Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Suikoden, RPGs, and Imaginative Space

I finished Suikoden II yesterday. I’d played through the first game to get the backstory and bonuses for this one. The lore ended up more valuable than the carryover for the save file. Suikoden II’s a great, maybe excellent game. It might inch into my top 10 JRPG, a genre I love. Weirdly I skipped finishing some of the side quests and mini-games (cooking contests, seed harvesting, etc). Usually I do all of that. But the drop rates for rare items from the monsters meant that I ended up spending more time than even I like in grinding battles. I wanted to see how the story turned out, maybe more than any other game I’d played.

And when I finished it, I immediately wanted to play it again. A second playthrough would give me a better sense of where to invest my time and a chance to use different parties. Like many of these games, you can't do that much in to truly shift the story unless you want the bad ending. But you can get a different experience depending on who you put in your six person party out of the 60+ possible characters.

On the off chance you’re unfamiliar with these games, Suikoden’s a jrpg series which started on the Playstation in the mid ‘90’s. It had five installments plus a spin-off in the US. In Japan, it had a much larger mythology including a host of Gaiden (side-story) games. It has several novel features. Most notably, your story revolves around the recruitment of 108 NPCs. Some act as support (shopkeepers, tutors, lorekeepers, sources of mini-games), but over half can be used as characters in your active party. Some characters gain special attacks when paired together. So you can have a quite different experience depending on who you choose. In each game you gain some kind of castle (in Suikoden IV it’s a ship). This serves as your home base, where you can interact with all of these characters. It upgrades and changes as you progress. Suikoden has a unique but simple magic system, allowing you to shift talents and powers to different characters. Finally each includes military set-piece battles. In these your NPCs form leaders for units and fight a larger scale battle. These battles aren’t that involved, but do change the pacing. If you’re not a fan of jrpgs, Suikoden isn’t going to change your mind. Currently Konami seems to have given up on the line. The dropped the world and published as stand-alone game for the DS, Suikoden Tierkries, but it didn’t do that well.

I’ve posted before about video games which I’d love to playat the table. But I’m not sure I could bring the feeling of Suikoden to a pen & paper game. How would you simulate the vast number of playable characters? Maybe by abstracting it? Maybe a Troupe system?

Oddly I'd played Suikoden III, IV, Tactics, and V before I played this one. Suikoden II gave me better perspective on events of III, especially the nature of the villains. I actually immediately went to start Suikoden III, but discovered I'd lost my copy in the fire. Luckily it hasn't jumped in price like the other series entries. I’ll probably find a copy and play through that, and then maybe Suikoden V. I’ll skip the 4th one though. I finished it once and the ending left me little enthusiasm for another go. On the other hand Suikoden Tactics remains on my list of games which absolutely defeated me. That’s a side-story game to Suikoden IV. Despite sinking many, many hours into it, it crushed me. And I’ve done the Seraphic Gate and a 100-level no-save end dungeon. It has some truly brutal battles. The worst’s a variable side complex with no save points and the best loot. Your characters will die. And in this game most of them can permadie. Some day when I’m feeling particularly masochistic, I’ll play it again.

I’ve played many tactical rpgs (several Disgaeas, Makai Kingdom, various Final Fantasy Tactics, Chaos Wars, La Pucelle, Devil Survivor, Radiant Historia, Stella Deus, Soul Nomad). Actually I’ve played a ton of them. But I have to admit that I’ve only gotten all the way through one of them. In some cases I’ve tried, gotten a little way in, and decided I wasn’t digging it. In others I sunk a chunk of time but got distracted (La Pucelle), lost my save (Chaos Wars), or took a break long enough that game consoles shifted (Final Fantasy Tactics Advance). But Suikoden Tactics…after sinking 100+ hours in, it just plain beat me.

My love for this genre made me pick up a tabletop miniature system called Endless: Fantasy Tactics. That tries to emulate these games. It looks decent and fun, and the it has awesome shots of the terrain. I can imagine devoting time to building a table like that- imagine but I’m not going to. I have been thinking of another way to play it though: Roll20. That allows for a grid map with snap-to, tokens with associated information, and background images. The only tricky part would be figuring out a decent system for marking elevation. For maps, you could borrow images from various game guides showing the layout. I’ve hunted around and found a few I use. I haven’t played too much with setting that up, but I might muck with it this summer.

Suikoden draws inspiration from The Water Margin, one of the classics of Chinese literature. The name series name is the Japanese translation of that title. The epic story has been adapted many times. If you dig Shaw Brothers films, you may have seen their version, Outlaws of the Marsh. Suikoden lifts the basic concept of assembling a large and diverse group of rebels to oppose a tyrannical force. Imagine Star Wars if you ended up with 100+ important character. Suikoden borrows Chinese elements for many of the designs: art details, naming, costumes, and architecture. You can see that throughout the series. But there’s also a joyfully strange mish-mash of other cultures here. Some places and characters look more 18th Century or Three Musketeer-ish in design. Others have pseudo-Prussian military uniforms. Some have stereotypical Samurai designs, Amer-Indian costuming, or even Steampunk elements. And, of course, there’s a decent segment of characters wearing Final Fantasy style impracticalities. There’s little explanation of the where and how of these things. Many of these cultural beats exist together in one region or area of the game. I love how crazy that feels. It reminds me a little of Valkyrie Profile’s strange welding together of Japanese, Arthurian, and Norse peoples. If you like consistency in your world-building, you may find Suikoden a brain-burner.

Being a JRPG the Suikoden series has some problems with representation. Most of the characters are clearly coded Asian by dress and depiction, as are some Caucasians. Most of that reading, at least for me, comes from naming. But generally they’re generic lighter-skinned. A few of the games offer a broader range of persons of color. In particular Suikoden III has a non-Caucasian main character (one of the three mains), as well as several other characters from his people. But they’re, of course, tribal, grassland nomads. A few other PoC pop up- Nikea & Zegai in V, Hauser in II, Samus & Hortez in III- but they’re infrequent. Suikoden I and IV don’t have any. Some of the games hints at alternate. Each has a system where the player can pay an NPC investigator to find out more about a character’s background. Some of these factoids suggest lesbian characters (Oulan) or perhaps transgender (Jeane). A few male characters seem to be coded gay, but with stereotypical effeminate features played for laughs.

That may not make it sound great, but Suikoden does better than other contemporaneous jrpgs (Final Fantasy, DragonQuest). Where the series shines is in the number and presentation of playable female characters. On the one hand, all of the “Hero” main characters are male except for one of the three from Suikoden III. On the other you get a ton of cool women with distinct identities, designs, and roles. We have the classic hyper-sexualized characters- impractical, skimpy outfits, bare midriffs. That’s par for the course. But we also have women in reasonable armor, older women, younger non-sexualized characters, and female sword & shield warriors. These women aren’t all light fighters, archers, or mages. As importantly, some of those characters aren’t gorgeous. They’re allowed to be more interesting than beautiful, closer to the span offered male characters. That’s better in the earlier games than the latter, though. Suikoden has a neat array of choices in genders here and given the sheer number, players can really build the party they want.

Here’s weirdly what I love about Suikoden. They have so many characters, you only get a little bit of set up and characterization for each. Some are clearly “mains” with stories, arcs, and segments when they force their way into your party. But many more you recruit and get just a general sense of who they are, fleshed out by the investigations. In doing so, these games leave imaginative space for interactions between characters. By penciling less in, you end up with more room to come up with stories. I love trying to figure out what different combinations of characters would make of one another- how they’d fight, what kind of respect they’d develop, if friendships would emerge. I can also come up with stories about where they came from. For example, we have the black character Samus in Suikoden III- a striking contrast to others we see from his country. What’s the story there? An immigrant? A pluralistic society? A distinct sub-culture? More than more other jrpgs I’ve played- even big cast features like Final Fantasy VI and ChronoCross- I enjoy the self-created lore of Suikoden.

That’s reinforced by most of the games having fairly mute or tabula rasa main character. But even in those with more defined reactions, like Suikoden III, this holds true. I can imagine who the main character has a crush on and who has a crush on them: unrequited love, spurned affections, and romantic comedies abound. I like the deeper interactions and choices something like Dragon Age gives. Those offer some autonomy in the interactions. But games like Final Fantasy XIII, Wild Arms 3, and Star Ocean spend time telling me exactly how these characters feel about one another, usually with little or no player input.

Suikoden also resonates more than other jrpgs. I’m not certain how to put that. Many I’ve played had interesting stories that kept me moving forward, even when inscrutable (Radiant Historia, Xenogears). Others focused on battling abstractions (ChronoCross, Final Fantasy X). Some had villains with strange or arcane motivations (Wild Arms 3, XenoBlade Chronicles). In Suikoden the stakes are real and apparent, grounded in the personal. Twists and mysteries aren’t something you couldn’t have predicted (ala Final Fantasy XIII). Instead the characters’ development pays off with actual dramatic tension (especially in Suikoden II). The same general structure runs through all the games- a betrayal of some kinds leads the Hero to gather forces for a struggle against a tyrannical and callous Empire. Often the Hero comes from that Empire and aims to restore stability and bring peace. But the game often questions the cost of that: what devastation the war brings, how power corrupts, the uncertainty of force to bring peace. Even more than other games with clear drives (Skies of Arcadia, Final Fantasy VI), this series pulls me in. I don’t know if that’s just me, but I think not. Rob Donohue has talked about his love for Suikoden V

As a weird side note, I’ve always heard that Runequest made a significant impact in Japan. That may be an urban legend, though I do know that RQ was among the earliest pen & paper rpgs translated for there. In the West, you can see Glorantha’s fingerprints all over The Elder Scrolls. But I think there’s an argument to be made for that maybe with Suikoden. On the one hand, the series has no real active divinities. But it does have a focus on “True Runes” as building blocks of the world. Magic comes from runes which echo those originals. But, more importantly, Suikoden III has a race of duck people- armed, armored, and treated seriously. Perhaps there’s an echo of the Druulz there? I’m probably reaching a little…