Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
As I continue playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses, I find myself torn between two conflicting sentiments: how much I enjoy the strategic flexibility of the actual in-battle gameplay, and how unsatisfying my actual customization-related choices seem to be. As I covered last week, the game breaks from series convention in a number of ways, one of which being that weapon type is no longer tied to class—which is to say, swordsmen can use bows and vice-versa. Any magic-oriented class has access to all types of magic. Et cetera, et cetera.
In combat, this allows for really interesting strategic decision-making. You might, for example, have a close-range fighter who also happens to be carrying a bow, and you could have to choose between attacking safely from range and doing less damage or moving in close for a riskier but more powerful strike. Add to this the wide range of offensive skills the game adds, and you have a level of tactical flexibility that far surpasses prior Fire Emblem games.
The trade-off for this is individual units end up feeling less unique, and where uniqueness exists it’s tied to innate character skills rather than player customization decisions. When healers and offensive casters can both heal and use offensive magic, specialization choices end up feeling less meaningful. Differences between classes are marginal rather than fundamental, and as the game progresses it starts to feel like customization choices are… kind of irrelevant. Characters naturally filter into certain playstyles based on their innate stats and unique skill, and while you can fight against that the most efficient option is typically just to let characters do whatever they do best.
And also to train everybody in archery because bows are just that good.
In a sense, this isn’t really any different from past Fire Emblem games, which would lock characters into one or two class lines. Curiously, though, the limitations in the older games made customization choices more meaningful—breaking from natural customization paths in order to pick up valuable skills came with opportunity costs, and crafting very specific unit builds was inherently more satisfying in a game that rewarded that kind of creativity but also didn’t make it easy.
In Three Houses, there’s really no reason to not just give everybody the most optimal skills (bows and a preferred weapon type for physical units, offensive and defensive magic for casters), as the complete openness means there’s almost no opportunity cost whatsoever. You end up with a lot of characters who feel more-or-less identical, grouped into large clumps. You have a handful with good defensive stats who can tank well, you have a handful who aren’t great at taking a punch but who deal a lot of damage, and then you have the casters, who are all basically the same (outside of Lysithea, who’s quite unique and generally rocks).
This has me feeling somewhat conflicted about the game. On the one hand, this flexibility works really really well in actual combat. Tactical role-playing games have some roots in traditional board games like chess, and Three Houses emulates that kind of feel to a large extent, with its flexible decision-making and its roughly uniform unit styles. My favorite games in the genre, though—the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics and Fell Seal—blend that sort of strategy with rich and meaningful unit customization tools. In Three Houses, strong unit builds just kind of fall into place. In Fell Seal you have to combined different tools in creative ways to become especially strong. That customization is at least half the appeal of this particular genre of game to me, and Three Houses falls short on that front almost entirely.
I feel this is something of a deliberate choice, though. While Three Houses mirrors Tactics and its descendants in its foundational customization structure, everything else about the game mechanically points in the opposite direction, to a focus on direct in-battle strategy over actual customization. In a sense, this is a refined take on how Fire Emblem has been historically—a conceptually simpler TRPG series that prioritizes in-combat gameplay over out-of-combat gameplay. And Three Houses does this really really well. So it seems wrong to dock the game for failing to deliver on something it never really promised to begin with.
I find myself wondering whether this trade-off has to exist. Does incredible tactical flexibility by necessity infringe upon the value of customization options? If everyone can do everything, what’s the meaning in specialization? Is it possible to simultaneously allow for specialization and for strategic openness?
Strange as it is to say, I do find myself considering my strategic options in Three Houses more deeply than I do when playing Fell Seal and the like. In Fell Seal, I may have several options available to me at any given time, but by the end of the game most units are really good at doing one particular thing and can win most fights by just doing that thing. Combat is still satisfying, of course, but the satisfaction mostly comes from watching the planning that went into each character build pay off. It’s a different type of enjoyment.
The only TRPGs that I feel really strike that balance of strategy and planning are the Devil Survivor games, which force continual customization by effectively requiring players to rebuild their teams every few battles in order to stay caught up with the enemies. This means that while there’s a high degree of flexibility and battles are highly strategic affairs, there’s a constant need to push towards optimal team structure that scratches that planning itch.
Devil Survivor is a highly unique case that’s largely made possible by applying the conventions of the Megami Tensei franchise to the genre that is TRPGs, and I’m not sure how instructive it is for other TRPG series. Much as I love Devil Survivor I wouldn’t necessarily want other series to emulate it without reason.
Ultimately I think in-battle strategy and out-of-battle planning largely exist as a trade-off, at least in the context of this genre. I’ve written before about solving games in general versus solving specific battles one at a time, and while there are games for which both solutions are valid, I think most TRPGs tend to favor one over the other.
Games like Fell Seal favor general solutions, providing the tools with which to build exceptionally powerful units that can easily clear any fight. Games like Three Houses favor specific solutions, providing largely uniform characters and tasking the player with using those tools to strategically clear each fight. Neither is inherently better than the other (although I tend to prefer the former), and perhaps having a clear sense of which is meant to be the focus strengthens a game.
Ideally I’d want to be able to do either, but that might be a bit too much to ask.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses was released about a week ago, and despite my general ambivalence towards Fire Emblem as a franchise I decided to give it a shot. Long story short, I’m glad I did.
Much early writing about Three Houses has drawn attention to the way it borrows elements from other games, particularly the structural cues it takes from the modern Persona games. While this is interesting, I find the most striking thing about Three Houses to be how much it chooses not to take from prior Fire Emblem games. This is embodied most directly in the game’s decision to remove the classic rock-paper-scissors-style weapon triangle. Fire Emblem has historically been on the simplistic side as tactical role-playing games go, but a significant piece of what strategy existed in the games rested on the idea that certain types of units counter certain other types of units, which means battles frequently became a matter of ensuring the right types of units were in the right places at the right times such that enemies would mindlessly fling themselves at units with which they had poor compatibility.
As an entry point to the grid-based strategy its genre is known for, old Fire Emblem worked well enough, but it was so much less interesting to play than strategically richer games like Final Fantasy Tactics or Devil Survivor. Much to its credit, Three Houses goes a long way towards making Fire Emblem more competitive with its fellow TRPGs, and it does so in part through subtraction rather than addition.
Removing the weapon triangle forces more flexible strategic thinking and necessitates more strategic options for the player. The answer to “dangerous axe-wielding enemy” can no longer be “throw a sword at it.” A powerful target is powerful no matter who you use to attack them and therefore must be approached carefully, which in the context of Three Houses usually means using a combination of ranged attacks, special gambits, and unique weapon techniques to whittle the target down in safety.
This isn’t completely foreign to Fire Emblem as a whole, and ranged attackers have existed for ages. Three Houses is only noteworthy because it prioritizes that sort of play. In older games, the only choices the player made on a turn were “where do you move?” and “what weapon do you use to attack?” The addition of selectable weapon skills adds another layer of complexity to that equation—one that’s standard in other comparable games but remarkably fresh in the context of Fire Emblem.
Where older games would often have long stretches of watching enemies throw themselves at a unit or two guarding a chokepoint, Three Houses develops into a pattern of bait-and-punish. Without the protection of the weapon triangle, enemy turns become more dangerous, and several enemies focus-firing a single allied unit will likely result in that unit dying. The solution is typically to draw an enemy group into the range of the allied units and then to find a way to defeat all of them (or at least as many as possible) within a single turn. This transforms each turn of combat into something of a miniature puzzle and means the player spends a lot less time watching enemy turns (over which the player has no control) and a lot more time actively making strategic choices.
It’s a massive improvement over past entries in the franchise.
There are a number of elements that make Three Houses successful at this, but ultimately I think it boils down to a willingness to experiment with a set of gameplay mechanics that have been largely untouched for decades. The weapon triangle was arguably the defining gameplay feature for the series—at least in the popular perception of the games—so choosing to remove it was a brave move on the part of the game’s developers.
I’ve written before about how Persona 4 is weakened somewhat for re-using Persona 3’s structural foundation without adapting it to meet the thematic needs of the new game, and I think long-running series staples can sometimes fall into that same pattern. Just because every game in a series has a certain feature does not mean the next game also needs that feature. In an ideal world a developer would approach each title as something entirely unto itself and only take mechanics from older games if they are necessary and important to whatever the newer one happens to be.
That attitude leads to brilliant games like Three Houses and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Both games discard things that in the past were considered core elements of their respective series, and both borrow and adapt things from other works only to the extent that they advance the purposes of the games. You could argue that the games don’t “feel” like new entries in their series so much as entirely new works (especially in the case of Breath of the Wild), but the games are good enough that that really doesn’t matter. If anything, their distinctness is a strength.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have Pokemon, which is an exceptionally stagnant series. Even games that appear to change something fundamental—such as Sun and Moon’s removal of gyms—typically replace those things with a functionally-identical substitute. Every Pokemon game feels the same, and the series runs a real danger of becoming boring as a result. Why buy a new game when it’s just going to be the same as what you’ve played however-many times before?
Pokemon is in some ways a victim of its own success. It sells exceptionally well and remains highly popular, so there’s little incentive to change things up. And maybe that means the series is fine. There are plenty of people who just want “the same thing as before with a little bit extra,” and Pokemon certainly delivers on that, but as a consequence the series has little chance of growing to become something truly great. I find people tend to be most attached to whichever generation of Pokemon games they played first, whether that’s the original games, or gen 3 (in my case), or the most recent ones, and I think that’s an outgrowth of every game being basically the same. A first experience with a Pokemon game is incredibly fun, but no subsequent game quite lives up to that first experience because there’s a nagging feeling that you’ve done this before.
I don’t mean to say, of course, that removing series staples is always a good thing. Ace Attorney 5, for instance, significantly streamlined the way its investigation segments work, and rather than helping the game’s pacing it just made that half of the game less compelling. (Fortunately, the series returned to the old style immediately after.) Certain gameplay elements or plot beats survive iteration after iteration because they are necessary and valuable to the games in which they appear, for one reason or another, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s just something that should be taken into consideration with each entry in a series.
I am curious to see how Three Houses holds up as I approach its back half. If it continues to excel it will almost certainly end up as my favorite Fire Emblem and may even revise my opinion of the potential of the series as a whole. It is much stronger for its willingness to break with convention, and I wholeheartedly respect that bravery.
Guilty Gear is a weird series. If you look at the premise and narrative composition of the games, you’d think it would be terrible, or at least too cheesy to be particularly valuable. The series is simultaneously an homage to 80’s rock and to 90’s superhero science-fantasy. Its hero is a grumpy former scientist who’s well over a century old. Its supporting cast includes a samurai pirate cowboy based on Johnny Cash, a British time-traveler form the 80’s based on Axl Rose, a ten-foot-tall quack doctor who wears a bag over his head, and self-important robot. And those aren’t even the weird characters.
