Sunday, December 26, 2010


Z.H.P.: Unlosing Ranger vs. Deathdark Evilman is all about numbers – you repeatedly start as level 1, and all the progress you make is fed back into your base level-1 state, and then you can modify your body to make those numbers grow faster, and then you can merge your modifications to make the growth faster, etc etc etc. It's ultimately linear growth, though, and I can't say I really care for the mechanic – the time/reward payoff is way too slow for me.

Just as I was about to give up, though, the game gave me a kick.

Quick premise: You are the Unlosing Ranger, and Deathdark Evilman kicks your ass so hard you are warped back to boot camp to grind levels. Like, 2,000 levels.

This is a lesson about how true heroes never give up.

Seriously! The main motif of the game is “play our roguelike a thousand times, not because it’s enjoyable, but because a true hero never gives up even in the face of impossible odds”. Every dungeon starts with your mentors stating this premise explicitly. Every new dungeon is unlocked by you getting “teleported” (bludgeoned) back to Earth to rematch Deathdark Evilman, trying out your 1 new move, losing, and watching the internal monologues of Earthlings saying, “Boy, he never gives up, even in the face of impossible odds, how idiotic/heroic!” and then a lesson on heroics from your mentor. For a genre that prides itself on tedium, repetition, and idiosyncratic knowledge, at least Unlosing Ranger is pretty straightforward about it.

True to Nippon Icchi form, though, the genre is slightly enhanced by the characters themselves, as they interact with each other, often in slapstick self-aware Saturday-morning-cartoon humor. Which is true to the setting, where Saturday-morning superheroes appear to be real and omnipresent. Occasionally, it stops being slapstick and becomes weirdly moving as characters accidentally reveal bits about themselves they never intended to reveal.

And then a character comments on how the names of Brick Oldllama, black president of the United States, and her sacrificial lamb, “Japan”, are insulting in their transparency.

And then you whip back into a commentary about how “justice” is a sham perpetrated by equal powers to justify their own personal agendas to their inferiors delivered by a dead soldier who fought a pointless war at the hands of an idealistic warmonger who was trying to stamp out an invisible enemy that may not even exist (link to a partial discussion/transcript of that scene).

Compare this to AC:Brotherhood, where my main gripe was artlessly fingering John Roberts as a key part of a Templar conspiracy. Z.H.P. makes an allegorical allusion to America's policy of endless war and bullying our allies into joining us. AC:Bro states "hey, you know who likes big business? REPUBLICANS". Z.H.P. parades Barack Obama as someone who has continued this policy of endless war, which is subject to a bit of misinterpretation ("But Bush started it, how dare you blame Obama for continuing to escalate it!") – AC:Bro doesn't go far enough in fingering the true culprit (hint: it's not just Republicans who are pro-big-business and squelching dissent and enforcing totalitarian control). Z.H.P. focuses on the consequences and ramifications– dead soldiers, the possibility of "justice" not being all it seems, where a true "hero" draws the line. AC:Bro doesn't really focus on anything except the revelation of conspiracy (unless "Republicans are bad!" was particularly mind-blowing to anyone in the audience).

Here is the theme I keep harping on across all my writing on RPGs. Just because D&D campaigns used to be about “small battle with evil force, in context of large battle with evil force”, doesn’t mean the evolution of the genre is going to be in that same direction. It’s why I constantly rag on Bioware despite genuinely enjoying their games – because they are standing on the same plot and character archetypes, over and over again, and they show no signs of breaking that pattern.

The player character is just one character – the one I want to build the relationship with, the one I want to see grow and evolve and personalize, sure! – but the growth and evolution I want from an RPG is something more than +1 strength, +5 to reputation, conversation tree unlocked. Sometimes it's about taking your basic premise and exploring it, in full, to its conclusion – tapping into conversations you would never otherwise have, using your plot to give the entire conversation context.