Monday, June 30, 2014

XBlaze Etc

So, I decided to try a visual novel out for my morning commute game, and I picked the most recent one: XBlaze. Or XBLA*ZE, whatever. It's by the BlazBlue folks, so I knew that it'd be full of grim dark grimness with grim grim darkness and one joke character.

What I didn't expect is that it would be the most stereotypical thing possible. Literally, it is impossible to cram any more stereotypicality into this game, because every character, every set, every story beat, and every plot point is the most stereotypical rehash of a common trope they could find. Every single character is a fetish stamped on tissue paper, every plot event would have been considered old and tired in 1989.

The format is easy to consume while standing with one hand on a train rail, so I've played it through a fair amount. Nothing has been even vaguely new or interesting.

See, the basic problem with XBlaze is actually the basic strength in BlazBlue.

Arc (the devs) are pretty good at throwing tons of polished stereotypes into a game. In BlazBlue, every character is a stereotype, but that's actually good in a fighting game. You have to know who someone is within 1.5 seconds in a fighting game. So you walk a narrow line: stereotypical enough to identify, but interesting enough to look at that people will remember them later. It's actually advantageous to not have any character development - so all the character "development" is actually just revealing the past to the players. That way the characters don't change over time, and everyone who plays the game will always face the same version of the same characters.

Moreover, a wide variety of instantly recognizable characters means everyone will find someone they are interested in playing. It's the "shotgun" method of character design: put a ton of instantly-recognizable characters in your game and let the player sort out which ones they like. If they dislike 80% of the characters, that's fine: they don't have to play them.

While that's good in a fighting game, that's awful in a visual novel.

Visual novels work in exactly the opposite manner. It's less important that a character be immediately identifiable, and more important that they evolve over the course of the story. Hidden backstories being revealed are common, but it's a way to make the characters behave differently. Since no two players are competing, it's not important for characters to be the same between multiple players.

The selection of characters is also less important, because a player cannot really choose to spend time with one character and ignore another. All the characters are always interwoven. Maybe in a dating sim a player can choose a particular favorite and it will matter, but in a typical visual novel you are always stuck with all the characters. If you only like one of the ten characters that you're stuck with, that's considered 9 fails rather a success.

Fundamentally, Arc took the same approach in their visual novel as their fighting game. They filled their story with a huge variety of instantly-recognizable stereotypes.

Unfortunately, none of them are even slightly interesting.

They attempted to make the characters evolve by applying the standard story for each standard stereotype. For example, the cute robot girl slowly learns human emotions and, I presume, will die while betraying her creators in favor of her new friends in the third act. Doubt I'll play long enough to know for sure, because the robot learning emotions is so painfully standard that it predates robots, and there's no spice in this particular dish.

The hope with XBlaze is that you will find at least one of the story lines to your taste, at least one of the characters. Unfortunately, that's not how stories work. That's how fights work, sure, but this is a story.

A story is much more cohesive. While a reader can technically ignore large parts of the story, that's a sign that a story has failed. Instead, each of the pieces of the story - whether a character, place, or event - needs to contribute to the core of the story.

In a fighting game the core of the game is the fighting. The characters, settings, and events all contribute to the feel of the fighting, giving it a strong flavor and unique texture.

In a visual novel the core of the game is the heart of the story. The characters, settings, and events need to contribute to that.

In XBlaze, the story is theoretically about a pacifist having his worldview challenged by harsh realities.

Having three different kinds of magic does not help the story any - it just allows you to have three different kinds of stereotypical magicians. This is a sacrifice made to enable more characters at the expense of the story.

Having a robot learning emotions could actually be a powerful echo of the story. The robot could go from being a militaristic, violent, order-following machine to being a dedicated pacifist at the same time that the pacifist main character is pushed into fighting. But instead of serving that end, the robot is simply allowed to trundle along their trope's default plot line regardless of the fact that it doesn't have even the slightest bit to do with the core storyline.

You have to balance your characters and how they relate to the core story in the same way that you would balance the character's fighting styles in the fighting game.

What I'm saying is that Arc has misunderstood what a visual novel is.

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