The Evolution of a Story-loving Gamer: A Musical Journey (part 3)

Time to bring to a close the very first tl;dr article series on this blog. Are you as excited as I am? No? Ok then, on with the show. ūüėõ

When I look back on my gaming history, I realize that I was very rpg focused. When I think back on the titles that influenced me, I don’t think of just the Super Mario Bros., the Metroids, or the Mortal Kombats — I think of more obscure titles, like Lufia and the Fortress of Doom, Lufia 2: Rise of the Sinistrals, and Earthbound.

When I think back on those titles, I immediately bring back to mind the great music that I heard while playing them (surprise surprise, considering this series’ focus). Each of those games had excellent music for my taste, and not even just for their heroic qualities.

Sometimes a game’s music, for all the heroism, and grand exploration involved, just needs to be fun. Believe it or not, many games forget this fact.

Everything is fist-pumping, action packed, pulsing music. That’s fine for action sequences, but a story should always have more facets to it than simply fighting and heroic deeds. Laughter and humor are what give stories their lifeblood. There should always be scenarios that deviate from a serious narrative, if only for a short while, to show you that the world is not just black and white — it can also be a little bit goofy gray.

I mean, seriously, if you were in the midst of a journey to save the world from the threat of an evil intergalactic being who wants to enslave your entire race, would you expect to hear something like this?

Earthbound – Hi Hi Hi

This was the music you heard upon reaching Saturn Valley in the rpg Earthbound. Home to one of the strangest, but oddly charming, races I have ever seen in a video game: the armless Saturns.

"I aM hELpInG yOu, bOiNG!."

Seriously, the caption is a pretty spot on example of how they spoke ingame. These things were a race of, allegedly, genderless extraterrestrials whom you meet on your travels through the game. They are a peace-loving people, who sell a wicked form of psychedelic coffee in their shops that trip you out when you drink it (I don’t know what substances the developers were on when they designed the game, but I want some).

Does this fit in with a narrative whose focus is kids saving the world? Actually, yes. It fits quite well in a game where a photographer pops up out of nowhere to take a pic of you with your group, beckoning you all to say “Fuzzy pickles!” before taking the shot, and a game where you meet a slob kid inventor who creates brilliant devices, like a giant eraser that erases giant pencil sculptures that block your way (seriously, I want some of what the devs were on).

I think part of the reason that game stood out to me, despite the fact that it wasn’t a huge moneymaker in America at the time of release, was the fact that they tried to blend humor and a serious narrative, and it worked. Somehow they found a way to make that piece above, and this–

Earthbound – Snowman (Snow Wood Boarding School)

–fit within the context of the same narrative.

In my opinion, that is always how it should be. Stories should never get so serious that they forget to inject a little bit of humor into them. At least not rpgs.

It’s a delicate balancing act, to be sure. If your narrative has more of a grand focus, then humor should be there as an accent piece. It should not dominate the landscape, or else you risk diminishing the impact of your dramatic focus. Nevertheless, I can think of very few instances where a story was made better by the absence of humor, and many, many instances were a story was enhanced by its addition.

This same philosophy (injecting a subtle amount of humor into a grand narrative) can be seen prominently featured in the best rpgs of the past 15-20 years. Moreover, the music associated with these humorous moments help to make the light-hearted moments stand out even more.

For instance: Lali Ho!

Final Fantasy IV – King Giott’s Castle

*Kweh*

Final Fantasy – Chocobo Themes

Have a nice stay!

Earthbound – Enjoy Your Stay (In my opinion, THE best inn theme in an rpg. It just has a friggin sweet “Spanish villa” feel to it.)

Anyone for some Pazaak?

Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords – Iziz Cantina

That last one has me expectant for some good light-hearted music in Star Wars: The Old Republic, because its composer, Mark Griskey, also composed that little catchy “Star-Wars-meets-1920’s-speakeasy” theme for the Iziz Cantina in KotOR II. I look forward to some nice easy listening in SWTOR cantinas (and based on the limited amount of cantina music I’ve heard from the game, I would say I won’t be disappointed).

I think the point of this last part was to emphasize the importance of having all sides of musical atmosphere represented. Yes, it is important for you to know how heroic your characters are in an rpg, but you should also have musical indicators that let you know your character is not tasteless, and neither is the world in which they roam.

On a selfish level, I hope — and even expect — that there will be music that emphasizes the humor of the situations in SWTOR, just as there will be music to emphasize the romance, or heroic action. I always look for this same thing in any movies I watch, or video games I play. I hate when media neglects humor in an effort to be taken deadly serious. Granted, there are stories where such music would detract from the message (for instance, I don’t think Schindler’s List would benefit favorably from a Cantina Band-esque little ditty), but I can hardly think of one rpg that has ever benefited from ignoring humor.

