Thursday, November 18, 2010

Video Game History - Suikoden

I've decided to start excerpting bits and pieces of my book on the history of video gaming in the 1990's on this blog. First up: Suikoden.

With Square in general and Final Fantasy in particular on top of the JRPG world, expectation for the next game in the series drove interest in JRPGs on the PlayStation. However, as they took their time releasing the next Final Fantasy, Konami snuck a little game called Suikoden under the radar.

Suikoden is “little” in many ways. As JRPGs transitioned from the 16-bit era to the PlayStation, they tended to get bigger, more complex, more graphics-intensive and longer. Suikoden was proudly 2D, fast-paced and simple: combat was turn-based, like the original Final Fantasy, and built around the player choosing commands for their party between turns, and then pressing “Fight” to send them on their way. Suikoden made it even easier with a “Free Will” mode where every character in the party simply attacks, the player doesn't even select opponents to attack. A decent player can finish most of the game using Free Will, even including the final enemy! And yet, oddly, the game is still fun to play in spite of its simplicity. The designers may have realized that the player played the entire RPG world, not just the combat system.

Suikoden does two especially interesting things. Its only concession to the hardcore, completist gamers is the wide range of characters to recruit – 108 in all. A third or so are automatically added in the course of the storyline, another third or so are optional and can fight in your party, and the last batch of characters aren't usable in combat – but they are usable in your castle. Suikoden has a castle in the middle of a lake used by the hero as headquarters, which provides a sense of place to the game. The more characters the player recruits, the larger the castle grows. Some characters add fun and functionality to the castle, such as one who lets the player gamble on a shell game, or others who open up shops in the castle.

By letting the player build the castle, recruit its occupants, and explore it during downtime, Suikoden provides the player with a sense of place that most games don't. The plot, as in all games, gives the player an answer to the question “What are we fighting for?” but the castle and the range of characters inside it allow the player to create their own emotional connection and investment to answer that question.

The sense of place is increased by Suikoden's other point of interest, its plot. Although it still involves a spiky-haired young man leading a rebellion against an evil empire and an ancient evil, Suikoden tweaks the formula slightly in that the player is a high-ranking member of the evil empire, and its corruption is far more relevant to the plot than the evil magic. The empire also does not control the entirety of the world – it's contained, and other political entities are mentioned but not actually part of the game.

This may sound quite minor – and in many ways it is – but it opened a door that JRPGs hadn't yet opened in terms of storytelling. In virtually every JRPG, the goal of the game was to prevent a big bad guy from enslaving or destroying the world. The player knows, that should they succeed in the game, the bad guy's plot will be totally foiled, and the world will return to normal. In a sense, this paralyzes the emotional impact of the story, as the stakes are so high that minor setbacks and tragedies are irrelevant. By making the scope of the story smaller, Suikoden allowed for human conflicts and human tragedies. It was not a trend followed by most JRPGs in the future, but it did yield marvelous results with the sequel, Suikoden II.

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