This blog has been fallow for over ten months now (beating out the previous record between these two posts). I’ve begun a few posts on various topics — religion, dating & romance, Player and Doodler stuff — but none of them have quite coalesced. So I figured I’d do a more off-the-cuff type deal to at least get something up here and maybe jumpstart some of the other posts I’ve been tinkering with.
Most of my attempts at a new post keep reiterating what I wrote in the last post. I still feel like I’m stuck between two worlds, trying to please everyone but not really picking a side firmly. Internally I’m completely non-LDS now, but I still have things I’ve taken from being a member for more than 30 years that are important to me. Also, most of my friends are still LDS, active or not, and I find it easier to be with them (and vice versa) if I keep the reminders that I’m not to a minimum. So I still order the Dr. Pepper at a restaurant with friends, even if technically I could get a beer, because I don’t want to shove my differences in their faces. I still try to keep my chatroom for Player and Doodler videos family-friendly (or at least PG-13-ish) even if no kids are in it. Is it cowardice? Maybe. But at the same time, I’m not going to go to church or a baby blessing or even say a prayer at a family gathering because I don’t feel comfortable doing so anymore. Is that an expression of my beliefs or is it just stubbornness? Can I be the type of guy who won’t say the prayer or go to church but still wants to keep raunchy chatting out of my goofy internet videos (even though I don’t care if somebody’s talking raunchy in front of me in person)? And, in doing so, who the hell can I find that is like me? What does it say about my moral compass (or lack thereof)? It’s been nearly a year since that Lukewarm post and I still haven’t found a community, and I can’t really talk openly to anyone because everybody’s on a different place on the scale than I am, and heaven forbid I make anyone uncomfortable! And if I reveal my opinions, then I lose the trust of those around me to express their opinions freely, cutting me off even more than I already am.
So a year goes by and the blog stays silent.
As a side note, I don’t find raunchiness necessarily off-putting anymore like I used to when I was still LDS. However, what I don’t like is when raunchiness is the punchline of a joke in and of itself, especially if there are no other layers to it (aka “he said something that is slang for penis so it’s funny”). It’s akin to a five-year-old saying “poop” then laughing until he passes out (which, OK, is kinda funny, but only because a five-year-old laughing until he passes out is kinda funny, not the “poop” part). If you’re going to make a dirty joke, at least make it clever.
I’ve been dating some more this year, and I haven’t said a lot about it, mostly because there are parts to it that would remind my LDS friends that I’ve left the Church in ways that are far more obvious than just not saying a prayer would. I have learned a lot about what I want/need out of relationships, though, especially physically. I won’t talk about them on a public blog, though; if you want to know then ask me privately (but remember, I’m not LDS anymore, and that means things. I know I keep saying that, but members tend to not really believe it because I didn’t become a complete atheistic hedonist when I left). And whatever thing you’re thinking right now, what I actually learned is probably something different.
I also want to say that I love my nieces. I especially love that they are at the age where they are starting to form their own opinions independently of the forces in their lives (family, friends, media, etc.). We had a Dokapon Kingdom recording recently, and afterwards we went to go eat at Leatherby’s (with Johnathan too), and we had a really nice time just talking about stuff. Not just light stuff like school or Undertale (which Madeleine is currently obsessed with), but some more serious topics as well. Those girls are growing up, and I love engaging them on the level of people talking to people instead of adults talking to kids.
I’ve also discovered that I don’t really like bars. They’re loud and annoying, especially if music is involved (which it often is, and it’s often terrible). Of course, I have issues with any group of people who have to interact without any clear purpose other than “get to know each other” (this is also why I didn’t particularly like LDS “Munch ‘n Mingles” either) because I find myself either compelled to perform (tossing out one-liners or whatever) or shut up unless a topic comes up that I’m interested in (and considering my interests, that doesn’t happen much in those settings). I ain’t no small-talker!
Player and Doodler stuff is taking up a lot of my time, and it’s beginning to wear on me a bit. I’ve got a far longer blog post in the works dedicated to the subject (we’ll see if it ever gets posted), but my current feelings are that I greatly enjoy the end result. But the process has become far more arduous since I got better equipment, and even though we only record maybe twice a month, I feel a little overwhelmed sometimes. But I gotta keep it going; it’s the only thing outside of work that I’ve got at the moment! I like making those videos because the experience of playing games with people is something great, and I want to preserve that, even if nobody else watches it. (It would be nice if more people watched it, though; even just to help make a teeny bit of money on the side.) Watching Let’s Plays, especially things like The Runaway Guys playing party games like Mario Party, helped me through some lean years after I graduated college when I was living with roommates who didn’t particularly like me and all my friends were far away or too busy taking care of families. They reminded me of better times when I did have friends close by and we could have fun together before life got in the way. So now, during those rare moments when my friends are close by, I need to do these things with them and document them, so that when this channel inevitably ends and all my loved ones move on with their lives (again), I’ve at least got something left. Experiences are better than things, they say, and this is turning things (video games) into experiences, which can then be remembered. This is also why my favorite stuff so far is the Dokapon Kingdom stuff, because that project is far more about the people involved than the game itself, and that’s really why I’m doing this.
I use too many parentheses (it’s true).
Anyway, there’s a bunch of random stuff that came out of me. Hope that tides you over for the next year, or whenever I feel comfortable putting my thoughts out there without alienating anyone I care about, whichever comes first.
EDIT: I forgot to mention this! Exactly ten years ago (minus a day), I moved this blog to WordPress, where it has been ever since! To celebrate, I’m making this edit!
So my good friend Johnathan Whiting and I have been doing some Let’s Play videos on Youtube, where I play through a game while he watches and does some drawings, and at the end we post both the drawings and the videos. I think they’re pretty fun, but we ended up making so many videos that they were hard to sift through and watch, and it was nearly impossible to find the doodles associated with a particular game. So for the past two weeks or so I’ve been working on a website to host it all, and now it’s finally gone live:
Check it out, if only to support us! I’ve got a blog post in the works about the “why” of all this, but for now at least check out what we’ve done. Leave comments! Like things! Subscribe! All that Internet stuff!
Chrono Trigger: Why A Redheaded 17-Year-Old Katana Wielder Is Actually You, and the Important Lesson That You’re Not The Center of the World, But You Can Change It Anyway.
(Note: the following post contains spoilers for Chrono Trigger: a Super Nintendo JRPG from 1995. If you haven’t played it, stop reading and go play it. No, seriously, go play it. Why are you still reading this? I can wait. It’s on Wii Virtual Console or, like, Android, for $10 or something, though apparently the Android version is based on the DS version, which is a good port though it adds some bonus dungeons that suck and makes Frog lose his King James accent, sadly. From this point on I’ll assume you’ve played it, as Chrono Trigger deserves to be in the general consciousness at least as much as, say, Star Wars does, if not more so.)
I’ve never made it a secret that Chrono Trigger is my favorite game of all-time. In fact, it is so good that for a long time it fooled me into thinking that JRPG’s were one of my favorite genres (that’s “Japanese Role-Playing Games” like the Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts series, as opposed to “Western Role-Playing Games” like Skyrim or Mass Effect which I actually do like a lot more in general). To this day I can count on one hand how many JRPG’s I actually enjoy, but Chrono Trigger stands head, shoulders, knees, and toes above all of them, maybe even on one of those pedestals on a hydraulic lift that can raise it even higher. And while there are about fifty kajillion reasons why (intriguing plots, time travel, cavewomen, a frog that speaks with an inexplicable Shakespearean accent, etc.), today I’d like to focus mostly on the razor-thin balancing act that is the protagonist of our story: a 17-year-old redheaded katana-wielding teenager with a single parent (and at least one cat) named Crono (so named because “Chrono” is six letters and the game only let you use five letters for names).
