Change That Isn’t Change

I’ve said a fair bit about how the current X-Men event at Marvel isn’t really change, but “change.” The appearance of change with no real change to be seen. Some people see where I’m coming from, some don’t. But what’s lost in translation is that I have a good amount of experience in “change” that isn’t change coming to various franchises.

I’m going to outline some of those experiences. It’s a trip down what I’ve learned over time. Take it as you will, while the intent is to demonstrate that I’m not just spouting random junk. I have a basis I’m working from.

No special order. This is gonna be free flow.

Soul Calibur

I’ve liked the Soul Calibur franchise since SCII. In its early days, it was the premier example of how a fighting game could integrate story in more meaningful ways than just “here’s a paragraph of bio, here’s an ending for each character, done.”

Soul Calibur IV was the last game for a bit of time. Put out there as a means to cap the series off and lay it to rest. Then a game dev named Daishi campaigned to revive it – which I supported wholly. Hey, the franchise is great when it’s handled well.

Here’s where the problem came in. Daishi wanted to “change” the franchise to justify a revival. When he finally published Soul Calibur V, his answer was… not good. First off, he established a time skip. Then, he used the time skip to justify retiring a whole hell of a lot of characters – especially female characters. If you looked at the roster, it disproportionately kept male characters like Siegfried and Mitsurugi but threw out the women. This was most egregious in how it cast out Sophitia and Taki, with Daishi at one point saying Taki was “too old to be a ninja.” Despite being younger than returning male characters. Lastly, he introduced a slew of brand new characters to replace the ones taken out of the roster.

Soul Calibur V sold roughly half as much as SCIV. The new roster was often derided. And here’s the most important part. If you want to fan communities devoted to Soul Calibur, you saw a LOT of defense of the game. To the point where I said I wouldn’t buy Soul Calibur games unless they brought back Sophitia and Taki, and another fan would go on to say if Sophitia and Taki came back that they wouldn’t buy it. SCV became a base breaker game – a game that splits the fanbase.

Cut to last year. Soul Calibur VI was released. While it also didn’t sell as well as SCIV did, it got a lot more positive response. And what it did to get that was return to form while 1) reorienting how story worked, and 2) re-establishing the past to make for a better future.

That’s case study number one.

Tomb Raider

I’m going to get complaints about this, I know it. But it’s not going to deter me from saying what I have to say. If you’re not too familiar with my posts, then I doubt you’ll know where I’m going with this.

Tomb Raider. A game starring one of the most prominent and memorable female protagonists in the industry. People hail the 2013 reboot for reviving the franchise… and I have to say that while I understand why they would, I think they’re very much missing essential details.

The “reboot” essentially takes what is supposed to be a heroic icon in Lara Croft, and transforms her into a horror film final girl. It steeps her in the same sort of grimdark trauma fetishism that was also seen (and rightly derided) in Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice.

Let me backtrack and clarify. I am NOT saying the base idea is bad. If it was a whole new franchise, with a whole new protagonist, I would have supported and possibly even bought and played it myself. The problem is this concept applied where it didn’t belong. Onto Lara Croft and Tomb Raider. The world needs heroic icon characters to uplift and inspire, and that’s what Lara was supposed to be. Instead, the “reboot” made her origins – the drive behind her becoming a famous thrill-seeking archaeologist – into something born out of massive trauma and trying to find coping and catharsis. Rather than because she loves taking those risks and the wonder of discovery.

The two positives I personally have to say are 1) the gameplay went where it should’ve, and 2) it stopped sexually objectifying Lara (although what I’ve seen online suggests otherwise concerning her deaths…).

Okay. So the “reboot” happened. People praised it heavily. It sold a lot more than past games. To many, it “revived” the franchise and character and moved her forward into the modern day. The sales and critical response are given as justifications.

That’s not the whole picture. There are essential elements missing in what people look at here.

Yes, the “reboot” sold better than any game in over a decade. What doesn’t get brought up is why. During that time, the high profile games that people noticed most were terrible. They went the wrong direction, often sexually objectifying her rather than treating her like a character worth respect. Meanwhile, the actual good games went unpromoted and unnoticed. Hard to sell tons and get hailed as a major revival when marketing doesn’t get that out there. Whereas the 2013 “reboot” had so much money poured into forcing it out there that it was literally impossible to use the internet without seeing ads for it.

I figure now is a decent moment to also highlight a scandal that people quickly forgot. In early interviews for the 2013 “reboot,” a producer claimed Lara almost gets raped, and the player witnessing that makes them want to protect her. Huge backlash. But shortly after, Crystal Dynamics started putting out how the script was written by Rhianna Pratchett. Suddenly, the backlash died down.

Anyway, back to sales. Of course bad games and games that have little promo aren’t going to sell amazing. Especially as the bad games lead people to doubt the quality of the next game (which was reflected in Devil May Cry too; DMC2 sold better than DMC3 despite DMC2 being loathed and DMC3 being highly popular).

But yet another factor is evolving consumer base. Back in 1996, when Tomb Raider launched, the potential audience was MUCH smaller. Video games weren’t nearly as popular back then as today. Achieving or exceeding the same numbers is easier than it used to be. So touting sales equal to or exceeding “the best selling game in the franchise” doesn’t really mean much when the last top selling game was made almost 20 years ago.