In the abstract, Guilty Gear is a messy hodgepodge of incongruous, ridiculous ideas. Even the overarching plot clashes with itself—it’s both a semi-dystopian spaghetti western and a sweeping geopolitical space opera. It’s a series you’d expect to criticize for trying to do too many different things and not pulling any one of them off convincingly. And yet, it all works. Nothing feels out of place or unbelievable. The world feels cohesive, and every bizarre side character or outlandish plot point blends seamlessly into the whole.
It may not be high literature, but it’s certainly rather impressive.
The History of the Gears
Guilty Gear is a series of 2D fighting games created by Arc System Works, and it’s largely the brainchild of Ishiwatari Daisuke. Ishiwatari created the concept for the original game, directed its gameplay mechanics, created its characters, drew much of the art, wrote its music, and even voiced the main character. He’s nothing if not multitalented. The original Guilty Gear was the progenitor of a sub-genre of fighting games (often called airdashers, due to the trademark ability to “dash” while in the air after jumping) that typically tends to be flashier, faster, and often more technical than more standard fighting games (such as Street Fighter).
For the first fifteen years of its run, Guilty Gear’s story elements were scattered and confusing. As was typical of arcade fighters, character information and story background came through a combination of unrelated arcade paths, blurbs in instruction booklets, and so on. The story was more an excuse to justify everything else—the excellent gameplay and fabulous guitarwork the series is known for, mostly—than a true standalone narrative.
That all changed with Guilty Gear Xrd -Sign- in 2014. Guilty Gear Xrd was something of a reboot of the series. Guilty Gear had not seen a new true installment in years, and the older games looked and felt dated, especially compared to their spiritual successor, BlazBlue. Rather than simply continue with the work the old games started, -Sign- changed to a full 3D art style (despite keeping the traditional 2D mechanics), shrunk the cast considerably, and—most importantly—added a dedicated story mode.
In something of a radical move for the genre, -Sign-‘s story was entirely divorced from the game’s gameplay. It was a disconnected and unrelated visual novel/movie hybrid, lasting about five hours. The story technically picked up where the game prior left off, incorporating all of the old world-building and lore, but it was nonetheless written to be appealing even to those with no familiarity with the series. Every character and concept was properly introduced within the story such that the game functioned as a fully standalone work, filled with nods to old material for longtime fans but nonetheless the beginning of the “proper” Guilty Gear storyline.
It works brilliantly. The fact that -Sign-, along with its sequel -Revelator-, is able to function despite its bizarre world and significant writing debt is nothing short of miraculous. Old Guilty Gear’s cast and world was designed with gameplay and aesthetic value in mind first and foremost. I doubt there was much care for meaningful character development or thematic weight when characters like Sol Badguy and Ky Kiske were initially designed—they, along with the rest of the old Guilty Gear cast, were cool-looking heroes filled with references to obscure (and not-so-obscure) rock musicians. Their stories, insofar as they had them, came later.
Rather than rejecting the absurdity of the existing Guilty Gear material, -Sign- ran with it. -Sign- works for two equally important reasons: a relentless adherence to concept, and careful character development. Without either, -Sign- would be nothing more than an awkward attempt to match ArcSys’s earlier success with BlazBlue’s story mode in a series not designed to accommodate a traditional narrative.
Everyone is Super
The first of those two pieces is what makes Guilty Gear so unique. Guilty Gear’s world is essentially built such that every character, every concept within it is bizarre. You won’t find any standard character types or typical Shonen tropes in the series. The series allows its bizarre characters to fit in by ensuring every single character is equally weird. Guilty Gear takes suspension of disbelief and shatters it. Its world is one in which anything is possible, and everything is so strange that no single element of strangeness stands out as jarring.
Take, for example, Slayer. Slayer is a vampire whose primary goal is to be as classy as possible. He only drinks the blood of one person: his immortal wife, Sharon, to whom he is eternally faithful. He also runs a group of international assassins and has connections to many global governmental leaders. Because why not.
In pretty much any other work, Slayer would stand out as unusually strange—a joke character, probably, who exists in the background of the world for comic relief. In the context of Guilty Gear, however, Slayer’s no stranger than anyone else. Slayer’s existence makes it less strange for someone like Elphelt Valentine—an artificial humanoid from another dimension who’s obsessed with romance—to exist, and, conversely, Elphelt’s existence makes Slayer’s less strange in turn. No one in the world of Guilty Gear is normal. No one even falls into the “normal” range of weird, for that matter—you won’t find anyone who’s “just” an alien, or a time-traveler, or a super hero, or what have you. Every single character is an amalgamation of so many contrasting traits that they sound like a joke.
This makes it easier to accept all the strangeness. -Sign- could have tried to dial back old Guilty Gear’s weirdness, but instead it took the opposite approach, embracing everything that didn’t make sense about the series and using that absurdity as the foundation for its world rather than as an obstacle to be overcome. Guilty Gear’s world is one in which the extraordinary is commonplace, and the end result is a cast and setting that’s highly unique and exceptionally vibrant. Everything about -Sign-‘s and -Revelator-‘s writing feels fresh because everything is original. Nothing else is going to have an assassin who specializes in the use of pool cues face off with a comatose villain who fights using a deadly hospital bed he controls in his dreams.
Adherence to concept in this case equates to originality. That alone wouldn’t make Guilty Gear great, but it certainly lets it stand out.
The second piece that’s key to -Sign-‘s strength is how remarkably grounded its characterization is. It would be very easy for something as intentionally outlandish as Guilty Gear to feel ultimately weightless, completely removed from reality. This could be nonetheless fun to watch in much the same way a senseless action movie can grip the audience—but Guilty Gear goes a step beyond, and it’s a much stronger work for doing so.
While Guilty Gear allows itself an endless capacity for absurdity on the conceptual level, it is executionally the complete opposite. Once the bizarre concepts are in place, the characters behave as fundamentally real people, bound by interpersonal ties and mundane desires. -Sign- opens with its protagonist, Sol Badguy, traveling with his grandson, Sin Kiske. Sol may be a jaded, functionally immortal ex-researcher who’s saved the world multiple times, but his interactions with Sin are as believable as if they were both ordinary people. Sol offers Sin advice, laughs and sighs as he watches his antics, and learns things about himself in the process.
Sol’s interactions with his son-in-law, Ky, are much the same. You have grudging mutual respect, family banter, and so on. For all its over-the-top science-fantasy action and all its geopolitical maneuvering and all its superhero-style world-saving, Guilty Gear is ultimately a story about an old man who feels he’s lost everything, and how his remaining family helps him to not be so dang cynical all the time.
It’s touching. Sol may punch out aliens and help weird scientist monsters figure out quantum mechanics or whatever, but his character growth and his relationships with his family drive it all. The writing is strong enough to ground a story that by all rights should not feel grounded.
To make things even better, Guilty Gear is an ensemble piece. Sol’s story is the central one, but there are somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen side-plots going on at any given time, and -Sign- and -Revelator- jump back and forth between them constantly. As with the “main” plot, each of these side arcs is larger-than-life and borderline insane, but each one is grounded in deeply “real” emotional characterizations.
You have, for example, Chipp Zanuff and his secretary Answer. Chipp and Answer are Americans who were fascinated by Japan and trained as ninjas and then decided to form the Eastern Chipp Kingdom to assist refugees and other troubled people who the two believed were not receiving enough support from the United Nations. The two characters are as absurd as anyone else, and their objective is such a long-shot and such an extreme solution that it should be hard to take it seriously. The two are completely earnest, though, and their excitement for their pet project is instantly recognizable. Their characterization keeps the player from dismissing their goal as a joke and instead leads the player to cheer them on as they push forward against seemingly impossible odds. Ignore the melodramatic absurdity for a moment and you see two entrepreneurs striving to make the world a better place. You don’t have to believe the fantasy of Guilty Gear—you just have to believe its characters, and that’s quite easy to do.
Other side-characters are much the same. You might write off Johnny, the samurai pirate cowboy, as a joke, but he’s such an unabashedly good person that you can’t help but cheer him on as he searches for a way to cure his chronically ill friend. The time-traveler, Axl, is defined more by how much he misses his home and his family than by the time-travel itself. The 10-foot-tall doctor Faust is consumed with guilt surrounding the death of someone who died on his operating table.
The outlandishness of Guilty Gear lends the world color, but the weirdness is always secondary to the emotional lives of the series’s characters. They are people first and foremost, and vampires or pirates or aliens or robots or whatever else after. The plot of the games involves a lot of rationalizing of the world. The strangeness doesn’t just exist passively within a stagnant world—all of the odd characters exist in a living world that reacts in believable ways to the strange things within it.
That Would Never Happen
Whether a work of fiction feels “believable” is entirely unrelated to how much it is or isn’t rooted in reality. Something can be a direct adaptation of a true story and ring false if written poorly, while something completely absurd and entirely divorced from reality can nonetheless feel remarkably real. Guilty Gear is a shining example of the latter.
It is perhaps easier to accept Guilty Gear as it is if you’re familiar with its influences. If you’re accustomed to Shonen anime and you have a broad enough knowledge of classic rock to pick up on all the little references and gags, the series’s outlandishness makes a bit more sense. Everything weird in Guilty Gear exists for a reason.
The reason -Sign- and -Revelator- work as well as they do, though, is that the outlandishness doesn’t need to make sense in order for the games to be satisfying. You don’t need to know all the reasons why characters like Sol and Slayer and Axl are designed as they are, because within the context of the story they give the impression of being entirely normal, plausible human beings.
Guilty Gear is weird in the abstract, but it is also weird only in the abstract. In context, its bizarre premises seem entirely sensible. The end result is a story that feels both thoroughly unique and yet remarkably familiar. It’s strange, but there is no sense of wrongness or unbelievability. It creates a world with dragons and time-travel and floating cities and makes it all feel no less real than a standard work of historical fiction might.
Guilty Gear isn’t a thematically complex work. It’s not intellectually challenging. It’s not high literature. It’s just fun, and not really anything more. But from a strictly technical standpoint, -Sign- and -Revelator- accomplish something truly remarkable in the way they ground an ostensibly unbelievable world. For that, if nothing else, the series deserves praise.
Detective fiction is super neat. Sherlock Holmes remains a household name for a reason—a well-written mystery holds nearly universal appeal, and while he was not the first fictional detective, Sherlock is the symbol of the entire genre. Reading or watching the great detective reason his way through cleverly-plotted cases is, quite simply, really fun.
As detective fiction has developed, however, writers have taken to using its techniques and tropes for purposes beyond pure entertainment value. I’ve written about this in the context of other works--Kara no Kyoukai and Danganronpa V3 in particular—but a while back I came across a particularly interesting representation of how the genre has grown over time.
