Thursday, March 4, 2010

Persona 4

Expect spoilers.

I've said before that video games are a form of applied philosophy. Final Fantasy VII takes its queues from Nietzsche and Heidegger to the point of including the latter as a character in its examination of the ubermensch. Super Mario Brothers (the first one) is a direct example of presentist philosophy in that there is no means of going back to the past and forward does not exist until you go there. Still, while philosophy is a fertile ground, psychology is no slouch in game development.

Case in point: Persona 4.

Persona 4 is, like its predecessors, a game in the Shin Megami Tensei universe, treating the demons as aspects of a personality as opposed to literal beings. Suffice it to say, this is what happens if you dip a Japanese high school dating simulation in a vat of concentrated Carl Jung and throw it at a dungeon crawler. The primary difference between Persona 3 and Persona 4 though is that in 3, the main dungeon Tartarus is the product of a scientific experiment gone awry while in 4, the dungeons are instead created by the psyches of the characters themselves.

The quintessential conflict in the Persona series is that of the Persona, representing the ideal self versus the Shadow representing the negative aspects of the self that the ego does not want to recognize. In Jung's findings, a shadow can be positive or negative, in the games the only positive shadow is Teddie. While 3 has a number of persona and interesting characters that have the ability to exist in the Dark Hour, 4 is the closest game to come to Jung's theories in that it shows over and over again the creation of the persona, the acceptance of the shadow and, if the player follows through with their social links, the ultimate rebirth of both the characters and their personae.

The problem, though, with stepping as deeply into Jungian territory as Atlus clearly wanted to is treading with the characters into their personae. Where the two differ is that the Persona can be seen as a deterrent from discovering the true self where in the game, it is a literal form of power, created by the acceptance of the shadows to become a source of power. While Atlus probably could have called this game Self, the use of persona as a literal extension of the characters ultimately allows them to keep the name and therefore the franchise going.

Each of the character follows a twist on traditional character archetypes that require concentrated contact to reveal themselves. Yukiko has to face a future that's been laid out for her, Kanji and Naoto have to come to terms with their sexuality (the former being either bi or gay and the latter doing everything to hide the fact that she's a female) and Teddie has to work out why he exists. In each case, the player is given a plausible reason enough to examine the selves of these characters and how they relate not only to the main character but to the actual player. One's reactions determine one's abilities and social links. Through others, the player learns more about the self. 

However, it is not the psychology of Persona 4 that makes it the stronger literary work. In comparison to Persona 3, a great game by all accounts, Persona 4 has fewer playable but far more fleshed out characters. The use of the randomized dungeons as an examination of the mental state of the characters is a genius stroke which allows for a greater variety of dungeons from an 8-bit styled castle to a secret military underground base to a bath house. This concentration on the characters allows the player to consider who to bring not just based on fighting statistics, but whose personalities were endearing to my own*, a hallmark of great game writing there. Furthermore, there is a murder mystery that requires difficult choices and examinations of the characters,both playable and non playable. The focus on social links, the part time jobs and the friendships and relationships with the game's characters give the game's story an edge in plausibility. 

Because there are so many social links to follow, the ones the player goes along with will no doubt be the ones that correspond best to the player. The individual stories themselves are moving, such as with Dojima and Nanako, and the nurse in the end.Personally, I'm on the second run through to expound on more, which I guess makes me more of an obsessive or a completist personality, but the story is just too good to pass up another round.

*Mine was usuallyYukiko, Kanji and Teddie

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Realism, Horror, Pulp

Disclaimer: I am not responsible for any loss of innocence occurring while reading this.

    I was chatting with a friend last night and he made mention of playing Half Life until he had reached the part where “the military shows up and tries to kill you and you have to pick them off,” and he lost interest there, explaining that “somewhere between Wolfenstein 3d and Half Life, people in video games got too realistic for me to want to shoot in the face.” Now personally, my experience with Half Life is the first seven minutes I can play of Half Life 2 on the X-Box without having to run to the bathroom, nauseous from motion sickness but I can understand where he is coming from. The question of shooting someone well rendered enough to pass for a human being usually brushed off by saying that it's just a game. As with any other media, the question posed is not whether such an action is right or wrong but instead “what is the game trying to say here?” Furthermore, does realism in a game, either in character design or in situation, lend the game literary merit?