In the end, everyone has their own opinion on what makes a story endearing. Some love their stories to be dark, full of complexity, with humor nowhere in sight. For me, I prefer stories that find some way to balance drama, humor, and romance. It is not an easy feat to achieve, but it can be done effectively. I’m positive of that fact. It’s one of the reasons I love rpgs over any other genre.

My sincerest wish for the future of rpgs is, I don’t want them to ever lose their flavor.

Part of what makes an rpg worth playing is the total package. It isn’t just being a hero/heroine, it isn’t just saving kingdoms, or romancing companions. It is not just bombastic leitmotifs over grand boss fights that emphasize how awesome you are. Creating a tangible, flavorful world — that’s what makes rpgs worth playing.

–It’s watching an old wizard beat a “spoony bard” over the head with a staff while slinging spells at him (Tellah, R.I.P., you magnificent old bastard).

–It’s drinking a psychedelic cup of coffee with your grade school-age friend, in a village populated by armless, bow-wearing, androgenous beings that speak as if they have ADD (please someone from the dev team get back to me).

–It’s going off to fight a boss who wants to destroy the world riding on the back of a chicken — with a silly theme to match (jk, I love you chocobos).

–It’s about teasing the hell out of that ice queen Bastila just because you can, or jumping into a threesome with Isabella & Zevran on a whim (I love you, BioWare).

Most importantly, it’s about creating memorable musical cues to accent these great moments.

As one member of the orchestra working on SWTOR stated so perfectly, “The music leads the experience. Always. Emotionally.”

Music is universal. It forms the backbone of any form of media in which it is present. It pushes any story forward, makes you care for the characters, and it makes you feel the full breadth of a situation.

Music also gives you a tangible bookmark for your memories. Show me one person who doesn’t have a deep memory associated with music, and I’ll show you a poor, unfortunate bastard.

In video games, it is even more apparent how integral an aural identity, a musical identity is to the essence of a video game. I’ve long ago stopped thinking of video game music as some niche medium that has no artistic merit. For me, music in video games is as important to my identity as a story lover as books were to people from my grandparent’s generation, or films were to people from my parents’ generation.

Video games — some of them — have every right to be considered worthy for consideration as a valid form of artistic work. Rpgs stand at the very front of this line.

I’ve played video games with narratives that rival novels. Hell, it is not even surprising to find a game with a story written by a novelist, anymore (shout out to Drew K and the talented writers at BioWare).

The music associated with these works are equally as deserving of accreditation as serious works of art. Many video game pieces have even been played by symphonies, and inspired people to pursue careers as composers, or musicians. As video games have grown more intricate with the technology that allows them to do so, music in video games has also grown and matured. In all honesty, what makes–

–so different from–

–? Nothing. Yasunori Mitsuda was trying to interpret the feelings of a boy who had traveled to another world; Bach was driven, arguably, by his desire to interpret music as a testament to the glory of God. Each was driven by a different inspiration — but both are deserving of their artistic merit.

Video games exist to give gamers an escape into a fantastical world which we can mold and shape to our liking. Music is there to give that world color, and vibrancy.

In conclusion, here’s hoping that as video games age, composers continue to improve the audible landscape of them for the better.

I really believe that Warren Spector was right on the money when he said “video games are the medium of the 21st century.”

Video game music will be the flavor of that medium.

The War of the Narratives: Insular vs. Grand

As I recover from searing back pain, I feel compelled to revisit a little debate I had with someone awhile back.

The debate: which narrative form tells the best story: “insular narratives”, driven by colorful characters in relatively small settings, or “grand narratives”, which focus on large-scale events, sometimes at the expense of intimate character descriptions?

As with anything, narrative preference is a matter of personal taste. Also, there are seemingly as many narrative forms as there are bones in my body. For that reason, we—a fellow writer & I—tried to simplify the subject to the two separate categories in the title.

For the record, I come down on the side of insular narratives.

In my opinion, insular narratives, be they in video games, films, books, what have you, offer the best chance for complex character development. Because the story doesn’t focus on some grand, cosmic (or even non-cosmic) event, the story has to focus on bright, colorful, layered characters in order to be satisfying. More than that, a book with an insular narrative can’t survive unless the characters within are engaging and endearing. (If the terminology in this article gets too pretentious, I’ll provide a cliff notes response at the end of the program.)

In a good book/film/video game with an insular narrative, you won’t find many Bella Swan’s or Kantorek’s (or if you do, they exist merely as punching bags for the¬†textured insular¬†characters to rip on for their one-dimensional personalities). In a good¬†piece of work¬†with an insular narrative, you tend to explore your characters more deeply than you do the setting—and that means your characters have to live with some damn color.

I’m talking interesting, intriguing personalities, not characters that have no dreams or ambitions outside of one person/place/thing. If you have a character like that in an insular narrative, at some point you have to see what brought them there, and at some point either a change must come, or you get what you asked for and people finally leave you alone to brood and bitch in a quiet, dank room (not celebrate it, like some books).

