The Platonic Relationship – Donovan & Luan

I don’t want to hear any complaints about how I’m covering the same game in less than three months’ passing. This is free entertainment, people. Take it or leave it.

(But please take it.)

I have my reasons, though. I’ve explored the relationships of our first two lead characters in previous posts, and now we’ve come back again to the month of celebrating love. But there’s more to love than just romance – epic or believable as it may be. In some cases, a love which is not built on eros can demonstrate just as much depth and commitment. And in storytelling, it’s important to give such love its proper spotlight (much as the fanart and fanfics would say otherwise).

There’s something necessary in the love shared with a friend. It carries a different sort of strength, a bond that grows from mutual understanding without the interference of hormonal butterflies. And it’s been cheapened by the rampant sexualization which demands every relationship be erotic for the sake of the fans’ fantasies.

But I digress (upwards, onto a soapbox). Specter of Torment doesn’t deal in the pursuit of romance like its preceding tales. Rather, it’s a story of two fellas thick as thieves (literally), whose relationship ends in disaster, leaving our titular antihero now unwittingly seeking redemption.

Luan and Donovan – the physical death of one manifests the spiritual death of the other.

From Specter Knight’s (a.k.a. Donovan’s) flashbacks, we mostly determine these two to be “business partners”, out for treasure and adventure. We wait to know if their relationship runs deeper, but meanwhile the game uses its platforming to significant storytelling effect: as Donovan, you can’t progress through flashback stages without Luan’s assistance. They’ve learned to work as a seamless team.

With spare context, the heated moment of Luan’s demise may not achieve a satisfying emotional punch itself, but it works as a window into Specter Knight’s motivations and behaviors in the present. We get the feeling Specter Knight is always wrestling with regret.

He makes no outward mention of these feelings, though, and maintains an indifferent nature in his new servitude to the Enchantress. But the player continues to notice a loneliness through – you guessed it – more platforming tactics. Without Luan’s aid, Specter Knight ascends levels by slashing upward against obstacles with his scythe. It’s a ruthless gesture; there’s no longer a hand to grasp, no solidarity with another.

This tale is a mirror to Shovel Knight’s in his loss of Shield Knight – though for Specter, we know there won’t be a happy ending. He is, after all, still bound to the Enchantress by the events of Shovel of Hope. Luan hasn’t returned to lend aid in any final battle.

So how is this a commendable example of friendship in a story? Well, though Specter of Torment diverges from Shovel Knight’s tale in the matter of reunited partners, there’s still redemptive promise. Shovel’s campaign hints at the redemption throughout, but in Specter’s campaign we’re led to believe there’s no hope – until a drastic turnaround.

While the reveal of Reize as Luan’s son comes a little out of left field, his rescue at Specter Knight’s own personal sacrifice gives proof of the brotherhood Luan and Donovan shared. The post-credits scene brings it all together: Donovan is named Reize’s guardian, should anything befall Luan. In the end, it’s this responsibility which allows Specter Knight some release from guilt.

Redemption is a theme found in relationships of all sorts – not just those romantic in nature. I’d argue it’s a desire inherent in our hearts from the beginning. Do we find self-salvation most compelling, or salvation found in reconciliation with a friend? What do the best stories say? What do you say?

 

Shovel Knight is the property of Yacht Club Games. There are many ways to play this game.

It’s Like Going Back in Time

*cue Huey Lewis and the News*

Even in February, you could use some insight on approaching the new year, right? I suppose that also depends on whether you find my writing insightful or not…

At any rate, feel free to check out my latest GUG piece – packed with literary and faith-inspired nutrients! Video game post to come next week, as per usual.

Empathizing with Loss – Mother 3

We’re half a month into the new year, and nothing says “hope for the future” like an article about DEATH.

(Hey, I figured I might as well make it a tradition.)

Now, I don’t make a habit of announcing spoilers. I figure if you’re going to read me go on about video game story elements, you’d better believe I’m gonna reveal something you don’t wanna know. But listen, y’all. Mother 3 is serious business. It’s an experience like no other, and I don’t want it on my conscience that I wrecked your gaming feels prematurely. You read ahead at your own risk, here.

With that out of the way…let’s explore the power of loss in storytelling. Remember all those memes about authors’ glee at killing off characters? I mean, it’s partly true. It just gets the story moving, ya know?

However – death needs impact. It needs purpose. Stories reflect the very real truths of life, and loss needs to speak powerfully to the audience so it doesn’t become trite. For many, the way to create this impact is to craft a likeable character who we couldn’t bear to see gone. But there’s an equally powerful way to impact your audience – by showing the affect your character’s death has on others.

In Mother 3 we meet Hinawa early on. Do we learn much about her? She’s the mother of twins Lucas and Claus, wife of Flint, daughter of Alec. She seems to be a generous contributor in her community and a well-respected and loved family woman. What we know of her from her own expression comes in a letter she writes to Flint and a few lines of dialogue to her children. She’s not spared much more because, well…

…the plot must have its way.

Hinawa is dead within the first chapter of the game; the audience can’t even claim to know her well. Yet the loss holds immediate impact, simply in how those closest to her react. Before Bronson delivers the news, Lucas and Claus huddle by the fire wrapped in blankets. Their stutters and speechlessness already build the dread for what’s happened. And then Flint finds out.

I have rarely seen such a raw and real reaction to death in fiction. I’ve known characters who cried in response, or moped, or denied their loved one’s passing. What Flint does is so human and unpredicted. Death is already difficult to comprehend, but in a utopian society? It would cause absolute catastrophe, as demonstrated.

It isn’t necessarily Hinawa’s death that causes shock and mourning for the audience, though. It’s the response of the people with whom we’ve spent more time. Flint, who moments ago risked his life to save the child Fuel from a burning house, who garnered our respect with his selfless actions, completely loses control when confronted with grief. It conveys all the sorrow and discomfort of handling a friend who reacts incomprehensibly to loss.

As the story progresses, the sadness deepens (underneath that wonderfully quirky surface all Mother/Earthbound games supply). Hinawa’s death has long-reaching effects – most notably Lucas’s isolation as the family breaks apart. In a stellar moment of “show, don’t tell”, Lucas wakes up years later in his empty home and – while still in his pajamas – looks at himself in the family room mirror. His reflection takes him back to early childhood, with his mother brushing his disheveled hair – before the scene snaps back to present day.

Do we miss Hinawa because of who she was? Not truly, I would say. While her altruism endears her to us quickly, she isn’t human enough for audience connection. Her mourners, however, are. The death of an individual affects us best if we’re familiar enough with that person – as would be the case in real life. Anyone, however, can empathize with what it means to move on after a death – and what pain that can bring.

In the end, what you want in your story is connection, and there are several ways to create that. You authors who love to kill, consider this a way to make all those losses mean something.

 

Mother 3 is the property of Nintendo & Shigesato Itoi and has no English language release. You can, however, emulate the game in Japanese and use this translation patch by Tomato. If you choose this route, please support the developers by investing in their other games and merchandise.

Fifth Week Fiction – As Sporadic As Special Item Drops

Yes, my consistency on blog posts hasn’t been stellar lately…but! Can you think of a better way to ring in the new year than with a little fanfiction?

(Don’t answer that.)

In keeping with the theme earlier this month, I decided to share a Shovel Knight snippet. Let’s see how I do expressing mannerisms and movement!


Plague Knight edged onto the docks and peered cautiously into the water. A perfect reflection of his mask rippled back. Troupple Pond lie still and quiet but for a scattered few cicadas trilling in the bushes. Plague Knight looked up and around, into the trees, but saw nothing. No living creatures – fish, fruit, or otherwise.

So he took the chalice out and held it aloft.

There was a rumble; the pond began to churn. Plague Knight took two steps back as troupple fish sprang from the water. Just small ones with bare stems and a greenish hue to their bellies. They leapt higher, gaining altitude, until they hooked by their stems in the overhanging tree branches.

The water continued to swirl, a huge eddy right in its center. The Troupple King breached in regal form, with his eyes closed and whale-ish mouth pulled taut. His breast slammed into the pond and sprayed water for yards.

Plague Knight stood, chalice still held high, drenched through.

“Who has awakened me?” the Troupple King boomed. “Mortal! Hast thou come seeking – Wait a tic! …Alchemist!”

Plague Knight lowered the chalice and made a halting bow. “Uh, heh, my liege.”

“News of your wicked deeds has reached our ears,” the Troupple King said. “How dare you tarnish us with your presence? Begone from this sacred grotto.”

“Uh…but, Your Grace, you see, I actually came to learn how to…d-dance.” Plague Knight cleared his throat. “Right now, I can only sort of…twitch.”

“Is this so?” the Troupple King inquired. His hostility had vanished nearly instantly, and he’d begun to preen. “ ‘Tis true we possess keen rhythmic insight. But first, Alchemist, let us see what we have to work with. Demonstrate your ability to us now.”

Plague Knight fiddled. He stuck an arm out, then a foot, and jerked through what he hoped were the first few steps to a waltz. Or a tango. Or something.

“CEASE!” the Troupple King cried, and Plague Knight nearly toppled into the water. “What is this monstrosity? Where is the rhythm? Where is the passion? Alchemist, thou art in need of a miracle.”

“It…it really can’t be that, uh, bad,” said Plague Knight. “…Can it?”

He was met with the silent stares of every troupple fish present.

“It is fortunate for you,” the Troupple King continued, “that we are miracle workers. Behold, and take this lesson to heart, for there is only so much I can teach you. Let us begin!”

From up in the trees, the hanging troupples began to sing. The Troupple King closed his magnificent bulbous eyes and bobbed gracefully through the water. He went in perfect sync with the music, even as the smaller troupples dodged about him in a dance of their own.

Plague Knight tried to study, but the dance of a fish wasn’t quite similar to the dance of a person. Fins lifted, dorsals shimmied, and the Troupple King threw his great big mass all over the pond until everything was properly soaked. Perhaps, Plague Knight thought, it was time to go.

A small troupple fish bounded from the pond and nudged Plague Knight in the knee. Before he could regain balance, another fish leapt from the other side and bopped him in the shoulder. Plague Knight swayed and flailed.

“H-hey! What are you – Stop that!” As another caught him on his backside.

The assault continued until Plague Knight began to get the feel for dodging. He lifted his arms, spun, side-stepped, back-stepped, and dipped past each attack. After a while he noticed they came in an expected pattern, and – what with the musical accompaniment – he evaded with more flair. A troupple fish dove at him from behind, but he’d predicted the move and swept to the right just as the fish flew through.

“Ha HA!” Plague Knight exclaimed in triumph.

The troupple assault had finished. And so had the music. Plague Knight looked about him; the troupple fish had all gone back to their places in the pond and trees. The Troupple King himself rested magnificently in the middle of the water. He regarded Plague Knight with a knowing smirk.

“And that, Alchemist, is how it’s done.”

Plague Knight’s arms were still outstretched; his feet stood at angles in a sort of bow. You could have said the pose was almost…graceful.

“I…uh…hee hee…I danced?” he said.

“Well, more or less,” the Troupple King grimaced. “But do not become cocksure in your talents, oh wicked one. A true dancer must practice his art if he hopes to become a master. Remember what you have learned here.”


Glorious!

Characters in Motion – Shovel Knight

A new DLC chapter has come and gone, and this slacker fangirl hasn’t talked about this game in ten months! It’s time we changed that.

Rather than overanalyze Specter’s campaign just yet, however, I’m going to take a moment to spread the love to all our DLC Knights – and beyond! It’s time we looked at how Shovel Knight uses its own game mechanics to convey characterization. For reals, it’s something even the game’s developers took into consideration when crafting each campaign.

Now, when you think of good characters, what comes to mind? Personality? Dialogue? Dimensionality? Absolutely! Click on that “characters” link in the left-hand column (do iiiit…), and you’re sure to find these attributes already addressed. With Shovel Knight, I’d like to explore mannerism and movement.

Dat shy li’l muffin.

This game may be a throwback to the 8-bit era, but the wonders of modern development give opportunity for more expression in the world our Knights inhabit. Villagers do more than stand at counters or wander two-dimensional streets. They cook meals, measure and study potions, play with hoops and sticks (or…not).

This is a world made alive by its people and creatures, moving and behaving with real emotion. And our Knights? With most of their faces obscured by helmets or masks? Can they exhibit that much life as well? Ohhhhhh heckyes. And then some!

For our DLC heroes (or anti-heroes), dialogue and motivation establish groundwork for who our characters should be. Shovel Knight is an honorable warrior and civil in conversation, even with rivals. Plague Knight is verbally antagonistic but also communicates certain insecurities. Specter Knight is cold, determined, and attempts emotional distance from circumstances and others (but only succeeds to a point…).

If desired, the developers could have given canned movements to these characters – reskinning the different Knights as necessary but retaining a basic movement pattern. Instead, they crafted unique movements for each protagonist according to their prescribed personality:

Shovel Knight’s stride is bold and determined. He pumps his arm in a manner displaying strength and confidence. Plague Knight’s is looser; he doesn’t hold his staff at the ready but lets it swing carelessly in his hand. His attacks carry a degree of unpredictability. And Specter Knight, he leans into his run with his scythe poised for attack – relentless yet emphasizing stealth.

(And I’m sure we can also look forward to King Knight’s swagger in upcoming DLC.)

In a (good) platformer, you can’t have drawn-out dialogue trees to establish the nature of your characters. You can’t give them fifteen minutes to expound on backstory. It’s a medium which operates (literally) in forward motion. Aside from the level bookends which progress the story, how will you explain your characters to the audience? You use the best tool available to you: movement through the levels.

A trained writer will do this too, yes? We know a shy character will move differently from a social character, who will move differently from a depressed character. If you wanted, you could go completely Dickensian and give your cast members identifying verbal and/or physical tics. This is why even in scenes with no dialogue, we can still understand a character completely through how he or she moves. It’s called “body language” for a reason, you know.

And when they’re not moving through levels? Well, Yacht Club Games still uses “show, don’t tell” to excellent effect with quiet moments to offset the platforming chaos.

Even here, in no movement, we can understand Specter Knight. Can you tell what he may be feeling? This is the power of a character’s physicality. It’s something nearly every human being can immediately relate to.

 

Shovel Knight is the property of Yacht Club Games. There are many ways to play this game.

Quality Villainy Series – Super Mario RPG

What’s a good story without a great villain? All right, to be fair, there are phenomenal stories where the antagonist is not an individual, but is instead a force, idea, or other non-flesh-and-blood opposition.

But c’mon, we love (to hate) those more corporeal rascals and all the mayhem they cause. So why not look at a few of the greats in this new series I’ve devised? What are the different types of baddies we can find in video games, and how do they teach us to write excellent enmity?

I’m gonna be completely shameless and start us off with my childhood.

I’m imagining the confusion now. “What the crap?” the readers say. ” Why are we looking at a Mario game for tips on writing amazing villains? These baddies are so by-the-book.” Listen here, you little upstarts. You don’t question the greats of the medium. Sit yourselves down and get educated.

(Nya!)

(Okay, so maybe that was all a little unnecessary.)

Super Mario RPG boasts some serious randomness, and that certainly extends to its cast of villains. The plot’s primary team, after all, is made up of anthropomorphized weaponry. And what weird-lookin’ weaponry they are…

Add to these fellas a mix of sideline characters of dubious intent, and you have quite the pool to draw from. You have those villains who aren’t necessarily evil, but maybe just a tad deranged and in the wrong place at the wrong time. This leads to some thoroughly memorable characters – there’s a reason SMRPG diehards refer to the maniac manchild Booster so often, after all.

But I’m interested in exploring the nature of a villain whose motives are purely, deliciously devious. Someone who’s completely certain of her malicious intent. Someone who holds the honor of being one of only two female villains in the entire game – and the only one who operates as head honcho over her henchmen. Yes, she definitely has her ways of standing out –

…No comment.

-the illustrious (Queen) Valentina.

Her role in the game (for those who haven’t played – oh, and spoiler alert): in the faraway, isolated Nimbus Land, Valentina has plans to overthrow the present rulers by tricky means. With the king and queen quietly locked away and no one allowed inside the palace, Valentina raises the claim she’s found the long-missing prince of the kingdom, and he’s chosen her for his bride. But why does the prince of a fluffy cloud people look strangely like a giant black toucan…?

So why pick Valentina for this study on excellent villains? It’s true in many ways she’s “by the book” – out for power, going the most direct route by usurping a kingdom’s throne, completely rude and ill-mannered. There’s no subtlety in her designs (tactical or…illustrative). But you know what? Ain’t nothing wrong with that.

Too many stories get caught up in the complex motives of their antagonist, or in the “twist” storyline where a seemingly innocent character was wicked all along. As for Valentina, she’s straight up vicious and awful, and there’s something wonderful about that.

See, because of her one-dimensional morality, the writers and developers can have all the fun they want with her. You think a “twist” villain adds interest to a conflict? Fair enough. But I’d rather have Valentina’s openly snide dialogue.

The point of creating villains is to make characters who stand out just as well as the heroes, and you don’t necessarily need complexity or a game-changing one-eighty to accomplish that. That’s why I love Valentina. She knows who she is, the audience knows who she is, and therefore we can delight in her perfectly devilish actions.

Besides, she still breaks the mold in her own way. It’s not every day you see a villainess get her own “happily ever after”.

#bestcouple

 

Super Mario RPG is the property of Nintendo/Square-Enix. You can purchase it for your own enjoyment through the Wii or Wii U Virtual Console, or play it through the SNES Classic.

Redirecting…

Faith posts continue to (hopefully) supply you with insight over at Geeks Under Grace. See my latest one here!

…What, are you looking for something more on this post? I ain’t got that kinda time! *goes to play Breath of the Wild for…uh…blog ideas. Yeah. That’s it.*

Show and Tell in Metroid Fusion

You know what you do when you can’t decide what game you’re going to cover in your next blog post? You look at what you talked about a year ago and revisit that franchise.

Now, the Metroid series knows its atmosphere; we’ve covered that. Super Metroid is arguably the penultimate atmospheric game of the franchise, but each of the others offers its own in-depth mood, too. This mood is most successful when imparted through subtle details and audience-driven discovery. The eerie isolation of Metroid wouldn’t work if people were telling you what to do all the time.

Ahem.

Let’s talk about Metroid Fusion, a game that straddles this fine line of audience intuition – though less in atmosphere and more in its plot. See, investigating a parasite-invested space station has its own creeps and curiosities. Though much of Samus’s mission is directed by a rather demanding A.I., and her exploration is broken up by long reminiscences in elevators, the atmosphere still generally stays true to what’s been established in the franchise.

You’ve got hints toward surprises to come – a sense of dread, for example, when you view Nightmare rushing by in the background of Sector 5, obscured behind glass. Yes, this is something you’re going to freak about later, the game seems to infer.

Metroid Fusion has more plot and set-up than its sisters in the franchise, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing – when done right. And Fusion definitely has its moments done right:

In this moment, the real Samus has only just descended the elevator into a new section of the space station. There are no words, no explanations, just this shot of a duplicate, sinister Samus prowling about – and we know from playing up to this point the X-Parasite is capable of assuming the shape and features of its host. This has been demonstrated through (some) text and encounters with enemies. When SA-X appears on stage, we know what’s goin’ down.

This is the value of showing a point of the plot. It lets the audience develop their own conclusions and emphasizes their emotional reaction. It respects the personalized experience.

So it’s rather disappointing that this very same game also falls into the “tell” pit.

THIS, right here. Ugh. The hint of eventual betrayal. It’s a cheap, cheap trope that ruins what could’ve been a punchier reveal down the line. Contrary to what some seem to believe, this peek into a team member’s unexpected duplicity does NOT bring tension to the story, nor shock value for the audience.

Telling in a story is like vicing a person’s head in both hands and forcefully turning it to where you want them to look. There’s no personal discovery attached and therefore no authentic reaction. If anything, the audience is probably annoyed by your fingernails digging into their scalp.

In this instance, you could probably completely remove this offending cutaway scene in Fusion, and the story wouldn’t suffer a bit. When the moment arrives, we’d share Samus’s experience of the unexpected, and therefore empathize with her shock and anger. As it is, we watch the scene play out and sit back with our popcorn, disengaged until it’s time to press buttons again.

(I realize this might be an exaggeration, but I’m trying to get a point across here!)

It’s better to keep your audience clutching that handheld or controller. To do that: Show, don’t tell. Their attention must stay trained on the story with subtlety; what effort do they need to present when everything is spelled out to them?

 

Metroid Fusion is the property of Nintendo. You can purchase it to play via the Wii U or 3DS Virtual Console.