Oxenfree: A Case Study of Theming

Themes in fiction. They’re one of those things that are easy for the authors to work in, easy for the readers to detect, and they make everyone feel smarter for their inclusion. Themes are great. Just latch onto one idea, bring it up in your story a few times in a few different ways, and bam, you have an easy way of making your story go just a bit below the surface level.

Ok, so maybe it’s a little more complicated than that, but not by all that much! Given that themes are all in the eye of the reader, it can be easy to just work some themes in there accidentally. Hell, I’d been finding themes in the Saints Row series, and you know, if they had the sort of creative minds to be deliberately carrying a solid idea through than maybe they’d be able to write an ending that doesn’t suck without overriding it the next game. Moreover, themes are fun! Try finding some consistent ideas in the next story you go through, and see for yourself!

Oftentimes you see a theme, at least one implemented deliberately, the work will have something to say about it. Not always. And really, the works that don’t impose anything on their themes aren’t necessarily any worse than those that do. But what you rarely see is a work that does make a conclusion about its theme, and fits it into the greater work, but that conclusion comes entirely from the consumer. That’s a way of handling a theme that is largely unique to videogames, and even then, it’s something you’ll see rather rarely. So when Oxenfree freakin’ rocked it, I felt compelled to take a moment to recognize it.

Now, you might notice Oxenfree was released relatively recently. So I’m going to be talking about a modern game here. On Lost to the Aether. That never happens. It’s like Christmas and your birthday all put together. And we’ll be talking about some plot stuff. But I’ll do my best to keep it spoiler light. For the most part.

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So, Oxenfree has a theme of guilt and blame. It’s not like a major thing in the game, so don’t expect it to be hammering you over the head with it, but it’s a concept they return to every now and again, enough for it to gain some mental real estate. It does some minor exploring of the concept. Or rather, it guides you through it. Sometimes, stuff happens. Bad stuff. People are unwittingly involved in the bad stuff happening. Whose fault is it?

For example, in the beginning of the game, you meet your dead brother’s ex-girlfriend. She blames you for his death. You get no other information as to the circumstances. How do you react to that?

You track down your stepbrother investigating some creepy stuff. You find something strange, he wants to push it further. You end up unknowingly doing a thing because of it that triggers the inciting incident. Who’s to blame there? You for actually doing it? Your stepbrother for putting you in that situation? Nobody, because seriously, who would expect that thing to be holding evil?

Even the backstory event that set things up happened because people were forced to act with insufficient information and there ended up being some grave consequences for it. Is it the executor’s fault for doing so? The person who held the limited information for putting it in the hands of those who had to act? Nobody’s, because everyone did the best they could with what they had? One background character spends her entire life blaming herself for it and trying to deal with it. Should she have done so?

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At every stage, the story poses the questions, then lets you put in the answer. What does the narrative have to say about this concept? Entirely up to you. And that alone ends up doing some interesting things with its treatment of the theme. It turns the story from your garden variety plot to something with elements of a thought experiment. It forces you to be more introspective about the plot, to reflect and conclude on happenings there. And that is a way of storytelling that is so uniquely videogames.

The Persona 2: Innocent Sin Retrospective, Part 4-Plot and Themes

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Part 1-Introduction

Part 2-Gameplay

Part 3-Setting and Tone

Part 5-Player Characters

Part 6-Other Characters

Plot

So, plots have always been more important in RPGs than in most other genres. If you’re going to be dragging the player around for like forty hours, if you’re going to be making them read a light novel’s worth of text, you got to have something going on to provide sufficient drive for all that. The Persona series in particular is known for being the more plot-focused branch of the whole Megaten franchise. So how does Innocent Sin stack up? Well, it’s got some growing pains, but you know, it’s still making a lot of steps in the right direction, and it’s definitely worth the experience. Namely, Innocent Sin uses something that you don’t see too often in video game storytelling, and that I raved about last time in the tone section. It has some subtlety to its storytelling. It doesn’t present everything up front, you’ve got to absorb and consider to get the full picture. Granted, the amount of actual depth there is pretty limited, but hey, for a PS1 era RPG released when everyone else was scrambling to catch up in the wake of the Final Fantasy VII bombshell, it does pretty well for itself.

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The plot in Revelations: Persona was pretty lacking. It was certainly there, but didn’t really aspire for more than to be a simple justification for the gameplay. Well, the Persona 2 duology has a lot more going on. Not only does the plot have some degree of focus in this game, but it actually goes back and makes the Persona 1 plot retroactively better. It’s Eternal Punishment, the second game of the duology, that relates more to Persona 1, but Innocent Sin still sets the groundwork for it. Namely, it makes Nyarlathotep, who you may remember as being one of the bad guy’s persona from the first game into his own separate entity, a master manipulator and the main villain behind this game. As it turns out, the last game was just part of a greater contest between him and Philemon regarding the whole destiny of mankind. They’ve taken the rather shallow conflict of last game and added a bit of depth by tying it into something greater. A really smooth way of handling it, in all. The plot here ties the series more closely to Jungian psychology than the original game had managed to. Of course, there’s the titular personae making themselves apparent, but the game also introduces the elements of shadows, those parts of yourself that you don’t want to acknowledge, and the idea of the collective unconscious, one of the more major tenants of Jungian psychology. The collective unconscious drives most of the game, in fact, giving rise to both your ultimate enemy and your most powerful ally, as well as granting rumors their reality-warping power.