Either that, or they’ll just tell you off.

bland

Edward: “What’s your favorite food?” Bella: “Whatever kind of food you like.”

cute kid

“You guys suck!”

I prefer stories that focus on character development, because, I’ll be honest, I’m a little bit of a man slut when it comes to complex characters in stories: I can’t get enough of them.

My “opponent”, on the other hand, believes the adage “people are shaped by their environment”—and as an extension to this, the more grand the environment, the more complex the characters will become. I can sort of agree on this point. After all, doesn’t it often take some kind of catastrophe to show us who we really are? The same thing happens in any form of creative fiction/non-fiction. Just toss a little bloody war into the mix and you’ll find out very quickly what your characters are made of, and of what they are capable.

A “grand” narrative is — the true definition of which is simplified for this article — a style of narrative in which some greater event drives the story forward, not simply the characters. The characters grow with the event, transform with it, and ultimately find themselves through it. Think Lord of the Rings; yes, there were aspects of an insular narrative in it (Frodo & Sam spend most of the trilogy away from the others, as do Merry & Pip), but they are always driven by a grand goal (stopping Sauron from jacking up the world by destroying the One Ring before he can recapture it).

You could call this a debate over character driven plots & event driven plots, but that sort of minimizes the discussion a bit. Stories driven by a great event don’t always do so at the expense of meaningful character development (All Quiet on the Western Front), and conversely, not all stories with an intimate setting automatically have superior characters.

Funny enough, this debate eventually spilled over the literature line, right into video games and, especially, films.

I stood my ground as she reeled off titles like¬†Ran,¬†The Ten¬†Commandments,¬†Saving Private Ryan¬†and, of course, The Lord of the Rings trilogy—all films that I love—to support her argument, to which I countered with Rashomon, Citizen Kane, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Die Hard (which got a nice big LOL in¬†an otherwise¬†concentrated¬†discussion).

Badass

“Was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers actually. I really like those sequined shirts.”

Just think about it for a minute; does Die Hard ever take place anywhere other than inside the Nakatomi building? Yes, there are scenes that show people outside of the building, but everything is centralized on that location, and the situation within.

The entire movie¬†takes place in¬†one near-constant setting, with the story driven by the complexity of the characters. You learn all about John McClane, his struggling marriage, his job as a New York cop, his wife’s ambitions, his kids, Hans’ goals (and later his REAL goals), Al Powell’s internal struggle with the aftermath of having accidentally shot a kid, that long-haired blonde guy’s thirst for revenge after John killed his little brother in the stairwell, that one douchebag reporter’s attempts to get the story before anyone else, etc.

Die Hard¬†is about the characters, while the situation in the Nakatomi building is really just a backdrop (and not even a terribly important one—it’s not as if the writers mentioned every 10 seconds that this was a Japanese corporate building. This story could have, realistically, taken place in any powerful corporation’s highrise and not skipped a beat).

I also mentioned other titles like Seven Samurai, which nearly led into an entirely new debate. That was until I mentioned that, while the story does take place in the Warring States Period of Japanese history, the story itself isn’t at all focused on a grand picture. It’s just a film about¬†7¬†ronin who are hired to defend a farming village from bandits.

(On the other side, I eventually had to grudgingly concede The Godfather, because even though the film focused quite a bit of attention on the people within the Corleone crime family, it was driven by a grand event: Virgil Sollozzo’s attempts to set up a Heroin trade business in New York, as well as a simmering feud between the¬†other 4¬†crime families who are all vying for power with the Corleones).

This debate really does come down to a personal taste issue, in the end. It’s like asking two people who love pizza to name their favorite topping—just because one prefers pepperoni & the other prefers sausage doesn’t mean that neither will ever eat a pizza that contains one or the other topping. Sometimes variety in your pizza topping is good; the same principle holds true for creative media.

I enjoy books with grand plots; I enjoy films with grand plots; I enjoy video games with grand plots; It’s just that if I have to choose one or the other, I’ll always go with stories that have complex characters, even if a grand setting has to be omitted to make it all work.

In fact,¬†some of my favorite stories¬†are ones that feature dialogue between two or more characters, with little or no action. It might sound a bit dull, but if it is done right—and the dialogue is crisp enough—the results are beautiful.

Case in point (the way I eventually “won” the¬†“insular-only-is-a-relevant-form-of-storytelling”¬†part of our¬†debate):

Now granted, you could put Samuel L. Jackson in a room with a tape recorder and tell him to give his opinion on newspaper articles—it’d be the most entertaining shit you ever heard. But seriously, what you have here is one of several instances in Pulp Fiction¬†of no action, but plenty of character interaction, and it works like clockwork.

