Saturday, March 5, 2016

Bravely Default: Story and Side Quests

Last week I opened up a new series on Bravely Default, and I started things out pretty positive. This is key to keep in mind, because it’s all downhill from here. This second post will focus on the writing of the game, and will feature MINOR SPOILERS. Specifically, I’ll be going into various details of the story and spoiling some mid-game side quests. However, all the major plot twists and late-game story will be saved for a third and final post. It’ll take some effort to avoid talking about them, but they deserve their own time to shine (or, uh, the opposite of shine. Absorb light?). Let’s dive right in with a basic overview of the story.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before

The writing in Bravely Default isn’t terrible. It has some neat ideas and there’s some untapped potential, but the execution is questionable from the moment you open the game. It begins with a couple brief cutscenes that, even in retrospect, contribute absolutely nothing. This video shows the introductory scenes, but the actually important ones start at 2:30, with one scene for each main character. They’re about as generic as they come (though the music remains excellent throughout).

First we have Anges (pronounced ahn-yes), a serious shrine maiden stereotype spouting overwrought dialogue about a crystal of the four elements. Next we have Ringabel, a dashing rogue who’s also a womanizer and amnesiac. Third up is Edea, a headstrong daughter to a major political power. Finally we have Tiz, a simple farm boy from a sleepy village that’s instantly blown to bits along with his brother. Sound familiar? It should, if you’ve played literally any JRPG ever made. This is the type of set-up you’d give to a parody of JRPGs, but Bravely Default plays this premise completely straight for much of the game. You’re four extremely generic protagonists following along a generic plot to re-light four (generic) magic crystals.

Also, you reawaken the crystals with a quick-time event. Wa-hoa, Bravely Default, save some innovation for the rest of us!

I want to make something clear: Using tropes is not a bad thing. Tropes are tools (WARNING: TV Tropes link. No seriously, I may or may not have wasted several hours on that site after being the one who warned you about it). It’s quite possible to make a memorable story out of something familiar. However, Bravely Default rarely does anything interesting with its standard, straightforward narrative. Its twists are a discussion for another time, but I’ll say even those don’t completely fix things. The real problem with Bravely Default isn’t that it’s a familiar story. The problem is it’s a familiar story with mediocre delivery and little to add to its premise.

 I think Tiz has a perfect intro to exemplify this. The second I saw that peaceful rural village, I wondered how long it would be until it blew up, burned down or was otherwise invaded. Turns out I didn’t have to wonder long, because it was literally 25 seconds. The same goes for his brother, whose only spoken line is said while already dangling above his death. The struggle to rebuild his village and cope with loss is the majority of Tiz’s character. When something is so important to the motivations of the protagonist, you don’t want to skip it! Tiz is the first character you play anyway, so I see no reason we couldn’t have stuck with his brother and village a bit longer.

“Before you fall to your death, could you remind me: Do we have parents?”

If they wanted a faster-paced start than bumming around a dull village, there are other options. You could’ve fought off some monsters, gone through some tutorial fights/dungeon with your brother, just something that involves actually forming a connection with the characters and their plight. And if you couldn’t think of a single way to present the sleepy village trope that was interesting? Then don’t use that trope! When you present a known cliché in such a perfunctory manner, it makes viewers feel like you’re trying to emotionally manipulate them. This is, of course, the actual goal. But the key to good storytelling is to make people feel genuine emotions, as thinking that someone is trying to force emotions on you is very different from legitimately feeling them.

Unfortunately, this is how a lot of Bravely Default’s story is treated. Character development and meaningful interactions are often rushed as we move from one plot thread to another. Interesting side stories are rushed in and out on a revolving door of plot threads, without giving them time to grow. The setting is a generic fantasy land that doesn’t have much unique or interesting to it, at least nothing well developed. It seems as though the writer painted the story in broad strokes but then didn’t bother with all the little details that make a story engaging. I’d like to elaborate on this by examining some of the game’s side quests, but before I do, let’s take a break and look at some positives for a change.

