Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Steampunk Platypus Part III

It's not the emperor's fault, sure he was on the wrong track with this whole "blood and iron" thing, but he's not really evil.  It's those advisers that are the problem.  If one could only speak to the emperor, make him see reason, all would be well.

Heard that one before?

It's interesting to me that in both Final Fantasy III and Secret of Mana, that the emperor is almost a non-Character.  We hear about him, but the real villain with a fully fleshed-out personality is one of his aids (Kefka or Thanatos).  These aids treacherously overthrow their master and then get down to the business of doing some real damage.

Why is this?

One could see this as a reflection of Japan's World War II experience where Emperor Hirohito got a pass while Tojo took the blame.  It could also be that an Emperor is essentially a glorified bureaucrat and that makes him relatively uninteresting as a video game villain.  An aid, or a right-hand man can mix it up with the heroes on a man-to-man basis with greater credibility.  Finally, allowing the aid to over-throw his master shows the player just how evil and ruthless the villain is.  After all, isn't there supposed to be honor among thieves?

Of course, these answers may be wide of the mark.  Still, it seems worthwhile to ask the question: "what does make for a good villain?"  Is he someone who starts off with power and position, or is he the anti-hero, going on his own twisted hero's journey?  

Monday, May 10, 2010

Steampunk Platypus Part II

Characters.  An important part of any story is its Characters.  Great plot plus uncompelling Characters equals fail.

In the 1990s, new technology was allowing video game designers to actually tell stories with their games.  Pong and Asteroids were left in the dust and new market for story-driven games opened up.  At the forefront of this movement was the company Squaresoft with its innovative Final Fantasy series.  As Squaresoft pushed the envelope in video game story-telling, a new problem arose; for the first time video game designers had to create believable characters.  The stories had just gotten that big.

Building off the success of Final Fantasy II (Japan IV), Final Fantasy III (Japan VI) and Chrono Trigger featured large casts with sweeping plots, richly orchestrated music, and a myriad of varried locations.  To hold player's attentions, each character of the cast had to be unique with his/her own story arch and defining characteristics.  In addition, interest had to be maintained in the cast as a whole.  Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy III solved this second problem in two interesting ways.

With its characters designed by Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball Z fame, Chrono Trigger was already off to a rich start.  However, the games real genius comes in taking the wild and varied characters of Akira Toriyama's designs and welding them into a coherent ensemble.  The solution seems to have been making each of the characters "misfits" in some way.  The cast as a whole gains its power by serving as a community of acceptance where everyone can "fit in;" an attractive theme for the teenagers to whom the game was marketed.  Think about it: Lucca is ostracized for her nerdy scientific ways, Marle has a strained relationship with her father and chafes against the constraints of being a princess, Frog lives with the shame of having failed his friend and is an outcast because of his strange form, Robo is separated from the other robots when Lucca gives him a heart, Nyala is a woman leading a tribe of men, and Magus' entire civilization has been destroyed.

Final Fantasy III also offers it ensemble as a place of acceptance for outcasts, but it adds an extra layer by making all of the characters suffer from dehumanization in some way or other.  Terra has been stripped of her memories and forced to be the tool of the empire.  Locke's ambitions as a treasure-hunter are constantly berated as mere thievery.  Edgar plays the rich fop because it is his only release from the roll of "king."  Sabin flees the dehumanizing aspects of the kingship only to lose his family, his country, and his spiritual guru.  When the kingdom of Doma falls to the empire, Cyan, as the sole survivor loses everything.  Gau is driven into the wilderness and forced to live as a beast.  Shadow doesn't even have a name.  In joining together, the cast of Final Fantasy III not only finds acceptance, but also restores and affirms its members humanity; an interesting theme that dovetails nicely with the industrial and imperial setting.

Stories don't function without characters, and they don't hold audience's attentions without compelling ones.  As innovations in technology allowed video game designers to enter into the role of story-tellers, the need to create compelling characters became imperative in order to maintain player interest.  Squaresoft's Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy III take up this challenge in interesting ways.  Not only do they make the individual characters compelling, but they also create strong themes to bind their ensembles together.

