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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. I have a zero-tolerance policy for abuse of all kinds, a low-tolerance policy for anger (exceptions made for anger directed at genuine systemic injustice), and a frown-but-tolerance policy for swearing. If something gets through that you think shouldn't have, please poke me on Twitter as that's where a response is likely to be fastest.