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FGC #284 Drakengard 3

Today’s article contains game-long spoilers for Drakengard 3. Nothing too specific, but it does kind of spoil the ultimate finale of the game, so, ya know, you’ve been warned.

Here comes a special boyA long time ago in a Snick long forgotten, my mother watched an episode of Ren & Stimpy with a wee Goggle Bob. This was unusual, as, while my mother usually did her best to watch what I was watching (we both enjoyed Clarissa Explains it All quite a bit), she didn’t (and still doesn’t) really like “cartoons” at all. So, one way or another, this was likely the first my mother sat and down and actually watched a complete Ren & Stimpy episode. The episode (The Big Baby Scam… I can remember almost all early Nicktoon episodes because they were rerun constantly) was a typical Ren & Stimpy jaunt, and ended with a pair of menacing babies punching the daylights out of Ren Höek. I was laughing uproariously, and my mother… was not impressed. I asked her why, and her response still sticks in my mind.

“I just don’t think violence is funny.”

This rocked my young mind. I am not, nor was I, a psychopath, so, of course, I shared the same belief. Violence is violence, it is bad. But, as far as I reasoned, this was not “violence”, it was Ren & Stimpy. It was a silly cartoon about a dog and a cat and their harebrained schemes to, what was it again? Oh yes, to live. Okay, yeah, if you think about Ren & Stimpy for a moment, it is kind of horrifying, because many episodes are just about two stray animals desperately trying to find a place to live and belong. But then, the next episode, they’re space cadets out in the universe, and isn’t Stimpy a silly kitty? Never mind that practically every episode ends with either Ren slapping Stimpy or Ren being punished by the universe for being Ren, they’re just a couple of inane cartoon animals, no “violence” here.

And, obviously, that’s bullshit.

This has long been the rallying cry of pearl-clutchers everywhere, but cartoons do normalize violence. There’s hitting, there’s falling down, and there are any number of “whacky” firearms being blasted all over the place. I’m pretty sure the average American can simply close their eyes and relive the “Daffy has his beak blown around” image from Looney Tunes. And, on one hand, who cares, it’s funny. On the other hand, it’s a sentient creature being shot in the face. That is not normal. That is upsetting. But it’s a cartoon, so it practically becomes a part of our cultural identity. And, as someone who watches a lot of cartoons, I want to say there’s nothing wrong with that. Kids are smarter than they’re often given credit for, and it’s not hard to discern the difference between Elmer Fudd and an actual threat with a gun. I haven’t ever seen a real life anvil dropped on a random person, so I’m pretty sure our society has survived the last few decades of “animated violence”. The kids are alright.

And then we get into videogames.

And gore!I don’t need to rehash the whole “violent videogames” angle, do I? We’ve all heard the debates, and we’ve all dealt with at least one family member or friend that thinks you’re going to “go Columbine” because you play murder simulators. It’s crazy, right? We all agree there? We don’t play violent videogames because they’re violent, or to learn violence; we play violent videogames because that’s how videogames interpret the world. Call of Duty or Splatoon, who cares? What’s the difference between a virtual gun and a virtual water gun? They’re both just as ineffective on that damn cat with the flags, so let’s get over this whole “videogame violence” thing. Videogames are good for you! Now sit down and finish your Mary-Kate and Ashley: Magical Mystery Mall!

But do you ever really sit down and think about what you’re doing in a videogame? Let’s look at Final Fantasy 1, a game I want to say no parents’ organization has ever challenged (though I’d be amused to hear otherwise). On the surface you’ve got four kinda goofy looking dudes with swords and nunchucks traipsing across a medieval countryside occasionally making imps fall down. No big deal there. But then consider what actually happens in that game. The Light Warriors venture from Corneria to the next town over… an event that involves random encounters every seven steps, and each battle including one to nine different beasts. Our protagonists kill these creatures as easily as breathing, and chug magic drugs whenever they need to feel a little better. Along the way, they meet a blind old woman that lives alone in a cave… and then the heroes keep walking. Shortly thereafter, the gang arrives in Pravoka, determines they need a boat, and kill nine guys until the survivors give them a boat. Then they set sail for another land, and, aside from maybe returning to loot the place, the good people of Pravoka never see the Light Warriors ever again. They don’t even come back to patronize what I’m sure is a fine inn and ocean-side tourist stops.

