Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
Tell Me A Story
A few days ago, I had a half-hour to fill and decided to revisit Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed, a 2012 kart racer in the vein of Mario Kart, but with characters from Sega's various intellectual properties--Sonic the Hedgehog, Space Channel 5, Jet Set Radio and so on. Much as I like the more recent Mario Kart games, Transformed stands as my favorite kart racer, largely due to its superb course design. The ostensible key selling point for Transformed's tracks is that most of them change with each lap. Instead of driving around the same course three times, the game has you drive on essentially two or three distinct tracks over the course of each race (though some courses change less per lap than others do). When you factor in the solid system mechanics and the generally good base-level track design, the shifting courses put Transformed head-and-shoulders above most other kart racers.
It was while replaying a few of my favorite tracks, though, that I noticed something more foundational about the game's course design: the reason why the courses change with each lap.
The concept of race tracks that change--transform, if you will--with each lap is a strong gimmick with obvious ties to the game's title and concept. This makes it easy to overlook the actual purpose behind these transformations. Each course in Transformed is telling a story. The Mario Kart games have plenty of fun locations with neat concepts and art, but the tracks are, generally speaking, stagnant. They're locations to drive through, with no temporal or narrative component. Transformed, by contrast, sets up each of its courses as a sort of visual short story. The courses are generally based on Sega's various games, but even if you haven't played the games--many of them are old and now fairly obscure titles--the story of the course presents itself quite clearly.
The most obvious example is the "Rogue's Landing" course. This course is modeled after a town from the RPG Skies of Arcadia, one of a number of one-off Sega games from the Dreamcast era that were received very well but never developed into full franchises. The first lap of the course is fairly simple, a drive around a floating island town. With the second lap, however, massive flying pirate ships approach from the distance and start firing on the town, breaking the course in places and forcing players to take alternate routes. By the third lap, the entire island is breaking apart, and the racers fly between airships and chunks of rock, trying to avoid obstacles on the way to the goal. This narrative isn't complex--it's surface level and readily apparent--but when you consider that this is a single 5-minute race in a kart racer, the fact that there's any storytelling at all is highly unusual and quite impressive. This base-line story creates a heightened sense of stakes beyond "I want to win the race," and it also makes the environment much more interesting to look at. The course becomes not just a loop of roadway, but rather a setpiece for a sort of short film the player experiences while driving.
It reminds me in some ways of the dark rides at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, which take various movie storylines and compress them into 5-minute rides. The experience and the concept are similar--the rides take you through elaborate setpieces filled with animatronics, telling a story primarily using time, space, and motion rather than words. Transformed's courses are like a history of Sega presented as a series of thrilling dark rides. The racing itself is almost secondary to the visual narrative that surrounds the tracks, especially on stages like "Rogue's Landing."
My favorite courses are not the ones with the most interesting pathways and the most fun racing, but rather the ones with the most entertaining narratives. The House of the Dead course, "Graveyard Gig," is a race through a haunted house during a zombie wedding. It's a massive set piece with a plethora of different rooms, each filled with horror-game-esque monsters dancing, reveling, and generally enjoying themselves. It culminates in a drive through the mansion's chapel, passing by the bride and groom right as they exchange vows. Tonally, it might as well be Disney's "Haunted Mansion" ride in race form. My second-favorite course, "Burning Depths," is similarly silly, casting the racers as space firefighters tasked with rescuing people from a burning aquarium. This contrast of seemingly incompatible concepts is overlaid with a spy-movie-style navigator voice and a groovy background track that's an updated version of one of the main themes from the obscure 1998 Sega Saturn game Burning Rangers. The first lap of the course is quite long, but the second and third laps get progressively shorter as more and more of the futuristic aquarium catches fire and other paths are blocked off. Both "Graveyard Gig" and "Burning Depths" have a wonderful sense of whimsy throughout their loose narrative structures utilizing not only space but also time in their course designs.
What's most striking to me about all this, though, is that, again, this is a racing game. This is a genre that is, generally, almost exclusively gameplay-focused, and even examples of racing games with storylines--Diddy Kong Racing, for example--tell them through brief scenes between races. Transformed took the conventionally static sets that make up typical race tracks and used them as a medium to tell stories--meaningless ones, perhaps, but stories nonetheless. The game's course design is only strengthened by this. Even setting aside the fact that the courses change from lap to lap, the conceptual strength afforded by basing each course around a narrative and having the players progress forward in time as they race makes the game a joy to play, in a way that more standard kart racers (like Mario Kart) will struggle to achieve so long as they continue to design their courses statically.
