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Game Anatomy: Handsome Jack

Jack_intro

Copyright 2K Games and Gearbox Studios

I’m going to admit, even for the limited definitions I put out for Game Anatomy, Handsome Jack does stretch them, a lot.  Unlike a lot of things I’ve covered in these articles, Handsome Jack is an NPC, and I’m not talking about him as a boss fight at the end of the game.  I mean Handsome Jack, the character, and how he basically makes Borderlands 2 the game that it is, and without him, it is a much lesser game.

First of all, let’s start with the obvious: Handsome Jack is one of the most evil bastards in video games.  A murderous, sociopathic, selfish psychopath, Jack has almost nothing redeemable about him.  Worse, he goes on to declare himself the true hero of the game, and that everyone should bow down and follow him, while doing nothing but murdering people for pretty much no reason.  See, Borderlands 2 takes place on Pandora, a world with tons of bandits, lawlessness and people whose brains have been completely destroyed and mutilated by the world itself.  It’s a really, really awful place, but it’s not without its good people.  There is a civilization here.  Jack, however, wants to kill everyone on the planet and sell it off to rich people across the galaxy (also claim an ancient alien superweapon to continue doing this).  He’s not just a murderous psychopath, he’s the head of a interstellar corporation with a private army and a space station capable of firing on people from orbit.  Not only does he want to kill a bunch of people, calling them all bandits, he can do it and he does.  It’s gentrification literally weaponized.

What makes Jack work, first, is that he acts as a foil to the Vault Hunter.  It doesn’t matter which one, all of them, none of them, whatever, it’s to the player he serves as a foil.  Throughout the whole game, the player goes about murdering pretty much everyone that they meet, taking their stuff and using it to kill more people.  The justification is that those people are bandits or psychos, that they need to be put down for the good of society, and the Vault Hunter, and by definition, the player, sees almost no people aligned with them for the first several hours of the game.  Of course, once the player gets to Sanctuary and links up with Roland, this changes a bit, but it doesn’t change that the player and Jack are, on a superficial level, doing the same thing.  Jack even points this out on multiple occasions, implying that the player should be on Jack’s side, should be helping him, instead of fighting against him.  This of course is ignoring the fact the player signed up with Jack at the beginning, and he tried to kill them, to take responsibility for their actions.

Borderlands 2 is a game where the primary game loop is to kill bad guys, steal their weapons and use those weapons to kill more bad guys.  It’s got some engaging gameplay, if it’s a little simple, and said bad guys have too many hit points, but it’s very similar to a loot of other loot shooters in that regard.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of nuance, either.  The player is going to come in with the assumption that the people they’re shooting are bad, and that the player is playing a good person, just doing what they need to to survive and help out the world.  While this is literally true within the context of the game, Handsome Jack gives it the nuance.  By comparing the player to what Handsome Jack does, we can see that not only are we not just murdering everyone we see (mostly), but we’re not just doing it for selfish reasons.  Except maybe Salvador.

In addition to him acting as a foil, another thing that makes him work, is that he’s an asshole.  He’s pretty much one of the worst villains in video games.  His job is the exact same as Freeza from Dragon Ball Z, in that he kills entire populations of planets and sells them to rich people, but he’s also a man who’s had busloads of refugees murdered (refugees from a town he destroyed), personally had his daughter locked up, personally murdered several innocent people and he buys a living horse made out of diamonds.  Not a statue.  He then calls the player to tell them, then names it Butt Stallion, after the Vault Hunter.  Just to gloat.  Part of the reason Jack works so well as a foil is because he makes it very personal, pretty much for no reason.

Jack spends most of the game calling the player with a combination of gloating and taunts, often kicking them when they’re down, or blaming them for things he did.  He is hilariously petty and vindictive, at one point eating chips while calling just to prove the Vault Hunter is beneath them.   By doing this, it injects all of the flavor and context the game needs to make the core gameplay loop work, because otherwise, he’s right, you really are a psychopath.  See, one of the problems of a lot of games like Borderlands, and that can be FPS games or loot shooters, is that the player kills a truck ton of people, often for no reason.  The original Borderlands didn’t have Jack, and very early on, it’s hard to tell who the player is supposed to kill and why, and while it does give some context, it’s not the same.

