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.

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

The Element of Surprise – Killing the Lead in Chrono Trigger

[Currently listening to: Lost Odyssey OST. Branching out in a desire for more Uematsu.]

A new year brings with it an air of the unexpected. Much as we try to prepare for whatever life throws at us, most times it flat out slaps us in the face with a fish when we’re not looking.

It’s a good idea to pull out the face-slapping fish in your writing too (in moderation, you understand. Your readers don’t want to smell all briny). The plot is going as predicted, and then – WHAM! – what just happened? The characters are in disarray, your emotions are rocked, and you can’t see any way this sudden twist will be resolved.

Some authors pull this trick far too often – so that what used to be unexpected becomes predictable. Others shy away from it altogether, which can be fine depending on the genre and goal of the author. But if you’ve decided your story needs a bit of a jolt, let me just tell you –

Chrono Trigger can show you how it’s done. ‘Cause that game killed off its lead.

Let’s preface this bold move a bit, just to strengthen its poignancy: Back in the 90’s, JRPGs were hitting the big time. Final Fantasy IV and VI  were quick sensations (though under different numbers at the time) boasting characters of distinct goals and struggles. Titles like Earthbound and Secret of Mana were developing their own fan followings with unique world-building and atmosphere. A year after Chrono Trigger‘s release even Mario would get in on the RPG game and leave an unforgettable experience of his own.

That’s not even mentioning the RPGs released on the Sega systems, or numerous titles that never made it across seas to the states. Truly, it was a decade for Role Plays, and the stage was set for Chrono Trigger to be the pinnacle of them all.

Aside from the Final Fantasies, most RPGs adhered to the “silent protagonist” trope: the game’s lead character would never speak, and if he needed to get a point across he would either pantomime or rely on other characters to emote for him.

Crono, leading teen of Chrono Trigger, kept true to the “silent protagonist” tradition. He could look shocked, happy, serious, or thoughtful – but never spoke a word. (Well, aside from one particular ending.) At the point of CT‘s release, RPG fans would know the drill by now. Crono was simply a device to move the player and the plot forward; he was the mainstay and common denominator that allowed interactions to occur among other, more three-dimensional characters. Nothing ever happened to the silent protagonist.

And then, three-quarters into the game, Squaresoft rocked the boat. Crono stood his ground too early against Lavos, the story’s ultimate menace, and was blown to pieces. The mainstay of the game was gone.

It wasn’t any sort of quick gimmick, either. The other members of your party wake up the following morning, and Crono is still dead. You watch them come to grips with this reality and sort out their emotions. You take control of the party and walk them outside the tent into an uncertain world. For at least an hour of gameplay you don’t even have the opportunity to change Crono’s fate. What’s more, you don’t even have to finish the game with him alive.

This was unprecedented in the gaming world, and would (I’d argue) still be considered a bold move today. Chrono Trigger dared to explore a question JRPGs hadn’t yet asked: what happens when the main character dies? How do the others in the team carry on? How does it affect the trajectory of the story? And I think that’s the true purpose behind surprising your audience. If you create any plot twist just for the sake of shock value, you’ve missed the point entirely. The unexpected should serve the impact of the story, not meet some “I can’t believe that just happened” quota.

In real life, surprises can seem to have no bearing or meaning on the ultimate scope of our days. (And that’s a Faith post waiting to happen right there.) In fiction, however, we’re given the opportunity to create structure and a message through plot twists. If you think you need a dash of the unexpected in your story, don’t forget that it needs to matter in its own right.

Because even if those silent protagonists never speak, they can still make a strong statement for the story.

 

Chrono Trigger is the property of Square-Enix. There are many ways you can purchase and enjoy this game.