Depression, Disinterest and Disappearing: The Dark Side of Escapism

I haven’t written anything in a long, long while. It’s been about five months since my last piece, and then about three months between that post and the one before it. With writing, there’s always a bit of a push and pull; there are times you feel inspired and times you don’t. It’s really hard to push yourself to write when you don’t feel inspired. Truly talented and hardworking writers work through those apathetic spells, though, actively searching for inspiration when they run out of it. If worst comes to worst, it will come back eventually, even if it takes a week or two.

Up until this last year, that’s been true for me, too. My writer’s block would usually only last about two or three weeks, though it occasionally stretched on for around a month, if I was dealing with a particularly bad case of it. Every time it hit me, I worried my inspiration might have left me for good; I thought maybe I had finally used up all the mental and emotional resources I had, and none of it was ever coming back. It always did, though. At least until recently.

I haven’t had the urge to sit down and write something for a solid six or seven months now. I have flashes of inspiration here and there, but they all slip away from me the moment I start actually writing anything. Six months is an alarming amount of time to be uninspired. Maybe not everyone can relate to that; maybe that’s a pretty normal amount of time for a person’s creative outlets to be totally dormant. I honestly don’t know. I do know it’s not normal for me, though. And it’s really scary, being so distant from this part of myself for so long. It feels like I’m losing sight of who I am.

 A lifelong quest. [Kidding aside, this game helped me a lot a while back.]
A lifelong quest. [Kidding aside, this game helped me a lot a while back.]

I’ve felt this way before, though. It’s a feeling that comes packaged in with depression, something I’ve struggled with for my entire adult life. Over the last few months, I have been mired in one of the deepest depressions I have ever experienced, and that has no doubt made my writing issue significantly worse. If my state of mind was a little less awful, maybe I would have been able to hold on tighter to those occasional flashes of inspiration. Maybe I would’ve actually committed to each of them, and written out all the words I wanted to write. Instead, I’ve been spending all my free time trying to disappear.

A while ago, I wrote about how many people, myself included, use video games as a means to escape from reality. I wrote about how there has always been some negativity associated with that kind of escapism, and went on to say that I found that attitude pretty dismissive. I said that it’s important for people to have escape outlets, pointing to my personal experiences trying to cope after an accident left me with third-degree burns. Video games gave me a world to explore when I wasn't able to explore the real one. Having that outlet was absolutely necessary for me, I think.

Ah, Zero Escape. Just what I needed. Absolutely zero escaping.
Ah, Zero Escape. Just what I needed. Absolutely zero escaping.

For the last year, though, I haven’t been using escapism as a means to try to recover from painful experiences. Instead, I have been using it as a means to avoid having painful experiences in the first place. I have kept myself buried in some video game or anime series or podcast as often as possible, only going out when absolutely necessary. When I do go outside, I put my headphones on, usually playing old episodes of my favorite podcasts because I've probably already listened to all the new ones.

As much as I hate to admit it, video games are supporting my self-destructive escapist habits right now, and they’re doing a really good job of it. For better or for worse, playing video games is one of the most effective ways to get away from the world. Unfortunately, that can mean a lot of different things, and right now it means they’re making it easier for me to stay locked up in my room. They're giving me a simulacrum of the variety of experiences that make up real life, filling the emotional void inside of me just enough so that I can continue to ignore it instead of actually doing anything about it. I have fallen into this facsimile of the human experience that—like american cheese, or mexican food at a Taco Bell—isn't a convincing enough imitation of the real thing to replace it, but can still be satisfying if you're not actually looking for the real thing in the first place.

The original Misery Mire.
The original Misery Mire.

Thankfully, while I’m honestly still not doing great, I have been doing at least a little better over the last few weeks. I know I just finished describing how I’ve been playing games as a kind of maladaptive coping mechanism, but they’re actually helping me find my way out of this miserable emotional mire, too. My brother and I have been playing co-op games here and there, which has been nice. I’ve also been playing quite a lot of Smash (specifically Melee) with my roommates, and I’m actually finding myself able to get invested and excited while playing it. It’s been hard for me to feel excited about much of anything lately, so these Melee sessions have been really refreshing. These interactions with games have left me feeling better after putting the controller down. It's totally different from the way games have usually been making me feel lately.

For the last few months, I let video games be a part of my self-destructive behavior, and they've been very good at supporting it. Still, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with video games as a medium just because of that. I mean, I do think there’s something unique about games that makes them easy to escape into, I just think that’s at least as much a positive trait as it is a negative one. Whatever it is about games that lets me use them to ignore my life… it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s exactly the same aspect of games that lets me sink into a Melee match deeply enough that I can shout and cheer and trash-talk with my roommates, even in the midst of a pretty severe depression. And as much as I have managed to isolate myself playing video games lately, they are also doing a very good job helping me start socializing again. Maybe, if I’m lucky, they’ll inspire more writing from me soon, too.

Melee, the most consistent source of joy in my life for over a decade. Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration.
Melee, the most consistent source of joy in my life for over a decade. Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration.

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Shiny Hunting in Pokemon Is Tedious, But I Enjoy It Anyway

This game has voice samples of Pikachu saying its own name. Yes, it does sound really fucked up played through a Game Boy Color speaker.
This game has voice samples of Pikachu saying its own name. Yes, it does sound really fucked up played through a Game Boy Color speaker.

I love Pokemon. Pokemon Yellow was one of the first games I owned as a kid. I still remember the Christmas morning I was given it, along with the special Pikachu-themed Game Boy Color to play it on, and that now-hazy memory is one I hold very dear to me. Partially because getting stuff is nice, sure, but it's mostly because Pokemon would go on to have a tremendous impact on me. I became obsessed with Pokemon, as did a lot of kids my age, and my affinity for the franchise never completely faded after that. I’ve been playing Pokemon games for around twenty years, though how I spend my time playing them has shifted dramatically over the course of those two decades.

I was never actually incredibly interested in the collection and trading aspect of the games growing up. I know that sounds crazy, since that seems like such an integral part of the series, but I just didn’t have a link cable back then. My first experience with Pokemon was without a way to trade them, so that became the way I tended to play them. Nowadays, collecting rare Pokemon is the main way I spend my time playing Pokemon games. And when I say “rare Pokemon”, I’m not talking about Legendary Pokemon like Mewtwo or Lugia. Those Pokemon can usually be caught once per playthrough of any given game, and while that certainly makes them rarer than the average wild Pokemon, it’s not all that difficult to have at least one of each of them. There are Pokemon that are much harder to find than Legendary Pokemon, though. Series veterans probably already know what I’m referring to: the rare Pokemon variants known as “shiny” Pokemon.

Mega-Gardevoir and it's shiny counterpart.
Mega-Gardevoir and it's shiny counterpart.

For those unfamiliar, a shiny Pokemon is a Pokemon with an alternate color scheme from the norm. The color alterations vary wildly from severe to almost imperceptible. Some Pokemon have major changes that give them completely different style, like Gardevoir (particularly “Mega” Gardevoir.) Others are also given extreme changes, but actually end up suffering from the new look; there are a depressing number of shiny Pokemon saddled with a color palette themed around this awful, gross-looking shade of green. Between those two sides of spectrum, there are a number of Pokemon who don’t look better or worse shiny, just different, and these probably make up the vast majority of them. In addition to those, there are also an unfortunate number of Pokemon who barely look different at all in their shiny variants. Pikachu’s shiny form is a pretty infamous example of this: Pikachu is the most famous Pokemon there is, but it only gets a more orange tint with its supposedly-special shiny variant.

Most people who play Pokemon won’t ever encounter a shiny one, though. The odds of encountering a shiny Pokemon in the wild are extremely low. For many generations of Pokemon, the odds of one showing up were 1/8192. The odds improved to 1/4096 in X/Y, though, where they remain to this day. There are ways to improve those bad odds, however, and those methods are the reason I started shiny hunting in the first place. Unfortunately, different sources give different numbers so it’s difficult to verify exactly what the odds change to sometimes, but there’s no doubt that you get a significant boost to your chances if you know what you’re doing. Even so, some of these methods are extremely tedious to perform or difficult to pull off. Shiny Pokemon are pretty damn rare, for the most part, and that’s what makes them so fun to collect.

Aside from a few cases (and I mean very few cases) there are no shiny Pokemon waiting around to be captured in specific places the way legendaries are. There aren’t scripted encounters with shiny Pokemon, so it’s completely up to chance whether or not you find one. I knew about the existence and rarity of shiny Pokemon long before I was dedicating most of my play time to hunting them, and as a longtime fan of the series, not having one was starting to depress me. I wanted one just for the novelty of it; I just wanted to be able to say I had one. When I realized there were ways to increase your chances of finding them, I attempted to get my hands on one right away.

I hadn’t done a lot of research, but I knew of a method called “chaining” that could raise your odds to as high as 1/200. I won’t go into detail about the process (that link will tell you if, you're curious, though) but it’s a method that is pretty difficult to actually pull off, requiring one to notice minute differences between certain animations in order to be successful at it. I could not get the hang of it, and in my frustration, turned to another method of shiny hunting involving hatching eggs. If you breed two Pokemon that originated in copies of the game from different countries, the chances of the Pokemon hatched from their eggs being shiny increase dramatically. Unfortunately, hatching the eggs requires a large time investment, and since my motivation to find a shiny was relatively thin, I gave up pretty quick.

Aptly named, I guess.
Aptly named, I guess.

Shorty after that, however, I realized there were actually quite a few other ways to increase your chances. I stumbled onto what was perhaps the easiest and fastest method at the time (if you weren’t looking for a specific species of Pokemon) which was called “chain fishing”. Again, I won’t get into the minutia of how it’s done, but after I prepared a few special Pokemon for the task, it wasn’t that long before I had my first-ever non-scripted encounter with a shiny Pokemon. And to my delight, it was a first generation Pokemon I had some fondness for: Horsea. The, um… the seahorse Pokemon. I then went on to catch a few more shiny Pokemon with this method, getting a small taste of the shiny hunting experience.

My initial want was just to catch a single shiny Pokemon, but instead of feeling satisfied by the experience, I found myself wanting more. By this point, I was aware of most of the methods available to me, as well as the fact that my odds of finding them would improve dramatically if I had an item called the Shiny Charm. The only way to get this item is by completing the Pokedex (which is done by literally catching them all), and at that point it consisted of over 700 different kinds of Pokemon. It was a daunting task; one I never attempted even back when there were only 150 to catch. It had always seemed out of reach before, but I wanted it pretty damn bad at this point. I decided that would be my next goal: I would catch or trade for every single Pokemon there was and finally obtain the Shiny Charm.

I was filling out the Pokedex in my copy of Omega Ruby, and it was a pretty arduous process. There was an “easy” way to accomplish it, I suppose. I could’ve found someone online with a complete Dex willing to simply trade everything I needed to me; this was a process where we’d trade, then I’d trade back the Pokemon they just traded me in exchange for a new, one over and over, since having a Pokemon even for a second counts towards Pokedex completion. Even doing that would have taken hours though, given the sheer number of Pokemon I needed. I wasn’t going to ask a stranger to spend hours with me, nor was I going to spend hours connected to said stranger online, either. It just wasn’t going to happen. And I kinda wanted to do it for real, anyway.

Instead of cheesing it, I found every single Pokemon there was to find in in Omega Ruby, then hunted for others in my other Pokemon games, then transferred them over. I posted trades online for Pokemon that I didn’t have access to or would otherwise be a huge pain to obtain. I trained low-level Pokemon to evolve them and fill out those Dex pages, and bred fully-evolved Pokemon in order to obtain their un-evolved counterparts. So that I wouldn’t give up halfway through, I only tried to find a few new Pokemon every day and didn’t try to fill it out as fast as I possibly could; I didn’t want to burn out on it, after all. Because of that, this process took me several months to finally complete, but eventually I prevailed, and became the proud new owner of my own Shiny Charm.

Now that I had the Shiny Charm, my standard odds of encountering a shiny tripled, spiking up to about 1/1300, a huge increase over the 1/4096 odds I had before. The real treat, though, is that the charm had the same effect when using special shiny hunting methods, too, tripling my already-increased odds to numbers that weren’t nearly as out-of-reach as they had been before. I started getting more serious about shiny hunting, using a method called Dexnaving in my search. This method was far superior to chain fishing because not only is the pool of potential Pokemon much larger, I could specifically seek out the one I wanted instead of taking whatever happened to show up. Even with my dramatically increased odds, shiny Pokemon were still rare. From what I could find online, my odds while Dexnaving with the charm were somewhere between 1/200 and 1/600. (As I said, there’s a lot of conflicting information out there.) There was still a lot to do.

Ralts. But mine was blue and orange.
Ralts. But mine was blue and orange.

I found my first Dexnav shiny after about 700 encounters, which I did over the course of a few days. It was a Ralts, the Pokemon that eventually evolves into the previously mentioned Gardevoir, a Pokemon that’s powerful, well-designed, and treated pretty well by the new color scheme, too. Following that, I searched for an Eevee, which dragged on for quite a while, not appearing until around the 900th encounter, which was pretty bad luck. This one took me several weeks to find.

Since then, I’ve found quite a few shiny Pokemon, using several different methods and searching across multiple different entries in the series. I have around 50 shiny Pokemon right now, including a couple shiny Legendary Pokemon (or legend-adjacent, at least) that I spent quite a lot of time searching for. I plan to expand my collection further from here, too. The release of the Gen 2 games on 3DS virtual console (and the ability to transfer Pokemon from them into the new games) opens up some new possibilities for shiny hunting, which I’ve been exploring for the last few weeks.

It's a little strange that one of my favorite things to do in Pokemon games is something a lot of people don't even know is a thing at all. But that's okay. I actually think that the weird obfuscation of mechanics in these games end up making them better overall. Pokemon is as mainstream as video games come, with an awareness of and appreciation for the series found in people from from all walks of life, including some who barely (or even never) play video games at all. Even though the franchise has such wide appeal, it still has a very dedicated core audience who plays the main series games religiously. I think this is because in spite of having such mainstream appeal, the games have never actually sacrificed their depth in order to cater to their less-experienced fans. Sure, they bury that depth, making it hard to find without outside help, but… in the end, that’s what allows them their success. Anyone can pick up and understand Pokemon without being overwhelmed hiding the depth from novice players keeps those players from feeling pressured to engage with systems they may not understand or even enjoy. At the same time, veterans know where to look for what they want, and it’s always in there somewhere. Pokemon is made for everybody, no matter how old you are or how experienced you are with video games. You can play Pokemon however you want to play it.

In case you were wondering what I evolved that shiny Eevee into.
In case you were wondering what I evolved that shiny Eevee into.

For me, that means spending my time hunting down shiny Pokemon. I enjoy figuring out the odds of me finding one through any given method, and I like the long hours it takes to locate them. I’m willing to put up with a lot of tedium to do so because that tedium makes it feel like a special moment when they finally appear. Shiny hunting gives the games a longevity for me that few games have. Most of my save files for the more recent Pokemon games have play times recorded at over 300 hours, which is not even counting the hours and hours spent resetting the games during my searches. I've spent so many hours doing something many people who play Pokemon games don't even know about; something that most people would find incredibly boring. For me, though, shiny hunting gave the series a new life, and it's a much longer life, too.

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I Almost Gave Up On Tales Games. Almost.

[Spoilers for the first hour or two of Tales of Berseria ahead, along with some minor spoilers for the early to middle parts of the story. Minor spoilers for the general story of Tales of Zestiria along with spoilers about Zestiria's backstory, too]

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ve probably gathered that I’m way into the Tales games. If you haven’t read my previous posts, well… now you know. I consider myself a fan of the series, having played most of them, including a few somewhat more obscure titles. Tales of Symphonia is one of my favorite games of all time, and Tales of Vesperia and Tales of the Abyss probably make it somewhere onto that list, too. All that being said, I’ve had some anxiety about the series for a little while.

I don't even want to talk about this one.
I don't even want to talk about this one.

You see, there are almost as many Tales games I don’t like as there are ones I do, maybe more. This on its own is not particularly stressful; there are plenty of franchises that have numerous entries I dislike. It’s just that… most of the Tales games I dislike are the recent ones — I either bounced off of or ignored three major Tales games in a row. For me, Tales of Xillia, Tales of Xillia 2, and Tales of Zestiria were almost completely devoid of anything that made me interested in the series. In the case of Xillia 2, I couldn't bring myself to play it at all.

I bought the first Tales of Xillia at the same time that I bought Tales of Graces F. I figured it would be fine; there was nothing wrong with having more games to play, after all. I played a lot of hours of Xillia, and it never managed to grab me. I found the characters to be some of the least interesting in the series, and aside from that, the writing gave me no reason to believe any of them would even be on this quest in the first place. Put a gun to my head and I still couldn’t tell you why Jude was following Milla on her journey. The same goes for most of the other characters, too. They seemed to only be helping out because that was the way the story was written. Generally speaking, the characters’ wants and needs should be what drive the plot forward, but here, the plot moved the characters along its set path, and they never really pushed back.

Maybe I’m being too critical of Xillia. I know it has its fans, and I’m sure that the ending hours of the game make the cast much more likable. But I never made it to the end, because I had another Tales game that quickly took priority, sating my hunger for Tales content enough to let me put Xillia down. Tales of Graces is a very flawed game, but it’s a flawed game that I like a whole lot. Where Xillia had personalities who were just sedate enough that I could see nothing but what they lacked, the cast of Graces consisted of cookie-cutter characters copied directly off the pages of the Anime Tropes Handbook. Still… that lack of depth made for a fun ride that didn’t ask much of you, and the completely unoriginal character archetypes they used happened to be some of the likable ones. Unlike Xillia, Graces gave me something to hold onto before taking me for a ride; Xillia needed me to find those handholds on my own.

The next big Tales game (that I’m aware of, though my timeline is probably wrong here) was Xillia 2. Tales games usually don’t have direct sequels or prequels; the major releases almost always take place in entirely new worlds, completely unrelated to and disconnected from the other games in the series. My bad experiences with the first Tales of Xillia made the release of Xillia 2 dead on arrival for me, though. I have yet to give it a shot, so it could be fantastic for all I know.

Look how much anime-ass anime I could be missing out on.
Look how much anime-ass anime I could be missing out on.

…I honestly have no interest in ever finding out.

It’s hard to believe that Xillia 2 is a game I want to play — if I look at the direction the series was going with the games that came out right before and right after Xillia 2, and assume it lands somewhere between them on that line… well, that’s not a great place to be in my book. I dislike both games it’s sandwiched between; Tales of Zestiria, the game that followed Xillia 2, never really did it for me, either.

Honestly, though, “dislike” is slightly too strong a word for my feelings about Zestiria. It’s actually totally serviceable. It even goes back to the Tales tradition of obstinately clinging to anime character tropes, which is a tactic that I think works for Tales more often than it doesn’t. But it doesn’t work here, because Zestiria is an incredibly straightforward narrative experience in every single way, not just in character writing. There are a few minor curveballs in the story, but it generally doesn’t do anything to surprise you. The closest thing to an emotional reaction I had while playing the game was seeing main character Sorey and his companion Mikleo be best friends in a very endearing way. Little else about the game really sticks (aside from the opening movie theme song) and it has incredibly poor pacing, with urgent story beats having multiple dungeon crawls take place before they actually get resolved. Even the environments are uninteresting, which is a shame because the vibrant and creative worlds present in Tales games are one of their best features.

I was starting to worry that maybe I wouldn’t like a new Tales game ever again.

I guess this is goodbye, my generic yet overwhelmingly endearing fantasy......... game. Fantasy game.
I guess this is goodbye, my generic yet overwhelmingly endearing fantasy......... game. Fantasy game.
Like a handful of saltines, Tales of Hearts R temporarily held off my hunger. Was that weird? It probably was.
Like a handful of saltines, Tales of Hearts R temporarily held off my hunger. Was that weird? It probably was.

When Tales of Berseria was released over a year ago, I didn’t play it. There were a lot of reasons for that; I mean, my PS3 is no longer functional, and I don’t own a PS4 or a gaming PC either. Not owning the platform a game is released on is a pretty good reason not to play it. Still, had my enthusiasm for the Tales series been what it used to be, I would have bought a PS4 (or 3) to play it. I would’ve read previews for it, and counted down the days to its release; I would have preordered it and driven out to the local Gamestop to pick it up, because I probably would have needed to own a physical copy of the game to fill some deep emotional void inside me. Instead, I let it slip by, and eventually picked up the mediocre but safe Tales of Hearts R on Vita to satisfy my Tales cravings.

And that was fine. I wasn’t happy about it, but it’s not like falling away from a franchise is the end of the world. I was a fan of Tales games, but my affection for the franchise wasn’t a part of my identity, the way my love of a certain courageous green-clad hero was. I enjoy Tales games quite a bit, but they didn’t change my life the way The Legend of Zelda did. So it was fine. It was fine to let go of this thing that I loved. It wasn’t a great situation, but it was one I saw coming and had time to prepare for. I would no longer be a fan of the Tales series, and instead a fan of a few of the Tales games. Not that major of a shift.

I honestly thought I might not ever play Tales of Berseria, but thanks to the Family Sharing feature on Steam, I noticed that my younger brother bought the game and had it available in his Steam library. I have a pretty shitty laptop; it’s terrible for games, and the prospects of Berseria running at anything resembling a playable framerate were pretty hopeless. Still, I booted it up, turned all the settings all the way down, and gave it a shot. And it was almost there. When I lowered the resolution a little, which would probably be considered “unplayable” by a lot of people’s standards, it actually ran totally smoothly. It wouldn’t be the ideal way to play Tales of Berseria, but I wasn’t even sure I wanted to play that much of it anyway. I was half-expecting to drop it six hours in and leave it alone forever. But I didn’t.

"Anime-sick" can also be read as "conveniently bedridden for plot reasons."

Tales of Berseria wound up grabbing me pretty quickly. There are some early scenes of our heroine, named Velvet, that are a little cringe-worthy in their aggressively dark attitude, and those scenes are immediately followed by some equally rough sickly-sweet flashbacks of her happily tending to her anime-sick little brother. Get through that, however, and you are soon shown Velvet’s life ruined in a single moment, and… it’s actually kind of incredible. You see how the world changed for her — how she changed — when her mentor Artorius commits an unforgivable act of betrayal. That jarring tonal shift from the beginning suddenly makes total sense. Her fall from “happy anime teenager” to the uncaring, unapologetically violent and bloodthirsty character she becomes is completely believable, and it happens in an instant.

Fuck this guy. Seriously.
Fuck this guy. Seriously.

Her fall is believable because the game does an excellent job of setting up the villain in that instant. Velvet’s quest in Berseria is one of revenge, at any cost, and you actually want to see her succeed in this. You want her to tear that motherfucker’s throat out of his neck. I am not a violent person, but he is vile. The English voice actor that plays Velvet does an incredible job at instilling empathy during the betrayal scene, too. Her screams of pain and anger sound raw; they are actually emotional, making the player not only understand what she’s feeling, but feel it themselves a little, too. If that wasn’t enough to make you want to see Artorius become a corpse, not only does he go unpunished for his actions, he is regarded by the rest of the world as a hero for them. Velvet seems to be the only person in the world who wants to see him die, and it’s painful to listen to other people speak about their “Shepherd” with reverence in their voices.

The intro was great, but a great intro is not enough to hold my interest for 40-plus hours. Fortunately, Tales of Berseria has a lot more going for it. The game’s playable characters are both fun and likable — Beseria has a memorable cast of anime stock-characters that would be awful if they weren’t done extremely well. This is kind of the case for all of the best characters Tales games have to offer: take an obvious trope, build on it a little, and then let that character develop over the course of the (often crazy) story into something special. These cookie-cutter characters are the number one thing I see that puts people off when it comes to Tales games though, which is completely reasonable; if you’re not a fan, I totally get it. I personally think the Tales games are excellent at using character archetypes as a tool rather than a crutch, and Berseria is a great example of this kind of writing being done well. Also, there’s a little more going on with the characters in Berseria that makes it special, even among Tales games.

While most Tales games have the heroes on the wrong side of the law for some stretch of time, Tales of Berseria’s “heroes” aren’t ever really heroes in the first place. The cast of Tales of Berseria consists mostly of fucking scoundrels. The people who aren’t opposed to Velvet’s goal of killing the so-called savior of the world are people who hate the world he saved. Most of the party you fight with is made up of criminals with selfish motivations, selfish motivations that are far more believable than the selfless desires that drive most JRPG protagonists. Velvet wants revenge on Artorius. Rokurou wants to prove his worth by killing his older brother who thinks he’s worthless. Eizen wants to locate his pirate crew’s captain who he believes is being held captive by one of Artorius’s goons.

Oh, right; I forgot to mention, you roll with a fucking pirate crew in this game. It's awesome.
Oh, right; I forgot to mention, you roll with a fucking pirate crew in this game. It's awesome.

By leaving behind the typical Tales narrative, the one that follows naive heroes trying to save the world, they drop their stock-characters into a completely different kind of group dynamic. They have very little of that starry-eyed naivety that defines a lot of Tales heroes, instead being world-weary and cautious, quick to distrust others and careful not to reveal too much about themselves. The self-interested and occasionally even amoral worldview expressed when they interact with each other and the world around them brings something new to the Tales series. The familiar feels fresh again while still being familiar — the tropes are used as a comfortable introduction to a setting and story that is relatively new to Tales.

I say the setting is “new to Tales”, which is interesting because oddly enough, the world that Berseria is set in isn’t new to Tales at all. Tales of Berseria is actually a prequel to Tales of Zestiria, and as I mentioned earlier, I don’t like that game a whole lot! There were a lot of things about Zestiria that I found completely uninteresting, the world and setting being among them. I might not have even bothered with Berseria had I known it was set in the same place, but I went in blind, only piecing together its relation to the previous game a short ways in. (And yes, as a self-proclaimed Tales fan, it should have been obvious to me because they use a lot of the same terminology, but I had honestly forgotten so much of Zestiria that it took me a while to actually make the connection between the two games.)

One of the biggest problems with Tales of Zestiria is that the story it tells is so incredibly straightforward. It’s good-versus-evil and there’s really not any ambiguity about whether or not the good guys are doing the right thing. They’re the Shepherd’s group, and they’re gonna beat the manifestation of all evil known as the Lord of Calamity. A number of Shepherds have come before you to face off against the repeated rise of the Lord of Calamity a thousand times before you; you’re just doing it again. Zestiria has you seeking a more permanent solution and an end to that cycle, but it my opinion, it makes for one of the more boring versions of the chosen-one-versus-an-ancient-evil story I’ve played through.

The Lord of Calamity. But her friends call her Velvet.
The Lord of Calamity. But her friends call her Velvet.

This doesn’t bode well for Berseria if it takes place in that world, but Tales of Berseria is an excellent prequel. It does everything a good prequel should do: it’s valuable as a standalone experience, it’s made better by having knowledge of the later story, and it even serves to make the other game better after playing through it. See, the boring, black-and-white, good-verses-evil story that Zestiria tells is uninteresting on its own, but Berseria tells the story of the world when the cycle of "Shepherds defeating The Lord of Calamity" began. And you don’t play as the first incarnation of the Shepherd. You play as the first Lord of Calamity.

It’s a good twist on the expectations set by Zesteria, and it adds a bit of moral ambiguity to a world I thought was black-and-white. Velvet, our one-and-only Lord of Calamity, rejects the cold necessity that drives Artorius because she is driven by irrational thoughts and feelings, like most people are. The parts of her that make her selfish, violent, and resentful; the parts of her that are “evil” in the traditional sense; these parts of her are exactly what make her able to confront Artorius’s heartless, utilitarian salvation. Tales of Berseria posits that human beings are selfish, prideful, greedy, and arrogant, often doing or saying awful things when they get emotional… but that’s okay, because those flaws are what make us human. Those flaws are what make us empathetic. Those flaws let us accept the flaws of other people.

I mean, it’s not anything you haven’t heard before, I know. I have heard the message this game preaches a million times before, from media screaming it as loud as it possibly can. And yet, when Tales of Berseria says it, I actually listen. The person saying that flaws are what make us human isn’t some selfless hero acting for the sake of other people. The person saying it is a man who wants to kill his brother for the sake of his wounded pride. It’s a pirate who robs people for the sake of personal gain. It’s a woman who would throw away the entire world if it meant killing the man she despises. The heroes of Tales of Berseria are deeply flawed and selfish, but they don’t need to be anything else.

I absolutely loved Tales of Berseria. The game has some problems, and maybe I’ll address those another time, but overall, I found the game very satisfying on both a narrative and a mechanical level. Playing and enjoying Tales of Berseria was a unique experience because the game being good… it actually meant a lot to me. Almost every Tales game that has been released in the last good number of years has left me disappointed, and I was legitimately losing interest in the series altogether. I was afraid that the apparent shift in direction the series had taken was just not for me, and that each successive entry would appeal to me a little less than the last. Thankfully, Tales of Berseria proved that the series still has a lot to offer me, and that the last few games were just weaker entries in the franchise (as far as my personal tastes are concerned.)

Honestly, I felt kind of… well, kind of relieved when I played this game. It was a relief to know that this franchise that I’ve loved for over ten years wasn’t dead to me. I thought I was losing a bright spot on the horizon. It was nice to look forward to Tales games. When there was school or work or an appointment looming over me, making the future feel like something to dread, I could at least be excited about a new Tales game. Losing that was much more disheartening than any sadness I felt about losing my attachment to these games.

Tales games have the ability to make me happy more than a lot of games do, even though I know they're far from perfect.
Tales games have the ability to make me happy more than a lot of games do, even though I know they're far from perfect.

I found myself wearing a stupid grin when I played Tales of Berseria. It was partially because the game was good, and I was having fun playing a good video game, for sure. That wasn’t the whole reason, though. I was happy to have Tales back. I was happy that I could keep holding on to this series that I thought I needed to let go of. There’s something extremely comforting in waiting for something familiar. Some people have TV shows to look forward to, either waiting for episodes to come out one by one, or waiting for Netflix to drop a new season every now and then. Waiting for game releases fills the same role in my life. I mean, it’s hard to live by a life calendar that only has the important stuff on it. Writing in a few frivolous things to anticipate and prepare for makes it easier to handle the important stuff when it comes.

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I figure it would be good to end this blog post with a question so… are there any franchises that you used to love that you just don’t enjoy anymore? Are there any that have managed to pull you back in? I’m actually interested to hear if anyone else has had an experience like this, where your feelings for a franchise have faded, but then a new entry managed to win you over. I’m curious if that feeling brought anyone comfort the way it did for me, or if I’m just weird when it comes to this sort of thing.

[Pirate Velvet screenshot pulled from here, all others are either official art or are pulled from Giant Bomb.]

[Quick thing I wanted to clear up: that betrayal I mention when talking about Tales of Berseria, that happens in literally the first hour of the game. It was not the huge spoiler it appears to be, if you were worried.]

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On Using Games to Escape

[Content Warning: claustrophobia, severe injury, bullying, body image]

Sometimes I find myself wondering, “Why do I play games?” It’s maybe not the most important question, and it’s definitely a little self-indulgent, but it’s not exactly an easy question, either. There’s not any one answer that covers everything for me; there are a million completely different reasons I play games, and some of them even contradict each other. Depending on the day, I might be playing a game for totally different reasons. Maybe I want to challenge myself intellectually with a puzzle game, or maybe I’m seeking the fulfillment of completing something by finishing a game. Maybe I’m hoping to have an emotionally moving experience, or play through an interesting narrative. There are so many different experiences I might be looking for when I play games, though there’s probably one that I seek out more often than any other.

Art by Ollie Moss for the A Life Well Wasted podcast.
Art by Ollie Moss for the A Life Well Wasted podcast.

To be honest, I usually play games because they offer me an escape from reality. Lately, the escapism I seek is just an escape from the everyday mundanity of adult living, but… at certain times in my life, I’ve played games to escape from legitimately unbearable circumstances. I could always lose myself in the glow of a television set; the only light still shining in my darkest moments. And while escapism has often been a savior for me, I occasionally see people looking down on it. And I find it kind of frustrating. For example, there’s a podcast I used to listen to called A Life Well Wasted. It’s been dead for years, but I loved every drop of it while it was running. That includes the segment I’m about to discuss, but it happened to be the first thing that came to mind when I was thinking of examples I could use here. Anyways, one episode of the show features a segment where the host asks a bunch of strangers why they play games. There were a few different answers, but the answer he got more than any other was… “to escape.” And he seemed kinda bummed out about that. He wasn’t judging the people who gave that answer or anything, just expressing concern at the idea that escapism was really the best the medium had to offer. Wasn’t there something better, something valuable, that video games could aspire to do?

Back when that episode was released, the question of “are games art?” was still a source of debate… unlike today, where the answer is an eye roll and an annoyed “yes”. Modern games offer a wide variety of experiences, ranging from outlets for escaping from reality, to time killing mobile apps, and to deep, personal expressions found in certain independent games. I love the power games have to express ideas and create empathy through mechanics. The unselectable-but-still-visible choices throughout Depression Quest strongly mirror experiences I have all the time, so playing the game got me to finally seek treatment for my previously-undiagnosed depression. Undertale left me speechless when a character didn’t let me fight them a certain way by physically destroying the menu button for it. There was only one way to win that fight, and the scene’s merging of gameplay systems and narrative gave that encounter stakes that I don’t think anything but a game could recreate. My experiences with these games; games that to me never once acted as escapist outlets; I hold them very close to my heart. But the time I’ve spent escaping from reality with a game… it’s just as important, I think. The dark places I was escaping from were pretty fucking dark.

I first started playing games when I was very young; before I could even read, actually. The world I lived in, even at that young age, had already given me cause to distrust it. Before I started playing games, I was in accident that nearly killed me. My house caught fire with me still in it. I didn’t die, but I was severely burned; badly enough to scar my body for the rest of my life. I have vivid memories of the fire, but there’s one moment that I remember terrified me more than any other part of that experience. I remember trying to turn the doorknob, desperately trying to escape, but… I couldn’t turn it. I don’t remember why. It almost certainly wasn’t locked, but in my panic, I couldn’t get it open. I was trapped.

I go into more detail about the accident in a piece I wrote a long time ago.
I go into more detail about the accident in a piece I wrote a long time ago.

After the accident, I spent a while in the hospital. I remember bits and pieces of it. I remember a lot of time spent in a bed, and it being hard to walk. I remember getting my wounds cleaned, which was about as pleasant as it sounds. In general, a lot of confinement, though. When I was through with physical therapy and had finally mostly recovered, home wasn’t really much better. My mother, who back then was younger than I am now, was pretty shaken by the experience; she never really let me out of her sight after that. She got overprotective, though not without a really good reason (obviously.) Still, kids are inherently curious, and I was no longer able to explore. Reality was confinement back then, and that sense of wonder and discovery I craved could only be fulfilled in my imagination.

I obviously spent a lot of time playing pretend, like any young kid does, but when I played a video game for the first time, it was like… it was like a tangible, extant representation of my imagination. My first video game was The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and even though I couldn’t read yet and had no idea how to make progress, it made me feel like I was somewhere else. Playing Zelda back then was a lot like playing pretend, but with a world that actually reacted to the things I to did. I was able to escape from a painful world that held me prisoner into a colorful world that was specifically designed to stimulate my curiosity. Hyrule was hiding countless secrets from me, and I would uncover each and every one of them. In video games, I was finally free to see the world; it didn’t matter to me that it wasn’t the real world.

A Link to the Past gave me a feeling of freedom that I could not find in reality after the fire. Weeks and weeks spent in the hospital, barely able to walk, made me feel completely suffocated. After almost losing her kid, my mother always kept me within arms reach; the breath I was hoping to take when I got home never really came. My constant search for secrets in Hyrule breathed for me, though, and it satisfied a craving for adventure that I couldn’t address in reality. It saved me, in a way. It let me experience childhood wonder when the real world wouldn’t provide it for me anymore. That escape was incredibly precious to me, and it wouldn’t be the last one I’d use to overcome the difficulties caused by the accident.

A number of years after the fire, when I was in second grade or so, I moved to another school. I had actually moved three or four times before then, but this school ended up being the first one I would attend for longer than a year. I did eventually make a few friends at my new school, but I also started getting bullied, pretty much constantly. It wasn’t exactly new to me; I was a dorky, kinda lanky kid who had creepy scars all over his legs. I was pretty sheltered at home, so I didn’t understand a lot of kid-type social stuff. I didn’t understand what behaviors other kids thought were “weird” or why some cartoons were “for babies” or why sports were fun at all. And at home, my scars were totally normal, so I didn’t even think I was supposed to cover them. I would wear shorts to school and not realize it was, well… a problem. It was hard to look at if you weren’t used to it. On top of that, I excelled academically without any real effort, which was probably miserable for the kids who were struggling in school. I don’t really know if anyone actually cared about that, but I can see how that might stir up some feelings of resentment in a kid.

Kids kinda didn’t want to hang out with me, so they’d play this fun game where any time I approached them during recess, they’d take their group and go play somewhere else. But that was as far as it went before this most recent transfer. At this new school, the bullying was a bit more of an active process. I don’t even know if the scars had anything to do with why they picked on me; they might have just been a bonus flaw on someone they were gonna torment anyway. They never hit me or anything — maybe the scars helped there; maybe beating up the burned kid was crossing a line or something. They did mock me relentlessly, spread rumors about me, call me gross, tattle to teachers on me about things I didn’t do, laughed at me whenever I got hurt, and invited me to play sports with them just so they could take it back when I got to the field. It was nonstop, but it wasn’t the worst bullying in the world by any stretch of the imagination. I didn’t let it bother me. Most of the time.

I was able to shrug it off because of a video game. Once again, I found myself retreating into the vast world of Hyrule, but it was different this time. It was in an all-new dimension; it was totally in 3D… I was playing Ocarina of Time. But I was playing it for different reasons, now. Sure, Ocarina gave me that same sense of wonder that its predecessor did, but it had something else in it that I needed far more in that moment. It had Link. It had that specific Link. In Ocarina, Link begins his adventure as an outcast, ostracized by his peers for being different. He was different through no fault of his own, but it didn’t matter. He was different, and that was enough. But… you eventually find out that Link was different because he was important. He wasn’t supposed to stay in the forest his whole life like they were. Link was destined for greater things.

Link’s backstory in Ocarina isn’t unique by any measurement. It’s a classic and totally cliched setup for the same bog-standard hero’s journey story we’ve been told a million times. There were countless stories like it written before it was made, and countless more have been written since. The “chosen one” aspect of the story is actually seen as kind of a harmful trope these days, and with good reason: if kids are convinced they were born destined for greatness, then they have little incentive to try to achieve greatness through hard work or kindness to others. But that “chosen one” story saved me back then.

Coping with bullying by clinging to stories like that is probably not unique to me, but… it helped me accept my scars as a part of me when everything around me was rejecting them. With all the teasing, I eventually started covering them up, but it was already too late. The other kids knew they were there. They weren’t gonna stop saying I was gross just because I was pretending I wasn’t gross anymore, were they? If the way I phrased that sentence is any indication, that kind of thing can really fuck you up. I have moments where I feel like I’m less human than everyone else because I know no one else looks like me. Those fears are actually only five or six years old, though; when I was younger, I didn’t think that way at all. And it’s because I would escape into Ocarina when I got home. I could slip away into this world where I was a hero. I was a hero even though I was different. No… I was a hero because I was different. In the real world, my scars were a burden, but in Ocarina, my scars were a sign that I was fated for better things.

Eventually I started to think that was true for the real world, too. Years later, I would realize that life wasn’t that convenient, but at least that earlier belief kept my childhood and early adolescence free of the crippling self-image issues that would have otherwise plagued it. And yeah, I’m dealing with a lot of those issues now, in my adulthood, but I’m pretty sure that spending my formative years with them would have only made things worse, not better.

Escapism may not be a very well-respected behavior, but I don’t think it’s an inherently bad one. I think it gets a bad rap. I mean, obviously you can take it too far — if you start neglecting people who count on you, or start neglecting yourself, that’s a problem. But I don't think there’s anything wrong with you if you like to spend your free time absorbed in some other world. It's normal to feel like reality is unable to fill some emotional void inside of you. If slipping away to another world is the only thing keeping you from giving up on this one, then I think you should stay there as long as you need to. And I don’t think any of your experiences there are invalid, or unimportant, or meaningless. I don’t even think they’re any less valuable than the responses other types of games elicit. I love games that work to expose you to reality rather than shield you from it, but I still value all the time I “wasted” trying to escape. I appreciate those hours where The Legend of Zelda whisked me away; I am grateful for the time I spent collecting gym badges in Pokemon Yellow… to me, those experiences were flashes of light in an endless expanse of dark. When the real world seems hopeless, it’s okay to find hope in another one. Just try and bring a little with you when you come back.

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I Think I Found "The One": Why I'm Still Playing Fire Emblem Heroes

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I’m the kind of person who goes through “phases” with my gaming habits. Sometimes I will obsessively play a game for a few months, only to suddenly lose interest in it and never touch it again. There are some games or genres that I do this with on a cycle; sometimes I will just be on another World of Warcraft kick, and other times I will play nothing but Pokemon games. There are long stretches of time where I find myself playing almost nothing at all. That’s just kind of how I operate.

A game so good at taking people's money that Japan actually wrote and passed a law just to make the cash-grab games it inspired less exploitative. I'm not even kidding.
A game so good at taking people's money that Japan actually wrote and passed a law just to make the cash-grab games it inspired less exploitative. I'm not even kidding.

I have been obsessed with a few free-to-play games over the last few years, but almost all of them have only held my attention for a month or two at most. I think I consistently played Tales of Link the longest, funneling more time and money into it than I’m willing to admit over the two or three months it hung out on my phone’s list of apps. I eventually got fed up with its incredibly manipulative monetization scheme, and put it on the back-burner. It was only on that back-burner for a few days when I realized that the game gave me no incentive to keep playing if I wasn’t going to spend literal hours every day with it. It also took up nearly two gigs of storage space on my device, so deleting it wasn’t a difficult decision, even after all the time I had already sunk into it.

I actually still keep up with Puzzle & Dragons a little bit, though I would not call my weekly five-minute check in “playing” it. I am definitely not playing it actively, at least. Still, since it doesn’t require a huge time investment from me, I’ve felt okay about keeping it in my life. The game mechanics, while enjoyable, don’t really motivate me to play it for long stretches. Unfortunately, they’re also just slightly too involved for me to play it in short bursts; the stages I’m meant to complete given my current progress in the game require a lot of actual thought to get through, and there’s very little left for me to do that is mindless or only lightly engaging.

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I was kind of fed up with mobile gaming in general for a while, but about half a year ago, a new game came along that hit a sweet spot for me. Fire Emblem Heroes is my favorite mobile game, free to play or otherwise. Take the second half that proclamation with a grain of salt, since I’ve honestly only played a handful of paid-for mobile games, but Fire Emblem Heroes (FEH) is still excellent. It's a game that is very satisfying mechanically. It plays like a video game-ass video game, but still doesn’t require a huge time or intellectual investment unless I want it to. Sure, there are things I miss out on if I don’t put in some extra time here and there, but I never feel like I’m being punished for spending a few days away. Tales of Link makes you feel bad for being inactive, like you’re screwing yourself over by not spending hours and hours grinding for some special item or character while it’s available. I’m singling that game out a lot, but nearly every free-to-play game I’ve ever played relies heavily on making you feel like you’re missing out.

Thankfully, if I don’t feel like playing FEH on a given day, it’s no big deal. I might miss out on a few rewards, but never anything game-changing, and the game frequently revives old events for the sake of newer players anyway. I don’t get locked out of content or fall behind the meta the way I do in other free mobile games. If I feel like dropping in for a few minutes, there are multiple modes in the game that are conducive to that playstyle. If I feel like playing something for hours and being made to actually think and strategize, FEH has that, too. It may appear to be a stripped-down version of Fire Emblem at first glance, but the developers built the game with those restrictions in mind — the limitations are what make it work. When you’re cornered during a fight, surviving under the constraints of the oppressively limited movement range might seem impossible. More often than not, though, there is a way, and thinking your way out of those seemingly hopeless situations feels fantastic. Every battle in FEH is a puzzle to be solved, and solving the more challenging ones is incredibly satisfying.

*Actual enthusiasm about summoning may vary - see terms and conditions for details.
*Actual enthusiasm about summoning may vary - see terms and conditions for details.

I adore this game, but if you’ve read through my older posts, there’s a very obvious elephant in the room right now. Fire Emblem Heroes uses the same predatory system of microtransactions that Tales of Link and Puzzle of Dragons do: the gacha system. For those unfamiliar, a gacha is basically a slot machine where instead of winning money, you win digital collectibles that typically have significant gameplay applications. In FEH, the gacha is what supplies you with the namesake heroes who you control during combat; a collection of beloved characters originating from various main series Fire Emblem games. I’ve obviously been pretty critical of gacha games in the past — openly condemning what I feel to be one of the most exploitative and anti-consumer practices in video games today (maybe in less damning words.) Unfortunately, Fire Emblem Heroes hasn’t done anything to change my mind. Gachas are manipulative, and they aggressively take advantage of the most dedicated members of a fanbase. The kind of fan who cosplays as or collects memorabilia depicting their favorite character — there is no reliable way for them to represent that love in a gacha game, even if they do spend money. They’re the player who is most willing to pay for what they want, but gacha games don’t let you pay for what you want. The system is bad. There are a few things Fire Emblem Heroes does to lessen the blow a little, but it’s not enough to excuse the use of this awful, predatory practice. It is enough to make it feel a little better to play than games like Tales of Link, at least, though that is a pretty low bar.

For one thing, weaker, more common heroes can all be upgraded into stronger, rarer versions of themselves that are hard to actually get out of the gacha. There isn’t a single hero in the game that can’t be promoted to a “5 star”, the designation given to the rarest and most powerful units. This process takes a pretty major time investment, but it is an option, which I appreciate. They also give you a little bit of agency when it comes to exactly what kind of character you’re going to get, even if you can’t choose specifically which one. If you need an axe-wielding unit, you can spend your currency in such a way that (almost) every roll you make in the gacha will only give you axe-users. This method usually results in a lower quantity of heroes gained than spending indiscriminately would, but it’s still more choice than a lot of other gacha games offer. I should also mention that the game gives out a lot of free currency on a fairly regular basis, which isn’t exactly uncommon in these games, but it’s still a positive. Better than that, though, is that they recently gave out a powerful rare unit for free, and even went so far as to let players choose which one they wanted. Granted, you had to choose from a very short list, but it was a short list consisting of some of the most beloved characters in the series. The free hero was a nice gesture, but the actual reason it excites me is because it potentially sets a precedent that will make the game more enjoyable in the future. I’ll reiterate though, it’s still a shitty system, and I don’t want to give FEH a free pass. At the end of the day, it’s still a gacha, and those always make me feel really bad, but… when I think about my time with other mobile games, I remember that Tales of Link made me feel hopeless.

Not representative of actual friendship.
Not representative of actual friendship.

I don’t want to sweep this issue under the rug, but I find myself able to look past it to some extent thanks to some of the truly good things the game does. One of the reasons my opinion of FEH is generally positive — in spite of the gacha — is because the developers have been adding significant amounts of content to it since release. It was admittedly a little thin when it first came out, but any player starting now will struggle to run out of things to do. The team appears to actively listens to players’ complaints, and actually makes changes to address those issues. FEH’s limited stamina bar (in case you were worried it didn’t have one) was oppressive upon release, but they have since doubled its size, and made a number of gameplay modes cost very little stamina to play. They also give out stamina-refilling items pretty liberally, and I’ve personally found this not to be an issue anymore. The one thing that I feel is really missing from the game at this point is any real interaction with other players. There is no actual player versus player combat in the game. You can go up against other players’ teams, controlled by AI, but that’s not really what you want. Even if it was, you can only play against randomly matched players, and can’t take on your friends’ teams, ever. The friends list in the game is borderline useless at the moment. It serves almost literally no purpose whatsoever, and that’s a huge bummer.

I’m definitely waiting on a major multiplayer update for the future, even though I have no idea if it’s ever going to come. I have hope, though, because they have completely overhauled major aspects of the game’s original design before. A few months after release, the game implemented the “skill inheritance” system. This allowed you to give any hero you wanted the skills of another hero you owned by merging them into the first one. Now look, some form of "unit merging" is fairly common to gacha games, but I have never seen the mechanic implemented like this before. You see, skills are what define the units in Fire Emblem Heroes; a hero with one skillset will have completely different strengths and weaknesses from a hero with a different set of skills, even if they have the same exact stats. Whereas other gacha games use unit merging as little more than a way to level things up, the system added into FEH changes the way the game is played on a fundamental level. In fact, it was such a drastic change that some of the hardcore players were up in arms over it at first. Fortunately, the developers have managed it well and the game avoided feeling broken by the changes. It’s actually one of my favorite aspects of FEH, now.

You see, thanks to that update, all of the heroes are incredibly customizable. You can make heroes with very specific applications that will only help in certain types of battles, or you can try to make the best jack-of-all-trades unit you can. You can add skills to compensate for a unit’s weaknesses, like making a glass cannon able to actually take a hit, or you can min-max everything, instead making that same glass cannon even more fragile but hit even harder. There are endless possibilities for units in this game, and you can apply those possibilities to any unit you want. A hero you have an attachment to because of their role in another game may initially come with skills that make them useless in battle. Now you can change that, and fight with whatever heroes you want, no matter what poor skillset they may come prepackaged with.

I can’t ignore the problems with the game, but I also can’t pretend that I don’t love it anyway. Fire Emblem Heroes is successful both as a mobile game and as a Fire Emblem game. It can be played in short, non-committed bursts, but also provides extremely difficult challenges that take time and mental energy to overcome. It is constantly being added to, and major, game-changing updates are not out of the question, either. That’s really exciting! Additionally, the endless customization options available to me make the game hard to put down, since I always have some cool new idea for a character build I want to try out. Fire Emblem Heroes has grabbed me in a way that no mobile game has done before, and it has done so without making me feel bad about liking it, the way so many free-to-play games do. If this is just another one of my gaming phases, it certainly doesn’t feel like it. I think there’s a chance that this game will actually last, existing outside the constant ups and downs of my usual gaming habits. It has its hooks in me really deep, and I’m honestly comfortable with them staying there.

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Everything About Tales of Symphonia - Part II: The Worries And Wisdom of Raine Sage

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The healer... she puts others before herself, to a fault... right?
The healer... she puts others before herself, to a fault... right?

Consider this a follow up to my piece about Lloyd Irving, the protagonist of Tales of Symphonia. For those of you who don't want to read that and get caught up, here's the context you'll need: I love Tales of Symphonia, and recently played it again to see if my love for it was based on nostalgia or if the game is as good as I remember. I actively played the game with a more critical eye, and as a result, was able to form a more concrete opinion about why I like it so much. It was as good as I remembered, apparent flaws and all, and it also had a little more going on with its characters than I remember. Last time, I focused on Lloyd's development and how I felt that it closely resembled my own. This time, I want to look at my second-favorite (the first isn't Lloyd, by the way) character from the game, the archeology-obsessed Professor Raine.

Raine is wisely and rationally analyzing this ruin.
Raine is wisely and rationally analyzing this ruin.

Raine Sage is, at least early on, the "adult" of the group, content to let the younger members philosophize and exhaust themselves while she and Kratos discuss the less-thought-provoking logistical aspects of the journey. In the early parts of the game, the two play a similar role, though Kratos is far more distant and aloof than Raine is. Raine has quirks and faults of her own that immediately bring her down to earth, while Kratos keeps his distance, the mystery surrounding his motivations and intentions defining the group's interactions with him more than any particular aspect of his personality. Raine, however, has moments that make everyone in the group roll their eyes from time to time, especially when in the presence of historically significant ancient artifacts or ruins.

When she encounters one of these ruins, her eyes light up, and she starts passionately explaining their importance, slowing the group's progress as she prattles on and on. She talks about ruins the way I talk about this game: she raves about the subject, and has way more to say about it than most people care to hear. Obviously it's over-the-top here and done for comedic effect, but I did find a way to appreciate this aspect of her character in spite of it being little more than a goofy eccentricity.

Asses have been wisely and rationally kicked.
Asses have been wisely and rationally kicked.

Raine is the older sister of smartass Genis, Lloyd's best friend throughout the game. Genis is always there to defend Lloyd when it counts, even if he teases him and makes fun of his occasional stupidity. He's incredibly smart, and as such is used to being able to say whatever he's thinking, sure it will sail over most people's heads even if it's rude. Raine, however, is both smarter and more mature than her younger brother, and acts as a parental figure to him (and with the rest of the party.) She chastises him when he mouths off, even resorting to physical punishment at times. In fact, the speed at which she rises to violence when she gets angry is often alarming to the rest of the group, and they walk on pins and needles around her if they're worried she's in a bad mood. This is almost exclusively played for comedy, though.

Lloyd is an idealist who doesn't want to hurt anyone, but Raine is pragmatic to a fault. She sees the best course of action in any given situation, and is often frustrated by how emotionally-driven the younger members of the party usually are. They're a lot like Lloyd: they hate to see people suffering in front of them, and will go out of their way to assist someone in need. This often puts the mission - the vitally important "Journey of Regeneration" - on the back-burner, which Raine is remiss to do, surmising that when the world is restored, many of these problems will solve themselves.

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She's not heartless, though. In fact, her pragmatism is sometimes at odds with her actual emotional wants and needs. She hates to see or cause suffering, but she values logic and reason very highly, tending to prioritize success and efficiency over her personal desires. While her pragmatism initially comes off as cold and uncaring, it's quickly shown that she cares deeply for the other members of the party, and would never suggest a plan that would cause them unnecessary suffering, even if it were the most "sensible" solution available to them. She has been with Genis, Lloyd, and Colette for a long time. She's watched over them for years, and continues to as they start heading into the future, catching them when they stumble on the way there. They're family to her, literally in Genis's case, but she cares for the other two just as much as she does her brother.

Raine is a fountain of wisdom, though not in the sense that the "wise old man" character archetype tends to be. Rather than spout off proverbs and one-liners all the time, Raine is always helping the younger members of the group see things from different perspectives.

When Lloyd angrily shouts about his hatred of the Desians, Raine asks him what brought it on. He recounts his promise to never allow the Desians to do what they did to his hometown again, frustrated by the fact that they keep committing atrocities and he hasn't been able to stop them. He hates seeing the port city Palmacosta threatened by the Desians, and is understandably angry about the cruel way they operate. Kratos chastises him for losing his cool, telling him that that's the sort of behavior that leads to mistakes like the one he made at his hometown. Lloyd, still pissed off, yells at Kratos, telling him to shut up. Raine easily finds the words to bring Lloyd back to his senses.

"Lloyd, your feelings are always honest and pure. Nevertheless, that's not a reason to ignore the advice of your comrades. We are worried about Palmacosta, but we're also worried about you, understand?"

Lloyd apologizes to both her and Kratos, and the potentially relationship-damaging situation is effectively diffused. Another situation finds Kratos privately complaining to Raine that the two of them are the only ones up to the task of protecting Collette and saving the world. She takes offense at his portrayal of the rest of the group, saying, "I'm still just a school teacher from a small village. And you're a mercenary who fights for money. I don't think we're fit to handle the task of saving the world, either, wouldn't you agree?" This puts Raine in a pretty great light, showing that she's as humble as she is eloquent. She dislikes it when people think of themselves as better than others. This little exchange is important setup for the game's eventual narrative shift, which I'll cover another time.

"I don't think we're fit to handle the task of saving the world, either, wouldn't you agree?"

Even though Raine starts the story as someone who already kind of has herself figured out, she grows over the course of the game, too. [spoilers ahead!] She ended up taking care of her brother Genis because her mother abandoned them when they were young. Raine remembers this, even though Genis doesn't, and doesn't really talk about it very much. This is revealed to be the reason for her obsession with ruins; her mother left the siblings at one when she abandoned them, and Raine studied her entire life in a desperate attempt to find the ruin she remembered from her childhood. As it turns out, the ruin was located in another world, known there for a curse that spirits people away. It lives up to its reputation, whisking Raine and Genis away to the world where they grew up, and it left Raine with a head full of memories of places she could never return to.

She resents her mother for this. When the group is able to travel to this other world, Raine eventually encounters her mother, and she seems to have lost touch with reality. She is holed up in a small house, cradling a doll, treating it is if it were a real child. Raine is disgusted by this, appalled that her mother was caring for a child's toy when she refused to care for Raine and Genis. Her logical mind fails her in this one aspect; she blinds herself to the possibility that her mother's mental instability was not a choice, finding it easier to simply be angry at her than to forgive her. She overcomes this obstacle somewhat over the rest of the game, though it's never explicitly stated that she forgives her. Her issues with abandonment never entirely go away.

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Raine struggles to overcome her resentment towards her mother, but she improves herself in other ways throughout the game. [spoilers end] Raine is always giving thoughtful advice, but often ends up saying something she needed to hear just as much as everyone else did. Sometimes this leads to her feeling conflicted or depressed, frustrated at her own hypocrisy, but there are just as many times it helps her feel better, too. Sometimes you just have to hear yourself say something out loud before you really believe it.

Her growth comes from the growth of the other characters. She does everything she can to help Lloyd grow into a better person, and as she sees it happening, many of the changes he goes through rub off on her, too. She is still too logical to honestly believe in Lloyd's ideals, but she is able to believe in Lloyd himself, and therefore find hope for the future that way.

"Your way of thinking is not wrong. But you must deal with the frustration of the fact that sometimes you are forced to make a choice. Lloyd, take responsibility for the choices you have made.

...The reason I say such harsh things is that I believe that you will overcome them. You are strong, Lloyd."

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This is how you write that style of character arc. Characters who are defined by their relationships with other characters tend to range from shallow to downright offensive when done poorly. Sometimes it seems like it's out of laziness, but usually it's born from some misguided need to make the protagonist, and by extension the player, seem more important. Raine's arc is tied to other characters because she feels responsible for their safety and emotional well-being. It's believable, and it gives her agency too, something painfully lacking from characters who spend their entire arcs in the shadow of the protagonist.

Raine is one of my favorite characters in Tales of Symphonia. She sidesteps the traps that other characters like her often fall into, and is generally more nuanced and believable as a person than similar characters tend to be. She is more than the "wise old sage" of the party because she is actually deeply flawed herself, often perfectly aware of her own hypocrisy when giving advice. She manages to have a character arc that isn't really about her own story, but it feels appropriate to her character, and doesn't come off as a result of lazy writing the way this kind of character often does. Raine admittedly still embodies several common character tropes in a very direct way, but for the most part she's written well enough to overcome the worst aspects of them. Raine Sage leaves an impression, and manages to be one of the standout players in Tales of Symphonia's already memorable cast.

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Noise Pollution: I'm Gonna Gush About A Few More Songs Here

Previous posts in the series:

Noise Pollution 1: Let's Talk Video Game Music

Noise Pollution 2: Lamenting Midna's Lament

Yes, I really do insist on calling this series "Noise Pollution"

It's been a while, but I've felt it calling me again: it's time to talk about more video game music! Let's get right into it.

I don't think I'm going to be able to write one of these without including a track from a Persona game. This one… it's apparently divisive? There seem to be a fair number of people who aren't into it as an opening, and the original release's opening is admittedly fantastic. But I love this one just the same.

While this intro doesn't capture the "dark" side of the game very well, it does perfectly express the other things that make Persona 4 such a magical experience. Shadow World is both goofy and cool, somehow managing to perfectly balance both without either overpowering the other. Persona 4 is excellent at doing that. Every Persona opening is amazing in its own way, but I wanted to call attention to this one specifically because it does something different from the other tracks.

And the way it ends with that bassline played on piano; it's perfect. I love it to death.

Speaking of franchises that will probably be featured in every one of these, here's a song from a Legend of Zelda game.

There are a bunch of incredible songs from Majora's Mask, but I chose this one because it evokes something very specific, and it does so very effectively. In order to reach the place where this song plays, We have to traverse through a dark, damp sewer, facing enemies in a cramped space and forced to make dangerous jumps across a few bodies of water. When we finally make it to the end, we climb a ladder up into the Astral Observatory.

We are immediately hit with a sense of awe as the atmosphere completely changes. There are vibrant cool colors all around us, and the room evokes the starry sky above. It's otherworldly. We are given the opportunity to peer through a telescope, and through it we see the face of the moon looming above, soon to bring the end to the residents of Termina.

This song expresses all of that on its own, but as a companion to the gameplay and the visuals, it makes the moment hit hard. The song is beautiful, and oddly haunting in spots; a perfect parallel to what's going on in the observatory itself. The song doesn't make us feel safe, exactly, but it does bring about some sense of calm after the treacherous trek through the Clock Town sewer. The Astral Observatory is an island of calm in a sea of fear, and the view of the chaotic world around is as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying. That odd mix of dread and wonder is evoked perfectly in the music.

This is a series I adore. It masterfully takes a potentially uninteresting concept and crafts an exciting game around it. The Ace Attorney games are great at making you feel smart; they effectively point you in the right direction of the answers without walking you to them. And the stakes… They make every piece of evidence you present feel vital, even when it doesn't lead to a ton of answers, or the prosecutor finds a way to explain your contradiction away. For most of any given case, you are grasping at straws, desperately hoping to find anything to pull yourself up with.

But eventually, you find it, and you gain ground. The witness's lies start falling apart, and you push until you're finally left with the truth. When you finally gain the upper hand in a case in the first Ace Attorney game, this song starts playing. It's tonally perfect and serves to amp up the tension until it eventually reaches a breaking point.

The Ace Attorney games actually all have strong music that serve the stories well, and I'll probably be bringing up other tracks from the series as time goes on.

Alright, I'm going for a deep cut, this time.

You know that Fate/Stay Night anime that was so popular? It was based on a visual novel. Tsukihime is another visual novel done by the people who did Fate/Stay Night. Fate is pretty dark in spots, but Tsukihime is aggressively dark, reveling in violence and disquieting sexuality meant to make you squirm uncomfortably as you play through it. It's honestly so dark that it would be easy to see it as a game that's trying too hard. And maybe it is. But unlike other games that revel in violence and dark themes the way Tsukihime does, Tsukihime is actively trying to make you hate yourself for experiencing it. It doesn't want you to derive pleasure from the experience; it wants you to feel bad about deriving pleasure from it. Whether it does that well or not is another topic, but I personally found it very effective.

This song is wonderful in the context of the game because it's… innocent. When so much of the experience makes you feel miserable and cynical, the moments of humanity sprinkled throughout need something extra to be effective. And this song does that for me. It feels like the innocence of youth. It feels like the romanticized fantasy of confessing your love to someone. It feels like the reality of that moment, where nothing is really as meaningful or important as you made it out to be in your head.

This song is naivety, in the exact moment where it finally meets reality. The loss of innocence inherent to facing reality hasn't happened yet, but it's coming. It's inevitable.

Let's take a hard right turn from the attempted profundity of the previous song and into something more pleasant.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE was my Game of the Year for 2016. It probably wasn't the best game to be released that year, but it was my personal favorite. The battle system was unique and kept the combat engaging throughout. The story was ridden with clichés and took no unexpected turns, and the characters were relatively uninteresting, but they both managed to work in service of the overall tone of the experience.

The game is filled with fun J-pop songs, but I personally found the game's take on the Fire Emblem theme to be endearing as hell. I really like the Fire Emblem theme; it's one of those songs that makes my heart swell up and gets me excited to play a Fire Emblem game. This version is toned down and somewhat pop-y, but it brought a smile to my face every time I heard it in-game. It makes the theme fit in with the tone of the game as a whole, and the added feeling of rhythm under it does actually work pretty well, considering the original was written to evoke high-fantasy fighting and imperial glory.

To truly tie this very anime selection of music together, I'll end with the Japanese intro to Tales of Zestiria. While Zestiria was kind of a miss for me as far as Tales games go, this intro is easily the best of any in the series. If we want to touch on how it plays in the context of the visuals, the cuts in the anime intro are all in time with the beats of the music. Otherwise, the game kinda doesn't evoke much of anything that this rad song does. It's pretty mellow, and only two, maybe three of the characters can be classified as "badass" in any way, and even then, not in the way the song would imply.

But man, devoid of that context, this thing is rad. The characters come off as cool and confident, all working together effortlessly to take down massive opponents. The flow of the fight follows the flow of the song, which in turn makes the entire fight scene look and feel more kinetic. The song itself is just dope. It gets you pumped to beat up bad guys and save the world. It feels fucking heroic.

This version isn't the version that plays in the US version of the game, though. The vocals are all stripped out in favor of an electric guitar playing the notes normally sung in the Japanese version. I don't know why they did this, since the vocals make the song infinitely better, but when I was playing the game and didn't know there was a better version out there, the song was still pretty cool. But the Japanese version blows that one out of the water in every aspect. Listening to it makes me want to go back to the game, even though I kind of didn't like it!

That's It For Today

Man, I think all the tracks I chose besides the Majora's Mask one were from games that are anime as fuck. Maybe my next post will be a little less anime? But maybe not; a Persona song is probably going to make the list every single time. On the flipside, so will a Zelda one, but that still leaves me at 50% anime before I add in other stuff.

I will definitely cover more songs as time goes on. I'll mostly be doing stuff from games I've actually played for the foreseeable future, but that doesn't mean talking about a song from a game I haven't played is off the table, either. I've played little to no Final Fantasy, and I definitely want to talk about the music from that series at some point. But anyways, if you have suggestions, either from Final Fantasy, or from some obscure Japanese game, or from a major franchise that you don't think gets enough credit for their music, feel free to let me know. I may not cover any of the songs you tell me about, but they will at least broaden my horizons and give me more places to look for songs.

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Everything About Tales of Symphonia - Part I: In Defense of Lloyd Irving

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Spoiler note: Any spoilers beyond the early moments of the game are either marked or are not major, especially out of context. I think this should be safe to read if you plan on playing it; I took special care to make sure it was.

I'm a fan of the Tales franchise of JRPGs. I've written several times before about various games in the series: there's a post detailing my first impressions of Tales of the Abyss, a criticism of the free-to-play money sink that is Tales of Link, and more recently I wrote about the trope-driven relationships in the series, especially in Tales of Hearts. I've spent a lot of time talking about Tales games, but haven't actually touched on my favorite entry very much. My favorite Tales game, shared by many Tales fans, is Tales of Symphonia, released for the GameCube in 2004.

I don't remember what got me so excited for this game prior to release. I distinctly remember a preview in Nintendo Power that I poured over a thousand times, though. Why that particular preview captured my interest so effectively, I'll never know, but either way I was excited for the game to come out. I remember going from GameStop to GameStop with my mom on the day of release, only to be told they were sold out at every one. I remember checking the bigger stores, like Best Buy and Wal-Mart to similar effect. I couldn't find the game anywhere. We resorted to ordering it online, which meant I couldn't play it right that second, but I appreciated my mom taking me all over town to look for it with me, so I didn't complain. As a twelve-year-old, not complaining took a lot of effort from me.

Anyways, once I got it, I played it obsessively. It came out in the summer, meaning I had no school to occupy my time, and was free to play the game for hours and hours on the tiny CRT I had in my bedroom. I loved it. I loved the characters, I loved the story, I loved the plot twists, I loved the battle system, and I loved how many hours of game it had for me. I played it again immediately after finishing it, using the robust New Game Plus system present in every Tales game. I explored every sidequest, and completed most of them in my time. Since then, I've gone back to the game every couple years and enjoyed it thoroughly.

More recently, however, I was trying to sell my friend on the game, and it made me doubt myself. Was the game as good as I thought it was, or has nostalgia clouded my judgement and made it impossible for me to dislike it during these repeated playthroughs? I decided to play through it again, this time trying to keep my critical eye more open so as to see the game a bit more for what it really was. And you know what?

It's a fantastic game! There were even some parts of it that I hadn't realized were as good as they were, since I had usually been playing it on autopilot until this playthrough. There are criticisms, sure, but there is so much to like in Tales of Symphonia that it's hard to dwell on those sticking points for very long, even when trying to dwell on them.

Insert obligatory jab at Colette here.
Insert obligatory jab at Colette here.

The number one thing that makes Tales of Symphonia so fantastic is the colorful cast of characters. They tend to fall into pretty specific character archetypes, but they are excellent examples of those archetypes, and serve to remind you why those archetypes are so commonly used in the first place: they're engaging. When done right, anyway. Other Tales casts have failed on this front in many ways, and make it clear that those archetypes should be avoided in a lot of cases, too. But ask anyone their favorite thing about Tales of Symphonia, and they'll almost certainly tell you it's the characters.

They're great. There are other things to love about Tales of Symphonia, but the endearing cast is what really stands out to most people, myself included. There are some characters who are weaker than others, but on the other hand, a few of them have character arcs that don't adhere to the expectations you might have for their particular archetype. They're extremely fun to watch, and the way some of them grow and change is both legitimately interesting and emotionally resonant.

Lloyd starts out pretty cocky.
Lloyd starts out pretty cocky.

Since the cast of Symphonia is so standout, on this critical playthrough, I kept an eye out for the various things that motivate them; what causes them to behave the way they do. I also looked at who each character was at the end of the story as opposed to who they were at the beginning. Today, I want to focus on Lloyd's arc, and discuss the ways in which I think it succeeds, and how I personally relate to his growth as a character.

Lloyd Irving is the main protagonist of the story, and we generally see the world from his perspective. As far as archetypes go, he fits the "stock shonen hero" description pretty closely. He's not particularly smart, but he has a strong sense of justice that guides his decisions and earns him the respect of others. He's also cocky, and believes in his sword fighting abilities, nearly defining himself by them.

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At the beginning of the story, Lloyd is a kid. He hasn't grown up yet because nothing has forced him to. His first moment of self-doubt comes at the appearance of a swordsman whose skills far surpass his own. The swordsman, a mercenary named Kratos, tells him flatly that he's unskilled. Lloyd has to face the fact that he may not be as talented as he thinks he is.

This is something that I've been dealing with for years, now. I grew up convinced that I was special, and smarter than everyone else. Adult life has proven to me that I'm not actually all that special. I might just be above-average, or, god forbid, average-average. The test scores and positive feedback I got in school haven't actually translated into anything that matters now that it's over. The creative things that I'm passionate about are done so much better by other people that it's hard to think anything I create has any value at all. The realization that I am not a special snowflake has been the hardest part of growing up by far.

Lloyd's immediate reaction to this blow to his pride is anger. He thinks Kratos is full of himself, and doesn't know what he's talking about. However, some stuff happens that causes him to doubt himself for real, and after that, he slowly starts to accept it.

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You see, Lloyd screws up. His strong moral compass leads him into a conflict with the evil and aggressive Desians, a group seemingly dedicated to making life hell for everyone around them, usually through extreme violence. By rashly trying to save someone in front of him without a thought to the consequences, he directly causes innocent people to suffer at their hands. He breaks the treaty that kept his village, Iselia, safe from them, and the Desians make sure he knows it. They burn half the buildings down, and kill anyone they happen to come across along the way. Lloyd can't deny his role in causing the tragedy before him. On top of that, the person he was trying to save was turned into a monster, and Lloyd was forced to kill them in order to protect himself and the other villagers. He and Genis, his friend who rushes in to stand up for him, are banished by the mayor, and he accepts the punishment without a fight, wracked with guilt over the fate of the village.

When I was growing up, I spent a good, long while convinced that my actions didn't have consequences. Eventually, I was forced to admit that they did, and that I had managed to nearly ruin my life thanks to my reckless behavior. Learning that I wasn't invincible was hard, but I could live with the fact that I was going to have to suffer if I made a bad choice. What was harder to come to terms with was the idea that my actions might have been hurting people aside from myself, too. Letting go of the sense of invincibility was important for me to grow up. Acknowledging that other people were hurt by my behavior was exponentially more difficult, but also made me a much better person. I always wanted to be a good person, even in my worst moments, and this has gotten me closer to that goal. It's not a betrayal of who I was to renounce the things I did as a teenager; it's actually just another step towards being the person I wanted to be back then.

Lloyd spends a long time, if not the entire rest of his journey, trying to atone for what he did. He makes mistakes along the way, a lot of mistakes, but Tales of Symphonia is a story about learning how to learn from them. And yeah, I typed that correctly. It's not about learning from your mistakes. It's about becoming a person who can learn from them. And that reflects my experience growing up more than a lot of stories about the subject do.

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Part of Lloyd's growth only happens because the tragedy at Iselia forces him to doubt himself. He has to accept that he's not perfect, and there are countless things for him to improve on. One of those is his sword skills, which he used to feel downright cocky about his talent for. He's reluctant to ask Kratos for guidance, as he still has lingering resentment towards him, but eventually does ask how he can become a better swordsman. Kratos lectures him about his many flaws, which puts Lloyd on edge, but he listens anyway.

Lloyd's swordfighting abilities improve as he matures emotionally, too. After a harrowing fight with a Desian leader, a young girl the Desians captured finds out about the tragedy at Iselia, specifically hearing about how he murdered an innocent civilian during the whole affair. She doesn't know that this civilian was turned into a monster, nor does she learn about Lloyd's attempt to save them. She is left with only the parts of the truth that make him out to be a bad guy, and refuses to be saved by him, instead returning into Desian custody out of defiance. This sticks with Lloyd; to him it's another consequence of his reckless actions in Iselia.

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While the group mulls over this event, Genis tells everyone the whole story behind the events, hoping to save Lloyd some face and defend his honor. Kratos weighs in, saying "Incompetent good intentions will only bring tragedy." Genis gets angry at this, and tries to step in to defend Lloyd again, but Lloyd says it's fine and admits fault, promising to never forget the suffering his actions caused. Kratos nods and indirectly praises him, commenting that the strength to acknowledge and remember one's mistakes is just as important, if not more important, than physical strength. Much later in the story, when Lloyd finally figures out what he believes in and what he wants to do, Kratos tells him that he's grown strong. By that point, Lloyd has grown up enough that he no longer needs the validation, and simply muses on whether or not he's actually gotten any better. Lloyd has accepted that he will never be perfect, and as such has become truly strong.

Another aspect of Lloyd's character, his naïve idealism, stems from his strong sense of justice. He believes in a world where nobody has to suffer needlessly, and hates the idea that anyone should have to be sacrificed for the sake of a greater good. He searches for solutions that don't ask him to weigh anyone's life over anyone else's, sure that there's always a better way.

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One of the reasons he feels this way, though, is due to the events of the "Journey of Regeneration" he accompanies Colette on. At the end point of their journey, he is told that [Spoilers for about 1/3 into the game] Colette is actually going to have to sacrifice herself in order to complete the process of world regeneration they've been working towards. He tries to stop it from happening, but when a threatening Kratos asks him if he would save her over the rest of the world, he falters. Colette loses her ability to feel emotions and becomes lifeless as a result. Lloyd regrets this instantly, and spends the next leg of his journey trying to repair the damage his choice caused to Colette. This moment obviously sticks with Lloyd, and he passionately refuses to sacrifice anyone else again. [Spoilers end] Moments of character growth like this are fantastic. At the end of the game, you can trace everything about Lloyd back to specific moments and decisions that caused him to think about things differently. He becomes strong, and he has defined beliefs that he does not waver from again.

"At that moment, facing the decision between Colette and the world... For a split second, I chose the world."

Lloyd rubs some people the wrong way as a protagonist, but I love Lloyd because his story is the story of someone trying to become a good person, and acknowledging that they might not have been before. Lloyd's path to redemption mirrors my own. Acknowledging my mistakes and accepting blame for them was something I used to struggle with. I always clung to the belief that bad things were everyone else's fault, and being mad or sad about that was one of my core motivators. Clawing my way out of that despicable victim complex was hard, and I wound up feeling guilty for my many previously ignored transgressions and moments of unkindness all at once, for months. I still feel lingering guilt over a lot of it today, years after I first started trying to take responsibility for my mistakes. Lloyd doesn't start from the downright backwards place I started from, but I still felt a connection to him watching him go through some of the same things I have.

This aspect of Lloyd's character arc is not something I would have, or even could have picked up on while playing through the game as a kid. In fact, this last playthrough was my first time playing it with the perspective I have now. I always liked Lloyd before; he was a hero who believed in his ideals and saved the world as a result of that. I was a punk-rock teenager, so I was all about clinging to ideals, even misguided ones. The more important aspect of his character, which I failed to notice, was the way in which he developed those ideals. Blindly adhering to ideals without ever questioning them always lead him to tragedy, and it wasn't until he started doubting himself that he was able to become the hero I saw him as.

I have a lot of fondness for Lloyd, which is not a sentiment I've seen expressed very often. Usually his well-meaning idiot demeanor turns people off instantly, which is totally understandable. On top of that, the arc I've described here isn't the most overt or obvious, and may actually be little more than my own personal interpretation of the way his character develops. Even if I'm mostly just projecting here, on a surface level it's still a plot about growing up by being willing to acknowledge your own faults. That's a story worth telling, I think. And since Lloyd is the conduit through which this story is told, I'm pretty inclined to like him.

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I'll probably go deep on several of the other characters from this game at some point, if not all of them. Look forward to it!

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A Treasured Memory of Star Fox Assault (I Know That Sounds Impossible)

Star Fox Assault is not a very good game. On release, it was met with a sea of 7/10 scores during an era famous for using the "7 to 9 scale", meaning that a game had to be exceptionally bad to see a 6 or lower score from many publications. It also followed up the maligned (by fans, anyway) Star Fox Adventures, a game featuring almost zero gameplay from previous entries in the series, instead favoring a Zelda-style quest where Fox uses a magic staff to save a bunch of happy dinosaurs from an angrier, eviler dinosaur. For many fans, Assault was a return to form of sorts; making me wonder if those scores would have been even lower if not for the bizarre game it was following up. (Ironically, in spite of the near-constant hatred I encountered at the time for Adventures, it still holds a higher Metacritic score than Assault does.)

"Gee, I've been saved by Fox. How swell," Falco radios after a close call in Star Fox 64.

The game is boring. That's one of the worst things you can say about a game of its type, especially one with such a powerful legacy of fun behind it. But it wasn't just boring; no, it was also written poorly, and had a bare-bones multiplayer that evoked none of the feelings the (still pretty bare-bones) multiplayer from Star Fox 64 did. It put characters from Adventures into the action, who were quite undeveloped and tonally inappropriate for the game, like the mystical blue fox lady who speaks super-formally and talks about magic constantly - a far cry from the endearingly-bad dialogue from previous entries.

I can't explain why it happened with this game specifically, nor have I ever been able to get back into the head-space I was in at the time, but 13-year-old me made a game of his own in the game's not-stellar multiplayer.

You see, a few friends had come over to play games. For those of you even younger than me, that's what you did in those days: friends would come to your house to play Gamecube games with you. And at least in my case, it was usually Gamecube. Sure, some friends would want to play Halo and others would want to… um… I guess that was it, really. Gamecube or Halo. But yeah, Super Smash Bros. Melee was on Gamecube, so that's the console we played together. Anyways, Star Fox Assault was a fresh purchase for me at that point, so we decided to give it a go.

Being young, we actually had fun with it in spite of itself, but the real fun came when one of us presented the previous battle as a story, describing the events that occurred in it as part of some larger whole that wasn't really there. "You see, *character* went rogue, and the team tried to stop him. But *character* flew too well for them, and managed to get away, flying for *location* to reveal the secrets of your operation." (If I remembered any actual details, I would include them, but I don't, unfortunately.)

Once that happened the first time, it happened every time after that. Soon, we had developed imaginary factions that don't actually exist in the game; societies of falcon people who were bitterly at odds with the imperial order, pockets of frog people nomadically wandering through space, and small bands of mercenaries formed out of stragglers from the various factions and cultures. I can't actually remember any of the specifics now, but I remember having a lot of fun telling these stories with my friends based on how our multiplayer matches turned out, the victor always getting to dictate the direction of the plot.

We were role-playing, basically. And it made that experience for me. I now look back at Star Fox Assault fondly, in spite of there being little to nothing in the game itself to inspire those feelings. My friends and I created a world together, and in doing so, I became attached to it. The world of Star Fox doesn't seem to have anything that interesting going on, as far as I'm aware, but our 13-year-old brains brought us to a different world that did.

I have never been able to really have that experience again. I've had some fantastic and unique multiplayer experiences, and I've had experiences where inhabiting a role made a game more fun, but I haven't managed to combine the two the same way since. And I'd honestly feel like an idiot trying to do that today. Part of what made that experience possible in the first place was our youth; I don't think there are many adults out there who really want to improvise stories about multiplayer matches of Star Fox: Assault these days. And if there are, I don't know how many of them are people I'd enjoy hanging out with.

For me, this is a small, singular moment in time. This is a special moment in my video game history that means something to me; it is a memory that I treasure. It was a single day where my friends and I got heavily invested in something that was almost entirely our own creation. We made something together. I don't know if anything is going to evoke that for me again, but I know it's possible. I know that even the most mediocre of games are capable of creating important memories, and it might be something inherent to video games as an artistic medium. It's one of the reasons I love games so much. They're special.

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Exploring the Trope-Heavy Relationships in Tales Games

As I mentioned previously, I bought a Vita a few weeks ago. Along with that purchase I ordered a few games, Tales of Hearts R being among them; one of two very long JRPGs I thought it would be smart to try to play at the same time. I've been playing that pretty consistently for the last week or so, and after about 25 hours with it, I'm comfortable saying this: it's certainly not the best Tales game, but I had fairly low expectations and it has blown those out of the water. It's extremely corny and clichéd, but in a way that is honestly kind of endearing.

That bar at the top, the one that says
That bar at the top, the one that says "PSVITA"? That's why you've never heard of this game.

The characters all fall into very defined anime trope-y archetypes, more so than members of other Tales casts seem to, and the Tales games are well known for (almost aggressively) sticking to common character tropes. These characters are generally even more trope-y than average, though, which leads to them being kind of forgettable. On top of that, most of the tropes they adhere to have been done better by characters from other Tales titles, burying them even further into obscurity.

The thing that sets this extremely trope-y and typical cast apart from the casts of other Tales games—the one thing this game has going for it that the other, generally better entries don't—is that it actually commits to a romance between two characters. While other Tales games drop hints of romantic interest throughout, Tales of Hearts features two specific characters who are very much romantically interested in each other. The "everyone kinda wants you but none of it ever goes anywhere" sort of thing that the other entries do is basically gone. The story is about (protagonist) Kor and (main supporting character) Kohaku's budding romance, and not about everyone having a bit of a thing for Kor that he doesn't seem able to notice.

Our sweet, boring Colette.
Our sweet, boring Colette.

I much prefer a story that commits to a single romantic interest and actually seals the deal over one where it's kind of nebulous the entire time. I would be way into it if the story actively bucked heteronormative relationship standards, don't get me wrong! That would honestly be preferred to either of the staid and boring possibilities I've presented here. I don't think that the "harem-lite" thing is really that, though, and since the "harem-lite" thing is what most Tales games (along with a lot of anime) tend to do, I appreciate the willingness to commit to an actual romantic relationship, and it feels refreshing by comparison.

Tales of Symphonia is the entry that probably comes the closest to this, but it doesn't commit either. It's clear that several of the characters have crushes on main hero Lloyd to some degree, even if the friendship/probably-romance between him and Colette is what they tend to focus on. Sheena is very obviously into Lloyd, and even Raine express a bit of interest towards him during a few moments. I personally found those threads more interesting than Colette's feelings by far, since she was such an utterly uninteresting character to me. On top of that, the game doesn't commit hard enough towards their romance for me to really feel like that's canonically what's going on.

Here's some more box art that you've probably never seen before. You're welcome, I guess?
Here's some more box art that you've probably never seen before. You're welcome, I guess?

There is actually a romantic plot thread in Tales of Legendia, a generally disliked and relatively forgettable title in the series. I say generally disliked because it actually got decent reviews upon release, and I happen to like it a fair amount, but fans of the franchise tend to be at least apathetic towards it if they don't hate it outright. It has very obvious issues (as does Tales of Hearts) but there are enough fun character moments in the game for me to look past them somewhat.

The romance in question is actually focused on the main character's lingering feelings for someone who passed away. Oh, um… spoilers for Tales of Legendia ahead, I guess, though I've never once seen anyone say anything about having a desire to pick this one up and play it after the initial release window. I'm not entirely sure the warning is necessary, but there it is, just in case. Anyways, Senel, our hero, fell for a girl, they had a relationship, some bad stuff happened, she died, and he is now taking care of her sister, Shirley. The actual romantic plot develops when it becomes clear that Shirley has feelings for Senel, and always has. This is complicated for Shirley, since she respects her sister's feelings and doesn't want to disrespect her memory by pining for the man she was in love with. This is kind of an interesting aspect of their relationship. Admittedly, the game doesn't handle it super well, but it's interesting that it's there at all.

The real problems come later on in the story, when it becomes clear that another party member, Chloe, has fallen for Senel as well. Unlike other Tales games, though, this isn't simply mentioned in passing and then generally ignored except when it can be played for laughs: Shirley and Chloe have a fight about it. They do make amends, eventually deciding to both try to win him over without resenting the other person for trying, too. It's cool that the game actually paid attention to its romantic plot, but…

It does all kind of suck ass in a way, for reasons that are probably pretty apparent. There are not one, but two female characters who have significant parts of their arcs devoted to talking about, thinking about, and fighting over a male character. Talk about failing the Bechdel test, am I right? Say what you will about that test as a concept, that's not what this post is about, but it's disconcerting when a character ends up being defined by their relationship to the protagonist. This is true regardless of any sort of gender roles; that interpretation of romance is an unhealthy one no matter the circumstances. The obvious (probably not done with malicious intent, though still a serious problem) misogyny in this particular case only serves to make it more uncomfortable. It's nice to see romantic feelings legitimately addressed, as having the characters all secretly pine for Senel might actually be worse, but creating this awful sort of fantasy-fulfilment thing where two female characters chase the lead male is still super not-great for a number of reasons.

At the very least, the romance between Kor and Kohaku in Tales of Hearts R is generally presented in a healthy way. It's young love, and it's corny, and they struggle to actually express their feelings, but it's not one-sided. The romance doesn't seem to stem from Kor proving himself worthy of Kohaku, which seems to be the approach a number of bad stories take. It also doesn't stem from Kohaku being enamored with Kor because he saved her life, which is yet another bad way it could have gone. I mean, he does save her life, and he does want to show off to her, but neither of those things seem to be the driving force behind their feelings.

No Caption Provided

They really seem to fall for each other over time. Sure, it started with Kor being taken in by her attractiveness, but a lot of relationships start that way. What was nice was that Kor simply being attracted to her wasn't presented as actually being romantic, really. The attraction existed more to point out Kor's naivety than to progress the plot, and those feelings were easy for him to ignore or brush aside when necessary. His highest priority was helping her out of the bad situation she was in, and his motivation was because he wanted to be a good person, not because he wanted to make her like him. Spending time together wound up naturally leading to more developed feelings, and when those feelings became stronger, they affected the plot and his mood more directly, as they naturally would. It was kind of nice to see done that way.

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This romance is nothing special when compared to romances in other media, other genres, or honestly other JRPG franchises. It's a typical romance in a game filled with trope-y characters who are traipsing around a very standard JRPG world. There really isn't anything that stands out about Tales of Hearts R. But you know, sometimes being a decent entry in a decent series can be enough to make a decent game, and I think that's the case here. The stupid little butterflies I feel watching the romance play out is just a nice extra touch that pushes it over the edge for me.

Put simply, Tales of Hearts does nothing special or unique, but I find it endearing anyways.

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