It is pivotally important, I think, that games look for opportunities to tell stories, especially in genres that don't normally lend themselves toward this. Even if you look at other genres that focus heavily on competitive multiplayer styles of gameplay, which does not lend itself in obvious ways to narrative storytelling--fighting games, shooters, et cetera--the most successful ones, especially in recent years, have been the ones that build storytelling into the overall experience whenever possible. Arc System Works is a consistently successful developer of fighting games, and while some of that success is certainly due to their technical expertise, a lot of it is, I believe, a result of the way they work to make sure their characters' personalities and stories are told with each fight, in fitting musical themes, in pre- and post-battle dialogue, and in animations and attack styles that represent story threads. Similarly, with Epic Games's Fortnite has been successful for a complex array of reasons, it also stands out as a game that incorporates consistent storytelling into a genre of game that generally avoids ongoing narratives. In Fortnite's case, this comes through gradual changes to the game's world, which are intriguing enough that I occasionally find myself reading about them despite not playing the game.
Video games have extraordinary flexibility, and there are, of course, genres of games that are particularly well-suited to storytelling. Most of my favorite games are RPGs and visual novels for this reason--the genres lend themselves to sort of thought-provoking, storytelling-focused design philosophy I tend to espouse. That said, I believe that having a narrative basis--no matter how simple--makes a game or a level stronger. It can turn something static and forgettable to something dynamic and incredibly memorable. Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed is a top-notch example of this idea, and I expect it will be the metric against which I judge other racing games for a long time to come.
The Plight of the Mixed Mage
Characters in most RPGs tend to fall into fairly standard gameplay roles. You have tanks, who take damage and protect the party. You have physical fighters, who usually lack flexibility but are good at hitting things hard. You have mages, who use powerful magic that's usually balanced by strict resource-management systems. You have healers and other support characters, who keep the party alive and help it hit harder. Each of these categories has smaller and smaller sub-categories--you could, for example, divide physical fighters up into ranged and melee, and then you could further divide your ranged fighters up into bow-users and firearm users, and so on--but in most games characters tend to fall neatly into one of these roles (although some games will divide up the healing and support roles across every character, giving each character a bit of supportive utility in order to eliminate the necessity of running a dedicated healer).
Every now and again, though, you run into something called a mixed mage--sometimes referred to by other names, like "hybrid magic user" or some such--which is a character who is built around using both physical and magical attacks. Mixed mages are a style of character I've developed a fascination with in recent years, partially because (unlike more traditional character styles) they tend to be drastically different in each individual incarnation. Unfortunately, they're often also rather weak. It's difficult to make a "good" mixed mage, so I thought I'd delve into why the character type often falls flat, as well as ways to make it work well.
A Jack-of-all-Trades in a World of Specialists
Turn-based RPGs tend to reward specialization. In most turn-based RPGs--and especially in those with significant customization options--the best characters are usually not those who do multiple jobs, but rather those who do one job really well. This depends heavily on the game, of course, but in many games the turn economy--the way you utilize time in battle, essentially--doesn't leave characters with much time to be doing things aside from their primary intended roles, especially if you're looking for optimal play. You want your physical attacker to be attacking, your spellcaster to be casting, your supporter to be supporting, and so on.
This means it's fine for a character to be amazing at one thing and terrible at everything else, as that character should really only be doing one thing regardless. Your other party members take care of the other tasks, and if each party member is doing the one thing they're amazing at, your party as a whole works well. A character who is pretty good at two things--attacking and using magic in this case--weakens the party as a whole because the character is likely only doing one or the other, at which point you'd be better off slotting in a dedicated attacker or a dedicated mage, depending on how you're using the mixed mage.
This assumes, of course, that the generalist is weaker than the specialist at the specialist's focus area. It's possible that you have a mixed mage who's better at both physical attacks and magic than the specialist, but this creates a separate problem in that your specialists no longer have any purpose, and it also leaves the mixed mage as "someone who can function as an attacker or a spellcaster" rather than "someone who fills both roles at once." So long as you can only take one type of action at a time, you're still better off using the mixed mage as if they were a specialist, especially when equipment options and whatnot usually prioritize one stat type over the other. This simultaneously leaves the game feeling unbalanced and defeats the whole purpose of having a character with mixed skills.
