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.

World-Building Series – Final Fantasy VI

We’ve talked about the importance of a story’s opening scenes. We’ve talked about what makes a stellar cast of characters. But there are still more story elements for us to explore. Oh yes. The video game well will NEVER run dry!

It goes without saying that a plot needs a setting in order to play out. Nothing happens in a vacuum, after all. But just as you need characters with depth and consistency, you need to be sure your world operates with cohesion as well. When the details of your setting come into conflict, it can jar your audience’s immersion in the tale. It’s like if a chef put a great big peppercorn in the middle of a rich slice of cheesecake.

The needs of world-building can range anywhere from developing cultural customs at large, to figuring out how the residents take out their garbage. It all depends on how much information your story needs, and each story does have its own unique needs. How much sway will your world’s details hold over the plot?

Well, I hope to explore that question and more in this series. And why don’t we start the fun with a staple game from a staple franchise:

Every time I think I don’t have more to say about Final Fantasy, it comes creeping back into my mind with all its melodrama, over-the-top villains, and outrageously-dressed characters. Underneath all this decorative appeal, one thing the games have done well since the SNES era is world-building. And for me, the pinnacle is Final Fantasy VI.

Yeah, I still live in the classic FF era. Deal with it.

See, before this point in the franchise, the Final Fantasies took place in fairly generic fantasy realms – with their own dashes of flavor, of course. But the worlds had only as much influence on their stories as needed to create otherworldly villains and epic heroes. Could the stories have existed in another setting? With some minor adjustments I’d argue – yes. The worlds primarily existed to generate fantastical appeal.

Then in comes Final Fantasy VI, and it’s a game-changer. The classic fantasy realm gets scrapped; in its place, a gritty steampunk world rises. Soldiers raid cities in magitek machinery; a tech-savvy king reinvents his castle with the mechanics to submerge underground; magic itself is a relic siphoned to power the technology and consequent rising military force our heroes hope to quash.

The greatest point about VI‘s setting, though, is it works in stride with the plot. I’d argue you couldn’t have Final Fantasy VI‘s story without the steampunk world. It’s a tale of the beauty and abuse of technology, and all the gray areas in between. You can watch the cautionary tale unfold as the Gestahlian Empire obliterates a cornerstone race of beings – the Espers – to twist their innate powers into methods of advancement. Terra, our leading lady, serves as an icon of this era in conflict, being half Esper herself. You can’t have her character without the world she inhabits.

Does it help me look less dated if I use screenshots from the iOS version?

Likewise, characters such as Celes and Cyan face griefs created by the nature of their world and the corruption born of it. Could you adapt to an advanced world if it caused the destruction of all you held dear? Or if it had shaped you into nothing more than a weapon? The characters are inextricably bound to the world they inhabit. It directly influences their lives, their choices, and the circumstances they face as the game progresses.

The world is, in a sense, its own character – with impact and interaction. Other Final Fantasies have developed equally extensive settings for their stories – especially once VI set the groundwork for broader innovation – but there’s something about this particular installment that has felt completely immersive even now that nine Fantasies have followed it.

Of course, Final Fantasy VI has memorable characters in spades, and its story plays out in epic fashion. But when I think of that game, what first comes to mind is its setting. And THAT, I think, is the mark of skilled world-building.

 

Final Fantasy VI is the property of Square-Enix. There are many ways you can play this game.

Rationing Your Details – Dragon Quest VIII

Playing your whole hand at the start of a story is generally an imprudent move. Whether it be a character’s entire backstory, the complete purpose of the plot, or a point-blank run-down of events – don’t expect your audience to stick around. What do they need with the meat of your work when you already fed them the cookies?

The intrigue is in the details, and how you parse them out. When done right, they can work as clues that draw the audience toward the greater scope of the tale. What do I mean?

Look here at this fella. As you can tell by the lack of color, this is your run-of-the-mill flashback. Like any device of fiction, the flashback can work for or against the narrative.  At times it’s used as a lazy way to establish the backbone of the story; here, it serves as a bridge between what’s been shown and what’s yet to be revealed. A far more tantalizing premise!

