, the Reptiles, and the Giants – have to scramble to prevent this from happening.  Over the course of your journey, you learn that the destruction of the world is cyclical; it happens every four thousand years, and each time, a new race is born.  The titular Rudra is the harbinger of doom, so defeating it is the primary goal.  Once you do so, you realize that the world is still doomed to be showered with “deadly light from the moon.”  The logical course of action?  The four jadebearers, who are destined to save the world, say goodbye to their parties and head to the moon to try to stop this destruction.  All along, there has been talk of the four greats: Hausen, Saizou, Mitra, and Meifa.  Meifa has occasionally appeared as the benevolent goddess, Hausen became the Rudra to destroy the humans, and Saizou was a great warrior that revealed Mitra to be the one bent on the world’s destruction.  He also says something cryptic about Mitra not being evil.  So, you go to the moon to confront Mitra, who attacks your party.  Once she’s been defeated, she tells you everything.  Evidently, she was wiping out the planet every four thousand years for its own benefit.

Millennia ago, the four greats had battled a group known as the destroyers.  They were victorious, but exhausted after the battle, and so they created the Danans both as life for the planet, and as warriors to defeat the destroyers, should they ever return.  The idea was that if the Danans were not powerful enough to prevent their own destruction, they wouldn’t be able to defeat the destroyers, so a new race would be created in their stead.  This cycle of birth, destruction, and rebirth would have to continue until a race existed that was powerful enough to defeat the destroyers.  I rarely feel that an antagonist’s motivations are warranted, but in this case, I had to agree with Mitra.  If she hadn’t destroyed the races, the destroyers would have done so, along with everything else in the universe.  Kill a few to save everything else; there simply was no other way around it.  The neat thing was that they tied it into the old Vedic Tradition, Modern Hinduism’s predecessor.  The Vedic Creation Myth is that all was nothingness because of the dragon of the void, Vritra.  When the god, Indra, slew Vritra, the seven colors of the cosmos erupted from its belly, creating the universe.  The destroyers were a reference to Vritra, just as the Rudras are gods of the storms in the same religion.  While the developers flubbed the concept of non-existence – vision the jadebearers had in the ending in which the world had been attacked by the destroyers just showed a world with endless sand and dead bodies, as opposed to absolute void – it was a neat tie-in to an ancient religion, and it was used to create a fascinating story.

Vritra, dragon of the void

Rudra no Hihou has an excellent story not only in the revelation of its plot twist, but also in the way that it is told.  Here’s the beginning of the game: you’re Sion, a noble warrior of your kingdom, sent to investigate a mysterious occurrence at the nearby tower, at which time, you lose your eye and are told that the world is going to end in sixteen days; good luck.  Over the next fifteen days, you travel all over the world, witnessing wonderful things, like the pollution being cleansed, and horrible things, like the floating continents coming crashing down from the skies.  At the end of this time, you slay the Rudra slated to kill everyone on the planet, and the scenario ends.  Now, there are three other jadebearers, who are destined to save the world, and two of them have their own scenarios that are available to play.  Surlent is an archaeologist, who tries to learn everything he can about the impending doom, and Riza is a young woman who spends most of the fifteen days cleaning up the pollution.  Over the course of the two weeks (and a day), the characters run into each other on occasion, but mainly do their own thing. SaGa Frontier also gave you multiple scenarios that have characters occasionally intersect, but what makes Rudra no Hihou interesting is that when something mysterious happens, you think it’s just part of the world getting itself ready for destruction, but when you play the appropriate scenario, you say, “Oh! That’s what happened!” when you’re the one actually performing the action.  They aren’t twists in the sense of what, but of why and how, and the narratives are actually woven together, and quite well.

The Dragon Warrior series has had creative storytelling devices since its fourth installment.  Dragon Warrior 4 had five chapters, each of which had a different party.  The main characters in each chapter came together to form the final party in Chapter 5, along with the main character, and parties in the first four chapters were fleshed out by temporary party members, who were left behind when the chapter ended.  It’s not even remotely original by today’s standards, but it was unique when the game was released.  Dragon Quest 5 told the story across three different generations: the protagonist’s father’s era, the protagonist’s era, and the protagonist’s children’s era.  Of course, Phantasy Star 3: Generations of Doom had done this roughly two years prior, and with two choices for marriage in each generation, which culminated in a total of four different stories to be told, so it was a bit deeper.  What made Dragon Quest 5 unusual, though, is that the protagonist wasn’t the legendary hero; his son was, providing a nice little metatwist.  Dragon Quest 6 used a dual world mechanic, but the worlds were the real world and the dream world.  The way they used it made for some interesting exploration, though Dragon Warrior 7 did it a little better.

