Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Protecting the Trophy Cabinet

Tales of Graces is the story of Asbel Lhant, heir to the small border domain of Lhant. Asbel begins the game as a spirited, disobedient child at odds with his militaristic father's strictness. Eventually, Asbel runs away from home to pursue his dream of becoming a knight in the King's army; the bulk of the plot kicks off as he nears the end of his training seven years later.

In short, Asbel is a textbook fantasy hero. So textbook, in fact, that he and his kind were written out of the fantasy textbook some years ago as a tired and never-terribly-interesting cliché. Graces does a pretty good job of bringing the cliché to life, though, through a combination of good visual design, good voice-acting and a solid script.

And that's a problem, because this is a cliché that embeds a lot of toxic masculinity, and Graces either doesn't realise this or outright embraces it. Asbel is obsessed with the idea of protecting people; Graces' statement of theme translates as 'Discovering the Strength to Protect'. The idea of protection at hand is fundamentally possessive.

The best illustration of this is in Asbel's relationship to his childhood friend and eventual wife, Cheria. During the childhood section of the game, Cheria is unspecifically frail, easily exhausted and doted on by the people of Lhant. After the seven-year intermission, mysteriously[1] cured, Cheria becomes the party's strongest healer and a powerful caster.

During childhood, Asbel tolerates Cheria more than actually caring about her – in his initial escapade, he drags his brother along to climb a nearby hill, but leaves Cheria behind saying he doesn't want her slowing them down. When they return to town Cheria is upset; Asbel stalls her by handing over a flower he picked idly on the hilltop and pretending he meant it all along as a gift.

In his seven years of training, Asbel never once tries to contact Cheria. When the adult section of the story begins, she comes to find him at the knight academy to tell him his father has died and he's now the Lord of Lhant. She's reticent, clearly sympathetic to Asbel's loss but also unwilling to offer comfort. Asbel is too self-absorbed to understand, but the player will; Cheria has been deeply hurt by Asbel's silence.

Matters reach a head between them a chapter or two later, when Cheria is kidnapped and Asbel rescues her. When she isn't as grateful as he expects – as grateful as she would have been as a child, or as a fairytale damsel – he protests 'You've been treating me like crap ever since I got back here!' This spectacular feat of obliviousness is compounded by every other character present ganging up on Cheria to push her to be nicer to Asbel. Asbel offers only a trite apology, plus excuses that make it unclear whether he really understands his fault.

In other places, Asbel's determination to protect is played for laughs. At one point he gets into an argument with companion Sophie about which one of them will protect the other; they end up agreeing to a race to decide, and Sophie easily wins.

There are comedic examples of how much Asbel wants to fit the rest of the party to his script, too. The game has a rich variety of victory celebrations, several of which it implies have been coordinated and choreographed by Asbel. In the one that features Asbel and the three female party members, they mess up his script and he ends the animation effectively sulking in a corner:

Asbel, when women don't do what he wants.
If this were just another game mishandling the common toxicities of masculinity, it wouldn't be worth an essay in its own right, but the sad thing about Graces is that, in some ways, it's much more sophisticated than that. Its presentation of Asbel as a centralised male raised on myths and norms of his own importance rang very true to me as a centralised male raised on myths etc. etc. etc... He's neither a trite nor a shallow character.

Asbel's ideal of military prowess doesn't come from nowhere. It's bound up in the feudal structure of his society; his father is both master of the household and military commander, and clearly doesn't separate the two roles in his own head. Lord Aston is a harsh, cold presence in the childhood section of the story, and the silence of his absence seven years on is more a continuation than a relief.

It's a cliché to blame toxic masculinity on distant fathers, of course, but the distant father archetype is part and parcel of toxic masculinity, and Graces does a pretty good job of portraying it. In fact, overall, Graces understands toxic masculinity much better than the majority of male-led games. If it deploys clichés, it does so only because toxic masculinity is so inescapable that all its features are sadly familiar.

And herein lies the frustration; ultimately, Asbel gets his fantasy. In the final moments of the story, he gets to step forward and use his martial and magical strength to protect the world. Several much more interesting possibilities that the game flirts with, including some which would require him to accept the protection of others, are squandered.

Compare this, for example, to the engagement with masculine toxicity that Austin C. Howe finds in Final Fantasy VIII. Graces does try to build a contrast between Asbel and his even-more-toxic brother Hubert, but given its endorsement of Asbel, this doesn't actually achieve much. 'This is acceptable because it isn't as bad as that' is a child's excuse for a game that purports to be about growing up.