At the start of Dragon Quest VIII, before this flashback even rears it’s sepia-toned head, we’re given only the barest details on our heroes and their story: two apparent mercenaries have been traveling with an odd frog-monster who calls himself a king, and they all refer to his cart-horse as “princess”. The audience clearly requires some explanation here, but Dragon Quest takes its time to supply it. It knows, however, where and how to drop its hints.

For example, let’s focus on these mercenaries: what do we know about them? Well, Yangus (pictured at right) is a bit crude and uncultured (can’t you tell by appearance alone?); we also get the vibe he’s been unscrupulous in the past. His story is expanded in short time, but what about our silent protagonist (pictured at left)? Is there any way we can know about him and his connection to this larger tale?

There’s a genius use of RPG tropes in this case. Because when you first see your party’s inventory, you notice our lead possesses a “Soldier’s Sword”. Now, any RPG will have your typical starter weapon equipped to the main character, which you’ll quickly trade for the first available upgrade in town. But doesn’t it arrest your attention that this lead’s sword is so specifically described?

He certainly doesn’t look the part of “soldier”. Sure that head wrap is swag, but it’s no formal helmet. What’s the real story on this classically mute hero?

You’ve probably made your own deductions already, right? That’s what a story is supposed to help you do. That way, when you come to the flashback later in the game, you’ve intuited something of this fellow’s background already – and his connection to the plot as a whole.

And guess what the game does with that flashback? That’s right – It leaves you with MORE questions to be pondered!

Well, isn’t our hero a special little snowflake?

Think of it this way: Are you more likely to develop a friendship with someone who shares their experiences in engaging parcels? Or with that random person who approaches you in the grocery store and tells you all about the surgery they had on their intestines last Thursday? (I mean, maybe you do meet your friends that way. Who am I to judge?) Let the subtle details of your story cause the audience to want to pursue what you have to offer. Prove there’s still some patience to be found in this era of instant gratification.

 

Dragon Quest VIII is the property of Square-Enix. You can purchase it to play via Android, iOS, or Nintendo 3DS.

Fifth Week Fiction – Just When You Thought There Wouldn’t Be One

Even though I got rid of my “Grab-Bags”, that doesn’t mean I’m gonna forsake my fiction snippets. After all, they’re the easiest posts to do – since most of the time they’re already written. *grin*

Nope, I still don’t have original work for you. You wanted to enjoy more fanfiction anyway, right? (RIGHT?) Here’s a continuation of my last FWF.

*This is not a final draft, so all continuity errors in format should be disregarded.


[Fireworks!]

— OUTSIDE THE PALACE several Nimbusans have gathered around boxes set by the palace entry. One Nimbus boy jumps up and tries to look inside. His mother peeks too.

[The mole, King, and Queen Nimbus exit the palace. Nimbusans disperse and bow to the royalty, but they still talk animatedly with each other. The mother of the peeking boy sheepishly smiles as she pulls her son away.]

MOLE

(more comfortable now, like he’s in his element) Well! Haven’t had a fanfare like this any other place I’ve sold my wares. Y’all curious to see what’s inside?

[The crowd exclaims several things at once.]

NIMBUSANS

Did you bring these boxes?

Ooh, what’s inside them?

We haven’t had anyone visit from Below in years!

Does everyone from Below look like you?

(child) Are you gonna show us what you brought?

I think it’s clothes. Or food. Ooh! Or dirt! I’ve heard about dirt!

[The mole pulls one box toward him and prepares to lift the lid.]

MOLE

Y’know, back in my hometown we make most of our livin’ in the mines. But I always kinda hankered for a more intrepid career. And now here I find m’self, clear past the edge of the world!

(He turns back to the King and Queen, and resumes a little of his shyness.)

If, ehm, yer Majesties will permit me…

[The King and Queen motion for him to continue, and so the mole, with a bit of flair, whisks off the box’s top. Inside, there are mounds of fireworks. The Nimbusans crowd in excitedly.]

MOLE

(pleased with himself) Heh, we use dynamite, see, for breakin’ the tougher rocks. But I thought to m’self, I says, “These boom sticks might work as entertainment, given the right adjustments.”

