Friday, 16 January 2015

Feature: Guilty Gear Xrd Sign - Story Mode Analysis

Guilty Gear Xrd Sign – Story Mode Analysis

Calling this article an "analysis" might be the wrong choice of word. But rather, Guilty Gear Xrd Sign’s Story Mode, being good as it is, made me think it might be worthwhile to discuss a few things I noticed while I was watching (rather than playing, since as mentioned in my main review there are no fights or battles at all. It’s more an OVA or a Visual Novel) that I found interesting, particularly in the context of how stories in fighting games work and other general dos and don’ts of writing fiction in general. Suffice to say, where BlazBlue: Chronophantasma falls down, Guilty Gear Xrd Sign rises above. But anyway, without further a-do, let’s dive in.

Be warned that there are SPOILERS in this article, starting with the second section, “Chekov’s Gunflame”. You have been warned, and, as always, what follows is just my opinions and they are not reflective of OtakuGamers UK staff members or the site as a whole.

So, let's do this.

Shadon’s Third Rule of Fanservice:

A while back I wrote an opinion piece on fanservice and how it should and shouldn’t be used in video games. Rather than link back to that article, I’ll sum up the points I made:

1) If your game is overtly about fanservice and makes no pretension to hiding that part of it (See Senran Kagura as an example), then go nuts.

2) If your game does not meet the above criteria, any fanservice you put into it must be justified contextually.

To me, unjustified fanservice does no one any favours. It paints the target audience of that game as the horrendous otaku stereotype who won’t play anything if it doesn’t have any panty shots and get nosebleeds more powerful than the geysers at Yellowstone Park at the sight of underboob, which I firmly believe does not apply to 99.9% of the general gaming community, or even the niche Japanese gaming community either in Japan itself or elsewhere. It also betrays a lack of faith in your product or concept: if you can’t sell it to your audience without unjustified fanservice, then it’s a piss weak product to begin with. No one wins with unjustified fanservice from my perspective, even if you’re not actively offended by it.

Now, meet Elphelt, a new playable character in Guilty Gear Xrd Sign:

When Elphelt was announced as being playable in GG Xrd and I got a good look at her design, I immediately saw red. A wedding dress motif, apparent cleavage you could park a Ford Transit in, jiggle physics, and her personal statistics listing her weight as “DREAM” amongst other things. These things led to much gnashing of teeth on my part that we had another Makoto Nanaya on our hands; a character who serves no purpose and isn’t interesting enough in her own right to exist without the presence of partially exposed flesh zeppelins.

Then I played GG Xrd’s Story Mode, and my opinion of her changed. She was central to the plot, had her own character arc, was never irritating, actively contributed in significant ways and mercifully not once that I can recall was the camera of either the VN sections or the cutscenes framed in such a way that it leered down on her tits. I was completely caught off guard by this and freely admit fault in my own prejudices and preconceptions.

There’s an old saying: “Never judge a book by its cover”. In my case, my weakness is assuming characters like Elphelt are simply just covers and that the pages inbetween are non-existent. As such, I now have a third point to add to my above rules:

3) In the absence of contextual justification, if your character has an arc and actively contributes to the plot, and you keep the gaze off their fanservice elements as much as possible, then do as you like.

Admittedly this hasn’t stopped people screenshotting Elphet’s panties during the victory camera spin (not Arc Sys’ fault admittedly) or them giving Millia jiggle physics during her Winger super (that is on Arc Sys), but I’m marking this one up as a win for GG Xrd.

Chekov’s Gunflame:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching a lot of sci-fi and anime (and sci-fi anime), it’s that there’s usually a MacGuffin or a power of some sort that is used to resolve a difficult situation. Problem is, once you’ve established this power or ability exists, it then falls to you as the writer to ensure it is reused as appropriate, and not defeated or beaten by some equally previously unestablished power or ability. Also, if this power or ability is granted through plot events that come at a cost to a character or characters, then that should come up again at some point.

In BlazBlue: Continuum Shift, the true ending of that particular chapter features Ragna fighting Hazama at the highest point of Kagutsuchi. Ragna, having had his Soul Eater power disabled by Hazama’s interference, gets seven different flavours of shit kicked out of him. He is saved by the intervention of Lambda-11, who sacrifices herself and transfers her “Idea Engine” to Ragna, which re-enables and supercharges his powers. He subsequently beats Hazama to a bloody pulp, although Lambda is now very much dead.