Interesting what you can learn from a video game.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Steampunk Platypus

No, I haven't built a world-destroying mech powered by a mysterious orb.  Alas...  However, imagining a society in the throws of the Industrial Revolution that has also discovered magic is what Final Fantasy III (Japan VI) is all about.

Final Fantasy III was developed by Squaresoft (now SquareEnix) as part of their hugely successful Final Fantasy Series.  In fact, I believe Final Fantasy XIII is just now coming out.  At the same time Final Fantasy III was in development, Squaresoft was also working on its hugely popular Chrono Trigger.  While the Final Fantasty series continued from one epic success to another, however, the Chrono Trigger series spluttered and died.  In fact, the re-release of the original game for the DS has largely been responsible largely for driving up the price of used copies of the orginal SNES release, rather than urging SquareEnix to create a sequel (which is what fans had hoped).  Why the two series took the paths they did is an interesting question since the two games are visually and game-play-wise quite alike ( the main differences being Chrono Trigger's move away from the static battle stage of the Final Fantasy Series and its slightly more sophisticated renderings of the characters so that Akira Toriyama's art design could have its full effect).  The main question, then, seems to be why did one series flourish while the other floundered.

There are probably multiple bureaucratic answers for that having to do with logistical and legal realities and the political innerworkings of Square.  On a story level, however, it seems that the sweeping, open, and sometimes amorphous structure of the Final Fantasy games allows for an infinite number of sequels that are all only loosely connected.  Chrono Trigger, on the other hand, with its tight characterization and narrow scope lends itself to being a one shot.  Put another way, for a game to be considered a true "Final Fantasy" it must simply incorporate a few key elements, the rest is left up to the whimsy of the creators, while to be a true Chrono Trigger sequel a game must successfully extend the story of Chrono and his companions in a compelling way.  To Sum up: Final Fantasy games, in their structure, lend themselves to sequels while Chrono Trigger is set up as a stand-alone.

I'm ok with that.  Ultimately, Chrono Trigger is a reminder that each of us have our own little stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  The Final Fantasy series, on the other hand, reminds us that while our little stories soon come to an end, The Story, like The Road, continues on.  Those are both truths that we need to be reminded of from time to time.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Creative Platypus Marches On

I'm well into the second draft of my Charles Williams meets John Knowles writing project.  Helping me along the way has been Maas' "Writing the Breakout Novel."  It's a fun read, and I've enjoyed the chance to think systematically about literary production.  We'll see how far this latest venture goes.

In the meantime, I'm trying to find a new working title for the project.  So far, it's just been labeled "House Book."  I've been kicking around ideas that are a little more inspiring, such as "The Corpse House."  That sounds like it would sell.

On the back-burner are a series of plays including: a supernatural thriller set in late 19th century Connecticut called "The Conqueror Worm," a murder mystery set in Weimar Germany called "Mack the Knife," and a satire on life as an over-educated 20-something called "Who's Afraid of Walter Whitman."  Did I mention some of this is REALLY back-burner?  While I'm at it, I think "Thus Spoke Utnapishtim" is also due for a little revision and expansion.

A month and a half to go... 

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Peace, Land, Pizza! All Power to the Platypus!

Happy May 1st, everyone.  May is the last full month of school, and it's always the period when student revolutionary fervor roils just beneath the surface of the classroom.  Every little huddle of students looks like a Committee of Public Safety, and you start to worry that they might all show up to school one day wearing brown.  Was that the Internationale I heard coming from the boys' locker room?

In all seriousness, my students have performed well this year.  They have survived quite the literary blitz.  This year's reading list included:

The Aeneid
Beowulf
The Prince
Hamlet
Julius Caesar
Sense and Sensibility
Wuthering Heights
Jane Eyre
Great Expectations
Idylls of the King
Pygmalion
Orthodoxy
Peralandra
Mere Christianity
The Screwtape Letters
The Chronicles of Narnia
A Separate Peace

All in all, I think we laid a good ground work for future studies.  My Tenth graders, for instance, can now claim to have read most of the Old and New Testaments, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Antigone, The Aeneid, The Prince, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Robinson Crusoe, Jane Eyre, A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, The Idylls of the King (the Arthur Legends), Lord of the Flies, Peralandra, and A Separate Peace.  That gets them quite a few of their bases covered and they should be eminently ready to branch out in any number of directions in the years to come.