Plot Interpretation

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.

A cutscene shows bats fluttering up and away from the fortress with a large moon in the background. This plays when you approach Magus' fortress.

Chrono Trigger is a glitzy game.  I actually bought it new, back when it came out, and knew basically nothing about the game.  I loved the way it used sound effects.  For example, the ticking of the intro slid neatly into the introductory cutscene, and then back to the ticking of the pendulum.  I remember the introductory bits to several areas of the game – like the slow pan up Magus’ castle.  Mainly, however, I remember how the game was largely cheerful.  You saw terrible stuff and then said you were going to fix the world as much as you could.  You heal a desert.  You save the world.  You prevent a terrible accident.  Some people have complained that the plot isn’t dark enough, and it went from simplistic set pieces to set pieces.  Since the game’s theme is largely about striking out against inaction and futility, it seems to me that some people aren’t really understanding what the game is trying to say.

A cutscene from Xenogears, showing a young Id sitting inside a gear (the giant robots in the series.)

There’s a fair number of people out there who hate Xenogears.  The game, mind you, has a number of flaws.  It was forced out the doors, so it has a rushed final disk.  It’s got a ridiculous melange of various religious imagery and names, and an ambitious plot.  Text is slow, and often poorly formatted.  When I played it, however, I remember none of that.  Clunky text was ignored, since I was mostly reading the text out loud and self editing the phrases for a friend.  Overblown dramatics were just amazing and bizarre spectacles.  Yeah, there’s a ridiculous and tasteless crucifixion scene.  There’s also a ridiculously giant robot fight, using your own airship for a gun.  Yeah, there’s tons of words in quotes and ominous conversations.  There’s also subtle details like a specific character never attacking Elly.  The religious allusions and massive backstory were puzzles to explore.  Was I reading between the lines to get a better game?  Was my interpretation of the good parts being really good, and the bad parts being ignorable false?  Perhaps.

The canon name for the kid is Cody, in the translation. The game looks pretty normal at this point.

So, I tried playing Robopon: Sun Version.  It’s basically a Pokémon clone.  You start up the game, and you’re in bed.  You head down, and your parents conveniently leave town.  Your grandfather calls for you (and of course he forgot your name) and then he makes you the president of his robopon company.  This is pretty similar to the “Professor Oak calls for you” style stuff in Pokémon.  However, as soon as you head out, the translation goes odd.  You see, there’s some bullies picking on some kids, and you get a typical “do you want to stop them” question.  However, it’s phrased like the screenshot below.  This, for me, makes the game suddenly have this amusing gritty drama to it.  Your hero is going to strike out and clean up these mean streets.  Once and for all.

The goon in question, David, is stealing a kid's ice cream cone.

Thinking over games that I’ve played, I think some of the ones that give me room for interpretation / reading between the lines are ones that have iffy translations.  Another common tendency is for the games to have strong character archetypes that aren’t treated well.  Wild Arms 4, for example, has a pretty good translation.  However, the theme of kids versus adults popped up a lot (and was treated poorly), and you really didn’t have much else to focus on.  The game also hits sour notes (the hero stares at an imprisoned young girl because she’s the first young woman he’s ever seen, for example)  and it’s hard to ignore it since the alternatives is your hero blissfully running off half cocked.  In Star Ocean 2, characters have specific personalities, battle cries, and skits.  However, if you don’t enjoy the characters, the plot of the scenarios in the game doesn’t offer you much.

In Robopon, you have a passable translation, but enough elements that you can read the standard Pokémon plot as a film noir extravaganza.  In Chrono Trigger, you can read the game as a gleeful romp instead of reading it as having a simplistic plot.  In Xenogears, you can read the game as an ambitious attempt at a massive story.  Are the critics wrong about the games they hate?  No, they’re welcome to hate what they want.  However, I don’t think they’d really get why I say that Robopon is hilariously fun to check out what the plot does, and some other Pokémon clones aren’t as fun.

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