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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Heart of the Storm

There's something about the misinterpreted villain that's fascinating.


Moriya (Last Blade) is a samurai who trained with his best friend, Kaede. When his master is murdered, Kaede returns to find Moriya standing over his lifeless corpse. Realizing that he's been framed, Moriya leaves without a word, allowing his lifelong friend to think that he's a murderer. He dedicates the rest of his life to finding the real killer, and avoiding confrontation with Kaede. Rather than defend himself, he took the fall to avoid conflict, and was fully willing to let himself be seen as a monster.


Itachi (Naruto) is seen as a villain for most of the series. He killed his entire clan, and his brother, Sasuke - the sole survivor - had dedicated his life to taking revenge. There's a flashback sequence where it shows Itachi murdering his clan, and his family. He tells Sasuke to hate him before leaving. He then joins a criminal organization. It's hard to interpret his actions as any other way than sinister and evil.

However, we find out later in the series that his father, the head of the clan, was planning a coup d'etat, and it would have likely ended up in many casualties on both sides. Rather than risk an all out war, Itachi sided with his village rather his clan, and undertook a secret mission to wipe out the clan during the night, while they slept. He was unable to kill his brother, who he loved, so he asked him to hate him - partially because of guilt, and partially to help Sasuke deal with what he had done. The reason he joined the organization is to make sure they didn't hurt his loved ones. He never defends himself, and we discover that he even went to extreme lengths to hide the truth from everyone. Most of the world sees him as a monster, and he is described by the author as living in "Hell." He chose the innocent masses over his family, despite loving them very much.

Both characters eventually reconcile with their loved ones, but there's something about the way that they so willingly jump into darkness, without showing even a hint of a desire to defend themselves, that is much more noble than any story of heroism or valor. The truest hero doesn't do it for the reward, or for themselves, but to protect others or a higher cause. Being seen as a villain was a side effect of how these people chose to follow goodness. Even while in darkness, both characters upheld their virtue.

I think that's far more admirable than those who do good for glory. It's ironic that by getting so close to darkness, you can sometimes find the purest form of light.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Dracula Reborn

It's been over a week since I updated. I was doing well for a while there! "Life's been busy" isn't exactly an excuse, so let's just say I've let neglect seep in and haven't been entirely responsible.

Castlevania isn't really known for its story, characters, or any of that jazz. Nevertheless, it's had its fair share of protagonists throughout its life (which is now likely over) that have had memorable designs and abilities.

I know Alucard gets a lot of love, but I have to give the position of "best lead" to Soma Cruz, the hero of Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow.


This is a series that had put us in the shoes of vampire hunters for nearly every entry. Alucard was one of the rare exceptions, being the renegade son of Dracula himself, but for the most part, you were always someone equipped for the job.

Enter Soma.

He's a Japanese high school student - or exchange student if you're playing the localized versions (eat your hamburgers, Apollo), which in and of itself would normally knock him down a peg on the ladder of good protagonists for me. After all, what's a student compared to a trained vampire killer, or the son of Dracula? But here's the thing: he's not just any old high school student. This guy is the reincarnation of Dracula, stripped of his memories and given a second chance at life as a good person. Even his gameplay differs from the usual Castelvania protag, and plays off of his role as the former Lord of Evil, with him absorbing the souls of monsters and using them to fight.

I mean, he can throw bones and axes and stuff too. I just chose a picture of angel wings and lightning to emphasize his newfound goodness.
This is a nice switchup after so many games with the Belmonts and their associates, and gives us a positive ending to Dracula's story that I don't think anybody expected. He also has the benefit of being the only protagonist in games that are set in the future, rather than in the past. There's thirty-eight Castlevania games, if you count spinoffs, and only Soma's two have the distinction of taking place in a futuristic time period. Rocket launchers, anyone?

Take THAT, Dracula! Oh, wait... he is Dracula. Take THAT, Dracula's successor!
I think what makes this character doubly interesting is that the series has also shown us Dracula before he turned evil. Mathias Cronqvist, from Lament of Innocence, was said to be a good man before he lost his faith in God and declared God his enemy. If you look at Mathias and Soma's designs, their attire is similar, but with the colors inverted. It's a nice touch, and a way that shows us that maybe Mathias is being given another shot at life.

Mathias lived in the year 1004, and was hailed as a brilliant tactitian. He was good friends with the knight, Leon Belmont. Mathias renounced God after his wife died, and then tricked his friend Leon into helping him to absorb the powers of Walter Bernhard, a powerful vampire. Mathias would then be known as Dracula, who continued to appear after numerous defeats until the year 1999... when he was finally slain for good by being sealed inside of a solar eclipse. 