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The narrative generally takes place over three phases. Or acts, if you’d like to fit it into the traditional structure. All of them are mostly conflict-driven. In other words, the plot’s drive works like almost every other game you’ve played before. The first starts off mostly down to earth, introducing you to your characters and setting up the conflict with the Joker, the cell-phone based wish granting genie that’s pissed off at you personally for something you don’t even know you did. Essentially, the first act is focused on building you into that world and your characters, and most of the conflicts are pretty interpersonal ones centered on relatively familiar locations. Your main is at the center of the first act’s plot, although each of the other characters get their own moments of focus. In the second act, Joker starts up the Masked Circle, a group of terrorists who serve as an analog to your own party. There, the conflict starts to expand a bit, as the Masked Circle are attacking the general public within Sumaru City, but thanks to them being largely focused on fighting you, and them being built of members that correspond to your own, it’s still a very small, personally-scaled conflict. Here’s where the idea of the global-destruction gets built, although it doesn’t really pay off with the Masked Circle. Your main, thanks in large part to being the silent lead, starts taking more of a backseat during this section, and the other members of your party end up leading more of the general happenings. And then come the Nazi’s. As often happens when they get involved, things blow up from there. The consequences finally hit the grand scale the SMT series is known for, with the Last Battalion and the Masked Circle duking it out over who’s going to rise as gods over the freshly devastated Earth. The character focus at this point shifts pretty squarely from the traditional members of your party to Jun Kurosu, the new member to join your squad in the final act. One thing to note here is that due to Innocent Sin being the first part of a duology, while most of the individual plot threads do end up wrapped up by the end, the overarching plot only just gets started here. You still end up creaming most of your major opponents and leave both the Masked Circle and the Nazis on the ropes, but you don’t beat all of them, and the game ends on a massive cliffhanger leading into Eternal Punishment. As for how the next game handles the lead, well, we’ll talk about that next time around.

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Themes of Sacrifice in Tales of Symphonia

Hey, just a warning, we’re going weapons-free on spoilers here.

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The Tales series of video games intrigues me in a variety of ways. There’s the relatively unique combat system, the fantastic way they integrate your character’s random conversations, and their balls-out methods of world-building. What I usually appreciate most after I turn off the game, however, is the way they make a point of deconstructing a fantasy storytelling trope or cliché with every game they make. It’s really interesting to me, both as a writer and as a video games consumer, to watch them build towards a really rote story then twist it around completely, providing a fresh and new take on familiar material. That they do this so reliably is really a testament to their strength as creators. Every game takes something so overrun in modern fantasy storytelling that it makes most people try to scoop their own brains out with a spoon and runs it through a unique lens, analyzing how that trope would work in situations far removed from its typical element. Even as far back as the Super NES era, they broke new ground by giving their obviously evil genocidal villain sympathetic motivations in Tales of Phantasia, then followed it up by breaking down the traditional damsel in distress love interest in Tales of Legendia, the chosen one in Tales of the Abyss, the anti-hero in Tales of Vesperia, and used Tales of Symphonia to take down the commonly held idea of…. uh…. erm….?

Yeah. That’s always been a problem. Tales of Symphonia is probably one of the most important games in the Tales series. In terms of gameplay and characterization, Symphonia moved the series so far into the modern age, and is probably the reason most gamers in the west even know of the franchise today. It is a game that definitely earns its place as one of the best of the series. However, that quality has all been carried by the strength of its characters and the quality of its gameplay. Its plot, on the other hand, is generally regarded as unoriginal, rote, and cliched. Cliched! The game’s often accused of being the very thing the Tales series is founded on circumventing. And most oddly, nobody can agree on just what, exactly, Symphonia’s supposed to be deconstructing. The idea of the chosen one seems to be the most common guess, but Tales of the Abyss hit those notes a lot better, and besides, the way Symphonia handled it, having a member of the church find out the church kind of sucks, is way common in its own right. Also, spoilers, I guess, but come on, seriously, it’s a religious institution that plays a major part of the plot in a modern day video game. Those things are just evil by default. Others have guessed it breaks down the traditional stubborn moron lead, but I haven’t seen those that posit that offer much in the way of evidence towards that hypothesis. More minor estimations I’ve seen include breaking down racism, the goodness of humanity, heroism, and dudes in speedos. Everyone’s sure they’re deconstructing something, but nobody’s sure what that is. It could be they’re breaking down several things in a lot of small ways. Or it could be that they’re focusing on one subject, but doing it so subtly that nobody’s picked up on it. I recently did another playthrough of the game, and this time, I resolved to devote the full force of my big sexy brain to figuring it out.

Turns out, I didn’t have to work so hard. As you may have suspected, everyone in the world is stupid. Including me, until now. And you, too, because you’re reading this post and have just received enlightenment. Seriously, this post will gain you entry into nerdvana. See, Tales of Symphonia does cover a lot of modern fantasy tropes, but there’s one that it focuses on above all others. And it’s not subtle at all, given that the characters will absolutely not shut up about it. Tales of Symphonia as a whole, is all about Sacrifice.

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Personal sacrifice has played a part in storytelling literature since way back with the blazing Epic of Gilgamesh. Since the mid-3rd millennium B.C., or possibly even before, we as a race have been fascinated with the heroes who are willing to lay it all on the line for the good of others and the villains who have been willing to risk all for their own sake. Those who are willing to give it all up to achieve their goals make for strong, satisfying characters, no matter what side of the alignment line they’re on. In 5000 years of storytelling, we’ve always treated sacrifice the same way. Sacrificing yourself for the sake of others is good, sacrificing others for the sake of yourself means we should be telling your mother or something. And yet, Tales of Symphonia turns that all on its head.

Sacrifice factors into either the backstories or the arcs of most of the characters you get in your party, as well as showing up in a lot of the events that occur over the course of the plot. Blazes, the world of Sylvarant itself, with two different worlds forced to ‘sacrifice one another in order to survive’ as the game calls it over and over again plays into this theme so very strongly. The theme’s most prevalent in two instances though; the character of Colette, the character of Lloyd.

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Of the two types of sacrifice I mentioned earlier, the idea of sacrificing yourself being good, and sacrificing others evil, Colette really takes on the former. Colette is Sylvarant’s Chosen One, a being marked from birth and raised with the knowledge that someday the heavens are going to call to her and she’s going to have to go be Jesus. Since she was born, she knew that someday she was going to have to sacrifice her soul in order to save her world. That’s a duty that she takes up readily, out of love for everyone else in her world. And that turns out wrong. So wrong. This most apparently presents itself in the fact that the organization forcing her to go be Jesus is actually the big evil of this game and her sacrifice of herself is actually pretty bad for mankind. The theme lasts in her longer than the first act twist, however. See, Colette’s known that she would need to sacrifice herself all her life, and has developed a full-on complex because of it. She is constantly suffering throughout the course of this game, and she never tells anyone, always bearing her burdens alone and in silence. After all, that was how she was raised. She’d lived her life knowing she had a dour fate but that she and she alone could handle it, and she’s just learned to live that way. It causes so many problems for our group. She suffers alone, and in silence, letting her injuries and maladies grow to the point that your team often has to drop everything to save her. In many circumstances, Colette causes more trouble to your team than any of your adversaries. She is more than ready to sacrifice herself for others. And that is a very, very bad thing.

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Then there’s Lloyd, our viewpoint character of this piece. He runs into trouble early on, get’s some destruction indirectly caused through responses to his actions, and vows that he will make it so nobody will ever be sacrificed for his sake again. He uses pretty much those words, too. That vow is a big sticking point with his character for almost all of the game. And the plot, as well as several of the other characters hammer it into him over and over again that that’s just not possible. No matter what he does, no matter how much he tries, it is impossible for him to avoid collateral damage in his fight against evil. His actions set of a series of events that destroy towns, that drown innocent prisoners, that get people killed for his sake. This reaches its height near the end of the game, where two of your more pragmatic members privately make the decision that they are ready to give their lives to make sure Lloyd gets a shot at the big king wicked, entirely because he has the best chance of succeeding in battle against the bad man. And they almost do give up the ghost to get him through. Lloyd causes a lot of people to suffer in his quest to right the great wrongs of his world. He knows that, and it eats away at him. Yet, while the game never presents it as a good thing, it is absolutely clear that this is a necessary thing. The only way to save everybody in this world is to leave a few of them behind. Lloyd sacrifices a lot of others for his sake, and while it’s not a just thing, it’s something he has to do so that all may live.

We Used to Own This City! The Saints Row Retrospective: Saints Row 2

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Saints Row Retrospective Introduction hereSaints Row 1 here, Saints Row The Third here.

Saints Row 2. This is where it gets real. The first Saints Row was good and all, but this is where the series cut its teeth. You’ve probably heard of the Saints Row series being wild, chaotic, and proudly removed from reality, but if you started with the first Saints Row, you would understandably end up confused. “Why don’t I get to crash into things on a quad while on fire?” you might ask. “Where are the missions where I let lose with a septic truck?” “I thought I would get to kill people with a giant purple dildo!”

Well, you don’t get to in the first game. That game has its moments, but it still leaves a foot in the real, the rational, the “mature.” It was content with its position as being “mostly a GTA clone” and did not stretch itself any further than that. Saints Row 2 was where the series got its wings, where it finally took efforts to distinguish itself from Grand Theft Auto and its many imitators. And although Saints Row 2’s gameplay did get updated, that’s not what really sets it apart. This is where the Saints Row character was defined. This is the game that established the insane moments, wild fun, and blatant, loving immaturity the series is known for. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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