By making it personal, and by acting as a direct foil, we’re able to see the Vault Hunter, who in other games would be a murder hobo, as a hero.  Yes, a lot of people are going to die, and not all of them are people whose brains have been irreparably damaged, and that is sort of weird how many people players kill in a video game, but Jack gives the player something real to fight against.  Give them something legitimate as an enemy, and turns the tables on the assumptions of the game, by making your goal not that different from the villains.  Even the means are the same, but at no point are any of the Vault Hunters murdering innocents.  In fact, because of the damage Jack causes, the Vault Hunter gets to go out of their way to help innocents.  Plus, we get to see how many settlements of “bandits” Jack has wiped out, and see that his destruction has only made Pandora worse, and that’s saying something.

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Ending Talk: Final Fantasy XV

Now that it’s officially July, the requisite six months have passed since Final Fantasy XV’s release that I’m willing to discuss spoilers of the game freely.  I know a lot of people haven’t had a chance to play or finish the game, since 2016 and 2017 have been packed to the absolute brim with great game, and that kick ass train doesn’t appear to be stopping any time soon.  So, I will be writing about a lot of very big spoilers about everything regarding this game, other than the DLC (since I haven’t played it, and Ignis’s isn’t out yet) and this is a warning.  That said, I’m not going to get into spoilers until I put the big game cover up as an intro picture, so keep that in mind.

Now, over time, I think a few people have cooled on their approval of the game, and I can definitely see why.  Still, it was a miracle the game came out, and the fact that it was actually as good as it was, and it’s actually pretty good, that’s saying something.  Still, that ending did a lot of damage, and in a lot of different ways, so we’re going to spend the next several hundred words talking about that.  Okay, this is the last warning, unmarked spoilers like crazy coming up.

ff_xv_cover_art

Copyright Square Enix

So, Final Fantasy XV is pretty fun up until about Chapter 13.  Prompto has been knocked off of the train that the boys spend the last main chunk of the game in, and while Noctis and Gladiolus aren’t at each others throats any more, there is still a lot of tension.  It’s a shame that the Niflheim stuff isn’t open world like the Lucis stuff is, because it’s clear that all of that stuff is already made, it’s just the quests don’t work, and the map apparently isn’t done.  People glitch on to it, and there are places to drive, but there isn’t anything great.

Chapter 13, however, turns into one long, slow ass dungeon crawl, which sees the Regalia destroyed (cool), Noctis fight through a really long, solo dungeon that attempts way too many jump scares (lame) and Ignis and Gladiolus just vanish.  They apparently do their own thing, which isn’t that much cooler, but it does allow the player to skip some of the bullshit.  Then it ends with a long boss fight, some revelations, and Noctis vanishing into a crystal.  In the crystal, Bahamut tells him that he has to die to stop the Starscourge, that the Empire of Niflheim has been consumed by the Starscourge and that Ardyn is telling the truth.  Ardyn, before Noctis drops into the crystal, reveals that he’s actually related, distantly, to Noctis, and it sets up the final battle.  It also completely tears the game apart.

First, after building the Emperor up as this ruthless, unyielding bastard becomes, and I’m serious about this, a random boss fight that harries the party after they all meet up for a bit.  Seriously, he’s a boss fight that pretends to be a random enemy for a few bits of the dungeon, but is actually really tough.  It’s dumb.  Plus, thanks to the Starscourge and the daemons (along with Ardyn’s machinations) Niflheim completely falls apart and the people who had been the bad guys literally up until this moment just vanish.  It’s not the worst time that has happened (wait, Golbez is actually Cecil’s brother and we have to go to the moon and get the moon crystals, because this game is too short.  Actually, that’s not the worst, and in context, it’s kind of cool), but it’s still pretty dumb.  One of the reasons XII works so well is that the Archades Empire remains a credible threat throughout, and that since they are the bad guys.  Venat doesn’t just kill of Cidolfus or Vayne and declare himself the big bad or anything.  Hell, Vayne going rogue and merging with Venat is basically their suicide charge, since they’ve already lost and want to make sure no one wins.  It’s cool and it’s effective, and while XV does have the player follow along with Ardyn much more than with the Emperor, the game sets Ardyn up to be the Emperor’s emissary.