Early on in Dragon Warrior 7, there is only one landmass in the entire game and the rest of the world is ocean.  You stumble into a temple with a bunch of daises, and you find some stone shards that you can place together upon one of them like a jigsaw puzzle.  Doing so not only transports you to another world, but also sends you back in time.  There’s a problem in this land, and solving it causes it to appear in the present.  It’s a very creative take on the time travel gimmick, and it made for an interesting story, though the second half of the game is a little boring without it.  Seeing this, you’d think that Dragon Quest 8 would have had a creative storytelling mechanic, but they eschewed that for a more traditional style.  It was a poor choice, because the strength of a Dragon Warrior game’s story is never the story itself, but how it is told; their basic story is generally fairly weak, and for a game that took me over one hundred seventy hours to finish, it’s pretty easy to notice.

Sometimes a story in a game is just something that serves another purpose, like teaching history or a legend.  After all, putting something like that into the context of something fun can make it a lot easier for others to learn about it.  Musashi no Bouken does this with the Musashi legend of Japan.  Long before Brave Fencer Musashi sold a great deal of copies based solely upon its containing a Final Fantasy 8 demo, and sticking much closer to the actual tale, Musashi no Bouken was what you’d call a Dragon Warrior Clone, this one detailing Musashi’s journey to defeat his rival, Kojiro (no relation).  It injected a bit of humor, and was otherwise an unremarkable RPG, but it was enjoyable enough; the enemies were nice and colorful and the tone was pretty lighthearted.

Slow down there, Buddy; I’m not that easy

Mother 3 was the final installment in another lighthearted series, and while the story itself was okay, its pacing was atrocious.  The game has a total of eight chapters, six and a half of which are exposition; that’s just poor writing.  It’s becoming worse and worse in JRPGs, with expositions becoming increasingly longer as time goes on, and you can see this even outside of the RPG genre, with the Legend of Zelda series in particular.  The first Legend of Zelda dumps you right into the action as soon as you name your character, unless you count the – technically optional – cave with the old man, who says, “IT’S DANGEROUS TO GO ALONE! TAKE THIS.”  The most recent installment, Skyward Sword has an exposition that can last over an hour, which is ridiculous for a game that doesn’t have a very strong story to begin with; a long exposition is forgivable if it suits the story, but it’s usually unnecessary.  Back to Mother 3, all you do in the first six chapters – and part of the seventh – is interact with the townspeople and perform quests that have little to no bearing on the main plot.  There are some important events in those chapters, but they’re so drawn out that they could easily have been truncated into two or so chapters.  Chapter 6 is just a cutscene, lasting less than five minutes, and Chapter 7 is at least twice as long as any other chapter in the game.  It is not until you’re well into Chapter 7 that you are given the main objective of the game.  Why not give that objective earlier, and weave the other events into the narrative as you’re trying to achieve it?

It’s not just something that bothers me after having finished the game, either; while I was playing, my lady and I kept wondering, “Where is this going?”  You spend entirely too much time getting to know the townspeople, who become increasingly inconsequential as you progress.  Not only that, but the scene where Lucas’s mother dies happens so early in the game that it’s hard to care, because you haven’t gotten to know or care for any of the characters yet.  It’s less a well-written, deeply emotional story and more a soap opera.  Granted, the last chapter has some very interesting plot twists that explain what’s up with the town and explains what makes this game a sequel to Earthbound, but the latter part feels like it’s too late in the game; you should have the connection happen earlier on to hook fans of the previous game, because if you’re in the last chapter of a game, you’re already going to finish it, so such things no longer matter.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s a fun game with some genuinely humorous moments, but the story is very poorly paced.

