RPG Club Plays Golden Sun: Week 2
This week Ethan and Mike take a closer look at Golden Sun’s writing, and whether the game’s call and response dialogue gets in the way of players enjoying a simpler, less cluttered narrative.
“What do you think, Isaac?”
This sentence constitutes about a quarter of Golden Sun‘s dialogue, with only a smidge of exaggeration. It can come in a variety of different structures, sometimes asking about whether or not I think we can beat these bad guys or if I think we should help the newest village with their Woe Of The Day, but the meaning remains constant.
Ivan, Garet, and Mia are pretending to want to know what I think. Pretending. They don’t really care. Whether they agree with my decisions or not, the actions that follow the yes-no prompt are always the same.
I never noticed how this never bothered me as a brat of 12 or 13. Having very little experience with the RPG genre as a whole at the time, the mere idea that my inputs were valued or could shape the course of a narrative were entirely alien. To be asked by my digital comrades if I thought we should go after those bandits, rather than just lurching forward because that’s what you do in a video game, was incredible to me at the time. I think I knew that it didn’t matter in practice, but still, to ask the question at all made me feel important and significant.
But now in 2014, with our Mass Effects and our Walking Deads, I’m finding the illusion of choice to be increasingly a negative trope in games. I know that I have to save the princess/world/my friends/etc. I have to be the one to cut a path, carve my name into some fantasy world’s history, and then return in the sequel. I know that the world revolves around me, even if it’s trying to tell me otherwise. I already know the deal, so if a game can just be honest with the both of us about what’s going on, I can get into it more.
Golden Sun, born just after the end of 90s RPGs, still struggles with all its might to keep outdated illusions alive. What may have once seemed immersive now only serves to keep my mind on reality–the oils on my hand, the dust over the screen, the awkwardness of playing on a Gameboy Advance Micro. I *want* to fall back into this game I loved so much as a teen, but the awkwardness of the narrative keeps shoving me away.
The writing is tedious in the way that transcripts of two people small talking can be. Lots of words are uttered without anything actually being said. And yet this accurately characterizes so much in-game RPG babble that I feel like I’ve almost been conditioned to tune it out as a furiously tap the ‘A’ button to get through each conversation.
Ditto for ominously capitalizing words which are either extremely ordinary or completely made-up. Characters talk about ‘Alchemy’ and ‘Psynergy’ in absurd ways without batting an eye, or feeling the need to explain the backstory to these cosmic forces, whereas they seem to have no trouble indulging in the pleasantries and rhetorical questions which bookend conversations without ever shedding much light on the information conveyed therein.
In truth though most of the characters might as well be mumbling like the adults from a Peanuts cartoon, since a handful of easily embarrassed and just shy of emotionally disturbed children are Golden Sun’s real bread and butter. Gamers must have been younger back in the late 90s, no? Certainly those intent on brandishing an indigo colored Gameboy Advance in public must have been>
Fighting ‘Vermin’ and ‘Toadstools’ and ‘Slime,’ I’m struck by how easily Golden Sun works as an abstraction of the struggles, wishes, conflicts and desires that might go through the heads of younger players as they barrel toward tween-dom. And yet plenty of YA fiction, both in premise and execution of the prose, far surpasses 99.9% of RPGs aimed at catering toward a similarly juvenile sense of the world. Perhaps the real answer is something more incidental to this particular genre in this particular medium: most game makers were artists, programmers, and designers first, and writers, let alone prose stylists, second or third or forth, if at all.
And a forgivable shortcoming especially in a game like Golden Sun, so much of which rests on the success of its vibrant art and flashy sprite battles. Golden Sun is like the first Breath of Fire, except with a more dynamic battle screen and less static character animations (not insignificant improvements).