My current little distraction from life, the universe, and everything comes in the form of a lovely little tactical RPG called Luminous Arc 2. Featuring the adventures of Roland the Rune Knight, it swiftly proved to be a fun little strategy title that, while easy and not too challenging (yet, I hope), also has a lovely little story to tell about its colorful cast of witches and humans.
The game includes a sidequest system whereby the player can accept missions from a nondescript guild for experience, lewt, etc. and one of these involved dealing with bandits claiming to be agents of the main villain (at the moment; the “villain” doesn’t really seem all that bad, and thanks to a spoiler she’s apparently not that evil). The mission itself was easy, and at the end a small story was presented: the bandits were only claiming to be in the evil witch’s service for clout. In point of fact, they had actually been driven from their land and had only resorted to banditry to feed their families. “Cool!” I thought, “This is interesting. I wonder what will happen next.”
And despite my expectations, the characters of my plucky band chose the black-and-white route, denounced them as criminals regardless of their situation, and hauled them off to prison.
Rather than make an interesting choice and perhaps have the heroes face difficult thoughts about what is justified when one is desperate to survive, the game takes the most boring route and labels the poor sods as simple thieves, ignoring their wives and children. It made me save, turn off the 3DS, and seriously consider what makes a game “mature” and why games seem to draw such a thick line between the black-and-white and the grey.
Making a game mature isn’t about nudity or “coarse” language, though these are instantly correlated in our minds with adult content. We’ve been conditioned that way since childhood, and while those elements may not be “appropriate” for children they do not encompass the entirety of mature entertainment. Rather, the capacity to view a topic from many perspectives should be considered “adult.” It is indeed, after all, “the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” (Aristotle) There’s also a Calvin and Hobbes strip that has always reminded me why the comic is regarded as some small example of genius: Calvin sees a movie listing which marks it as containing “adult content.” Hobbes and he immediately think of things such as paying taxes. The comparison – and satire – is clear.
Games have a power, a power that all forms of art share and, unfortunately, fail to use as often as they should. It is the power to make the audience think, and games have a special quality of participation from their audience that makes this even more potent. Games can make use of this, but you’ll never see a game with an ‘M’ rating where the only reason listed is, “It makes you think about complicated stuff.” Even looking at other games with tamer ratings, however, one can find examples of the craft doing its due diligence to get gamers to step outside their comfort zones just a bit.
Valkyria Chronicles is one such example (another tactical strategy game, but with a wicked real-time component that is addicting, actiony, and extremely well-done). As stated above, the game is definitely a WWII game. The Germans are Imperials, the Allies are… the Allies… and there’s a small neutral country called Gallia. The Darcsens are oppressed because of their race, and there’s even a group of ubermensch called the Valkyria. And the game makes full use of these tropes: an important character is a raging and outspoken racist, and the questions of why wars are fought and what could possibly be worth killing and dying for are only a few among the many topics the game manages to cover.
While the fight is clearly between the Empire and the Allied forces, the game makes every effort to rip those walls down. After the commander and his love interest, Welkin and Alicia, are separated from the main squad they take shelter in an abandoned cabin. Resting, they are then visited in the night by a wounded Imperial soldier. He raises his rifle at them but after a tense moment collapses; Alicia insists on helping him, but Welkin knows that he will shortly die of his wounds. In his last moments, the Imperial calls for his mother, and as Alicia takes his hand and whispers that she is there for him, he passes away. The next morning, the Imperial’s squad catches up with him, but Alicia and Welkin have already given him a proper burial. As a sign of thanks, they depart peacefully.
This. This is what games can do if they want to. Rather than take the Luminous Arc 2 route and have the “good guys” shoot the “bad guys” because they’re “the bad guys,” the game instead decides to rip down the curtains and the stage to show that the Imperials aren’t monsters and the heroes aren’t infallible, that we’re all just humans trying to survive and fight for what they believe in. The dead Imperial was someone’s son, someone’s lover, and Valkyria Chronicles recognizes that.
This is by no means an anti-war treatise. What we have here are two games who take radically different approaches to handling the tough stuff. One tosses it to the corner to be ignored while the other grabs it by the balls (apologies for the metaphor). While it’s not really fair to say neither are superior, what works works for Luminous Arc 2. I can’t begrudge them for writing a story that tries to pull its punches where they deemed it unnecessary to throw something in the player’s face. Other games, like Persona, take certain issues head-on and try to get gamers to really question them from more than one perspective.
Persona 4, after all, was a major title that received a great deal of critical acclaim here and abroad – and features a character whose sexuality is the main focal point of his chapter in the story. While it is never explicitly stated, that isn’t the point; the point is simply to think, question, and ponder the tough questions. Games have the power to do this, and again this can have a powerful impact when the audience becomes so emotionally invested.