Glimpses of a Better World

For all the failures in execution, there are hints of a better story in Bravely Default. If it were boring or poorly written all the way through, I wouldn’t care so much about it failing to deliver. The four protagonists are all fairly archetypal, but as I said in my thoughts on Final Fantasy 6, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You can execute a stereotype in a pleasing way, and Bravely Default certainly tries. Ringabel may be straightforward, but he gets a lot of fun lines and entertaining interactions, helped out be an exemplary voice actor. Edea gets a similar treatment, with a personality more fiery and exasperated than her serious intro would indicate.

Granted, they’re still stereotypes, and I could see people being irritated by, say, Ringabel’s womanizing. But it’s at least a fairly well-written/delivered version of the shtick.

There’s also an attempt to give all four protagonists character arcs. Edea, without spoiling specifics, is allied with some morally questionable forces. Over the course of the game she struggles with which side to choose and how objective morality is. The details of Ringabel are definite spoiler territory, but as you might imagine the party amnesiac has some key connections to the plot. Even Tiz gets an arc later on where he tries to come to terms with his lost brother. Of course, this would’ve hit harder if his intro wasn’t so rushed, but at least the point eventually gets some development. Anges is probably the most neglected in terms of character progression, no doubt related to how intertwined she is with the generic main plot. There’s a vague sense that she’s learning things and she does overcome some arbitrary inter-party conflict, but her arc isn’t strong enough for me summarize.

The protagonists aren’t the only characters with personality. The antagonists have it in spiteful spades. All 24 of the jobs you acquire have an antagonist associated with them, and each is given a unique personality. Some are morally ambiguous while some are viciously villainous. Some are stalwart and serious while some are flighty and humorous. There’s a cascading cavalcade of prominent personalities on display, and amidst them all you’re sure to find at least one that intrigues you or makes you chuckle. In fact, the main problem I have with them is that there isn’t enough done with them. They’re not allowed much impact on the story due to how Bravely Default structures its optional content. On that note...

Side Quests

Bravely Default has a very unique approach to side quests. In addition to continuing the main story, the game will present you with opportunities to deal with one of the many job-based villains. Said villains cause some sort of trouble within the area you’re travelling through, and you go out and stop them. This often involves going through a dungeon, and always culminates in fighting a unique boss and unlocking their job. The format changes in the late-game, but that’s a discussion for the spoilerific final installment. For now, let’s look at these quests through some criteria for optional content I created in my article on Undertale and Completionism.

Gameplay Quality: High. If you took out all the side quests, you’d actually lose the majority of the game’s dungeons and bosses. Some of these dungeons even have unique little puzzle or trap mechanics, and they all have their own enemies, art and boss fights.

Story Quality: Average. Some are better than others, but there’s an admirable array of variety when it comes to the villains and situations these stories cover. However, their potential is limited by being self-contained. We’ll come back to this later.

Effort to Complete: Average. These quests take some effort to complete, but it’s all fairly fun. They’re just as quality as the main plot quests, and aren’t abnormally difficult by comparison.

Importance of Story: High. Bravely Default, like most JRPGs, places a large emphasis on story. There’s a lot of time put into the narrative and it’s one of the main reasons to keep playing.

Linearity of Story: High. Here’s where we start seeing some conflict. Bravely Default has a very linear, straightforward narrative. There is literally no way to affect the main plot itself. No choices can be made, and this is trouble for the side content because of...

Relevance to Story: Low. The side quests in Bravely Default have no effect on the narrative. There’s no choice system, no inter-party relationship statistics, no morality meters. As far as I can tell, not a single line of dialogue in the main story is changed based on whether you’ve done certain side quests. Sometimes the lines of related NPCs in town won’t even change. You could argue that there’s some relevance to the story, as the villains often have some relationship to the party and their struggles. Unfortunately, this normally positive detail can make the overall situation even worse. Consider the two following playstyles:

Player One doesn’t play the side quests. The game feels fairly short in terms of both content and gameplay. The combat remains disappointingly simple and uninteresting, because they’re not earning all the new jobs that add tactical options and depth. There aren’t many dungeons to plumb or bosses to fight, and half of the former are palette swapped elemental temples. The story has some cool moments, but is very perfunctory and doesn’t have many interesting characters. Overall, it feels like the skeleton of a game.

