Monthly Archives: June 2016

Opinion – How you start your story

A lesson in storytelling.

Lufia 2 and Final Fantasy 6 may both be JRPGs from the SNES era, but they’re narratively in completely different leagues.  While Lufia 2 satisfies itself with a cookie cutter plot to motivate the player, FF6 builds a rich world with complex and memorable characters.  The contrast is both striking and instructive.  By placing the first hour of each game next to the other, it’s easy to appreciate FF6’s impressive technique and Lufia 2’s minor investment in story.

The opening hour of Lufia 2 has effectively four stories:

  1. Maxim, our hero, learns he will fight something really bad (unexplained)
  2. Tia, Maxim’s friend, holds unreciprocated love for Maxim
  3. The way to the town of Sundletan is blocked by an evil lizard
  4. An evil catfish is causing earthquakes in Sundletan

The opening of Final Fantasy 6 also has four stories:

  1. The mind controlled magic user Terra spearheads an imperial invasion of a town to capture an “Esper” (unexplained)
  2. After regaining control of her mind, the amnesiac Terra escapes with the assistance of Locke and the Returners, an anti-imperial group.
  3. Terra and Locke seek refuge in the castle of Figaro where they meet the womanizing Edward (never thought of him as an Edgar).
  4. Terra learns of Edward’s brother Sabin who fled the kingdom to avoid assuming the throne.

 

It’s easy to see that Lufia 2 isn’t investing for the long game.  While stories 1 and 2 carry throughout the rest of the game, stories 3 and 4 are resolved in about 20 minutes and are never mentioned again.  In those stories, the characters and world aren’t developed and developer Natsume doesn’t mention anything that will be relevant later on.  They are, in short, dead space.  FF6 does things a little differently.  Three of the four stories (1,2, and 3) are relevant later on and the fourth (4) arguably is so as well.  The relationship between Terra, the espers, the Empire, and the Returners remains important throughout huge swaths of the game.  The story refers back to these moments (directly or indirectly) for a long time and they set up one of the major conflicts.  Story 4 arguably does the same, but its limited focus makes it a little less impactful.  Still, the relationship between Edward and Sabin is important for fleshing out two main characters.

The reason FF6’s stories matter and Lufia 2’s don’t is how the stories are integrated into the larger narrative.  Lufia 2’s stories are isolated and so interact very little with any of the other narrative pieces.  They often don’t contribute to character or world building and rarely set up the next event.  Even Lufia 2’s main story threads (1 & 2) avoid each other until pivotal moments.  FF6 takes the opposite approach.  Every minor story contributes to the larger whole.  Stories 1 through 3 establish the empire as an oppressive force which sets up the Returner’s request that Terra join the Returner cause later in the story.  Terra’s interaction with the Esper in the opening sequence lays the groundwork for an important revelation about her character much later in the game.  Every story works within a larger framework to strengthen the characters and world.  This makes each story more meaningful because they mutually reinforce each other.  The player may not care about Terra’s interaction with the Empire, but they could still access that storyline through Edward and Locke.  If the player likes all three characters, than their passion about the Empire story line is that much stronger.  Compare that with Lufia 2.  If the player doesn’t care about Tia, there isn’t another way to access the Maxim love life narrative.  The many links between Final Fantasy 6’s various plots creates opportunities for player investment in a way that Lufia 2’s limit links can’t.

FF6 works because the story constantly invests in itself.  Every element bolsters other elements tieing them together into a cohesive hole.  By comparison, Lufia 2’s story is full of disparate elements that act on their own without adding to the greater narrative.  Not surprisingly, Final Fantasy 6’s story is held up as a classic whereas Lufia 2’s reputation is mostly for its other features.

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Opinion – End of the World Addendum

Addendum:  The problem with saving the world is how it dilutes its component parts.  Individual elements of a story are all threatened, but never based on their individuality.  A character’s quirks and attributes aren’t relevant, but rather its idea of their existence in the threatened world that matters.  At the crucial moment of a game’s story, the developer encourages the player to disengage from the very aspect of the game they liked and, instead, encourages the player to look at the favored elements as part of an undifferentiated whole.  The special nature of the favored element is lost as are all the unique elements of the world.  They are subsumed into one relevant unit: that which is going to die.  From there, the player has less of a reason to care about the favored element’s demise as, in many ways, that element has already died.  Its intriguing parts are discarded so as to cram in all the elements that are threatened.  This is hardly a compelling way to end a story.

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Opinion – It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel bored

The world ends with lazy plot devices

Saving the world.  We’ve all done it.  Whether it’s from the clutches of an evil villain or from absolute destruction brought on by an evil meteor, saving the world is a regular part of video games.  Sadly, it’s also an incredibly unsatisfying part.  Oftentimes, the “save the world” ending feels like a tacked on obligation rather than a compelling feature of the narrative.  Even good games (Persona 3 comes to mind) can’t seem to make it work, yet developers always add it in.  Why?  Because it’s safe.

The end of a video game is the culmination of what a developer did, and didn’t do, throughout their game.  If they’ve created complex characters, a compelling narrative, and an interesting world, then the end of the game is the chance for the developer to bring it all together in a satisfying way.  If the story isn’t strong, then the developer must shove the story to a satisfying conclusion without the materials to make it really shine.  Either way, the end of the world mechanic serves the end game’s purpose.  It brings the game to a close.

Destroying the world should be viewed as a quick grab for the player’s emotions.  As most of the things the player cares about are in the world, threatening said world means that the odds are good that the developer is threatening something the player cares about.  Whether it’s puppies, children, or rainbows, the world ending…ending allows the player to invest some kind of emotion into the game by threatening everything and hoping something connections.  The problem is that it’s far too general.  People do care about the aforementioned things and more, but they’re very poor at caring about nonspecific variations of those things.  We would all help an old man struggling up some stairs, but we won’t donate 5 bucks to a charity helping Syrian refugees not die.  Still, even this minimal level of emotion establishes a floor to which the gamer’s emotional investment won’t drop below.  It ensures that every scrap of connection between the player and the game are marshalled to bring about the conclusion.  This is obviously appealing for games with weak stories that need all the help they can get.  If they threaten everything, then the player is sure to care about something, right?

The world ending approach also works for better constructed stories.  If the developers successfully build an emotional link between the player and their narrative, then the threat to everything is a more potent one.  Even then, it rarely has the same impact of the other plot points addressing the specific parts of the game that the players’ care about.  In Persona 3, the destruction of Earth felt hollow compared to the trials of the individual students.   Developer Atlus spent time developing the students as characters worth caring about and so players invested in those characters.  When the world is threatened, the concern is less about the billions dead and civilization’s ruin and more about how these individuals cope with the end.  The end of the world still establishes that safety baseline of emotion, but it contrasts poorly with the better fleshed out stories sprinkled throughout the rest of the game.

The only time saving the world matters is when the world/galaxy/universe matters.  When a developer takes the time to connect the player with the world they’re developing, then threatening that thing has more impact.  The player cares if it disappears because they care about the environment they’ve been inhabiting.  They aren’t viewing the world through generic concerns or other aspects of the narrative, but rather caring for the thing being threatened on its own merits.  Mass Effect does this brilliantly by involving the player in a richly developed universe with a myriad of stories.  Threatening the universe matters in Mass Effect because the universe matters.

If I could sum it up, I’d say that the ending of a game matters when it focuses on the things that the players invest in.  Saving the world is a narrative shotgun blast in hopes of hitting some of those things, but it can’t make up for a games worth of inattention.  If developers want their endings to have meaning, they have to lay the groundwork before the curtain call.

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Opinion – Learning from Lufia 2

Revisiting an old friend.

I recently had a hankering for some old school JRPGs and so I booted up Lufia 2.  It’s a puzzle focused classic from the SNES era.  Like all well done games, Lufia 2 has important things to tell us about how to promote strengths and handle weaknesses in gaming.  I go through some of those below.

Do something different/puzzles are fun!

Lufia 2 could have been a cookie cutter JRPG.  The SNES had plenty of them and it would have joined a long line of competently made, but otherwise indistinguishable genre entries.  Instead, developer Natsume put in puzzles.  Not flip a switch and you’ve “solved” it puzzles, but genuine brain teasers that engaged your grey cells.  The puzzles make clever use of enemies and in game items to break up the same old dungeon grind and reward crafty players with additional items.  The fond memories of the puzzles brought me back to the game instead of going back to a number of other great SNES competitors.  While lacking the production values of a Square RPG, Lufia 2’s puzzles added a unique element that helps the game stand out.  Rather than try to surpass the giants of the industry by overcoming their strengths, developers should add something new or improve on their weaknesses.  There’s a lot in Lufia 2 that can’t compete with Final Fantasy 6 or Chrono trigger, but by refusing to fight in the same arena, Natsume carved out a niche of its own.

We’ve come a long way on the sexism front.

To think, younger me never picked up on the “subtle” sexism that infuses huge parts of Lufia 2’s story and gameplay.  From the host of happy homemakers to the griping about women not following the male lead, Lufia 2 is quite clear where it sees the fairer sex.  Lest the men feel left out, don’t worry!  This game wants to jam you into a Neanderthal mold.  Empathy challenged meat heads are the order of the day with only one male party member showing any kind of intelligence and half of the male cast lacking mp entirely.  Let’s leave the thinking to the womenfolk!  Lufia’s male leads are your classic Leave it to Beaver dads who know how to bring home the bacon, but can’t understand those “crazy” women.  The game’s cast is a laundry list of old stereotypes that, thankfully, wouldn’t fly in today’s environment.  Games today certainly aren’t perfect, but they aren’t pumping out literal magic bikini armor.

If your story sucks, ignore it.

Plan A is always to have a good story, but plan A doesn’t always work out.  Good stories are hard write.  They take talent to execute and a strong commitment from the developer to ensure the game mechanics don’t overwhelm the plot.  If a developer can’t make plan A work, then they should follow Lufia 2 to plan B: zip through the chatty bits.  The short version of Lufia 2’s story is that a mysterious woman Erin tells monster hunter Maxim that badness is coming and he needs to go kill it.  She later says this to a few other people.  That’s it.

…okay, I’m leaving a little out, but not much.  The reason why this overly simplistic narrative isn’t lethal to the game is that Natsume largely ignores their own plot.  Dialogue rarely goes for more than a few minutes and then you’re back to puzzles and pain.  There’s enough there to keep the player motivated, but not enough to overstay it’s welcome.  Lufia 2 knows its main plot is weak and so it ignores it in favor of keeping the player focused on the part’s that the game does well.

Everyday life can mean more than saving the world.

Remember when I said I was leaving out a bit of the plot?  Well, that part covered the Maxim-Tia-Selan love triangle.  The short version is that Tia wants Maxim to settle down with her, but Maxim wants to keep adventuring.  Tia joins Maxim out of concern for his well-being until Maxim falls in love with the warrior Selan.  The scene where Tia realizes that her dream of playing happy homemaker to the fight loving Maxim will never happen is the most emotionally resonant of the whole game.  It’s far more compelling than any of the plot beats in the primary storyline.  People understand personal interactions more than they appreciate generic threats to the world.  Lufia 2 doesn’t have a great story, but when it works, it’s when it focuses on the experiences of people.

Final dungeons should reflect the rest of the game

Almost from the outset, Lufia 2 establishes a basic pattern for its gameplay.  Go to town, get quest, go to dungeon, solve puzzles, beat boss, and repeat.  It’s not a particularly complicated formula, but it moves the game along and ensures that the player gets regular breaks between fighting, puzzling, and reading.  The final dungeons ignore this pattern by removing the puzzling and reading bits and replacing them with nothing.  Rather than display Natsume’s best puzzles, the last four dungeons completely remove puzzling altogether and even block the player from accessing the items used to resolve said puzzles.  For a game that stands out due to its clever problem solving, this seems like a betrayal of the concept.  That’s a shame, because the fighting is serviceable, but certainly not strong enough on its own.  The lesson is obvious.  If you’ve built your game on certain mechanics, don’t drop them at the end.  Make them the pinnacle of what you’ve achieved before or your endgame dungeons will lack the same pull of the previous content.

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