Slay 'emWhat I’m saying is that the Light Warriors are the real monsters.

But this kind of inhumanity is the standard for most videogames. Children are suffering? Well, I’ll help them if they offer me a cool reward for their stupid little quest. Local economies live or die according to my weapon purchases? Well, I bought everything in this stupid little town, there’s no reason to come here ever again. And the monster thing? Have you ever considered how many species have been driven to extinction thanks to well-meaning heroes? Even a “kiddy” game like Pokémon involves walking through any given forest and knocking every last critter in your path into unconsciousness. That is not the sign of a well mind; that is an early warning sign for a serial killer.

Yoko Taro, a videogame director and writer, seemed to notice this. This thesis permeated his first big game, Drakengard. Unfortunately, Drakengard had a few problems, chief among them that it is about as fun to play as boiling your own eyelids. But then we got Taro’s Nier, a game that is totally bonkers, but actually fun to play. Unfortunately, the moral of Nier ultimately boiled down to “even the most virtuous hero is someone else’s villain”, which is an excellent lesson, but one that requires an actually chivalrous protagonist. The titular Nier is a dedicated father (or brother) who is unerringly kind to the various freaks that seem to populate his world. Assuming you’re not a damnable shadow creature, Nier is good to you, and, while this makes much of his life that much more of a tragedy, it also makes him (possibly over) sympathetic. Nier does what may be judged as bad things, but he does them for reasons that make sense to the player.

This cannot stand.

Zero is the heroine of Drakengard 3. Zero is also an asshole.

flitter flitterDrakengard 3 is the story of six sisters. All six sisters have overwhelming magical powers, and five of them decided to share these powers with everyone and rule justly and fairly in an effort to promote the betterment of mankind. And the sixth sister? Well, that’s Zero, and she decided to use her powers to kill her five sisters and every single man, woman, and centaur in between. She technically has a good reason for doing this, but she’s not big into sharing, so there isn’t much hope for a peaceful resolution. And, spoilers, like most videogame protagonists, she has little trouble achieving her goals. Basically, the simple act of popping the Drakengard 3 disc into your PS3 sets off a chain reaction that leads to the death of thousands across multiple universes. Though I guess Zero does manage to accomplish her murderous goals, so, uh, thanks for playing?

Taken on its own, Zero is not doing anything different from any other videogame, particularly those in the Dynasty Warriors vein. Zero enters the battlefield, cuts down a number of anonymous soldiers, maybe beats a mythological creature or two (minotaur, cerberus, whatever), and moves on to a boss that likely has a “human form” and then a colossal “monster form”, though feel free to reverse that order here and there. When it’s all over and everybody (and I mean everybody) is dead, then we discover that this whole “evil Zero” thing was some kind of smear campaign gone wrong, and Zero actually saved the world. Hooray for our side, trophies for everybody!

ClassyBut the devil is in the details here, and Zero is not afraid to reinforce her own negative self-image. Hell, there’s a reason she named herself “nothing”. This is a woman that kills, enjoys it, and then kills some more. At one point, she relays her whole sad backstory, but her narration is over a flashback of her slaughtering a small town’s worth of soldiers. The massacre has nothing to do with her tale, it’s just, ya know, how that woman thinks. She’s got a mind for murder, and murder on her mind.