It is not enough to understand, or to present clear understanding of, dominant cultural constructs. That which does not explicitly challenge will be taken as tacit endorsement. Graces wastes its opportunity, and the good work of its writers, by allowing Asbel his triumph.

[1] Even the game doesn't think it's kidding anyone as to the nature of the mystery, but it's not relevant here.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Reporting a Wonder

One of the strangest scenes in Tales of Vesperia happens right near the start of the game, before you've even made it to the first combat tutorial. As protagonist Yuri is making his way from his humble abode up towards Zaphias' Royal Quarter, a wall calls out for his attention.

Yuri walks up to the wall, which explains that it is the 'Wonder Reporter', an individual whose raison d'etre is tracking the activities of heroes and documenting them. They draw Yuri's attention to the 'wonder log' he carries (the game's in-built synopsis), and claim to be the one responsible for keeping it up to date. Then, with an admonition to pay no attention to the fact that they're in the wall, the Reporter ends the cutscene.

They appear (or at least, speak) twice more in the course of the game, once in a pillar tucked out of the way in one of the game's most semiotically rich locations and then finally in a tree near a desert oasis. Neither of these later encounters triggers automatically – both must be found, and without so much as a hint to go on. Neither offers any metaphysical explanation for the Wonder Reporter, though the dialogue increasingly emphasises their essential voyeurism.

These cutscenes were what first induced me to look beyond Vesperia's narrative, and eventually led to my conceiving this project. I initially took the Wonder Reporter to be a symptom of budget limitations – devs with no resources to add another character model coming up with a desperate quick-fix to make the wonder log diegetic. This gives the game too little credit, and is probably a naive way of thinking about the relationship between budget and resources for game development.

The Wonder Reporter is absurd, but in a way that very carefully directs player attention. Vesperia has five separate 'log books' – the wonder log, the battle book (which records information from tutorials), the world map, the bestiary and the 'collector's book' (a list of all the items you've encountered in the game). Of these, only the battle book lacks narrative contextualisation, and even then Yuri's possession of it at the start of the game, and the fact that all the tutorials are his experiences, suggests it may be a holdover from his military training.

The bestiary is kept by Karol, a trainee monster hunter. The sidequest that revolves around completing it involves Karol's desire to prove himself to love interest Nan, herself an accomplished hunter. As a romance, it's sweet but quite straightforward. As a way of contextualising the monster book, though, it's both effective and more or less plausible.

By contrast, the item book sidequest is, on the face of it, a nonsensical mess. The book itself initially belongs to genius mage Rita, and she introduces it as a self-updating tome that automatically records whatever you pick up. The rewards from the quest hinge on a couple of chance encounters with another obsessive mage seeking the same information. The whole idea of a book that records every item in the world is absurd, particularly since it only documents those items the game allows you to pick up and none of the otherwise plenty detailed set dressing.

Even worse, for the sake of two items, the item book quest is the only thing in the game that can't be completed on a single play-through. The items in question aren't plot-sensitive, either - just a couple of weapon synthesis forms where two different weapons can be made from the same root, only one of which is available per play-through. To complete the item book you have to play the entire game twice and carry over your collection data.

There isn't really space to get into the diegetics of the world map, since there are a few different things that link to it. In particular, Karol's cartography is used as a metaphor for masculinity in a way that I could probably write a whole book on by itself. Still, topic for another time.

In essence, the game takes the same idea – log books to augment player memory – and plays it out in five different ways. At least one of these, the bestiary, is pretty strong. One, the item book, is obnoxiously hostile to player engagement. The battle book asks nothing; the map creates a compelling set of metaphors and challenges. And the wonder log draws attention to the sheer 'gameyness' (if you know a better word for this, please let me know) of the whole idea – the fact that this is all essentially what Devon Carter calls a concession to convenience.

Western criticism of JRPGs, at least at the time of Vesperia's development and release, was primarily ludic in focus. Apart from the stereotype of the effete, self-indulgently gloomy protagonist (always something of a mirage), mechanically linear narratives and formulaic, one-dimensional combat were the main complaints – but those same complaints were often paired with exceptions, usually either Final Fantasy VI or VII, depending on the age of the speaker.

What Vesperia does, in this case and in several others, is show that what matters is not the mechanic itself but the way meaning is built around it. That it is willing to embrace the absurdity of the Wonder Reporter (and, again, several similar signposts) to draw attention to this issue suggests a reading of the game as not just existing in tension with but actually outright responding to such unjust criticism.

This is the foundation of the close reading I'm working on. Vesperia expresses a frustration with the (Western) consumer response to JRPGs that I share, and makes an argument that I believe can be resoundingly justified. Obviously there's a lot more to it than I've covered here, but I'm working on it.