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.
Before I discuss style, I’d like to talk about just what I mean by that. Style is how a game presents itself. While not relegated to graphics and sound, it can certainly encompass them. Is the game goofy, or more serious in tone? Does playing the game make you feel cool? These things and more fall under the heading of style. It can be assessed as an amalgamation of all of a game’s other elements, or it can be none of them. When dealing specifically RPGs, it can be something of a “story lite” assessment. Since RPGs don’t have you doing a lot of back flipping between walls and executing a well-timed slice to take out the baddie at the top, I’ll be talking specifically about tone and what falls under that, such as lexical features and humor in this analysis. My biggest problem with today’s RPGs is that they’ve lost the nobility they’ve once had; it’s not necessary to play them all straight, but it doesn’t seem like any of them do anymore.
Some see humor; all I see is someone going WAWAWAWAWAWAAAAA!
Most RPGs are incapable of taking themselves seriously anymore. That’s largely the fault of gamers, but the developers cater to it, too. Even games that are serious in nature turn into goofy jokes that smother the gaming landscape. Take The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, for instance; it’s a game that’s serious in nature, but I’d be surprised to find anyone on the Internet who doesn’t want to scream at the myriad “arrow in the knee” jokes that were omnipresent during the height of the game’s popularity. Modern JRPGs are usually worse in this regard, because the goofiness is written right into them. They often try to be cutesy and funny at the same time, often failing in respect to the latter. We, as a culture, have gotten to the point, where “so bad, it’s good” has become a mark of quality that is taken seriously. Anyone remember the pig with the baker’s hat from Legend of Zelda: Wand of Gamelon? When I reference it, I do so in a joking manner, such as running back to our auto-sealers at work to get my pills out before the 315-degree heat (157 degrees Celsius) ruins the card, while mimicking, “My cakes will burn!” By contrast, today’s culture would think this a masterpiece, when really, “It’s awful!” When the laughably bad is being taken seriously, we need to take a step back and look at ourselves; unintentional humor is unintentional, and we’d do well to remember that.
My cakes will burn!
Humor is also not what it was. I know that humor is largely subjective, and that mine is on the unusual side, but today’s “funny” games just aren’t funny to me. Instead of well-placed jokes, they opt for things like, “Ooo! A love triangle! What kind of wacky hijinks will ensue?” Hey, the Brady Bunch called; it said that your humor is corny. There is also entirely too much of it. Humor is funniest either in a non-interactive medium, or in small doses. If the whole thing tries to be funny, it’s going to diminish the comedic effect, especially when you try to interject any sort of conflict. When your characters act like complete jackasses for most of the game, it’s really hard to take them seriously when they try to exhibit real emotions, unless, as previously mentioned with Zidane from Final Fantasy 9, such a quality is inhibiting the character from accomplishing a goal. Consistency in tone is essential, and when there’s an evil big-bad bent on destroying the world, the impact will be greatly diminished if the overall mode of the game is a jovial one.
One of the best games that comes to mind in terms of having a sense of humor is Costume Quest, an RPG that perfectly captures the childhood adventure that is trick-or-treating. It’s a neat little game that’s very concise, but still provides a well developed experience. Brought to us by the same twisted minds that made Psychonauts, it has that really snarky, satirical sense of humor. Like Psychonauts, some jokes are funnier than others, but there are some generally great lines. For one, NPCs have two lines of dialogue; one is said when you talk to him or her, and the other when you smack the person with your treat pail, and you can probably imagine the direction that the humor takes from there. Some lines are funny because they’re just kids beings stupid, and some are jabs at our society. For instance, there’s a little girl in a witch costume in the first area. When you talk to her, she says something along the lines of, “Before you even say it, I prefer the term, Wiccan,” a subtle poke at our politically correct society. It’s a really neat game, and it isn’t afraid to stray from the two prevailing styles and be its own thing.
The Statue of Liberty costume’s special attack: Anthem
Somtimes, an RPG takes a ludicrous, over-the-top approach to humor. As the title implies, Barkley: Shut-up and Jam Gaiden does just that. The year is 2053, and after the Chaos Dunk killed millions of people, basketball has been banned. The world is in ruins, and horrible creatures, such as the Diabeastie – a gigantic sugar cube – roam the earth. The game tries to play it completely straight, but there are subtle hints sprinkled throughout to let you know that it’s not actually serious. Despite that, don’t be surprised if you’re really believing it by the end of the game.
