Trusting the Story

Occasionally, I like to look through the list of games on current or recent consoles to see if there are any obscure games that sound interesting.  Back when the Wii was still part of the “current” category of consoles, I came upon a game called Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon.  If you have been following my gameplay series for it on our Youtube channel, then it will come as no surprise that I did finally get around to playing the game.  In actuality, a big motivation for buying the game was due to the fact that it looked like an interesting game to test out my brand new Live Gamer Portable capture card.  It wasn’t too long, so it wasn’t a big commitment, and it looked a bit spooky, which could create some good reactions.  And the $20 price tag on Amazon helped a lot, too.

Nevertheless, I heard some negative things about the game before I bought it, namely the issue with weapons randomly breaking and monotonous levels later in the game.  While I can largely agree with these complaints, neither of these issues were the game’s greatest crimes.  But, I’ll get to that soon.

This game was far from perfect, but I ended up enjoying it greatly.  You play as a boy named Seto in post-apocalyptic Tokyo.  I seem to have a thing for the end of the world theme, considering my love of Majora’s Mask, my enjoyment of Lightning Returns, and the fact that I cry every time I watch episode 42 of Hoshi no Kaabii.  Don’t judge me.  It’s a sad episode.

Ahem.  Anyway, much of your time is spent exploring and finding items that reveal the memories of its previous owner, now deceased.  There is also fighting, which I enjoyed more than other people did, it would seem.  Yes, it is frustrating when a weapon breaks, but weapons never broke in the middle of a fight or boss battle, and money and weapons are plentiful.  Plus, it adds a degree of strategy the game needed, considering it was so easy.  I also liked that you could level up quickly and there wasn’t much penalty for skipping enemies if you wanted to preserve what weapons you had remaining.  And in response to the other complaint people had, yes, the game did sometimes get boring when I had to spend a lot of time climbing up and down ladders, a task Seto is very slow at.  I disagree, however, that the locations seen later in the game were uninspired.  How often do you explore inside a dam?  Not often.

All in all, I actually had a lot of fun with this game, but what really stood out to me, however, was the game’s plot.  At first.  The entire time, I was very interested to see what would happen next, which doesn’t happen to me very often.  I am currently having a lot of fun playing Lightning Returns, but I don’t care in the slightest what happens in the story.  But in Fragile Dreams, I actually had a great time playing the game and forming new theories concerning what had happened to everyone.  For me, this might have been the game’s greatest strength.

Unfortunately, the game’s story is also its greatest weakness and the one thing that kept it from being a truly amazing game.  Sort of.  I won’t spoil anything, but the game’s ending was rather disappointing.  Once it was pretty much fully revealed what had taken place, not only was it kind of silly, but it left so many loose ends.  And this is one thing storytellers, whether they are authors or video game developers, must never do.

I am a gamer first and foremost.  After that, I am a writer, and one thing I have learned is that you must be able to trust your author.  If a character constantly ends up in danger and is rescued by something that comes out of nowhere every single time, you lose trust in the author because it feels they will cheat their way out of every difficult situation.  (I think this relates to the phrase, deus ex machina, or god from the machine.  When a character is in danger and a magical being appears out of nowhere to save them, that has never ever before been mentioned in the story, that is called deus ex machina.)  Other examples include authors who write shocking events, only for it to be a dream, or authors who leave faulty clues to lead the reader astray rather than simply weaving real clues more subtly into the story.

The last example is what Fragile Dreams does.  By the time the game ends, there are three stories.  One is the main plot involving what caused much of humanity to die off.  A second plot point involves the identity of a character named Crow.  I was excited when I learned the truth behind him, only to find later that this didn’t relate to the central plot at all.  In this way, I was led astray.  The third involved the memories with the multi-colored bells.  These memories were baffling for the longest time, and they felt so mysterious and so important, I knew this had to hint at what had happened to everyone.  Again, once I learned what was happening in these memories and what the true plot was, I realized that they did not bear any relation to the plot, either.  For the second time, I was led astray.

I spent the entire game forming theories, many of which ended up being more interesting than the game’s real plot, only to find the developers either accidentally started stories that went nowhere or purposefully left misleading clues to throw me off the trail.  It took all the fun out of theorizing about the game because I knew the developer couldn’t be trusted.  Even now that the game is done, there are several points that remain a mystery, but it feels pointless to think about them further because nothing fits neatly together like it should.  I don’t think there is any meaningful explanation behind some of the details in the game, such as the identity of the crying women or the two boys whose memories we hear at the dam.  The game’s plot was a mess of unrelated details, and I don’t believe I will reach any interesting breakthroughs in something that can’t be pieced together.  It would be like putting together a single picture using pieces from ten different puzzles.

In stark contrast is the backstory behind the Portal games.  I trust the people at Valve to weave together a meaningful story because of how well put together those games were, Portal 2 in particular.  They were careful and deliberate in the details they included in the game.  The good turret that speaks to you if you pick it up.  Chell’s name written on the last of the children’s science projects.  The seemingly nonsensical doodles and scribbling on the walls.  It all meant something.  No detail was there to fool the player, but rather, to aid them in piecing together a complete story behind the games.  There is a deep, meaningful backstory behind the games that I figured out on my own or read about on the Internet from others who had pieced it all together.  That is an example of a successful story and why the Portal games are so dear to me.

A storyteller should encourage their audience to figure the puzzle out, not trick them.  This is a lesson that applies not just to books, but to games, as well.  Breaking weapons and monotonous ladders didn’t hurt the game badly enough to make me love it less.  Even the silly plot that was revealed at the end wasn’t, either.  The fact that I can’t trust the game is its biggest crime.  Portal lives on even after I finish it because I want to keep thinking about it.  I want to keep thinking about Fragile Dreams, as well, but I know I am looking for meaning in a way that is about as pointless as forming theories as to why the sidewalk outside my house is cracked.  Likewise, there is no deep meaning behind a hole in my shirt, and there is likely no deep meaning behind the insane multi-legged beings found in the underground tunnels in Fragile Dreams.  They were likely included in the game to be weird, not to hint at some amazing plot development later in the game.  I wanted to think there was more to Fragile Dreams, but I don’t think there is.  I still love the game, and I still think it’s worth at least one playthrough, but it was thanks to these mistakes that it fell short of its full potential.

Fragile Ducks, You Can Trust Me, Though

This post was originally published on United We Game on April 19, 2016.

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