Sure, Ardyn is supposed to be like Kefka, and he usurps the Emperor, and that’s totally fine, but the rest of Niflheim just falls apart.  Kefka at least kills Vector when he destroys the entire World of Balance, and we, the players see all of that happen.  Ardyn and the Starscourge just basically causes the empire to fall apart before we even arrive in the city.  Worse, the whole game is sort of set up, until around Chapter 13 to be a means of taking down Niflheim.  All four of the boys have a personal stake in doing so, and while the Starsourge is cool, it’s more of a setting back drop.  It’s not important until more than halfway through the game, when Lunafreya gets offed, and it’s barely mentioned as anything before Chapter 9 as anything besides the source of the world’s monsters.  It would be if the moon in VIII suddenly became the bad guy and the source of every problem in the game, and killed Ultimecia.  Or something.  Maybe that did happen.  VIII is a weird ass game.

Anyway, most of that are just quibbles.  The real problem is the rest of the game.  Chapter 14 has Noctis wake up 10 years later, where the sun hasn’t risen since his trip into the crystal, and while it does give one great scene right before the final battle, which is one of my favorite Final Fantasy moments ever (seriously, it made me cry), it also runs into so many problems.  First, of course, it stretches suspension of disbelief, since a decade without sunlight is insane.  Especially since the sun prevents monsters from just crawling out of the ground, and the monsters we see in the World of Ruin are fucking powerful as Hell.  Level 60 and above.  Shit, Demon Wall was there.  Demon Wall is a boss.  Second, it the time difference makes the reunion feel hollow.  There are some implications that the boys knew Noctis would come back, and that they knew because of what happened in the crystal, but the way it’s set up, it’s like he’s only been gone for a few weeks.  It really seems like 10 years is only there because it being a 10 year game was one of the original promises, and to give Talcott some pay off, but Iris could have been the person to pick up Noctis.

Then, of course, we have the final battle.  It’s got a great line (get out of my chair, jester.  The King sits there), but it’s also totally alone.  The game is about the boys and their brotherhood.  It’s why they all, Noctis included, wear Kingsguard uniforms to the final battle.  Even when they fracture, it’s their mutual love and brotherhood that brings them together, and the final scene before going into Insomnia for the last time is all about how they face the final battle together, as brothers.  Also, the very opening of the game is them going up against Ifrit, at the end of the world.  It should be great, but in the end, Noctis and Ardyn have a crazy Dragon Ball Z battle through the air, then Noctis sacrifices himself to end Ardyn’s immortality, and Noctis gets to be with Lunafreya in the afterlife.

Noctis dying, weirdly, becomes the easy way out.  Instead of losing Lunafreya, instead of having to suffer alone on a throne and rebuild a kingdom out of nothing, Noctis gets to have everything.  Sure, he “dies,” but the final scene shows that he gets to be with his love and be married in the afterlife.  He doesn’t have to suffer on earth with his friends, and rebuild a broken world.  Terra doesn’t get to die in Final Fantasy VI when the magic goes away, because she has to be there to raise the children (also because you can potentially beat the game without her, you monster).  She found her place in the world, she got to have her arc, and killing her would be pointless and grim.  Here, it’s sort of the opposite.  It’s a dark game, and in this instance, Noctis gets to die instead of doing the hard work.  It’s a shame.

Still, it’s an otherwise great game.  Probably best to just ignore everything after Chapter 12, though.  Or, at least, Episode Prompto.  I hear that one is pretty good.