    Before we begin, Bioshock does not count for this one because while its own narrative is based on literary and political criticism of moral objectivism (because that has not been pointed out by every single person to touch the box by accident), its art style is Art Deco pushed to mad extremes with a bit of steam-punk influence as well, replacing the cyber-punk ethos of System Shock 2.
    At this point then, prudence dictates that realism be defined. Specifically for gaming, this involves two criteria: a) mostly realistically rendered human beings and b) simulations of situations that, more often than not, actually happened in one way or another or are just within the realm of possibility. The former is the most common trait in “realistic” games while the second reserves itself to certain historical situations or paranoid special operatives versus terrorist pulp fiction fantasies played out like Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 with its controversial “No Russian” mission. 
    World War II has overall been the biggest gold mine for realism as a game movement. Looking at the wikipedia list of games based in and around World War II, one would think that the war itself existed to create entertainment franchise after entertainment franchise and not, of course, to stop a series of madmen dictators from completely taking over Europe and parts of Asia. The games simulate the films about the war, or at least strive to with the cinematic shots and angles used. The first person camera angle means that the player sees what the character sees, there is no extra terrain around, just what's clear in vision and cloudy in peripheral vision in either a 4:3 or 16:9 contrast ratio. Provided that the point of the game is to kill the Nazis or be killed by the Nazis, the player is killing blank, evil representations of people that actually existed. While the games themselves are not history lessons, they are significant not because they tell “the story of” but rather “stories of”, via a number of characters. How well they do this, well, that depends on the game itself.
    The proliferation of World War II games seems to say that there were great battles with clear cut good and clear cut evil, not mentioning that had the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I footing the entire bill to Germany not done so in such a blatant manner that the whole country ended up riddled with shame, economic hyper inflation and suspicion of anyone different then a certain one testicled, psychopathic, failed art student from Austria might not have nearly acquired the amount of power that he ended up gathering, nearly wiping a race of people off of the earth and these games might not exist. One question I have though, and if any Medal Of Honor or Call Of Duty or Battleground enthusiasts can help me out with this one: do any of these games make reference to the concentration camps?
    On an added note, Panzerkraker from Medal Of Honor: Underground and Nazi Zombies from Call Of Duty: World At War may be a fun diversion but World War II was decidedly undead-free. Of course, I don't recall any textbook chapters on the death of Mecha-Hitler, so I'll let those slide from the argument. That said, the horror genre as a whole benefits from the realistic portrayal of humans, locations a la Silent Hill as well as human-like monsters. Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem benefits from using realism, a sort of Lovecraftian form of realism by using multiple lead characters during plausible times and locations through history to tell a story that, while it may be a complete and utter fantasy, is still plausible in its presentation without becoming an interactive film.
   While games that are promoted more as interactive films like Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy) or the upcoming PS3 title Heavy Rain can set themselves as experiments in the genre. That said, only the first half of Fahrenheit counts as realism before its dependence on the purple and orange cults as plot devices derails an otherwise incredibly interesting narrative. For the first half of the game though, you play a man who committed a murder, the cop trying to find the murderer and the puppeteer holding the strings and trying to find a little, mute girl. There are creepy houses, well decorated loft apartments, and New York City abound. It is chilling, interesting and rooted in the real world before it heads into quick time event based psychic powers. That's where it stops being realistic and starts heading into ancient warring cults territory, but the presentation itself has the makings of a good, uncomfortable story. What both Fahrenheit and Eternal Darkness have to say with their use of realism as a jumping off point is that the world is not as tangible as it appears.
     Then there is Half Life which uses a scientist, Gordon Freeman, and realistic portrayals of humanity in a dystopian, science fiction environment with the now standard smattering of futuristic special ops/black ops marines who would eventually become the stars of nearly every first person shooter imaginable, and the need to shoot not just creatures but people as well. The medium itself is dictating that these representations are blank representations of a military force and not people with backstories, families or what have you. Unlike the glut of World War II themed games, this is true, they are not based on people any more than the Koopa Troopas of Super Mario Brothers. The story and setting may be enough for some to disconnect the idea that they are shooting anything more than a mass of polygons designed to look and move like a person, but it is the realism in the artwork that asks for a suspension of disbelief.
    The problem with the games that commonly tout realism then is a complete over-saturation of the market, leading to more space marines that look more like the realistic moving adaptation of pulp novel covers going to more settings that are typically a dirty brown or cold gray or if someone was ambitious with the pallet, both. You'll notice that I referred to the genre of pulp fiction in referencing these games. There are distinct parallels between the two: hyper-masculine bordering on homoerotic main characters, war torn terrain, and Nazis or Nazi-esque soldiers to punch or bombs to disarm. The games are rote genre exercises to the point where the characters may well be interchangeable as proven by the Gears of War leads showing up in Lost Planet 2.
   As far as story and character are concerned, I would say that Persona 4 for the PS2 has more going for it on the Realism front than the aforementioned pulp-realism genre even with its pop-Jungian expressions of the self-as-constantly-shifting-maze because of the interactions between the main character and the people around him. Unlike tackling opposing soldiers on a rugged terrain battlefield, instead the player is introduced to people who are coming to terms with things like their sexuality, family pressure and societal expectations on top of a very interesting murder mystery. The characters are well rounded and interactions with them are based on the player's actions, much like in real life. Unlike the games that tout realism, Persona 4 boasts a colourful, visually interesting experience and a story that could well be novelized. It is a different form of realism from the horror and war games genres, and a form that gaming itself could benefit from greatly.