(He pauses modestly.)

So here I am, tryin’ to make a mark in the business world. If it pleases yer Majesties, I’d like to offer maybe…a few nights’ firework displays? First night’s free, ‘case you have yer doubts about my workmanship.

[The crowd buzzes and turns to their rulers.]

NIMBUSANS

Yes, please, King Nimbus!

(child) Mama, we’ll get to see them, won’t we?

Too bad it’s not dirt…

[Everyone, Queen included, watches King Nimbus for his response. He strokes his mustache thoughtfully.]

KING NIMBUS

(frowning) Hm, no. No, I don’t think that will do at all.

[The Nimbusans look shocked, and there’s a collective sigh. The mole’s hopeful smile droops.]

KING NIMBUS

We simply must pay for the first night as well.

[The mood changes immediately. Nimbusans cheer. The children jump around the mole, who looks happily stunned.]

QUEEN NIMBUS

(aside to the King) You’re too clever, dear.

KING NIMBUS

I do try. And honestly, it’s just proper etiquette. Why, when I was young, everyone knew how to treat a visitor, and I certainly learned…

QUEEN NIMBUS

(while the King rambles on) Yes, dear. Speaking of, shall we arrange for our visitor’s stay?

— Transition to NIGHTTIME in Nimbus Land, same scene.  Nimbusans are gathered together, exclaiming at the fireworks the mole is setting off. Nimbus children run around with sparklers. Garro stands near the mole, and we faintly hear him apologizing for his failed escort earlier that day. Valentina exits the palace and approaches the King and Queen—mingling among their people.

VALENTINA

(somewhat to herself) What is this ruckus for? It’s like a bunch of pillows exploded, and the fluff’s just flying everywhere.

KING NIMBUS

(turning from the crowd) Ah! Valentina. I didn’t expect you’d join us, what with your tendency to loiter around the throne room while we’re away.

[King Nimbus mentions this with complete obliviousness, but Valentina puckers guiltily.]

KING NIMBUS [cont.]

At any rate, this mole fellow puts on an astonishing show, so I really recommend you stay for the rest of it.

[Garro, now holding a sparkler, is drawing detailed pictures with it in the air. The Nimbus children enjoy this immensely. Valentina wanders through the assembly of Nimbusans, turning a skeptical eye toward the fireworks display.]

VALENTINA

(as she approaches the mole) So you’re the cause for all this fuss, hm? Ho ho… This land is so estranged from the ground, its people get excited over the craziest novelties.

MOLE

(a little taken aback) Well, erm, I think these folks right kindly, an’ I don’t mind the enthusiasm. You…you look a smidge different from the folk here, yerself.

VALENTINA

(in a brush-off manner) Oh, no no, I’m one hundred percent a resident of the kingdom. Head of the palace workers, in fact—VERY important position.

MOLE

Oh! You work for the King and Queen? They seem like right nice individuals. Must treat their employees real kindly-like.

VALENTINA

(with as false a smile as possible) Why, it’s ALMOST like being royalty yourself. Ah, ha ha…

[They watch King Nimbus play with a crowd of Nimbus children. Queen Nimbus is talking with an animated young girl who seems very pleased with the attention.]

MOLE

Have to say I like this place. I’ll have to come back once I build more fireworks back home. Want to be able to support a family sometime soon, y’know. Settle down and raise a passel of mole pups. Looks like the King and Queen make fine parents, themselves. Which ones are theirs?

VALENTINA

Theirs? Oh, the King and Queen don’t have any chil…dren…

[Valentina zones out as the thought settles in.]

MOLE

(embarrassed) Oh gosh, I wouldn’t’ve asked if I’da known…Blast a bomb in my face fer bein’ so rude. It’s not my business, is it, ‘specially when it’s royalty concerned. Ohhh, I bet I’ve made a blunder. You won’t tell ‘em I been nosin’ around about their personal lives, will ya?

VALENTINA

(blinking out of her stupor) Hm? What’s that? Oh! (chuckles) Don’t worry your little head about that. Your secret is safe with ME. Now, um, if you’ll excuse me…I have to get to some of that…WORK I was talking about…

[Valentina walks away, trance-like. Scene fades.]

