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.

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.

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.

Fright-Bound in Earthbound

Oh man, you know what I haven’t fangirled about in a long time?

(Whaddya mean it hasn’t even been a full year? Shaddup.)

We are in that season where the horrific, grotesque, and frightening wrest center stage from every other genre style born of the imagination. In some expressions of the Halloween spirit, there’s very little nuance. The image of an ax buried in someone’s head, blood-soaked skin and clothes, malformations presented to shock the audience, or worst of all – CLOWNS. Yes, the doors open to the most extreme degree of unpleasantness this time of year, and I have to give some creative endeavors credit just for shock value.

But anything in large doses will soon create desensitization, or just plain old “squick” – not true unsettling terror. If that’s what you hope to achieve for your audience, more power to you. If you want to create an honest-to-goodness, scare, however, might I suggest…mixing your genres?

You see, Earthbound isn’t a horror game. In no fashion is it even advertised that way. But good gravy n’ biscuits, it will leave you scarred. Y’all fellow fans know what I’m talking about. But wait, others may say. It’s a game of silly word play, goofy enemies and bosses, and quirky NPC’s. This doesn’t compute. And I answer – EXACTLY. The majority of Earthbound plays out in light-hearted tones, several ludicrous premises strung together for maximum absurdity. It’s a story of boyhood adventure, coupled with comedy, coupled with HOLY FRIED BEANS WHAT PARALLEL REALM OF DISTURBING RANDOMNESS HAVE I STUMBLED INTO?

See, this game never lets you settle down. As soon as you think you understand its mood it breaks free and gleefully screws with your expectations. Were you enjoying that escapade in the mines fighting silly moles? Well, now get ready for melting Dali clocks, weird NPC speech patterns, and completely disorienting map mechanics. And an eerie gold statue will absolutely destroy you in your attempts to escape.

Moonside is more surreal than frightening, you might say, but the unsettling moments continue to ratchet up over time, giving the slightest uncertainty to where this game will take you in the end. Slogging through the swamp hazards of Deep Darkness, then delving into the enemy’s secret base as the whirring of their machinery grows louder…

We’re gettin’ all Stranger Things before Stranger Things was a thing up in here.

Still, there’s been enough light-hearted humor to keep your expectations in balance, right? But every moment of unease serves as a hint – this game ain’t playin’ the “get out scar-free” card. Our final boss Giygas is nightmare fuel from start to finish.

Were you expecting this the first time you played? (And if you haven’t played…sorry for the spoiler. #ruinseverything) There was always lead-up and these moments of discomfort sprinkled into a mostly whimsical story so you were never quiiiiite ready for what would make your stomach clench. Mixing your genres. It’ll throw your audience around like rag dolls.

Naturally, there ARE other methods to properly give your audience a scare; this is but one of several options available to the storyteller. How do you think your scare tactics would come across best?

 

Earthbound is the property of Nintendo and Shigesato Itoi. You can play it via the Wii U virtual console.

Emotional Connection – Dragon Quest V

Admittedly, I got into the Dragon Quest craze a bit late (like, just six years ago *cough*). It was Toriyama’s art that gradually drew me to the series. Though I don’t check out the anime scene too often anymore (except for Studio Ghibli; that stuff’s untouchable), Toriyama’s work has always somehow had a nostalgic pull on me. Chalk it up to my endless love for Chrono Trigger?

If you can’t handle this awesomesauce, then GET OUT. (…Just kidding please stay I need readers.)

Now, Dragon Quest keeps things rather predictable in terms of overarching plot: Big Bad plans to destroy world, heroes stop Big Bad, turns out there’s an even Bigger Bad to defeat so we can enjoy more world-building and increase those skill points. DQ‘s charm has never been in its stunning plot twists.

But lemme tell you: it’s a champ at using RPG tropes for storytelling OOMPH (in-game pun possibly definitely intended).

Being late to the Dragon Quest fan base, my first gaming experiences were in the DS remakes. Dragon Quest V intrigued me with its focus on choosing a bride and eventually having a family (the Harvest Moon devotee coming out in me). Little did I know I would be struck most poignantly by the part of the game before those domestic elements came into play.

