My readings of aged instruction manuals have, today, brought me to an old friend: the 1999 PSX game Grandia. In terms of time, I've devoted far more of my life, chronologically, to plumbing the depths of Elder Scrolls' Oblivion. In terms of pure frustration, I've poured more of heart into Final Fantasy Tactics. And in terms of completion, I've put more effort into Wild Arms 3. But Grandia still had an effect on me. Exactly how much of one can be measured by the fact that when I hear the name "Justin," I don't think Trudeau or Timberlake, or Beiber. I think of this plucky fellow:
Lately, I've been rewatching Avatar: The Last Airbender, and completely failing to convince my roommates of its virtues. To plan a more concerted attack, I decided to mentally construct a list of what I'm looking for a TV series. We'll go over that list, some day, but for now, I want to focus on two items that in particular made Grandia a memorable game for me: engaging characters, and, as a subset of that point, characters who grow and evolve.
In terms of mechanics, both leveling and battle, Grandia has enough to keep things interesting. Battle has real time gauges, with the added bonus that certain moves delay or even cancel the moves of enemy characters. And the experience spell/skill system is fairly extensive: each character has a number of spell types and weapon types they can use, and new skills only develop if certain levels of expertise in those spell levels are reached. (ie. Frost magic requires a base level of water magic and wind magic) So the battle system provides just enough carrot to keep things going for a long time--though not so long that you aren't eventually very grateful for the autobattle option.
In terms of overarching plot, the game is so cliched that it practically starts on a dark and stormy night. In general, the fantasy stock story of the Ordinary Boy Fated to Save World gets trotted out a lot in RPGs. That's because it's relatively easy to translate the "ordinary boy gets stronger and stronger and confronts ultimate evil" of, say, Star Wars or Harry Potter into level-up experience points based system of the RPG. But an easy translation means a very familiar story at the core, and Grandia is no exception. The plot here is that the neighborhood military empire is searching ancient civilization ruins for a relic of unimaginable power. But the one who finds the first hint of said relic is a young man who is guided to the path via an heirloom entrusted by his father before he disappeared. So far, so par for course.
But where the game shines for me is the way the characters, and Justin in particular, change over the course of the game, based especially on three of the core: Justin; his younger, kid friend, Sue; and Feena, the treasure hunter who's reluctantly agreed to follow Justin, since he's the one chosen by the ancients. (I'm recounting the plot without actually looking it up, so imagine details to be colored by nostalgia.) Justin, in particular, grows probably more than any character I've seen in fiction outside of Taran from Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series. He starts the game as ridiculously immature: the first quest of the game is to prove his treasure hunter skills by going on a scavenger hunt for some dust-bin items gathered by the other kids in the area. (In retrospect, this was, on the game's part, a disguised tutorial on searching for items and navigating the 3-D map. Given that it was the first real 3-D RPG I've played, the tutorial was necessary. I got lost a lot in that first town.) But over the long, long course of the game, he goes from a naive kid to a thoughtful, battle-scarred hero. It's a dirt common fantasy lit theme--again, see Stars Wars to Harry Potter--but it's actually very rare to see it done in a videogame, which tend to show increases in power, but very little corresponding changes in character. It's the problem with the blank-slate character: you may inscribe it with your own personality, but generally *you* don't change as a person over the course of a game, so there's no reason for the protagonist to do so as well.
Feena doesn't so much change as respond to the changes in Justin, and if you think you know where this is going, you're probably right. When the two first meet, she barely tolerates Justin; she's the experienced adventurer, and he's the kid who stumbled into a good thing. But as he grows, they move to a relation of respect, and eventually (again, over a very long time) love. Again, given the bang-bang violence part of most games, love isn't something that comes up a lot in games beyond the "save the princess" sort of thing (unless you're talking Japanese date sim, which is a different beast). The closest out there now is probably the love options of a Bioware game--in fact, I recently read a "scathing" criticism of Dragon Age 2 that complained it was essentially a "dating sim." But that doesn't really feel the same for me, largely because I have too much control over the situation. I control every response the main character makes, and as a result, I don't need to stay true to any notion of the character; I just keep feeding my intended the right lines until she or he jumps into bed with me. Granted, that may be a closer approximation of real life sexual relations, but it still feels a little overly jaded. Ironically, I prefer the scripted version of a game like Grandia because that script feels more organic, more like a meeting between digital, imaginary equals.
This is as good a time as any to remind readers that I was sixteen when I was playing this game. Thus, the general theme of an adolescent gradually winning the heart of an older woman as he matured was very, very appealing to me. Imagine the game through these nostalgia-colored glasses.
And then there's Sue. Orphaned almost at birth, she'd grown up raised by her aunt and uncle, with Justin as surrogate brother. So of course, when he goes off on adventure, she tags along. The problem is, while Justin is a burgeoning adolescent, she's just a kid. And eventually, they both come to realise that a kid can't really handle the constant fatigue of fighting the forces of ultimate evil, and that she deserves a real childhood. And so, Sue goes home, and leaves the game forever. It's a simple moment, but a touching one, made meaningful because of all the time you've invested in the character.
I can see how this may seem like an old man tirade, of the "games in my day where real games" sort of bent. And yes, I would dearly like to see more games done in Grandia style, where my teammates develop gradually over time and come to respond to each other in different ways, rather than because I've showered them with the nth pair of gift shoes. But I think there's room for both. My favorite moment of Dragon Age 2, for example, is when *spoiler* one of your teammates reveals that he's actually a terrorist, and has just bombed the local church in order to assassinate a helpless old woman in the name of his cause. *end spoiler*. It's a moment of utter shock, where the character acts in a way that feels true to his established behavior. The problem, though is two-fold: first, it's not a result of character development, because you know that regardless of how you changed the character over the course of the game, this is going to play out the same way--so rather than natural growth, it feels like something that's been forced on the player. The second problem is that barely anyone got to this point of the game, because they already gave up on it because of its repetitive fighting and repetitive use of game locations. Grandia, in comparison, has a constant forward motion (you actually *can't* revisit most places once you've reached certain points) and the battle system is much, much more nuanced (and has an autobattle for the minor skirmishes, if nuance ain't your thing). So I'll think back fondly of my Grandia, and the way games used to be.
No, it totally turned into a cranky old man thing, didn't it?