Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Question You've All Been Asking Me (A Review)

My friends, you often approach me with a question.

"Ted," you ask, adjusting your hip glasses, or putting a thoughtful hand to a thoughtful chin, "I'm open-minded and fascinated by the arts and what they can accomplish.  You are a storyteller by trade, and we have spoken of these things because we are friends.  You seem to enjoy video games and the stories in them.  If I was to play a video game, what would you recommend?"

My friends, you have asked me oft, and I have become ponderous.  At the masked balls where we have spoken, or under the vaulted ceilings of museums or cathedrals where we have met by chance, I have not been able to find a response.

I think I finally have found the game, or one of them.  Each of you have your own likes--some in the flying of spaceships, some in the wielding of swords, some in the touching stories of well-written characters, and so on--so I may have to write several such articles.  But here is the first: it is called Child of Light.

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Child of Light is a sidescrolling RPG developed by Ubisoft Montreal, drawing on Active Time turn-based JRPG elements.  I see you're lost already, but don't be afraid.  I have made some of the words blue so that they lead to further knowledge.  The others I will explain myself.

The game is about a young girl named Aurora, the daughter of a duke, who dies in her sleep.  She wakes up in a dark, moody land full of strange creatures, where she makes friends with a firefly that might be able to lead her to find her father, and a way out of this dark place.

Child of Light might work as your first game because it is a simple, traditional game, and one of the most moving experiences I have had recently in which the mechanics of a game have allowed me to better understand my life.  Aurora's journey through a difficult land shows the melancholy journey of a child learning about sadness, and the power of friends.

A BIT OF EDUCATION: Role-playing games like Child of Light generally have three parts or activites: first, the visiting of towns or cities, which consist of talking with people and obtaining quests (because, in RPGS, you are the only person capable of helping anyone else out, which can become rather fatiguing), second, exploring dungeons, caves, and fortresses and defeating evil things, and third, completing quests.  Quests can be completed in many ways, for example by clearing the old woman's basement of crabs, rats, or giant ants, by convincing the Czerka Corporation that their exploitative terraforming measures are going to destroy life on Telos IV, or by vanquishing the dragon/demon/Sauron/Ganon and lifting the veil of darkness over the world.

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I recommend Child of Light partially because of its art.  Completely composed of hand-drawn illustrations, the world Aurora explores is at once inspiring and unsettling.  The deftly-animated protagonist floats from dark twisted woods to ruined castles.  She finds a city filled with mice that talk about the stockmarket, a village filled with Scottish dwarves who have accidentally been transformed into ravens, and she dives into the lava-filled innards of a mountain giant woman.  The music that accompanies it is often sad, yearning, and filled with a sense of searching.  In sequences of exploration, I felt connected to Aurora's search for her father, because in this world everyone is looking for something, and here it is easy to become lost in frightening places.

I won't ruin the story, but there is a lot to it.  It has some weaknesses--the whole thing is written in one of the worst rhyme schemes I have ever read, but I got used to it.  And in light of its dark subject matter its comedy can come across as less intelligent than its design.  But these are all forgivable in light of its strengths.

Another important aspect of RPGs I think you will like is your party.  Like the Fellowship that goes from Rivendell to Mordor to destroy the ring, a party in an RPG is a group of people united by a cause, each with their own strengths and weaknesses and their own story.

Child of Light's cast of characters, like Aurora, recall the serious psychology of children and the deep sadness of life.  A circus artist's air balloon took a wrong wind and she has been separated from her brother.  A dwarf wizard is afraid of spiders, but needs to face a cave full of them to save his tribe.  A non-party character, the giant Magna, is old and tired because her heart has been taken over by evil creatures, and a long quest must be taken to remove them and heal her heart.

Their characters come even more to life in combat.  When you fight foes in Child of Light, you enter an intricate turn-based system that will take some getting used to, but which is very rewarding and enjoyable once you've acquired the knack.  In order to defeat your enemies, Aurora and the party must work together in strategic, well-timed tandem, and their abilities reflect their relationship with Aurora: her sister Norah in particular has no attack abilities of her own, but can speed up Aurora or slow down her enemies.  What a beautiful game-based metaphor for the influence of a sibling's love. 

It made me wonder what my role would be in such a party.  Would I be a healer, capable of bringing my friends back when they're down?  Or would I be a wizard, with the power to vanquish fears and enemies with powerful spells?  Would I be an archer, capable of holding back many oncoming stresses, and preventing danger to my friends in advance?  And I wondered, in turn, about you, my close friends.

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It was hard being a kid.  The world was and is full of scary things, and children, having never faced them before, can fear them more.  You remember when you broke a dish and thought your parents were going to follow through on that facetious promise of eating you alive?  Or when a playdate with someone who you were scared of turned into a nightmare that might have no end?  People tell me they wish they were kids again because life was so carefree, but I look back and remember being the thoughtful child who worried a lot, afraid I didn't have any friends and never would, or worried that I had ruined everything with my latest blunder.  In the end, what changed that for me was making friends.

In this fairy tale and in your own life, the protagonist wakes up in a land that is unfamiliar and difficult.  As it always is in these stories, something is wrong with the world--a dark queen of night rules the land, and the young mostly-helpless child must save it, with a little help from her friends.  Child of Light reminds me how you, my friend, can help me fight darkness, and that we can be characters in someone else's party, used in a battle against a boss at the moment when we are needed.

Child of Light is available for $15, downloadable through a completely legal and safe internet client called Steam.

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