Why Not Both?
This may seem like an insoluble problem. If specialization is almost always better, how do you differentiate a generalist in a meaningful way? The most successful mixed mages, though, tend to solve this with a little bit of creative thinking. The simplest and most elegant solution I've seen is to make it so that attacks scale off of both magical and physical stats at the same time. This has two notable outcomes: first, it means a balanced stat spread can result in powerful strikes on par with specialists, and second, it eliminates the need for a mixed mage to choose between physical strikes and magic, as both are used concurrently.
A particularly interesting example of this is Bravely Default's Spell Fencer class. The class applies spell effects to physical attacks, increasing the damage of those physical attacks when used. A Spell Fencer casts a spell on his or her weapon of choice and then attacks normally, benefiting from both physical and magical attributes simultaneously. Bravely Default's customization functionality lets you use this ability on other classes as well, allowing you to effectively turn any physical-oriented class into a mixed mage (and in a more productive way that just giving them access to traditional spells they're unlikely to have any use for). It's possible to create unit builds in this way that are comparably powerful to magical or physical specialists while also retaining the unique flavor of the physical/magical hybrid.
Tales of Xillia also provides an interesting answer to this dilemma. The Tales games are action RPGs rather than turn-based RPGs--which is to say they play out in real time rather than in turns--but they feature traditional-RPG-esque parties and character builds regardless, with strong delineations between physical attackers and casters. Physical attackers tend to favor faster, weaker attacks that activate immediately, while casters use spells that do a lot of damage but have long charge times. These styles seem mostly incompatible, but one of Xillia's playable characters, Milla Maxwell, is both at once. Milla has access to both reasonably strong physical attacks and standard slow-activating spells, but that in itself is not what makes her interesting. She has a unique mechanic called "spell shifting" that lets her use her spells without charging them first. When she casts a spell in this way, it is considerably weaker than normal and executes immediately, functioning similarly to a standard physical attack. This allows her to intermix physical attacks and spells, seamlessly leveraging both of her stat pools in a way that's very fun to play.
Mixed mages also tend to fare well in games that reward having access to wide ranges of tools at once. The Megami Tensei franchise, for example, tends to heavily reward targeting enemy weaknesses--using fire on an ice-themed enemy, for example. While the exact form of these rewards varies by game, it's usually significant enough that you're well-advised to bring allies who can cover a wide range of potential weaknesses. A party member who, for example, has exceptionally powerful lightning attacks may be less valuable (especially in the early- to mid-game) than one who has a mid-strength lightning attack along with two other elements and a decent physical skill. These games have flexible enough customization that "character roles" aren't usually as hard-and-fast as in other series, but the games' tendency to reward flexibility and punish specialization makes specialists less appealing unless you're preparing for specific fights instead of building general-purpose teams.
These aren't the only strong examples of mixed mages, of course, but they showcase different ways in which the character type can be made to work in satisfying ways, both by combining use physical strikes and magic--in the first two examples--and by disincentivizing specialization and ensuring there are advantages to generalization--in the latter example. Properly-executed mixed mages tend to be a lot of fun to use, as their breadth of options leads to interesting tactical decision-making (on top of just being cool), so it's always exciting to me when developers play with the concept. Even if it doesn't always work, the ones that do tend to be the highlights of their games.
Its Own Reward
At their most basic level, most video games are built around the relatively simple sequence of issuing a task and then giving a reward for completing that task. These rewards vary by game, and they can be anything from experience points or fancy magic items (in the case of RPGs) to things like concept art or side stories (in, for example, visual novels). Rewarding players for completing tasks is so deeply ingrained in gaming that most gaming platforms support some type of meta-rewards in the form of achievements or trophies players can earn by completing certain tasks in a variety of games. The Nintendo Switch is actually the only modern console to not support a universal achievement system, which makes the system feel strangely dated, at least in that regard.
In some ways, though, this represents a philosophy embodied by one of the Switch's launch titles: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Breath of the Wild is an unusual game in a lot of ways, and it represents a significant departure from the style of the earlier Zelda games, but one of its most striking (and controversial) design choices is the way in which it intentionally avoids the sorts of extrinsic motivators around which most games are built. Breath of the Wild encourages exploration and the completion of tasks for the experience of doing so rather than for specific rewards, and where notable rewards are present they're usually either diminished by overall system mechanics or attenuated such that they feel almost separate from the tasks themselves.
