You’re about three feet from the screen, your hands clutching the bulky Sega controller. The epic music is making your heart trumpet with anticipation, your minions marching in step. You’ve strategically placed your monks and spell-caster behind the front lines of a mountain formation, ready to blast enemies with an over-powered Dao spell from afar. The leader, the hero of this saga, is tucked in the middle, expertly surrounded because you know if he dies, the battle will have to start all over and you’re so close! But you have to move him, he’s the only one that can deal damage to this fetid boss. The controller is sweaty, but you move him into position and move the others to the side, ready to race to the rescue. You hold your breath as the bar moves from one color to the next. It’s finally yellow. You take a deep breath and serve the last blow. You jump in elation until you realize that the Sega has frozen.
I still have a Sega Genesis. We’ve pulled it out on many occasions reminding ourselves not to breathe in its presence for fear that it will freeze-up. Old things are rather fragile and Grandpa Genesis isn’t leaving anytime soon (which by the way it is now available on Steam for your computer). It wasn’t until I came across Shining Force II that I ended up spending hours in front of the screen. It was my introduction to RPGs and turn-based strategy. It set me up to play Might and Magic VI, an equally fantastic and well-developed game. The characters are lovable, the storyline is easy to follow but still interesting, the art was and is unique and colorful; and, I’m sorry FF fans, the strategy is better developed and varied having over 20 characters in which to choose (and probably what FF was based upon). Once you are able to develop mithril weapons, your force is essentially unstoppable. I once read someone compare Shining Force to a game of chess. I can’t say I have developed a better analogy. With so many characters to chose and develop, the game has excellent playability for its time, even compared to some newer games.
Well, you get I’m obsessed with the game, but what does it have to do with writing? After all, this is not a gaming blog. While I experimented with some writing before, it wasn’t until I began playing RPG games that I really became enthralled with fantasy writing. Much like D&D fans, RPG games opened the world of writing for me. There were characters that I adored in Shining Force because of their back stories: Peter the Phoenix, Gerhalt the Werewolf, Slade the Thief, and Elric the Elf Archer, Sarah the Priest. Unlike the other games I had played, these characters were distinct, they had personality and were defined as much by their introduction into the storyline as their skills in the game play. A character in the game was almost always introduced with a small story. For example, Elric the Archer is trapped in a pool protected by a harpy. When you rescue him, he joins the party in gratitude. Eventually, you are stopped on your return to New Granseal by Janet, who is Elric’s love and she joins to be with him (they are an adorable couple and kick ass archers). Sarah the Priest began with your crew as a Hermoine type of girl: smart, dedicated to school work and not interested in trouble until it was in her face. Eventually she can be promoted to Master Monk and she had one of the most powerful attacks in the entire crew. Albeit brief, the introductory stories bring excellent character development to the RPG game rounding out the storyline. It gave me a great starting point in understanding how to introduce characters and how it is important to distinguish them in some fashion whether it be through their profession, through a danger they have encountered, through a distant relation to the main character, etc. In writing fantasy, we refer to the main character, but in my experience with RPGs and reading, I find that weak supporting characters destroy a story faster than an average main character.
Shining Force II’s storyline is, admittedly, not unique in terms of most manga/anime stories: an ancient evil is awakened, a nobody becomes a hero by saving the princess from the ancient evil, they fall in love, the end. While the main story arc is not appealing to me, the way the story progresses does have appeal. Any good game, solely my opinion, arguably does not give an overt voice to the main character, the character you play, unless that is the gist of the game. Jak and Daxter was a great game when Jak had no voice. Garrett, from Thief, was an excellent character in the early installments because he rarely spoke, except to make some cynical comment, supporting the ambiance of the game. Might and Magic was traffic because it gave you that opportunity to apply your own imagination. Like D&D, this is what great RPGs should inspire: your own dialogue, your own application of the interactions between characters that isn’t portrayed on screen. It is my impression that new RPG games today focus too much on the storyline and trying to fill in all the details. Then, on the other end, games who succeed in that department like the Elderscrolls fail to realize that even sandbox games need a limit. That’s what is wonderful about Shining Force II, it gives you a great big story, colored within the lines, but a good solid ending. Like a good book.
As in gaming, writing a novel means you cannot convey every single detail. Indeed, you may begin to color outside the lines and end up in the sandbox. The reader (and even the author) must occasionally be left in the dark. It is up to you to decide how that will manifest. Will the reader never learn a dark secret of your main character? What about the one good deed your villain has done, but is never explained? What about your one supporting character whose argumentative nature is bellied against your main character? Should a reason be given? Or is it best to let the reader ponder, to develop their own interpretation? Sometimes a little mystery can go a long way in capturing a reader’s interest. The same concept can be applied to dialogue. In my writing group it was discussed that using words other than “said” after dialogue can often mislead or interrupt the reader. The dialogue must define the character, not the author’s interpretation afterward. I would add another tidbit to that, however. What is not said in dialogue is often as potent as what is said. For example, you have two characters discussing a controversial topic and one becomes silent. This is generally used to signify dissent, discomfort or distance. It is more dynamic, more intriguing to have a character not respond in some cases than to declare their anger or discomfort. Actions can speak louder than words, but only when applied in the appropriate context with proper timing.
Play on, be inspired! Leave the threads on the blanket unraveled, let the wood smooth over with time and experience, bask in the unfinished puzzle of clouds. As Miles Davis once said “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” Cheers~