Fast forward to BlazBlue: Chronophantasma. Not once is Lambda’s sacrifice brought up in any way, and Ragna’s powers are disabled again by Celica’s presence. The “Idea Engine” Lambda transferred to Ragna contributes jack now, and in one fell swoop, Lambda’s death is re-evaluated not as the culmination of her character arc and another step in Ragna’s, but rather as the writers pulling stuff out of their arse to get him out of that situation at the top of the Altar. The “Idea Engine” was never properly defined anyway, but its one time use in conjunction with Lambda being forgotten about in Chronophantasma retroactively undid any good will I had towards that scene.

In GG Xrd, Elphelt, who is a Valentine like Ramlethal and the antagonist from Guilty Gear X2 Overture, can nullify Ramlethal’s powers by being in close proximity to her. Unlike the previous issue with the Idea Engine, this ability is actually used a few times in the plot, both by Elphelt and then much later by Ramlethal herself. Here, the writers established this power and organically wove it into the story: in particular it serves to cap Ramlethal’s own character growth as she uses this ability to save Elphelt in defiance of both their master’s orders. There are returning plot points even from as far back as Guilty Gear: The Missing Link which are used in ways that, god forbid, actually make sense. And in GG Xrd itself, other clever things are done with silly anime plot points that come up such as the introduction of an impenetrable magical barrier, which, to no one's surprise, gets broken (and in an awesome way to boot), but what's neat about this is the reuse of this immovable object of sorts later, with Sol and co no longer able to break through it. Sol tries regardless, which helps establish his mindset in that particular scene.

Where BlazBlue's various instalments establish plot points as deus ex machina, GG Xrd sets them up, re-uses them, and makes them relevant to the characters.

Technobabble, or the Art of Making Shit Up:

If you’ve ever watched an episode of modern Star Trek (particularly Voyager or the films based on the Next Generation cast), I can guarantee you’ll probably have heard something like the below at some point:

“Transmit an inverse wide covariant phasic beam!”

Thing is, this doesn’t mean anything. This is what is known as Technobabble (there are variants such as Magibabble), and basically anything like the above translates to “Solve this problem artificially”, a Get Out of Jail Free card for bad writers. It’s used to make things sound more “sciency” or “fantastical” than they really are, and cheats the audience out of good drama (with exceptions, mainly if it’s kept to a minimum and backed by genuine tension and the like).

In BlazBlue: Chronophantasma, technobabble was fairly prevalent, to the point where when Kokonoe began to speak in the story that I just felt the urge to doze off. After all, why should I care when what you’re saying is made up nonsense to pad out time? But there is a superior way of doing such things, and that’s to, when possible, write events with a logical consistency, if necessary, through analogy.

In GG Xrd, Justice’s revival in the later parts of the story is dependent on her being powered up through absorbing a giant lightning bolt, St Elmo’s Fire (which is actually a real thing although not exactly as presented in GG Xrd but anyway). Rather than coming up with a bullshit nonsense plan, the protagonists instead think to actually add a secondary power source to overload Justice, in the same manner that putting too much electricity into any device will cause it to blow up. This makes logical sense, is practical and doesn’t make the characters out to be idiots, but rather as intelligent beings.

On the flip side, there is one scene earlier in the story where mountains of technobabble are used. It’s the scene where Sol and That Man break past the Ferion barrier. Thankfully, the negative effect of this is diminished by the score (Storyteller is one hell of a tune) and the momentum of the grand plan the heroes have been unfolding to destroy the Cradle. Sadly, there is one scene, where original Justice loses her shit in the Backyard, that is also full of nonsense technobabble, and there it isn’t saved by score or momentum, but I can overlook one moment like that when the others are handled well or at least mitigated.

Too Many Characters Spoil The Broth:

When I was in school, the first two lessons I learned about writing fiction were “Have a beginning, middle and an end” and “Keep your number of characters to as few as possible”, both being basic writing tips. The problem is that the latter is in direct conflict with the design of fighting games, since you want as large a roster as possible to keep things varied. There are some ways of cheating (Alternate incarnations of the same character such as Sol & Order Sol or Tsubaki or Izayoi), but, well, the paradox here is simple: when was the last time you saw a fighting game with a very small roster, or a story in a fighting game that managed to be meaningful for all 30 or so of its characters?

To understand this better, consider this thought experiment. Let’s assume you’re writing a story that takes place over the course of a month (30 days, for the sake of argument). Now assume your story has three characters tops. Three should be easy enough to write around and to make sure everyone plays a significant part in it. Now double that to six. More difficult, but doable. Double again. Now things get hard. Double again, and yeah, now you’re in deep. This isn’t that far from the reality for fighting games as it is given their rosters expand with each iteration, and there are only so many days in that month for you to work with, nevermind your own time as a writer. Then consider the costs of voice acting and so forth, and you might as well end up dividing by zero.