Madoi Ban is a Japanese mystery writer who also works as a member of Fate/Grand Order’s main writing team. He recently wrote a mystery-themed event called Analysis of the Perplexing Meihousou. The event was presented as a frame story, with Murasaki Shikibu—author of The Tale of Genji—writing and directing a movie, assisted by Sherlock Holmes’s arch-rival James Moriarty. Because it’s a Fate work, all of the actors are historical or mythological figures, ranging from the composer Antonio Salieri to the Egyptian pharaoh Ozymandias. It’s a fun time.
The story’s setup places the filmmaking process on a strict deadline, and the event jumps back and forth between the “in-frame” story that’s being filmed and the “out-of-frame” events surrounding the filming itself. Early on, Murasaki collapses while on-camera in what was intended to be a small director cameo role. With the writer and director down for the count, the actors (and assistant director Moriarty) are forced to improvise, and the “in-frame” story develops into a murder mystery centered on Murasaki’s character’s death while the “out-of-frame” story becomes a secondary mystery centered on her collapse and the “intended” course of her hastily-written story.
This would be neat even on its own. Two separate mysteries playing out side-by-side, one fictional within the universe and the other real? Super cool, super unique, very on-brand for a modern mystery writer like Madoi. The story is (much to its credit) a level more complex than this, though. With Murasaki out of commission and the filming on a tight schedule, the main cast calls in the assistance of three experts—Hans Christian Andersen and William Shakespeare for writing advice, and Sherlock Holmes himself for the solving of the mystery. Hans and Shakespeare refuse to finish Murasaki’s story on principle (saying, essentially, that one author should not impose his thematic ideas onto another author’s work unless the second author expressly asks for it), but they do offer guidance on good writing to the crew and actors who frantically try to improvise through the story Murasaki might have intended.
Hans in particular carries a special significance within Nasu Kinoko’s universe, as he serves as something like an author insert. His character has little basis in the historical Hans Christian Andersen but rather is drawn from Nasu’s own quirks, and when he appears it is often in the de-facto role of speaking for the author. Madoi uses Shakespeare similarly, as his own voice when he decides to speak about writing more generally within his work in FGO.
As such, the advice that comes from Hans and from Shakespeare ends up being something resembling the philosophy Nasu and Madoi espouse when writing mysteries. Nasu is not a “mystery writer” in the traditional sense, but his writing owes a great debt to the techniques of detective fiction (and particularly to Edogawa Ranpo and Ayatsuji Yukito), while mysteries are truly Madoi’s specialty. There are a lot of neat quips about writing throughout the event (one of which I’ll return to in a bit) but for now suffice it to say that Moriarty and the actors take their advice—with some tips about deduction from Sherlock—and start forming their own ideas for how the in-frame mystery should end.
Bumbling through the first few scenes, the actors end up establishing a set of facts on which the murder must be based. Character backgrounds are revealed, a murder weapon is discovered, a second murder occurs, and so on. None of this in-frame action is the result of any out-of-frame plan for how the mystery should end, and it seems for a time that the story is headed to a dissatisfying and chaotic conclusion. Surely a mystery not planned in advance cannot resolve satisfactorily, yes?
This setup leads to one of the most creative concepts I’ve seen in a mystery: specifically, as the in-frame story approaches its conclusion, the out-of-frame actors convene to determine how the in-frame mystery should end. We then get five alternative theories, with the out-of-frame characters reasoning their ways to different resolutions of the mystery, all consistent with the (ostensibly) arbitrarily-produced facts. These sections read like chains of logical deduction—like a detective explaining a murder and pointing out the true culprit—but none of the solutions are inherently correct or true. They are five entirely different, entirely satisfying ways to resolve the same setup.
This section of the story calls to mind the multiple endings of the movie Clue. Take away the frame story setup and it functions much the same: multiple solutions to the same mystery. Meihousou’s justification for its multiple endings is, of course, somewhat more thorough, but the audience experience is more-or-less the same. You effectively get the “payoff” for several mysteries despite only needing the “setup” for one. It’s economical if nothing else.
Where this takes a step beyond being just a tighter Clue is in the progression of Meihousou’s alternate in-frame endings. The proposed endings themselves mirror the development of detective fiction as a whole. The first is mostly straightforward, filled with twists and surprises but mostly focused on the direct plot and the killer’s motive. The second builds on the first, taking much the same style but adding stronger character interaction, emotional weight, and thematic purpose. The third sheds much of the actual “mystery” and instead uses the trappings of a mystery to tell an otherwise unrelated story in the vein of more “serious” literature. The fourth returns to the mystery-plot focus but violates the expected rules of detective fiction in an extremely cool way. The fifth breaks from traditional mystery storytelling further by presenting the out-of-frame mystery as the true mystery and proposing that the in-frame mystery is just a red herring to divert attention from the actual plot—the solution involves including footage of the filming process itself in the final film.
In these five stories we see the transition from standard plot-centric detective story (as in Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories), to “non-mysteries” that subvert the genre towards a larger goal (as in the works of Edogawa Ranpo and Nasu Kinoko), to meta-mysteries that break the established rules of the genre to great effect (as is characteristic of Ayatsuji Yukito and of Madoi himself).
Meihousou is a fantastically entertaining mystery—a collection of mysteries, really—but even beyond that it’s a lesson in the structure and history of detective fiction, and it’s hugely effective in that regard. It’s also one of the few Fate/Grand Order events to have been published in traditional book form, for good reason.
One of the more interesting observations to come out of Meihousou’s advice on the writing of mysteries comes in the form of a recommendation to plan backwards. As one of the characters struggles to produce a satisfying conclusion to the in-frame story, he receives some advice from Sherlock and the author duo. The advice, in essence, amounts to this:
It is basically impossible to deduce things in the manner Sherlock does, and even more so when producing a work of fiction that (by necessity) does not have a true answer already waiting to be found. A writer is not a detective, and as such does not come at a mystery’s solution by reasoning forward. Instead, when writing a mystery, it is helpful to think first of an interesting twist or solution and then to develop a set of clues and deductions that lead to that intended solution.
In other words, to write a mystery, decide on the answer and then create the clues that lead to that answer, somewhat like designing a puzzle. This process allows a writer to create the illusion of cleverness while in fact being in control of the situation from the beginning. A writer doesn’t need to deduce a killer’s identity—the author needs only to create tools that might lead his or her capable detective to deduce things the author already knows to be true in a way that strikes the reader as plausible.
Perhaps this bit of advice is obvious—of course the author knows everything, right?—but it’s nonetheless a potential sticking point for someone new to mystery writing (as is the hapless Sir Tristan in Meihousou). An inexperienced writer may have an intriguing setup or interesting mystery in mind, but no clue how to go about solving it. Writing backwards solves the problem.
While Madoi expands on the idea, the advice actually echoes something from Sherlock’s debut work, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet. In explaining his deductive process in this original work, Sherlock talks about reasoning backward—looking at a conclusion and deducing the steps that must have led to that conclusion. In the context in which he means it, Sherlock refers to the process of coming upon a crime scene and gradually piecing together the events that must have led to its happening. This is standard for murder mysteries, of course, though in light of Madoi’s advice in Meihousou it takes on a slightly different significance.
Not only was A Study in Scarlet (along with Doyle’s later writing) likely written using the process Madoi outlines, it is presented to the reader in exactly that fashion. Sherlock almost never presents a series of facts and deductions leading to a conclusion—he does the reverse, presenting the reader (and nominally Watson) with a conclusion, and only after great prodding explaining the observations and deductions that led him there. His deductions are presented backwards, just as they must have been written. Doyle tells us “the culprit came by cab” and then only afterward gives the reasoning why Sherlock would know that to be true. Other mysteries do this as well, but it’s most readily apparent in Doyle’s works as Watson frequently draws attention to the practice.
On the surface, the reversed order seems to be primarily a way to characterize Sherlock as brilliant, eccentric, and more than a little impatient. He’s the clever student in a math class who doesn’t like to show work because the answer is “too obvious.” It works well, and Doyle’s Sherlock is, if nothing else, fairly uniform in his personality.
Beyond that, though, the flipped presentation serves to do that at which detective fiction is most adept: tricking the reader. I don’t mean this in the sense I might in the context of more modern works—the flipped reasoning doesn’t lead the reader to mistaken conclusions—but it does create an illusion of brilliance where said brilliance doesn’t truly exist.
Placing conclusions before deductions leads the reader to accept leaps in logic he or she might otherwise question. An example of this comes very early in A Study in Scarlet, where Sherlock identifies a passing man as a retired marine sergeant. Without the foreknowledge that he is correct, his logic seems shaky. Sherlock assumes he is a seaman because of a tattoo of an anchor—a reasonable guess, sure, but not a foolproof one. He assumes the man is from the military due to his haircut—a somewhat stronger deduction. Finally, he concludes the man must be a sergeant because of… his age and the way he carries himself? This last piece in particular is a strange logical leap that would be difficult to accept without the certainty that Sherlock is, in fact, right.
And yet, when reading the piece front to back, nothing about the exchange jumps out as odd. Sherlock makes his claim, which Watson questions, asking the man to verify Sherlock’s intuition. When the man confirms Sherlock is correct, Sherlock is able to present what would otherwise come across as strange guesses as superhuman insight. Watson’s response, impressed by the reasoning, leads the reader to accept it as presented. It’s quite clever.
Essentially, the backwards reasoning means Doyle does not need to produce chains of deduction that would actually make someone a brilliant detective, as the reader’s assumptions that Sherlock is correct fill in the gaps. We don’t question Sherlock because, well, he’s Sherlock. He might as well be a superhero (a character type with which he in fact shares many qualities, right down to his surpassing physical strength).
There is an element of suspension of disbelief involved here as well. Even after noticing the holes in Sherlock’s logic, readers are able to enjoy watching him work because the writing is structured so well. You have to actually stop and dig into the logic for it to ring false, and to do so is to do the one thing you should never do—question Sherlock Holmes. The direct steps of Doyle’s logical chains don’t matter nearly so much as the fact Sherlock is the one producing them, and the writing moves so quickly it’s quite easy to just accept that Sherlock is right and move on.
L is not Sherlock
Roundabout as it seems, all this background brings me to the main point of this post: Death Note.
It’s related, I promise.
Death Note, for the unfamiliar, is essentially a semi-supernatural crime drama. There is one single supernatural component with clearly-defined rules—the death note itself—and everything else adheres to the rules of a “normal” crime drama. The criticisms I’m about to point at Death Note can be written off by saying I’m applying mystery logic to a work that is at its core a thriller and not a mystery, and while that’s a fair point, Death Note owes enough of a debt to detective fiction that I think it’s worth acknowledging the ways it misuses the science of deduction.
