Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Where Storytelling Damages Videogames

In regards to gaming, and its many inner arguments of "graphics significance" or "console domination," I've shifted position inside these debates countless times over the years, and usually in repeated contradictions. But the one view that I haven't changed from is when I migrated from "Story Over Gameplay," to "Gameplay Over Everything."
This change for me represents the hypocritical nature of myself as a gamer, because how this came about was from my searching for stories more relating to my own interests, which is to say (pop-culture) Japanese interests. Be it the hyper-infused kawaii of moe-blend titles like Monster Monpiece, or the awesome mech and alien sci-fi of E.X. Troopers, my original reasoning for delving into import gaming, and learning Japanese, was because I believed that the stories in games exclusive to eastern nations were the stories that I was looking for, and this was something that I was ready to put both the money and time down for to experience--- except this about-faced on me not too long after.
Eventually, by playing dozens of games in a language I don't understand, I came to the point where I don't care to judge a game on anything other than gameplay anymore, and in relation to stories I've not only nullified my attention towards them but also my consideration, having established for myself a belief that, when in search of a story, the novel is the best place (which I don't mean in a snooty way, but rather that I am an English major after all).
But what inspires this blog is a recent gaming experience which re-opened that doubt between gameplay and story-telling in regards to a maximum gaming experience. Ys: Celceta, for the PS Vita, is that game, and the experience has left me with as much doubt as it did satisfaction, which is to say a lot.

Celceta is an excellent game. For fans of the RPG genre, and especially for the completionist type, Celceta is a haven of statistical percentages and item hunting, and as the battle for 100% stretches across multiple playthroughs of accelerating difficulty and item availability there's a lot of playability to be had here. And fortunately it's solid playability too: while Celceta isn't anything of a radical turn in the Ys series, it does uphold the immaculate fast-paced action-rpg design that the series is renowned for, and assures that the 30+ hours inside this portable title are hours that will be spent satisfied.
Outside of the graphics being "decent enough," my only other critique of Celceta comes in the form of the story it tells, and it's a critique I'm not certain of in regards to magnitude. Truly, Celceta is one of the top titles I've played on the Vita so far, and the gameplay is strictly aces. But the story pales in comparison to the gameplay, and oddly I find myself increasingly disappointed about this.
As far as videogames go, Celceta tells an average tale, boasting the usual roster of cliches with mild individuality sprinkled into the later quarter. Amnesiac? Check. Cute and rude moe girl? Check. "Mwahaha" bad guy? Check. The core plot is basically adventure for the sake of adventure, which culminates into the usual "Defeat this person or the world is going to end" dynamic. There's nothing new in the story, and while there isn't necessarily anything wrong with that seeing as, or at least according to my values, gameplay is what matters most, it also doesn't do Celeta any favors by being so regular. Rather, that by the story failing to offer anything on a level anywhere near the quality of the gameplay there forms a split between whether or not the adventure is truly as engrossing as it is, or if this is just another "drop in the bucket" JRPG.
While playing Celceta two games consistently came to mind: The Legend of Zelda, and Demon Souls. The reason why is because Celeta embodies several similar elements to those games: the world is vast, fantastical, and eagerly waiting for you to explore it by your own choosing, and getting swept up into an adventure with reasons and creativity all your own happens readily. For me, this is what made games like Zelda and Demons Souls stand out: while they have their core story/idea to lead you, for the most part they back off and allow each gamer to dictate how they choose to view and master the world. It isn't so much about "choice," particularly because you don't actually have choice with those games (on any meaningful level, at least), but that the adventure is, while scripted, also blank, anticipating you to fill in the many hundreds of little stories that model the adventures within the core journey.
But that's the problem: Celceta doesn't back off. There are frequent pauses in the action where the characters enter into lengthy chatter and fail to say much of anything at all. And worse is that it's the same formula throughout: a new party member is introduced, a new problem is introduced, and the gang is off to save the day and celebrate afterwards. The game tries to tie everything together into the core story alike traditional RPGs, but fails to do so on any exciting level. The story just isn't original or engaging, and that lack of compelling narrative nullifies the wonder of the Celceta universe. By the story being so predictable and bland the subsequent discovery of the world likewise loses its mystery and awe.
The series protagonist, Adol Christan, is highly reminiscent of Final Fantasy 12's protagonist, Vaan. Both characters are young men who want nothing more than adventure and intrigue: they're the embodiment of "Boy's Interests" essentially, and their simplistic, but active, philosophy and life-style is something most gamers can relate with. It's adventuring for the sake of adventuring. They don't need to save a planet from destruction, and they don't have to have a love-interest: they just want to go out and do their own thing, and it's an interesting protagonist choice for videogames in its embodiment of escapist idea. While they're essentially "faceless," these one-track, often naive characters allows for greatest consolidation of gamer-to-character because of their impersonality.
But what separates Final Fantasy 12 (FF12) and Celceta is that FF12 tells an outstanding story while also allowing for the free-form creativity as described above, while Celceta bombs. FF12 is a supremely intricate tale of political, and sociological corruption and intrigue, while Celceta is a systematic checklist of cliches and tropes. What's interesting though is that FF12 is, alike Celceta, not needing of that story. If FF12 were to have been a substantially quieter and more traditional tale than the game would equally have been terrific so long as it backed off from story-telling. The world of FF12 is also vast and open for each gamer to explore at their own behest (mostly), and that pseudo non-linearity and sense of scope, when paired beside excellently crafted gameplay, offers an equally satisfying journey as that of the scripted and carefully penned. And, if you ask me, far more so.
Videogames enable the sense of wonder and adventure as embodied by characters like Adol Christan, but the only way to allow those sensations fruition is to refrain from melding the character towards biases and values antithetical to the simple and universal. If a game is going to tell a story surrounding such a character than it better be a damn good one, because inevitably such a tale is going to ruin that character-type and, subsequently, the magical, delightful, and, most importantly, open-ended lens by which each gamer views the game's world and offerings.

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