If people don’t use interpretation, or reading between the lines, or trying to find fun in a game, they tend to love games that I only like, and they tend to hate games that I’ve been able to enjoy. By interpretation, I think I mostly mean something akin to the concept of “active reading.” In literary criticism, this often means looking at a work both as the text on the page, and looking for the work as what the text could be interpreted to mean. So, for example, you might take Freud and say that he’s saying A, but he means B, and B is a lot more interesting than A. If someone’s just looking at what the game does, they may like a game with a stronger theme to the plot (but may ignore the clunky ways that the theme is set out.) If they can’t look past a bad translation, they may ignore what the plot is trying to say in favor for how poorly the plot is saying it. I think it might help to discuss specific games to try to explain what I mean.
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It’s quite common to find a game with a leitmotif. You tend to have a tune for villains, a tune for the heroes, etc. Technically, a leitmotif is really a part of a song that represents a mood / character / etc. However, people commonly use it to refer to common tracks or songs. For me, a leitmotif using a song tends to become annoying as the game goes on. Let me try to explain with a game that doesn’t annoy, and one that does.
Each section here, I’m linking to a more detailed description of the game, if I have written one.
Dragon Quest, as a series, feels to me a bit like a game where the journey is the point of the game. I think the main reason why I say that is that the series tends to spend a lot of time on sub-plots in various areas as you’re advancing the main plot. Final Fantasy, in comparison, tends to have the main plot be what you’re chasing for most of the game. In Dragon Quest games, you might be searching for a missing kid, which eventually has some relation to the bigger picture. I suppose a good description of what’s afoot is that the scope of each individual area is on a more personal level. While the plot may be dark in some of the games, the “canon” name for most of the later heroes and heroines is the number of the game, which shows a certain lack of interest in a deep commitment to immersion in the story.
Suikoden, as a series, is technically beyond the scope of this blog. However, it’s an interesting game to discuss. The game’s based off of a series of books called Water Margin (also known as Outlaws of the Marsh and All Men are Brothers.) This Chinese novel series is an early novel, so it reads more like a combination of folk tales about various heroes rather than a smoothly flowing narrative. Suikoden’s ties to the series are fairly vauge. While you get people based off of characters in the novels, it’s not a literal retelling of events.
Why is the game interesting? I think one of the more interesting plot devices in the game is the huge cast. Each game has 108 Stars of Destiny. While you usually need a guide to find all of them, you do get some interesting results from keeping them all alive and in your party. For example, there’s random bits of backstory or unexplained world building. A character in the first Suikoden, for example, reveals he has a teleportation ability. It’s never used in the plot, or examined in more detail. There’s Yuber and Persmerga who are basically two immortal enigmas locked in conflict. At the end of the game in Suikoden, you tend to get a summation of each star and what happened to them. For many of them, they die young.
I’m going to avoid the recent DS game and the side games, mostly because they’re either too recent or not from the main series. While they are interesting, I think focusing mostly on the PS1 to PS2 era console games shows plot threads and differences more clearly.
Breath of Fire is a series that, in my mind, hated the earlier games the farther you played the series. In the first game, you’re Ryu the last of clan of Dragons, with a portentous scar who’s trying to avenge his lost family via fighting another clan. You soon pick up a winged princess, Nina, who’s spunky enough to risk her life trying to fight her enemies. The rest of the game is gathering elemental keys and fighting your way to face down against a goddess.
Wild ARMs is fondly remembered as a rpg that came out before Final Fantasy VII on the Playstation. When your competition is Beyond the Beyond, it’s not hard to be amazing. The game used 2D sprites for exploration and 3D battles (which while interesting in the day, are now very dated.) The composer Michiko Naruke is closely linked to the series and has written a wide range of Old West style music for it. If you google Wild ARMs, you’ll easily find people posting the opening animation and the haunting whistling song that plays over it.