 

[Valentina’s Plan for the Throne]

— Open on the EDGE OF NIMBUS LAND. It’s been a couple of days, and the mole is preparing to leave. King and Queen Nimbus see him off ahead of many more Nimbusans waving goodbye. Before the Mole starts down the vines, King Nimbus arrests his attention and holds a notepad up to the Mole’s face. The Mole smiles bashfully and signs his name on the page—to the King’s immense delight.

VALENTINA [off-screen]

It can’t be as simple as that; it can’t! And yet—

— Cut to Valentina pacing her QUARTERS. Dodo and two Birdies are in the back of the room, watching Valentina walk back and forth, back and forth…

VALENTINA

(stops abruptly; Dodo and the Birdies get neck cricks) —I’d be a fool if I didn’t take advantage of it. It’s practically coronation on a silver plate.

BLUE BIRDIE

(tentatively) I don’t get it, Valentina. Just because the King and Queen have no kids, you get to be in charge?

VALENTINA

Try to think about this, dimwits; I know it’s hard. Look, it’s not just that they have no kids. They’ve had no kids for years. And they’re getting old. If they planned to sign things over to an heir, they’ve put themselves in a corner. A corner I can definitely FILL.

[The Birdies and Dodo exchange glances. Valentina’s bust coincidentally takes up a whole corner of the shot.]

RED BIRDIE

So, you’re going to be the heir instead? But you’re not even related to them. Why would they give YOU the kingdom?

[Valentina clutches the Birdie’s beak and pushes down so he’s forced to stare up at her.]

VALENTINA

(smiling cruelly) Because YOU all are about to make me a HERO to the royal family.

[Scene fades as Garro narrates.]

GARRO (as NARRATOR)

This seems like an appropriate time for me to explain the Nimbus Land “birds and the bees”.

(beat; the screen stays completely black)

Whoa, hey wait, where are you going? No, it’s not like THAT! Just relax and let me explain.

— In a Nimbus couple’s HOME a Nimbus man is saying goodbye to his wife as he heads to work.

GARRO (as NARRATOR) [cont.]

We Nimbusans fall in love and marry like anyone would. But after this things go a bit differently for us.

[The Nimbus man enters the palace and begins his shift as a guard.]

GARRO (as NARRATOR) [cont.]

See, I hear that for others there’s a point where you find out you’re having a baby, and then after you prepare for a bit, the baby arrives. For Nimbusans…there’s no time for preparation.

[The guard returns home, walks in the door, and stops in his tracks when he sees his wife standing there with an infant in her arms.]

GARRO (as NARRATOR) [cont.]

The little one just shows up.

[The Nimbus man wanders over to marvel at the baby as his wife smiles with a “here we go” kind of look.]

GARRO (as NARRATOR) [cont.]

We can’t control it; we can’t predict it. It’s just the way things go. Oh, but we adore our children. When they come, it’s like a surprise party you didn’t know your friends were planning.

[Cut to the Nimbus couple presenting their new child to King and Queen Nimbus, who smile in congratulations.]

GARRO (as NARRATOR) [cont.]

Here’s another particular thing about our children: families usually only ever have one.

[Another family comes to the King and Queen on a different day, presenting their child. King and Queen smile again.]

Sometimes two…

[The first family returns; time has passed, and their first child is grown, with a second baby in Mom’s arms. King and Queen Nimbus look surprised, but still smile.]

…NEVER three, good lands, no. Something to do with keeping a short monsoon season, I think.

[The new infant begins to cry, and we see rain streak down outside the palace windows. The older child of the family shyly approaches Queen Nimbus and hands her a flower.]

GARRO (as NARRATOR) [cont.]

Now, as a bachelor, maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about. But I think the surprise of having a child is one of the most anticipated events for families. Ours always wait excitedly for it.

[Focus on King and Queen Nimbus as the last family leaves. Queen Nimbus holds the flower, but her smile falls, and she looks to the side. King Nimbus notices and reaches for her arm. She turns, manages a half-hearted smile, and then looks away again. King Nimbus watches her, concerned. Scene fades.]

