Trails in the Sky

Minor spoilers only.

It has become common, even cliche, to say that games should be about the mechanical element, the “gameplay aspect.” For instance:

Well then, dear game creators: Play to your strengths! You can do much more than merely aping movies. Maybe concentrate on your gameplay for example. Trust in your audience being intelligent enough to transfer abstract outcomes into emergent stories and learn from those. You might hand them a few incentives in the form of dynamically integrated narrative legos on the way. And even if you want to present a self-contained narrative, always incorporate your players. Take them seriously and do not be afraid of challenging them. Don’t just use your engine as a meaningless mediator, but as a tool of collaborative storytelling between author and recipient. After all, that is what makes your medium special and grants it its unique potential.

You’d get the impression that nothing is worse than a game that is a ‘film with playable parts,’ so to speak. That telling a simple-ish story in the obvious way is doing something wrong, is aping another medium rather than developing a true “video game style” of storytelling.

(Alright, let’s be clear that this a big old debate with a lot of arguments on both sides. I’m cherry-picking one person making an actually quite reasonable and balanced point, as a framing device. But also because I can’t remember the last time I heard someone ask for more narrative-driven games. Saying gameplay is more important just seems like the cooler position for smart media critics)

On an intellectual level, I agree with all this. It’s hard to argue that games should be something other than games, after all. But fundamentally, my heart belongs to narrative. Some games weave their story into the game itself in rich and compelling ways, and those are wonderful, but a lot of games – particularly JRPGs – go more for “series of plot-advancing cutscenes mixed up with plot-irrelevant gameplay.” The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is one of this category, mixing a turn-and-grid-based RPG (one can hardly call it a tactical RPG with a party size of 4, but that would be the right way to think about it) with a narrative that ranks among the best in games. And I loved it. Here are some reasons that you could use to judge whether you ought to give it a try.

Slow start: In my opinion, the best fantasy fiction isn’t terribly grim and dark. The Lord of the Rings is one of my absolute favourites, and fans agree that it’s not so much an epic story about kings and battles (such as shown in the films), as a story about wholesome hobbits doing comfy things, occasionally interrupted by a quest to save the world. Trails in the Sky takes this to an extreme degree: the first half of the first game could easily be from the iyashikei genre. Sure, there are events going on, but they fit the scope of “wandering do-gooder private police trainees doing good deeds of minor consequence.” You help with a school play, for crying out loud. It’s just a really pleasant intro to the series that makes it easy to get invested in the characters since they’re not angsting or struggling in some cosmic battle or anything. By drawing it out longer than normal, the game is able to have a larger main cast, a more endearing world, and a stronger central relationship than is common.

Admittedly, this comes at the cost of discouraging people who will be waiting impatiently for the plot to get going. Therefore my advice is: play this if you want a fluffier kind of game – think along the lines of, say, Stardew Valley, but as an RPG.

EstelleDescribesTheGameAgain

Smart characters: There are at least two ways characters can be smart – well, two that I like to see; “his IQ is 400!” and the such are not actually a kind of smartness. The first is to be smartly chosen; Doylian smartness. This is the kind of smartness that made Estelle rather than Joshua the point-of-view character of Trails in the Sky. He’s the more typical JRPG protagonist, but just less fun to spend time with – it’d be harder to maintain the story’s key mysterious elements, and harder to appreciate the optimistic tone, if the protagonist weren’t the character who’d be “the energetic sidekick girl” in any other game. The choice to switch the two feels like a touch of genius, an apparently-small change that cascades to alter the entire game in a positive way.

The second is to have characters that make intelligent decisions. An important part of this is that non-central characters make plans and develop actions off-screen, but the central aspect is not doing stupid things. There are one or two cases where they do, but for the most part, the characters in Trails in the Sky make sensible decisions, are able to make deductions as successfully as the player does, and so forth. They’re also clear on the fact that the in-combat magic is an actually real thing used in pretty much the same way the game presents it, which is nice. Admittedly you do sometimes beat giant robots to death with knives, but hey, JRPG.

Free will ain’t all that: My position on choices in games is that if you can’t offer meaningful choices, you shouldn’t offer meaningless ones. Trails in the Sky doesn’t screw around with any pick-your-hair-style character design, pick-your-waifu romance, or pick-your-palette-swap endings. This doesn’t mean you have no choices. You still have choices to make in the actual gameplay, choices about who to talk to and what sidequests to undertake, that kind of thing. If “meaningful” means “altering the story,” then no, nothing you do matters. But that’s not really the kind of meaning that makes good narrative or good gameplay – a choose-your-own-adventure book lets you determine the ending, but the gameplay is awful. And if you have to make every NPC only connect in any depth to the main character – because they need to be available as a romantic path, or because you don’t know which NPCs the player will interact with, that kind of thing – you miss out on a massive amount of potential interactions that deepen the game world and strengthen immersion.

This is to say, I’m perfectly happy to have a linear story. Multiple paths tend to lack depth for any one path.

Liber’l conspiracy: I’ve said before that I’m not above admitting when I like or dislike the political aspect of a work. And these games were out to pander to me from the very start. Not only that, but it seriously discusses some of the difficulties of such a political position, look:
IWasNotExpectingSODAMNMANYRelevantPoliticalDiscussionsFromThisGame.png
Sure, it could go further, but it’s a game, not a debate. And Estelle can hardly be expected to have as well-developed a political philosophy as a queen, after all.

This is a stark distinction from the typical prelapsarian narrative of fantasy fiction in general. Liberl is a constitutional monarchy, sure, but it actually explains how it’s functionally different from just a monarchy. Compare, say, Final Fantasy XII, where it’s not really clear why the monarchy you’re in is really any better than the monarchy you’re being invaded by. I suppose the reactionary argument would be that you don’t need a reason to love your country except that it’s yours, but tough luck, I do actually.

This isn’t even to say it’s completely unfair to the Empire or the Parliamentary Democracy that comprise the other major political factions involved in the story, though. All the nations’ governance systems seem to have some merits and some drawbacks, and if the game is including some distortion in favour of the point-of-view state, well, that’s only to be expected. Can one have an “unreliable cultural narrator”? In short, the story’s ideas are thought through in a way that’s not all that common, and that I don’t think you could do with sprawling multi-narratives or subtle emergent narratives.

Worldbuilder: This is the really big one, the thing everyone praises the broader Trails series for in general. The world is vivid beyond the scope of most video games to attempt. NPCs that wouldn’t even merit a name in a lot of games have complicated on-going stories; historical events are explained in depth; there are some surprisingly lengthy stories found in books in libraries that are relevant not in some abstract literary sense but in the everyday sense of “people in the world reference having read the books, or having written them.” There are port towns being hollowed out by increasing air trade, side-quests that introduce you to important metaphysical concepts, even more NPC stories to follow. The whole world feels alive and dynamic, as opposed to the “timeless” atmosphere that a lot of fantasy RPGs aim for even when they’re in the middle of similar magi-industrial revolutions.

It’s really hard to describe the sheer scope of it – it’s something that games can do better, even linear narrative-driven games, because you can freely include irrelevant details and side-stories without alienating the audience so much, when people can just ignore it if they prefer. That said, your enjoyment of the game is going to be much higher if you do prefer to explore the world to the fullest – the game isn’t pretending like it’s just as good if you don’t.

ThisGameThoughForReal

Not even a bad game: And you know what? It’s not even like it’s a bad game held up by good writing, for all that the writing is stellar. It’s a good game! The combat mechanics are easy to grasp but allow a lot of depth. Figuring out different magitek configurations to access different spells is surprisingly fun, if somewhat annoying to interface with at times. Party members have substantial mechanical differences, while still giving you plenty of freedom to arrange your strategy as you like. The soundtrack – is that part of the game, or part of the narrative? Either way, it is amazing. The aesthetic style as well works amazingly well for capturing the cosy and the epic alike while keeping it clear what’s going on.

All that said, none of this is unique to this game at all. You can find comparable gameplay elsewhere. But are games about gameplay? Yes, in some sense that’s true. But they have a lot of other stuff going on as well, and it’s important not to get so caught up in horticultural analysis that you forget to smell the roses. Trails in the Sky is without doubt one of my favorite games of all time not because of the okay gameplay, but because of the everything else. Recommended without reservation.

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Trails in the Sky

A Second Set of Very Short Reviews With No Particular Purpose

Too Like the Lightning
It’s the philosophical parts of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, but as a book! Awesome! But it’s presented in the most insufferable writing style: needless archaicism. And its philosophy-behind-the-philosophy agrees with my mother, which doesn’t win it any favors.

Ergo Proxy
It’s also kind of like SMAC, but with masses of eye-shadow. If you can disregard the unlikable cast and cliché aesthetics, it actually has some fairly interesting things to say about creating sentient servants. But it kind of mumbles them under its breath with frequent non-sequiturs. Overall, overrated.

Factorio
Good fun in the vein of SpaceChem etc. Difficulty curve is a bit patchy to nonexistent at times. Looks kind of ugly but not in an offensive way. If you like build-a-machine games, this is one of the greats.

Making Money
I’m honestly not sure about this one. Nowhere near the greatness of Reaper Man, Hogfather, Night Watch, Small Gods etc, but still one of the better ones? Yeah, that’ll do. Kind of bothers me how all of Moist’s opposition just self-destructs without any real sense of him having to fight for it. Maybe that’s just his style.

DotA 7.00
Nah.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things
Someone told Rothfuss they liked his, shall we say, open-minded attitude towards the categorization of words into nouns, adjectives etc, and he got a bit carried away with the heady feeling of praise. And a thesaurus. Also reduced Auri from a perfectly good side-character to “the yandere harem girl.” Still a pretty good read.

Flip Flappers
You deserve to watch this.

Path of Exile: Atlas of Worlds
Fantastic expansion. Can anyone stop this game from getting better before it’s too late? Find out in Act V, coming some time eventually.

Black Mirror S3
Not as ludicrously good as the first or second season, but still very good for TV. People are right to hype San Junipero. Pretty much every episode had enjoyable parts and made me think about something even if not always what I think I was supposed to be thinking about.

Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky FC
“Charming” is the word that springs immediately to mind. You can do a lot with characters that you introduce as flat archetypes and build on a little more with each scene they’re in, and the setting is well-realised enough. I lack the tactical-RPG experience against which to compare it, but the gameplay is usually pretty engaging, so can’t be that bad.

Hello Internet Podcast
Oh, okay, turns out CGPGrey is only a nice voice and somehow manages to have Wrong Opinions on every single other aspect of existence. Impressive, really, as it implies that there’s a Right Opinion Generator which he’s inexplicably inverting the outputs of. Would be much less terrible if Brady, who has quite a broad spectrum of partial knowledge, weren’t played as the Dumb Guy of the two. In essence, I don’t like thing.

Rick & Morty S1
Wow that got unfunny quickly. Brilliant ideas, but firmly lashed to the anchor of “status-quo-preserving sitcom.”

Perdido Street Station
Reminds me strongly of an acquaintance at university whose drawings of unsettling creatures would consistently feature leaking, oozing, etc. Imaginative, but deeply unpleasant to look at for too long. When most people want to say summer days are long, they don’t use implements of torture in their simile. On the whole: a great book.

A Second Set of Very Short Reviews With No Particular Purpose

2016 Review

How much ink has been spilled to complain that 2016 has been a terrible year?2016was
Yeah, quite a lot.

This is the part where I say something like “But! My powers of contrarianism let me see the truth hidden from the vision of mere normies!” But the truth is, I’m just not feeling it. The consensus is allowed to be right, and on this occasion, I agree. 2016 was a disaster. This was the year of Meme Magic, where it finally became clear that we’re just playthings of vast impersonal forces that inexplicably decide what will happen in our lives. For those who haven’t already gone completely insane – apparently a minority – this is a bad thing. Really bad. The worst thing that has ever happened? Perhaps not that far,  but we shall see. But if you think rule-by-egregore will stop at the return of ethnonationalism and the death of journalism, keep thinking. And maybe one day you’ll look back as the metaphorical equivalent of black writhing tentacles rise from the metaphorical sea, and realize that joining the metaphorical XD Kool Kek Kult XD might not have been the brightest metaphorical idea. Just because no one worshipper can be pinned as the one tipping point that paves the way for the rule of the Old Ones, doesn’t mean no one is responsible. And no one really gets to be eaten first. That was always just a… a silly idea that people repeat because it’s funny.

Nonetheless, let’s move on to my summary. 2016 was super boring in my own life! Nothing accomplished, nothing lost. But I consistently felt like I was having a pretty good time, so I’m not complaining.

Well that was brief! Let’s get on with the forecast. Next year? Next year will be beyond imagining.

2016 Review

A Series Of Very Short Reviews Without Any Particular Theme

Luminous
Almost all of these short stories feel too caught up in their own cleverness. Some, like Silver Fire, also seem to be struggling with the weight of a not-particularly-brilliant political message. Potentially worth reading but you can easily find better things to do.

Planetes
Oh, they tried so hard. Really great serious near-future sci-fi, right up until the end where (spoilers) several character arcs derail badly and we’re left with a message of “don’t trust brown people, and keep women at home where they belong.” Yes, I am indirectly judging other people’s culture. Still recommended.

The Martian
At first I loved it, but the almost episodic storyline and weird, badly-done breaks to typical omniscient narrative perspective dragged it down. Combines both of the above in terms of originality and well-researched hard sci-fi, but lacks on the storytelling front. Flip a coin for it.

Cencoroll
It’s exactly the right length. Definitely worth watching.

Nadia and the Secret of Blue Water
The great parts are truly great. The good parts are enjoyable. The bad parts are all too numerous. If you’ve watched every Ghibli movie twice and still need more in the same vein, give it a go, otherwise probably don’t bother.

9M9H9E9’s Narrative
When it’s weird and metaphorical, it’s good. When it’s literal, it’s still good but in a “good for a creepypasta or SCP entry” way rather than “just good literature” way. Arguably closer to an ARG than a story.

Ori and the Blind Forest
I guess if you’re really into Metroidvania games and basically only care about visual appeal, this one’s for you? But really, the two conflict too much – precision platforming doesn’t mix with pretty, hitbox-obscuring art-style. The best feature mechanically is letting you save anywhere by expending MP, except when the game decides to not allow that, which, you guessed it, is whenever things are most difficult and frustrating. The soundtrack’s good, I guess.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane
On the plus side, it is amazing on every level. On the minus side, Pratchett won’t be writing any more witches books, and Gaiman’s version is just a little short of that level of amazing while still being heartbreakingly reminiscent of it. Read this.

Log Horizon
Utterly charming, and a delight to see “taking the hypothetical seriously” done so well. It feels strange to say this, but it’s sorely let down by its aesthetic (or lack thereof). The visuals just come across as “cookie-cutter modern anime” where they could have done so much more. Still a must-see.

Persona 4
Several characters are good, but the game feels ludicrously bloated and has terrible pacing. The mechanical aspects are polished, but this is absolutely a guide-based game. At the very least, I think you’re supposed to play it twice and take notes on how to maximise your numbers rather than enjoying the plot which just seems wrong. Skip this one.

A Series Of Very Short Reviews Without Any Particular Theme

Dear Dinosaur,

So, a year late to the controversy party, I read “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” on the recommendation of Eneasz Brodski. But does this sound familiar: a tragic story about loss is presented using masterful language and receives great critical acclaim, from which follows a backlash from those who don’t consider it part of the medium it was being acclaimed in?

I can’t remember how long ago I ‘played’ Dear Esther, but it was fairly soon after it was first released as a kinda clunky mod rather than its own ‘game.’ I liked it a lot, almost entirely because of its haunting visual beauty (only gets better in the final release), great choice of soundtrack and delightful narration/writing. But note the absence of any actual video-game elements from it – apart from the random choice of narration fragments, you’d think it could be done just as well as a short animation.

In fact, Dear Esther only works when the player can treat it like a game even though it’s not. By expecting to be involved in the story in the way a game’s player is, you end up being exactly that. You have to believe that you are the story’s teller in the same way you can believe that you are Chell or DeWitt, and the absolutely minimal amount of control – just enough to walk around as you please – is necessary to achieve that.

Now compare If You Were…, which is not a SF/F story. But by believing it kinda-sorta-is, the reader can be persuaded to humour the narrator’s flights of fancy for just long enough for the author to throw out a BE SAD NOW, drop the mic and leave. As far as I know, though, If You Were… never sold itself as being SF/F, it just got a nomination for a Hugo from fans willing to push a boundary.

If You Were… is perhaps less genre-fiction than Dear Esther is a game. But the resemblance is nonetheless quite striking, especially when you take into account the reaction each received. It should come as no surprise that the “urgh who put this smug literary crap in my vidya” faction quickly allied with the “urgh who put this smug literary crap in my SF/F” faction.

Overall I liked Dear Esther a lot more. In particular, while both are well-written, Dear Esther impressed me a lot more with its focus on meter and pace. Also, it’s really pretty.

Dear Dinosaur,

End of an Era

Exactly seven years of Homestuck found their end today. It’s been a long, crazy journey.

Normally I prefer to observe fandoms from outside, cooing over their adorable degree of love for their object of worship. This is a trick worth learning, since “urgh, but the fandom” is approximately the least meaningful objection to a work it is possible to make. However, that story is for another time.

Homestuck has consumed years of my life even as a non-fan. Even just reading along, picking up a small collection of some fanart, buying some of the albums, re-reading it to re-acquire familiarity for the ending, it is still a vast icon that is, in its own words, ensconced in my personal mythos.

What I am fumbling to say is, I really loved that webcomic.

The crazy jokes. The constant internal references. The nigh-incomprehensible plot. The charming characters and the not-so-charming characters and the “please stop adding these abominations to the story” characters. The music. Great interstellar abysses, the music.

It dragged on. It would be disingenuous to say otherwise, for sure. If it were being adapted for any other medium, the first thing to do would be to attack the plot with the kind of weedkillers kept in reserve for “invasion of genocidal plant-aliens” scenarios. I loved that, too.

There are very, very few things that I have ever wished I could forget entirely and experience for the first time again. That particular fantasy holds little appeal to me, since experiencing other new things is always an option. But Homestuck is unique, I think, in that I might choose to forget it entirely so I could read it again for the second time. To be sure, there are things in there that burn the brightest on the first iteration – the incredible flash animations stand out – but there’s just so much that simply doesn’t make sense except in the context of what comes later. This feeling, perhaps, is what people get out of “complex” literary fiction (the kind I am quick to dismiss as pretentious (because it almost always is)).

I wish I could summarise it briefly. I wish words could say how inadequate words are for this purpose. I wish a lot of things, really.

I’m not ready for it to be over. And I’m ever so glad that it is.

To Andrew Hussie and the rest of the team: my heartfelt thanks and admiration. Today, your work enters the legend. You made it happen.

To anyone reading this who somehow never read it: start here. If you don’t like it by the end of Act 2, definitely drop it. Otherwise, well. See you soon.

End of an Era