Saturday, September 14, 2019

Live-a-Live and Being Powerless

I don't think I would have loved Live-a-Live if I hadn't played it blind. I had to think about this. I usually fall with the camp that says a good text shouldn’t depend on an unspoiled reading. It should hold up even if you do know the plot twists and big reveals. But Live-a-Live isn’t that type of work. It was full of surprises, but they weren’t memorable for their diegesis alone. The most rewarding payoffs for me came when Live-a-Live solved its structural mysteries, not its narrative ones.

The basic structure of Live-a-Live looks like this: there are seven main chapters, playable in any order. Each chapter is a vignette set in a different time and place, each belonging to a different style of familiar genre fiction, reveling in that genre's tropes while observing its conventions. These stories, being so different in style and substance, left me wondering: how will the endgame tie everything together? What will it even look like?

Live-a-Live is still ultimately an RPG and it tells its stories with standard RPG tools: top-down exploration, binary dialogue choices, item acquisition and usage, and, of course, turn-based combat. How do you use these tools to build a narrative that isn't just an RPG story in a Western skin? There’s a reoccurring mystery of how each chapter will unfold. What will the actual action of the next vignette consist of? Live-a-Live quickly makes it clear that its use of genre is more than just window-dressing: when it invokes the Western genre, it wants to tell a Western story. Live-a-Live confronts the RPG in 7 different genre settings, and although its answers aren’t always satisfying, each of them is unique. This commitment to avoiding RPG plot structures was clear by my second vignette. From then on I was propelled by curiosity, waiting to find out what the hell sort of story the next chapter would tell, and how the hell it would use this RPG toolkit to tell it. Each time I was charmed, not because they were great stories, but because they were unexpected ones, told cleverly and playfully.

I see two kinds of value in Live-a-Live’s recurring structural mysteries. The first is that I feel a basic pleasure at being surprised well. I got to experience the pleasure of having a long-standing curiosity rewarded with an answer both unexpected and satisfying nearly every chapter. The second is how the game actively leverages the unexpected. Live-a-Live’s genre confusion makes it impossible to rely on RPG tropes or plot structures to predict what will happen. Live-a-Live uses this uncertainty to effect new emotional experiences of types rarely seen in JRPGs of its era. My favorite example of this is the kung-fu-movie-themed chapter, "Inheritance."

In "Inheritance," I play the Xin Shan Quan master, an aging martial artist seeking a successor to carry on his personal fighting style. After he recruits 3 promising pupils, the game tasks me with training them in 1-on-1 sparring matches, letting me raise their stats and pass on my techniques through individual attention. But the master is getting old. I can only train so much in a day before getting exhausted. The question is, then, how do I best distribute my dwindling energy among my pupils?

"Inheritance" doesn’t given me a lot of information to help me decide. Questions abound: how long will this training go on? What will these characters do when they're done? Should I invest in all my pupils equitably, or is it best to focus my efforts on one? Will I have to train up any I ignore? What's the point of this, anyway? Does it even matter? Is all this training just a pacing device? I can't make informed decisions when I don't know what the ramifications of my choices are, or if there even will be any. The only choice is to admit ignorance and follow my instincts. I elect to heap my attention on Sammo Hakka (an homage to Hong Kong martials arts legend Sammo Hung), because I think he deserves better than the chapter's relentless fat jokes. I will have to accept whatever consequences follow.

One day, after investigating a disturbance in town, the master returns home to discover his mountain dwelling has been viciously attacked. Two of his pupils have been slain, and the third badly wounded. Causality becomes clearer here: the sole survivor is Sammo. Surely this was the outcome of my training decisions? But I still have questions. Sammo was the highest level even before training began—could it be that I had doomed my weakest students by overinvesting in the one who was destined to live no matter what? Could I have saved them all if I had divided my attention more equitably? How much control did I really have here? I’m tempted for a moment to reset and see if I can’t do a better job, but I revel in not knowing and press on instead.

The master storms the bad guys’ lair seeking revenge; Sammo catches up along the way. In the final confrontation, I am relieved of control of the master, and instead control Sammo alone as he fights the big bad. When the dust settles, we see that the master has finally reached his limit, and with his last breath names Sammo the heir to Xin Shan Quan. Sammo carries on his teacher's legacy beyond the epilogue, replacing the old master's sprite in the chapter select screen with his own, and eventually appearing as the kung fu chapter’s representative in the final chapter. Inheritance is complete.

This ending suggests new boundaries to the nebulous possibility space to which Sammo's survival belongs. It seems unlikely that everyone could have died. Someone had to live in order to join the master in the final battle and inherit his ultimate technique. Could the others still have lived? Did Sammo survive because he was the highest level or because he received the most attention? Was this the easiest outcome to achieve? The only? Or are they all equally possible?

I've heard people express frustration with the chapter's design. It’s not fair to the player for so much more to ride on a decision than you're able to know when deciding. But often what players identify as unfairness is the breakdown of a power fantasy. "Inheritance," in particular, is making a critique of it: a framework of power means that consequences ripple outward beyond your foresight or control. There's always more riding on your decisions than you know.

As long as the master is training in solitude, I have the power of Xin Shan Quan with no strings attached. For him to transmit his lifework means putting the recipients in harm's way and assuming responsibility for their safety. Perhaps the master's isolation causes him underestimate the gravity, making him as short-sighted as I was about the ramifications of his training choices. How could either of us know which approach is right? In "Inheritance," there are no right choices. Every option takes something away, even in the best outcomes, and the connection between cause & consequence is deliberately obscured. In this way, Live-a-Live undermines the tradition of choice as an expression of player power and uses it to make me feel uncertain, ineffectual, and vulnerable to unforeseeable ills—powerless.

Live-a-Live deals in surprise from start to finish. Though "surprise" can mean a whole emotional experience of an unexpected type. Embracing atypical RPG settings gave Live-a-Live license to experiment with consequences; expressing permanent loss subverts RPG expectations of player-centricity and monotonic power growth. The result is an experience of powerlessness uncommon in, and at odds with the values of, the JRPG canon. More conventional RPGs feel like they’ll stay within certain bounds no matter what direction the story takes, but in Live-a-Live those bounds don’t exist. Playing it is like watching the limits of what feels possible in a game world shift and blur.