So I finished Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. Some of you may have noticed that I’ve experimented with posting reactions as I played rather than saving everything for a big epic post at the end. This may mean that y’all are sick of hearing me run my mouth about the same stuff, but at least it’s keeping my posting habits up. Since the other posts were more about themes/story, this one is more game design focused. Click below the fold for a long, rambling post with a lot of JRPG shop talk.
I *get* Shin Megami Tensei now. For much of my early adulthood, I tried to become an SMT fan, and kept hitting a brick wall; the gameplay mechanics were always too frustrating and unrewarding. Persona 4 was the only entry I managed to follow through all the way to completion, and that process took over a year.
A few years later I find myself breezing through two titles within the space of a couple months, ready for more. So something’s changed.
The past year or so has tracked the revival of my interest in JRPGs after it hit its nadir around the time I played Kingdom Hearts II (and, indeed, that game’s status as a beloved classic still baffles me). Said revival began when I popped in Final Fantasy VIII on a whim.
The hallmark of the JRPG – as opposed to more western takes on the genre – is a focus on combat mechanics and linear storytelling. And a lot of examples of the genre treat the former as gruntwork and the latter as the carrot.
This can quickly become tedious because of how developers tend to handle the difficulty curve.
To make the point by contrast: in a Mega Man game, I beat a level by becoming familiar with its layout, developing strategies for overcoming particular obstacles, and internalizing them by way of muscle memory. I, the player, am the one growing and developing, and so beating a level feels like an actual accomplishment.
But in a typical JRPG, I don’t directly control my characters, and so the difficulty curve shifts over to how I manage my characters. In a lot of games, this boils down to how strong they are, and they usually grow in strength by mowing down enemies and collecting experience points. So if I need my party to be at a certain level of strength in order to pass through a bottleneck, I can usually only accomplish this through a lot of repetitive actions that gradually raise my characters’ stats (often called grinding).
But now there’s a disconnect between character and player development. While my characters may be growing, I’m just doing the same thing mindlessly for hours on end, and my only reward is often just some sub-par anime melodrama. And the end result is tedium.
FFVIII throws all this to the wind in cavalier fashion. It even punishes players for attempting to play it like a normal JRPG. It replaces this with the infamously obtuse Junction system. The challenge of the game consists in developing an outside-the-box strategy for mastering the Junction system, and this is exciting in its own way.
The trouble is that FFVIII is a broken mess. Once you understand the intricacies of Junctioning, the game becomes trivially easy with most encounters solvable by mindlessly mashing the attack command. But it was enough to reawaken me to the possibilities of the genre.
So the year that followed mostly consisted of me revisiting older titles and attempting to understand what works and what doesn’t.
Which brings me back to Shin Megami Tensei. The reason why I quickly burned out on Nocturne years ago is because I was still of the mentality that any difficulty spike was to be handled by grinding. And if played in this manner the game is intolerable, as the level scaling makes the benefits of grinding a matter of diminishing returns, while the Press Turn System allows for enemies to completely wreck even a super-buff party by finding a chink in its armor.
To give a specific example: the Matador, an early boss fight, is infamous for sucker punching first time players with a brutally strong enemy. Getting a game over on your first attempt is almost inevitable. Now you could (as I once did) grind for hours until your party is strong enough to tank his onslaught.
Or you could understand what the game is trying to tell you at this point. The Matador uses Force-based attacks and has extremely high agility, and the game is trying to force (heh) you to develop a party and a strategy that can deal with these two factors. A party that can null Force, for instance, will not only not take damage, but also make him lose turns. With thoughtful preparation, he can be defanged quite easily.
The Matador is a trial-by-fire manner of teaching the player how to overcome obstacles in the game, and most of the bosses function in a similar manner: understand how they tick and develop a strategy accordingly. Thus it is still the player who is growing and developing, with the characters as their instrument.
Which leads me to consider the Press Turn System, which I raved about in Digital Devil Saga, but which made its debut here. To reiterate, it serves as an augmentation to the traditional turn-based combat which Nocturne uses by giving you extra turns for exploiting enemy weaknesses, and taking away enemy turns by blocking their attacks (and vice versa). It’s a simple mechanic that nonetheless completely changes the whole experience by adding a layer of strategy to even the bog-standard random battles; superior strength doesn’t mean much if the enemy is able to overwhelm you with free hits, and similarly a strong enemy can be taken down by the right combination of attacks.
The result is an experience where every decision matters, and which rewards you for learning from your failures. It’s the JRPG equivalent of a Mega Man or a Dark Souls game, and I love it.
And to my surprise, I found that this carried over to the macro-macro level (if that makes sense). And here I have to get a tad bit spoilery regarding the ending.
Upon completion of Nocturne, I found that it was successful in one area that The Phantom Pain failed at: the heart of the game was the player’s own emotional arc over the course of the game.
As I said earlier, Nocturne’s characterization is paper thin, with its cast acting as stand-ins for the various philosophies (Reasons) they represent, and that it is the player’s job to choose a particular Reason through their cumulative choices and actions.
I found all the Reasons on display morally compromised at best and abhorrent at worst, and tried to play to my own convictions as closely as the game would allow. This meant refusing to align with any of the other characters, and the game was willing to recognize my choices as a legitimate path.
By the time I arrived at the final dungeon, I had succeeded in making enemies of practically every surviving character, including ones that were once my friends. Poignantly, I had to fight every single one of them in order to prevent their plans from coming to fruition. But the result was that I had prevented any Reason from gaining the upper hand, and had gamed the system. And so I went to the final boss, who was horrified by this turn of events, and gave him a piece of my mind.
The final hours of the game thus felt like they were just the consequences of my own choices, of my decision to do things on my own terms. It felt like there was some genuine causality there, as opposed to me arriving at a particular ending through fulfilling an arbitrary gameplay checkbox, as is usually done. The player’s own arc is the key.
This seems in keeping with the developers’ intent behind all the religious and philosophical imagery. I stumbled across a transcript of an old interview that sheds some light:
For instance, we know that Earth revolves around the sun and that people live on the Earth, but for what reason are these people born? Why does it have to be Earth? How far does the universe extend? What will the universe become? And you think you are who you are, but why was the person who you are born? What should you be doing? What will you become? There’s no limit to the examples you can cite, and I think the questions you can ask are equally unlimited. The proper term for this is philosophy, but such a stiff presentation isn’t suited to a game, and it can be painful to try to understand. That’s why we decided on mythology. Mythology draws answers to these various philosophical questions dynamically and cathartically, and form the basis for many of our stories in present day. Also, from a present-day standpoint there are some mysterious common threads in world mythology, such as the flood myth, and inquiries into the advanced scientific knowledge of ancient cultures brings forward so many interesting themes. Of the motifs from these legends that get carried in the background nowadays, I think we sometimes use them as themes, and sometimes as metaphors, in order to try to present our various questions. -Kaneko
This is actually kinda thoughtful, inasmuch as it recognizes that religion, mythology and philosophy, offer insights into the human condition, rather than merely being archaic modes of explanation that are outmoded by the scientific revolution. And the game would thus allegorize the player’s own philosophical journey, ala A Voyage to Arcturus. It’s still a little bit too Comparative Religion 101, but it’s a more interesting rationale than, “Vishnu looks cool so we’re throwing him in too.”
Of course, if you subscribe to my sort of hermeneutic, the creator’s intentions only offer one interpretation. Nocturne could also easily be interpreted as a sort of postmodern melting pot, where traditional imagery has been drained of any sort of existential claim on the player and only exists as a sort of meaningless pageant of cool stuff for the player to mess around with. This interpretation is more distasteful but seems like a valid one.
I still feel that the end result is something philosophically/theologically bogus but, I will give credit where credit is due and say that there’s more thought behind it than I initially assumed.
Now let’s change aesthetic gears: Nocturne is a very stylized game, utilizing a cel-shaded artstyle and a surreal, dreamlike setting. And this imparts on the game a timeless feel. Although, say, Final Fantasy XII, is a title which has aged very well and looks beautiful, it still looks like a game that came out in 2006. Nocturne, which was released in 2003, could have been released last year by an ambitious indie team.
Which leads me to another bugbear of mine, not just about JRPGs, but about video games as a whole.
The tendency of video games has been towards greater realism and fidelity, towards beefier tech churning out ever more stunningly rendered graphics. This has been a trend producing diminishing returns over the past decade or so, as the soaring costs of production have made it increasingly difficult to make a profit on AAA titles, while the graphics themselves creep onwards into the uncanny valley (I find Ubisoft games painful to look at for this reason). It also leads to an increasing homogenization of games.
Increased realism isn’t bad per se, but it isn’t necessarily a sign of progress either, nor should it be the standard; it is just one aesthetic option among others. The indie game development scene that has blossomed in this century is proof that increased realism isn’t even necessarily a requirement for popularity. I mean, Undertale, a game which was made mostly by one guy and which looks like an NES title, turned out to be one of the most popular and critically lauded RPGs of 2015.
My point is that there are other ways to visually impress people, and Nocturne is a good example of a really distinctive aesthetic and some inspired dungeon design. Like, for instance, a fun-house version of the National Diet Building with hallways that turn out to be painted walls and excellent use of distorted perspectives. Or an unfathomable obelisk consisting of shifting blocks (and guarded by Moira re-imagined as fashion designers).
(Although my one major critique of the game’s design is also related to the dungeons: the latter half of the game overuses teleportation mazes as a way to pad things out, and it feels cheap and frustrating, the final dungeon being particularly egregious in this).
All this is to say that, from a game design perspective, Nocturne is everything I could want out of a turn-based JRPG. It’s themes and story are less toothsome, and part of me wishes that the game which hit that golden mean was less nakedly mal-theistic. But a corollary of that is a greater inspiration to dust off my copy of RPGMaker VX and plug away.