Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Top of the Ten SRPGs: Ogre Battle 64

at 4:09 PM
What dost thou hold within thy sword? Ardor? Passion? Belief?
Just try to answer that question disingenuously. What player, confronted by that choice, could try to lever it toward a concrete goal? This question, as part of a series, serves as an introduction to the vaunted, Shakespearean tone of Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber. This, you know as soon as you start, is going to be a fucking serious game. It wants you to think beyond the notion of dialogue as a minigame.

You know what really struck me about Person of Lordly Caliber when I first played it? The element that made the strongest impression on my 12-year-old brain? It was the profanity. I'd heard the "fucking damn"-word before, but this was different. This was in a video game that my mom bought me. Suddenly I had my hands on something rare and precious. A real adult world. 

Imagine a game where murder is considered bad...
It went beyond profanity. The game portrays bigotry, murder, and even rape with an uncompromising frankness, simply as a part of the unromanticized truth of humanity. Though the setting may be fantasy, the heroes and villains are people, victim to human vices and real-world injustice. The set-dressing creatures, from the titular ogres, to Greco-Roman inspired griffins, gorgons, and cerberuses, are natural beings, simply a part of the earth and subject to humanity's whims. They don't create evil - it comes from men's hearts. The only monsters, according to Ogre Battle, are greed, lust, and ambition.

The dark and pessimistic nature of this tale is magnified by the struggle undergone by the player avatar. While a lawful/chaotic meter does serve as a vague indicator of the character your actions are creating, the consequences run deeper. While the general structure of the plot remains the same regardless of how it's played, the tone of these events is set by choices between revolutionary factions, whether one executes opponents or allows them to surrender, and the manner in which civilian populations are treated. One of the watershed moments for the narrative comes a few chapters into the game, when the player is given a choice whether to release or execute the leader of the enemy forces. Whichever you choose, this enemy survives and you soon find yourself on his side of the war. Nonetheless, the option makes all the difference to the character. Fate is inevitable - so does one take the wheel and steer his own life, or allow himself to be washed along? This is the type of dilemma that Ogre Battle presents.

If I haven't said much about the gameplay, it's because the mechanics aren't what make the work beautiful. It'd be like starting an analysis of a painting by discussing the brushstrokes. Yet don't take that as an assertion that story is everything. Far from it. Everything about Ogre Battle 64 revolves around the themes of fate, mercy, and order, from the battlefield to the dialogue. The game can't be understood as simply a series of real-time unit-based battles or class evolution and statistical systems. We have to go from the top down to look at how these elements are woven into the greater tapestry, how they play into each other to create a whole.
...B, Battle!?
Of course that wasn't much of a discussion of it's SRPG-iness, but I'd rather take the time to properly introduce the game, since it's something I'm going to be revisiting often. It'd be worth writing a thesis if I had time to go around writing theses all over the place.

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