First, let’s provide come background information on RPG’s in general. Role-Playing Games are so named because you, in at least some small way, control how a certain character or characters develop. The level of control you have depends on the game, as does the amount of immersion into the role. For example, many modern-era JRPG’s have fully fleshed-out protagonists who have their own personalities and make their own decisions; you just basically tell them where to move outside of cutscenes and what attack moves to use in battles. This first type of RPG protagonist is barely immersive at all: you’re not supposed to identify with the character, you’re supposed to witness their story and maybe have a hand in some parts. Even in some stories where you have at least some control over their personality (such as Mass Effect where your choices boil down to choosing between “be a righteous hero” and “be a hero who’s kind of a jerk sometimes”), it’s still not your story. You just, as the player, have some influence on how it all plays out, and usually you have a lot more say in what skills/abilities you want the protagonist to develop than what kind of person you want them to be.
The second type of RPG protagonist is the one where the character you play is supposed to be your own surrogate. Games such as Skyrim, or most MMORPG’s, or pretty much any game where you craft a character at the beginning, fall into this category. Many of these games are based on a Dungeons and Dragons model, where you make up all your character’s attributes and personality traits, and while they can be immersive, it’s much more difficult to tell a wonderfully plotted, coherent story with good pacing and side characters, etc. More often these type of games end up being open-world sandbox games, where you can go around and do whatever quests you think your character would do (or whatever quests will get you the best rewards, if you care more about the gaming system than the role-playing aspect). Characters may react to your decisions, but usually only on a superficial level at best, so that all types of people can throw themselves into the protagonist role and not feel alienated by it.
There is a third type of RPG protagonist, however, that for lack of a better term is normally called the “silent protagonist.” This type of character is an attempt to blend the other two: the character still has a backstory and personality, but doesn’t actually say anything in order for the player to more closely identify with the character. A good example of this type of hero would be Link from the Zelda series (though whether or not that makes Zelda an RPG series is debatable, considering that you have no control over what kind of a person Link is or what he can do outside of “how many items/heart pieces/whatever you’ve picked up so far”), or Serge from Chrono Trigger‘s sequel Chrono Cross. This is a hard type of character to pull off, however; too much personality or backstory and it’s just the first type of protagonist that just happens to be inexplicably mute (and therefore the player doesn’t identify with them), but too little backstory or plot influence and the protagonist could virtually be played by a wet napkin with a sword and some magic spells, for all the importance they have on the story (and therefore the player doesn’t particularly want to identify with them, or if they do they’ve got to fill in all the gaps themselves). But the best example of this type of protagonist, and the one that most people hold up as the most triumphant representation of how to pull off this character, is, of course, Crono.
The reason Crono works so well as a protagonist is that he’s enough of a cypher to pull you in to his place, yet he has enough influence on both the plot and the characters that you really feel like you’re experiencing what he is. The stakes are high, people’s interactions with you feel genuine, and you honestly feel like you are the person who is in this spot. And they pull this off with one main genius technique that I love, which is: Crono is not the focus of this story. This is not Crono’s story. But Crono is the heart of the story. Let me explain with a few examples.
The game opens with Crono’s mom waking him up just in time for the local Millenial Fair (so called because we’re in 1000 AD), and reminds us that our childhood inventor friend Lucca has an exhibit there. That is literally the entire backstory we get for Crono, and it’s all revealed within the first minute of the game. He doesn’t end up being some sort of pre-destined hero with a prophecy about him, his dad isn’t revealed to be a long-lost knight or the Prince of Darkness or something, and his hometown isn’t even destroyed by the main villain. All we know is that he’s the kind of person who would be good friends with someone as awesome as Lucca (and make no mistake: she is awesome), which I think fills in the blanks pretty well. I’d say that most of us would love to be the type of person who would be good friends with someone like Lucca (and later on, the type of person that Marle would want to hang out at the fair with), so that’s one point for wanting to identify with Crono right there.
However, from the moment Crono runs into Marle at the fair, the game stops being about Crono, and, with two or three important exceptions, the game is never about Crono again. Oh sure, he’s still the protagonist, but the story doesn’t focus on him anymore. At the fair the focus becomes Marle’s wonderment at the fair, then Lucca and her invention, then saving Marle in 600 AD, etc. It’s really other characters making your decisions for you. But the game does it in such a way as to make you feel like you’re really deciding to do those things. It’s like the old adage that you can make someone do anything you want them to do, as long as you can figure out how to make them feel like they came up with the idea. For example, when Marle disappears into the past near the beginning of the game, you have to make the conscious decision to follow her. From a game perspective, it’s obviously the thing you need to (and Lucca won’t let you leave the screen until you do it, saying basically, “Hey, YOU brought that girl here, YOU help us get her back!”) but when you do it the characters in the game praise your decision so much (Lucca’s dad compliments you on being such a “fine lad,” and when you do end up finding Marle she can’t thank you enough, in a more personal way than the standard video game “Thanks for rescuing me! Here’s your reward of 200G!” or whatever) that the player begins to think, “Hey, yeah, that was pretty noble of me, wasn’t it?” Thus you identify with Crono more. Two points.
OK, so you arrive in 600 AD, though you don’t know what’s happened yet, and it’s apparent that Crono is just as confused as the player is, as most of the NPC’s in town are, like, “What are you talking about, ‘Millenial Fair?’ Shut your pie hole!” (the “pie hole” line is actually in the game). He reacts as any of us would, but it’s clear that the NPC’s are reacting to him and not just spouting generic lines for the most part (even though, technically, they are just spouting the same lines over and over). Throughout this part (and, indeed, most of the game, though it doesn’t approach this level of “WTF just happened to me?” until 12,000 BC), the player discovers what’s going on at the same rate as Crono, and at about the time you figure it out, people stop treating you like an idiot for asking dumb questions (this would be at about the time when you follow the clues to head to the castle to find Marle).
Sometimes the game is really subtle about having you make the right decision. For example, Frog’s introduction consists of him jumping out of nowhere and slicing a snake-woman in half, then uttering some immortally awesome lines like “Lower thine guard and thou’rt allowing the enemy in.” Lucca freaks out because he’s a frog and Frog responds, “My guise doth not incur thy trust… Very well, do as thee please. But I shall save the Queen.” Sure, it totally butchers the English language, but it lays out Frog’s awesome character really well. So on one hand you’ve got a really awesome swordsman (err….swordsfrog) whose goal is the same as yours, and on the other hand you’ve got your childhood friend who’s freaking out about it for the most superficial of reasons (she doesn’t like frogs). The game then asks you what to do. Once again, from a game perspective it’s obvious what you have to do (go with Frog), and the game doesn’t let you proceed until you do. But they could have easily done something a bit more lazy like have Frog appear in a tavern somewhere and say, “Thou seekest the Queen? I also hath taken it upon myself to fulfill such a noble quest! Let us joineth our forces,” or something equally butchered. The decision is still the same, but with this type of presentation your mind is made up by considering what would be best in the game (“taking this character would sure prove to be an advantage in the upcoming dungeon”). But the way the game actually portrays it, it’s Crono being the peacemaker and voice of reason (“Come on, Lucca, calm down. This frog guy looks competent, sounds awesome, and just chopped a snake woman in half! What better help could we ask for on our way to save the Queen?”). It’s subtle, but the game is putting you in Crono’s shoes to make this decision, as opposed to just having you the player make a sound gameplay choice.