Next Time: Persona 4 And The Self -In Depth-

Perhaps the point should be made that the Persona series is an offshoot of Shin Megami Tensei which was in and of itself based on a Japanese novel back in the 1980's.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Monday, November 30, 2009

World AIDS Day

I know this isn't video game related. I'm cross posting this with my other blogs. 

December 1st is also known as World AIDS Day. Whether it be through our behaviour, our friends, loved ones, heroes, even just images from half a world away, we are all affected by this.

I am HIV Negative and I understand that I am lucky.

I have entirely too many friends who are positive, I think of people I used to know in Ottawa and Peterborough and wonder if they're still alive. I hope so. I spent the first 25 years of my life scared shitless that this was going to kill me, especially when I came to the realization that I was gay. It's the second thing my parents thought of when I came out to them (the first thing was whether my brother is as well... he isn't).

I think of a friend down in DC who is bound and determined, despite living with full blown AIDS and KS that he is going to live every day he has to in order to see his grandson graduate from college. He told me that the grimmest jokes come from PWAs themselves. He then told me one:

What's the hardest part about having AIDS? Convincing your mother that you're Haitian.

I spent the afternoon folding papers for the local needle exchange run by the AIDS Committee Of London to do even a small part to help prevent the spread of HIV, Hepatitis and AIDS amongst intravenous drug users. I'll be getting more involved with them in the future and am helping with the sound setup for the vigil tomorrow, 138 Wellington, the Christ Anglican Church there if anyone local to London can make it. I believe it starts at 7PM and goes to 9PM. If there is a vigil close to you, I implore you to go there. If you're not comfortable going to one if it's in a church, well, do what you need to do but take some time and think about it.

And as I tell all of my friends who happen to tell me they're going on a date: Play safely. Please.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Chrono Causality And Chrono Consistency

    I am going to preface this with the following: Chrono Trigger is an amazing game. It is one of the best games in existence, one of the best games I have ever played and the greatest North America could hope for in a swan song for the SNES. That being said, read on.

Also, if you happen to be an American, happy turkey and colonialism day to you.

    Time travel is a hoary bastard of a chestnut enough in films, books, comics and every other media that usually when video games do it, there are usually so many checks and balances in play that whomever is doing the traveling has to be careful not to so much as fart to keep the time line from breaking down. If you check the wikipedia category on Time Travel In Video Games, you'll find the list is surprisingly relatively short. With the rules, restrictions and theories on the subject, the short list is not necessarily surprising. There are few games or game designers ready or willing to streamline the concept to a point where it becomes the means of continuing a linear plot.

