Sunday, June 14, 2009

What I learned most from... Valkyria Chronicles

I'm going to try something that I hope to make a permanent fixture of my blog. When something consumes me as much as I consume it, I am going to try and type down what I learned most from the experience. This won't be a review, or even an exhaustive critique on the game/movie/comic/what have you. Just something that has stuck with me after having finished it.

With Valkyria Chronicles it is incredibly easy to type passionately about ad nauseum, but hard to boil it down to one thing I learned most. I mean, this game was able to breach through my dislike of the anime art style and their canned acting tendencies of blushing cheeks, angry clouds and the sort. Within an hour of playing, none of that stuff bothered me at all anymore. I was on board with the characters, and the rendering of the models as watercolor with pencil hatching is just gorgeous. But breaking through my prejudice of anime art wasn't what I learned most. Neither was the solid, touching story or gorgeous orchestral score, because that would be what I learned most from Final Fantasy 6. And it wasn't the blending of tactical based positioning of your squad members that gives way to 3rd person action controls when you select them. Yes, blending of control types and genres is a form of responsible innovation which is something I champion, but it isn't what has stuck with me the most. What I learned most from Valkyria Chronicles is...

Don't be afraid to let the player lose.

This game isn't overly hard. And short of the last battle, I never once felt like the computer was trying to cheat me. If at anytime I died or lost a battle, I truly felt like I had just failed on faults of my own, not that of the game screwing me over. And in the instances where a spawn point might have been different from where I thought it was or someone appeared out of nowhere, I realized I just wasn't observant enough of the visual language of the map, and I had just learned something from my defeat. And because of all of this, I felt much more aware of each step I took and each decision I made. On top of that, your squad members could be lost forever which made you feel even more responsible for their well being. And since every character in the game has a biography being written for them as the game unfolds, even the C-level characters carry emotional weight. It was that always conscious moral responsibility to keep them alive with the hope they can all return to their normal lives when the war is over that made me not want to lose any of them. And when most games make you choose between one characters death or the other, to write that loss into the story, that someone you control MUST be taken away, it makes me feel like I am being punished for something I didn't do. It takes me out of the interactivity of controlling these characters outcomes. If a playable character dies in a game, it resonates a lot more to me if it was because I let them die in my control. At which point the weight of their death is squarely on my shoulders, entirely due to my own decisions.

And that is what is great with Valkyria. The game isn't forgiving of those wrong decisions. If you make a mistake, you will pay for it. But it never does it in a way that feels like it is punishing you. It feels more like it is trying to teach you how to be a better player, and when it does make you pay for your mistakes by taking someone potentially precious to your game, you make sure you don't make the same mistake again.

In a time when we playtest the games we make to fit the least capable person, it is refreshing to have experienced a game that respects your ability enough to figure it out and complete the task at hand without lowering its standards. Or yours.

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