Great Greed is kind of an interesting RPG in its sense of humor. It’s blatant environmentalist propaganda, but it never forgets that; it’s often hilariously self-aware. The evil big-bad’s name is Bio Haz, and the adventure starts out with you and your hippie compatriot taking soil samples and measuring their acidity. Everything in the game is named after food, including most of the main characters. It occasionally sprinkles humor throughout the game, but there’s nothing particularly hilarious until the ending. Once you defeat Bio Haz, you get to choose a bride from a room full of the main NPCs. This includes not only the five princesses, but also the queen, the king, and a bunch of other random men and women, some of whom are elderly. It’s hard to say what kind of perspective the game has on gay marriage, since it doesn’t really try to dissuade you from marrying any of the men, except for the king. You know, because he’s already married and has five children. Before living your life in this kingdom, you must first return to your own world and tie up any loose ends. Before you leave, you have to say goodbye to your new spouse, who will say something unique to you, depending upon whom you’ve chosen. The queen’s line is subtle, but very funny in a heartless kind of way: “The king is in tears.” I rarely laugh out loud at intentional humor in a video game, but this line had me rolling.
I didn’t find the humor in Paper Mario to be all that funny, but at the very worst, I’d find myself rolling my eyes at a particularly bad joke; most of the time, I’d pass over them without a change in my expression. I think it had an appropriate use of humor, though, even if I didn’t find it particularly funny. Its – would you call it an alternate reality buddy? – counterpart, Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga, wasn’t funny, either, but its humor was omnipresent; it beat you over the head with what it thought was a riot. I’ll concede that the introduction – in which the princess’s words were replaced with explosives, causing everything she said to fall from her speech bubble and explode – was quite humorous, but the rest of the game kept me asking, “Oh, was that supposed to be a joke?” Whether you’re exploring the Chucklehuck Woods or enjoying a Teehespresso after a trip to Woohoo Hooniversity, you are inundated with these “jokes” that don’t even seem like jokes at all, even unfunny ones; my semantic capabilities are insufficient to even know what to call them. Oh, and before you ask, no, this isn’t just an example of my occasional use of hyperbolic humor; there are things in the game that are actually called that. Maybe the game is incredibly self-aware; Mario games have had almost every single bit of voice acting come out as nothing more than irritatingly stupid interjections since their inception in Super Mario 64, so maybe they’re making fun of that. Or maybe Nintendo’s just not that good at being intentionally funny. The actual humor isn’t really all that funny either, and while I could easily choose to be offended at the transgender joke near the end of the game, I think I’ll take the high road and just consider the source. Nintendo is a company that turned their mascot into one of the biggest racist caricatures in video gaming, to say nothing of Punch-Out; they’re not exactly progressive.
Yeah! I punched the Croissants out of Glass Joe!
Not all of Nintendo’s humor belongs back in the ’50s, though; Mother 3 did a decent job with its humor. Yes, I know that the Magypsies are far more offensive to the transgender community than making jokes about Luigi in a dress; I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about those random moments that just catch you by surprise, like the end of the section in Snowmen. You take a vessel of unknown nature to the bottom of the mountain. You see this little white capsule spiraling downward, and then launching into the air. As it flies, the camera zooms in on it, and you say, “Is that- It is! It’s a refrigerator!” right before it crashes violently to the ground below. There’s the part where you eat psychedelic mushrooms on Tanetane Island, during which you have mailboxes psychologically abuse you, both before and after you take a bath in a toxic waste dump. There are tons of great gags in the game, though my favorite has to be the Mr. Saturn lying on his back with fishing line tied around his nose. Attached to this fishing line is a fishing hook and a balloon, and when addressed, he says, “Fishing for Birdie.” Whether you think it’s funny or not, they are jokes, at the very least, and you’ll probably expect that sort of humor if you’ve played either of the game’s predecessors, which, if you’re playing Mother 3, it’s probably because you’re a big fan of Earthbound.
Speaking of Earthbound, it was one of the earlier RPGs released in North America to use a liberal dose of humor. It was a fairly quirky game with a story that has this weird dynamic; it was humorous on the surface, but kind of horrifying if you really think about it. The idea of a Role-Playing Game that has you fighting cars, bag ladies, and explosive trees sounds goofy; the idea of walking down the street and being attacked by angry fire hydrants and flying pairs of disembodied lips without your having taken some type of psychedelics is pretty frightening. Sure, most of the enemies look cute with their big eyes, but the idea of an alien presence so powerful that it can make inanimate objects come to life and kill people sets the tone for the final encounter a lot better than people might think. So, while the game’s style is a humorous one, the story itself is pretty dark and horrific.