Stellar Squad Series – Mother 3

They say you can’t choose your family. But sometimes – say, when your mom’s brutally murdered by a reconstructed cyber-animal, your brother goes missing in an attempt to avenge her, and your dad just can’t deal – you may have to cobble a new one together on your own.

And even if they en’t perfect, they’re your homies through the best and worst of it – whether that be chasing down a clayman to retrieve a memory egg, or accidentally ingesting hallucinatory mushrooms while marooned on a tropical island.

(It’s all about context; just go with it.)

Mother 3’s team may be my favorite team ever. I grant you, there’s a sea of games I have yet to play, and many characters and parties I have yet to meet through the experiences those games lend – but I’m telling you: these quirky little nuggets will never be dethroned.

Want to get to know them? I kneeeeeeeeew you’d enthusiastically say yes!

Lucas

Once notorious as a coddled crybaby, he’s determined to reinvent himself as strong and capable after his family fell apart. Gotta love that cowlick in his hair.

 

Boney

A dog. But more than that, he’s Lucas’s constant companion and even gives sensible advice – if you can interpret his barks, at any rate.

Kumatora

Your resident tomboy princess (or IS she?). A bit crass, and she’s got a mouth, but she’d go to any lengths for her friends. If she requests you take a shower, be careful declining her wishes…

 

Duster

Looks like a bum, walks with a limp, sleeps all day – also plays a mean upright bass (LITERALLY). Past the bad breath and slightly unkempt look, Duster harbors a helping heart. My favorite of the team, I’m not even gonna hide it. He even has his own post.

 


So, why is this team so great? Well, attempting to set aside my fangirl ravings and approach this from a level-headed, storytelling perspective *calming breath* – each of these characters is a misfit in some fashion (maybe discounting Boney; a dog can only carry so much of a stigma). They come out of hurts, imperfections, and unconventionality to form a bond and stand against a power you wouldn’t think four oddballs had a chance to beat.

Remember how we talked about the relatability of a character in our last video game post? We linked it to personal experience and to quirks/struggles the audience might share with each character. Well, Mother 3 takes that idea and adds the strongest sense of kinship this trilogy has to offer. You get to know each character individually; you get to walk in their shoes for a period of time and understand their life. Maybe you empathize with them. You see their need for love and friendship, so that when they become a team you KNOW the bonds are important to them.

This is relatability cubed. Think of your own idiosyncrasies – what makes you weird and out there . Now think of the people who came into your life with their own oddities and chose to walk your road with you. How deep do those bonds go? How strong is your trust? Would you face a totalitarian pigmask army together with these friends?

That’s what Mother 3‘s team evokes. The theme throughout the series, after all, is love, so what better way to close the trilogy than with camaraderie between unconventional friends? Gets me all warm and fuzzy for my own crazy troupe of amigos. Group hug, y’all!

 

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.

Relatable Characters – Earthbound Series

Storytellers try a number of methods to help endear characters to their audience: tragic backstory to tug at heartstrings, diversifying the cast to appeal to a wider range of experience, creating quirks and tics to make a character as immediately unique as possible. Sometimes the attempts can go a little overboard.

Did I mention “radical costuming”?
(I’ve never played this game. Does this dude just really love pizza, or…?)

Here’s a pro tip: if your characters express a sense of humanity, triumph, and fallibility, the audience will relate regardless of other influencing factors.

Still, there’s something to be said for character attributes that quickly grab the audience’s attention. Sometimes they can be the gateway to a deeper emotional bond. But how do you create such quirks in a way that doesn’t seem forced or against the natural flow of the story?

I know EXACTLY the games that can help us solve that question:

*obsession intensifies*

The Mother/Earthbound series’ goal, from the beginning, was to experiment telling a story through the video game medium. For me to compare Mother 1 Earthbound Beginnings to other RPG stories released around the same time would be a little above my pay grade (because yo, I don’t get paid for this), but whatever the case, Itoi knew how to endear his characters to players in an environment that complimented the quirks.

Since the games take place in the “real world”, there’s already some familiarity when we recruit and interact with the cast. This helps set the stage for when we meet what might be considered underwhelming characters, compared to the epic casts of other JRPGs. Your first teammate in Earthbound Beginnings wasn’t some noble warrior sporting a sweet set of armor; it was a nerd with thick glasses hiding in a trash can at his school.

But this is great, because we immediately have a reason to root for this kid: I mean, who HASN’T dealt with bullies in their life? And instead of just getting fed a character bio, we connect with Lloyd through quirks related to his current struggles.

(Remember when we covered character introductions in detail? Man, that was such a great time.)

The trend continues into Earthbound, where your party diversifies beyond the confines of America Eagleland and includes individuals from overseas. (Jeff is totally British, and you can’t convince me otherwise.) A foreign character like Poo, for example, brings a cool, mystical (and highly stereotyped – Earthbound is shameless) dynamic to the cast, which may not necessarily make him relatable, but he nevertheless garners audience interest.

Sometimes the enigmatic draws our emotions through a desire to know more, eh? Poo could also be perceived as a foil to the rest of the party, who – while boss in their own right – don’t exactly exude the same mysterious dignity.

This in particular brings out Ness’s more relatable aspects, such as his tendency toward homesickness. Despite being the game’s hero, he has this childlike fallibility set in stark contrast to Poo’s calm aloofness. While the game doesn’t reveal much through character dialogue, it does an excellent job allowing the player to project their own feelings through the cast. I’d wager more of us know what it’s like to be the homesick little boy than what it’s like to be the serious, dashing prince.

These character traits never feel forced, either. Many are in fact subtly integrated into the battle system itself (Ness thinking of his mom’s steak and missing a turn; Ninten from Beginnings seizing up with an asthma attack). Mixed with the inherent weirdness of the games’ world, the quirks fit seamlessly and allow the audience to connect on their own terms.

…But wait, you might be saying (or not saying, if you’re absolutely lost by this point): What about the cast of Mother 3? Well, have I got a TREAT for you! That party will be receiving an entire post devoted to them in two weeks’ time! Aren’t you EXCITED? (Pretend to be excited.)

…I seem to be developing a trend of dedicating whole months to this series. It’s like they’re my favorite games, or something.

 

The Mother/Earthbound series is the property of Nintendo & Shigesato Itoi. You can purchase both Earthbound Beginnings and Earthbound to play via the Wii U Virtual Console.

The Believable Relationship – Plague Knight & Mona

Remember when I said Shovel Knight and Shield Knight were the ultimate pinnacle of romance? Well…

plague-knight1

…I may have been somewhat mistaken.

Don’t get me wrong: Shovel and Shield still rule the epic romance, but Plague Knight and Mona demonstrate an equally important love story – the one where two people actually like each other.

Do you know what relationship cliché I hate nearly as much as the over-sexualized romance?  The relationship where the couple suffers from “sexual tension”. They fight like dogs, they continually express their hatred for everything the other person stands for, yet for some ludicrous reason they have the hots for each other something fierce.

(The only couple who’s excused from this cliché is Beatrice and Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing, because that play is amazing, so shut up okay.)

This love trope uses heightened emotions to create the illusion that sparks are flying. And I mean, it does work. The trope wouldn’t be so widespread if it didn’t. But I sometimes feel like in this instance, maybe fantasy should reflect reality a little more accurately. We need more lovers who would logically have an attraction – and who know how to keep it interesting (because let’s be honest: the reason we love sexual tension is because there’s always some excitement going on).

(…That last bit was not meant to be dirty. Get your head out of the gutter.)

This Valentine’s week, let’s study the love between Plague Knight and Mona. They’re a couple of alchemists with a diabolical bent, so already they have a foundation of common interests. This means that from the start you won’t see them mocking each other for their profession and hobbies; in fact, they’ve learned to collaborate and use a combined intellect.

When they converse, it’s friendly and casual (unless Plague Knight’s getting all shy with his affections). They share jokes, they show concern for the other’s well-being. And say whaaaaaaat? They actually compliment each other?

Not to say they don’t have their misunderstandings – I mean, the whole plot is centered around Plague Knight’s misguided belief that Mona won’t fall for him – but their relationship isn’t built on misunderstandings like it is for many a tension couple. In fact, Plague Knight even tries to rectify an error in communication at one crucial moment, but is foiled by a clichéd plot turn.

Oh no, the love interest left? I bet our crazy plan to become all-powerful will bring her back!

This camaraderie sets the foundation for Plague Knight and Mona’s romantic feelings, since we can already see that they get along and hold respect for each other. There’s nothing I ship more than plausibility in a couple.

You see, it isn’t the overused plot turns of the story that sell me on their relationship – not the whole “stuck lever” scene or the climactic misunderstanding that leads to Plague Knight finally admitting his goal to win Mona…

Steamy!

It’s the fact that we see their positive communication the whole way through the game. They genuinely enjoy each other’s company. This makes the more clichéd points of the story sweeter than they’d otherwise be.

And let me just tell you: the dance subplot makes the sparks fly waaaaaaaaay hotter than any ol’ sexually-charged argument would. In fact, to end this post, I’m just going to give you the game’s closing scene. Go on. Let it fill you with the Valentine’s spirit.

 

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

Immersion in Papers, Please

Ah, the cold white of winter. A season for staying indoors with a warm drink and cozy story. The time of year when a young gamer’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of…

…fictional Communist regimes*.

*If you think this post’s gonna get political, you’re on the wrong blog, son.

Papers, Please takes place in GLORIOUS Arstotska, which has just reopened its borders to residents, immigrants, workers, and refugees – provided they bring the proper documentation. You play the role of a checkpoint officer and must sift through the barrage of mandated paperwork as person after person files through your line.

You encounter everyone from the kind to the quirky to the downright rude and nasty. At the end of each day, you receive a meager paycheck and head home to a crowded apartment where you must decide whether your family can afford its heat or food…or not.

Now, there are plenty of books which pull off excellent realism and immersion through word choice and atmosphere. But I’d like to take a moment to make a considerably geeky argument: Some stories are just better told through video games. There’s a degree of involvement, high-intensity, and personal risk that makes stories shine in a virtual setting.

Papers, Please is an excellent example of what a game can do in this venue. I don’t pretend to understand socialist life perfectly after playing it, but I will say it did more to engage me than any other similarly-themed story has done. And the way I think it succeeds in this, is because the game mechanics demand personal control.

The first-person viewpoint of the game does two things: 1) It offers upfront interaction with a society under oppression; 2) It drives the protagonist’s personal struggles powerfully home.

For the first point, I think most poignantly of the moment when Arstotska’s government requires all “suspicious” persons to undergo a scanning process, which strips them nude (or down to their underwear if you choose to censor the game for modesty). While it may be a government mandate that requires the strip-search, you are personally responsible for forcing them through this demeaning procedure. You must swallow the guilt when an innocent person is robbed of their privacy.

…And sometimes the not-so-innocent. I smell contraband!

The second point is the bread and butter of the game, though. From the start you’re expected to complete transactions flawlessly, but at the same time you’re only paid per properly-handled immigrant. When you work accurately but slowly, you bring home pittance to your family and have nothing left after paying the rent. The stress of your work load then mounts that much more – PARTICULARLY when the checkpoint begins to require MORE documentation to double-check.

And as your weeks on the job progress, you become so buried in vetting papers you don’t even catch acts of terrorism happening right outside your booth.

This is the ability of a video game’s story. Through actions completed in gameplay you become so bound to the life of your lead character that you can feel what he must be feeling. The anxiety of earning a piddling paycheck. The mix of tedium and stress working with the unpredictable public. The shock of encountering violence on a regular basis.

Believe me, I’m a lover and proponent of books, but there’s rarely been a piece of literature that’s given me this deep of an experience. It’s a different realm of storytelling altogether and in some ways can’t be compared to other mediums. (I know this blog is all about learning writing skills from video games, but shh.)

So hey, while you stay in from the cold, feel free to pick up a controller as well as a book. Winter’s a great time for enjoying all manner of stories, right? *pours a cup of tea and calls in another immigrant*

 

Papers, Please is the property of Lucas Pope. You can purchase it to play via Steam.