And then there are her companions. Not unlike a JRPG, Zero has a party of acolytes that join her quest as the game progresses. Team Zero thus ultimately consists of:

  • A sadist that believes all ugly things must be killed. Side note: he believes everything is ugly.
  • A masochist that derives sexual pleasure from the tiniest implications of abuse. He was previously in a relationship with a very vocal virgin, so, to say the least, he’s a little repressed.
  • A perverted old man that, should he think and talk about sex any more than he already does, will accidentally invent Star Trek.
  • A pretty boy that is all beauty and no brains. Presumably because people have a tendency to always listen to the most attractive person in the room, he is constantly inventing “fun facts” that are, in fact, not all that factual.

Do any of these fellows sound like role models? Hell, do any of these guys sound like someone you’d like to share a continent with? I’ve got nothing against sadists, masochists, satyriasists, and dumbasses, but there’s a difference between extracting pleasure from pain and that being your only personality trait. But, here we are, four dudes that are almost entirely defined by their base desires, and they’re “your” party. Choose your favorite two for the battlefield. You’ll be relying on them for your life!

Directed by Yoko TaroAnd it’s in this manner that Taro accomplishes his goal. Zero and her amazing friends are all joined by one basic, mutual hypothesis: they all like killing. They all like it a lot. And you like it, too, don’t you? What’s that, you don’t like violence? No, that can’t be right, you just murdered about three hundred people in ten minutes, and this is the eighth time you’ve done it. You claim you won’t kill again? Bullshit, you’ll start the next mission and kill the next boatload of people, because you want to see how the story ends, don’t you? You want the achievements? You want the upgraded weapons? Ha, you’re just like this dork over here that’s masturbating over a corpse. Who cares if you’re doing it for EXP or to ride the baloney pony, you’re still killing like a psychopath, and you’re going to keep doing it because you enjoy it. You enjoy violence.

And maybe that’s not a good thing.

Of course, I’ve neglected to mention the first and youngest member of Zero’s posse. Mikhail is a dragon, and, because his previous form, Michael, was recently killed, he’s technically little more than an infant. As a wee (giant) dragon baby, Mikhail has the mind of a child, and a… less than complete understanding of his mistress. Mikhail believes that Zero should try to solve this problem by peacefully reconciling with her sisters, and she absolutely should not kill every person she encounters. Zero doesn’t listen, but, even though he aids Zero time and time again, Mikhail persists with his cries for pacifism. Yes, he does fight, but it’s defensively, and he actively notes that he’s not enjoying it, and he would rather not be doing this if there were any other way.

And he’s the only character that survives Drakengard 3. He’s the only character that survives after participating in the biggest, most annoying challenge on the PS3 that is, incidentally, entirely based on being defensive. All the violence up to this point has been easy, not solving your problems with swords and fire breath is hard.

That makes a bit of an impact.

UGHSo maybe Mom and Yoko Taro are right. Maybe there is something to this whole violence in media thing. Maybe it doesn’t make an impact on our minds, maybe it does. Who knows? All I do know is that most media is content to be “don’t worry about it, it’s just a fantasy”, while Drakengard 3 proudly states, “you like violence? Then there might be something wrong with you.” It’s not the worst judgment, after all, this band of freaks did save their world (after a fashion), but it is something to consider.

Anyway, next week is going to be… Mortal Kombat (9ish) for the PS3? Seriously, ROB? Okay, now you’re just screwing with me.