I’ve already griped about the humor in Dragon Quest 8, so I’m going to spend this paragraph griping about another problem it has in its style. It’s just too goofy; almost nothing about it can be taken seriously, and the serious parts just seem out of place. A huge problem starts following you around right after you beat the second boss: Jessica Albert. Her role in the game is abhorrent; I played the game somewhat alongside of one of my friends on Backloggery, and when I mentioned a great strategy that involved Miss Albert, his response was something like, “Oh, but that won’t work for me; I haven’t recruited Fan Service yet.” As a character, she’s your typical defiant tomboy archetype, but there’s a huge disconnect between her personality and her appearance. She has her hair done up in these cute little pigtails, and some of her armor is actually visible on her outside of the menu. You’d think this to be a neat idea – I love playing dress-up – but the problem lies with exactly what those “suits of armor” happen to be. You’re not seeing plate mail or magicians’ robes on her; you’re dressing her up in fetishy costumes. Nice, Squenix; way to bypass racism and anti-LTBG propaganda, and jump right into misogyny, complete with boobs that bounce even when she’s just breathing. There is the occasional costume that is remotely tasteful, like the Dancer’s Clothes, but between the Magic Bikini and the Dangerous Bustier, I think we can all see where this is really going. Now, as you likely know, I’m attracted to women, and – as you may not – I love redheads, but seeing her dressed up like that – especially in the bunny girl outfit; that’s less Easter Bunny, and more Playboy Bunny, by the bye – actually causes me to find her less attractive. Who knows; maybe it’s the pigtails. In any case, this blatant hypersexualization isn’t done in a comedic fashion, as is the case with certain enemies, like the Sirens; it’s just what my friend called it: fanservice. Thanks to Rule 34, you can find erotic artwork of nearly anyone or anything from any medium on the Internet; let’s relegate the mindless smut to that, shall we? Tasteful nudity of either gender – and you’ll notice that there’s a lot less of males – is fine by me, and I’m no raging feminist, but the way the game treats the only female member of the party really undermined her personality, which bothered me, because it invalidates her as a human being.
This outfit demeans us both
A large part of why Dragon Quest 8 bothers me as much as it does is because of the series’s origins. The first Dragon Warrior on the NES was a very formal outing, at least in North America. The Japanese version had cursing and other such vulgarity, but the North American version played it straight, even rewriting the translated script into Elizabethan English, which I thought was a nice touch. It gave the game a very noble and classy atmosphere, and is something I wish they’d continued past the second installment. Such old, formal language is not something you see very often, but it really made a very special experience out of what was otherwise a very no-frills RPG, making you really feel like noble knight in the king’s court. As we’ve already established, I prefer a serious story, especially in an RPG, and there are many reasons for that. I think the greatest reason, though, is that if every RPG is goofy, funny, and fourth-wall-breaking, then there’s nothing for them to spoof anymore. If all of the serious RPGs are at least a decade old, then making fun of them would be like making a spoof of Ford’s Model T; most people would simply respond, “What are you talking about?” A particular joke is much funnier if you don’t hear it every day. It would also be a lot funnier if it were to spoof a popular RPG that not only takes itself very seriously, but is also taken way too seriously by some of its fans; I see no reason that meta humor should not exist.
Look very closely…
Aside from that, there are some serious moods worth exploring, and they make a much deeper experience. Final Fantasy 6 has a nearly omnipresent theme of unfathomable sadness, and that’s in the first half before the planet’s face gets rearranged. Sweet Home is a game that – despite being on eight-bit hardware – is one of the most terrifying experiences you will ever have in a video game. Phantasy Star 4: End of the Millennium is a high-energy, action-packed adventure with an incredible penchant for the hyperbolic, especially within the context of the rest of the series. Space Funeral is a gigantic mindscrew of a game that starts out incoherently, then starts to make you think it’s making sense as it goes. The backgrounds, while visual, are a constant reminder that what you’re experiencing makes no sense, and the music does this as well. The game doesn’t truly make sense until you see the ending, and even then, many questions are left unanswered. It’s important to have these multifarious of experiences, especially in a genre against which the most common criticism is that of stagnation.
The last thing I’d like to address in terms of style is the use of children as main characters in RPGs. A great number of RPGs do it – or at least most RPG characters these days look like children – but not all of them do it well. Legend of the Ghost Lion is one of the earliest examples that comes to mind as having a child protagonist, and it does okay with it. You’re a little girl who has lost her parents and fallen into another world. As your fantastic adventure begins, you notice something that will strike you as a little strange if you’re well acquainted with RPGs: your stats have unusual names. Your experience level is called Hope, your HP is Courage, and your MP is Dreams. While it is appropriate to give such whimsical (pronounced: cor-nee) names to these traits in a game in which your protagonist is a child, it is also not likely to attract many players. Of course, this belies the interesting nature of the game; how many games can you recall that have you cross a river by absorbing it into a Klein Bottle? I suppose that, as a Dragon Warrior Clone amongst many, it was already relegated to being niche title, and it did flow well, but the kiddy presentation might turn away some would-be players.