Most of Death Note focuses on the interplay between its villain-protagonist, Light Yagami, and its hero-antagonist, L. The story begins with Light finding a journal that allows him to cause people to die by simply writing their names, and he uses the journal to undertake a sort of vigilante justice, killing criminals who he views as not being punished effectively by the law. This gets the attention of the police, who eventually call in the eccentric, brilliant detective L to identify and capture the strange killer.
The excitement of Death Note comes in the form of the back-and-forth between the two, as L tries to close in on Light and Light outsmarts him again and again. L is nearly always almost able to catch Light, which forces Light to take more and more extreme measures to avoid capture. It’s pretty entertaining if you don’t think about it too hard..
The core issue I have with Death Note lies with the deductive prowess exhibited by both L and Light as they try to predict and outsmart one another. On multiple occasions, both characters—but especially L—make assumptions about the behavior of the other and then act on those assumptions. Light’s are usually pretty well-justified, as he has ways of gathering information about the individuals targeting him, but L’s tend to be a bit… out there.
As in the case of Sherlock’s deductions, L’s assumptions are nearly always correct. Unfortunately, L’s reasoning rings false far more often than Sherlock’s does. L seems at times to operate off of random guesses that strain suspension of disbelief, and the only reason they don’t come across as stranger is because the viewer already knows them to be true. As we see the criminal’s actions directly, L can simply assert things that we already know to be true and his insights seem brilliant rather than random because we know in advance that they are correct.
This is a misuse of the backwards reasoning that characterizes Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock’s backwards reasoning works for two primary reasons: first, the reader and the narrator both believe Sherlock to be nearly infallible and thus trust him implicitly even when his direct explanations don’t quite hold up, and second, the reader does not already know the answers to the mystery when Sherlock presents his deductions.
These seem somewhat contradictory. The first points to the deductions working because we know them to be true, while the second implies they work because we don’t know them to be true. What gives?
The answer has to do with the source of our information. Sherlock works as a detective because he is both a reliable source of information (the former point) and our only source of information (the latter). We do not inherently know that he is correct, but we are adequately prepared to believe he is correct.
L falls flat on both counts. As we are more-or-less omniscient when reading or watching Death Note, we know what L does not know, and so we know that he is not omniscient and is occasionally incorrect. We know that L is not a completely reliable source of information (nor is he meant to be), and he is also not our primary source of information.
This isn’t inherently problematic, and were Death Note less mystery-esque in structure L’s weakness as a detective character would not be a weakness with the work overall (and might in fact be a strength). Unfortunately, Death Note wants to present L as a Sherlock-esque figure. It wants the illusion of brilliance Doyle achieves, but it lacks the foundation required to enable it.
The result is that L’s deduction sequences feel hollow. When he makes a brilliant “deduction” that leads him close to catching Light, if seems unfair rather than impressive. His hunches are correct far too often without the character buildup or the plot-driven smoke-and-mirrors needed to cover it. He feels like he has the analytical equivalent of plot armor—all it would take is one or two wrong guesses to send him off the trail and leave Light free to do his thing unmolested, but L seems inexplicably immune to major errors (for the most part). His reasoning is weak and his assumptions often take the form of pretty wild logical leaps, but he gets away with it because we know he’s right.
Again, maybe this isn’t a problem. Maybe a thriller’s detective can afford a flimsier foundation than a mystery’s detective’s. I think it makes the overall work feel quite contrived, though. Suspension of disbelief carries me through Sherlock’s trains of thought without issue, but it runs out somewhere before L’s.
Death Note wants to be a competition between great minds, a battle between Sherlock and Moriarty that follows both and consequently leaves its outcome uncertain until the very end. It’s a noble attempt, and Light in particular is pretty well-executed, but L rides on his plot handicap a bit too much, and I find the end product stretches believability.
A week ago, I had a friend recommend the game Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark in strongest terms. Typically when I receive a game recommendation I file it away for potential future playing—I’m typically juggling two or three more pressing games I want to finish and don’t have the time to pick up another—but one piece made Fell Seal’s recommendation different: the recommender described it a hybrid of the best of all three Final Fantasy Tactics games.
That (coupled with my respect for the person in question) made for a proposal too intriguing to turn down, and I downloaded the game within the hour. I’m happy to say I was not disappointed.
Tactics has not seen a new game since Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2: The Grimoire of the Rift came out twelve years ago. I’ve written before about my love for the series’ gameplay (and one of these days I’ll dive into some of the more interesting elements of their narrative presentations), so the idea of a spiritual successor to an old favorite—and a spiritual successor that was possibly better than the originals—held quite a bit of appeal.
A “spiritual successor,” for those unfamiliar with the term, is a game that is technically not connected to an earlier (and usually very popular) game but is meant to evoke the feel of a sequel. These typically pop up in cases where licensing issues prevent a company from continuing with a series—such as with Arc System Works creating BlazBlue to fill the time when they couldn’t continue with Guilty Gear—or when a studio has left a beloved IP dormant for a long time and another developer wants to take a stab at satisfying the original’s fans.
Spiritual successors tend to be kind of hit-and-miss. In some cases, they ride on nothing but nostalgia and end up as fairly superficial and unsatisfying experiences. My best example of this would be Tokyo RPG Factory’s I am Setsuna, which tries to be an artsy homage to Chrono Trigger and ends up feeling empty and unoriginal (and consequently boring). Sometimes they diverge too far from the heart of their source material and end up becoming something else entirely, as in the case of Bravely Default, which is an interesting and valuable game but nonetheless doesn’t really deliver particularly well on the promise of “another Final Fantasy V.” I actually prefer Bravely to FFV, so this latter category isn’t an inherently bad one, but it does somewhat defeat the purpose of a “spiritual successor.”
The most successful spiritual successors are those that fully understand what made their inspirations great. BlazBlue is truly the best example of this, as it had the benefit of having the exact same creative team as Guilty Gear (albeit with Mori Toshimichi spearheading the writing while Ishiwatari Daisuke focused more fully on the series’s music). This has changed somewhat now that Guilty Gear has been revived, but originally BlazBlue took everything that made Guilty Gear fun and iterated on it while maintaining the same feel. Larger-than-life characters loosely inspired by popular culture? Check. Awesome rock-and-roll soundtrack? Check. Wacky-but-exciting sci-fi superhero story? Check. And—most importantly—top-notch, super tightly designed 2D fighting game foundation? Check.
BlazBlue is the “ideal” spiritual successor in that it has enough of its own identity to stand as a distinct offering from Guilty Gear, but it also has enough of Guilty Gear’s core to feel like a plausible iteration on the games in the older series. It rode that balance perfectly in the first few games, and then when ArcSys revived Guilty Gear BlazBlue started taking more risks and carving out its own unique place alongside the revamped version of the series that inspired it. BlazBlue is not without flaws, but as a spiritual successor to Guilty Gear it’s a home-run.
Fell Seal doesn’t have the head-start Blazblue did. Its development team has no connection to that of the games it’s emulating. It’s a two-person Kickstarter project. There’s no inherent reason it should be successful. And it manages to be among the best spiritual successors out there—and certainly the best follow-up to the Tactics games.
Fell Seal (and any other top-shelf spiritual successor) benefits from a fundamental understanding of what made its inspiration work and not work, and also of what inspired its inspiration. The game doesn’t just borrow from the Final Fantasy Tactics games—it borrows from other RPGs that fed into those games, including the original RPG, Dungeons & Dragons. Fell Seal supplements its Tactics-inspired ideas and mechanics with Dungeons & Dragons staples (and not-so-staples) that were nonetheless absent in Tactics. The Thief-equivalent class getting a representation of a D&D Rogue’s Sneak Attack feature is such a clever choice it seems wrong for the Tactics games to not have it. Fell Seal also allows full visual customization of generic units to allow players to create unique characters (again, D&D-style) and it feels as if it has everything a longtime D&D player would want to mess around with in the context of a Tactical RPG, from rocket boots to cursed swords to anything else.
I think the moment when this “drawing from the influence’s influences” clicked was when I walked into a shop in-game and the shopkeeper greeted me with the phrase “Be pleased.” It’s easy to move right past this without thinking anything of it—but it made me grin from ear to ear.
There’s a long-running D&D show that streams on Twitch (and is now a podcast) called Critical Role. It’s a D&D campaign played by a bunch of voice actors and run by the fabulous Matthew Mercer. It’s probably the most well-known D&D show out there, and Matthew Mercer’s DM-ing is something of an inspiration to pretty much every DM I know (myself included). The phrase “Be pleased” is something of a running gag from a section of Critical Role where the party travels to the desert city of Ank’Harel. The typical greeting within Ank’Harel is… “Be pleased.”
Additionally, the most prominent merchant figure in Critical Role is originally from the area around Ank’Harel, so when I saw a merchant in Fell Seal using the Ank’Harel greeting, I immediately thought of Critical Role’s Shaun Gilmore. It’s a tiny Easter egg, to be sure, but it speaks volumes about the game’s awareness of the sources that produced it.
There are all kinds of little things that make Fell Seal a great game, but it’s this awareness that makes it all possible. It knows where it comes from. It’s not simply trying to replicate and iterate upon Final Fantasy Tactics—it’s a game built in the way Tactics was built, looking at everything that came before and building the best game possible based on the experimentation of older works. And it’s incredibly successful.
On Intuitive Design
If you’ve played video games for a while, you’ve probably experienced a wide range of both intuitive and unintutive gameplay systems. Some games have pages and pages of bulky tutorial text and still leave you forgetting things and looking up controls, while others feature barely any direct instruction and are incredibly easy to pick up and play even after a long hiatus. Some of this is due to genre—action RPGs and some turn-based RPGs tend to be tricky to learn, while platformers and puzzle games are mostly fairly intuitive—but a lot of has to do with how the game teaches the player.
The textbook example of intuitive mechanical design is Portal. Aside from a few brief pop-up notifications indicating basic controls, the Portal games feature no formal tutorials. The game leads players to learn to solve complex, abstract physics-based puzzles through nothing more than slowly-compounding puzzle mechanics and subtle visual cues. A rusted ladder, for example, causes a player to instinctively look up, encouraging the player to think vertically. Visually distinct portal-ready surfaces lead to observation-based puzzle sequences where players have to search for similar surfaces in unfamiliar locations. Et cetera.
Portal’s approach to teaching players its mechanics serves three purposes. First, it avoids the boredom inherent in most formal tutorials. Second, it makes the game a lot more intuitive and a lot less frustrating than it might otherwise be—rather than reading about the game’s mechanics and being asked to immediately apply them to a fully-realized puzzle sequence, the game teaches the player organically, piece-by-piece. More importantly, perhaps, the game’s learning-by-doing approach makes the mechanics stick longer, so a player returning to the game after a long break is more likely to remember how the game works—a real challenge in many more traditionally designed games.