This isn’t a deep conversation here. Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) & Vincent (John Travolta) are talking about a foot massage, ffs. Still, it works because of the little instances of humor, intentional or otherwise, and because at some point both characters get serious about what they’re talking about, and what they think about it (a dude getting tossed out a window for giving a foot massage to the boss’s wife).

Could you see a conversation like this taking place in 300?

fun buddies

“Have you given a lot of foot massages, Xerxes?” “Shit yeah, got my technique down and everything.”

Yeah, no.

I love grand narratives, but sometimes I feel like your characters have to be a certain way in order to function within them.

It would just get ludicrous if Leonidas got together with Artemis to get drunk and talk about how fucked up Xerxes looks with all his weird piercings—or to¬†ask how their armorer ever got paid for designing loincloths that wouldn’t stop a throwing dart, much less a Persian sword.

Grand events dictate your characters act in different ways, I understand this to a degree. But when you think about it, is that really true, or are writers just not trying hard enough to make it work?

In a lot of ways, it looks like writers are hiding behind grand events to evade the work of actually having to create complex characters.

To illustrate this point, we’re going into the next topic we stumbled into in this debate: role playing games.

Some of the best stories in video games are from role playing games.

When our discussion moved into the video game territory, I was met with an immediate “all role playing games have ‘grand narratives’; it’s always about saving the world, not just a town.” I conceded on this point (it’s so true). However, I fired back that¬†“The setting may be ‘grand’, but the interaction of the characters is ‘insular’—which makes it at least 50% an insular narrative, if not more.”

By this, I mean that¬†role playing¬†games almost always revolve around a half-a-dozen-to-a-dozen characters, their motivations, their goals, with only token mentions that anyone of note exists in the rest of the world other than the villains & heroes. Hell, if you weren’t paying much attention, you¬†probably could be¬†convinced that you’re playing the ONLY interesting characters in the¬†entire world, and the rest of the world’s population¬†are just amorphous blobs. (Kind of makes you wonder why they’re really worth saving, doesn’t it…?)

Because the focus on the characters you play in an rpg is so insular, often you get better character development than you would if you just let the setting drive the story.¬†When you put¬†an insular focus on rpg characters, often¬†you find out that your heroes are flawed. Not in a tragic, melodramatic¬†emo way, but in more of a complex, “human” way. Having said that, you also get to see other sides of a character’s personality besides the¬†dark and mysterious¬†exterior. You get to see the humor, as well.

Because you choose to focus on the heroes on their journey, as opposed to focusing on the world as the heroes are on their journey, the environment feels more intimate, and you care more about these people you’re following. You get to see more sides to them than you would normally¬†get to¬†in a story with an overarching “grand narrative”.

Tellah

R.I.P. You awesome, awesome old bastard.

Throughout the course of our debate, I started to realize that strong focus on the characters is more important to me than a narrative with grand ambitions. In fact, my favorite movies tend not to be your 300‘s, with its special effects & over-the-top fight scenes, or your Star Trek‘s with its massive interstellar ship battles. I prefer films like The Fifth Element, which does have its own action sequences and grand “I-must-save-the-universe” narrative. But beneath that “grand narrative”, the writers found a way to also include humor and diversity to its cast of characters.

Seriously, tell me what¬†business that has in a movie where the plot has an entire universe on the line? It doesn’t…Unless you find a way to make it fit (which the writers¬†of the movie did brilliantly).

The rest of the movie was just as random. It had its serious moments, but it also had some flavor to it.

-This movie didn’t¬†just have flying cars,¬†it also had¬†McDonald’s drive-thru windows to service them;

-It didn’t¬†just have¬†apartments that were high up in the sky,¬†it also had¬†flying Chinese restaurants to bring people their dimsum;

-It didn’t¬†just have a decorated war hero who goes off to save the universe,¬†he was¬†an out-of-work cab driver with an overbearing mother, who falls in love with a character who literally falls into his lap…er, into the back of his cab.

But I digress.

The point is, stories should always put ample focus on characters, in my opinion, even if it means sacrificing a grand narrative. This is the area in which we ended up in a stalemate.

She conceded that character development is important, but, in her opinion, grand events make for the best settings & story drivers. It was a little hard to argue with her because some of my favorite movies/films/books feature grand narrative events to which the characters must adapt.

That said,¬†¬†many of my favorite stories are ones where the characters are doing the driving, and what matters is the characters, and what their concerns are, while the event that brings them together is just kind of ancillary. Like Before Sunrise, a movie that takes place over the course of one night, in one setting (Vienna), where the narrative—if you could even say it really has one—is minimalist, at best, and driven entirely by the characters.

Like I said at the beginning, so much of this has to do with a person’s own tastes. I love stories with grand narratives, and I love stories with insular narratives—I just choose insular if I’m asked point blank.

