Game Eaters

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

In Defense of Stat-Porn.

I dislike heavily stat-oriented RPG’s. I feel I have better ways to spend my time than doing the same actions over and over and over again, just so I can unlock a new cinematic with the same cloying melodrama. But once in a while a game comes along, does all these things, doesn’t innovate at all, and I love it. Odin Sphere is one of those games.

I usually play mainstream RPG’s like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, or Genso Suikoden. These are RPG’s where exploration, story, combat, and character advancement exist in roughly equal proportions. But there is another strain of Japanese RPG, like Disgaea or Final Fantasy Tactics, where character advancement and combat are much bigger parts of the game than story or exploration. These games seem designed for those with a fetish for complex systems and a low interest level in narrative. They are stat-porn.

I’m normally driven crazy by the tired conventions stat-porn RPG’s indulge in. In my old age I have become a critic of game conventions that constrain imagination and keep designers from better exploring the worlds they create, thus preventing games from reaching a wider audience. There’s no worse offender of this than Odin Sphere. I was disappointed with Kingdom Hearts when a non-gamer friend lamented that its rich fictional universe was expressed strictly in terms of opening treasure boxes and hitting people. So how can I not hate Odin Sphere, which takes Norse mythology and makes it about whacking monsters and mixing potions?

I’m sure most will assume art is the decisive factor; the sublime 2D art of Odin Sphere. The art is a big part of the aesthetic experience of this game. It does make the world feel evocative, which inevitably encases the play experience—as pedestrian as it is—in a warm and magical glow. I suppose next one might assume it’s the story cinematics. The stately Japanese voice acting removes a lot of the normal barriers to taking an RPG melodrama seriously, and the story itself achieves the human pathos that mythology is supposed to embody. Ever since Square made unconventional plots boring I’ve come to appreciate RPG’s that have the grace to make me care about simple tales of love, lust, power, and betrayal. This is why I now find Dragon Quest far more human than Final Fantasy has become, and I think it’s why I find Odin Sphere romantic. The central metaphor of Odin Sphere is a little girl in a dusty attic reading age old tales of princes, princesses, battles, and gods. The story appropriately feels like a long old book, but one that’s populated by beings of human frailty.

But aesthetics are only part of Odin Sphere’s appeal. Also important is the fact that the mechanics, for all their repetitiveness and simplicity, yield dynamics which are not repetitive or simplistic at all. Lots of reviews complain that characters have very limited moves and that the game is really about doing the same combo over and over. On some level Odin Sphere is about repeating the same combat moves, but what I fail to see is how these reviewers missed the strategic planning one must achieve in order to survive. I’ve done more thinking in Odin Sphere than in games with more so-called variety. Gameplay requires an impressive level of concentration. The dynamics created by one enemy type versus another enemy type, by groups of enemies versus a single enemy, or by one boss versus another boss, are always complex. Odin Sphere is a triumph of minimalist mechanics giving rise to multi-layered dynamics.

I like Odin Sphere for holistic reasons, even though it isn’t the sort of holism I hope for in games. I want games to be better combinations of mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics but not in ways that require years of genre literacy to enjoy. Because it’s mired in the fetishism of Japanese stat-grinding RPG’s, Odin Sphere requires a deep level of genre literacy. On the other hand its combination of mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics are unusually balanced for a game of its type… which is something I, at my literacy level, can appreciate.

There’s nothing wrong with game conventions that require literacy in order to engage players. After all, there is no such thing as media that is devoid of convention and therefore no media that doesn’t require a form of literacy. The games industry needs to work a lot harder to pioneer new conventions that require new literacies so we can reach new audiences. That said, it’s nice to see existing conventions—arcane as they may be to new players—handled with such superb artfulness. It may be stat-porn, but Odin Sphere is one game that will make you proud to be a pervert.