Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Inspired: Phantasy Star II

Phantasy Star II
Publisher:  Sega
System:  Sega Genesis
USA Release:  1990
I adore the aesthetics of the 16-bit era of video games.  (That's approximately 1987-1999 at the widest margins, for those too young to remember).  Graphics were 2D and simplistic then, and cartoonish by necessity, but they also had a degree of color depth, clarity, and intensity that were never imagined during earlier product generations.  The music of video games, meanwhile, had reached a level where approximations of real instruments were possible, resulting in much richer and fuller sound than ever before, but while still being unmistakably, and unapologetically, synthesized.  Games of this era look dated today, of that there is no doubt.  However, they remain playable and enjoyable to a degree that earlier efforts--from the ancient Atari systems, for example--simply do not.  The 16-bit era was the first time when what game designers had imagined was successfully translated to gamers.  It was done with a style that blew our minds back then, and with a special charm that has yet to wear thin with me.

With that said, video games were still a developing art, and so even the most brilliant designers had their share of missteps.  Controls were sometimes counterintuitive or downright unresponsive.  Menu interfaces could be awkward and ill-conceived.  Delivery of brilliant concepts was not always what it could have been.  The 16-bit era, at its low ebb, was one of those eras where gaming went through growing pains.  Where ideas of how things are done had to give way to developing technology.  And we just weren't quite there yet.

For people who enjoy RPGs and story-driven games--in other words, people like me--one of the worst ways that games show their age is in the execution of story.  Plots are thin and predictable.  Characters are flat and lack any clear motivation, and they inhabit the same cookie-cutter worlds that we've already explored a dozen times before.

It would be easy to say that Phantasy Star II is among these efforts.  Our hero Rolf, who apparently has only a first name, says little during the course of his adventures.  His seven companions, while appearing to have distinct personalities and intriguing histories, say even less.  As players move from town to town, obstacle to obstacle, battle to battle, they often have to infer why events are unfolding as they do.  I remember, back when I first played this game myself at the age of 10, asking things like:  "Why doesn't Rolf arrest Darum if he's such a dangerous man?  Oh wait, it must be because he doesn't want to put Nei in danger."  Or:  "Why are we going to planet Dezo, anyway?  Is it just because we ran out of places to explore on planet Mota?  Oh no, wait, it must be because Rolf thinks that the Mother Brain can be found there."

Normally, I would probably agree with a critical analysis of a game like Phantasy Star II.  However, I find myself giving Phantasy Star II the benefit of the doubt.  I'm sure part of this is the warm feeling of nostalgia that it gives me.  But it's more than that.  In the case of Phantasy Star II, the ambiguity isn't really a weakness.  It's actually the game's greatest storytelling strength.

Why should I work for a living?  This simple question is asked by one of the first citizens that Rolf encounters on his way, and it sums up the world of Phantasy Star II.  The Algo Star System, as we rapidly discover, is a world where people just don't have to do much.  No one has to work unless he wants to.  The weather is always perfect.  There is plenty of everything.  No one gets lost, thanks to teleportation technology.  No one even has to die, as the body can be replaced through cloning, and the contents of the mind can be stored for later retrieval.

Even our Rolf, ostensibly a government security enforcer, has precious little to do.  He apparently has a high degree of education, intelligence, and wit, at least compared to his fellow citizens, yet he proves time and again to be completely ineffectual.  His investigation into some recent troubles only begins when he is ordered to take up the case.  He seems completely bewildered when encountering a wanted felon, and can find no way to assist a city devastated by violence.  A murder happens in front of him, and his reaction is to ask, "Who will save us?"

Rolf finds himself in a reality where he has never had to think, where the good times are a given, and where the future is assured.  He has never had to question the Mother Brain supercomputer that controls everything in Algo, or doubt the puppet government that functions, though barely, under Mother Brain's watchful eye.  Rolf starts at a point of zero understanding, and even as evidence mounts that the world is not as okay as it would have one believe, there is no one to guide Rolf in developing this understanding.  It is for this reason that I don't complain about the "weak" storytelling in Phantasy Star II.  We need to be at that place of zero understanding right along with Rolf.  We need to struggle to put it all together the same way he does.  Any other approach would have missed the point.  A more direct approach would have made Rolf a mere unreliable narrator who shouts that all is well even as the reader/player knows better.  But precisely because the hand holding never starts, Phantasy Star II avoids that trap.  Instead, it remains the mysterious, baffling, and confusing world that it was meant to be.  The same world that Rolf, Nei, and all of their friends inhabit.

I don't mean to be a curmudgeon, but games like this are truly a lost art.  Nowadays, there would be no reason to make a game as cryptic as Phantasy Star II.  A mysterious story could be told in a more conventional manner.  Characters could shock the player with their reveals and betrayals, and a surprise ending could await them all.  This is how any storyteller would do it today, now that we live in a world where we are not constrained by how many bits a game can take up, or how many letters long a text box can be.  Certainly, I have not turned to Phantasy Star II's bag of tricks while designing my own game, Afterlife.  There will never be another game like this because, frankly, the tools available now are more satisfying to the storyteller.  And I guess I'm all right with that.  It's fine that we've progressed.  It's good that we have more options at our disposal.  It's all okay, because if ever we need to, we can plug in these reticent, challenging, marvelous classics, be amazed by how much was done with so little, and just get lost for a while.

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