The story in an RPG isn’t essential to its status as a good game; I enjoyed Knight Quest, and its biggest plot twist was that “The evil mage was an agent of the Dark Lord.”  No, really.  The same goes for Wild Arms, which eschews the complex plots of its Playstation contemporaries for a really fun story about a bunch of cowboys battling a bunch of evil metallic demons from outer space.  It’s refreshing to play a “dumb” RPG every now and again, because the genre can take itself a bit too seriously at times.  However, a poignant and well-written story can turn a good game into a great game.  It is a large part of what separates “just a video game” from a true work of art.  As with any artistic medium that requires writing, basic literary conventions still apply, though, and that’s what makes it such an incredible medium.  Most people used to read for fun until the television was invented; most people would’ve rather watched something on TV than interpret literature.  Video games have now brought this back around; gamers might not be reading that many more books than before, but video games have gotten a generation of kids to read – even if it’s on a screen – and taught them the meaning of literary terms, like climax, plot development, and anti-hero.  Gamers are digesting complicated – sometimes convoluted – narratives and interpreting them as one might a work of literature, and that’s a wonderful thing for us as a culture.  Story, especially in an interactive medium, is largely driven by characters, though, and I would be remiss were I not to address that.  Next time, I’ll be analyzing the importance of characters and the way that they develop.


Works Cited:

Format: Game Title (Alternate title; Region). Developer, Original system of release, Original Release Date.

Brave Fencer Musashi (Brave Fencer Musashiden; Japan). Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 7/16/1998.
Breath of Fire 2 (Breath of Fire 2: Shimei no Ko; Japan). Capcom, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/2/1994.
Breath of Fire 3. Capcom, Sony Playstation, 09/11/1997.
Chrono Cross. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 11/18/1999.
Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest; Japan). ChunSoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 05/27/1986.
Dragon Warrior 4 (Dragon Quest IV: Michibikareshi Monotachi). ChunSoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 02/11/1990.
Dragon Quest 5: Tenkuu no Hanayome. ChunSoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 09/27/1992.
Dragon Quest 6: Maboroshi no Daichi. Heart Beat, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/9/1995.
Dragon Warrior 7 (Dragon Quest 7: Eden no Senshi-tachi; Japan). Heart Beat, Sony Playstation, 8/26/2000.
Dragon Quest 8: Journey of the Cursed King (Dragon Quest 8: Sora to Umi to Daichi to Norowareshi Himegimi; Japan). Level 5, Sony Playstation 2, 11/27/2004.
Final Fantasy. Squaresoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/18/1987.
Final Fantasy 6. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/02/1994.
Final Fantasy 7. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 01/31/1997.
Legend of Zelda (Zelda no Densetsu: Hyrule Fantasy; Japan). Nintendo, Famicom Disk System, 2/21/1986.
Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Zelda no Densetsu: Twilight Princess; Japan). Nintendo, Nintendo Wii, 11/19/2006.
Live-A-Live. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 09/02/1994.
Knight Quest. Lenar, Nintendo Game Boy, 09/13/1991.
Earthbound. (Mother 2: Gyiyg no Gyakushuu; Japan). Ape Studios, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 08/27/1994.
Mother 3. Brownie Brown, Nintendo Game Boy Advance, 04/20/2006.
Musashi no Bouken. Sigma, Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/22/1990.
OFF. Unproductive Fun Time, PC, 2008.
Phantasy Star 2 (Phantasy Star 2: Kaerazaru Toki no Owari ni; Japan). Sega, Sega Genesis, 3/21/1989.
Phantasy Star 3: Generations of Doom (Toki no Keishousha: Phantasy Star 3; Japan). Sega, Sega Genesis, 04/20/1990.
Phantasy Star 4: End of the Millennium (Phantasy Star: Sennenki no Owari ni; Japan). Sega, Sega Genesis, 12/17/1993.
Rudra no Hihou. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/05/1996.
SaGa Frontier. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 07/11/1997.
Shin Megami Tensei 2. Atlus, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 03/18/1994.
Valkyrie Profile. Tri-Ace, Sony Playstation, 12/22/1999.
Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria. Tri-Ace, Sony Playstation 2, 06/22/2006.
Wild Arms. Media Vision, Sony Playstation, 12/20/1996.

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