Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Revolutionary Idealists

I first encountered computer gaming through text adventures. The state of the art has dramatically improved since then, and my tastes have evolved as well, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for the story-driven adventure game, and probably always will.

For many years I've meant to check out Radical Dreamers, which holds the seemingly impossible dual role as an entry in the Chrono series of RPG games, as well as a late entry in the text adventure genre. My ambition would prove difficult to accomplish. Not only was Radical Dreamers never released outside of Japan; even within Japan, it was only distributed via a custom satellite modem add-on to the SNES, and so had no "ROM" in the traditional sense.

I finally managed to assemble the necessary pieces to try it, and am glad I did so. It provided everything I was looking for, along with some pleasant surprises along the way.

I would have gladly played this game just for the music. Square is famous for their amazing composers, and Radical Dreamers doesn't disappoint at all in this regard. I continue to be stunned at the incredible sound that they could pull off with 8-bit and 16-bit chips. It all comes down to melodies, and they've crafted more amazing ones here. Much of the music in the game is subtle or ambient, but the themes they do have is incredible.

I was also shocked at how good the writing was, all the more impressive since the game never saw an English release. A group of fans managed to create a language patch that replaces all the Japanese text with English text, but this isn't some slap-dash Babelfish affair. The writing is quite moving, appropriately colorful without seeming baroque, with a wonderful cadence and style to it. All of the characters' voices are well realized as well, down to habits of speech and idioms that they favor.

Navigation through the game is pretty much the same as in any of the great old text adventures, except that instead of North, South, East, West, it's forward, backwards, right, left. That requires you to keep your orientation in mind in addition to your position; on the bright side, it increases your sense of immersion in the world and helps you really visualize the area. It might have been overwhelming on a larger map, but altogether the main game has... probably something less than two dozen rooms, several of which you will probably only visit once. It took very little time for me to become familiar with the geography, so I never did need to draw that map I was planning.

Combat is also oddly fun. For the few text RPGs that I've played, I've been used to very static types of combat: you have a few stock options, like "Attack," "Magic," and "Run,", that show up for each stage of each encounter. Here, the battles are done in storybook mode, "Choose your own adventure" style. For example, one section might prompt you with, "You leap back just in time, and the goblin's morning star smashes into the ground! He moves away from you, snarling. What do you do?" The choices might be, "Grab it!", "Throw my knife at him!" and "Chase him!" Some of the outcomes are random (for example, if you throw the knife, it may only hit him 50% of the time), but others are consistent. Therefore, the standard pain of Square-style random battles is alleviated, because once you figure out how to handle a particular encounter, you can win every time with minimal damage. And, yes, you can take damage. There's no visible health meter, but it's communicated through the text as your bandages grow and your breathing becomes ever more labored.

Before heading into plot spoiler territories: this game also has a really fun variation on Chrono Trigger's "New Game +" mode. You can replay the game after you beat it, but your future playthroughs actually unlock additional stories; since there's no XP, levels, or currency in the game, you can't really bring over any stats from previous runs through the game. I'll get into more detail on these additional stories down below, but I'll mention here that it's well done. All begin in the same manner, but based on some early choices you make, the setting and tone of the game shifts radically. This proves to be a great way to experiment and draw out the possibilities of the creators. Some are flat-out hilarious, while others are macabre and deeply disturbing. Setting each as a separate tale allows this game to cover a wide range of emotions without a jarring internal shift in tone. Think of a Final Fantasy game: typically you'll get some pathos, some drama, some excitement, and some comic relief, staged throughout the game. Radical Dreamers lets them break those elements apart, so you can play one game that's all darkness, and another game that's practically non-stop laughter.

Okay, let's move into spoilerville!


The relationship of Radical Dreamers to the Chrono universe isn't immediately clear. As best as I can tell, it's vaguely a sequel to Chrono Trigger - you eventually learn through backstory how two of the characters are related to major CT characters. However, it isn't really a prequel to Chrono Cross. This game was created prior to CC, and I guess you can see it as sort of a dry run at some of the ideas from that game. Two of the three major characters in RD, Serge and Kid, are the two main characters in CC. Kid's personality is largely the same in both games. Serge is the narrator of RD, and so has a bit more personality than the silent protagonist in CC, but they seem to be the same character.

