Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Subtleties: Shining Force II

I would like to talk about subtleties today.

Video game narrative has not yet had Shakespearean-level storytelling. Nor has it had Citizen Kane-level visual metaphor or anything like that. As has been discussed elsewhere (more elegantly than I could, as well), video games are a medium still very much in their infancy. So until they have their big moment that we could point to and say, "This is why video games are art," we have to make do with tiny moments that hint at their potential.

And sometimes, you have to look pretty hard. There are the big moments, the ones that most of the internet will bring up when talking about this topic, like bringing down the Colossi in Shadow of the Colossus, or perhaps the courtroom set piece scene in Chrono Trigger. And those are good examples! I don't have any quite that grand today, but what I do have is a subtle example of why I love video games and why they strike me as so different from traditional forms of media expression.

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been playing a lot of the old Genesis RPG, Shining Force II, lately. It is not a game known for its wholly original story - in fact, it is quite generic in that respect. Cliché, actually. And I am not going to be pulling any examples from the game about how its story deviates from the norm at all, because honestly, it really doesn't.

But within the cliché story, there are some subtleties that strike me as interesting, to say the least. I am near the end of the game at this point; maybe seven or eight battles from the final battle. My army just stole the ancient flying Nazca ship and flew over the ocean, and was shot down on Grans Island by the greater devil Geshp and his Prism Flowers. What strikes me as interesting is Geshp thought my army would die when we got shot down - so when we ran into him, he had to hastily assemble an army of devils to try to stop us. Every battle in the game up until this point has had my enemies strewn strategically around the map, while all of my characters start in a bunch in one place, because at the start of most battles, my characters are ambushed. But in this battle, I surprised my enemy - and, sure enough, they all start the battle in a big, disorganized bunch like I usually do.

This is an extremely small example of how videogames are subtle in the ways they present their narrative - and this example comes from an extremely clichéd narrative in a 1993 Sega Genesis RPG, as well! This is not an example someone would bring up to argue that videogames are "art," of course. This is just one of the ways I think video games are unique in their presentation when compared to other mediums. The battle system had always started one way in Shining Force II, then it is changed for this one battle to reflect the surprise of the enemy. It's subtle, but interesting when you notice it.

Of course, none of this matters to most people. I think when videogames have their own "Rosebud" moment, examples like this small one will become more commonplace and the medium will finally hit its stride. Until then, I will appreciate the subtleties.

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