Soma sports more modern clothing than Mathias, as he lives in the year 2035, over a thousand years later. The parallels to his old self, however, are very apparent. Why is he Japanese this time? Because the game was made in Japan, I guess.
Oh, and there's also a route where he goes insane, embraces his evil side, and serves as the final boss of each game he's in. Something about the "evil route" that I love is that it's the death of his loved one that sends him over the edge, just as it did for Mathias years and years before. If you save his lover, you save his soul, and he remains a good man. I always thought that was a nice nod to his previous self, and his potential to be either a hero or a terrible villain.


While Soma's games tell us how Dracula was defeated for good, we never got to see the actual battle. Koji Igarashi, the head honcho behind the franchise, seemed to be building up The Battle of 1999 as a future game. However, the last few games in the series rebooted the universe entirely, and Konami, who the Castlevania IP belongs to, has now renounced the video game business. It's a real shame, as the 1999 game was definitely something a lot of fans were looking forward to. While we'll never get to experience it for ourselves, there's a fan project attempting to tell its story that's worth checking out. It's not a game, but it's something.

Julius Belmont, the final successor of the Belmont clan, defeats Dracula for the last time in 1999 with the help of Alucard and his friends. This art is a fan rendition by PixelProspector on Twitter.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

Was Sephiroth a Good Villain?

After playing through the Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone, which has fantastically well written and nuanced villains, it got me back to thinking about someone my nine year old self thought was an amazing villain. Does he measure up to today's more well written, nuanced characters? I don't know if he's top tier, but I do think he has more going for him than people give him credit for these days. 



I'm talking about Sephiroth, from Final Fantasy VII, who has perhaps become one of the most iconic villains in gaming since his introduction. Sephiroth is the Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker trope, the fallen hero. That's cool, but did they pull it off well? I think they did. 

First, the positives:

SOLDIER is made out to be a bunch of freakishly strong people, and he spends his life being the best of the best, only to find out that he's only that way because he's a genetic experiment. This sends him down an emotional roller coaster as he tries to unravel the mystery behind his past, and the conclusion he comes up with leads him to decide to hate all humans because he thinks he's part of a superior race of people.

+I think that's a nice spin on the trope. It's given an even greater spin because of the misinformation Shinra had on Jenova. She's not an Ancient, she's a parasitic alien life form. In fact, she actually wiped out the Ancients! By the time we see Sephiroth in the present, he's become much more than the man he was. He's merged with Jenova, taken over her consciousness, and is using her body to traverse the world. That's a really cool plot point. He's half fallen hero, and half terrifying horror movie parasite. So I think he definitely gains points for originality.

+He serves as a good juxtaposition to the hero, Cloud, based on design alone. You might think this is shallow, but there's something really appealing about a well done rivalry. Dante/Vergil from Devil May Cry, Red/Blue from Pokemon, Mega Man/Bass from Mega Man. They're very similar, yet very different. On a surface level, they're both former members of SOLDIER who wield giant swords. On a purely visual level, Cloud's sword is big while Sephiroth's is long. This sounds like a dumb little detail, but it's a nice visual nod. On a deeper level, they're both haunted by a past they've misinterpreted.

+Sephiroth is set up really well as a powerful villain to be feared. You hear about "the great Sephiroth" from others, he attacks the Shinra building and frees Jenova, he kills the president... and then you get the flashback. He's level fifty and kills a dragon like it's nothing, when Cloud, who is level one, can't even touch it.

Sephiroth, who is in your party throughout the flashback, is not controllable by the player despite this. His overwhelming strength when compared to Cloud helps to cement his status as a powerful other; he is an almost unreachable entity, which is exactly how others describe him before you finally see it for yourself in this segment of the game.
He uses powerful spells. He shows he's knowledgeable about the world, such as when he stops your group on the mountain to explain how materia is made. He's able to burn down an entire town. Then, you chase him across the swamp in the present, narrowly avoiding a powerful serpent that your party is unable to defeat at this time, only to see this, which remains one of the most chilling moments in gaming for me:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MiWV2KseKeo - Music for full effect.
He's not perfect, however. I do find some flaws with his character:

-I think his reason for going insane is pretty thin. In the end, it's justifiable, but he switches from calm and aloof guy to totally crazy almost at the drop of a hat. Once he merges with Jenova, it becomes more believable, as he's now partially fused with a hostile alien life form and likely wouldn't be thinking like a rational human being, but his human self, and his initial reason for turning to "the dark side," could have used some more time in the oven. Crisis Core did help a bit with this, but I'm judging based on VII as a standalone game.

-I think his actual beef with Cloud is sort of weird. They don't share any real history together, and Cloud is theoretically not even his biggest threat. There's Shinra who wants him out of the picture, and Cloud and his ragtag band of friends don't really prove themselves as a threat other than chasing him place to place (and frequently failing to catch him or even stop him from what he's doing). The writers wanted us to feel like they had a personal connection, but they really don't.

That said, I feel the positives strongly outweigh the negatives.

Sephiroth's real forte is stage presence; he is an expert at stealing the show from the moment you see him, and encounters with him becoming increasingly creepy and surreal, right up until the end of the game. Sephiroth, like Vader in the cinematic world before him, is sold to the player through powerful iconography, such as his outlandishly large weapon, memorably haunting theme songs, and key scenes depicting his wickedness.


His presence is felt even when he is not physically on the scene, as characters begin discussing him long before his first real appearance. The ripples of his actions are felt throughout the game, whether it be in the creepy cloaked figures that mutter his name in Nibelheim, or in the giant meteor that hangs ominously in the sky during the game's third disc.


When I said he steals the show, he doesn't only do so by his presence alone: he also offers a mystery for the player to solve, adding an extra bit of intrigue to each of his appearances. How did he survive the battle five years ago? What is his connection to Jenova? Who's really in control?

Discovering Sephiroth's physical body in the Northern Crater marks the climax of the mysteries surrounding his character.
He even manages to make the player hate him on a personal level by killing off Aerith, which, in addition to being a really gutsy move by the developers for the time (since when does the main heroine die? And so unceremoniously so?) gives Cloud and co. an extra reason to want him taken down.

By the end of the game, you're not just fighting Sephiroth anymore. He's become a symbolic representation of evil, an amalgamation of the planet's past woes and the heroes' current problems. He is the fallen hero, the alien parasite, and the enemy of the planet. There's a reason one of his theme songs in the prequel Crisis Core is titled The World's Enemy. While it's true that many villains in RPGs eventually come to fill a similar role, Sephiroth gradually escalates into a more dangerous threat throughout the game. Most villains transform towards the end, or even during the final battle itself. Sephiroth does this, too, but it's the escalation of evil we see before his final transformation that sets him a head above most of the rest.

Despite how much he's been flanderized in popular culture since his original appearance, I feel as if Sephiroth was a very effective villain. I can't wait to see how the upcoming remake treats his character.


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Journey from Versus to XV: A Tale of Leaks and Legends


SPOILERS FOR FINAL FANTASY XV FOLLOW.

As mostly everyone who's been following Final Fantasy XV's development at all knows, Final Fantasy Versus XIII was a project that was stuck in development hell for such a long time that it may as well have never existed outside of a few conceptual trailers. Previous project director Tetsuya Nomura admits that the game had hardly entered development at all before its rebranding into Final Fantasy XV. Then, about a year later, Nomura is removed from the new XV project and replaced with Hajime Tabata. When the final project finally released, it was no surprise that many scenes and characters from Versus XIII had either been removed, greatly altered, or repurposed to fit the new plot of Final Fantasy XV.

The first thing to keep in mind is that Versus XIII and XV are simultaneously very different things, and also the same thing. Versus XIII was a part of Square's Fabula Nova Crystalis multimedia project, and shared a mythos with the other XIII games - XIII and its sequels, and Type-0 (originally branded as Agito XIII). Therefore, any elements from the overarching FNC mythos were cut or changed to fit the new story. An obvious example of this would be "daemons," who are humans that have been transformed into monsters. They are, for all intents and purposes, the same as "cie'th" from the original FNC mythos; which were, you guessed it, humans transformed into monsters. Perhaps the most glaring example of this is in Ravus, who is transformed into a sort of half-daemon towards the end of the game.


This looks startlingly similar to another boss in Final Fantasy XIII, Cid Raines, who also turns into a dae- er, I mean, a cie'th.


An alleged member of Final Fantasy XV's staff has come forward on Reddit, claiming that he was privy to insider info about the development of the game's story and its transition from Versus XIII to XV. Ordinarily, this would be taken with a grain of salt - any old joe schmoe can waltz in and claim the same thing (just read this article about The Street Sharks to learn about internet lies). However, there is a catch to his supposed leaks: Roberto Ferrari, character designer for Ardyn, Cindy, Aranea, and several other characters, has recently spoken out about concepts of his that were unable to be used in-game. One such concept overlaps with one the leaker's leaks: that Umbra, Luna's dog, was meant to be a ninja that could transform into a dog.

Someone posted an image of a character on Ferrari's site, and asked him if this was Umbra's human form.


Ferrari's response was along the lines of "I would like to know how did you get this art before I answer." The post was deleted today.

This does not in any way confirm the leaks, but it does fuel the fire of suspicion a bit. With that in mind, let's take a look at what our self-proclaimed leaker had to say about the story, and entertain his claims as if they were real.

Original Leviathan fight details:

There were indoors and outdoors sections, Noctis warped around floating houses around Leviathan and inside he had to fight soldiers. Leviathan had to destroy all the houses and then Noctis proceeded to battle the Leviathan.
Seems legit. There's a section of the TGS 2013 trailer that basically shows what he's describing here.

On summons:

No summons were cut.
Cool. There's really no way to prove or disprove this, but don't forget that there were some other summons on Amano's "Big Bang" painting that didn't make it in.

Click for full size. Is that Doomtrain I see?
Either way, it seems like the six were always the six, at least insofar as existing in any form beyond conceptual ideas.

On Gentiana:

Gentiana existed before I entered the team and she was present in the old game, she had medium powers like Noctis and could speak with the female protagonist too. In one of the concepts she had to hurt herself or deprive herself from senses in order to gain powers. I don't know if this was developed. No mention as to if she was still Shiva in the old game but I don't think so since her role does not match.
Gentiana being Shiva did seem to come out of left field, so this is plausible, at least. It's also worth noting that we know of two different forms of Shiva in the finished game: her giantess form, which is the corpse we see on the side of the train tracks, and her summon form, which is a human sized blue lady. Or, well, a bunch of human sized blue ladies. This would explain the bizarre discrepancy between Shiva's summon form and the other Astral's summon forms, which are exactly the same as the huge forms we encounter in game.

Ignis was always going to get blinded:

Ignis story was written like this before the re-structure for the download content happened.
Fair enough. Seems like a story beat that could exist independently of any major changes elsewhere.

End Game details:

The ending section was decided when I joined the team. It was planned for Noctis to wake up and encounter every character once at a time. The open world was not explorable; there were quests that limited your movement in the map. The Lestallum map in which Noctis was supposed to meet Iris and his other friend was complete, but it was not the full city. The idea was to turn the open world in a dungeon in which the player had to skip from one place to another and piece what was happening as Noctis met the other characters.
This would have made Chapter 14's World of Ruin segment feel much more natural, rather than dumping Noct at Hammerhead where he met all of his friends at once.

On Cindy & Iris' end game look:

Cidney wears like motorcycle suit. It reminded me of Kill Bill. Her face didn't change that much. Iris was taller and had a king guard suit.

Man, I would have liked to see this, especially since Cindy's default outfit is complete garbage.

Maybe Cindy's new outfit would have looked like this official art?

Ending to Versus details:

I remember that and one point, a big ray of light was supposed to appear in the sky, which was the door to the other dimension, the afterlife (which was called versus and that was the meaning of the game title). A bad character (I think it was Ardyn) caused the gate to this dimension to open. The focus of the villains was to kill an angel who lived in the afterlife and took care of the ghosts. The female protagonist could talk to every character in this dimension. In the end the angel helped the characters to return to their world but Noctis was too damaged and he ended sleeping with the ghosts and the female protagonist.
If this is all legit, then I think the team repurposed this original ending into the new story really well. It still carries the same weight to it despite the circumstances being different. Noctis still ends up travelling to another dimension of sorts (inside the crystal) to defeat Ardyn, where he indeed ends up "too damaged" and loses his life in the process. He and Luna then reconcile in the afterlife, with the logo even changing to a picture of them sleeping after you've beaten the game. The "angel" mentioned here seems to fall in line with the FNC's general depiction of the goddess Etro.

The only things that really seem to have been lost in transition are the dimension to the afterlife playing a more direct role in events at the end, and Ardyn wanting to kill Etro. Now he just wants to mess with everyone.

Nifleheim was never going to be a city in game:

We used the same concept artworks for Gralea from the old game, it was always planned to be filled with demons as far as I know. There were concepts of how the city would have looked like before the demons but there wasn't plans of showing it.
Again, sounds plausible enough.

Chapter 13 & Cindy redesign:

The team thought that part was going to be a twist and would surprise players. It was supposed to be tedious but it was thought that players would like it. Ex team mates made these comments about it.  
There was a legitimate concern about feedback on female representation on the game, so Cindy was considered to be problematic. This was supposed to be "fixed" with the dark world design for her and her scenes, but they didn't make the cut.
Maybe the new design would have helped their PR a bit, as Cindy's redesign has been among the most controversial elements of the game.

Or maybe this would be more accurate?

DLC:

However, people who are still working on the team have told me that if the download content is well received, they will think about making something special for other characters. I don't know if they have changed the schedule for the download content since I left.
I am hoping that the three bro DLCs expand on elements of the story that the main game glosses over.

