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RPG Villains

You know who was an awesome villain?  Van Grants.  Most people probably thought I was going to say Kefka, and he really is a good villain, but he’s also sort of Emperor Joker, but six years earlier.  No, Van is the bad guy in Tales of the Abyss, and I guess that’s spoilers for the first ten hours of a 12-year-old game that stretches for nearly ninety hours, but whatever, it’s my column, I can write whatever the Hell I want.  What makes Van really cool is that he’s a guy.  He’s a really strong guy, but he’s just sort of a guy, with hopes and dreams and aspirations.  He’s not a demon lord, he’s not some genetically engineered super soldier who wants to become a god, he’s not an emperor and he’s not just crazy.  He’s an asshole.  Worse, he’s got a damn good reason to be an asshole.

Like, aside for a paragraph?  Luke’s dad is like the worst person in video games.  Dude is an actual rapist and he gets off scott free.  Like, fuck that guy.

Characters like Van aren’t actually uncommon in video games, because they’re a pretty common character archetype.  A hero wronged, turns to evil.  It’s a good villain, and a good tool in the toolbelt of a writer, because such a villain can be used to act as a foil for the hero, can explore more dynamic themes and can tie in for stronger plot details.  It’s why you see so many fallen heroes as the main bad guy.  Find a noble character, give them a terrible flaw and make them evil.  It’s great.  Shakespeare made a career out of making plays about these guys, and as a player, it’s sometimes fun to be on the other side of a tragedy for once.  In RPGs, though, it’s rarely the case.  I mean, it makes sense, if the players were cutting down giant robotsancient planetary defense mechanisms or just giant goddamn dragons, it sort of makes sense that the only thing that can challenge the PCs at that point is a god.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t exactly lead to a very compelling villain.  Sure, it’s pretty cool to cut down a god, but it’s not the same if the characters aren’t attached to them.  There are exceptions, of course, Kefka becomes a god, but he’s still just a man who stole incredible power (which is why he goes from giggling, power obsessed mad man to a bored nihilist when he gets what he wants), he’s not a god to begin with.  Van never becomes a god.  Van is literally just a guy, and that’s what makes him work.  Because Van is a guy, he can show up, harry the players, talk with them, try to reason with them and become a part of their lives.  The characters get to become attached to him, and not just because his goal is vengeance and this is all personal for him (or that he’s Tear’s brother), but because he gets to interact with him.  From the first scene of the game to the final battle, the players get a chance to talk with, argue against, curse at, fight and get tricked by and lied to by Van.  This isn’t something you really get a chance to do if you fight a god or demon lord.  Even an emperor makes it difficult, because of the difference in social standing.

Consider Vayne Solidor as a contrast.  Vayne is one of my favorite villains in Final Fantasy because he’s right, but he’s also a Lawful Evil totalitarian who needs to be stopped yesterday.  He does get to interact with the PCs a little bit, and even then, much of that is couched through the interactions the PCs have with his younger brother Larsa.  Most of what we know about Vayne being compelling is through scenes the player sees that the PCs never know about.  There is a level of dramatic irony the game plays up a little bit, not as much as it could, which is interesting, but it does lessen the personal stakes.  Granted, Vayne’s lieutenant Gabranth gets to have a lot of the interactions with the PCs, and is very similar to Van in a lot of ways (although much less reason to be an asshole.  Seriously, Luke’s dad is the WORST you guys), but he’s not the one who gets a three stage boss fight before the credits, so he doesn’t get to count as the main bad guy.

I’m not saying the villain shouldn’t be powerful.  Magneto or Doctor Doom fit as the kind of characters I’m talking about, and they’re both incredibly powerful.  Also, Doom was God for awhile, and he still managed to be this while being actually God.  Kefka, too, is a great example and he was almost who I wrote about before I remembered Van, and there’s also Seymour and, kind of, Adyn.  All of them are compelling characters who have a connection to the party in a direct way, who interact with the PCs on a regular basis.  This is important.  The villain needs to be a part of the hero’s lives.


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.


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.

I’m back and I’m rested

I took the past week off to rest a little bit.  Work had become really stressful and while I had some time to update over Thanksgiving break, I decided to take the time off to have a complete brain reboot.  I had just gotten way too tired and I figured that would be the best way to keep myself from going completely mad.  In the meantime, I managed to beat Dragon Age: Origins the first time, so I’ll have a review up on Thursday.  I also saw Boondock Saints 2: All Saints Day, and I’ll have a review of that tomorrow.

In the meantime, I’ve mentioned a few times over the past couple of months that I’m replaying Final Fantasy XII.  Although it’s a controversial game in the series, Final Fantasy XII is my favorite Final Fantasy game.  It’s a bittersweet tale of magic and wonder, weaving dark political intrigue with traditional fantasy, dungeonpunk and some science fiction to tell a truly epic tale of love, revenge and politics.  I’ve mentioned many times that the setting really lets my imagination soar, but what really draws me in is the almost sorrowful way the game tells its story.  It has a happy ending, it is a Final Fantasy game after all, but there is a lot of  sadness in this game, and the characters are forced to sacrifice a lot.

Almost two years ago, a friend of mine once mused that all of the best stories are sad, even if they have happy endings.  I didn’t want to accept it at first, but the truth is, we don’t really accept “…and they lived happily ever after” as a legitimate ending after we’re 3 years old (because that’s the point in life we can start to ask “and then what happens?”).  I think part of the reason for this is because conflict is what makes stories interesting, and conflict will inevitably lead to some undesired outcome for at least one participant, but that’s not the real reason.  As humans, we have to sacrifice a lot to get where we are.  Not just time or money, but sometimes we have to give up things we truly love to get to a better place in our lives.  Sometimes it’s a hobby or something simple, or something important like a loved one.  When a protagonist reaches a better point without ever giving anything up, I think we feel cheated.

One of my favorite game of all time is Final Fantasy VI.  At the end, for reasons I’d rather not get into for spoilers, magic has to fade away from the world in order to save it from the psychotic clown Kefka.  It’s such a haunting and sad ending, but hopeful.  I played it when I was in high school, years and years after it came out, but it had a very profound affect on me, and it made me realize how much a heroic character will have to sacrifice to do what must be done.  After I finished that game, I had a better understanding of fiction, writing and characterization.

My three favorite games of the sixth generation of video game consoles were Jak II, Final Fantasy XII and Radiata Stories.  All of them had the heroes giving up something and sacrificing something they loved more than anything in the multiverse to do the right thing and save the world and help others.  I think that’s one of the many reasons why I loved those games.