Part of the reason Portal is an interesting example of this is its mechanics are not inherently intuitive. The spatial thinking the game requires—placing portals on two surfaces to bridge spaces in creative ways—is entirely divorced from reality. Even with little grounding in expected physical behaviors, Portal is able to train players to understand its mechanics fairly quickly.
You can see a similar philosophy running underneath Super Mario Galaxy. Galaxy turned the typical norms of Mario games on their head by designing levels where gravity doesn’t always go down. This is hugely unusual, and the rules of when and how this applies in the game would be quite complex if you were to try to write them out in the abstract. As with Portal, though, the game makes this all feel intuitive using subtle visual cues. Rounded edges generally mark a change in the direction of gravity, while corners indicate a surface you can fall off of. A black hole indicates the presence of a deadly pit. Coins or other collectibles on the side or bottom of a platform hint that Mario can safely walk off the edge.
As with Portal, Galaxy takes inherently unrealistic mechanics and makes them feel natural and intuitive. Both Portal and Galaxy have other aspects that I would consider their “core” strengths, but their intuitive mechanics are absolutely a triumph and not something that happened by accident.
That said, both games are fundamentally built around movement, and movement tends to be fairly intuitive given enough time. Even playing something like Jet Set Radio, another movement-centric game that does far less to help the player learn, becomes second-nature after an hour or two with the game. The more technical a game’s systems, though, the more difficult this sort of intuitive player learning becomes.
This is often a problem with RPGs in particular. Many RPGs and Action RPGs spend much of the early game gradually introducing the player to new mechanics, usually through text boxes filled with technical details surrounding how the game works. When you play one of these game for the first time and all at once, this works well enough. On subsequent playthroughs, the tutorial segments are annoying, but not hugely problematic.
Where problems come up, though, is when you leave one of these games for a while and then try to come back later. Because the mechanics themselves are unintuitive and the tutorial method was also unintuitive, it can be a challenge to re-learn the game. I have this problem with the more recent Tales Of games in particular, as they’re filled with special techniques and mechanical quirks that add richness to the gameplay when you already know them but that are highly obtuse when you don’t. Playing the games straight through, you know what you have access to and you can use everything effectively, but after a hiatus it’s easy to forget key options and inadvertently make the game much more difficult. Controls and explanations of mechanics are buried deep within tutorial menus in the middle of pages and pages of text, making it even harder to find information about specific systems. Not fun.
I’ve yet to find an Action RPG that solves this perfectly. Some ARPGs avoid the problem by just being fairly simplistic (like Kingdom Hearts), but even the Kingdom Hearts games have a number of obscurities that can be problematic on higher difficulties, and on lower difficulties the simplicity can make the games mechanically boring. The World Ends With You is probably the closest to what I would consider the ideal in this regard, but that’s likely in part because I’ve played the game several times and know its mechanics like the back of my hand.
Turn-based RPGs fall into a nice middle-ground where, like Action RPGs, they often allow for a high degree of mechanical complexity, but unlike Action RPGs they aren’t (usually) bound by the constraints of a time-sensitive battle system and thus they can make more information available to the player at once. There are, of course, Turn-based RPGs with exceptionally complex and unintuitive battle systems that are difficult to return to after a hiatus (looking at you, Persona 2), but there are also a great many that have solved these problems in creative ways.
The key in the case of Turn-based RPGs tends to be contextual information displays. When the player highlights a skill, its effect should be displayed. Even better if the game also provides a damage estimate and an accuracy percentage. When the player highlights a character or enemy, its stats, strengths, and weaknesses should be displayed. There’s a point where it becomes too much information, of course, but generally speaking a smart contextual information display reduces cognitive load and lets players focus on the actual fun parts of the games—the strategic thinking.
More and more RPGs seem to be moving in this direction. There’s a big difference between something like Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and Shin Megami Tensei IV or Persona 5. Even just in terms of skill usage, Nocturne forces the player to remember enemy weaknesses and resistances, as it provides no visual indication of enemy vulnerabilities. In Shin Megami Tensei IV and Persona 5, by contrast, once the player sees an enemy’s weaknesses or resistances the first time, the targeting cursor changes to reflect those weaknesses and resistances on all future turns and encounters, speeding things up and making it a lot easier to come back to the game after a break.
These sorts of systems do make the games easier, but the difficulty they take out isn’t fun difficulty—it’s just annoyance and tedium. The end result is the same as if the player were to take notes on a physical notepad while playing. It saves the player time and frustration, which is a full win, on-balance.
Making games more mechanically intuitive reduces friction and helps pacing. It makes it so players are more likely to continue playing and more likely to come back to a game after dropping it. It’s something that’s often overlooked, but it adds a ton to overall player experience.
I’ve been interested for a while in writing about a certain character from Fate/Extra CCC, and particularly how she ties narrative elements to strictly mechanical level design. As it happens, the character—one Jinako Carigiri—made a reappearance last week in the fourth chapter of Fate/Grand Order: Cosmos in the Lostbelt, Yuga Kshetra. Jinako’s role in Yuga Kshetra is a really excellent example of how to reuse a character with an already-complete character arc in a later work, so I’ve decided to take this opportunity to roll the two topics into one.
Jinako starts off as something of a cliché. She’s both a “hikikomori” and a “Neet”—terms that are sometimes used interchangeably but technically mean different things. The term “hikikomori” is a nominalization of the verb “hikikomoru,” which means to physically hide away or seal oneself off. Hikikomori are people who never leave their homes. It’s something of a social phenomenon and issue in Japan right now and as a result the character type pops up in Japanese fiction with some regularity. They’re often portrayed in fiction as having some form of agoraphobia, though I don’t know how strongly agoraphobia and being a hikikomori are correlated in reality.
The term “Neet,” on the other hand, is an acronym for “Not in Education, Employment, or Training.” It basically just means “unemployed,” though it typically has the connotation in Japanese fiction of “someone who plays games and surfs the web all day without actually doing anything productive.” Jinako is both a hikikomori and a Neet, but the two terms don’t necessarily have to go together—someone can never leave home but still be employed (such as in a work-from-home situation), and someone can be unemployed but nonetheless spend a fair bit of time outside.
Long story short, Jinako is an immediately recognizable character type. She fits all the usual clichés associated with hikikomori Neet characters—an unhealthy fondness for junk food, esoteric computer skills, a love of video games, extreme-but-high-energy social awkwardness, and so on. What makes Jinako particularly interesting, though—and the key element that carries over to Persona 5’s Futaba Sakura, who is likely modeled after Jinako—is the way her character develops.
For the first half of CCC, Jinako adheres closely to her trope. She’s relatively unfriendly and she only takes action after much prodding. In CCC’s fourth chapter, though—the point where Jinako comes into focus—things change somewhat.
Although it’s not initially visible, Jinako is a character who feels trapped by forces beyond her control and who despairs at her own uselessness. Her parents died in a car accident when she was young, and the combination of their life insurance and her inheritance ensured she would never be in danger of financial ruin so long as she lived frugally. Teenage Jinako, traumatized by the sudden loss of her family and support network, saw this as a blessing—rather than face the world, she was able to retreat into her own home indefinitely. She didn’t “need” to go out into the world in order to maintain her lifestyle, so she just… didn’t.
Over time, though, she grew less and less satisfied with her life of endless leisure, and by the time in which CCC was set—as Jinako was approaching her 30’s—she found herself despairing at her decade of wasted time. She wanted to make her life meaningful, but she had neither the experience nor the connections necessary to find worthwhile work, and as a result she felt trapped. Prior to the beginning of CCC, Jinako took a single step toward her goal of finding meaning, but immediately she became overwhelmed by the world outside of herself and retreated into a prison of her own making, deeper in despair than before.
Jinako covers this with a self-deprecating levity through the first three chapters of CCC, but at the beginning of the fourth chapter, CCC’s secondary antagonist (BB) brings Jinako into direct awareness of her own despair, and her demeanor changes entirely. Jinako sinks fully into apparent depression, and her story chapter begins.
Each chapter of CCC features three dungeon floors followed by a chapter boss. Each floor reflects an aspect of the chapter boss’s psyche, with the entire chapter serving to make the chapter boss accept the feelings or sentiments she has been repressing. If this sounds familiar, it’s ripped more-or-less wholesale from Persona 4—CCC borrows several key ideas from the Persona games that precede it, and then Persona 5 steals Jinako from CCC (to the point that Futaba even has the same voice actress). There’s a definite give-and-take happening here.
The first three chapters of CCC are fairly straightforward in terms of dungeon design. They do have a few clever gimmicks or puzzles that relate to the chapter boss’s character arc, but for the most part they’re straightforward dungeon-crawling segments punctuated by narration. Standard fare.
What makes Jinako’s chapter so memorable, though, is the way it subverts both the structure of the game to that point and typical conventions of RPG dungeons in the service of developing her character.
The first floor is a meandering path filled with signposts covered in misinformation. Things like, “There’s a powerful enemy ahead, so you should turn back,” or, “The area up ahead is a complex maze, so you should give up.” While a typical RPG might use this as a puzzle—having signs that say, for example, “The left path is the correct path” when the right path instead leads onward—here it’s strictly narrative. The path forward is clear and obvious throughout. The significance of the signs is less the misinformation they provide and more their attempts to discourage the protagonist.
This operates on a few levels. On the surface it’s emblematic of Jinako’s perceived laziness. Rather than actually create a complicated labyrinth to keep the protagonist out, she created a simple hallway and just filled it with discouraging lies. She couldn’t be bothered to put effort into making her maze challenging—all she could do was lie about its difficulty. This emphasizes her “uselessness,” though I think the point is not that Jinako is useless but rather that she perceives herself as such.
More importantly, though, this section of dungeon-crawling is a metaphor for how Jinako experiences her life. Even simple, easy tasks appear daunting and nearly impossible, and every step along the way induces the temptation to turn back. A straightforward path is as intimidating as a maze. A small roadblock looks like a gigantic monster. Et cetera. Rather than presenting a gameplay challenge, the floor is an experiential analogue to moving through life with anxiety or depression.
Jinako’s second floor, then, twists things even further. Instead of the long, twisty hallways typical of every chapter thus far, the second floor is just a huge, empty square. There’s no obvious way forward—it’s a floor where you feel simultaneously lost and trapped, just like Jinako does. This floor then subverts the game thus far further by having Jinako narrate a significant section of it—CCC’s first notable example of a narrative perspective shift.
And then there’s the third floor. The third floor is somewhat more normal except for the very end—the floor’s exit is protected by a barrier that will kill anyone that passes through it. This floor represents Jinako’s sense that her actions are futile and her life meaningless. No matter what she does, the only way her life can end is with her death. This is the thing that most firmly stops Jinako from taking action. She deeply desires some form of meaning in her life, but she also feels that the world is inherently meaningless and thus that nothing she does can possibly create meaning.
