Monday, 28 September 2015

What a Wonderful Genre

I sometimes wonder whether there’s a value in genre-based critique, particularly for a genre as diverse and nebulous as JRPGs. Looking at Tales of Vesperia means addressing the genre at large as well as its contemporaneous western perception, but I’m wary of falling into the trap of fanboyism. I’m not even sure what might constitute a ‘genre crisis’, never mind whether one actually occurred.

The perception of a genre crisis persists, though. I think it’s probably been there for a long time – some of the things that bring it about are inescapable consequences of an international games industry – but the phenomenon of games being proclaimed ‘the saviour of the JRPG’ is newer, I think. The World Ends With You is the first such game I was aware of.

To quote the almost inevitable arch-villain of any extended defence of the JRPG, Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw, from his 2008 review of TWEWY:
“I had heard that The World Ends With You does things differently to most JRPGs, and while I took that with mountainous piles of salt … I thought if the release dates are from bizarro world, maybe the entire game is, too, and will turn out to be the first good JRPG.”[1]
And that’s very much the perception I remember having of TWEWY. That it does things differently. Maybe it’s just what this genre needs. TWEWY certainly positions itself as modern and exciting, not always successfully. Its contemporary setting, punk aesthetic and action combat were all trumpeted as much-needed progress; even Yahtzee found a positive word for the game’s look.

But the actual extent to which the game innovates is unclear. Modern settings weren’t new; the Persona franchise was a decade old by TWEWY’s release, and more obscure modern-set games go back much further (the original Mother, for example, came out in 1989). Action combat in Japanese RPGs goes right back to the SNES (Secret of Mana, Tales of Phantasia). Even the ‘punk fashion’ doesn’t actually look so very different from the outfits on display in any number of earlier titles.

The game’s treatment of its female characters is sadly predictable. Shiki, Neku’s first partner, gets damseled at the end of the first act to provide motivation for acts two and three. One of the female villains is an ‘ice queen’ archetype, the other emotionally erratic and constantly being told to calm down. Rhyme gets fridged in act one, then turns out later to have already been in a different fridge all along[2].

On the mechanical/structural side, the game really isn’t that innovative at all. The plot progresses as the search for cutscene triggers, along with the completion of occasional arbitrary challenges and a steady supply of boss fights. You can overlook it at first, but about half-way through the second week there’s a day where all you do is go to a new area, find out what the next challenge is, backtrack to grind it to completion, and repeat.

There are genuine innovations here – the gender-neutral but not gender-ignorant clothing/bravery mechanic is one that I wish had taken off – but the game’s biggest strength lies in its dialogue writing. When not burdened with the demands of exposition, the dialogue is incredible. But TWEWY isn’t the first well-written game, and good writing predates digital games by a few years at least.

In fact, I’d argue, one of the things that got the game touted as forward-looking, the non-turn-based combat, is a real weak spot thematically. For a game trying to engage with the modern, digital era, where combat serves among other things as a metaphor for brand advertising, I feel like turn-based combat would have been quite at home. It could have been built around the frantic exchange of text messages or emails – discrete bursts of activity followed by an anxious wait for the potentially disastrous response.

Turn-based combat was a favourite punching bag of JRPG haters, though, and probably still is. Certainly Yahtzee went after it with knives drawn – reviewing Super Paper Mario, he crowed that “The stupid, effeminate, blouse-wearing turn-based combat is replaced with wholesome, traditional, masculine head-stomping,” which is a perfect distillation of the insecurity that underpins a lot of JRPG criticism.

But attempts to get away from turn-based combat have had mixed results. TWEWY’s system at least produces some sense of rhythm and party interaction. Eternal Sonata and other games that adapted Paper Mario’s action command system tended to end up with blind guesswork and repetition. More drastic experiments like the gunplay in Resonance of Fate could be bewildering, not to mention difficult to balance because of a lack of precedent to learn from.

Meanwhile, games that stuck to a known formula for combat tended to draw less notice, but be more consistent. Tales of Vesperia adds only tweaks to a system polished through Tales of Symphonia and Tales of the Abyss. Blue Dragon worked wonders with a modified version of Final Fantasy X’s completely turn-based battles.