FGC #284 Drakengard 3

  • System: Playstation 3. Exclusive? Yeah, that’s gonna move a lot of systems.
  • Number of players: It might be neat to get some two player disciple action, but, nope, Zero one player.
  • What’s in a name: The Drakengard franchise is known as “Drag-on Dragoon” in Japan. I cannot tell you how much I prefer that title (it’s a lot).
  • Favorite Disciple: This isn’t usually my preference, but I’m going to go with pretty boy Cent as my favorite. He seems to be the most active of the disciples before his official turn to Zero’s side, and he might be the… least crazy member of the party. Then again, he also summons a magical spider creature almost by accident, and that can’t be completely sane.
  • Backstory: Oh yeah, never read the backstory for Zero. I cannot stress this enough. It’s basically written by Frank Miller. Modern Frank Miller. Avoid at all costs.
  • So much loveLadies’ Night: I could probably write an entire other article on the sexual politics of this game… but I’m not sure if I’d ever reach a conclusion. On one hand, the women rule this world, and there is not a single male that isn’t, in some way, a servant to a woman. That’s cool and oddly feminist for a Japanese game. On the other hand, those powerful women seem to be designed exclusively to check off boxes for various fetishes (like a certain other franchise), so only Zero and One (binary!) come off as “real” characters. Otherwise, you’ve just got nymphy, virgin, lolita, and crazy. Mind you, I haven’t played the DLC, so I don’t know if there is more “shading” there, but, as is, it’s a disappointing turn.
  • Did you know? Oh, and speaking of which, Taro apparently told the character designers to look to Puella Magi Madoka Magica for tips on character design. Now I can’t unsee half the sisters being obvious MM “homages”. Though I suppose a MM/D3 crossover is more likely now…
  • Would I play again? Maybe… I guess. This is a lot more fun than Drakengard 1, but, on the other hand, it’s not as fun as Nier, so….

What’s next? Random ROB already chose Mortal Kombat for some reason, presumably because he’s an evil robot and is not to be trusted. So, anyway, violence for violence’s sake. Please look forward to it!

THE END

FGC #204 Dragon’s Crown

Due to the subject matter, this article may be slightly NSFW. Nothing too dirty, but you might get some raised eyebrows. Just so you know.

Creative endeavors have always been important in my family. Both of my grandfathers were engineers in one way or another, but both also produced a surprising number of paintings and other artistic works. My maternal grandfather was a lot more prolific… but, then again, he did live about thirty years longer than the other guy. He (that is to say, the grandfather that lived to see 90) painted wonderful portraits, like this representation of my backyard…

And, before his stroke, he also carved a good number of birds. Maybe “whittled” is the word? Whatever, check out this blue jay…

How did he make birds? We just don’t know.

My father seems to be more creative/effective in the kitchen, but my mother picked up the art gene, and has been producing reasons to purchase a bunch of frames since well before I was born. She recently started distinctly taking art classes at the local college (ah, to be forcibly retired), so she has been producing quite a bit of new material at the behest of a rigid grading system. This piece was apparently made with coffee grounds? I don’t understand art.

I, unfortunately, did not inherit the… let’s call it “drawing” gene. No, that’s probably wrong. I probably did inherit the proper genes, I’m just the kind of guy that has absolutely no patience for anything that doesn’t come out perfect the first time. I probably could be a wonderful artist if I were willing to put up with sketching and erasing and moving lines and starting from scratch and ugh I’m just going to go play Pokémon. Maybe I can blame videogames for this, or maybe I’m just an incredible narcissist, but I feel like I don’t have the endurance to level up so that I can draw something better than a crappy hand turkey.

But I appreciate art in its myriad forms, even if I feel like the best I can pull off is every other day essays. As a result, I immediately gravitate toward any videogame with an “interesting” art style. I can… deal with the cavalcade of plastic polygon people drifting around any given AAA title, but I will grant a lot of latitude to any game that indulges an interesting “style”. Frankly, I don’t care how realistic graphics can get, I still want that “playable anime” I was promised back when I first played Lunar (and Guilty Gear Xrd is doing pretty well in that department). Mad World, Limbo, and even Fez are all games that I likely would not have given another look if not for their elegant presentations. Well, maybe “elegant” isn’t the word I’d use for any game that involves a buzzsaw…

So Dragon’s Crown naturally got my attention…

FGC #041 Kolibri

Trouble Brewin'Since the author’s passing earlier this year, I’ve been rereading various books by Terry Pratchett. Currently, I am reading through Small Gods, one of my favorite novels, and one I recommend highly to anyone within earshot. Small Gods is the story of the stupidest genius imaginable, his deeply malicious and power-hungry superior, and a cyclopean turtle that just happens to be a god. I’m sorry, when I describe it that way, only the most “whacky” of my audience pays attention. Er-hem. Small Gods is a farcical look at philosophy and religion and the people that have practiced and “ruled” it throughout the past and present, with a particular eye on the value of worshipping beliefs vs. worshipping tradition. Yes, it is a “funny” book, but it has very serious statements about our society and the way we live our lives.