Jinako is ultimately persuaded to open up and take action regardless—primarily through the help of another character, Karna. Karna is a hero from the ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata. He is in many ways the opposite of Jinako—infinitely selfless, enormously competent, a hero who lived a full, meaningful life. It is his support and encouragement that enables Jinako’s eventual reversal. Jinako holds Karna in enormously high regard, and his unfailing support ultimately inspires her to continue to try to take action, even if she doesn’t find the answers that allow her to resolve her anxieties.
Jinako’s character arc in CCC is interesting in that it doesn’t resolve to the degree that one typically might expect. Jinako doesn’t suddenly find all her answers and go from being an anguished, deeply flawed person to a heroic figure or anything. All her chapter really represents is an early stumble in the course of her overall journey towards self-betterment. It’s surprisingly subtle in a game that (and I don’t mean this negatively) is not especially subtle as a whole.
And then, six years later, Jinako resurfaced in Fate/Grand Order. Each Nasuverse work exists in its own timeline, so even when familiar characters show up in FGO they typically function essentially as cameos—the characters don’t “canonically” experience the events of FGO within their home works, which keeps each Nasuverse work isolated, as it should be.
Jinako, however, is a special case. The Jinako who appears in Yuga Kshetra is the exact same character as from CCC. CCC’s secondary antagonist—the aforementioned BB—has the ability to transcend timelines, and after the events of CCC she sent Jinako from CCC’s world to FGO’s, which means Yuga Kshetra is canonically a follow-up to Jinako’s story arc in CCC.
This works because Jinako’s character arc was technically left unfinished. CCC did everything for Jinako it needed to—we didn’t need to see her arrive at her answers in order for her development to feel complete and satisfying—but there was room leftover to explore Jinako’s full growth as a person, and that’s exactly what Yuga Kshetra does.
When Jinako first appears in Yuga Kshetra, she’s reluctant to do anything at all. It takes a reunion with Karna to motivate Jinako to continue pushing towards her own personal growth. As the chapter develops, she fades into the background somewhat, doing very little and growing more and more frustrated with her inability to make an impact. Meanwhile, several other characters grapple with the meaning of taking action in an inherently meaningless world, with the overall sentiment expressed most concisely by a line from the character Lakshmibai: “I do not take action because my cause is meaningful; my cause is meaningful because I take action.”
In other words, Jinako’s traveling companions struggle with the same anxieties that colored Jinako’s CCC arc, and the conclusion they come to is that meaning can be created through action even if those actions are not intrinsically meaningful. This is not lost on Jinako, and near the end of the chapter she steps up and volunteers herself for a horrific mental trial necessary to the heroes’ goals. She survives this trial, of course, and after she finishes Karna commends her for her work, acknowledging her not only as a worthwhile human being but as a hero worthy of standing beside him as equals.
Jinako is, of course, moved to tears.
Jinako’s combined development in CCC and Yuga Kshetra sees her coming from a position of total incompetence and emotional paralysis and ending as a proactive, positive person capable of standing as equals with her hero and role model. It is, if nothing else, heartwarming.
At the end of Yuga Kshetra, rather than permanently joining FGO’s main characters (as most new servants do when story chapters end), Jinako chooses to travel through parallel worlds, seeing as many different places and perspectives as she can, and learning as much as possible. In other words, she quite literally breaks out of her own world—the ultimate victory for a character whose defining trait once was locking herself in a storage closet and refusing to leave out of fear.
Don't Tell the Secret
Spoilers are something of a perennial annoyance in online communities. Most people like to read or watch things without knowing about any twists or secrets beforehand, and there’s a sense that knowing the ending in advance can somehow “ruin” a book, movie, or game. Temporary prohibitions on spoilers in the period following the release of something popular—the most recent Avengers movie, for instance—are common.
The idea of “spoilers” is an interesting phenomenon. If you look at literature that’s more than, say, fifty years old, knowing the outcome in advance typically becomes considerably less of an issue. In some cases this is, of course, because the “twists” are such common knowledge that everyone has already been spoiled—no one reading Romeo and Juliet in the modern day will be surprised when the two die in the end, for instance—but even in cases where a typical reader might not already be familiar with the work, knowing the outcome in advance doesn’t meaningfully impact the enjoyment of a work. Something like Huckleberry Finn is just as strong and engaging no matter how much of the plot you know going into it.
An argument that occasionally pops up around spoilers is that if a work is strong enough, spoilers shouldn’t diminish its value. Put another way, if the only merit in reading something is to experience the twists and surprises, the work is probably hackish and not worth reading anyway. The great works of classic literature don’t rely on heavy-handed plotting and gimmicky twists to be good, so spoilers can’t damage an already strong work, right?
There is an element of this that’s true, I think. Even in the case of modern works that are most vulnerable to spoilers—mysteries, for instance—the best ones are worth reading even if you know the twists in advance. Danganronpa V3, for example, is full of major twists and surprises just waiting to be spoiled, but the game has such thorough narrative and thematic strength that even with the element of surprise entirely removed it would be worth playing.
The issue with this is that it implies the existence of once strength (strong writing independent of plot twists) negates the possibility that there might be value in the elements of the experience that are lost when a work is spoiled. Spoilers are most problematic in cases where a reader’s first experience with a work will be measurably different from subsequent experiences and where (most crucially) that first experience is intentionally cultivated by the author such that it plays into the thematic message and core strength of the overall work.
In fairness, there aren’t many works for which this really holds true. In order for spoilers to meaningfully diminish the value of a work that is strong beyond its surprises, the work’s author needs to have created the work with careful attention to the likely expectations and beliefs of the audience. There has to be a set of intended assumptions that color audience interpretations of the work, and the spoilers must subvert those assumptions in such a way that the meaning of the work becomes obscured.
Danganronpa V3 is, again, a good example of this. Without going into detail (for fear of spoilers), the game carefully manipulates player expectations in such a way that the resolution of the game’s mysteries calls the player to question certain core assumptions that extend beyond the literal plot of the game. The game tricks the player into accepting certain fallacious lines of thinking and then later reveals that thinking to be false, drawing attention to the ways it tricked the player in order to get the player to examine other instances outside the game where similar fallacies might color perception.
If a player goes into the game knowing in advance what will happen, the player never experiences getting “tricked” and therefore never has the opportunity to think on the broader implications of the game’s misdirections. As the game uses its plot twists to advance its thematic ideas, spoiling the plot weakens that first experience with the game.
Moreover, that first experience colors and contextualizes subsequent readings of the game. Having had that blind first experience, the player is better able to appreciate the nuances and tricky intricacies of the game’s writing. To spoil the game is to permanently deny a player the full range of experience the game is meant to provide. In this sense, at least, spoilers are absolutely damaging to an extent that is neither the fault of the player nor of the work.
Additionally, there are plenty of works meant solely to entertain where spoiling certain plot elements seriously diminishes the work’s entertainment value. This is in some cases a sign of weak plotting, but in others it can be a result of structural or narrative creativity, especially in works that center on subverting a set of audience expectations in a crucial way. To spoil such a work is to do a disservice to anyone who wishes to experience it as intended.
Generally speaking, authors assume their audiences will experience their works in a particular order and write based on that assumption. It is entirely fair to want to respect the author’s intent and to avoid coloring perceptions of a work with prior knowledge. It may not matter for everything, but for some things it matters a great deal.
A Century of Nationalism
The advantage of being on summer break is I have time to dig a little deeper into my backlog of games than I normally do. This week—after finally finishing Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth—I picked up my mostly-unplayed copy of Great Ace Attorney 2, the second in a series spun off from the murder-mystery-slash-legal-drama visual novels that are Ace Attorney.
The Great Ace Attorney games are something of a reboot of the series. While the main series Ace Attorney games continue under a new creative team, the series’s original creator, Takumi Shu, wanted to move on to a fully new setting and set of characters, and thus Great Ace Attorney was born. The Great Ace Attorney games are set in the late Meiji Period—starting in the fall of 1902, specifically—and while the protagonist is a distant relation of the original Ace Attorney’s protagonist, the gap of a full 100 years ensures there’s no character overlap.
The series’s setting is its core strength. Takumi leans fully into the geopolitical dynamics of the day, portraying a time when Japan had already come a long way in the process of modernization and was continuing to push itself further, a time when Japan was striving to earn recognition as an equal player on the world stage. The basic premise is that a group of young Japanese legal scholars travel to London to learn about England’s legal system—the sort of thing that did happen in the Meiji period—and while the focus of the games remains on the individual mysteries, the historical context informs every case.
The Ace Attorney games in general are, to put it lightly, thematically unambitious. I really like them—they’re highly enjoyable mysteries—but they are meant exclusively to entertain. It was, for this reason, extremely interesting to me to see Great Ace Attorney grapple with historical ideas and geopolitical power dynamics, even if tangentially. It was a direction in which the series had never gone, and even though it didn’t really say anything, the fact that it was present at all added a bit of nuance to the first game.
The second, though, takes this a step further. Great Ace Attorney 2 was released in 2017, at a time when nationalistic tendencies were straining international relations across the globe and when Japan’s relationship with South Korea in particular was moving towards its lowest point in recent memory. The game’s first case—the only one I’ve read thus far—takes place back in Japan, following the first game’s secondary character rather than its hero. It seems at first to be a fairly straightforward case, but a certain twist near the end casts the thing in a somewhat more interesting light.
Essentially, the victim is an Englishwoman set to be extradited from Tokyo to Shanghai, where she is to face murder charges in a British-run court. The woman has already acknowledged her guilt to the Japanese authorities, but there remains some doubt as to whether the court in Shanghai will find the evidence gathered in Japan persuasive, and the woman believes she has a chance of getting away with her crime. The killer, then, takes it upon himself to kill the woman before she can leave Japan in order to ensure “justice” is served.
His reason for doing so is couched in what amounts to nationalism. A running gag in the Ace Attorney games is the killers’ dramatic breakdowns when they lose a trial. In this case, the killer launches into a rambling tirade about his motivations that scrolls by so fast it’s nearly impossible to read. If you look at the game’s backlog, however, you see a defense that echoes Japan’s frustrations in the half-century leading up to World War II. The culprit says, in essence, that a “civilized nation” shouldn’t have to bow its head submissively to the other nations of the world, and that Japan should have the authority to handle crimes committed on its own soil.
He is, in other words, frustrated with Japan’s lack of international recognition. After he calms down, he starts to explain his reasoning more thoroughly, expressing a desire for justice and a fear that the Englishwoman would have gone unpunished otherwise. He claims to have been acting from a standpoint of moral outrage.
The defense attorney for the case, however, interrupts his attempts at justification in order to assert that at the point he killed the woman and tried to frame someone else, he lost all right to speak about morality. In other words, there is a line that, when crossed, outweighs any possibly-legitimate grievances.