I’m not complaining about innovation per se. My problem with all these examples is that they’re innovation at gun-point, innovation not driven by the needs of the work but the demands of a hostile audience. If there is a genre crisis at all, it resides in this tension. Certainly that’s what Vesperia engages with at every level of its design.

What I’m not sure of is whether there’s any great value to my pointing this out, which is a bad thing to say at the end of a thousand-word blog post. I don’t expect to be able to persuade people, and I don’t really want to try. I’m certainly not qualified to approach this as a design textbook, or even as a way of advocating a design principle. I do want to capture what Vesperia expresses, though, and that involves at least a little of both those other things.

[1] Yes, I watched that video carefully enough to transcribe it. Don’t say I never suffer for my work. (The note about release dates refers to the fact that TWEWY – like more recent ‘genre-saviour’ Xenoblade Chronicles – came out in Europe before America).

[2] Okay, yes, I’m indulging my love of tortured metaphors here. Bigger-than-average-spoilers for explanation: having been killed off in act one to get Neku angry at the Reapers, Rhyme turns out to have come into the Reapers’ game as a result of a death whose function in the story is to motivate Beat.

Monday, 21 September 2015

The World Trends With You

For a game that went into development in 2005, elements of The World Ends With You feel outright prescient. This was a time before Facebook or Twitter even existed (or at least, before they were open to the general public), when ‘social media’ meant MySpace and Livejournal. Unfortunately, largely because of how Facebook and Twitter, and their explosive success, have changed social media and social patterns, other bits of the game haven’t aged well at all.

The good first: TWEWY has a ‘trends’ mechanic whereby most equipment in the game has a ‘brand’ and different brands are in vogue in different areas. Over time, trends shift and brands rise and fall. Equipment with trending brands gets bonuses. The ever-shifting trend chart will feel pretty familiar to anyone who spends a lot of time on Twitter, as will the way trends shift unpredictably and arbitrarily over time and from region to region.

What feels less in-touch is how you interact with these trends. You can boost a brand by wearing it and fighting battles, and some plot events involve using protagonist Neku’s mind-reading powers to manipulate others into setting or following trends. Neku, trapped in a shadow version of Shibuya, invisible to its ordinary inhabitants, becomes a sort of spooky, subliminal influence, enacting the unintelligible whims of vast and sinister powers.

For 2005-7, you can see where the developers were coming from. I’m sure that people who know the ins and outs of the fashion industry have some sense of where the trends one sees in the street come from, but otherwise it can seem very mysterious indeed. This is particularly true for those of us of a male persuasion, who are socialised to find fashion completely opaque.

Having the combat promote brands is one part pure ludus, of course, but it’s also a metaphor for being seen wearing. This is how fashion brands work, or at least how they’re supposed to – people see someone influential wearing <brand> and want to imitate them. That TWEWY also has supernatural forces and mind control at work to create this effect is a pointed comment.

But our understanding of trends – and certainly the definition of the word ‘trend’ – has been transformed over the last decade. There’s nothing in TWEWY to make you feel involved in trends. Neku stands apart from the culture he influences, boxed off by the metaphysics of the Reapers’ Game. Trends happen to the background humans, even to the point that in the end they are all brainwashed into one particular pattern of thought.

And there’s another quirk of the game that takes this from being merely dated[1] to actually off-putting. Neku is a misanthrope; we are first introduced to him as he bitches about how noisy and irritating other people are. The enemies you fight to promote your brands are collectively referred to as ‘Noise’, too.

One of the few insights the game gives into Neku’s character is his preference for one particular designer’s work and philosophy, but the philosophy in question is a conceited, shallow existentialism that feeds Neku’s contempt. Neku seems to hate other humans for existing (and to assume they can generally do no more than exist). His dislike of noise isn’t a now-familiar objection to the ceaseless howling of twitter or the noxious stew of Facebook[2], he’s just petulant and self-centered.

Yes, by the end of the game Neku has begun to open up. One of his final lines is “I have friends now”. But there’s no sense that this is part of a wider development of his empathy. His friendships were developed in isolation from humanity, just like everything else that happens in the game.

It’s the isolation that no longer feels resonant. It’s not just that we see ‘trending’ differently now. It’s that the idea I remember having in 2007 of how trends work seems naïve. Had I played the game then, I might have felt reassured by its portrayal of trends and fashions as the work of a sinister corporate nether realm. But the failure to address how we ‘ordinary people’ participate in and propagate trends is now obvious.

The separation between Neku, along with the other residents of Underground Shibuya who can shape and exploit trends, and humanity at large grants the latter group the comfortable innocence of the powerless. They are only ever victims of trends, or occasionally unwitting pawns of trendsetters. If Twitter has a general lesson at all, it’s that this is a fiction.

This is where the passage of time really hasn’t been kind to TWEWY. Something that was hidden in its understanding of its theme has been laid bare. There’s more to be said about TWEWY’s relationship to modernity, but for a game touted as a much-needed update to the JRPG genre, its theme now feels simplistic and outdated.

[1] Not actually a sin, for what my saying it is worth. TWEWY feels right to me as a piece of its time – the retro phone graphics of the HUD are spot-on for the kind of phones I had as a undergraduate (2005-8).

[2] Both of which are probably not quite as bad as the hype suggests, but bad enough that I’d be sympathetic now to most people complaining about noise in those contexts.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Dog Time

‘World’ is, by root, as much a temporal concept as a spatial one. I’ve said before that one of the things that Tales of Vesperia struggles with is conveying the passage of time between its plot developments. The plot moves in fits and starts, tied tightly and transparently to the movements and actions of the player characters.

There is one side-quest in the game, though, which is a little more sophisticated. At roughly the end of Vesperia’s first act, you can run across Little Wolf, the nemesis of Yuri’s canine companion Repede (Repede being a playable character in his own right). Little Wolf challenges Repede to a ‘marking battle’, a contest to say which of them can claim more territory around the world.

The way this works is simple; rest in an area of the world map and Repede will claim it as his own. Meanwhile, over time, Little Wolf slowly builds an empire, taking unclaimed territories and nibbling away at Repede’s. If you, at any point, manage to take 95% of the world map from Little Wolf, you win and he shows up to concede. He will still, even more slowly, claim territory, but his submission is clear.

After starting the side-quest, you can get an item which displays Repede’s and Little Wolf’s territory on the world map – not the live one that tracks your position as you move around, but the more detailed one available from the pause menu. Repede’s territory is marked with blue blobs, Little Wolf’s with red, and the boundaries pulse and blur enough to make them seem dynamic and in constant conflict.

What the slow swelling of Little Wolf’s territory conveys, in a way that little else in this game can, is the passage of time. It’s not perfect – you have to keep opening a pretty deeply-buried menu to see it – but it’s there, and it does suggest that some things happen in the world without Yuri’s direct intervention.

It conveys some broad things about the party’s situation, too. You can only claim territory that you can get to, and if you start the side-quest as soon as it’s available, your travel options are extremely limited. Many areas are inaccessible until you get the airship late in act 2, by which time Little Wolf can claim a lot of land you can’t reach.

The world changes as the plot progresses, as well. A handful of the areas you have to claim are lakes or mountain ranges when you first encounter them, and only become places where the airship can land after the earth-shaking events of the final act. In my early play-throughs of the game I spent a long time searching for concealed landing-spots in act 2 before discovering these transformations.

Perhaps the most important function of the Little Wolf side-quest is its interaction with the sections of the plot that restrict your mobility. In particular, during the section where you’re trying to rescue Estelle, your airship is damaged and you’re forced to ground. On recovering to the nearest town, you find that a civilian exodus has tied up every last boat, and you’re trapped on one particular continent.

Vesperia then sends you on a long, torturous journey to where Estelle’s being held. From having granted you and your characters an exclusive mastery of the skies, the game narrows down to a single convoluted path, fraught with monsters and harsh terrain. It never really manages to convince you you won’t rescue Estelle, but it does its best.

Functionally, of course, the rescue of Estelle will wait for you to reach your destination. Until you hit the right series of triggers, Estelle – and her captors – remain in limbo. There’s time to chase up any of the side-quests that are available to you (not many, but there are a few diversions, at least one of which is only available during this sequence). So it’s hard to feel much urgency.

But through it all, Little Wolf advances. He’s always moved fastest on the far side of the world from where you’re stuck. Now there’s hours of gameplay where you can do nothing to stop him. Whenever you come back to the dog map, Little Wolf’s territorial gains are a diagram of your delay.

You can always recover – tents aren’t expensive by the standards of the late game, and once you have your freedom back you can claim territory pretty quickly (though you must fight at least one battle each time you rest before you can rest again). Nothing is missable, you don’t get locked out of the rewards[1], but time does pass.

It’s this sense of the inexorability of time that I think games often struggle with. In-game time is malleable in a way that real-world time isn’t, and many ways of making in-game time more restrictive also place harsh demands on players that have little respect for differences in ability or circumstance. Vesperia’s dog map offers a way to weave between this limitations.

[1] Though Vesperia is quite happy to lock you out of other sidequests if you miss particular steps. I’m of two minds about this, but it’s a topic for another time.

Written for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table:

Monday, 14 September 2015

Of Maps and Men

Right from the very first lines of the opening narration, Tales of Vesperia emphasises how wild and uncharted its world is. Towns are only safe because of vast and powerful magical barriers; few humans ever go outside, and those who do will be eaten by monsters if they can’t defend themselves. The failure of a town’s barrier is a cataclysmic event.

Given this strict binary between townsfolk and travellers, the game quickly sorts the player characters into the latter category. Yuri and Estelle are forced to flee from their homes into the wilderness. Before they go, though, they are given a map. Apart from the immediate area around the city, it’s blank.

Yuri and Estelle decide to fill in the map as they go; it updates automatically from this point forward. Shortly, they meet Karol, a young trainee monster hunter about to be thrown out of his guild for cowardice. Karol doesn’t have a map of his own, but takes over the role of cartographer when he realises how little of your map is filled in.

Later, your quest brings you to a forgotten shrine, Baction, where you find a dungeon consisting mostly of repetitive square rooms differentiated only by monster placement and cracks in the floor. Here, again, Karol is given mapping duties – this is the only dungeon in the game that has an on-screen minimap. Numerous skits and cutscenes emphasise Karol’s love of mapmaking, of which the most striking is when he says:

“Nothing calls to a man’s heart like the thrill of making maps!”

This is not a sentiment the other male characters share (Yuri responds, drily, “I’ve never had that thrill.”) Both Yuri and Raven emphasise a more familiar violent and promiscuous masculinity. Throughout the early part of the game, Yuri constantly trolls Karol for his cowardice, apparently with the idea that this will toughen him up. Later, when Karol does get to ‘prove’ his manhood by defending the rest of the party from a boss all by himself, Raven says, “Facing down challenges like that is part of becoming a man.”

But while Karol does fit or try to fit some parts of this image of masculinity – trying to be a monster hunter, carrying comically oversized weapons – his actual manhood is constructed very differently. It’s in his building a guild of his own, and developing its reputation through hard work and respectful business with other guilds. It’s in his interest in mapmaking and his (implied) willingness to step back and let others benefit from it[1].

In other words, Karol’s masculinity is sited in responsibility, and in engagement with community. What Karol seeks is not just manhood in himself but legitimacy, a place in society. For Yuri and Raven, masculinity is no such thing; one way or another, their masculinity is about the freedom of power and self-determination.

Karol’s love of cartography dovetails with his masculinity. As Kaitlin Tremblay writes in this month’s Critical Distance Blogs of the Round Table prompt:

“Maps… order and define spaces… They set a boundary to what otherwise feels vast and potentially limitless, a way to compartmentalise and therefore tackle the world.”

Where Yuri and Raven – along with most of the game’s other male characters – are erratic and chaotic, Karol’s is a masculinity of order and control. It is a masculinity that takes wild spaces and tames them, and this sounds like a good thing. At least, it sounds preferable to Yuri’s rampant individualism.

But control and categorisation are the subtle weapons of masculine hegemony. Yuri’s violence – and Raven’s lechery – may seem more dangerous, but many of the game’s villains are motivated by the desire to control, to keep people in their places. And, on the face of it, Karol’s maps only really serve those already capable of using the spaces he charts – since these spaces are dungeons and the hostile wilderness, only those who can already take care of themselves benefit[2].

Mapping the world, by implication mastering it, is an expression of privilege. Maps that go beyond the purely topographical – surveillance maps, maps of national boundaries or battlefronts – are often tools of power. We see this in the refugee crisis in Europe at the moment, thousands of people dying or being mistreated for the sake of lines on a map.

Vesperia doesn’t address this facet of maps directly. Its world, Terca Lumireis, is not really divided among nations, since the land outside the magical barriers is equally hostile to everyone. While there are occasional references to governance and military action, it’s basically never the focus of events. Karol’s maps are never used to express collective, institutional or hierarchical power.

The game does entrust the map to hierarchical power, though. When you complete the world map, the ‘reward’ cutscene and title go to Estelle, an Imperial princess. By this time, she’s already passed over the possibility of succession, but she remains an image of royalty – indeed, the supernatural legacy she inherits suggests her bloodline may be exceptionally pure.

What does she use the map for? In the cutscene, an NPC notices her looking at it and asks Estelle to tell her about all the exotic places she’s visited. Estelle, whose passion is storytelling, obliges, talking right through the night.

Maps can be tools of power, but they can also be souvenirs and reminders. Somewhere I still have the map of New York I bought on a trip there in 2004, because without a map I can’t fit the memories of those four frantic days together in a coherent order. Estelle’s use of the world map does more than that, arguably; it enables her to bring the now-tamed spaces of the wilderness to those not privileged to be able to visit them.

Whether this is enough to defang the map as a tool of power, I’m not sure. The game could be seen as naïve in suggesting that. But as a suggestion of a better way – not just for maps but by implication for masculinity – it bears some consideration.

[1] I’ll return to this point later, but the rewards for completing the world map all go to Estelle.

[2] It should be noted that not all such characters are male in Vesperia. In their own distinct ways, all three of the party’s female members are empowered to be outside the safety of the towns, but where addressed at all this tends to be framed as ‘unladylike’.

Written for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table:

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

What the Hero Cannot Save the Princess From

Tales of Vesperia is the story of a young man going on an adventure with a princess, so of course, at one point, she gets kidnapped and he has to ‘rescue’ her. As this happens about two-thirds of the way through the plot, there will be some more detailed spoilers than are usually necessary in what follows.

The kidnapping happens shortly after the game’s sequence of big reveals plays out. We discover that Estelle, the Imperial Princess Yuri has latched onto, is the Child of the Full Moon, imbued with a power that threatens the natural order of the entire world of Terca Lumireis. Estelle, who is possessed of a compassion that borders on the cherubic, has already once said that if her power cannot be controlled she is willing to accept death for the sake of the world.

Yuri will have none of this. When the party work out, collectively, just how much of a danger Estelle poses, Yuri insists that Estelle not give up on the slim chance that they may be able to find some way to control her power. As he pressures Estelle, berating her for saying that she’s prepared to die if necessary, she cracks and runs off, seeking a moment alone to process her desperate straits.

The rest of the party give her space, spending the time discussing what might be done to help her. After a few moments, Raven, the shifty older dude who’s latched on to your party for as-yet-suspect reasons[1], complains he can’t follow the discussion and goes outside. When the rest of the party emerge later, both Raven and Estelle are missing.

It seems pretty obvious what’s happened. The only ambiguity is where Raven might have taken Estelle, and who exactly he might be working for. This prompts a search of the current town, which – if taken at face value – the game makes an oddly laboured affair, with some really awkward progress triggers.

The complicating factor in all this is that the town in question is the sky-city Myorzo, isolated and secret[3] home of the Kritya (basically Vesperia’s ‘descendants of the Ancients’ race). The only way out of the city is your airship, which is still docked. Eventually, you find an old, decommissioned teleporter which has been reactivated, and the guardian spirit of the city tracks its signal to tell you where to go.

Here’s where things get weird. When someone asks how the teleporter was reactivated, the party’s magic expert and expositor, Rita, specifically says that it could only have been Estelle’s powers that got it working. On top of that, when you follow the trail that the spirit identifies, you go to a location that there’s no sign Estelle ever visited.

Now, when you finally catch up to Estelle after blindly chasing another false lead, she’s definitely being held against her will, tormented and puppeteered by the current arch-villain to serve his ends. But while it’s unclear exactly how much power he has over her, what is clear is that the threat she poses to the world is contained.

What’s suggested, subtly but insistently, is that Raven, acting on the mastermind’s behalf, made some vague promise to Estelle that he knew someone who could control her power, and Estelle jumped at the chance. The mastermind’s solution is cruel and painful, but Estelle is still conflicted about whether she wants freedom – even during the rescue, she begs you to kill her.

Some of this – the cackling, sadistic villain, the tortured princess – could be chalked up to standard and regrettably exploitative video game melodrama, and it’s clear that Yuri himself reads it that way. It never occurs to Yuri that the Princess might not want to be rescued, or might be terrified of the implications of rescue even if she wanted it, or even that he can’t actually save her by rescuing her. He just chews his way through three levels of delaying tactics and diversions and rescues Estelle.

Rescuing Estelle, by the way, means fighting her as a mind-controlled boss; in the final phase of the battle, Yuri fights alone, without the rest of the party. On the way he’s accepted that it might be necessary to kill her to save her from Alexei – he’s willing to do that, even though he wouldn’t let her give her own life up willingly. All through this, he has no answer for the question of what they might do to prevent Estelle accidentally destroying the world.

Yuri’s actions and misjudgements come from two sources. One is his assumption of his own narrative, what I think of as ‘hero privilege’. While never as overt or self-aware about it as someone like Final Fantasy XII’s Balthier, Yuri understands both the structure of fairytales and the role into which he fits within that structure[4]. One of the key thrusts of Vesperia’s narrative is to highlight how inhuman this can be, how much we accept from heroes that in other contexts would be abhorrent.

But Yuri’s actions, and particularly his insistence that Estelle not ‘give up’ (i.e. accept death), are also part and parcel of his personal ethos. Yuri has a devotion to self-determination and authenticity that would do Sartre proud. Self-serving as his manipulations to prolong his time with Estelle are, it’s clear he earnestly believes that she wants and needs the adventure for her own sake.

Generally speaking, Estelle agrees, too. She speaks often of needing to find her own way. If she does indeed go willingly to Alexei, it is because she gives in to fear of the consequences of not doing so, fear that the cost of her freedom for others would be too high.

Yuri can embrace the existentialist life because he has very few social ties. For Estelle, as a princess and as the inheritor of a powerful mystical lineage, things are more complicated. The game eventually comes down much more on Estelle’s side; before you can go to the final boss, there’s another awkward sequence where you have to go around the world seeking the blessing of its various heads of state for your near-apocalyptic plan.

Rhetorically, Tales of Vesperia positions ‘hero privilege’ as a distortion of responsible interaction with society. Yuri is always willing to take responsibility for his actions, but he is never required to face truly horrible choices the way Estelle is purely in virtue of who she was born. There’s no question that Vesperia’s way of making this point exploits and objectifies Estelle, but its use of dissonant, ‘gamey’ surface to address Yuri is worth some attention.

This is not a game that hangs together well on the surface. Yuri doesn’t really get to be the hero, the rescue of Estelle makes no sense and the final act is unfocussed, confusing and disorganised. You can play this as a Video Game Story, but it won’t satisfy you.

The coherent narrative of Tales of Vesperia is buried under Yuri’s story; just as Yuri is blind to the harshest consequences of his actions, reading him as the hero blinds you to what’s really going on. In a way, this is futile, since the only players who are going to see this are already beyond the shallow engagements the game critiques, so it’s preaching to the choir, but it’s still a very competent use of the narrative to express theme.

[1] There’s a character like this in every Tales game and he’s always the worst[2]. Yes, Devon, that includes Alvin.

[2] Actually, in Tales of Graces, the role is played by Asbel’s younger brother, and the older dude who hangs around with you is pretty cool.

[3] There’s an essay in exactly how isolated and/or secret the city is, but I’m still puzzling that out.

[4] Vesperia plays this up by contrasting Yuri, the social drop-out, with his childhood friend Flynn who has joined the Imperial Knights and steadily climbed their ranks. That relationship is too much to get into here, as is Flynn’s relationship to Estelle.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Coherence, Dissonance and Tales of Vesperia

When trying to characterise the phenomena that induced me to make a study of Tales of Vesperia, I fumbled with a variety of terms. ‘Gamey’ and ‘self-conscious’ were among them, but I eventually settled uncomfortably on ‘absurd’. ‘Absurd’ has a particular sense and history in art, though, and I’m not sure it quite fits what I was getting at.

Fortunately, thanks to Lana Polansky, I now have a better terminology to work with. Polansky discusses two terms, ‘coherence’ and ‘dissonance’. These aren’t opposites; Polansky makes clear that a work can be one or the other, both or neither. They refer to distinct characteristics a work (experience?) can have.

Dissonance, as I understand it, is something felt or sensed; a phenomenal property of things not quite seeming right. As such, dissonance is an artist’s tool, with well-documented uses. Across every genre of music, dissonance is used to create uneasy moods and dark feelings. Elements of a painting may be dissonant with one another, leading to a work that resists simple, literalistic readings.

By contrast, I understand ‘coherence’ as a logical/cognitive property, whose opposite is contradiction. This is very much a philosopher’s understanding, so take it with a pinch of salt, but it’s what I’ve got to work with. Contradiction is what happens when two propositions cannot be held together; a set of statements is coherent if they can all be held together.

It’s very hard, given how the language of academic philosophy has bled into wider culture, to prevent this distinction seeming hierarchical. There’s a cultural tendency to privilege the logical over the sensed/apparent/phenomenal. But whatever your feelings about feels and reals, I think Polansky makes clear that coherence and dissonance can’t stand in a hierarchical relationship because they don’t denote specific points on a shared continuum. They’re phenomena different in kind, not degree.

Simplifying, dissonance is when something feels wrong, whether or not anything ‘actually is’. It’s when a surface reading of a work won’t fit. Incoherence is when the statement being made by a work – or being attributed to a work by a critic – doesn’t make sense because parts of the work actively detract from it. So Clint Hocking’s (in)famous ludonarrative dissonance is actually more a kind of incoherence[1].

Bringing this back round to my interests, we can now say that Tales of Vesperia is often dissonant, but that it is also strikingly coherent. The game’s plot, visual design and mini-games/side-quests make it a jagged landscape littered with obvious cracks. The Wonder Reporter is just the most aggressive; there’s a whole city built to look like a giant mace, and you could drive a bus through some of the holes in the world-building, particularly the schemes of the various bad guys.

For every dissonant chord, though, there is a resolution into harmony. Sometimes this is prominent, as in the contrast between the way the game handles its ‘Wonder Log’ and the other player logbooks. Sometimes it is more subtle, as when one realises that a plot hole is really protagonist Yuri ignoring key plot details because they don’t fit his personal narrative.

Every time, though, a pattern is reinforced; a genre trope is instantiated in a way that brings out its laziness, its familiarity, its gaminess or its wrongness, then subverted to critique the mainstream reception or expectation that created it. In other words, something is first presented as dissonant, and then its dissonance is attributed to forces outside the design of the game.

This establishes a very coherent – not to mention angry – message. For Vesperia, and/or its developers, the ‘genre crisis’ in JRPGs has nothing to do with the actual experiences produced by any of its immediate predecessors, but is instead a matter of conflicting expectations among its audience. I happen to think there’s a lot of truth to this, but the argument would be coherent even if it turned out to be completely misplaced.

Of course, no work of art assembled by the size of team that works on most major industry game titles could be completely coherent. Vesperia fails most prominently in its engagement with temporality, where it just doesn’t do as much with its dissonance. This isn’t necessarily a problem – I am, after all, doing arts criticism right now and not abstract formal logic[2] – since it’s not a broad enough incoherence to obliterate the overall point.

Generally speaking, then, my ongoing work with Vesperia is going to involve taking each point of dissonance in turn and pushing at it until it resolves. Depending on your attitude to art and meaning, this can be seen either as a forensic or a creative endeavour, or a combination of the two. It’s the approach I’ve already applied to the Wonder Reporter, and I’ll have another piece along those lines next week sometime.

[1] I think this is the essence of Robert Yang’s complaint about the term – we don’t feel any dissonance playing, say, violent games that attempt to critique violence, even if on a closer look these games end up seeming terribly hypocritical.

[2] Again, it’s hard to make that sound non-hierarchical, but having taught formal logic I can say its uses in pure form are very limited.