Anything I could write about Swords & Soldiers II would ultimately be redundant – or at least that’s the feeling I have before writing about the game. Most if not all of the critical observations I arrived at have precedent in things I’ve previously written: Runbow, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, Retro City Rampage, etc. In some ways, this will benefit whatever I have to say about Swords & Soldiers II. With my working premises established elsewhere, I can more strongly focus on this game’s unique accomplishments and failures. Yet this begs the question of how many (if any) of those accomplishments and failures are unique, and what, if anything, each contributes to our understanding of video games.
By comparison, identifying why Swords & Soldiers II overlaps so heavily with its contemporaries/predecessors is a much easier task. Like each of the games I’d listed (except Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo), Swords & Soldiers II is an indie game from a small development team (Ronimo Games, in this case). And like those other games, this one follows best design practices and the games most obviously exemplify them with an almost religious zeal, believing both to be guarantors of aesthetic accomplishment.
There are two approaches to understanding the creative process that I want to discuss. The first is one that psychologist Tamaki Saito discusses in his book/study Otaku Sexuality. In considering why media aimed at otaku is so sexually charged, Saito notes how, romantically/sexually speaking, otaku lead far more normal lives than this media might suggest. The sexuality we see on display there is completely limited to the world of fiction. In addition, he mentions how otaku’s affection of their object of desire almost always manifests through an attempt to possess it (IE by creating works based on that object).
Before the game proper even begins, Splatoon greets you with an image of a young person’s room. The small details adoring this room – part trendy, part comfortable, but mostly mundane – should be familiar to many of the game’s young players: a squid-themed iPhone; a desk with a laptop on it, maybe with a can of soda off to the side; posters and stickers from popular music or fashion brands adorning the walls; shelves with various books and collectibles populating their surfaces.
Mario Kart 8 is best described as one huge discrepancy. I know what the game’s appeal is supposed to be (or at least I can guess based on its marketing, its brand, the fan discourse surrounding it, etc.), but I don’t see any of that reflected in the game itself. What I see is a soulless shell of a game; something ready to lop off even the slightest hint of personality that it might better fit the mold of a theoretically perfect game. Moreover, it asks something very similar from its players, telling them that they can find the perfection they seek by abandoning themselves to the digital experience. The fact that Mario Kart 8 was able to pass as an obviously good game for a lot of people says more about the culture that video games have created than it says about this specific game’s merits and faults.
Whenever I think of the discourse surrounding this game, one point comes to mind: “Freedom Planet (finally) got the Sonic formula right.” The idea is that after years of failure from Sega as they slowly forgot the hedgehog’s appeal, a group of Sonic’s fans returned the series to its roots and restored its lost spirit. It’s an enticing narrative – the passionate individuals come out victorious over the profit-driven corporate powers – but it’s far from airtight. For example, in light of the many Sonic games that did get the formula right (the Advance games, the Rush games), it becomes clear that the problem isn’t so much that Sega couldn’t make a good Sonic game as much as it is that the community values certain video game experiences above other, regardless of their quality. However, this is a symptom of a much larger problem that’s far beyond the scope of what I’m discussing.
What I want to address is the main thrust of this argument: that Freedom Planet stays true to the Sonic ethos where Sonic itself has faltered. Already we’re implying a certain truths about the situation: that the older Sonic games have a clearly identifiable ethos and that this ethos can be perfectly understood and replicated in the present. It’s this second premise that I take issue with the most. In practice, many understandings of how games were in the past paint a somewhat romantic image, one that’s no doubt interpreted through a nostalgic lens. While studying these games for a significant length of time (as the developers of Freedom Planet certainly had to) helps remind one of the mundane reality such an image covers up, we run into another problem: how does one understand older games without letting the present day affect that understanding? It may well be impossible to avoid this issue, much less bring past design trends into the present completely intact.
Hopefully the examples I’ve provided illuminate just how much the game has warped the ideals that Persona is supposed to represent. Or maybe Sessions’ follies reveal problems that had always plagued the series in one way or another. Whatever the case may be, this much is clear: there’s a mismatch at the game’s heart between what it claims to be achieving and what it actually achieves.
Note: Like my Nier blog, this piece ended up longer than I thought it would, so I’ve decided to split it up into two parts.
Another thing that bothered me was the trend of the main character always being portrayed as someone special — a legendary warrior, for example. It was the equivalent of saying you can’t succeed unless you’re from a wealthy family, and I just couldn’t stand that. I wasn’t born with special genes, and I’m sure most other players weren’t either. No matter who you are, if you’re given a chance and have the guts to try your best, you can become a hero… That became the concept of Megami Tensei.
These words, spoken by Kazuma Kaneko in a 2004 1UP interview, are often seen as perfectly summarizing the Shin Megami Tensei ethos. I’ve often seen them quoted as praise for the series, but that overlooks the fine line this ethos asks its creators to walk. They contradicted that spirit as early as Shin Megami Tensei II (whose protagonists are specifically engineered to bring about change in the world), and even if the creators hold true to the idea, venerating the average person presents its own dangers to avoid. Still, judging by games like Shin Megami Tensei If… and Persona 2 (and to a lesser extent the later Persona games), Atlus has successfully managed to tread the line for the past 25 or so years.
By now, I’m certain that the points I’m going to make in the following 2000 or so words are points that I’ve harped on in previous places. In fact, I distinctly remember (and when gathering material, caught myself in the act of) discussing these points in relation to Shantae, Retro City Rampage, and Eufloria. So they’re definitely recurring elements in the culture that indie game developers have cultivated for themselves since about 2009. Yet even at this juncture, I still find these points worth discussing. In addition to emulating and building on aesthetic/design sensibilities from the 1990s, many games in the indie space aim for refinement above all else, as if they can achieve some Platonic ideal of the perfect video game. But if the end results of their efforts consistently feel hollow and meaningless, I’m left wondering what good game design is supposed to be.
When I first started playing Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, I ascribed all the problems I kept finding to “design by textbook syndrome.” By that, I mean the game is so focused on replicating the principles you’d learn about in a game design course right down to the letter that it never considers what it’s actually going to do with them. Hence you end up with a game that looks technically impressive, yet ultimately has very little to say. As accurate as these assumptions were, I eventually realized that they don’t sufficiently explain the thought processes the game does operate on, accidentally or not. After all, if Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse can somehow execute good game design principles without being a good game, shouldn’t that make us wonder what we think good game design means in the first place? Once I took these points into consideration, I arrived at a satisfying answer to what it was about the game that I didn’t like. Peel away all the flash and spectacle, and you find a game that not only trains us to participate in capitalist systems, but also to enjoy our participation in them.