Experience and Execution

Why is it that I will almost always think of something interesting to write about when I am least able to do so?  The shower is prime among these instances, followed closely by trying to fall asleep.  It is a subtly maddening thing, to feel creative and profound and be powerless to record these sudden inspirations.  But the thinking today was on a subject I’ve pondered before, and I remember somewhat the general idea of what I was wanting to say, so I will attempt to reconstruct my musings this morning.  Well, afternoon technically.

Video games, as with any artistic or entertainment endeavor, are praised or criticized based on their merits or shortcomings.  And there are things that can be defined and quantified, mostly mechanical in nature.  If the camera doesn’t respond easily, it feels clunky and makes the game less enjoyable.  If there is a counter mechanic in the gameplay that doesn’t always trigger when the conditions for it are met, then the strategy is unreliable and thus either a test-your-luck move at best, or a waste of skill points/moveset/etc.  Mainly, it is issues around how a game plays that is easiest to analyze and pinpoint issues with.

Then there are elements that are more ephemeral, but still rooted in the mechanical, or perhaps technological would be more appropriate.  These are things like voice acting, which is a relatively new development, and in my mind a long way from being generally”good”.  I’m not saying I could do a better job, certainly — I’d actually be pretty terrible at it.  But that doesn’t change the fact that most times, I find myself wishing I were simply reading text and letting the characters themselves speak to me, rather than listening to a voice that feels exaggerated or overly “staged” or acted.  But that’s not to say that all voice acting is bad either, or that a voice can’t grow on me over time — or even get better as the game progresses.  A prime example of the latter here, I feel, is Yuna from Final Fantasy X.  I’ve played through the game more than once, and every time I find myself kind of cringing when she has lines.  They just feel too forced, unnatural.  Yet by the end of the adventure I find myself endeared to her, and her voice honestly sounds different to me.  She’s found her flow by that point, and I begin to believe that that is how Yuna sounds, that the timbres of emotion are what she is feeling right then.  And in general, though to less extreme a degree, I feel the same for the voices of the rest of the protagonists in Final Fantasy X.

Music is another step removed from the technological.  It is of course influenced by the means through which it is delivered, and this aspect can even ruin a song that is otherwise good.  Final Fantasy IV: The After Years is a heinous offender in this sense, taking the battle theme from the original game and reducing the elegant implementation of 16-bit instrumentation to crass, generic midis that grate on my every nerve.  I might not have believed it possible if I hadn’t experienced it myself, but FF IV: TAY indeed managed to ruin a classic Final Fantasy song.  Another, if less extreme, example of sound quality affecting musical impact, to me, is Mega Man X2.  The instrument set used isn’t necessarily bad, but it is both one I don’t care for and one that is patently different from both Mega Man X and Mega Man X3.  Perhaps it was a bout of experimentation on Capcom’s part, but it nonetheless creates something of a disconnect for me.

Then of course, there is the most ephemeral elements of video games, ones that I feel get a lot of undeserved criticism: the story, and the characters.  Now, I am by no means saying that all video games tell good stories, or tell their stories well — not by a long shot.  But there are some things that I feel are, like I said, dealt criticism that is undeserved.

Chief among these is the convention of the silent protagonist.  I have heard this technique branded as laziness on the part of the writers, that for the main character to have no lines or voice whatsoever is uncreative and, in short, bad.  I disagree.  The point of a silent protagonist is for the player to connect with the environment in a deeper and more visceral way by allowing themselves to place themselves in the position of the protagonist.  A silent protagonist doesn’t create disconnect by displaying tendencies that could be considered obnoxious, and their silence allows the player’s inner voice a chance to speak through them.  And simply because they do not utter a single word, that doesn’t mean they can’t have personality.  Indeed, looking at it from a distance, a silent protagonist is one of the more difficult characters to properly implement, to prevent them from being a cardboard cutout amidst the other people and places of the game.  But actions speak louder than words, and so long as they are the actions the player wants to be carrying out, or actions that the player can empathize with, then the character has a powerful voice indeed.

That is another issue I take with criticisms of entertainment, or even stories, in general - that such and such characters weren’t believable enough, or that some particular plot seemed hokey.  Now, it’s true that bad writing or poor execution can eject even the most stalwart and forgiving of audience members from a setting.  But I say it is also true that one can convince oneself to dislike even the most engaging of narratives and characters.  Because, ultimately, it is up to you whether or not you want to listen to the people in this world; it is up to you whether or not to see sense in the structure of the conflict and the various motivations within it; it is up to you whether or not you want to believe the story you’re being told.  So in this sense, there are two ways to approach any story, in any medium.  The first is to take everything at face value, and let the narrative carry you along in its current.  The second is to scrutinize every detail, and attempt to preemptively guess what is going to happen next.

I am not saying there is anything inherently good or bad about either.  Ultimately, it is up to the individual to choose just how to enjoy something.  But I sometimes feel that people do too much of the latter, and not enough of the former.  Perhaps it is the former is more familiar, simpler — I know that for me at least, I would exclusively participate in the former as a child.  Or perhaps it is a distrust ingrained from some previous betrayal of trust between an author and a reader.  Or, perhaps it is a perceived air of intelligence around being able to dissect and predict what a story will do, where the bends in the narrative will occur and where the flow of the narrative will head.  But in doing so, aren’t we missing something deeper?  Something intrinsic with the experience of the moment that we are trying so hard to remove ourselves from?  Wouldn’t Bambi be a much less powerful film if we correctly guessed the major event of the film, rather than let ourselves feel along with the protagonist as he experienced life at its most gracious and most harsh?  These are thoughts that have plagued me for a long time, and I still feel that there is so much that could be gained from trying to empathize with fiction, rather than predict it.