In terms of setting, all of RD (at least the main story) takes place in Viper Manor, which the three heroes/thieves are infiltrating in order to steal the Flame. This setting was later loosely adapted into an episode within CC.

Thematically, both RD and CC deal with multiple, parallel universes, in much the same way CT dealt with timelines. This theme is pretty subtle in the main story of RD, only coming out during the endgame sequence. However, it can be seen as part of the whole point of the game, especially when it comes to the alternate stories told after the game finishes. Each of those is a story in another universe, with some similarities to the main one but still fundamentally different. Each has three people named Serge, Kid, and Magil entering the manor; in one, though, Magil is a lovestruck aristocrat who pines for the lost love of his youth; in another, Magil is an intergalactic bounty hunter who has been tracking a nefarious Martian villain.

I do like how the game puts the choice of universe into your own hands. It isn't that you're randomly or sequentially thrust into one and need to respond appropriately. Instead, your own actions determine your reality, including your past. This is a cool, up-to-date variation on the idea that our thoughts create our destiny, which is a nifty mental framework to have.

Back to the main story: it's a pleasant mixture of adventure game and RPG, and thoroughly story-driven. Even the main story itself probably deserves multiple play-throughs, since your choices help reveal more about the characters and their situations. Other than advancing through the plot, which largely centers around tracking down the Flame, the most important factor is your emotional connection with Kid. Serge has a crush on Kid, and the way you treat her (and other decisions you make) help determine whether she will reciprocate that affection. This isn't a dating sim; rather, Kid will be more impressed with you if you act more forthrightly, if you respect her opinions, and so on. Most of these come from one-time choices during the story's span, but you can also further your relationship during some of the random battles you fight.


Boy, those Square guys sure can write, can't they? A lot of their plots can sound melodramatic on paper, but as presented within the context of a game, they become extremely moving. Given the short span of RD, its climax is surprisingly heartfelt. Kid sacrifices Lucca's gift in order to save Serge's (your) life; this essentially breaks the bond with CT in order to create a bond with CC.

Lynx's multiple personalities were intriguing, especially in the context of his eventual (re)appearance in CC. In the main story he is cold, calculating, arrogant, and violent. In "Magil: Caught between Love and Adventure" he starts weeping as he sees his daughter elope with "Gilbert". Probably the darkest portrayal comes from the darkest story, wherein he already died years earlier, and has created a cataclysm of suffering in his spirit's wake. I even enjoyed the pathetic, begging Lynx who appeared in Shea's story.

Oh, and since this is spoilerville: I loved Magil's reveal (in the main story) as Magus. Magus may be my favorite character from CT, and prepending that character's incredible story to Magil's mysterious actions here results in a highly compelling composite. From what I read online, the team originally had intended for Magil to also continue over to CC, and it's a shame that didn't happen.


I realize that text adventure's aren't everyone's thing, or even most people's thing, but this one is well worth checking out. It's a slight hassle to gather the necessary components, but once you do, you'll be rewarded with a relatively brief (especially in contrast with a typical Square RPG) game that's packed with story, great 16-bit synthesized music, and pathos. Stick around for the alternate stories once the main game is done.

Even if you haven't played in the Chrono universe before, you may enjoy this one. Most of this game has no explicit connection at all to the events or characters of those games, so you won't be missing out on any important plot. If you like what you encounter here, you should definitely consider picking up Chrono Trigger and/or Chrono Cross. CT was originally an SNES game, but has been modernized and redone as a Nintendo DS game; Chrono Cross is a PlayStation 1 game that is somewhat dated graphically, but still aces when it comes to story. Have fun!

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Animal, Vegetable, Metaphor

Man, it's been way too long since I've gotten through a real book. I did read the Perry Bible Fellowship collection, which was great, but probably doesn't count.

I've recently shifted from the San Jose public library system to my new home, the Millbrae public library. The library is a great place, with lots of light, friendly workers, a well-laid-out collection, and best of all, a few minutes' walk from my home. However, I've needed to adjust to the vagaries of the San Mateo County library system. I've gotten spoiled from San Jose's excellent branch system, which allows you to reserve a book from any library and have them deliver it to your own for pickup. They even offer free inter-library-loan borrowing for the few titles that aren't in their system. (Of course, their affiliation with the SJSU library means that they carry an impressive array of books.)