(Also, after he joins your party, the first thing Frog says is, “Mayhap a hidden door lurks nigh? Let us search the environs,” which is one of the most delightful lines uttered in a video game ever. It’s lines like these that make me prefer the SNES translation of the game to the DS one, which, while more accurate, left out Frog’s accent and made him a lot more bland.)
There are tons of little decisions like this sprinkled throughout the story that you feel like you’re influencing events more than you, as the player, actually are, which serve to draw you into the narrative through Crono, even though his influence on the plot is minor at best. Other characters make the important decisions: Lucca convinces you to save Marle, Marle takes you home, Marle makes the decision to run away and lead the party into the ruined future, Marle is even the one who actually makes the decision to save the world from Lavos and kick off the main plot, and most of the rest of the game is spent either solving other people’s problems, or accompanying them as they solve their own problems. Every playable character has their own story arcs and moments in the spotlight, and while some are better realized than others (I’m looking in your direction, Robo), they’re all nevertheless well-rounded, fleshed-out characters who drive this plot to many wonderful places that I won’t get into now. But absolutely none of these plot points (including the endgame of finally defeating Lavos) are about Crono at all. In fact, beyond the intro, the game is only about Crono two more times, but both of these times are important to distinguish Crono as a character beyond “nameless RPG protagonist like you’d create for Skyrim or something.”
Let’s take the first moment: the trial scene near the beginning of the game. After the diversion to 600 AD to save both Marle and Queen Leene, you go to the castle in the Present to take Marle home (as a side note: I love how absolutely nothing pertinent to world history occurs in the Present. It just happens to be the time period where Crono, Marle, and Lucca are from, and the only plot that happens there (then?) relates to specific character arcs, not to the main “saving the world” plot.), and, as a result, get put on trial for kidnapping the Princess (Marle) by the chancellor. This sequence is brilliant for a lot of reasons, but for our purposes it puts the player once more squarely in Crono’s shoes. You see, no matter what the outcome of the trial is, the game afterwards continues exactly the same (plus or minus a few healing items you get in prison). So the game designers found an opportunity to make your choices at the beginning of the game actually have consequences without derailing the plot, and by framing it in this giant showpiece of a trial, they inflated their importance to make you, the player, take it seriously.
Crono’s guilt (or innocence) is based entirely on seemingly inconsequential actions taken during the very first part of the game, when you’re at the Millenial Fair. During this part of the game, most players are still new to the game and most probably treating it like any other RPG, where you go everywhere, interact with everything, talk to everyone, and generally collect loot while getting to know the world, following the general adventure game/RPG advice “Take everything that isn’t nailed down or too heavy (and anything that can be pried loose is not considered nailed down).”
In most games this type of behavior has no influence on the story or gameplay other than item/information collection or mandatory plot advancement, or if it does it’s immediately apparent (for example, stealing will immediately set guards after you or something). But all the evidence brought up in the trial is based in things that you did during that beginning sequence, from good (e.g. helping a girl find her lost cat), to bad (e.g. eating a guy’s lunch when his back is turned) — things that most players did without even really thinking about it. Nothing is brought up that you didn’t have a hand in: nothing from Crono’s backstory, or from cutscenes that you didn’t have control over (except maybe when Marle got sent to the past, but even then you were the one that brought her there). In essence, you are put on trial, not just Crono, and the sentence directly involves your character and your actions. And directly afterward, when you get sent to jail, you get to decide whether or not to try to escape, or wait for your execution (that Lucca breaks you out of). This is the only dungeon in the game, by the way, that has this type of branching path: every other dungeon offers only one ultimate way through it. And it’s also the only dungeon in the game that Crono can do alone. To repeat: the only dungeon where you get to decide how to tackle it is the only dungeon that stars a solo Crono…i.e. you. How many points are we at on the “you are Crono” meter, again?
That pales, however, to the magnificence that is the Ocean Palace disaster and its aftermath. This is where serious Chrono Trigger spoilers come into play, and if you’ve read this far without playing the game, then I’m dead serious: stop reading now and go play this game! Are we good? Good.
Let’s fast-forward the game to 12,000 BC, just after the party has rescued Melchior from the floating Mt. Woe. (I told you to go play the game. Now you’re probably totally lost if you didn’t.) Schala comes to the gritty Earthbound village to plead with you to stop her mother from awakening Lavos and killing everyone in order to achieve ULTIMATE POWERTM. Unfortunately, she then gets forcibly taken by Dalton to go to her mother to help her kill everyone (why do people love Schala again? You’d think she’d just say “no” or something. I know it’s her mother, but it’s the fate of the world at stake! Grow a backbone, woman!), and Melchior laments that all life is doomed now. Crono, however, steps forward and shakes his head “no” (since he doesn’t talk and all). Melchior asks, “You’re willing to challenge the queen?” and Crono nods “yes” while Crono’s theme song (AKA the main Chrono Trigger theme) blares in the background. This is significant. In every other instance after the trial, the plot has been forwarded by somebody else saying, “we should do this!” whether it be another party member like Lucca or an NPC. This is the very first time since the Millenial Fair at the beginning that the game has actually had it be Crono that makes the decision to save the day. And since the game has been subtly manipulating the player into Crono’s shoes throughout the whole game, it really feels like a defiant and heroic moment, not just for Crono and the party, but for the player as well. However, this is made even more significant by the events that follow, in what is probably one of the best (if not the best) scenes in video game history.
So Crono and company head back to Zeal and use the transporter to head into the Ocean Palace to stop the Queen from awakening Lavos and destroying everything. However, they are too late, and despite your best efforts, Lavos is summoned. This is the first sucker punch to the player’s gut of several that happen during this scene. The epic battle against the ultimate horror that is Lavos begins… and he immediately KO’s the party without so much as breaking a sweat. Punch number two. Then the mysterious prophet appears…and is revealed to be Magus! What? Punch number three! He’ll finally have his revenge on Lavos, which he has been planning for years! It proves entirely ineffective, and the #2 antagonist of the game, who is also one of the most powerful mages in all of history…is taken out by Lavos almost as an afterthought. That’s number four! Already this sequence has been a powerful one in showing just what Lavos is capable of and how screwed everyone else is.
So what happens next? Crono, who has already been KO’ed once by Lavos, when he was still at full strength and had his party backing him up, rises to his feet, beaten and battered and all alone. At this point, you control only Crono. The other members of your party don’t get up. Magus doesn’t get up. Schala, who is also there, doesn’t get up, The Queen, who is perched on top of Lavos, just laughs at you. But you do the only thing you can do: try to fight on. Your party members scream at you, saying there’s nothing you can do; give up now. But you know you’ve gotta win, or at least do enough damage to be able to retreat and regroup or something. But no, Lavos screams and shoots a beam at you or something, and you literally melt into nonexistence. Crono is dead.
But the game continues.
Schala uses the last of her power to get Magus and the other two party members to safety. Lavos erupts from the Ocean Palace and destroys the Kingdom of Zeal and basically the entire world. There are maybe ten to twenty people left on the entire planet. The remaining two members of your party wake up in the last village left, guarded by the pendant that Crono was holding for Marle but that he gave up right before he died. This is all told in cutscene, and this whole time you, the player, are probably hoping that, OK, now you’ll switch to Crono, who didn’t actually die but got sent to another time or dimension or something, and you’ll have to do some sort of solo dungeon or something to rejoin the rest of your party.