The thing is, not all characters have to contribute equally. This seems obvious, but when it comes to fighting games, that can mean that they don’t need to contribute at all, or for minutes at most. Blazblue: Chronophantasma has numerous subplots going on inside it’s labyrinthine plot, such as Litchi trying to save Arakune, which got all of maybe two minutes of screentime. There’s too many balls being juggled simultaneously, the end result of which is most of them being dropped in a mess followed by booing and much throwing of fruit and vegetables.

One complaint I’ve seen about GG Xrd’s story is that the Assassins do nothing of significance for the entirety of the plot beyond serving as glorified red shirts to establish how dangerous Bedman is. Thing is, I’m okay with them not being involved. The Assassins plotline in previous Guilty Gear games, centred around Zato’s death, is now dealt with thanks to his resurrection so labouring on it is now pointless. Using them to show Bedman is not to be fucked with doesn’t sit quite as well, but given what I mentioned, having the Assassins just serve in a cameo capacity is fine. GG Xrd’s story is really about Sol, Ky, Sin, Ramlethal and Elphelt. Stuffing in other plot lines would be at the expense of that main plot which continues the central narrative of all the Guilty Gear games, so if the Assassins and other characters story threads had to be cut to make time for that, then so be it. This also makes it much easier to write a linear story since you clearly define how much screen time each character gets, which means less non-canon irrelevances.

Another, more obvious weakness is that you have to have fights for as many characters as possible in a standard Story Mode, especially if each character has their own story. GG Xrd opts to remove the fights entirely, which is a brave move indeed and I applaud Arc System Works for taking it, especially given they’ve never been the best writers. That being said, I reckon, as I alluded to in my review, that they did a better job than Atlus did with Persona 4 Arena Ultimax in writing an interesting and enjoyable story with solid character arcs, and part of that success is picking and choosing who to focus on in this story rather than cramming the plot full of the Persona 3 and Persona 4 casts as Atlus did.

Summary (Aka, Exit Stage Left):

Writing is cheap, but it’s not easy. I make no assertions that I myself would not make the mistakes that Arc Sys has with BlazBlue or the stumbling Atlus did with Arena and Ultimax. But often good writing is borne out of simplicity and focus. GG Xrd’s story is relatively simple in many respects, but that’s what makes it work. I won’t pretend it’s high art or some sort of deep character study or that it was ghostwritten by Spike Jonze, but it’s entertaining and does what it sets out to do. I was, to sum up, satisfied with it at the end, having enjoying it a lot. That it came from the same company who brought the convoluted mess of BlazBlue’s story, and is better than Atlus’ attempt to retrofit the modern Persona stories into a fighting game despite their better reputation as writers, in my mind, make its all the more noteworthy and I’m eager to see what comes next.

- Shadon1010 realises all of this opinion mongering is moot given the scene where Sol decides to do his own version of Dr Strangelove. Yes, really. You'll know it when you see it. Yes, it's amazing.

1 comment:

  1. Having finally finished the story I have finally had the chance to properly read this & what a read it was.

    If I may throw my hat in the arena so to speak on a couple of subjects.

    Elphelt as you say is done well for the most part I did notice "strategic camera placement", it was the scene where Leo, Ky & Sin are holding down the Ilyria castle & she is discussing the plan with Dr. Paradigm. Intentional or not it knocked her a little for me I'm just thankful they didn't choose to add jiggle physics for it.

    The more I think about how the Guild is used in the story the more I feel that they are sequel fodder. Zato-1 being brought back to life and seemingly more in control of Eddie than ever, the fact Slayer near enough got steamrolled by Bedman & the general cryptic nature of why The Conclave chose Zato-1 to resurrect. To me it just screams a bigger plot line in the eventual sequel, it's possible it'll tie into the other side plot with Faust and whatever he's discovered in the Colony & the Japanese.

    Finally the elephant in the room or should I say Jellyfish. As much as I marked out at seeing Johnny & May again I felt they were even more filler than the Guild. Bar May being the catalyst for the story with Faust & them being shoe horned into the main plot as one of the many Plan B options they had so little effect on the main story.

    Finally don't get me started on the little cameos of Ino & Axl Low, something going on there with "That Man" but as with the majority of his actions we are still missing any explanation.

    All in all I really enjoyed Xrd -sign- I just felt they put a few too many hints at where the story will go in future rather than where it currently is