I feel like the best stories are the ones where the characters are looked at closely, where you are given a window into how they got to be who they are, where they are going, what they are going to do if things don’t go their way, and so on. I love when two characters just shoot the breeze long enough to talk about what’s about to happen. Hell, you could stretch that out and make a¬†two hour movie about soldiers talking the night before a huge world-changing battle and I would enjoy it if the dialogue is engaging.

To me, the players are more important than the game.

What about you? If you managed to get all the way through this tl;dr article, which side of the divide do you come down on?

Is it more important for you that there is some great objective the characters must face to make a good story, or some event that changes the world based on the participation of the main characters?

Do you find¬†that stories that put more focus on characters¬†tend to be superior to stories that have great objectives, but don’t really let you see the different aspects of its characters?

Does a story have to have both in order for you to be interested, or to stay interested?

Michael Bay or Martin Scorcese? (Ok seriously, don’t answer that.)

The Evolution of a Story-loving Gamer: A Musical Journey (part 2)

As I looked over what I wrote in the last part, I realized something: every single one of those music samples was from an SNES game.

I guess that was because I grew up a child of the SNES age, when rpg titles like Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, and Lufia & the Fortress of Doom ruled my playtime. Each of those titles influenced my¬†preferences in rpg video game narratives (all but Lufia & the Fortress of Doom—which was more of a personal favorite—had critically acclaimed narratives attached to them), and left a hefty imprint on my musical tastes.¬†

Every one of those titles listed have musical pieces that just left me utterly enthralled as a young gamer, and some still do:

Secret of Mana – Fear of the Heavens

Secret of Mana, composed by the talented Hiroki Kikuta, will always have one of the greatest opening theme songs of any game, in my opinion. This tune really set the mood for the game’s story, filled with¬†an incredible overarching¬†plot, awesome characters, each with their own reasons for undergoing the game’s incredible journey—plus, one of the most effective self sacrifices I had seen to that point in an rpg (matched only by the Sage Tellah in Final Fantasy IV [You’re the fucking man, you old bastard!]).

Final Fantasy VI (III in America) – Awakening

There is a considerable amount of debate about which game in the Final Fantasy series is, in fact, “the best.” However, in my opinion, Final Fantasy VI deserves to always be in contention for that title.

With some of the most unique characters I’ve ever played in an rpg (Celes, Terra, Locke, Cyan, Sabin, Relm, Strago, Shadow, Gau, Setzer, Umaro, Mog, Gogo, Edgar—that’s right, they all made such an impression I can remember them all by heart), along with¬†THE most iconic¬†(or at least effective) villain in the entire series (Kefka, who, unlike most villains who merely¬†TRY to¬†wreak havoc, actually tore the world asunder and ruled atop it for some time before the heroes¬†finally regrouped to face him), FFVI remains in my top 3 of rpgs that I have played.¬†

Breath of Fire II – Nightmare

I’ll never forget the feeling I felt when I heard this music for the first time. Awe, wonder, dread, all rolled up in one.

This is the tune that plays while you descend into “Infinity”, the inner sanctum of the dark God Deathevn in BoFII. This place was so different from the other areas you traverse in Breath of Fire II, it actually caught me off guard the first time I ventured in. The difficulty level ramps up the second you enter, making it feel like a dimensional portal crawling with horrific monsters just waiting to spill forth into the world. For the MMO players out there, I liken it to exploring the world fighting monsters, then suddenly walking into an endgame raid. It felt like another world; it was definitely something you had to experience for yourself to truly grasp the magnitude of it.

And for all your toil, for all the turmoil you endure to reach the bottom of this chaotic abyss, what do you get for a thank you?

Death

I didn't know Cthulhu had a brother...

 

Final Fantasy VII – Main Theme

Now, I know I said above that I consider FFVI one of the very best games in the Final Fantasy franchise, but that is like saying $1million is better than $999,999—the important thing is, you’re rich as fuck either way.

Final Fantasy VII is easily in the top 3 for the franchise in my book, right up there with Final Fantasy IV (#1 for me) & Final Fantasy VI (sometimes #2 for me, sometimes #3). With a pretty complex plot, several twists along the way, cutting edge cutscenes for the time, and a truly iconic villain (Sephiroth), FFVII really led the charge for console rpgs out of the SNES era and into the Playstation era. 

 

Phantasy Star: The End of the Millenium – Various

Phantasy Star: The End of the Millenium was not the only Genesis rpg that I enjoyed, but it was the one that had the biggest impact on me as my rpg tastes grew.

I’m not sure what exactly sparked my love of this game. Partly, it was because the character I thought was the main protagonist, the huntress Alys, dies fairly early in the game’s narrative. This leaves¬†only her young assistant Chaz to continue forward into a story that ends up spanning the entire galaxy. (I also think my love of snow worlds in games may have begun on Phantasy Star IV’s “Dezolis”, an ice world where the adventurers crash land.)