    This is exactly what happened with Chrono Trigger. Despite the jumps both through time and to the End Of Time, the game is almost maddeningly linear until the final act where, like Final Fantasy VI, the world opens up and you can pick and choose which sidequests to do, whose stories need closure, and so on. Time travel, then, serves as a means to an end to introduce new maps, characters, scenarios while keeping with a simple geographical idea. This is, simply put, a world where a single, prerequisite action in one time period determines a usually direct effect in a future period. The closest the game remains to this theory is the rescue of Queen Leene in 600AD to restore Marle, also known as Princess Nadia of Guardia and Leene's direct descendant, to time itself. 

    Everything after that, thanks to the key invented by Lucca and eventually the time-ship Epoch, does not play within those specific rules. The portals that exist are interconnected to a specifric place only, time however marches on at an equal rate of the game time. This includes the sequences at the End Of Time which all progress at the same speed, keeping the plot moving as a generic character hub*. in Chrono Trigger, your party members determine what areas and puzzles you can access, therefore advancing the plot. The problem is this breaks with the idea of traveling to a specific time as it is instead traveling to a specific place in an era. On the plus side this prevents a paradox. The characters do not show up as active more than once with the exception of Lucca fixing her own past.

    Of course, with direct actions such as saving Marle by saving Leene, giving Jerky to the mayor's wife in 600AD in order to have the mayor in 1000AD and hiring the clean up crew for the ruins, There are also indirect actions that become remembered as rote history. The Village Of Mystics begins as a place where Magus is worshipped. After defeating Magus, it becomes a place where Ozzie is worshipped. Finally after Ozzie has the wrong lever pulled, it becomes a happy, hopping and bopping village where most of the residents are "groovin' on life." The Black Omen is almost a novelty by 1000AD! The cause and effect between centuries and millenia is very simplistic, noticable and absorbed as natural history by the non playing characters of the game. It all works, right?

    Well, almost.

    The problem aside from the sheer lack of chaos theory at work in this world until the additional endings become viable is one gaping plothole in the third act of the game. This plot hole involves the Rainbow Shell, the kingdom of Guardia and a four century grudge. Upon finding the Rainbow Shell in 600AD thanks to information from the late Toma in 1000AD, the party finds they cannot lift the rainbow shell so instead they call on Guardia's forces to come pick it up and make it a national treasure, going so far as to building a new wing and sub-basement of the castle to ensure its safety. That wing is presumably hundreds of years old by the time King Guardia, Marle's father, is placed on trial for embezzlement of the Rainbow Shell, the national treasure of Guardia, an item he does not know exists, let alone has been collecting sunlught and sparkles in the unguarded basement of a kingdom he has lived in all of his life. Of course, the embezzlement is a fraud by the descendent of Yakra, a beast from early on in the game and it all leads to a tearful reunion of father and daughter but the fact remains that the king missed the very existence of this item due to a trick of time, space and fate is a plothole big enough to fly the Epoch through.

    While it is arguable that King Guardia's ignorance of the Rainbow Shell is analogic to his ignorance of the importance of Marle's decision to leave the castle and have an adventure, this is flawed. As mentioned, he would have lived in the castle his entire liefe well before Marle was even born. Furthermore, it contrasts with the cause-and-effect as rote history trope that this game works again and again. It is the one out of place element in a game that otherwise balances the time travel elements in the story as well as it does.

    The fact that it took this author 15 years to determine why this scene was incongruous should only be taken as a compliment to the creators of Chrono Trigger.

*For those readers unfamiliar with the term "Character hub," in Role Playing Games like Chrono Trigger, the team of characters you have selected or "party" will generally be limited to a small selection from your total available characters. The remaining characters typically remain in one central location. Breath Of Fire 2 has the town built by the player, Final Fantasy VI has the airships, Chrono Trigger has The End Of Time which is not a time so much as a place.