Player Two plays all the side quests. The game is lengthy and fun, but there’s a strange disconnect throughout it. The main story loses steam as they spend half their time playing episodic adventures completely isolated from it. Sometimes the tone of the main story and side quests will clash. Events from the optional content will be relevant to what’s happening in the main story but never brought up. And oftentimes they’ll wish the interesting characters from the side content could stay involved in the narrative, instead of being abruptly killed off.

“Why hello thar! I be a friendly pirate who wants nothin more than ta travel the seas in search of wholesome adventure! But since I’m on the bad guy side time ta brutally murder me! Ah well!”

Did I not mention that? Every fight with a job holder ends in their death. (Again, this discussion is deliberately leaving out late-game content). This is especially frustrating because many of the villains presented are morally ambiguous, or at least Affably Evil (WARNING: Yet another TV Tropes link). I enjoy that the game doesn’t paint morality in black and white, but the indiscriminate murder at the end of each side quest undermines this. It would be much more interesting if some of these antagonists ended up as reoccurring characters, but the way the game is structured doesn’t allow it. If antagonists stuck around then alternate versions of the main story would have to be made depending on whether you’d done their side quest. The game either isn’t interested or doesn’t have the budget (probably both) in doing that.

I have an example of these issues in-game. This is the point in the game where I grew most frustrated, outside of the late-game I’ve yet to spoil. Let’s talk about the side quests in Florem, City of Flowers.

City of Flowers? More like City of SOURS! As in, um, like Sour People. Like the People are Being Disagreeable, is What I Mean. Although admittedly that’s Not Really the Issue I have here, the People are Fine. Well I Mean they’re Not Great but They’re Separate from the Greater Issue of the Divide between Side Quests and OH S*** I FORGOT I WAS WRITING THE TITLE

The main quest of Bravely Default is, as a refresher, about re-lighting the four elemental crystals of the world to stop oncoming darkness. Our heroes go to Florem to light the water crystal, where Anges finds her friend the water vestal has gone into hiding. To get her exiled friend’s attention, the group decides to...enter Anges in a beauty pageant. Now you might think this is where my issue is. But no, I’m actually okay with this. Is it silly? Yes. Is it impractical? Obviously. It’s a bit of a divergence in tone, but kept in its own isolated segment I figured this could be fun. And it was. It wasn’t executed that well but its humorous shenanigans got some smiles out of me. The real problem isn’t the main quest, it’s how it clashes with the side quests.

While this silly beauty pageant business is going on, the side quests are all about the corrupt dealings going on beneath the city surface. In one side quest, you fight and murder a noble warrior because they refuse to just talk about your differences. That’s disappointing and frustrating, but it isn’t a particularly uncommon form of disappointment in this game. In another side quest, you find a dude is using his magic charm perfume to seduce women, keep them in his sex dungeon and use them for political gain. Wow, okay, that one is a little more out there. I mean you obviously don’t see anything and they don’t call it a sex dungeon directly. But I don’t know what else to call the hidden underground jail cell where this skeevy ladies’ man keeps all the women he’s magically seduced. That’s a little off from the fun-loving tone of the main story right now.

“Coming up to your right on our tour, you’ll see wacky shenanigans about Agnes not wanting to wear skimpy clothing! What fun! And to your left you’ll see: Date rape!”

But the worst comes from the other two side quests. There are two major accessories in the fashion-obsessed Florem. One is a teal hair dye and the other is a special hairpin. You find that the production of both these ludicrously expensive products involves murdering sacred animals, and both have addictive properties. But apparently that wasn’t evil enough for the designers, so they made one dangerously poisonous and the other induce violent madness. On the quest for the latter, the two small girls you came to save beat each other to death while you’re fighting the villain. Why? What was the goal of that scene? These antagonists couldn’t see the moral event horizon with the Hubble telescope! You don’t need to make them more evil by way of a complete downer ending!