This game featured comic book style cutscenes, an excellent soundtrack, a pretty layered story for the time, incredible environments, and funny enough it introduced me to a staple of MMOs that I would experience much later (a macro system for queueing up spells and actions—a first for a console¬†rpg that I can recall).

* * *

Looking at what I just wrote, it could be said I’ve been creating a¬†“best of” list for¬†rpgs, but that is not my intention. Each of those¬†games listed above added something¬†else to the list of reasons¬†why I have come to¬†love incredible narratives in video games.

Secret of Mana taught me that it is okay, and sometimes even more effective, to have a clear plot from beginning to end. I don’t often love the stories without too many twists and turns (it is pretty clear all throughout the game who the villain is, and that the hero will likely turn into one of the “destined hero” archetypes), but the plot is so crisp and well-crafted, it hardly matters. This story definitely taught me that¬†creating a¬†story based on a¬†familiar formula is not a curse.¬†It’s all in the execution.¬†

Final Fantasy VI had one of the most effective villain ascensions that I can recall in a video game. I’ve seen a 2nd-in-command suddenly turn ambitious and attempt to strike down his/her master, and I’ve seen a clear cut villain rise to become something unspeakable, but until FFVI, I can’t say I ever saw someone I thought was nothing more than a clown turn into a legitimate villain.

Kefka, the main villain of FFVI, begins the game as what appears to be a neurotic more than¬†a psychotic. Even as he shows signs of his true madness, it still doesn’t prepare you for the unimaginably awe inspiring villainy he wreaks later.

By the end, he has literally turned the world inside out, burns whole cities simply for pleasure, and has created a massive tower made of the ruined scraps of the world, drawn together by his twisted magic. So yeah, this guy turns out to be one fucked up villain.

Plus, he has a wicked theme—and probably the most legendary laugh in all of video games:

Breath of Fire II started off in¬†a way that I can hardly recall any videogame beginning. You begin as a child who wanders off and falls asleep near a dragon who died years ago¬†to protect the village where you live.¬†But when you wake up and wander back to town, nobody there recalls you, your father, or your sister EVER having lived there.¬†Needless to say, it started off trippy, and only got more strange after meeting another¬†“orphan” named Bow, a dog person (this an rpg, after all), who is also a child, who convinces you to leave the town with him.¬†Which only seemed like the right thing to do since nobody¬†there had any memory of you.¬†The two of you leave town and eventually wander into a cave where some giant behemoth demon worm is waiting…¬†Then you wake up as if from a dream, a young adult.

What I learned from BoFII is, creating a tasty mystery at the beginning of a story can be quite satisfying when you get to see it unveiled, little by little, as the story progresses. I learned this from books and films, too, but it was awesome to get to have such an interactive experience with the story that only a video game can really provide.

Final Fantasy VII let me play a character who was living as if his slain best friend’s memories were his own. All the while, the main character Cloud uncovers more about his true past, delves into the pasts of the people he is traveling with, and features one of the most well-executed death scenes in the history of rpgs. If anything, FFVII taught me that the death of a main character isn’t always merely for sensationalist purposes; sometimes, it is what needs to happen for a story to advance in a real way. Death has as much of a rightful place in story as love, pain, glory, or any other emotion—perhaps even moreso.

That said, it also made me realize that a meaningful death in a story can’t be too obvious. It has to be handled delicately.

Phantasy Star: The End of the Millenium let me start the game out with a clear idea of who the main protagonist was, who was the sidekick, and who was the main villain. Fast forward about 2/5ths of the way through the game and, suddenly, the “main character” is dead, the sidekick turns out to be the true hero, and the “main villain” was merely¬†a pawn for some dark God chained up in a neverending void plane that wanted to break free of its prison. Add to that the fact that there is little to no hint your story will even leave the planet you start¬†on, and it makes for an excellent entry to a galaxy wide saga.

Later, you wind up traveling to¬†other worlds, learning more about the great evil that plagues these places, and you also learn more about the history of¬†the Phantasy Star series. Despite this, you never lose the sense that this is¬†your character, your story, and the concerns of the galaxy¬†are just a well-connected set piece that enhances the overall story. I think the most important thing I learned from this game is: don’t¬†be afraid to get grandiose in your¬†vision for a narrative. If you work it just right, it is possible to create something¬†that spans¬†worlds,¬†yet¬†still feels kind of insular in its own way. ¬†

* * *

There are a number of different things that affect how you are going to react to a story. Narrative is only one part. Music is another one, but just as important as the music and the narrative, a story’s setting informs how the rest of the story is going to feel. If the world feels dead, why should you give a rat’s ass about it?

One thing about all the games I’ve played that really stuck with me, maybe even more than the overall narrative, was how the setting felt. For me, setting is maybe the most important part of a good story. Just a change of scenery can have a drastic effect on the feel of¬†a story. You might even say a profound effect. But even deeper still, the marriage of music and setting is probably the aspect of video games I enjoy most. It’s what often makes the game for me.