Take The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, for instance.  For those of you who haven’t played this excellent game, you may want to consider going and playing it now if you wish to experience it for yourself firsthand, as I am about to mention the most pivotal plot point in the game.  In other words: spoiler alert!

I’ll give you some time to go do that.

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…Okay, done?  Okay.

Now.  There are certain plots or scenarios that are considered “bad writing”, and for legitimate reasons.  One of these is the “dream scenario”, where the reader learns at the end of the book that the entire story leading up to the moment of revelation have all been illusions, hallucinations, or otherwise fake — the character wakes up from a long dream, the end.  I’ve heard that there is one television series that does this for its last two or three seasons, and that it is a sore point among its fans even today.  And for good reason — having all the struggles and emotions tied to an entire narrative, investing in it, only for everything to disappear in a puff of smoke?  Most of the time, it is a betrayal of trust, a big middle finger to the reader, laughter and a kick in the gut for being such a gullible fool.

Before even starting The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, the short intro video shows Link on a ship out at sea in the middle of a storm, when all of a sudden a lightning bolt strikes.  The next scene he is found washed up on a beach by a girl we’ve never seen before, the camera pans to a giant egg on top of a mountain far off in the distance, and then the start menu appears.  Link then proceeds, in the game proper, to find a way off of the island so that he may return to Hyrule, a process which involves waking an entity known as the Wind Fish.  To do so, he seeks out the eight Instruments of the Sirens, wresting them from the grip of the eight Nightmares inhabiting Koholint Island.  Then, finally, when the ninth and final Nightmare bested, the Wind Fish appears, telling Link to play the Song of Awakening.  So he does…

…and wakes up.  It was all a dream.  None of it mattered.

And that is what most people, I imagine, would remember — that it was all a dream Link had while adrift at sea.  That’s what I tend to remember, initially.  But doing a little bit of research into the dialogue of the game, it actually goes beyond a simple elaborate dream sequence.  For you see, while Link was indeed dreaming, and though he played a vital role in it, it wasn’t his dream.  It was the Wind Fish who dreamed it was inside an enormous egg, envisioned the island surrounding it, and inhabited it with people and creatures.  But then the Nightmares arrived, trapping the Wind Fish in its own dream and preventing it from waking.  These Nightmares were more than simple bad dreams — they were an external force, with enough power to impose their own will on the Wind Fish’s dream world.  And so, it follows that an external source would be required to banish them.  Somehow, Link was drawn into the conflict, and guided by a fragment of the Wind Fish’s spirit on a journey to wake them both.  So it is not an empty journey, just one with a disguised purpose.

Thinking about it now, there is a subtle hint to the nature of the game even before the start of the game proper, as in the opening “cutscene”, Link is shown close up, and graphically more well-defined before the lightning bolt hits the ship, and afterwards is shown only via in-game sprite.  Thus, already there is a nod to a shift in the nature of the game’s reality, though it is easily chalked up to cinematic direction.  Not to mention that Link’s first objective after retrieving his sword involves taking a mushroom to a witch, who mutters, “It has the sleepy toadstool, it does.”  And then using the resulting powder on a raccoon, transforming it back into one of the villagers, he mentions that he had a dream about being a raccoon.  I’m sure there are other nods, such as the goomba-esque enemies that Link can jump on to defeat rather than using his sword, that hint towards an altered state of reality.

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…And that is why I feel The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is a good implementation of what is otherwise considered a poor story structure.

While we’re on the subject of Zelda, I have heard multiple times the notion that the series is “the same game over and over again.”  This implies a lack of cerativity, an absence of innovation.  And it is true that there are many reoccurring themes — certain musical themes, the setting of Hyrule, Ganon as the final boss, and various tools gained, the most iconic of which being the boomerang.  But there is a difference, I feel, in regurgitation and reiteration — just because the main protagonist’s name is Link and he always wears green, why should that diminish the game, or the legitimacy of the character or the game’s story?  Yes, it is predictable, but it is part of what makes the game a Zelda game.  They’re iconic, and at the same time, there are distinctly different Links — the Link of Twilight Princess is not the Link of Link to the Past is not the original Link.  They are separated not by space, but by time.  Is it really so hard to believe that there can be a recurring hero who follows a familiar heroic path, etched into the eons?  Are there no other traditions where a single person is called upon for heroism, whose name is itself a symbol, a name that refers to many individuals who have all played the role they were chosen for?  And despite each game implementing various items that are familiar from iteration to iteration, they nonetheless play slightly differently, the gameplay itself nuanced based on the system the game is based in.

In the end, it is like I said before: I feel there is more to be gained from empathizing with fiction, rather than predicting it.  How much you to take away from the experience is based on how much you want to take.  Is it possible to outline how the story of a Zelda game is going to play out?  Sure.

Do you want to?

rare

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