In sum, we have two details missed by a majority of people.

  1. Consumer base growth
  2. Artificial low periods (bad games or good games with no promo)

Both of which contributed to the perception that the “reboot” was the right way to go. There’s a different, third way things could have gone that people often do not see though. The defining example is Horizon: Zero Dawn.

Horizon: Zero Dawn stars a girl named Aloy as she comes of age and establishes her origin story. She hunts, she explores ruins, she finds lost artifacts and amazing history. You follow her through a sense of joy and wonder at discovery as she runs around the world and gets to know it and society in general. I would honestly say it’s Tomb Raider and Lara Croft done right. It may be an entirely different setting and technological level, but it has the heart and soul that matters most.

Guess what? Horizon sold roughly as much as the Tomb Raider “reboot” did… on only one console. While the “reboot” had to scrounge those numbers up between PS3, XBox 360 and PC, Horizon was exclusive to PS4 and pulled it off. Imagine the numbers if it had been multiplatform.

That’s case study number two.

Final Fantasy

Oh boy. We’re onto what’s technically my favorite franchise, but which I’ve ditched and stopped playing (and everything else Squeenix) since Final Fantasy XII – which I loved and consider fully Final Fantasy, by the way.

FF13. The game decided to do something very different with magic. I need to stress, I’m talking about BEFORE supplementary material and sequels. Bear that in mind.

Final Fantasy 13 released with a more technologically advanced setting than any game prior. That’s not inherently a bad thing. Every Final Fantasy game has some mix of technology and fantasy/magic. That’s the essence of the franchise. The problem is when technology completely undermines the magical aspect that’s supposed to be core to the franchise.

Before someone complains, let me make this absolutely clear. Final Fantasy was my everything. I grew up with it, followed it throughout my life, played its games repeatedly and got to know it intimately. I fully immersed myself in that franchise. I bought, played, read, watched so many obscure things about it. I have old NES and SNES cartridges (including Mystic Quest), the Legend of the Crystals anime, I even had FF4DS material (figurines, OST, the Tsukino Akari single) imported from Japan. I’m speaking with deep fandom experience.

What Final Fantasy 13 did was essentially turn summons and magic into technology, then dress it up with a hint of “magic is just technology we don’t understand.” Summons are all transforming mechs, crystals are merely a fuel source for magic akin to gasoline for cars, and that’s that. It’s something Squeenix similarly tried to pull on Final Fantasy 4 via After Years, saying the crystals were simply part of a science experiment on a distant planet.

This was a problem because at the heart of every Final Fantasy product up to that point was magic/spirituality as the dominant element. Even The Spirits Within, despite lacking so many Final Fantasy traits, still managed to make spiritual resonance, Gaia, and phantoms its core. FF13 ignored that.

I can’t say whether it sold better or worse than past games, cause I don’t think I really looked too deep on that. What I can say is that its sequels tried to work more of a magical angle in, which I take to mean there were complaints and Squeenix adjusted. Likewise, FF15 was much closer to what Final Fantasy should be in this sense (though I skipped for two reasons; 3rd Birthday fallout, and all-male party).

That wraps up case study #3.

Conclusion

I wrote a lot tonight. Truth be told, I probably have a lot more case studies I can cite. Metroid: Other M stands out as one (which, by the way, I also bought, played, beat, and still deride as a huge misstep). RAGE 2 is an extremely recent case too. I’ll stop here though.

In the end, I’ve seen a lot of change and “change” with franchises. The above are all cases of “change” in one way or another. Where companies force a certain direction for the appearance of change or development, even if it doesn’t really fit, or loses what matters most.

What would I call real change? I don’t feel like writing huge screeds about that tonight, but I can give a couple quickie examples.

Mortal Kombat is real change. It had roughly a decade of work spiraling downward, just like Tomb Raider, or X-Men comics. Except instead of throwing away everything core to go wild “reinventing” it, Netherrealm Studios looked at and fully embraced the franchise’s essence. It took what was already there, went back to re-establish its roots, and expanded in amazing and meaningful ways. Full-fledged story mode. And recently, Kitana was updated to an Asian woman in keeping with the cultural elements Edenia was inspired by.

Charmed is also real change. Yes, it’s a completely new setting, with new sisters, a new concept of what Whitelighters are, etc. BUT it retains the essential elements of sisterhood and helping/saving innocents, along with an atmosphere that’s generally playful and hokey with hints of dramatic. And of course, all the relationship drama.

There is no consistency on whether “change” or change succeeds or fails. More importantly, whether it succeeds or fails is not a sign of whether it was really good or bad. Garbage can sell billions and gold can sell nothing. It’s all dependent on where society is at any given moment.

It’s a Wonderful Life bombed in theaters when it came out. Today it’s a holiday classic. Likewise, 3rd Birthday (the game that treated Aya Brea and Parasite Eve like shit) had extensive fanboy support when it was coming out, but today it’s universally abhorred. Remember this when looking at how people behave. You can’t determine if something is good or bad solely by how a majority of people respond to it when it’s coming out.

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