All the games I’ve played have incredible settings, and incredible themes to support them. As I type this¬†a couple¬†come to mind:

 

City of the Ancients (Final Fantasy VII)

There was something about being in this city for the first time that really grabbed me. The music was a big part of it.

This piece was so different from the other pieces in this game’s soundtrack, I think that was one reason why it felt like stepping into another world. The architecture of the city—the empty, archaic buildings—definitely sold the rest. I remember wandering through this place just to hear the music and take in the feel. I can even recall¬†leaving my character standing idle in the city just so I could sleep to this music once.lol

The City of the Ancients in this game became the archetype for me on how an olden city should feel. When I play new games with a similar setting, this is the game and theme I always return to for a comparison.

Dezolis (Phantasy Star IV)

Field #1

Town #1

Town #2

Field #2

I can say with 100% certainty, Dezolis is the¬†setting that began my love of ice worlds in video games. There were so many things about it that I enjoyed, the ice caves, the¬†indigenous animals with snow themes that you couldn’t find¬†on any other world, the towns with¬†bonfires all about filled with parka-adorned people milling around—and people inside the buildings remarking on how¬†bitterly cold¬†the weather had gotten outside. ¬†

Then you had the ice and snow drifts that made travel on the world a nightmare for normal citizens—including walls of ice that could only be broken through with a vehicle called the “Ice Digger”. PSIV really went the distance to make you FEEL like you were on an ice world, and I have nothing but respect¬†for them for that.

When it comes to ice worlds, I find the most effective music has a “crystalline” quality to it, similar to “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”¬†from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker (which is still, to me, the archetypal “inviting” winter song that¬†can be¬†heard in many winter-themed musical pieces even more than a century after it was written).

There are two ways to really portray winter: inviting or oppressive.

Do you focus on the beauty of winter, or the bitter cold? The clear ice, or the blinding blizzard?

This is why in a game like the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic, Alderaan is my favorite ice world and not Hoth. While both are technically “winter worlds”, Alderaan comes across as more of an “inviting” winter, while Hoth just feels like it will be more “oppressive”. The same could be said of zones like Winterspring (inviting) and Dragonblight (oppressive) in World of Warcraft. Both have their good sides, but my tastes tend to shift toward inviting.

Dezolis managed to give you both. When you first reach the planet, they are in the grip of a terrible blizzard that doesn’t cease. Even on a natural snow world, this blizzard begins to threaten the lives of the people. Early Dezolis is what I would call an oppressive winter world. Later, after you have destroyed the creature causing the blizzard, Dezolis becomes more of an inviting winter world. The music above reflects the change: Dezolis Field #1 is the oppressive¬†world map¬†theme when you first arrive on the planet, while Dezolis Field #2 is what plays on the world map after you’ve halted the blizzard.

Dezolis was the archetype for a good winter environment, on both sides of the inviting/oppressive divide, for me. It was a world that I loved, and anytime I go into a new game with winter environments, I hope to see at least one winter place that is inviting.

* * *

This seems like a good stopping point. I feel like my nostalgia needs to die down for the moment.

I hope this was somewhat entertaining to anyone who happens to come across this piece. I certainly had a good stroll down memory lane while I was writing it.

Part 3—the final part—will be incoming in the next week or so. With PAX East on the way tomorrow, I don’t dare promise more (even if I’m not going, I would hate to miss the coverage).

Take care.

The Evolution of a Story-loving Gamer: A Musical Journey (part 1)

Don’t you just LOVE the pretentious titles?:-P

Love of story rarely¬†begins later in life. I’m sure most of us can recall a story that really began our love of epic narrative storytelling—or even some not-so-epic ones.

For some people it was old “Wuxia” films made by the immortal Shaw Bros studios (whose films not only inspired directors like Quentin Tarantino, but also rappers—namely,¬† the Wu Tang Clan, who took their name directly from an antagonist entity in many of the Shaw Bros martial arts films).¬† For others, it was seeing Bruce Lee for the first time, or watching George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead for the first time and being scared shitless (it was an effective horror movie for its time). Star Wars was another film that inspired a generation to think outside the box, to embrace sentimentality and emotive storytelling in an alien environment that could only exist “in a galaxy far far away.” ¬†

Whatever the film, actor, book, what have you, everyone who loves story can usually point to something as the beginning of their passion for effective storytelling.

In my case, I have a dark knight named “Cecil” to thank for, both my love of storytelling, and also my love of¬†role playing¬†games.

That name may not mean much to everyone, but I’m sure most gamers know exactly of whom I am speaking. That would be Cecil, dark knight of the kingdom of Baron, commander of the¬†strongest and most feared military in the world.

