Monthly Archives: October 2012

Xenoblade Chronicles — hour 45

This is the third post in my series on the JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles, which I am currently playing with my boyfriend. The first two posts can be found here and here.

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I meant to write a post every ten hours of gameplay, but it’s been 25 hours since my last post. I guess it goes to show 1) how very long JRPGs can be and 2) how they don’t really feel that long. I guess it means that we’ve been playing slightly more than an hour a night for six weeks. If I had been reading a book for that long, it would feel like a very long book, but as far as JRPGs go, we might be halfway through. We played Persona 4 for more than 90 hours and I still felt like the ending came sooner than I was expecting. To be fair, the game kept saying “This is it, the last battle, coming up,” but it’d said that before, and I just didn’t believe it.

Xenoblade is such a timesuck because it just offers you so many things to do. There are lots of areas to explore and items to look for. It even has a township-building aspect where you can rebuild a settlement that was destroyed by robot monsters. One of the things it offers is a way to build networks of friends between your characters. This isn’t the first RPG to have a social-simulation aspect. In the Persona series (we’ve played 3 and 4), your character is able to have better attacks/magic abilities when he forms deeper friendships. Friendships are formed by spending time with certain characters – your investment in time and energy will eventually lead to a deeper bond of trust, and your friend will open up about their thoughts and feelings a little more. Dragon Age: Origins, a western RPG that we didn’t actually finish, has a social aspect as well – your main character can talk to the other characters in your party and, by choosing the correct responses in a conversation, he or she can somewhat manipulatively encourage loyalty and/or romance. By choosing wrongly, you can also lose loyalty and the character may eventually abandon you altogether. Other RPGs have the appearance of a social aspect that is less fully developed. In the Mass Effect series (we’ve finished 1 and 2; 3 is on our to-play list), your character can spend time chatting with his/her crew, but there are no fine gradations of relationships. You can run errands for people that make them more loyal, but they are either with you all the way or not – there isn’t a fine scale. You can also become romantically involved with (some) of them, or you can sometimes decide to summarily execute them without trial.

In Xenoblade there is more of a Persona like aspect to the social simulation. There are six main player characters (PCs – characters you actually control) and who even knows how many named NPCs (non-player characters – characters you can’t control). The PCs all have relationships with each other, and the more time they spend in the same party, the closer they get. This is a picture of what the social network between player characters looks like:

The strength of the friendship is denoted by the thickness of the lines and also by the little symbol. For instance, Shulk and Reyn (the two characters on the top), are BFFs and spent a lot of time together, so they have a little heart. Shulk and Rikki (the rabbity-looking character on the far left), are not so close, so they have an indifferent little yellow face. What is amazing about this social aspect is how long it takes to build up a friendship. We’ve had Rikki in the party for probably 15 hours now, and he still has only indifferent yellow hexagons with everyone. The philosophy of Xenoblade seems to be that friendships are hard – it takes a lot of investment to grow close to someone.

One of the interesting things about the game is that it doesn’t force you to complete the affinity chart, and the bonuses to being better friends are kind of subtle. In Persona, you pretty much have to work on friendships in order to be able to fight. In Mass Effect 2, making the party loyal is non-optional. But in Xenoblade, the benefit to friendship is being able to talk to them. Scattered throughout the world are little symbols that indicate a place where two characters can have a conversation. These “heart-to-hearts” are the reward for all your efforts in making your characters friendly. They open up to each other. It is the only time when some of these characters will really talk one-on-one. It is sort of nice to have a goal that is so simple, so non-combat oriented, and so tangential to the main plot.

If your primary affinity chart is done, you can always try to improve the friendships of all the NPCs you ever met. Whoever created this image, I tip my hat to you.

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Curiouser and Curiouser

What is it that science is meant to accomplish? Are scientists here to find the solution to problems? Or are we driven by a desire to know more about the world regardless of practical applications? Of course, we need those people who ultimately seek solutions to real-world problems as the end goal to their research – those who want to cure diseases and find alternative energy sources and protect endangered species. But I have to say my heart wants us as scientists to explore the way the world is for no other reason than the awe and humbling joy such knowledge produces.

In the spirit of pure exploration and discovery, I have been for the past couple of months been following the progress of Curiosity, the newest Mars rover. Curiosity’s mission could hardly be less practical; it is looking for evidence that life once existed on Mars. There are no commercial benefits to this research (not in the plannable future); there are no applications of any sort. But if it finds what it’s looking for – what a profound moment for humanity. To know for certain that we are not the only life possible in the universe – to have evidence that life could arise from non-life on not one but two planets in the same solar system, the closest neighbors in a vast galaxy. What a wonderful discovery! And how different might that life be from what we are used to. Evolution on a whole other world, what a discovery!

Curiosity already found this dry ancient streambed. Where there was water, there may also once have been life.

But despite the grandeur of its mission, the updates on NASA’s website read less like epistles to the future, and more like letters from a new parent. It’s hard for me not to love Curiosity. Although I know, of course, that it is not an automatous being, it is so easy to give it a personality with that Wall-E-like face:

There is something completely charming about it. It is so very far away, alone in a vast and bleak landscape. After such a long journey, and such a perilous and untested landing sequence*, there it is, on Mars, a tiny speck on that dot of light in the sky. Although it is a tremendous feat of engineering, Curiosity looks strangely homemade. Look at this self-portrait of its back, covered with specks of Martian dust kicked up by the landing. With those strangely exposed wires and cobbled-together look, doesn’t it seem just like something a brilliant kid would make it his garage?

Curiosity is like an infant, just learning for the first time how to interact with the world. In each mission update, Curiosity explores its surroundings in such tiny ways. It looks around for the first time, trying out its eyes and its voice. It takes its first steps. It begins to manipulate its environment – with rock-zapping lasers and sophisticated chemical analysis systems, but it still feels like a toddler stacking blocks. This past week, Curiosity scooped up its first shovelful of Martial soil for analysis. As it did, it noticed a “small, bright object” on the ground. It spent a Martian day investigating this scrap only to conclude that it was a bit of plastic, something that fell off of itself. Can you imagine that first time you came across a small, pale crescent, and after investigation, conclude that it is your own fingernail clipping. It once was part of you and now is not; how strange.

Curiosity is alone in a very large and bleak place. Strange world for a baby.

It is fitting that Curiosity seems so childlike. We are infants in the universe, after all. Incidentally, my niece is just now, for the first time, learning about her world too. She is learning how her hands can grasp and her legs can kick, that the world is hers to discover and explore. It’s far too early to tell what she will do with those hands and those legs, but I hope that she, and the rest of us, will remember that joy of pure discovery.

*The landing sequence was pretty unbelievable. If you haven’t seen this video, check it out. Those engineers, man. They’re pretty damn inventive.

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Xenoblade Chronicles — hour 20

This is the second post in my ongoing series on the JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles.

***

One of the tropes of Xenoblade Chronicles is the ability to see the future. The main hero, an 18-year-old science geek named Shulk, has acquired the ability to use a magical weapon that, among other things, gives him the ability to see the future. These visions lead to the phrase “change the future” being said with political ad frequency.

Everything gets real trippy when you try to change the future.

It’s not clear yet what the game’s ultimate take on prophesy is. So far, Shulk has mostly been able to successfully evade fate based on his visions. However, in one case, despite his foreknowledge, he was unable to prevent the death of a close friend. Is this a Cassandra-like ability – will Shulk be forced to suffer with the knowledge of future catastrophe that he is powerless to change? Will it eventually prove to have Oedipus-like consequences – his visions will be self-fulfilling? Or does the capacity to see the future give you the ability to change it?

“The future isn’t set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”

– John Connor quoting Kyle Reese quoting John Connor

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

The question of fate, or of determinism, is an ancient one of course, and one that crops up frequently in popular media. Innumerable sci-fi movies deal with the possibilities of time travel or prophesy (which is really just a message that travels back through time). The new Bruce Willis flick Looper is only the latest, and seems to be the spiritual successor to Twelve Monkeys, which I just watched again a couple weeks ago. Whether it has the same take on fate, I couldn’t say, not having see it yet. (In Twelve Monkeys, it seems clear that what will happen will happen – it is impossible to meaningfully change the course of events.) Ted Chiang also deals with this question – he comes down pretty strongly on the side that we have no free will because the structure of space-time is unchangeable whether or not we can see the future.

This trope takes on a particular kind of weirdness in this game. This is not the first JRPG to deal with fate by a long shot. In Chrono Trigger, the characters hop back and forth from distant past, to present, to distant future. But when they are actually traveling through time, it relieves the player of a certain kind of narrative pressure. After all, no matter how much time it takes you to get there, you wind up when you need to be. In Xenoblade, the visions add an immediate narrative urgency: you need to go do something RIGHT NOW or someone is GOING TO DIE. But the way the game is structured, you can futz around chatting with people, exploring the area, buying new stuff, killing monsters, and the like for as long as you want before you continue with the story. This gives an odd kind of tension between continuing the story and playing the game. This happens in other games as well, but the visions of the consequences of failing to take immediate action make it that much more apparent.

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