Thursday, 21 May 2015

Knight of Ratatosk

(Content note: Dawn of the New World features a character with two personalities. While the game eventually decides this is not a psychological condition, it remains a regressive engagement with dissociative identity disorder. I apologise if this essay causes harm or discomfort by touching on this theme).

About halfway through Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, I characterised its combat as brilliant, but almost completely unplayable. I think I had more game-overs in this game than in any other JRPG I've ever played, so quickly is it possible to go from full health and a full party to four corpses. What makes it brilliant is that every feature of the combat – including the difficulty itself – adds meaning to the experience of play.

Dawn's plot centres on Emil Castagnier, who makes a pact with a spirit of darkness, Ratatosk, to gain the power to protect Marta Lualdi, who (at that point) is a complete stranger to him. The game's engagement with masculinity-as-protection is better than average, I think, but tangential to my topic for today. What I'm interested in now is that subsequent to this Emil, heretofore a timid creature, develops a second nature, one of violence, aggression and cruelty.

The exact metaphysics are unimportant (I'm honestly not sure I ever figured out what was going on). What matters is that the character becomes as divided as his game; Dawn maintains the conventional JRPG separation between exploration and combat gameplay, and Emil's 'Ratatosk mode' is generally reserved for combat. Combat becomes a reflection of Ratatosk's values.

The most obvious element of this is in Emil's fragility. Where other Tales games can be tanked through as slugging matches, in Dawn taking damage is extremely risky. There's little feedback when you take a hit, as if Ratatosk doesn't feel pain. Health bars evaporate in moments.

It's also easy to get combo'd and stun-locked. Stuns last a long time, as do staggers. Get between even a couple of enemies and they can lock you down completely. The game knows this, too. Enemy packs are large, and most bosses come with multiple minions. Attacks generally have huge hurtboxes, so that even enemies attacking nearby friendlies may contribute to a lockdown.

The upshot of which is that unless you keep tight control of the battlefield, your position is always precarious. In many JRPGs, control is just a matter of keeping a safe margin of health, magic and item stocks. In Dawn, it means aggressively breaking up enemy attacks, shutting them down before they can do the same to you.

Mechanics can make meaning in the obvious way, as with the lack of feedback for incoming damage mentioned above, but they can also make meaning by incentivising certain player behaviours. Dawn heavily pushes one particular way to sustain the control needed to survive.

On the ground, Emil's attacks are sluggish, and his combos both short and easy to interrupt. Stagger an enemy and launch it, though, and Emil becomes the vengeful demon the 'Ratatosk mode' personality suggests. His combos are fast, fluid and long, startlingly easy to execute. And, of course, by being airborne with only a staggered enemy (often more than one, thanks to the large hurtboxes) for company, he's out of harm's reach.

There are other little rewards for focussing on aerial play, too. While Emil is slow to develop supplementary skills that improve his ground combat, skills and special moves for aerial use are commonplace, a sharp inversion of the Tales norm. And since TP ('tech points', the MP of Tales games) regeneration is tied to combos, the longer aerial combos mean basically never running short.

The only way to prevail, then, is aerial combat, and aggression. Single out the most dangerous enemy, lift them above the fray where they can do no harm, and repeat until they vanish in a puff of spirit energy. This is a fundamentally proactive violence.

It is also arrogant, a literal rising above Emil's fragility, rising above enemies and allies alike. To play this way is to ignore what happens on the ground, and focus all your attention on the kill. So it is with Ratatosk, who holds Emil in utter contempt. He resents sharing such a weak body, being trapped in it and only kept around for his utility.

Violence, though, is essential in this world. Monsters are everywhere, often in narrow passages that make them unavoidable. The respawn rate is high; some dead-end passages are long enough that if you kill the monster guarding them, collect whatever treasure they hold, and return, you must fight the same encounter again on the way out. Emil needs Ratatosk.

But Ratatosk does little more than kill. He does not protect – while he flies by sheer power of bloodlust, Marta must take care of herself on the ground (to her credit, she's generally more than capable of this). As is revealed later in the plot, he feels no compassion for the humans he aids.

And Ratatosk is isolated, too, literally and symbolically. The story is Emil's and Marta's, and indeed partly concerns their letting go of what meagre vindictiveness they each possess. They grow together as they work to bring peace to a divided and sometimes brutal world. Ratatosk must be isolated, the emotions and policies he stands for restrained.

Ratatosk stands for destruction, Emil and especially Marta for preservation. This creates a problem for resolving the game's story through traditional boss fights, given that combat remains Ratatosk's domain to the last. To cover the finale, I'm actually going to give an extra level of spoiler warning. Nothing I've described so far is game-ruining, but if anything I've said so far makes you interested in playing the game, stop here and go play it (it's worth it).

Ultimately, Ratatosk mode represents exactly the darkness and hostility in the world that he has provided the only means to survive throughout the story. For the game to have you defeat the end boss and save the day using this power would be self-contradictory, a total abandonment of narrative for empty gameplay.

Instead, Ratatosk becomes the final boss. You, as player, remain in control of Emil's body and Ratatosk's abilities, and Marta fights you. Win the fight – defeat Marta – and the game delivers the 'bad ending'. To get the good ending (I'll leave the topic of what 'good' means here for another time), you must lose.

This striking act of developer conviction is slightly undercut by a final fight in which Emil – you – fight an AI Ratatosk, but retain all of Ratatosk's powers yourself, but it's still a cool moment. When the fight started, it took me a solid handful of seconds to work out which character I was even controlling, never mind what I was supposed to do. Losing the fight was no deliberate choice, but the result of bewilderment and panic induced by the inversion of the paradigm.

It's crucial that the game managed to get me to not throw the fight. It asserts something very profound about the experience of Dawn: it may have been Emil that I rooted for and identified with (powerfully, of which more, perhaps, another time), but it was Ratatosk that I played as, in all but the very first and last encounters.

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