Nobuo Uematsu РRed Wings (Final Fantasy IV) 

If only you knew what the opening scene of that game did to a 10-year-old’s mind…

My love of story may have become more sophisticated over time, but there will always be a special place in my heart for Final Fantasy IV.

Never had I really witnessed a story like it before. I had seen many television shows, watched movies, read some books, and they all began and ended pretty much the same way: villains were villains, heroes were heroes.¬†The roles were always easy to identify, and the archetypes never—or rarely ever—varied.

With this understanding of how “proper” narrative storytelling worked, I loaded Final¬†Fantasy IV into the Super Nintendo and¬†expected another hero’s journey… But wait… What is this?! I’M the villain?! That can’t be right…

I see a character on screen¬†standing on the deck of an¬†“airship”, and he’s giving orders to his men. “Why are we robbing innocent people,” one of his men says. “Do we really have to keep doing this?”

That’s when I realized this must be the villain, and they’re showing me¬†his backstory. That had to be it. So I continue to watch, entranced as the character and his henchman storm into a crystalline room with a¬†glowing crystal atop a pedestal, and¬†four men on either side.¬†The¬†dark knight’s¬†men even go so far as to kill¬†three of the four people¬†directly onscreen¬†(the character models merely disappear, but¬†even¬†at that age I understood everything that was happening).¬†Then,¬†as the dark knight is leaving with¬†the crystal, one of the survivors turns to¬†him and asks why the bloodshed was needed. As he leaves, Cecil hangs his head in what I can only imagine is shame for the violence he has just brought down on these innocent people.

My heart was pounding, no lies. It only became more and more real when I realized this WAS my character. My thoughts were almost an exact mirror of his crew’s thoughts as they pondered what they had just done. Them: “Captain, we can’t stand doing this anymore!”¬† Me: “Did you really have to kill all those people?!” But Cecil merely quiets them, reassuring his men¬†that it is what had to be done for the safety and prosperity of the Kingdom of Baron. Even as he later confessed his own doubts about what his king was asking him to do, he never waivered, because he was loyal to his king, and his country.

I had never seen the normal hero/villain narrative roles flipped so drastically before…Certainly not in a video game.

From that moment on, I was hooked. That scene above constituted about 3-to-5 minutes of game time, but that is all it took for me to become enthralled with the nuances of narrative structures. It also began my love of rpgs—and video games, in general.

That song, composed by the legendary Nobuo Uematsu, played all throughout the opening intro of the game, and it only enhanced the drama of the moment.

Nobuo Uematsu, whose work I would only grow to love more with time, is one of the great masters of epic storytelling through music. I liken him to the John Williams of role playing games. There have been imitators, but never have I seen one person so affect a genre as Nobuo Uematsu affected role playing games in the 90’s. Just like John Williams¬†composed the very emotional backbone of Star Wars through his music, Nobuo Uematsu did the same with his scores for the Final Fantasy series. Those games would only have been half what they were¬†without his music. In fact, there was only one other composer in¬†the rpg genre of the 90’s that I felt was on par with¬†him, and that leads into the next step of this musical journey.

Yasunori Mitsuda – the themes of Chrono Trigger

Chrono Trigger —another game that left a heavy footprint in my growing rpg-loving soul.

Much like Final Fantasy IV, Chrono Trigger was far more than just the music. While CT built off of a familiar hero/villain archetype with defined roles, the execution of those elements was what made the game so excellent (and also the ability to fry an entire screen full of enemies with “Luminaire”, a nuclear bomb in a magic spell). For one, you could actually recruit the guy you had been trying to kill for a good portion of the game (Magus)—and you could do it with the one guy who had the most reason to hate him (Frog, whose best friend was murdered by Magus and his bitch-ass henchman, Ozzie). There was, admittedly, a slightly sappy love story in the mix, but even that was dealt with very well. It wasn’t thrown in your face as much as it could have been, but it came up in very subtle, well-timed ways.

Yasunori Mitsuda succeeded in creating a musical blueprint for Chrono Trigger that was as effective as the ones Nobuo Uematsu wrote for the Final Fantasy series.¬†He would go on to write scores for a number of excellent rpg games, like¬†Xenogears &¬†Xenosaga, as well as the Shadow Hearts series. (He even followed up Chrono Trigger by composing the score for its sequel, Chrono Cross—a game that I didn’t particularly like all that much, but whose soundtrack was absolutely on par with the original CT.)

While Yasunori Mitsuda may not have the library of video game scores under his belt that Nobuo Uematsu has, I still have to bow to him—mostly for giving me one of the most epic themes for a boss fight in rpg history.

Bask in the 16-bit awesomeness:

Yasunori Mitsuda – Battle with Magus

Are you basking?;)

Anyway, I can tell this is going to take a bit, so I think I’ll cut off here and make this a two parter (hopefully it won’t take more than that). That may be a bit long, but since I’m sure my reader base is pretty solitaire right now, I don’t see why I should give a fuck.lol