In contrast, while the Peninsula Library System offers reciprocal borrowing, placing a hold costs 75 cents. The rational part of my brain recognizes that this is still an amazing deal compared to the cost of actually buying a book, but the rest of my brain is busy sulking. I think that over time I'll get used to this new system. One advantage is that there's much less competition for holds; for example, right now the latest Robert Jordan book "The Towers of Midnight" has only one outstanding hold in the PLS out of 16 copies; in contrast, San Jose has 10 copies and 17 holds. Were I inclined to read this fairly new book, I could get my hands on it much more quickly in my new library system. That's PROBABLY worth three quarters.

Another difference is that other people are less likely to place holds on books that I've already checked out, which means that I can keep on renewing them with impunity. Which is good - I initially checked out "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" back in September, and finally finished it this week. It's a good book, and probably would be a fairly quick read for most people, I've just been much more distracted than usual of late, and have appreciated the extra time to get it done.

So: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle! I picked up this book after stumbling across it while randomly browsing (in person) through the Millbrae library's food section. I vaguely remembered having read good things about it before, and I've lately enjoyed reading the food-oriented books by Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, and Eric Schlosser. This seemed to be a similar work.

I think this book either kicked off or was an early entrant in the recent rash of "My Year of X" books. You know the type - first-person narratives about spending a full year living in one room, or living frugally, or not using fossil fuels, or whatever. Here, Barbara Kingsolver and her family spent a year eating as locally as they could: they moved to a farm in rural Appalachia, grew their own food, and bought what they didn't grow from nearby farmers.

The book ends up being fascinating. It's also extremely well-written. I haven't read any of Kingsolver's other books, but I'm now very inclined to check them out. She has a great voice, a wry sensibility, and a lot of intelligence that avoids showing off. She keeps things interesting, making the year sound like an adventure.

The book also includes contributions from her husband and a daughter. Steven weighs in with sidebars that cover the political dimensions of what Barbara describes, such as the role of the Farm Bill (which helps large-scale producers and not small family farmers), organic certification (a lot of organic food never gets labeled as such because small farmers don't need it and can't afford the overhead of certification), and so on. Camille ends most chapters with a collection of recipes and menus that describe how they ate, along with her own perspective on her family's meals.

There were a lot of interesting and unexpected moments in the book. The Kingsolvers are a lot less doctrinaire than I would have assumed. From the beginning, each family member is allowed to choose one food item from outside their local region that they can keep using. Steven chooses coffee; Barbara chooses "spices," which I would view as cheating. But their year includes a trip to Italy, where they sample that region's local food instead of their own, as well as a trip through the northeast United States and southern Canada. Towards the end, Kingsolver admits that they had also bought boxed macaroni and cheese, because some of her kids' friends refused to eat anything else. She doesn't view these exceptions as failures; instead, she chooses to focus on all the benefits of the majority of the time when they did eat locally. That strikes me as a very healthy attitude to take. We should encourage ourselves to eat better, and not disparage one another for failing perfection.

I was also surprised by the book's treatment of vegetarianism, veganism, and carnivorism. The Kingsolvers raise chickens and turkeys, and Barbara speaks with some affection about their animals. And yet, they eat meat, rather regularly. About halfway through the book she spends several pages giving an extremely lucid and persuasive defense of meat. Not from CAFO's - that's Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, one of the scourges of this book - but from small-scale, low-impact farms. She approaches this not just in terms of health and justice, but also brings in her background as an evolutionary biologist. Kingsolver debunks some of the commonly cited arguments in favor of vegetarianism, including the idea that you can feed a lot more people from vegetables grown on an acre than an animal grazing on that acre. (Basically, this is true for arable farmland, but untrue for the unworkable hills and mountains where most non-CAFO livestock are raised. That makes perfect sense for me - I regularly see cows grazing in the Diablo range, and would be hard-pressed to ever find a farm that could work in that rugged terrain.) Her arguments probably won't persuade many people on this emotional issue, but I really appreciated her perspective. It also helped me understand something that I had long thought was peculiar: many people become vegetarians because of their empathy towards animals, but have very little exposure to those animals; most farmers have nearly constant exposure to animals, and seem to never become vegetarians.

Wow, that was a long bit. Anyways, that's just one of the cool parts of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I'm looking forward to reading more from Kingsolver, and I'm also looking forward to finally returning this and reading another book.