Now, I’m not inherently opposed to having a child as the protagonist in any game, RPG or otherwise, but sometimes it’s enough to make me stop playing. Mega Man Battle Network handles the theme in such an awful way that it was able to do so within a few hours of gameplay. The problem is that they dwell upon the fact that the protagonist is a child, and a young one at that. If my memory serves me correctly (and it doesn’t always), he’s in third grade, putting him at about eight years old. Fair enough, but then you go to school, and it’s just like an Elementary School. Okay, it’s just the exposition, but then you face off against the bully. What. By the time I met the rich, snobby girl, I wanted to give up before even entering a single dungeon. Let me ask you this: who, aside from kids under the age of six, actually wants to be in third grade? Video games are supposed to be about doing things you’d like to do, so do you think that even a third-grader wants to play a game that reminds him or her of being in school of all places? No, it’s the other way around; when kids are in school, they’re thinking about doing something fun, like, say, playing video games! When I first played the game, I was teaching high school; I didn’t want to engage in a fantasy about being back in third grade again. That’s a time in my life during which kids would throw rocks at me for being different!
I wouldn’t have minded so much had they used a semicolon.
Let us compare that to a game that had child protagonists and did it well: Paladin’s Quest. The game begins with you being at school, but it’s a magic school. The difference? Magic school has much better homework; learning to light things on fire with your mind – even if it’s yourself – is a lot more fun than writing book reports. Chezni is thirteen, and after the initial kerfuffle in which you accidentally resurrect an ancient machine that is now hell-bent on destroying the world, your age is never really mentioned again, unless you check the status screen; you actually believe that this thirteen-year-old could save the world by the end of the game. Like with race, gender, or any other identity issue, a game is best when it judges the character based not upon what he or she is, but who. Though we have age, racial, sexual, religious, and gender identities (and people have discriminated against me for all of the above), we’re all really just people, and games that treat their characters that way are the greatest steps the medium can take toward everyone becoming more accepting of each other. Now, if a game wants to tackle the issues of discrimination more directly, then that is a completely different situation in which it is appropriate to bring these attributes to the surface, but for those that do not, treating these differences as being insignificant is the best way to go.
Whether or not you can quantify or even realize it, style is very important in how a game is perceived. It provides context to the whole package, and what might be offensive in one context might not in another. The issues that we, as educated and open-minded individuals, confront are complex, and it is sometimes the most miniscule of subtleties that can make the difference between a harmless joke and an all-out attack against a group of people. It can also mean the difference between knowing when something is serious or satirical; context is everything. So, in a story-heavy game especially, style does a lot more than just make you feel cool or dorky for playing a game; it can set the entire mood far more subtly and effectively than the longest of scripts.
Next up is my final analysis of the big four: sound. While I consider it to be among the least important of the four, that does not make it insignificant by far. Quality sound can make the difference between a great game and a superior game, and the massive collection of video game soundtracks to which I’ve been listening as I write this is just a small testament to that. Of course, sound is more than just the music in a game, but I’ll address that next time.
Format: Game Title (Alternate title: Region). Developer, Original system of release, Original Release Date.
Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa. Tales of Game’s Studios, PC, 01/20/2008.
Costume Quest. Double Fine Productions, PC, 10/14/2010.
Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest; Japan). ChunSoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 05/27/1986.
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.
Earthbound. (Mother 2: Gyiyg no Gyakushuu; Japan). Ape Studios, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 08/27/1994.
Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim. Bethesda Game Studios, PC/Sony Playstation 3/Microsoft XBOX 360, 11/11/2011.
Final Fantasy 6. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/02/1994.
Great Greed (Vitamina Oukoku Monogatari; Japan). Namco, Nintendo Game Boy, 09/17/1992.
Legend of the Ghost Lion (White Lion Densetsu; Japan). Kemco, Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/14/1989.
Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (Mario & Luigi RPG; Japan). Alphadream Corporation, Nintendo Game Boy Advance, 11/17/2003.
Mega Man Battle Network (Battle Network RockMan EXE; Japan). Capcom, Nintendo Game Boy Advance, 03/21/2001.
Mother 3. Brownie Brown, Nintendo Game Boy Advance, 04/20/2006.
Paladin’s Quest (Lennus: Kodai Kikai no Kioku; Japan). Copya Systems, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 11/13/1992.
Paper Mario (Mario Story; Japan). Intelligent Systems, Nintendo 64, 08/11/2000.
Phantasy Star 4: End of the Millennium (Phantasy Star: Sennenki no Owari ni; Japan). Sega, Sega Genesis, 12/17/1993.
Psychonauts. Double Fine Productions, Microsoft XBOX, 04/19/2005.
Punch-Out!!. Next Level Games, Nintendo Wii, 05/18/2009.
Space Funeral. Catmitts, PC, 09/25/2010.
Super Mario 64. Nintendo, Nintendo 64, 06/23/1996.
Sweet Home. Capcom, Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/15/1989.
Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon. Animation Magic, Philips CD-i, 1993.