This is, I think, meant as something of a criticism of both Japan’s imperial history and the Japanese government’s response to South Korea’s recent anger. In other words, even though Japan had legitimate grievances on the international stage in the pre-WWII period, the country’s actions in China and Korea in particular were so horrific as to firmly establish Japan as being entirely “in the wrong” regardless. The sentiments expressed by the case’s killer—who is himself fascinated by “isms” of all types—are essentially the beginnings of what would develop into Japanese ultranationalism in the buildup to World War II.
This is, as I understand it, something of a politically sensitive topic in Japan. It is extremely rare for it to show up in popular media—the only other example I can think of offhand is Miyazaki Hayao’s The Wind Rises—so to see it addressed in Ace Attorney of all things came as something of a shock. I’ll be curious to see whether the game and series continue with the idea or if it was just a one-off.
Detective fiction in general is not known for expressing sweeping societal criticisms or nuanced thematic ideas, but that certainly doesn’t mean it can’t. You see this somewhat more often—the idea of developing theme through mystery conceits—in Japanese fiction than elsewhere, I think, largely because of the influence of Edogawa Ranpo. Sometimes called the father of the Japanese mystery novel, Ranpo wrote “mysteries” that were more societal critiques than they were true mysteries, applying the twisty, suspenseful writing typical of detective fiction in order to paint a picture of a society that was unsettled and off-balance (primarily in the pre-WWII period, interestingly enough). Ranpo’s approach to writing mysteries has been profoundly influential on Japanese detective fiction as a whole, and his style still pops up here and there. Great Ace Attorney might be a similar case.
Regardless, it’s an impressive departure from Ace Attorney’s typical form, and I have to say I am impressed thus far.
As one final note, I will be on vacation during the next two weeks and as such will not be able to write my usual blog posts. Expect the next post on Monday, June 17th.
A Defense of Skyward Sword
It’s been almost eight years since The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword released for the Nintendo Wii. When I first played the game back in 2011, it quickly established itself as my favorite Zelda game—which is something of an unpopular opinion in 2019, to put it lightly. Skyward Sword tends to get more criticism in online communities than any of the other 3D Zelda games, and it’s common to see it listed as the worst of the bunch. This is directly at odds with my experience playing the game almost a decade ago, so I decided to replay the game from start to finish to see if my opinion of the game would change, informed by both a broader base of completed Zelda games and a better understanding of games in general.
Long story short, my estimation of the game stands.
There are without question a lot of things wrong with Skyward Sword. Replaying the game has given me a better appreciation for the reasons many people dislike the game, and I could easily write a full post on the ways the game doesn’t quite measure up, but even so, it remains my favorite game in the series. The game doesn’t always work, but when it does work, it works brilliantly. It’s an ambitious game full of risky design choices, and it’s successful more often than not. I’m willing to forgive the game’s weaker moments—the repetitive Imprisoned fights, the boring sky sequences, and so on—because the elements the game gets right are the best the series has to offer.
My goal with this post is to go through the things the game does well, drawing attention to the ways Skyward Sword differentiates itself from the rest of the series. There are a number of things the game does well that other Zelda games also do well, so the focus here will be on the elements that make Skyward Sword unique—the things that put it above the other games in the series and solidify it as my favorite Zelda game.
But First, the Motion Controls
Skyward Sword is a game built around motion controls. If the motion controls don’t work for you for one reason or another, you will not like the game. This is the case for many of the game’s harshest detractors, I think, and the complaint is fair. If you can’t acclimate to the control system, you can’t enjoy the rest of what the game has to offer.
That said, in both my original playthrough of the game and my more recent one, I had no issues with the motion controls. They may not have worked perfectly, but they worked well enough for the creativity and novelty of the system to outweigh the occasional annoyance of a misplaced sword swing.
As I wrote above, Skyward Sword is a highly ambitious game, and much of its ambition comes in the form of its control scheme. Every single element of the control scheme relies on motion controls in full or in part. This could easily have been a recipe for disaster—plenty of motion-control-centric games just aren’t fun—but in this game the integration of the motion controls is natural enough that what usually plays as an annoying gimmick is actually fun.
Skyward Sword was designed around the promise of 1-to-1 swordplay. It was envisioned as a game where you could hold the Wii remote in front of you at any angle, and Link would move his sword to match. The game doesn’t offer quite that exact level of flexibility, but it does register eight directional sword swings, as well as a thrust, based on how you move the Wii remote. The game makes full use of this, and it’s full of enemies who require carefully-oriented sword strikes to defeat. Where combat in most Zelda games—most action games in general, really—fall into a pattern of “wait for an opening and then strike,” Skyward Sword challenges players to identify weak points in an opponent’s guard and target those points. Is there a hole in the center of the enemy’s armor? Go for a thrust. Is the enemy holding his sword to parry attacks from the left? Strike from the right.
The end result is a combat system that’s far more engaging and difficult than in any other Zelda game. You still have classic-style enemies and bosses, too—the “use an item to make a weakness and then slash wildly” types—but the real highlights are the direct swordfights. The three fights against Ghirahim, in particular, are a joy, as they fully make use of the motion control combat system to create the sensation of a true swordfight while also requiring the sort of pattern recognition and on-the-fly puzzle solving Zelda bosses are known for.
There’s also a duel with a robot pirate where you have to push him off the plank and into the ocean below, and it’s amazing.
The tracking isn’t perfect, and I would often attempt to swing from one direction and accidentally trigger a swing in another direction entirely, but I was very rarely frustrated with the mechanics. When it’s working—and it usually is—it’s unique, novel, and incredibly cool.
An Actual Narrative
Zelda games aren’t known for their storytelling, and I don’t go into a Zelda game expecting narrative excellence. That said, Skyward Sword makes an attempt at storytelling beyond what’s typical of the series, and it’s largely successful. The game’s narrative isn’t anything particularly fancy, but it humanizes Link and Zelda to an extent rarely seen in the series, primarily by establishing an existing and personal connection between the two in the first hour or so of the game. The friendship between the two characters—and a desire to reunite—serves as the primary motivator for the eventual quest rather than the more abstract concept of “saving the world.” The character motivations function as a more grounded foundation for the game as a whole than most Zelda games can offer.
The game then proceeds to subvert the expectations established in the rest of the series in subtle ways. Zelda isn’t a damsel-in-distress—in fact, initially she’s the one on a quest to save the world, and Link is just trying to catch up to her. There’s a really fantastic moment early in the game where Link almost reaches her, but her escort—a woman named Impa—stops him, telling him that he’s too late. He failed to protect her early in the game and therefore lost his right to be her guardian. It’s pretty gutsy for the game to say this directly to the player, and I couldn’t help but chuckle when I reached this point on my recent playthrough.
Despite being a silent protagonist in Skyward Sword, Link retains his own personality and character arc, developed primarily through the words of the other characters. He’s not quite the blank-slate player insert Link’s other iterations are. Instead we have a more complete hero’s journey, with established and multifaceted personal goals, as well as notable setbacks. Skyward Sword Link isn’t an especially unusual or nuanced protagonist by the standards of video gaming as a whole, but he does have far more texture than most other interpretations of Link, which is cool.
The game also benefits from a major-minor side character with an actual character arc—a serious rarity in the Zelda games. Skyward Sword’s Groose is introduced as an arrogant, self-absorbed jock-type character. His antics provide the primary elements of conflict in the first hour or so of the game, and he seems like nothing more than a comic-relief nuisance.
But then, about a third of the way through the game, Groose follows Link down from their home above the clouds to the surface world. Groose is stunned by how big the world is, and by all the strange and unfamiliar things it contains. He sees Link fight off the imprisoned form of the game’s big bad, Malice, and he is struck by his own unearned arrogance and his past uselessness.
Groose then reappears later having developed a system to help keep Malice under control. His time on the surface, and his experiences meeting those who live on the world below, inspire him to reform himself. By the end of the game, he’s still the same ridiculous, haughty character he was before, but he’s much more self-aware, and he works to help others rather than just himself.
Again, this isn’t all that unusual of a character arc in the broader sense, but for Zelda it’s highly unique and quite refreshing. Skyward Sword’s story and characters wouldn’t stand on their own, but they provide a wonderful backdrop for what is primarily a gameplay-driven game. They don’t get in the way of the meat of the game, but they do make the game richer.
Ghirahim and Fi
You can’t talk about the good parts of Skyward Sword without addressing the fabulous demon sword that is Ghirahim. Ghirahim is the game’s main antagonist (even though Malice is ostensibly the real threat and also the final boss). Ghirahim is an incarnation of Malice’s sword, and his whole goal is just to revive Malice. Ghirahim could easily have been a boring character—the “revive the big bad” goal has been done to death—but Ghirahim has so much personality he gets away with having a textbook generic villain scheme.
Every element of Ghirahim’s design is fantastic. He’s visually interesting, with his odd costuming and his diamond-shaped particle effects giving him a disctint visual character. His animations are fantastic, filled with strange gestures and poses that feel like something out of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. Most importantly, though, his dialogue is phenomenal. Ghirahim’s dialogue oozes a casual flamboyance that makes him impossible to dislike even as he’s insulting Link and trying to destroy the world. He’s an unapologetically fun character, and he’s easily the most interesting villain in the series if only for that reason.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the much-maligned Fi. Fi is the navigator character in Skyward Sword, and she’s often listed as one of the primary reasons people dislike the game, along with the motion controls. This is partially because Fi tends to interrupt the player to draw attention to things that really don’t need to be noted—I’m still not sure why she feels the need to observe that the very obvious boss doors probably have something important behind them—but her issues run deeper than that.
Fi was probably meant to be a foil to Ghirahim. As Ghirahim is Malice’s sword, Fi is Link’s. She is the spirit of the Master Sword, able to take human form to give Link advice and to channel messages from the goddess Hylia. Like Ghirahim, her design, animations, and dialogue are remarkably distinct. Her art is pretty good, I think, but unfortunately, her dialogue falls flat. While Ghirahim is strikingly—perhaps exaggeratedly--human, Fi is mechanical, robotic. Her dialogue is intentionally stilted, and her incessant tendency to list the odds of random things makes her feel like an off-brand C-3PO. Any time Fi speaks, the game drags.
Ghirahim acts human but ultimately behaves fully mechanically, unhesitatingly working towards Malice’s revival with no thought to personal desires or meaning. Ghirahim actually succeeds at his goal, completely and without qualification—Link ultimately beats Malice, but Ghirahim’s goal was just to summon Malice and had no real requirements beyond that—but in his moment of success Ghirahim seems dissatisfied. He loses his final duel against Link, but he manages to buy just enough time to allow Malice to be reborn. Rather than relish the fact that he succeeded at reviving his master, though, he expresses frustration and confusion at his inability to fully best Link—and then Malice rips Ghirahim’s soul out of his body.