For the first few hours of the story you are sweet baby Hero (name to be supplied by you) – just, like, what, six years old? And baby Hero has all these fun adventures – exploring a ghost house, rescuing a sabre-kitten, saving the fairy realm from eternal winter – while through it all, there’s reassurance his father Pankraz will be just a step away, guaranteeing his boy’s safety.

We gamers are familiar with the occasional need to heal party members between battles, and any time our little DQV protagonist gets too far injured Pankraz will cast “Heal” while on the map without player input. I remember being so charmed by this action and the way the game used an RPG trope to develop character bonds.

“Aww,” said naive li’l ol’ me. “It’s so sweet his dad’s always there to help him.”

Ha ha…ha.

In case you’re wondering, now is the time to sense foreshadow and bereavement. Because in comes Ladja (our Big Bad), and he’s ALL about jacking up your feels.

See, this whole time Pankraz has been healing his son, he’s also been showing his AI prowess in battle. NOTHING can take this beast of a man down. Not even Ladja’s henchmen.

…unless, you know, Ladja threatens to kill baby Hero.

(To watch the entire scene – which I recommend – click here and start at about 10 minutes in.)

At this point the game (at least the DS version) could have chosen to display Pankraz’s sacrifice through its overworld sprites bumping into each other with a few unfriendly whacking sounds and flickering characters. Instead, we’re thrown into a battle screen, where – like before – we have no control over Pankraz…or his subjection to enemy attacks.

I can recall lying on my bed, DS in hand, watching this scene play out as I went cold. I screamed for the baddies to stop as Pankraz’s HP slowly sank to zero. (This type of behavior is possibly why my duplex neighbors don’t talk to me much.)

The common RPG inclusion of the Non-Player Character is used to dramatic effect here. You, as the player, should have control over the battle commands, but when they’re stripped away during Pankraz’s fight, you yourself feel the helplessness of the battle. You are in the place of Pankraz’s son, watching him be pummeled and yet unable to stop it.

I’ve talked before about gaming elements that can tell a story unique from any other medium. I believe Dragon Quest V accomplishes this in regards to emotional investment. Because there is such player involvement in video games, the grief can strike one hundred-fold when done right.

There are other games that capture this investment even better, but of course – that’s to be left for another post. 🙂

 

Dragon Quest V is the property of Square-Enix. You can purchase it to play via Android, iOS, or Nintendo DS

First Impressions Series – Super Mario Galaxy 2

Summer’s over, my life has some semblance of order, so I’m back in the saddle, baby! Let’s kick things off with another Series post!

We’ve looked at video game openings from a mostly technical point of view – grading them on how well they present their information to hook the audience from the get-go. So far, most of this has included what information has been presented in the opening, but now I’d like to look at how information can be presented to engage your audience.

For this entry in the “First Impressions” series, it’s aaaaall about appearances. So why not look to a completely gorgeous game?

I’m not above getting superficial.

The Galaxy entries in the Marioverse are straight up works of art: in detail, in setting, in music, in gameplay – man, don’t even get me started. They are such a package deal.

Now, on the story end of things…there’s not much to say. You know the drill: Bowser’s up to mischief, and it involves kidnapping Peach. Mario’s got to do his Mario thing and come to the rescue. The main appeal – I mean, aside from fun and challenging platforming – is in the worlds he traverses and not really in the development of the plot. HOWEVER. Super Mario Galaxy 2 in particular still manages to give us a clever treat at its intro.

Games introduce their stories in many ways. From throwing the player straight into the action to treating them to a Star Warsian text-scroll, it was often the capacities of the current console that dictated how the story could be told. Cinematics took root as soon as graphics processors could keep up, resulting in hybridized movie intros that made you perhaps forget you were, in fact, playing a game.

Remember when these graphics were the bee’s knees?

These days, games borrow from all aesthetics to introduce their stories’ premises. (It’s the wonder of the modern age!) In a world where it seems movies and FMVs rule all, though, Super Mario Galaxy 2 takes a different approach: it begins its story in an interactive literary format.

And that. Is. The freakin’. BEST.

Look, I have a bias, I admit. I run a storytime at my work, and I’m more than happy to gush over a wistful combination of children’s illustrations and sweet, simple text. There’s an art form to picture books that isn’t easy to accomplish (and isn’t appreciated nearly enough). Super Mario Galaxy 2, I think, does manage to capture that childhood magic – platforming with a healthy dash of library corner. It’s like my dream come true.

Do you see how everything comes together here? First, the Mario series has a large market with the younger crowd, so this intro’s whimsical appeal works there in its favor. Second, there’s also a nostalgic draw for the players who’ve seen the series through its many evolutions over the past three decades. The game employs a storytelling device that pulls us back into our own childhoods, where we picked up the controller and zoomed 8-bit Mario through 2D worlds of wonder.

Third, and to tie it all together, the game treats itself as artIt’s Mario, sure – it’s a game about a short, round Italian plumber who’s best known for stomping Goombas and eating mushrooms – but it knows its legacy. And here, in a pinnacle point of its franchise, it celebrates that history shows that yes, games can be creative expression, in multiple ways.

(Just listen to the soundtracks for the Galaxy games while reading this, and you’ll know what I mean.)

You begin the game fully immersed from the start – aesthetically and emotionally. It’s a story that knows its purpose and knows how to honor its audience for their dedication to the Marioverse. Model your introductions to accomplish the same.

 

Super Mario Galaxy are the property of Nintendo. You can play both on the Wii or Wii U.

A Study in Dialogue – Lufia II

I can’t honestly defend certain attempts at dialogue in video games. Between some bare-bones plots and early attempts at translation, there have definitely been a few “winners” over the years.

*waggles eyebrows*

But you know, I’d wager there are far more novels on the market that boast worse conversation. Part of that is simply due to a disparity in quantity between the two forms of entertainment; but be that as it may – I’m here to defend the validity of video games as a study-able art form, and dangit if I won’t throw literature under the bus to accomplish that!

Wait…maybe I should reconsider my approach…

Two things your dialogue must, must, must do: convey a character’s communication style (i.e. personality) and establish how s/he fosters relationships with others. After that, your own personal flair is just gravy on the potatoes. Since we all differ in general communication style, it follows that authors will approach dialogue in their own ways as well. But in case you were looking for a little inspiration…

..here’s an unsung story whose transcript can’t be beat.

Now, in some ways this game (and others in its series) works against my argument for the brilliance of video game dialogue.

(Or is this, in fact, a dialogue WIN?)

Stay with me here, though. See, Lufia II knew how to make dialogue work for its characters in a way that even some mainstream RPGs at the time didn’t manage. Oftentimes dialogue was relegated as a vehicle for plot: Characters could have personality and backstory, but these aspects mostly funneled the story and gave little wiggle room for expression. This in itself isn’t necessarily wrong, but it can sometimes make for clunky exchanges.

Lufia II‘s characters, by contrast, speak with a natural, conversational tone. They talk like friends, like rivals, like spouses. They don’t (usually) respond to each other in non sequiturs or in stilted fashion. You can actually hear the manner in which they communicate.

Our lead Maxim tends to be serious and straightforward; his wife Selan is direct and confidant; Guy is the wisecrack of the group; Artea brings solemnity. As the four primary party members, these characters receive ample opportunity to interact, fight, tease, and come to a stronger understanding of each other. Even the extended cast lend dimension and personality – however briefly they enter the scene.

Why is this representation of conversation so important? Well, Lufia II was one of the first games where I felt like I really knew the characters, and much of that had to do with the dialogue flow. They were presented as people instead of something like vessels for an overarching message or theme. Sure, they referenced the plot as necessary for the progression of the story, but Maxim and Selan would also just stop and squabble as a married couple on occasion, allowing a glimpse into their life unrelated to the hovering ultimate destruction of mankind. (It was all the rage in JRPGs back then, you know.)

More fruly excellent localization.

Though there’s nothing wrong with dialogue used as a tool for plot, I like the tales that permit time for character expansion for its own sake. If anything, it gives more fodder for the fan fiction, right?

 

Lufia II is the property of Natsume Inc. You can play this classic game with a Super Nintendo and cartridge…or settle for the remake.