Kolibri, the videogame I have played most recently, is the story of a hummingbird repelling an Earth-threatening virus.

That’s… it.

Kolibri is a beautiful and fun game. The graphics are pretty amazing, using the capability of the 32X to create stellar backgrounds and lifelike birds, bugs, and the occasional homicidal toad. The early, “realistic” stages in particular look like some kind of gorgeous watercolor brought to (relative) life. The later, more abstract levels that take place within ancient ruins or murky, goo encrusted caves are much less down-to-earth, but still showcase an attention to detail and art that is often overlooked in much game design of the era. Even today, it’s a rarity to see a game as striking as Kolibri.

But it’s still just a game about a hummingbird.

Poor blendingKolibri’s gameplay is a tight, fast-paced pinnacle of the shooting genre that can be difficult, but with a little practice, becomes something magnificent. Kolibri is a hummingbird endowed with power from the Earth itself, so Kolibri has the ability to shoot various beams and bullets for an R-Type-style offense. All of the weapon options may be tested right at the start, from homing bullets to lasers to a blast that starts small and then explodes into a hail of firepower. Powerups are distributed liberally, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to switch your loadout around as long as you keep the pressure on the invading bug army. Kolibri can only take a few hits, though, and we’re running off of Mario rules, so if you die, you’re respawning with 1 HP until you find a mushroom… err… life orb to bulk up your defenses. Considering most shooter games only ever offer a single hit of damage per life, this is surprisingly generous in the early stages, and, well, let’s just say the challenge level of Ecco the Dolphin wasn’t forgotten by the designers.

But it’s still just a game about a hummingbird.

Kolibri is even two players! So two hummingbirds can join together to swoop through the sky and battle the forces of evil. At a time well before the advent of four-player Mario or even simultaneous Otomodeus action, Kolibri was there so you could take a break from all those competitive fighting games and work together in a “nonviolent” hummingbird’s playground. No ripping out your neighbor’s spinal column here, just good ol’ fashioned cooperative play as one of nature’s prettiest creatures.

But it’s still just a game about a hummingbird.

POW POW POWOh, knock off the refrain. The game is about a hummingbird saving the planet, excuse me, Mother Earth from a malevolent, infectious force. Kolibri is a hummingbird chosen by the very spirit of our planet for the necessary task of saving every one of us. It’s epic!

So it’s the same plot as Space Invaders.

Well… yeah.

You know what? Final Fantasy 7 had to happen.

As I’ve been elucidating here, Kolibri is a great video game. Its graphics are top notch, its gameplay is fun and exciting, and even the little touches sprinkled here and there make for a memorable game. But it’s really not about anything. A hummingbird, one of nature’s most weak and easily swallowed creatures, repelling an alien invasion in defense of Earth is an interesting, unique notion; but beyond inspiring an appealing art direction, there’s nothing noteworthy about the concept in actual gameplay. This is a game about a hummingbird, and that’s all it can ever be. Were you to divorce this game from any nostalgic memories of the 32X era (which I’m sure isn’t difficult for many of you that may be reading about this game for the first time), all you’re left with is a game that, today, might pass only as an interesting “first effort” from a game developer, and, more than likely, would just be a forgotten title that occasionally popped up in a humble bundle sale that assigned it a value of about 65¢. At the time of its release, though, Kolibri was metaphorically banded together with Knuckles’ Chaotix as the entire reason to own a shiny, new video game system.