Fi then has a scene at the very end of the game, when she is going to be sealed permanently within the Master Sword, where she basically says she followed Link not just because it was her duty but also because she wanted to, and where she indicates that she has developed a sense of emotion. This paints her as a reversal of Ghirahim. He acted out of direct obligation, while she acted out of emotional loyalty. She ends the game satisfied, while he ends the game dissatisfied—even though both technically succeeded at their stated goals.
This link isn’t developed well enough to be effective. I think if Fi’s emotional development had taken place over the course of the whole game, rather than right at the end, and if Fi and Ghirahim had actually spoken to each other about these ideas, Fi would have been a much more effective character. As it is, we’re left with one sword who’s forgettable-to-annoying, and one who’s absolutely fantastic but lacking a strong foil.
This is another situation where I’m willing to overlook the game’s weaknesses because of the height of its strengths. Fi could have been a lot better, sure, but Ghirahim is already highly entertaining, and I’ll take the strength of Ghirahim’s character over the weaker antagonists of the other Zelda games even if it means I also have to deal with Fi.
A Little Old For My Taste
One thing I noticed on my recent playthrough of the game that I thought was particularly interesting—and really liked—is the way Skyward Sword builds its world. Skyward Sword is the most linear of the 3D Zelda games, forgoing an actual overworld (unless you count the sky, and nobody counts the sky) in favor of three disconnected areas that you explore in an essentially linear fashion. While this pretty much completely eliminates any sense of exploration, it gave the developers a lot more flexibility to tell the story of the world through the elements of the places the player visits. As each element of the world will be seen in a particular order, the world-building becomes its own form of linear narrative.
Skyward Sword capitalizes on its structure to use its world as an avenue to reflect on the concepts of history and time. Skyward Sword is currently the earliest game in the Zelda series timeline—none of the other games are set earlier in the history of the world. Rather than fill the game with Easter eggs and teasers for later games, though, the developers opted to create a game that is primarily concerned with the past. Despite being set at the earliest point in the timeline, the game is filled with ancient ruins, fallen societies, old legends, and so on. The first inhabitant of the surface world Link meets is an archaeologist, and an archaeological feel pervades the whole game. The first dungeon is a temple the aforementioned archaeologist is interested in mapping. The second dungeon is an ancient ruin filled with treasure-hunting moles exploring the place—and it even has an Indiana-Jones-esque boulder segment. (The boulder then rolls into the next room, where Ghirahim animates it and turns it into the boss fight, which is pretty amusing).
The third section of the game is where this gets interesting, though. The central premise of the third area is that a civilization of robots destroyed the environment by mining a source of energy to excess. What once was a lush province turned into a scorching desert, and everyone living there died out.
To be honest, I never thought a Zelda game would include commentary on climate change, and yet here we are.
The area is interesting from a mechanical standpoint—it’s filled with stones you can hit to “shift” the area back to the past in order to solve puzzles—but there’s something subtly grim about speaking with the area’s residents only to watch them turn to skeletons and petrified lumps of metal when you turn off the nearby timeshift stones. The area is also filled with industrial imagery, from conveyor belts to exhaust chimneys to huge metal shipping containers. It’s nothing like anything in any other Zelda game, but it doesn’t feel out-of-place either. It’s just… a bit of a surprise. In a good way.
I’m not entirely sure why the game is so interested in history. It’s all subtle enough that it can be interpreted in a variety of ways—and I’m not confident enough in any one interpretation to expand on one here—but the fact remains that there is a consistent theme underneath all of the level design and world building, which definitely sets Skyward Sword apart.
The Spider's Thread
The biggest reason I love Skyward Sword, though, is its dungeon design. The dungeons are full of interesting environments and puzzles, and they’re definitely the highlight of the game. I wish there were more of them, but at the same time, with seven dungeons, Skyward Sword is already ahead of most of the 3D Zeldas in terms of dungeon count.
Just as the game’s overall world has unifying themes and concepts, the dungeons also share similarities. Where most Zelda games feature an eclectic mix of dungeons with varying premises and architectural styles, Skyward Sword’s all have ambiguously East-Asian architecture. This plays out in varying degrees of directness, ranging from small details in the textures lining the walls and floors to a dungeon that’s a Buddhist temple in all but name.
The Buddhist temple dungeon is called Ancient Cistern, and it happens to be my favorite dungeon in the entire series. It’s also a great example of why I enjoy Skyward Sword’s dungeon design so much. The dungeon is built around a central puzzle—a statue of the Buddha that you raise and lower to proceed through the dungeon. This is visually neat, if nothing else—and the Ancient Cistern is an exceptionally pretty dungeon—but the dungeon as a whole plays with Buddhist concepts and stories in a way that makes it an absolute joy to play through, especially if you’re familiar with what it’s based on.
The majority of the dungeon has the look of a typical-if-exaggerated Buddhist temple. The central statue is surrounded by a pond with lily pads and lotus flowers floating here and there. You progress through side hallways to open new pathways, and the dungeon’s puzzles are fairly clever. There are also some crafty details scattered about—there are silver rupees (worth 100 of the game’s currency) sitting above the Buddha’s palms, for example, but if you try to take them the statue grabs you and throws you across the room.
The dungeon really comes into its own, though, when you fall down to the basement floor. Initially you’re washed into an underground jail cell, and you have to use the dungeon’s whip item to steal a key from the jailer and escape—a clever touch in itself—but then before you climb out you see through a window into the rest of the basement floor, which is roughly inspired by interpretations of the Buddhist underworld. Neat!
It gets better, though. In the jailbreak sequence, there are spider enemies that you have to drop onto lily pads to open the way forward. The spider enemies dangle from the ceiling from a single thread, and you have to use a certain item to cut the thread. This calls to mind a short story written by Akutagawa Ryuunosuke in 1918 where the Buddha looks through a lotus-filled pond into hell, takes pity on someone he sees down there, and extends a single spider’s thread to help the person escape. The person starts climbing, but others start climbing after him, and the first climber tries to kick them off the thread—but the shaking from his kicking motion snaps the thread, sending everyone back down to the ground below.
I wasn’t familiar with this story when I first played the game, so replaying the game and discovering that Ancient Cistern was as a whole based around a short story from an author I’ve studied in my undergraduate classes made me smile.
After escaping from jail, you get access to the switch that lowers the Buddha statue, and its feet touch down in the underworld. You climb out of the statue and fight your way through the underworld, looking for yet another exit—and eventually you come to a circular room with a single spider’s thread dangling from above. True to the dungeon’s influence, when you start climbing the rope, a horde of zombies start climbing after you. The rope doesn’t break—perhaps because Link isn’t a bad person?—but the whole scene is ripped straight from Akutagawa’s classic story, and it’s absolutely brilliant.
The dungeon’s boss key is underneath the Buddha statue’s feet, so you have to lift the statue up, go back down to the underworld area via the thread, and return to the statue area to get the key. Upon retrieving the key, though, another horde of the zombie enemies appears, and the statue overhead starts to descend. For me, there was a moment of panic where I worried I would be unable to defeat all of the enemies in time—followed by a realization that the way out of the pit wasn’t barred.
As soon as you run out of the shadow of the statue, the Buddha statue finishes its descent, crushing all the undead creatures underfoot. It’s simultaneously a clever timed puzzle, a neat play on Buddhist thought, and a hilarious visual gag. There would be no better way to end the dungeon.
In some ways it’s a little odd to see a section of the game that’s based so directly on Buddhism and on a real-world work of Japanese fiction, given Zelda’s general lack of references to real-world literature, but I would say this speaks more to a relative lack of creativity elsewhere in the series than to a weakness of Skyward Sword. While Ancient Cistern is the top of the pack, all of Skyward Sword’s dungeons have some sort of story or unusual concept to them. They aren’t just a set of trials leading up to a MacGuffin, which makes them considerably more interesting than your typical Zelda fare.
A Few Closing Remarks
This is far from an exhaustive list of the things that make Skyward Sword great. I could go into detail about its pseudo-impressionist art style, or about how it’s the first Zelda game to record its music live, or about its clever sidequests—but this post has gone on for long enough already, and you probably get the idea by now.
The long and short of it is the game tries to do a whole bunch of really interesting and unusual things, and they mostly work. The motion controls can be clunky at times, but for the most part they’re novel, distinct, and fun. Fi is a weak character, but in exchange we get Ghirahim, Groose, and so on. The lack of an overworld means the game loses the fun of exploration, but as a result the experience is much more focused and faster-paced than most other Zelda games.
Skyward Sword is a game of trade-offs, and I can understand not liking it, especially if you’re a longtime Zelda fan. Skyward Sword followed what was probably the “safest” and least-ambitious game in the series--Twilight Princess could easily have been billed as a re-imagining of Ocarina of Time—and if you went into Skyward Sword expecting another game in that vein, you would have been disappointed. But for everything the game removes, or skips, or messes up, there’s twice as much that’s been added, or expanded, or improved. Skyward Sword is not trying to do “everything a Zelda game should do” in the way a game like Twilight Princess does, but in exchange it expands upon its elements of focus—its combat, its world, and its dungeon design—in ways that make for an exceptionally strong overall experience.
It is, in some ways, similar in philosophy to its immediate successor, Breath of the Wild. Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild are ostensibly opposite games. Skyward Sword is a highly linear game with barely any exploration. It’s built around direct, controlled, and continuous development of its narrative and mechanical concepts. Breath of the Wild, on the other hand, is focused on exploration and experimentation at the expense of everything else. The two games are unified, though, in the way they eschew series conventions and focus intensely on specific aspects of the Zelda experience, polishing those elements as much as possible even as other facets of the game fall by the wayside.
This approach is neither “right” nor “wrong.” A game that tries to do everything well can be great—just look at Skyrim, which released a mere seven days before Skyward Sword did—and games that ostensibly take a focus strategy can end up backing into all-around excellence through strong teamwork and a unified thematic vision--The World Ends With You is my favored example of this.
That said, I think it’s good for a long-running franchise to vary its approach from time to time. It’s good that Zelda has both styles. Ocarina of Time, The Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess, take a primarily generalist approach, while Majora’s Mask, Skyward Sword, and Breath of the Wild each focus on a particular aspect of the overall experience. If Nintendo were to take the same approach with each game, the series would quickly grow stale—which is interesting considering Nintendo had that exact problem with the Mario games in the years leading up to Super Mario Odyssey.
Dungeon-crawling and puzzle-solving tend to be my favorite parts of Zelda games, and Skyward Sword’s focus on those elements is a large part of why I like the game so much. I also continue to appreciate the novelty of the motion controls, and I love the game’s aesthetic. Contrary to what some might say, it is a good game. It’s just different from its direct competitors, and that can be off-putting.
I, for one, am all for experimentation. Keep it up, Nintendo.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition