Monday, November 12, 2018

Characters and Tactical Subtext

This was written on the weekend, and not meant as a tribute to the now late Stan Lee, but it might as well have been...

“We explore dungeons not characters” is one slogan of the Old School Renaissance in gaming and it’s stupid. You can’t explore a dungeon without exploring a character. That's my thesis--let’s go

What’s it look like to play without exploring character? There’s a fantastic game which does this: Space Marine, the video game. It’s a third person-chainsworder where you play—prepare to be shocked—a grim white-haired white dude. The action is fast, the toys are fun, the controls are intuitive, it looks like this:

first person....but with colors! what a concept.

...and it has the best third-person mechanic there is—a jump pack. Soar with marvelous physics over the lovingly-devved scenery while also sneaking up on your enemies. If you’ve ever played Boba Fett in a Star Wars: Battlefront game you know the feeling—closely allied to Spider-Man webswinging mechanics.

Anyway, this game rules but somehow it isn’t as engrossing (that specific word) as some games that look worse, aren’t as fun to smack buttons on, and don’t have 3 decades of decadent John Blanche-inspired design behind them, like, say Lunar: Silver Star Story...

I could play Space Marine any day I have free time alone (so ok never) but Lunar occupies my whole brain when I play.

Lunar is a game that, on paper, I shouldn’t like: rustic (at least at first), romance, goofy bosses, long cut scenes, j-pop, fiddling with buying and equipping gear, cliche story and its one of those games where gameplay curves aren’t worked out so parts are way too easy and tactics slowly cease mattering as you level up: but I like it (also I know at least 2 other overeducated tattooed professional sexpeople who like it, dunno if this is a trend).

Lunar has what Space Marine does not: more than one character who fights at the same time--not support teams, real characters, with names. This is not to say they're great characters--or even good, really, they're just characters. Even the most duplo-block characters do something to your brain just by being characters--who doesn't love Yoshi? He lets you ride on his back and spits apples. He's a solid dude--All that without him saying a word.

This creates tactical subtext—the magical land where people who talk about “story” and “character” in games overlap with people who are actually fun at parties. This is where Pendragon lives (a knight, yes…but what kind of knight?) and where most superhero games try to exist (they made you the ultimate fighting machine—but at what cost?) and of course it’s a part of all tabletop RPGs and it’s one of the reasons you like them.
art: david aja

In Lunar, your first party consists of three people: Alex—exhaustingly earnest main character with a Great Destiny, Luna—irritating singing hippie, and Ramus—a fat dork whose cowardice is exceeded only by his greed.

Or, at least, that’s how they act in the cutscenes and town scenes: in the fights, Ramus is a fucking delicious monster—a wonderful, dart-throwing, item-using support tank whom I would not trade for all the contents of all the Locked Red Chests in Nanza. I love this guy, I love his stupid boyscout neckerchief, I love his unvarnished lust for dragon diamonds, any man brave enough to go into an ice dungeon and fight crystals and yetis with a garbage can lid as a shield can drink from my canteen any day. I get so pissed when the story makes you drop him from the party after the second or third boss and he gets replaced with people with reputations and proper combat powers.

The point is not that Ramus is especially remarkable (he isn’t, he is a stock character), the point is: I have thoughts about Ramus, continuously throughout and after the game, and that's what the marriage of action and even the thinnest character can give you.

As the story progresses, things happen to him and I get to think about them. The game gives you a text: the characters talking to each other in their stupid jrpg way, where Ramus (and then Nash after that and then Kyle after that) are run down as useless jackasses by the other stock-character high-schoolers...

...(who, due to programming limitations and jrpg convention, have no memory of the like 90 times they have all saved each others’ lives in the last hour), but the game also gives you a subtext: your own experience using those characters. They don’t mesh—and that’s actually great, because it enables you to have thoughts—you need thoughts to overcome the gap between the intended story and the unpredictable gameplay events, like Ramus turning out to be really good at luring giant flies into close combat by dodging. So young, so brave.

Whereas in Space Marine the company commander keeps telling you that you need to go do something, soldier, and then you do. Alone. Good job. There's no other way of addressing the problems in the game demonstrated by anyone else you might  compare yourself/himself to--no subtexts are being generated. As far as you know, your way of killing orks is the only way.

This also is a problem with Mass Effect, at least the iterations I’ve played: these support characters are all presented as ubercompetent badasses and…they are. Plus in the fights they are always doing their thing in your peripheral vision, they aren’t characters whose effect on the fight you feel much first-hand.

All of this is a way of saying: Lunar gives you tactical subtext.  The way the characters interact with gameplay (in this and so many cases, that's fighting) interacts with their overt presentation as personalities in ways that an observant, thinking player can have their own ideas about—and the root of all entertainment is creating things we have a series of ideas about.

It won’t have escaped you that his kind of pleasure is deeply spliced into the DNA of D&D and its ilk—in the richest way possible.

Ela Darling, award-winning Virtual-Reality porn pioneer, ambitious woman, and utter sweetheart, plays Poppy Fields, who, out of combat, is kind of the world’s most Total White Girl, constantly incredulous at every monster’s insistence on being monstrous (“You ate him? Who raised you?”) to the point where you half expect her to demand to speak to the Tiktaalik, the Primordial Were-Titan’s manager. And yet, with a bow, she is a masterwork of precision and harm, dealing terrible damage at 90 feet. Morgana—premiere monster actress on Stan Against Evil and funny goth—plays Gwen, grumpy teenage rogue who is so over everything, and in a fight she….really needs help because she’s like second level, and is obviously very proud when she manages to pull anything off and prove she’s cool to the grown-ups. You can have thoughts about that, you can have thoughts about Gwen, you can have thoughts about how Gwen is or isn’t like Morgana, you can have thoughts about how Gwen does or doesn’t like Poppy, you can have thoughts about how Morgana is or isn’t like Ela based on the characters they created. And that’s before you introduce any other characters or players or any specific situation where Gwen has Morgana's back--or doesn't, or they both die together, or save each other, or need each other, or anything else...

Character isn’t just personality, it’s what emerges when people are desperate, thrown together, tested. And an adventure does that always, for free, every time.

art: roc upchurch
p.s. New blog in town starting out with a bang. Fiona is smart.


Unknown said...

Ummm...excuse me, FIFTH level and totally kicking ASS. UGH! This is so typical, everyones aways like "ehhh Gwenn be careful, don't charge in to battle, don't flip off the Giant Bat, listen to your sex mom myeh myeh myeh myeh myeh" but never like "Oh Gwenn you're so cool with how you strangled that Sahuagin to death or gagged that dumb giant skull till it puked up your party member" but WHATEVER OKAY?

*broods at advantage*

Onze said...

Fat Cobra's story is something else. Thanks for the wonderful read.

jacob business said...

i feel like mass effect 2 was actually a good example of this when i played it. particularly the mechaninic where you can stop time and tell a teammate to hit an enemy with a specific power, like telling garrus to use an explosive round or whatever it is, on some guy who otherwise might've killed you, just in the nick of time, is such a cool feeling. like after that, garrus is your fuckin boy.

I think one example of a single player game that sort of achieved this feeling for me is also Dark Souls. at the beginning of the game when you make your own guy, he's totally backstory-less and has zero character-defining attributes but after you've watched him die and pick himself up again and try again like murderhobo Sisyphus (or murderhobo Groundhog Day), a thousand fucking times. you realize that this grimy zombie knight is a true hero.

anyway this is a great post. it puts so many things into words that i couldn't about video games and RPGs.

Verad Bellveil said...

Lunar is cliche as hell, but the good kind like I want. Knowing what's it like on paper, though, how'd you get into it?

Zak Sabbath said...

the person who got me the playstation got me Lunar too, so for a while it was the only game i had. i think they mustve asked the people at the store "what's the best game?" and they gave them Lunar

Matt P said...

Ah which issue of Rat Queens is that from? Really entertaining series, though I was a bit sad when they switched artists as I'd quite liked the original style.

Zak Sabbath said...

its from i think the last issue of the first collection

they had to switch artists from roc upchurch to someone worse when roc got arrested for beating his wife/girlfriend