Stella:
The female protagonist was supposed to appear only to Noctis. She was supposed to be a ghost which visited Noctis from the afterlife. The crystal commanded Noctis to kill her when they were children. In other concepts, I recall her simply disappearing and Noctis returning to his home country without knowing if she was ever found again. 

Most of the characters couldn't interact with the female character (which was one of the reasons this character couldn't work with the new narrative for the game and so, it didn't make the cut). Noctis would dream about her and take this hallucinations as reality. She appeared to guide Noctis and lead her to fulfill his duty. She was a special ghost since she died before she could fulfill her mission in life, so the angel helped her come back from the other dimension. The revelation that she had been a ghost for the entire game happened before the gate to the other dimension was opened. This character wasn't in the game when I started my work on it.
It would make sense to cut Stella if her purpose in the story revolved around The Gate of the Dead and Etro, both of which were presumably cut to axe any connections to the FNC mythos. If Stella's character was so intrinsically tied to being a spirit, it wouldn't make sense for her to be in the new, Gate-less world that XV had. It's worth noting that in one of the original trailers for Versus XIII, Stella and Noct discuss near death experiences and The Gate of the Dead near a portrait of Etro. They also, incidentally, discuss what happens when the gate opens: "Those who witness it gain great power." That particular tidbit adds an extra bit of credence to the leaker's previous statement about Ardyn originally wanting to open the gate at the end of the game.

This sounds a bit more compelling than Luna and her role in the story. I imagine it would have played out like The Sixth Sense, where the twist is delivered at the end as a shocking revelation. Luna's character didn't have any twists like that...

The devs have made it clear multiple times that Luna is not a replacement for Stella, but a brand new character. These leaks sure seem to support that idea.
Original Intro:

The first part of the game was originally (this was still in summer last year) going to feature a children Noctis and Cor walking outside the castle to find Regis getting out of the Regalia. Regis would hold Noctis as Bahamut asked him if he was ready for what was to come. This was a very short introduction, but it didn't make the cut since the team thought it didn't make sense. A portion of the last part of the game was made into the beginning very early this year.
This sounds very plausible, considering we hear Bahamut in the Omen trailer and see the Regis and Kid Noctis scene in the Dawn trailer.

Dogs:

Umbra was a party member in the original Versus game, but he no longer was when I joined the team. I don't recall anything about the dogs being human ever again, but there were concepts for dogs of different fur that transformed into different people, one of the dogs was white (like Pryna) and it turned into a woman.
This one gets me the most, because we were robbed of a dog ninja man! Instead we just got a dog! What gives? Anyway, combined with Ferrarri's comments about Umbra, this is possibly the juiciest tidbit the leaker gave, as it has a clear trace back to a confirmed member of the development team.

This was actually the second series of leaks. There was another a week or so ago, which you can read here. (The information for the second batch of reddit leaks can also be found later in this same thread). Much of it seems to be stuff that anyone could presume by playing the game. For example, Tenebrae was meant to be explorable, The World of Ruin was meant to be more expansive, and the segment where you meet Shiva's corpse was meant to have its own area aside from the train tracks. Basically, if a segment seemed rushed, the leaker addresses it as rushed here. The most interesting tidbits from this earlier leak are as follows:

What Izunia? If you mean the Izunia from a thousand years ago, that is Noctis' ancestor.

Oh-ho, this would confirm the Izunia is Noct's ancestor theory. Not that there was much doubt there, but seeing it stated outright is nice.

The team had to keep a lot of things from the past projects because the former director shared details about them. I assume Ravus was one of those things that had to be kept because details about him were previously announced. 
This is intriguing. If true, this means that Ravus was kept in the game only because he was shown in the earlier trailers. Assuming Stella was cut for her role being irreconcilable with the new game's plot, Ravus was likely only in the conceptual stage during his initial reveal, so he was probably much easier to rework into being Luna's brother instead. This might also explain why he feels so out of place in the game's story.
However, I have to say that the story had to be partly rewritten last year (after the movie had entered full production) so that's why that character might have inconsistencies between the game and film.
This would explain the difference between film Ravus and game Ravus. Film Ravus seemed driven by power and revenge, where game Ravus seemed a lot less intense.

The game didn't focus on summons that much (they still existed) and instead there were actual gods which didn't appear physically. One of the gods was the main antagonist of the first FF game. Each nation was inspired by a different capital of the world. The empire was using ghosts as weapons. Ravus wanted to kill Noctis for having killed her sister. The game ended in another dimension which was supposed to be their version of the after-life.
This pretty much falls in line with the more detailed description of the ending above. The takeaways here are that the summons ended up filling the role that was originally intended for the FNC gods, and that the Ifrit we see was originally meant to be Chaos, the villain of the first Final Fantasy game. Based on this art from Amano, it seems easy to draw such a conclusion.

Color him red, add some fire, and... hmm...
Yeah, that sure does look a lot like the Ifrit that we got.

In the end, regardless of whether any of this is true or not, I think Tabata did a very decent patchwork job. If this is indeed true, some of the end results ended up being more interesting than the Versus XIII concepts, such as Ifrit's atypical role as a major villain. Now if only they put that little tidbit in the game, instead of leaving it to the guide!

Speaking of the guide, it does reveal at least two things for certain. The Versus XIII trailers had a long haired man accompanying King Regis that does not appear in Final Fantasy XV.


The guide lists this character as "Crailas Amicitia," confirming that this was an earlier design for Iris and Gladio's father, Clarus.


An older design for Ravus was used in the guide, as well. I suppose this was Stella's brother, rather than the brother of Luna we came to know in the finished game.

I'll reiterate that there is no way to say with absolute certainty that all, or even some, of this is true. However, the puzzle pieces do at least seem to fit together, and it's interesting to think about what might have changed from the game's beginning as a totally different title, with a totally different director, under a totally different name. Despite the changes, I don't think the finished XV we ended up with is as conceptually different from Versus XIII as some might be led to believe, and many of the areas and characters that ended up being cut from XV would have likely suffered a similar fate had the project remained under its old identity as Versus XIII.

Friday, December 23, 2016

VA-11 Hall-A: A Great Example of Alternative Storytelling


This game has blown me away. What was presented to me by my friends as a bartending game about near-future anime characters has actually managed to tell a gripping narrative, with poignant social commentary sprinkled throughout.

VA-11 Hall-A is, at its core, a game that wants to tell you a story about a bleak future. The intro cutscene is right out of an 80's cyberpunk game. The music consists of your typical retro tunes that you'd associate with a sprite-based indie game. Before you actually start playing the game, if you were going in completely blind, you'd likely think it was going to be a side scrolling shooter or an indie RPG. But right after introducing you to its bleak, dystopian future, it brings you down to earth and places you as a regular bartender.


That's where this game shines. Everything in this game is painted to seem "normal." You're a normal citizen with a normal job, you have co-workers you like and co-workers you deal with, and you have an apartment and a phone that you can use to browse blogs or this universe's version of reddit. The story is told almost entirely through conversations that you have with your customers, which range from the lead editor of a newspaper to pop stars to the girl complaining about dumping her latest boyfriend of two weeks. Oh, and some of them are robots.


It's because the story is framed in such a down to earth way that the creeping darkness of this world is made even more sinister. Your clientele will frequently discuss things such as rumors surrounding mob bosses in the oppressive government, sex robots, riots in Hong Kong, you name it - it's all typical dystopian literature stuff. But it isn't thrown in your face as dystopian. Instead, you experience it as a person born into that kind of society would experience it, and mostly from a distance. You only hear about things that have happened or are happening.

The setting is very believable, mostly because of the way the customer's dialogue is written. Some of the customers you'll find yourself serving end up sounding like the kinds of people you'd meet in a bar in real life. My personal favorite is Donovan Dawson - your first client, who ends up returning often - who complains about his life as an editor. He often makes comments about how he doesn't respect his interns, how this is "the PR era" and everything has to be dressed up to look good, how he's full of cynicism towards celebrity culture because of the nature of tabloids and people wanting to see them fall, how he feels that people are so easily offended these days that people lose their jobs over interpreted sleights, and so on. It all feels very "real" despite being a cyberpunk world with robots and cyborgs.


One of your clients is even a professional assassin, and he doesn't feel much different from the rest, because you don't see the assassin - you see the man off the job. Despite the feeling of distance from the actual dystopian aspect of this world, the story goes to some very dark, and even disturbing, places. It's made even more so by the fact that the characters in the game treat these dark aspects of their world as if they were normal.

Learning about the world through the eyes of your clients is incredibly appealing, especially since sometimes you have to consider the old "unreliable narrator" trope; some of the people you'll end up serving have an obvious agenda or bias towards certain things. Jill, the bartender you play as, has a distinct personality, but doesn't seem to care enough about the world to form her own opinion of it. That's up to you, the player, to piece together, based on the stories you hear from her clients. A huge part of the appeal is in the colorful cast. Each client has a very distinct personality.

The game isn't without its problems. I find the dialogue to be overly hammy or cheesy at times, and some of the characters can come off as a bit grating. For the most part, however, I feel like this game is worth checking out for its uniqueness alone. Don't let the "anime" feel turn you off if that isn't your thing - this is a true cyberpunk game at its core. At the same time, don't expect the game to totally subvert its anime aesthetic. Your boss is a former pro wrestler with a cybernetic arm, for example, and some of the humor ends up being like this:


Overall, though, I think it's worth a shot, even if you don't typically like anime stuff. The more grounded social commentary is where the game really shines, and where it focuses at least 80% of its attention. As of the time this post was written, it's on sale on Steam! Besides, where else are you going to get to play as a cyberpunk bartender?

If you're still not convinced, there is a demo for the game here. The demo features additional story content not included in the full game, so it might be worth playing through even if you do decide to buy it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

In Defense of the Zelda Timeline

The Legend of Zelda is a series that has sparked controversy surrounding its story for ages. There are as many people who say it doesn't matter as there are who picked up the Hyrule Historia on day one just to see Nintendo's official statement on the series timeline. The importance of story - and particularly the multiple timelines the story takes place in - has been a divisive subject of discussion among Zelda fans for quite some time.

First, let's look at the elephant in the room: the timeline included in Hyrule Historia. For years before this databook was released, fans had been speculating as to what Zelda game took place where. In an old interview with former series director Shigeru Miyamoto, and present series director Eiji Aonuma, it was clarified that Wind Waker took place in the "adult timeline."

Seeing as how he no longer existed in this timeline, he could not.

From the Summer 2002 Gamepro interview:

Q: Where does The Wind Waker fit into the overall Zelda series timeline?
Aonuma: You can think of this game as taking place over a hundred years after Ocarina of Time. You can tell this from the opening story, and there are references to things from Ocarina located throughout the game as well.
Miyamoto: Well, wait, which point does the hundred years start from?
Aonuma: From the end.
Miyamoto: No, I mean, as a child or as a...
Aonuma: Oh, right, let me elaborate on that. Ocarina of Time basically has two endings of sorts; one has Link as a child and the other has him as an adult. This game, The Wind Waker, takes place a hundred years after the adult Link defeats Ganon at the end of Ocarina.
Miyamoto: This is pretty confusing for us, too. (laughs) So be careful.

This was the first time the series had been explicitly stated to have at least two timelines, both of which were created at the end of Ocarina of Time. It's not a stretch to accept that the ending of OoT created two timelines, as the adult Link was sent back to his own age and left Hyrule without The Hero of Time or his descendants to save it. This would make one timeline where the events of OoT had taken place and Link had defeated Ganon, and another where Ganon was stopped by Link and Zelda as children. This had been speculated since the earliest days of Zelda story discussion.

Later, in 2007, an interview with Aonuma that was published on nindori.com concerning Twilight Princess' placement on the timeline added fuel to the fire:

–When does Twilight Princess take place?
Aonuma: In the world of Ocarina of Time, a hundred and something years later.
–And the Wind Waker?
Aonuma: The Wind Waker is parallel. In Ocarina of Time, Link flew seven years in time, he beat Ganon and went back to being a kid, remember? Twilight Princess takes place in the world of Ocarina of Time, a hundred and something years after the peace returned to kid Link’s time. In the last scene of Ocarina of Time, kids Link and Zelda have a little talk, and as a consequence of that talk, their relationship with Ganon takes a whole new direction. In the middle of this game [Twilight Princess], there's a scene showing Ganon's execution. It was decided that Ganon be executed because he'd do something outrageous if they left him be. That scene takes place several years after Ocarina of Time. Ganon was sent to another world and now he wants to obtain the power...
After Adult Link is sent back to his child body, Ganondorf is stopped before he can carry out his plans.
By this point, it was clear as day that the franchise had multiple timelines, and that the games had been designed around this concept.

It was not until the 2011 release of the Hyrule Historia databook that each game in the series was given a specific place on the timeline. However, there was one major, controversial caveat added that nobody saw coming: a third timeline split from the end of Ocarina of Time, where Link fails to defeat Ganondorf. Ganondorf then takes over the Sacred Realm, and leads to the events of The Imprisoning War mentioned in A Link to the Past. This bold move on Nintendo's part was an attempt to reconcile the earlier Zelda games with the post-Ocarina games of the more modern era. As the "Link fails" event was never seen or hinted at before outside of a typical game over screen, the hypothetical nature of this timeline split upset quite a few people.

The timeline from Hyrule Historia.
There is currently a discussion on the NeoGAF forums about the supposed ridiculousness of the timeline. Several paraphrased quotes from disillusioned players amount to "the timeline is ridiculous," "it should be ignored," "it's only the hardcore nerds who wanted this, and the story has never mattered," and, most prevalent of all, "the timeline was only retroactively made after fan request, and should not be taken seriously." There is more in the thread, and some of the hate for the timeline is quite vocal. This is nothing new: people have been voicing their problems with the timeline since long before Nintendo released an official version.

However, I believe that the timeline has a solid place in the series and its lore, and is not quite as contrived as people often make it out to be.

Continuity and story has never been the number one priority in a Zelda game. This is something we can all agree on. Zelda is, first and foremost, an adventure/exploration game, one that garners most of its appeal through solving creative puzzles and fighting monsters in dungeons. But this isn't the entire picture: Hyrule and its offshoots are fascinating settings even if the story isn't the main appeal. Majora's Mask had the least amount of story in a 3D Zelda game, and still managed to be appealing based on its atmosphere alone. Zelda Universe has an enlightening article on why the game's location of Termina is a great setting that thrives on organic storytelling, along with a quote from Miyamoto himself on what he wanted the player to experience while playing the game:

Shigeru Miyamoto once stated in a Nintendo Power interview that the Zelda team’s primary goal for Majora’s Mask was to “present something which is very mysterious”. The game invites the player to act as a detective, to investigate the secrets and troubles of the people of Termina, and of Termina itself, and to heal them in the end. Though the central story of a troubled imp using a cursed mask to try to cause the moon to crash into Termina may seem fairly straightforward, many subtle details in the game add layers of darkness and complexity to this tale.

Lore goes beyond simple storytelling, and Zelda games do a pretty good job at creating a universe with a fairly entertaining history. Many times the appeal of this universe isn't from the sparsely told story segments scattered throughout the games, but rather in the natural immersion felt by exploring its world and the various towns and ruins within it.

It's true that it seems like, at one point, most games were relatively self contained, but one must remember that the design ethos has been constantly changing since the series first came into being. Zelda II is a straight sequel to Zelda I, and Link to the Past is a straight prequel to Zelda I. Link's Awakening is the same Link as the Link to the Past Link. The games share explicit connections with each other, such as Kakariko Village in Link to the Past being located in the same spot as the mass graveyard in the original Legend of Zelda, and the lush version of The Lost Woods in A Link to the Past sharing a general location with the burnt up old trees in The Legend of Zelda. Ocarina of Time was originally intended as the origin story of The Imprisoning War mentioned in Link to the Past.

It's the little details like this that add an enjoyable flavor to the experience, and prove that the series has held continuity as something to be worth implementing from the series' earliest days, even if some compromises have had to be made to keep this continuity.

It wasn't until after Ocarina that its sequels seemed to abandon their sense of a concrete continuity and go for a more self contained approach, even if they did use Ocarina's history as a backdrop. Eventually, the fans spoke out, Nintendo released a timeline, and Skyward Sword seems to again have a definitive place in series lore, often going out of its way to set up future events.

I would say the only truly self contained entries are the Oracle games, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, and The Minish Cap. Even then, Minish Cap uses its premise to tell an origin story for Four Swords, of all things.

Gaffer Spyder_Monkey makes the claim that:

Sure, some Zelda games might have fascinating settings and plots, but it's all a wrapper for the exploration and dungeons which have been the core of the series since game one. Stories are basically an excuse to introduce the concepts of the series.

Spyder_Monkey isn't wrong. However, I don't believe he's viewing the entire picture. This truth doesn't devalue the story at all. It's not priority number one, but it's still important to an extent.

I think of it like this: the story of a Zelda game is like the color of a drawing or a painting. You can still tell what this is:


And, ultimately, it's the design itself that matters the most. What does Link look like? What shape are his eyes? What kind of clothes is he wearing?

Then the story is like adding the color to the design.


It's "just a wrapping" around the basic outline to make it prettier, but it still matters. It's not even technically needed, but it sure is nice to have, and adds a sense of completeness to the experience.

In the original backstory for LttP, Ganon is imprisoned in the Sacred Realm in his pig form after a long battle with the Knights of Hyrule.
The Zelda Timeline is a nice treat for fans of the series' lore, and the "Hero Falls" timeline is a creative way to reconcile the developer's original idea of using Ocarina as an origin for The Imprisoning War. A Link to the Past mentions that Ganon obtained the entire Triforce and took over The Sacred Realm, which is indeed what he was trying to do in Ocarina of Time; had Link failed, it is not too far-fetched to assume that the events that followed would lead directly into the history depicted in A Link to the Past.

It's an unconventional way of allowing the earlier games to find a place in series canon, but it manages to patch up a few holes in the overarching lore, while also reconciling the series' early ideas for its story with the different direction it's taken since.

In short: The Zelda Timeline is a nice piece of work that helps to officially clarify things for fans of series lore.