Walker ThingyWhy was the 32X a failure? Why did the Playstation succeed? There’s a myriad of reasons, but I feel like an often overlooked reason is that, simply, graphics grew more realistic, so stories had to grow, too. As I type this, to my immediate right happens to be my PS2 game collection, a tower of games that is taller than some women I’ve dated (it… was something that was noted). I look at the games that are neatly organized by genre, the action genre is what has caught my eye this night, and try to find a single game that has a plot as razor thin as Kolibri. Maximo is no simple knight rescuing a princess, no, he’s made a deal with Death to battle an usurper king and rescue a harem of maidens before his hourglass ticks down to its last particle. God of War is often decried as some macho violent fantasy, but it’s also the story of a grieving father and widower who seeks suicide by god. The list could go on (as it stares back at me, see also my article on Contra Shattered Soldier), but one thing is clear: even the dumbest, most base of action games now comes complete with a story about something.

Final Fantasy 7 was, in my memory, the turning point. Final Fantasy 7 was an unprecedented success (I’ll remind you that it was Final Fantasy Seven, as in, there were a whole host of Final Fantasy games and spin-offs released beforehand that had nowhere near the same level of acclaim) and, like any time there’s a runaway success in the video game industry, every other publisher made a mad dash to replicate whatever made Final Fantasy 7 so damn Final Fantasy 7. “RPG Elements” became a bullet point that is still seen to this day, but, on a more subtle level, every game outside of Mario started bleeding more dialogue than your high school drama club. The story revolution had been gradually sneaking into games for a while (Remember how amazing it was the first time you heard Star Fox talk? Remember how amazing it was that he had anything to say at all?), but now it became all but required, even in games that had no business showcasing their plot, like the entire Mortal Kombat franchise. Never open your mouth again, Sub-Zero! It doesn’t end well!

Stupid bug!I’ll admit, the whole “story” thing has grown to unsustainable proportions in some games and genres. Assuming ROB ever tosses it into my sights, the comparison between the “short and sweet” plot of Final Fantasy Adventure versus the unending word vomit of its remake, Sword of Mana, could be the subject of an entire article. On this very site, there’s a FAQ that is getting articles in the double digits just trying to explain what the hell happened between a boy, a mouse, and a body snatching old man with thirteen different forms. It could be pretty straightforward, but, no, there’s a big damn story there that exists only to manufacture a reason to pal around with Winnie the Pooh.

But we need stories. We need narratives, and as gaming grew more advanced, we needed something more advanced than “murder that turtle” or “shoot that bug”. Kolibri missed that memo, and is just a game about a hummingbird, and that’s all it ever will be.

FGC #41 Kolibri

  • System: Sega 32X, and one of the forty games that were ever for that system, like Primal Rage, Night Trap, and Golf Magazine: 36 Great Holes Starring Fred Couples.
  • Who the hell is Fred Couples? I don’t know, but it bothers me that he has a game with his name on it, while Ghandi does not.
  • Number of players: 2 cooperative hummingbirds. Note that the game’s box says only one player, because… no one cared about the 32X?
  • BANG BANGFavorite Weapon: That thing that shoots forward and then explodes. Do these things have names? To the manual!
  • Well? Nope. But, oh man, this manual has a guide on how to make a hummingbird feeder. And fun facts about hummingbirds! It says here that “Hummingbirds are nature’s fighter jets”. Wow! I want a hummingbird in my life right now. Wait, the next page says that what I’m talking about is likely the “Cluster Bomb”. Why did they have the manual break for hummingbird facts before getting back to the actual gameplay? How odd.
  • Did you know? The manual also has a little drawn Kolibri in the bottom right of each page spread, so if you flip through it fast enough, it’s a little animated Kolibri! Super wow! The manual is only a scant 21 pages, though, so good luck using your thumbs that effectively.
  • Would I play again? Maybe, if it didn’t sound like my 32X was going to explode every time I fired it up. I might give Kolibri another go on a Virtual Console or alike service, but only after a sale puts it at five bucks or lower. It’s a fun way to spend an hour, but almost instantly forgettable.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Toejam & Earl. Jammin’! Please look forward to it!