Then the ultimate punch lands.
The gameplay punch.
The “choose who you want to be in your party” screen comes up, and Crono (who up until now was permanently the first party member)…doesn’t show up in the menu.
This is the saddest moment in gaming history.
So let’s talk about this for a minute. First off, the pacing in this sequence is absolutely brilliant. The climax builds with such an energy of hopelessness, but yet, spurred on by that one moment from earlier when Crono himself agreed to save Schala and the Queen and his theme music blared, you still hold out that sliver of hope (that, and you know the game’s not gonna have a downer ending, I mean, come on!). But, after Crono dies, everything quickly goes south. The “Lavos erupts from the ground” animation, previously only seen in 1999 AD (also know as the freakin’ Apocalypse time period), is used here to destroy Zeal, which then crashes into the ocean and causes a giant tidal wave. The destruction of Zeal and its aftermath has no music playing; just a giant crash, followed by the sound of water rolling out in a wave, on a totally black screen (which I argue is more effective than even the prettiest rendering with today’s graphics would be). It allows the player to finally breathe and relax after this huge sequence, and it also allows all the facts of what just happened to sink in. Then, after the most dramatic moment of the entire game, you get kidnapped by the comic relief villain Dalton and you go through this silly little segment aboard the Blackbird, where a boss runs away because he’s afraid of heights, and Dalton gets mad because the wrong theme music is playing, and you even have the chance to pull the old “help my cellmate is sick open the door!” routine, which gets especially silly if, say, Robo is the one to do it.
This sequence helps not only relieve the tension of everything that just happened, but it finally gives the party an unequivocal victory: an out-and-out villain is defeated, the team gets a flying time machine, and there was a lot less at stake. (Consider that this is the first outright victory the party has had for a while: the last major dungeon before the Ocean Palace was the Tyrano Lair, where an entire species got wiped out by Lavos, and before that Magus’s Castle, where you stopped Magus from waking up Lavos but didn’t actually defeat him.) What’s more, it gets the player used to operating without Crono as the main character. It, in essence, helps you realize that, despite the game putting you squarely in the role of Crono and then killing him off, the game continues. The story continues. Because the game isn’t about Crono. The game isn’t about you.
It’s bigger than that.
But even though you’re not really important by birthright, or by circumstance, or even by tragic backstory, you are important through the choices you’ve made and the people you’ve influenced. It’s at this point in the game where the plot virtually stops because the party wants to get Crono back. Marle especially (since she’s the romantic lead and all), but Lucca too, and everyone else to lesser extents. What’s especially brilliant about this is that you don’t have to save Crono. At all. You can just go ahead and defeat Lavos now, or do some endgame sidequests to prepare yourself and then defeat Lavos. The world can be saved without Crono, as long as those left can finish what he started.
However, the game really pushes you toward saving him, and I don’t think anyone didn’t save him on their first playthrough. The sequence is appropriately epic yet at the same time personal: breaking all the laid-out rules of time travel thus far and climbing a post-apocalyptic mountain filled with Lavos’s offspring, yet involving winning a doll from the fair and talking to Crono’s mom (which you don’t have to do at all after the first minute of the game up until now). And it’s an emotionally wrenching scene when you finally do save him (you go back to the frozen moment in time where he died and switch him out for the doll that looks like him), especially if you bring Marle or Lucca along, but I especially appreciate the fact that, if you don’t bring either of those two, whoever’s in the party is basically all, “Hey, cool, Crono’s back; now can we get on with saving the world, please?!?” Because, once again, Crono’s not important. None of the endgame sidequests involve him at all, and you don’t even have to use him even if you do bring him back from the dead (though you should: he’s still probably the best character in the game in terms of combat). And if you do use him, you can throw him back to the second or third character spot, which you couldn’t do before, and in fact must do in some of the sidequests (some, such as Robo’s, require that particular character to be in the first party member slot). He’s not the protagonist anymore, and he’s barely even in the game at this point. The player has hopefully moved beyond identifying solely with Crono and is able to look at the world and other characters through different eyes now.
This even extends to the endgame after defeating Lavos, which, while it begins with Crono waking up again, eventually moves to the last night of the Millenial Fair. The only controllable part of this section has Crono and Marle walking around the fair talking to various people, and interestingly enough, you’re actually controlling Marle, with Crono following behind: a reversal of the beginning of the game. The cycle is complete, and you can now leave the world of Chrono Trigger in the hands of the characters who inhabit it.
So what does this 5,000-word essay amount to in the end, other than the fact that I really really love this game? Firstly, it amounts to the fact that Crono really does embody the best of all RPG protagonist types. The story is focused and character-driven, like the first type of protagonist, yet you’re put squarely in Crono’s shoes and can’t help but identify with him, like the best examples of the second type. Secondly, it shows the masterful work involved in sucking the player into a storyline that is so carefully crafted that you can kill off the main character 2/3rds of the way through and have it be an emotional moment, instead of a “oh, come on!” moment. But most importantly, I think it teaches some life lessons that I kind of summed up in this post’s title but would like to reiterate.
Everyone is the protagonist of their own story. But most fictional stories have a protagonist who is the focal point of the story or a sideline observer who’s just the storyteller. And so most people, in real life, tend to think of themselves as one or the other: either the most important person simply because they exist, or some nobody that doesn’t really influence much. Just because we’re not a “chosen one,” or the focal point of the world, or even anyone famous, doesn’t mean that we don’t have the power to change the entire world, if we can find the right way to do it and get the right people to support us. Or better yet, find the right people to support. Lucca and Marle aren’t supporting Crono; Crono is supporting Lucca and Marle (and Frog, and Robo, etc.) You don’t have to be the most important person in the world, or even in your own circle of acquaintances, to be the most important person in the world to at least one or two other people.
The game’s not about you. But you choose how it ends.
(I was originally going to make this a long diatribe about life and stuff, but I figured the title and picture above sum it up pretty well. Draw your own conclusions.)
Recently I’ve been sucked into playing the Ultima series. I’d seen some fun and glowing reviews for most of the series online and it was on sale at GOG.com at the beginning of June, so I figured I’d pick the games up and see for myself if they were as good as people say. And they really have been good, especially considering that the first one came out before I was even born and nearly the entire series of fourteen games (including spin-offs) was concluded before the mid-90’s. But what surprised me more than anything else wasn’t the gameplay or the story, but the interesting ethical and moral issues these games brought up, especially the second trilogy (Ultima IV–Ultima VI).
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (which, if you pick up the series, I’d recommend starting with, since the first three are kind of weird and you don’t have to play them to understand the rest of the series) is for the most part a standard western RPG; however, it doesn’t actually have a big bad guy to defeat. Nobody’s trying to take over the world; there isn’t any cosmic force slowly dismantling reality — there aren’t even really any bullies or small-time baddies (well, there are some pirates, but they’re all pretty generic). About the worst you get are some orcs and trolls roaming the countryside and some dungeons with monsters in them, but that’s it for the forces of evil. You see, Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima games, had seen complaints made by concerned groups and parents about bad moral choices that seemed to be prevalent in video games and tabletop RPGs (like Dungeons & Dragons) and decided to craft a game devoted to morality (without tying it to any specific theology, though some of its inspiration comes from Buddhism) to prove that, yes, games can be used to inspire people to be good and virtuous instead of violent psychos or antisocial jerks. To that end, he created the system of the Eight Virtues and crafted an entire game based around living by these virtues. The virtues are Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality, and Humility, all of which are based around three principles of truth, love, and courage.
I won’t go into much detail about how all this works in the game (you should go play it to find out), but basically it boils down to you actually following these virtues in-game to win. While a lot of modern RPGs have some sort of morality meter, often it’s pretty black and white: i.e. you’re either the paragon of goodness and purity, or you’re a puppy-strangling murderer. This game muddies the water a bit: you can do well in one virtue while being horrible in another (like robbing gold from people’s houses, which lowers your Honesty and Honor, but then giving it to the poor, raising your Compassion and Sacrifice). Some virtues even seem contradictory on the surface. For example, to have a good score in Valor you must never run from a fight or avoid confrontation, but to be Honorable you should never kill a defenseless/weaker opponent (unless it’s something evil like a demon), which leads to some creative solutions to accomplish both goals; in this case, beating on weak opponents until they start running away, then letting them go.
What I found especially intriguing were the events of the introduction, where you picked your starting class and stats. Instead of just choosing from a list and dividing out skill points, however, it took the form of an old gypsy woman presenting you with moral questions, having to choose between one virtue and another, until the last one you picked corresponded to your starting class, with each class represented by one of the virtues (a fighter held Valor as most important, a mage prized Honesty, a paladin followed Honor, etc.) But each question wasn’t a choice between good and evil, or good and lukewarm, or even better and best. In most cases, each question had you pick between two perfectly moral choices, depending on what you hold most important, and a lot of them were pretty tough choices (assuming you were answering them honestly, and not just picking the virtue that corresponded to whatever class you wanted to use).
So I decided to run a little experiment on Facebook and ask the general public (or at least my Facebook friends) the same questions, to see what virtue people really held most dear. And the responses were fairly telling and somewhat surprising in their own right, and I think a lot of lessons can be learned from the result. I may later post the actual answers people gave, but I want to get permission from people before I start quoting them, so for now I’ll summarize. First, let me break it down question by question:
1. Entrusted to deliver an uncounted purse of gold, thou dost meet a poor beggar. Dost thou:
A) deliver the gold knowing the Trust in thee was well-placed; or
B) show Compassion, giving the Beggar a coin, knowing it won’t be missed?
Honesty vs. Compassion. This first question had a lot of people trying to take a third option, e.g. give the beggar some of their own money, come back later afterward and help the beggar out, pray about it, etc. Of course, taking a third option was kind of a cop-out answer, and sometimes praying about it isn’t always the final answer (a point which I’ll come back to later). Although a few people noted that leaving the beggar unsuccored would be a greater sin than using money that nobody would miss anyway (though both would be bad), the majority went with option A. Being trustworthy was more important than being charitable, especially if it’s not your own money (even if it wouldn’t be missed).
2. Although a teacher of music, thou art a skillful wrestler. Thou hast been asked to fight in a local championship against those with much lesser skill. Dost thou:
A) accept the invitation and Valiantly fight to win; or
B) Humbly decline knowing thou wouldst probably have won, thus giving others a better chance?
Valor vs. Humility. I reworded this one slightly from the actual question to try to make it more balanced, but apparently it didn’t work, as not a single person picked B. Everyone chose to enter and win the tournament. I found this one the most surprising, because personally, I would have picked B. Not that I’m necessarily all that humble (in fact, I don’t think the answer here really demonstrates humility, which is one reason I tried to reword it: the original reads “Humbly decline knowing thou art sure to win”), but beating people who are obviously way worse than I am isn’t fun for the other people, nor is it really fun for me, especially in a tournament setting. I pictured it like Stephen Hawking entering a third-grade science fair: assuming the judges are completely unbiased and don’t care about anyone’s feelings, it’s obvious who’s going to win. It just seems like a petty ego-booster more than anything else. Striving to beat those on your own level, however, is a different story, as would be training those weaker than you. But that’s just my opinion.
3. Thou dost believe that virtue resides in all people. Thou dost see a rogue steal from thy Lord. Dost thou:
A) call him to Justice; or
B) personally try to sway him back to the Spiritual path of good?
Justice vs. Spirituality. This one was completely split down the middle, and I ended up having to choose a winner based on how many “likes” each comment got. The obvious Les Miz parallel was drawn (“You must use this precious silver to become an honest man…”), and some said it depended on why the rogue was stealing, which, oddly enough, is a moral dilemma presented in some other Ultima IV questions (more about those later), just not in the ones I asked. Others brought up the fact that, whatever his reasoning behind the theft, he was guilty regardless and needed to face the consequences. Nevertheless, in the end B won, though that was probably more due to people liking the Les Miz quote than anything else.
4. Thou art a bounty hunter sworn to return an alleged murderer. After his capture, thou believest him to be innocent. Dost thou:
A) Sacrifice thy sizeable bounty for thy belief; or
B) Honor thy oath to return him as thou hast promised?
Sacrifice vs. Honor. Randomly, this is the basis for a Quantum Leap episode, where in the end Sam goes with A (and it’s not like it’s his bounty anyway). Anyway, this was was also nearly 50/50. Those arguing for A noted that just because someone has a bounty after them doesn’t mean they’re guilty. You weren’t sure if he would get a fair trial, especially since the simple matter of having a bounty on one’s head tends to bias people against a person. However, those who argued for B noted that it would hurt your own reputation and honor to not fulfill your job. You could testify of your belief at the trial and put your faith in the system. Both excellent arguments, but in the end more people chose A, barely.
5. Thou has been prohibited by thy absent Lord from joining thy friends in a close pitched battle. Dost thou:
A) refrain, so thou may Honestly claim obedience; or
B) show Valor, and aid thy comrades, knowing thou may deny it later?
Honesty vs. Valor. This is the winner of the first question vs. the winner of the second question, which is how it works in the game (the whole thing is a sort of bracket system). The answers were, once again, pretty split down the middle. Some said it was more important to remain obedient, no matter what the situation (though in this case “Lord” refers to a human, fallible medieval lord, not the religious, divine kind), some chose not to fight because the war itself was most likely political, and some just chose to pray for their friends instead. Others chose to put “bros before lords” and quoted valiant poetry, in essence showing that, when it comes down to it, it’s most important to protect your fellow soldiers. Still, in the end, more people chose to follow their lord than aid their comrades, so A was the winner!
6. Thou hast spent thy life in charitable and righteous work. Thine uncle the innkeeper lies ill and asks you to take over his tavern. Dost thou:
A) Sacrifice thy life of purity to aid thy kin; or
B) decline & follow thy Spirit’s call?
Sacrifice vs. Spirituality. I think this question hit closer to home for most people than many of the earlier questions, as this type of dilemma is something faced all the time within the LDS community. I know specifically of one case where the girl involved had literally nearly this exact decision (minus the tavern): take care of her sick father, or serve a mission. She put off serving a mission for years, but finally decided that it was too important to put off any longer, and she’s currently out serving right now. On a smaller scale this struggle happens in the Church all the time. What’s more important for a bishop: raising his family, or fulfilling his duties? It’s up to each bishop and his family to decide where that line lies, but it’s not an easy decision. The same can be said of many callings in the Church.
A lot of people picked A, reasoning that helping your family is a form of charitable and righteous work anyway, and as an innkeeper you may have opportunities to be charitable and kind to others. Most of those who picked B brought up their mission experiences specifically, saying that whatever good they may have accomplished at home was not even comparable to the good they accomplished in their missionary years. Still, for the majority, family comes first.
7. Thou and thy friend are valiant but penniless warriors. Ye both go out to slay a mighty dragon. Thy friend thinks he slew it, but thou didst. When asked, dost thou:
A) Truthfully claim the gold; or
B) Allow thy friend the large reward?
Honesty vs. Sacrifice. I edited this question a little too, but it was mostly to fix grammatical errors (the original said “thee did” instead of “thou didst”, which makes about as much sense as saying “Him do” instead of “He does”).
Wow. So many people wanted to take a third option here, it was ridiculous. Almost everyone wanted to just split the money, though in my opinion this was more about the prestige of being a dragon-slayer than it was about the reward, but I suppose that can be split too, so the arguments presented still work. In the end I think A edged it out, but that must be qualified by the fact that more people tried to take a third option than answer the question.
Grand Winner: Honesty.
There are actually a lot more questions possible (one for every combination of virtues; you can find the full list here), but I wanted to present them how the game might do so. Incidentally, picking Honesty as your virtue in Ultima IV makes you a mage, which is a really good class for the player character, so well done there, I suppose.
So what can be gleaned from all this? I think there are a multitude of good lessons here, and I leave it to each individual to take their own to heart, but here are at least a few things I’ve observed and learned.
I think the main lessons I’ve gleaned revolve around the fact that life isn’t filled with black and white choices. There are a lot of definite wrong choices, sure, but oftentimes, especially in the Church, we get the idea that in many situations there is one best choice and everything else is wrong. While that can be sometimes true, I think that often we’re asked to choose between two good things. Prayer can help guide one’s thoughts, sure, but the Lord can’t decide everything for us. D&C 58 teaches that men are “agents unto themselves”, and countless scriptures (such as Ether 2-3) and examples in Church history teach that we need to come up with our own solutions to problems we face. It’s what we personally prize as most important that gives us the ability to choose, even if both choices are acceptable to the Lord.
That’s not to say that all choices must be between one virtue and another. As was proved by the third options people kept trying to take, often goodness results from trying to apply as many virtues to a situation as possible. Often choices can seem black and white, or at the very least between two extremes, but perhaps a third road could be sought to resolve things well for all involved, even if it’s not the best possible outcome for any specific party. (Insert political commentary here.) Of course, that’s just common sense, or at least it should be.
Probably the other thing I found the most interesting about this experiment was that, since there weren’t really any wrong answers, usually the answers people gave revealed much more about the person than it did about morality or virtue. For example, for question #5 (wilt thou join thy friends in battle), the people who picked to help their friends are fighters in real life; perhaps not physically (although in one case I know for a fact that, yes, physically he is a fighter), but in attitude and life outlook. While out of those who picked A, only one or two of them actually cited obedience as the main reason (the comment about “I wouldn’t fight in a political war” is especially telling). And there’s nothing wrong with avoiding a fight, especially one that you have a legitimate reason for avoiding, but it does say a lot about the personalities of the people involved.
Another good example of this is found in question #6 (taking your uncle’s inn vs. living a life of spirituality). Almost everyone who picked to live the life of spirituality attributed their decision to their mission experiences, and how much more powerful of an impact that can have on people’s life than just simply living well. Not that there’s anything wrong with just living well; especially if you’re helping family. It’s just where your priorities lie: helping your family and some number of strangers (maybe), or helping a large number of strangers (definitely) who then become like your family? Not black and white. But our priorities and perceptions of virtue are shaped as much by our own experiences and decisions as they are by any doctrine or principles learned at church or other authorities on the subject.
I guess the best lesson that can be taken from this is perspective. It’s so easy to see others with a different perception or priorities when it comes to morality and judge them based on our own priorities. For example, it would be easy to look at the person who gave up their life of charity to run their uncle’s inn and think of what a waste it is. Someone else could take over the inn; but people all over the world need help! Why in the world would you give up the chance to influence so many? It would also be easy to look at the person who continued in their charitable work and judge how callous they are toward their own family. Don’t they know that their uncle needs them? Besides, they could still do good things as an innkeeper! But it’s important to keep in mind that what one may perceive as a weakness in a virtue could just as easily be seen as a strength in another one.
There are absolute truths. But not all truth is absolute. And it’s important to remember that for the world to make sense without believing everyone else is wrong who doesn’t agree with you.
Not bad for a computer game from 1985 that fits on three 5 1/4″ floppy disks, eh?
In order to win Ultima IV you must actually master all eight virtues, pray at their respective shrines, and collect a bunch of other plot doodads and assemble a party of eight team members, each corresponding to a virtue, to enter the Stygian Abyss. At the bottom of the Abyss lies the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, which is basically the holy book of the virtues, and after it quizzes on you about how you’ve learned to lead a virtuous life you become the Avatar, champion of good and right, and the knowledge of the Codex becomes available to everyone in the land. Once that happens, you return home (to Earth; did I mention that you were also an interdimensional traveler?), secure in the knowledge that you’ve exemplified and codified an ethos that will help people live better for years to come.
The series doesn’t let up with its interesting moral and ethical questions there, however. Without spoiling too much, Ultima V sees all of the virtues become actual laws, punishable by fines, imprisonment, and execution, and the horrible dystopia that occurs when goodness becomes mandatory. And Ultima VI ends up being a story about racism, although for the first two-thirds of the game you don’t actually know that, which actually makes the last third even more poignant, since it’s very possible that you were guilty of the same racism for the first part of the game as everyone else.
The best part? Despite these games being over twenty years old, you can still play them on modern machines if you get them from GOG.com (see links below). And if you just want to play Ultima IV, it’s completely free! And this isn’t just “you can find it as abandonware because it’s old and therefore in a legal gray area” kind of free, it’s legitimately offered by its parent company as a free download! Though I would recommend downloading and installing xu4, which is a program that updates the graphics and music; otherwise, you’ve got a 16-color game played in virtual silence. And since this is an old game and therefore doesn’t have a tutorial to speak of (one literally couldn’t fit on the disk), I would also recommend using the “Getting Started” guide I provide a link to below.
Have fun! And may you also one day become the Avatar!
- Buy the entire 2nd Trilogy from GOG.com for $5.99 (unless it happens to be on sale; I got it for $2.99!) You can also get the rest of the Ultima series if you search the site. I’d highly recommend Ultima VII especially, though that one starts dealing with more mature themes (you begin by investigating a brutal murder that’s pretty gory for 1992 graphics).
- Get just Ultima IV for free!
- Download xu4, to play the game with better graphics and music. Gameplay is virtually identical to the original, though readying spells is easier. Note that this doesn’t include the actual game, which you still have to get using the link above.
- The “Getting Started” guide from GameFAQs. Even if you don’t like using walkthroughs, reading this is basically a must. The game itself does not hold your hand.
For those who weren’t aware, I occasionally review old Atari 8-bit (not the 2600, but the 5200, 400/800, 1200, etc.) games on a different blog (they used to be on this one, actually, until they were all I ever posted here, so I ended up moving them). I recently updated the URL to http://atarieviewer.com/, so go check it out. I’ve recently done some video reviews, which you can see either at that website or on my Atari Youtube page too. Even if you’re not an Atari fan or know nothing about the old system and/or games, you still may find the reviews fun to read and/or watch, so check ’em out!
Recently my sister Kjersti shared with my family an article written by LDS author Orson Scott Card titled “Holding on to the ‘others'” that I found quite insightful. The article is definitely worth a read, but for those who want a summary, it basically states that in Mormon culture those who excel at sports are traditionally celebrated, while those who are bookish or artistic are usually put off to the side and ostracized, and that’s a real problem. I had a few choice comments about it, many of which I want to share with you here.
What the article really makes me think of was back to the time when I was Elder’s Quorum President in one of my BYU wards. We were trying to reach out to the less-active members of the quorum, and I noted that a lot of them liked playing video games. So I proposed having an EQ activity where we’d have a Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart tournament in the courtyard of our apartment complex, projected up on a big screen. Since it was right next to people’s apartments it would take little effort for those who live in seclusion to join the party, and it would be a nice change from the sports and/or date nights that formed the basis of every other activity we ever had.
When I brought it up in a ward council meeting, however, I received vehement opposition to the idea. Not from the bishopric, who gave me their full support, but from other girls in the meeting (I don’t even remember what auxiliaries they belonged to) who literally stood up and started yelling (well, speaking loudly anyway) about how that was a terrible idea! Video games are evil! Anyone who plays video games is forcing themselves to be alienated from society! They just need to start coming to those sporting events and date nights if they ever want to learn how to function in the church! If the ward holds a function with video games we might as well be telling those sinners that we fully embrace their corruption!
I was totally flabbergasted. They were so passionate that this was a bad idea that it was like I had suggested that we reach out to inactives by holding an orgy. How could such blatant, short-sighted bigotry exist in the Church? True, an obsession with playing video games can be a detriment to a person, but so can an obsession with almost anything (Church Ball, anyone?). But for a person to suggest that the Church would be better off not reaching out to less-actives in a way that they’d respond, rather than plan an activity that wasn’t a common one in the LDS culture? Yet this sentiment, while not always so loudly and obviously expressed, is very alive and well within the Church.
This is one reason why I’m finding it tough to remain active these days, at least on days other than Sunday. I know the gospel is true, and I’ll defend it to the end of my days, but I’ll be darned if I can find someone in any of my recent wards to whom I can relate. Life isn’t carving pumpkins, playing volleyball, baking bread and going to awkward church dances! I love the gospel too much to go totally inactive, but the social aspect is making it harder and harder these days. Maybe it’s the ward? But I haven’t felt comfortable in a ward since at least 2008, both including times I’ve moved and times where the semester change-over cleared out large chunks of wards, in effect making them different animals. It’s saying something that the most interaction I’ve had with people in my current ward has been with the bishop’s wife. It’s also saying something that the only time I’ve felt entirely at ease with a group of other people this year has been when I was on a cruise and hanging out with my cousin Katrina’s wacky friends who were progressively getting more drunk as the night went on. (I don’t quite know what it’s saying, but it’s saying something.) True, I don’t really want to live the lifestyle they live, but it was really nice to be able to be myself without having to worry about social rules that I’ve never quite grasped yet am expected to follow at church activities.
Speaking of which, Kjersti also recently shared an article detailing how the Church can reach out to singles better. While many points I would make about that particular article I’ve already made before, I think that really, these two problems are related. It falls under one umbrella: people don’t know how to treat people that are different. And often it has to do more with who’s in authority than with any particular side. There have been times where I felt like an outcast because I knew about football in social situations where everyone else was making fun of it. It’s just that right now, more often than not, those in charge in the Church, at least on a local level, are more likely to be sports fans than academics or artistic folks. And it’s definitely true that most of the people in charge in the Church are married (since it’s a requirement for a lot of positions, such as bishop). It’s simple human tendency to listen to those they agree with and discount the other side as ignorant.
I had that point driven home for me recently when I responded to a review by an semi-famous Internet reviewer. In high school he played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: the Gathering, but by doing so was ostracized by the public at large and often had to play these “devil games” (which are actually quite harmless) in secret. The reason I felt I had to respond personally to this was that he grew up in Mesa, AZ, and a large group of the people either shunning him or trying to convert him from his evil D&D playing ways, were members of the LDS faith. I posted a comment trying to explain and apologize for the situation, but had it pointed out to me that it wasn’t anything uniquely Mormon, but more human nature for people to ignore or preach at anybody they didn’t understand.
It all boils down to pride. One person or group is in charge, so their preferences are right and they have to make everyone else see that. Or one person or group isn’t in charge, so they feel resentful at the group that is, and especially at whatever that group likes or represents, however benign that thing may be. Heaven knows I’ve been guilty of this more times than I’d care to admit. Would I be happier if every week the Church had activities based on video games, or theater, or intellectual discussions, or even tabletop RPGs? Probably, but then the sports fans would be grumbling about all the accolades heaped upon the “drama freaks.” It’s finding that elusive equilibrium that has proved to be difficult: where we all can come together, united in purpose. I don’t know if that will ever happen. Even the Lord lost a third of the host of heaven because they disagreed. What hope do we have of being all-inclusive?
I’m not saying we shouldn’t try. While we can’t include everybody, we certainly can try to include as many as we can. That was my purpose behind the video game activity in Elders’ Quorum those years ago. I didn’t force those people who were opposed to the activity to come. I do think that leaders both in and out of the Church need to be more cognizant of different groups and their interests & accomplishments. I do think that the current emphasis on sports is waay out of proportion. Even in sports there’s an imbalance toward basketball and football (did you hear about the amazing performance of the local lacrosse team? Me neither). And I do think that, as a body, the Church needs to provide as many different opportunities for different groups to do what they love, even if it’s not the norm.
In short, I hate dances and playing basketball! Give me somewhere else to meet people, please, singles’ wards!
And, as a coda, the Mario Kart activity succeeded quite well. A lot of guys came that I’d never even seen before, and while many of them just as quickly sunk back into the shadows, a few started coming to other activities as well. Even some of the girls that otherwise would have been making bread or something at a Relief Society activity snuck out early to join in. (That actually became a running gag in the ward: on nights where the Relief Society had an activity the elders would plan one as well, and there were quite a few girls who would prefer our activity to theirs. Like when the girls were all going on a campout somewhere and so the guys planned to watch the manliest movie that we could get away with and still call it a Church activity, which ended up being Rocky, for some reason. Some of the girls ditched the campout because they wanted to watch Rocky instead of being in a canyon somewhere with a bunch of other girls.)
For a while, I’ve hosted reviews of old Atari Games on my blog here. Now, in order to separate them from the more personal posts found on this blog, I’ve moved them all to a different site: http://atarireviewer.wordpress.com/. So if you’re really craving a wacky description of Drelbs (and I know you all are), then you need not look further than that new site. It’s still being customized and fixed up, but it should be completely up and running soon. For now, I’ve just moved all those old Atari posts over there.
Recently Annelise got me playing a game of Diplomacy on Facebook. If you’ve never played it it’s this old game based in pre-WWI Europe, where the seven Great Powers (England, France, Germany, Italy, Austrio-Hungary, Russia, and Turkey) duke it out. The two main gimmicks are, first, the elimination of the element of chance. Unlike Risk, where battles are determined by dice, in this game every unit (army or fleet) has the same attack strength, and units can only overpower other units if supported from nearby territories by other armies (your own or even a different player’s). This leads to the second gimmick and the reason for the name of the game: the diplomacy factor. In the game you form alliances with other players to wipe out or at least attack enemies. The kicker: it’s all a verbal (or written or typed, in the case of Facebook) thing, and you can easily mislead or screw over other players by agreeing to do one thing and doing another. All players write down their moves secretly (or pick them secretly from a drop-down box in the php version) and then all moves are revealed and happen at the same time. This is to provide some subtle subterfuge to the whole thing, as if you agreed to do one thing and in reality did something else, there’s nothing the other player can do about it that turn. If you want more info about gameplay itself, go search Wikipedia or something; I’m not going to retype the rulebook here.
Diplomacy, for me, has been a great learning experience, both personally and just in regards to the game. You see, in real life I’m usually a pretty fair person who prefers more for everybody to be on an equal footing than to take unfair advantage of a player to win. Sure, I like winning just as much as the next guy, but I like to do it out in the open for the most part. The problem is, in Diplomacy that’s basically impossible, so there has to be some element of deceit. If you just play as a backstabber then nobody’s going to trust you, but if you keep your word on everything you say you’re going to do then you can be sure that you won’t last long, as at least one of your opponents is sure not to. The reason is, if you’re playing with a group of the most honest people and nobody’s willing to backstab, then everyone can be prepared for all eventualities and the result is a draw, and the game really isn’t all that fun at that point.
It hurts to be backstabbed. In the first game I was playing I thought I had an alliance with Dave Omer, who was playing Russia. We were helping each other take over Austria (played by someone who never really got into the game, and eventually left it out of inaction). I supported his move into Budapest, expecting him to support me into Vienna, as we had discussed. Instead, he invades into Silesia, stabbing right into my homeland! Now, as any Diplomacy player worth his salt can tell you, that kind of stuff happens all the time. But I was outraged! We had an agreement, and Dave violated our sacred trust! For the next few turns I was fighting a defensive war against Russia, and trying to convince everyone else to turn against him. My sister, playing England, agreed to this (and was promptly slaughtered; at the time of this writing she’s only got one supply center left), while Turkey (played by my brother-in-law Mickey) didn’t, because he and Russia had a real alliance that neither would attack each other at least until one of them had 11 supply centers. I didn’t realize this, and Turkey seemed amenable to a backstab into Russia, as we had no real quarrel. Of course, due to their alliance, Turkey went right around and told Russia that I was plotting against him, shoring up Dave’s determination to crush me. (Truthfully, though, of course I was plotting against him. We were openly at war; surely I would be trying to get allies to stop him. Duh!)
In any case, in my blind rage, I was concentrating so hard on Dave that for a long time I didn’t see the real threat, which was Turkey slowly gobbling up the entire south part of the board save France (& Spain, controlled by France). I also sent England to her doom without gaining a share of her bounty (England’s basically carved up between France and Russia at this point) because of her blind trust in me. She took a few potshots at Russia and even ended up with St. Petersburg at one point, but it didn’t last long, as France came in her back door for the kill. Now I’m holed up in West Germany and the Low Countries, Turkey’s claim to the Mediterranean is supreme, and France & I, although kind of allied, are pretty much screwed at this point, unless we can convince one of the giants of Russia and Turkey to turn on each other.
Diplomacy may seem to be a mean, even harsh, game, where everyone seems to be cheating their partners. Surely I thought so after Dave stabbed me the first time. But then I realized that, with any game, this game just had a certain set of rules as to what was cheating and what wasn’t. Does this mean that I’ll become a lying, backstabbing, cheater in the game? Probably not. I still consider myself an honest person. But you can play the game based on trust just as easily as lies. The trick is two-fold. Firstly, only put forth a deception if you know for sure that it will end of advantageous to your position in the long run. Dave attacking me was probably fun for a short-term gain, but out of all the attacks he’s made on my homeland since his stab eight turns ago he’s only gained one supply center off of me. Meanwhile, Turkey’s been sweeping Austria, Italy, and is about to launch on France. So, Dave attacking me may not have been in his best interest, at least until my forces were scattered a bit more. (Of course, Turkey was helped by the fact that nobody was playing Italy and the guy playing Austria was completely clueless. I think he had something in his real life keeping him super-busy, so he never really bothered to defend or attack or do anything, really, other than occasionally move about in his homeland.)
Secondly, don’t be naive. If someone starts the game trusting everyone who writes and says, “Hey! Let’s form an alliance! It’ll be fun!” that person is doomed. If you say, “I’ll support your move into Budapest if you support my move into Vienna the next turn” and you’ve obviously left your back door into Berlin wide open, then don’t expect him to help you into Vienna. The exception, obviously, is if you both have a bigger plan in mind that will strengthen you both more effectively than a stab could. On the other hand, if a person is expecting everyone to stab him he will be unwilling to form an alliance with anyone, without the certainty that no stabbing will happen until the game leaves the other player no alternative. When somebody is afraid to trust anybody, that person is alone, and another word for “alone” in the Diplomacy world is “dead.” Like the article I linked to in the previous paragraph says, “Trust but Verify.”
Deceit is part of this game. Therefore, anybody who ends up deceived needs to realize that that isn’t the person being a jerk. If you take personal offense against someone who may have deceived you in a game, remember that. If you’re playing the game to win, you will, eventually, have to deceive someone as well. How would you feel if you were telling someone to move their troops to X position and then you move yours to his homeland, surprising him, yes, but also taking a lot of territory and supply centers, helping you on the road to victory? If the answer is “terrible,” then either you are taking the game too personally, or you haven’t realized that deception is part of the game, just like rolling a die or reading a Community Chest card or suggesting that it’s Col. Mustard in the Billiard Room. It’s a whole different set of rules. One that I personally wouldn’t adapt to real-world situations, but one that is essential to enjoy this game.
And the game can be enjoyable, even if you lose. I’ve been reading a lot of Diplomacy articles online lately, and several players expressed that they’d rather lose to a master of the game than just draw with a bunch of people not willing to employ deceit. Of course tempers can get hot, but it’s just a game. Once I finally came to terms with that, I found the game much more enjoyable, even with Russia breathing down my neck. The situation is still salvageable, since I still posess five supply centers, France isn’t attacking me, and Turkey’s strength may be noticed by Russia soon. I have now learned to get past any personal vendetta-like grudges against Dave to better my situation in the game. Dave’s attitude has always been one of “Hey, man, sorry to screw you over, but it was obviously in my best interests, and if the positions were reversed, wouldn’t you have done it?” I don’t know whether I would have or not, but at least with what I know now it would be more based on strategic decisions than a sense of naive absolute trust. But Dave hasn’t personally been a big jerk about it, instead keeping a friendly air of professionalism in our messages to each other. I think that’s the best way to play Diplomacy: to not take anything personally and to always remember: be polite and cordial, even after a deceit has come to light, and everyone involved, even those on the receiving end, will have a much better time.
Now I’m starting a new game with a bunch of my college friends (and my sister again). I’m playing France this time, and my sister’s playing Italy. Everyone else playing has never played the game before, so it may be a bit chaotic, especially at the start. Crazily enough, some of the players are a bit paranoid, especially toward advice that I’m giving, because they think I’m setting them up for a fall. While that may or may not be true in later turns, I’m not going to deceive anyone unless it’s a clear advantage, and there’s still that part of me that wants everyone to have a good time and a fair chance to win. In this case, I provided a link to the Diplomacy strategies and theories I’ve been reading, for anyone who wants to peruse them. I also helped a few countries figure out some good opening moves, not moves to my detriment, of course (if they want those they can read the strategies themselves), but not ones to their detriment either, although one of the paranoid players later panicked and changed her moves, for the sole reason that I had suggested them to her earlier.
In any case, I am going to try to get everyone to play with the same sense of detached professionalism and politeness, in order to minimize any Diplomacy conflicts turning into destroyed friendships in the real world. Once a person realizes that 1)deceit is part of the game, but not the only part; 2)always be polite, especially to anyone you’ve betrayed; and 3)don’t take anything personally; then they will have a lot more fun playing the game. This also extends to the real world as well, as if a veteran Diplomacy player is betrayed by someone else in real life, he or she will have an easier time forgiving and forgetting.