And the absolute worst part of it? There is no change in NPC dialogue for these quests. Upon completion, you get a token line of concern from the shopkeepers that gave you the quest (and whom you can’t speak to again), saying that they’ll try and warn others of the danger. You can then go and talk to every person in town and not find a word of even slight hesitation regarding the slow-poisoning, madness-inducing stuff they’re all wearing. I’m not asking for some overhaul of the city visuals or culture. I’m not even asking you to change the damn models to remove the deadly clothes. It would be perfectly reasonable to ask that, but I’m not. All I want is at least one god damn individual to acknowledge the fact that they’re not all going to die.

How is this a thing I have to ask for?! It’s not like this could’ve been technically difficult to add. It is changing a line of text based on a variable. It’s hard to imagine a simpler, easier change to make to a game. How do you murder children to make a point and then forget to do this? Well the change is easy, and I’m going to guess the writer isn’t a psychopath, so I can only assume they simply didn’t care. The NPCs of this universe matter so little to their creator that it didn’t even cross their mind to clear up a crisis that could horribly kill them all.

“Hm...I feel like I’m forgetting something important about the writing in Florem...”
“Could it be the lack of response to everyone’s lives being in danger?”
“Wait, now I remember! I need to add another optional dialogue where the main characters talk about food!”

I’m going to taper off the anger and give a reminder: I don’t think this was a malicious act. I don’t think the writer is an idiot, and I definitely don’t think they’re a bad person. I also know that some people won’t understand my frustration. When you get down to it, they are just NPCs in a video game, after all. But I think this example illustrates a few things.

The first is that the writer really doesn’t care about details. I’m not saying they’re a drama-based writer rather than a details-based one, but that they can’t even be bothered to properly set up drama. The game often feels generic, bland, or passionless whenever focus is taken away from main characters (and sometimes even when on them), and I think this is why. I don’t think the writer imagined this setting as a living, breathing world they could create so much as a canvas for a bunch of characters and plot twists they thought up. I think the game suffers because of that.

The other thing this example illustrates is that side quests as they are in Bravely Default don’t work well. They’re neutered by their inability to affect anything in the story or the world. At the same time, the game suffers without them. Instead of this awkward middle-ground we got, I think Bravely Default would have been better served if the developers chose one of the following:

1. Integrate side quests as they are now (most or all) into the main story. Actual side quests are either fewer in number, don’t exist, or involve smaller tasks from NPCs. Though those types of side quests are less engaging, they do create a connection with the world beyond main characters. Also, this way much more can be done with the job antagonists and their stories.

2. Make the game less linear and have choices change things. Side quests characters could be killed, ignored or even defeated but spared. The story would react and change based on these quests. To keep this achievable, this would likely take the form of small changes. Possible examples include ignored side quest characters coming back to aid other villains later, dead side quest characters being mourned by survivors, spared antagonists helping the heroes in some small way and more. Again this solves the divide between main and side quests, and gets better use out of the characters.

There’s potential in the narrative of Bravely Default. It features a veritable avalanche of interesting characters just begging for a bigger role in the narrative. Some of those characters even have genuine character arcs. The setting, generic though it may be, has plenty of elements that could have been interesting had they been fleshed out. But, well...they aren’t fleshed out. Not the protagonists (much), not the antagonists, not the setting, and especially not the minor characters. Bravely Default sets up a bunch of narrative dominoes, loses interest, and walks away. This would be bad enough, but then it splits its story into two halves with its optional content. Two crippled halves that equal less than the whole they could’ve been.

It’s a great game, but it has notable writing issues. And these issues are often overlooked because they’re overshadowed by the game’s biggest problem. Stay strong, Bravely Default fans, and keep the glowing praise of my first post in your hearts...because next week? We’re tackling the big one.

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