It’s Time To Get Serious About How Serious We Are In Videogames

Edward Kenway, allegedly much more interesting than his humorless grandson.

Ubisoft announced Assassin’s Creed 4 today, a week after the rest of the internet announced it for them by leaking everything from box art to Gamestop posters to plot synopses to bar codes. The timeline of the game’s development doesn’t make it strictly a reaction to the reception to Assassin’s Creed 3, but a few words I’ve read in the previews have pointed to that being at least part of why Edward Kenway is who he is. One of those words was “Ezio,” and if the plan is to have Edward be like the charismatic Italian from the three Assassin Creed 2s, then the series has a chance to be great again.

There are plenty of problems with Assassin’s Creed 3, but I want to focus on one of the biggest problems for me. Assassin’s Creed 2 was one of my favorite surprises of this generation, Brotherhood was nearly flawless, and Revelations had some incredible high points, and easily avoidable low points. The element holding these games together was Ezio Auditore, and his journey from the easily-angered novice assassin in AC2 to the world-weary snarker in Revelations, the end of his story. Ezio was a fantastic character, one of the best of this generation, and I think that’s in no small part due to the fact that he was never afraid to smile.

The gameplay of Assassin’s Creed 2, for me, was running along rooftops, boffing archers in the back of the head, and then throwing dirt in the eyes of guards that came to investigate before inserting hidden blades into eye sockets. When I was done with that, I’d run up to the highest thing I could find and then fling myself off of it into a hay bale. Do you know what that is? That’s hilarious. And while Ezio wasn’t cackling like a madman as he plummeted 150 feet into three feet of hay, he handled most twists and turns in his story with a wink and a nod, a general acknowledgement of how crazy these things were. Sure, he may be chasing after the most corrupt of the Borgias, but he’s going to take the time to chat up the pretty lady. He might be investigating the disappearance of Altair’s artifacts, but he’s also going to go on a picnic with this gorgeous bookseller who seems to be the only other person in Constantinople with the same level of smirk.

Connor lost all of that. He had an unbearably tragic backstory, sure, but so did Ezio. There was hardly ever a smile, hardly ever an acknowledgement that this was fun, just grim political drama played out around a young man who couldn’t be bothered to even learn what was really happening. There was no fun in Connor, which was strange because much of the game was still fun, if you define fun as springing out of a haystack with an ax to ambush an innocent deer.

Lightning vs. The Guy With The Purple Feathers In His Hair

Another series had a similar problem for me, which is a shame, because five years ago I considered Final Fantasy to be my favorite videogame series. Final Fantasy XIII, the showcase for Final Fantasy for this generation, told a story that was almost entirely devoid of mirth, and what comedy that was there seemed to be a little too close to a minstrel show with the portrayal of Sazh. This is a series where Cecil regularly broke out into dance, Bartz was Bartz, an octopus played the piano, Cloud dressed in drag, Squall dreamed he was a moron, Zidane paused mid-escape to grab a girl’s butt, Jecht got drunk and fought a shoopuf, and Vaan repeatedly botched talking to girls. It’s a series that wasn’t afraid to laugh, and it was much stronger for it.

Why is it so important to be able to smile? Because without it, we have no point to return that character to.  Lightning’s always been a bitter pill, Connor’s always been a stoic jerkass. Why do we want to get invested in this character? They’re not any fun, they don’t have anything to be happy about.

Compare to the Investigation Team in Persona 4.

Investigation Team GO
Investigation Team GO

Persona 4 Golden is one of the funniest games I’ve ever played. That humor serves two purposes — it humanizes the characters, and it endears them to us. It also gives us something to invest in — we’re not hoping for some fantasy time when the characters can be happy, we’ve seen it. We see it in how they interact with Nanako, with the trip to the beach, with the ghost stories together at the ski lodge. A smile doesn’t prevent the writer from being able to deploy drama throughout the game, it just weaponizes that drama. Separating Connor from Achilles doesn’t make us feel anything but anger toward Connor because it’s Connor’s own fault, and they just yell at each other all the time anway. Separating Charlie from the rest of the Investigation team because you know all those wonderful moments because you played them, you laughed along with them, you’re invested in them. Angry Man With Gun isn’t a character any more than Joe Doom was in Doom.

It’s okay for videogames to be fun, and it’s okay for the protagonists to have fun when they’re in the game. It feels like a bunch of people missed that this generation and made as many humorless games as they could, all in a row, and we were buried under a glut of grim-faced men holding guns on box art, because in the grim dark future of videogames there is only grimacing masculinity and laughter is for babies.

Even To The Moon wasn’t afraid to crack jokes, and I bawled during that game. Repeatedly. Those jokes further made those characters people, more than any number of maudlin chords and This Is When You Are To Be Sad moments would have, so when those moments did come along my heart broke just like it was supposed to. The jokes never took away from it, they just made it so much more powerful in the end.

It’s supposed to be fun, people. Don’t be afraid to smile.

And Now For Something Completely Different — Final Fantasy Puns

So they’re apparently going to make Final Fantasy XIII-3, which is surprising since that specific game is terrible. Apparently no one told Square.

I vented about this to a coworker, and things got a bit weird.

Matt: I think this franchise has definitely jumped the moogle.
Richard: I think that the series’ airship left the port a while back.
Matt: I think that series never got the tonberry out of the gate.
Richard: Square is really getting esperate.
Matt: It’s definitely not the behemoth it once was.
Richard: Is their ultima goal to drive away the fanbase?
Matt: It sure seems that way. The designers can’t get their heads out of the clouds.
Richard: I’m with you in that XIII-3 will definitely be a bomb.
Matt: But what difference can we make? Just fighting the tide, us.
Richard: These strange decisions are making dedicated fans like yourself wakka way from these games.
Matt: I certainly don’t want to seymour of where this franchise is headed.
Richard: They need to come up with a new strategy esuna rather than later.
Matt: This has become a Holy terror. They need to Fire everyone involved with XIII, and stop trying to compete with the games made by Activision-Blizzard. Monster corridors aren’t going to Protect them against the betrayed fans, so they need to Restore their design with all Haste and Heal this series before all that’s left is the Death of Final Fantasy.
Richard: *applause*

I feel that was a good use of my time.

The Future of Final Fantasy

At E3 2012, Square Enix unveiled a rather impressive video showcasing the new Luminous Engine. They called it Agni’s Philosophy, though they didn’t say that there was an actual game in the works. This could just be a tech demo, like the fanboy-baiting Final Fantasy VII PS3 demo at the beginning of this generation. It could be a sly preview for a game we’ll see sometime in 2019, with Square’s current development timelines.

What it isn’t, though, is pretty clear — it isn’t Final Fantasy XV, it isn’t Final Fantasy Versus XIII, and it isn’t Final Fantasy Type-0. And that’s bad.

Final Fantasy Type-0 is already out in Japan, and has been for a while. Square Enix has promised that the PSP RPG will make it to the West eventually, but E3 came and went without a single mention of it or the rumored Vita HD version. Not getting a Final Fantasy in the States seems almost impossible in this day and age of releasing Final Fantasy IV on everything this side of the Colecovision, but I’m starting to worry that Type-0 is vaporware.

And speaking of vaporware, Final Fantasy Versus XIII will almost certainly miss any theoretical 2012 release date, meaning we are on year six since its announcement with only a few minutes of what might have been gameplay to show for it. I remain intrigued for it — what they have shown looks incredible, with a Kingdom Hearts HD feel to the combat, good character designs, and an interesting tie to the mythology of Final Fantasy XIII. But it’s moved engines once already in its development, and Nomura stated in mid-2011 that they hadn’t even begun full development on it yet. I’m concerned that the first two hours of Versus XIII will be incredible, and the remaining 78 pedestrian.

Final Fantasy XV doesn’t even exist yet, but I’m already anxious for its announcement. We’ve had multiple missteps, the JRPG is in decline, and the Final Fantasy name has come to mean spin-offs and re-releases versus high quality RPGs. Whatever Square does here is going to be huge, less for the game and more for what it means for the future of the genre and the future of the franchise. The game itself also needs to be good, but that shouldn’t be too hard; hire the Ivalice team back, lock the director of XIII in a closet for four years, and just let them make the spiritual successor to Final Fantasy XII. Cast Troy Baker as the male lead. Put a moogle in a musketeer hat and have him join the party. Nolan North voices the moogle. There, I’ve saved Final Fantasy. Wasn’t that hard, was it?

Music In 4d4 Time

One-Winged Angel. Dancing Mad. The Extreme. Clash On The Big Bridge. Vamo Alla Flamenco. Chocobo. Esper Battle. Final Fantasy is a series defined by its music as much as anything else, to the point where a chief complaint many had with Final Fantasy XIII is that it had no crystal theme or victory fanfare. When you load up a Final Fantasy game, you expect incredible music from start to finish, and anything less than that is unacceptable.

That is an expectation I placed on myself when I started running my d20 Final Fantasy game back in 2003, and while I don’t know if I’ve succeeded thus far, no one can accuse me of not trying.

As of this second week of February 2012, we have had 235 formal sessions of Final Fantasy Omega, with probably another 25 or so uncategorized solo sessions that didn’t get an official number on them. In those 250+ sessions I have played 546 unique tracks of music, according to my sounds directory. At least 60 of those are recordings I did for the big arena tournament, because there is always a tournament in Final Fantasy games, and I felt compelled to record myself giving professional wrestling-esque introductions for every team and person competing. If I had any shame, that could have been embarrassing.

What started as a way to make my players excited when they used big attacks, like playing their character’s theme song when they hit their limit break, evolved into something a lot more detailed than I ever anticipated. The party members have their own musical cues and themes beyond their one theme song. For instance, summoner Naoko Kyuudou’s theme song is Ryoshima Plains from Okami, mixed so part 1 leads quickly into part 2’s drums. Okami’s soundtrack has a very strong Japanese feel to it, signature flute and strings over staccato beats and a bunch of other instruments that I would recognize instantly but could not begin to name. I’ve used other pieces of music from Okami for important things to Naoko — a few of her summons have music from Okami, as does her uncle, an important NPC (not EVERY character has their own theme music, it just feels like that). I now follow Rei Kondoh to find more work she’s done, so I can mine from those soundtracks for more Naoko-specific plot ideas.

Another character has an acoustic-guitar focus, from when he picked Bur Said by Cusco as the theme for his abandoned home. I’ve used that a time or two since. Another has a growing focus on the militaristic drums and rising strings of Hitoshi Sakimoto, best known for his work in Final Fantasy XII and Valkyria Chronicles. The first character there has a piece of music done by Hitoshi Sakimoto with acoustic guitar, and it is the theme for the closest thing they have in common.

I have built a villain solely around Liberi Fatali, the opening theme from Final Fantasy VIII, and the dozen or so versions I have of it from official releases, covers, and remixes tracked down online. One single aspect of my main villain is built around the soundtrack to NieR, the most captivating music I’ve heard in a game in the last five years, because the otherworldly vocals fit that mood perfectly.

My players don’t have the same ear for video game soundtracks that I do, because they’re not insane. But I know I’ve done a good job with music when I can slightly modify a theme and get private messages from all three of them going “Oh shit what have we done?!”

The best gift a player can give his GM is crippling fear and abject terror, and if I have to mix Powder with Gangrel’s WWF theme music to make the theme for Anima to get that fear, I will. Because when it works, when I can set a song playing and see all three of them scrambling to find a way out of the immediate area, that means I’ve done my job well.

And they hate me for it.

Dododododooododododooo.

Attacking The Darkness

Every week, I inform my friends and family that I am the master of their futures and their very lives are in my hands. Whether they live or die is solely my discretion, and my faintest whim will determine the course of their future.

And then we roll some dice and hit things.

Wednesday nights are Gaming Nights around here. Back in 2003 I started a Final Fantasy d20 gaming campaign, custom-built (read that: shamelessly stolen) from various d20 rulebooks and my own fevered imagination. We started with two players, grew to four (and two games!), then went down to three when one of my players decided he had better things to do, like go be a lawyer or something. We miss you, Taylor! Though we understand you have about no time left in the world anymore.

My players are my best friend from high school who moved out here to Kansas City with me in 2003, another really good friend who moved out here to Kansas City with me in 2004, and the girl I moved here to Kansas City FOR, and who I married in 2008. The player who ended up leaving the game was another one of my best friends from high school who moved out here to Kansas City with me in 2003. Aside from gaming, we have maybe two things all in common, one of which is a susceptibility to mind control.

There is a list, somewhere, of things that no one wants to read about, and stories about your gaming sessions are no lower than #4 on that list. So I’m not going to just recap sessions each week here, because no one wants to read that who isn’t already playing in the game. So instead I’m going to try and find interesting things to talk about as far as game design, how I run things, special extras either I or my players have done, stuff like that. We’ll start with music, because this will frame a lot of the later posts.

Final Fantasy games are big on music. Most every character in a game has a leitmotif, there are special battle themes and city themes and mood themes, so forth, so on. When I started planning Final Fantasy Omega, I decided I was going to make music a big part of the game, so I told everyone to pick their character’s theme song, because it would be used for their Limit Break (big super signature attack). I would also have themes for the villains and cities and everything.

We’ve since moved the game online, where we log into IRC every week and type out our dice rolls and character chatter, since the youngest of us is 29 (me!) and everyone’s getting old and lazy, and the player who left still played for a few years after moving to Nashville from KC. I can still do music, though, by setting up a sounds directory in IRC and then using commands in-session to play music.

The sounds directory has, at the time of this writing, 489 items in it. Many of these are tracks that I have played only once. It’s not enough to say I have themes going for certain characters — I’m limiting composers to specific character arcs so I can have a consistent unifying theme for that character and anyone related to him or her.

Most of the music comes from video game soundtracks, so expect this space to talk a lot about music.