This is, I think, the biggest reason behind the game's controversial weapon durability system. Breath of the Wild has a wide variety of unusual and interesting swords, spears, bows, and so on, but these weapons are all exceptionally flimsy, and after a few minutes of use they tend to break. They also break imediately when thrown. As a result, this tempers the excitement of finding a snazzy new weapon or tool in a chest or being given one as a reward for a quest--the reward itself is temporary, and you already probably have plenty of other perfectly usable items. This keeps players from trying to complete quests specifically for these rewards, as the rewards themselves are not satisfying and are not meant to be.
The game does have some longer-term progression, though, mostly in the form of extra heart containers and stamina wheels (which let you survive more hits and do strenuous things, like running or climbing, for longer periods of time before resting). In previous Zelda games, these sorts of things would usually be scattered across the world, and exploring or solving puzzles would yield pieces of heart containers as rewards. On a strictly pragmatic level, Breath of the Wild operates mostly the same way--completing puzzles gives items which can be redeemed for heart containers or stamina gauge extensions. Needing to go actually redeem these items, though, separates the "reward" from the "task," which creates a fair bit of psychological distance between exploration/puzzle solving and getting rewards. The buildup of hearts and stamina feels like something that happens naturally as you play the game rather than the explicit goal of the completion of the game's tasks.
The end result of these sorts of decisions is that there is very little extrinsic motivation for players to do the things the game asks of them--and there is additionally very little direction or necessity in the game. It's actually possible for a skilled player to go straight from the tutorial to the final boss without completing any of the game's other quests. Viewed from the standard video game perspective of "I'm doing this task to get this reward," most of Breath of the Wild is completely pointless.
This frees the player to be driven by intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations. The meaninglessness of Breath of the Wild's rewards means players are able to pursue whichever quests or puzzles sound most interesting, wandering aimlessly around the map looking for anything that seems fun. Exploration and discovery becomes its own reward, and any given undertaking is done for the experience of having done it--nothing is lost from skipping something that seems uninteresting. Breath of the Wild is best categorized as a hybrid between an open-world RPG and a puzzle game, but in this respect it feels almost like a sandbox game in the vein of Minecraft. Tasks are self-directed and intrinsically motivated, and it ultimately doesn't matter what the player does or doesn't do.
I have a few qualms with Breath of the Wild's sandboxy nature--mostly with regards to the way it devalues the game's ending and can leave players without the satisfaction of a resolute conclusion--but there's no doubt that the game provides players with an unprecedented degree of freedom to do what sounds fun and ignore the rest. Even in other open-world games, a variety of reward systems tend to somewhat undermine the freedom promised by the genre by making players feel obligated to complete the various tasks they come across. Breath of the Wild's intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation is very powerful and is, I think, a large part of the reason why many gamers reacted so strongly to the game in the early period of its release.
Games with strict task/reward systems--especially mobile games or MMORPGs--can end up feeling somewhat like work. In playing the game, you are assigned tasks to complete and rewarded based on your performance or penalized for failure. At the point you are completing these tasks--playing sections of the game--just for the extrinsic rewards, it can be easy to feel unpleasantly like you're working rather than playing. Breath of the Wild's reward systems ensure that the game remains aggressively in the domain of play. The game never makes you do something you don't want to do, and there's little reason to do so regardless. It sparks a similar feeling to playing with blocks or other such toys as a child--an exercise in structured imagination and creativity, within a loose framework and with a variety of potential goals but with no strict requirements.
This fits with Nintendo's self-concept as a toy company rather than a video game company. Breath of the Wild is more toy than game, and while it has both strengths and weaknesses, it executes on this concept without compromise.
If you've watched any gameplay videos from Breath of the Wild, you've probably seen people doing some ridiculous things with the game's physics, like building catapults out of boulders or sledding down bridges. While some of this is due to the game's fairly flexible mechanics, Breath of the Wild's focus on intrinsic motivation deserves some credit here. It's easier to think creatively when motivated intrinsically rather than extrinsically. If the game were centered on the completion of specific tasks and the rewards for completing those tasks, the absurd creativity evidenced by many of the game's players would likely be far less common, as more players would be focused on completing the game rather than actually experiencing everything possible within it.
This structure and design philosophy is not one I would want to see built into most games, but it makes Breath of the Wild highly intriguing and a joy to play.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition