You’ll be aware, if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, that I have been working on the next video for my channel for roughly a month – much longer than is typical.
‘Production’ on this video was plagued by a myriad of set backs and problems: to start, I couldn’t settle on a script and scrapped several drafts along the way; capturing footage then took an inordinate amount of time since I didn’t save at the appropriate stops during the first twenty hours of play; recording the audio was equally troubled as, due to old age no doubt, my laptop had been chronically overheating, the whirring of which ruined many a take (I still haven’t managed to fix this one); when all was said and done, I wasn’t happy at all with the result.
I loathe to let any video go and it took me some time to come to this decision, however, I would rather post something I am happy with of which I am proud than publish for publish-sake. That said, I didn’t want to let all of my hard work go to waste so I am sharing the audio file with you instead:
What you will see (or hear?) in this post is the no-frills (besides music) audio recording of Utawarerumono Mask of Deception: a Discussion About Visual Novels and Characters and I would highly recommend listening to it without headphones – the laptop fan can be intrusive.
0:39 Introduction and Visual Novels
Hello everyone, you’re watching Critique Quest and today I want to talk about Aquaplus’ visual novel Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception, or more specifically its rich cast of characters and what it was that impressed me most about their execution within the game story.
Mask of Deception generally works at an advantage in that it is primarily a visual novel and a tactical, turn-based game second. And visual novels are interesting as-is; they have to achieve much by using very little, and so must engage the player’s imagination, though it must do so creatively.
Like literary works, without player-participation (ie reading) the world and its story ceases to exist. You could say the same about the act of play of course — put the controller down and the world may not cease to exist exactly but it can’t live or breath in all its vibrancy without the player. Imagination, however, is what transforms Visual Novels and engages the player, in much the same way as a book might.
Unlike literary works, however, this element is fuelled in Visual Novels by the use of music, sound effects, 2-dimensional animated images, as well as descriptions of expressions, settings, historical tales and events, what is happening off-screen and in the background. Either way this REQUIRES the player to IMAGINE or embellish most if not all of what is prompted. Whereas other genres of video games utilise these things in not so much a sophisticated but arguably more complex way, the tools within the Visual Novel are oft stripped back – I would actually say this category of game rests somewhere between a book or audio book, game and radio play.
Imagination is something the player engages in all video games through how they register, interpret and translate the game world and its rules but I believe this sparser use of effects and stimuli in narratively driven games and visual novels especially, be it: audio, visual or literary, amp up the player’s internal fiction and the fictional plane not just because without it there would be no story, nothing to interpret, no way to understand why you are playing or to what purpose, but because this internal fiction becomes the fiction almost in its entirety.
This might explain why older games, that left much to be desired in its effects and visuals, or had to cut technological corners, left lasting impressions on players for years.
Forget nostalgia, a player’s internality meant the heavy investment of their imagination in the experience to simply make sense of the mediated as well as the physical space in which they explored. Much more, by contrast, than some games in the modern era; thanks to incredible improvements in technology most ‘big’ games do everything for you; everything is so meticulously and photo realistically created or recreated on screen, ‘interpretation’ is relegated to actionable directives within the space.
The act of reading codex entries on enemies and backdrops or set pieces (and anything else of a similar nature) does, you could argue, require a player to think at the very least. However this mode of storytelling carries far less criticality. In short: real player-evocation often resides nowadays in the land of the contextual or mythological. Narrative-driven games of bygone eras necessitated clarification of the fictional world as a whole.
You could say then (as I mentioned before) that Visual Novels are working to a pretty unfair advantage, narratively speaking. Though the genre is severely limited in some areas, it has the time to explore and flesh out its cast of characters and overarching story. Mask of Deception similarly spends a lot of time on its characters and game story, and heavily relies upon the fictional plane because it has no choice but to do so — the medium or genre dictates it.
Still, good characterisation is good characterisation and the goldmine of techniques the writers employ are worth digging up and talking about, because it is these details that truly bring the characters out of the game and into your imagination.
5:15 Building ‘Incidental’ Character Details
One of the reasons why How I met Your Mother worked as a show were the running gags that were powered by a character’s idiosyncrasies, quirks or back/side stories.
So far as I can tell, Utawarerumono hasn’t necessarily mastered the art of the running gag… though it is laugh-out-loud funny, thanks to the incredible vocal performance of Keiji Fujiwara (the voice of Haku) in particular. That said it treats its characters like building blocks, in that it lays the most fundamental blocks first before attempting to build anything upon it. But, it does so in the slightest of ways.
Take the character of Kuon:
A seemingly inconsequential scene early on in the game establishes that Kuon eats like a horse, overstuffing a local grain-based delicacy just to satiate her unbelievable appetite. The game gets a lot of comedic mileage out of this through Haku’s thoughts, but it resurfaces throughout the story in a variety of scenarios for many reasons and to different effects.
Sometime after this scene, for example, in a quieter moment, a similarly overstuffed food offering is seen at a grave in a somber moment between Haku and Ukon.
The focus of this scene is on the events that took place earlier on in the day and reveals more information about the mysterious swordsman, yet this food offering is mentioned briefly, telling you that Kuon had been in the graveyard, too. It doesn’t, however, explain her motivations besides the obvious (to pay her respects), which makes you wonder and that mystery, the reasoning that isn’t explained, tells you a little something about her, too.
Much later, in another example, Kuon and a character by the name of Rulutieh are cooking for Ukon’s men at the camp. They both offer Haku, who will act as judge, a quick taster.
The princess’s dish is small and delicately balanced in flavour; a result of her upbringing no doubt. Kuon’s serving takes longer to make; it is piled high and passionately though not-so-skillfully assembled, because she is above all things efficient and —when it comes to food— everything goes.
It might sound like an expendable scene, yet for all that, Haku’s reaction to the dishes not to mention the girl’s motivations for cooking it in the style they choose says an awful lot about everyone involved.
Anyway, it starts small: Kuon likes food and eats a lot
Which develops to: Kuon values food and shares that value with others
Notice how the initial detail, the building block, deepens over the first ten hours of the game. This one minor character detail is not just established and thrown away for a quick laugh, or used in some vague momentary attempt at depth, but is woven into all kinds of plots and scenes directly, indirectly and contextually for laughs and meaning alike, not just concerning Kuon alone but the entire cast.
In summary, Mask of Deception builds its characters layer by layer over time focussing on not just the important traits and motivations but the smaller details, which come to define them just as much as the central features of their character.
8:53 Positive (and Negative) Traits
You don’t have to play Mask of Deception for very long to realise that the protagonist, Haku, is not a great guy, he isn’t ‘all bad’ either and the same is true of the other characters as well. Like real people, the cast of this game are made up of dozens of both good and bad character traits.
Haku as a prime example is so very, very lazy; if it involves manual labour or anything remotely taxing, he won’t want to do it and though his arm is often twisted chiefly by Kuon, he certainly won’t be happy about it — and since you hear all of his thoughts, you get to listen to his ceaseless whining. That said he can be pretty self-serving and dishonesty gets him out of a lot of the (what he deems) unpleasant tasks at hand.
And yet… Haku is spatially, mathematically and logically adroit; I suppose he is what is known as true left-brainer. So he may not want to fight or do any of the physical work but he employs his powerful intellect to avoid or work around the problem.
In one of the earliest scenes, Kuon volunteers herself and Haku to do the children’s chores around a village for much-needed pocket change and to help the innkeeper. Haku is not physically up to most of the challenges and so he is ultimately given the quote-unquote easiest job to do: grinding flour in the mill. Now the mill should be automated but it is broken and offers a lot of resistance when Haku takes the wheel.
He hates it. Obviously.
Instead of giving up entirely though he decides to fix the mill instead; one cracked cog reveals itself to be the source of the problem and he soon figures out how to get it moving again, whilst also figuring out how to speed up the mechanism — so that double the work is done in half the time.
And yet… rather than tell the others the problem has been solved and risk being tasked another chore, he pretends to be grinding the flour himself when Kuon pops in to see how he is doing — very clever, dishonest, but clever. The charade doesn’t last of course, but this sequence shows just how competent Haku can be when thinking his way out of a problem.
This witty form of avoidance comes in handy again when Kuon, Maroro, Ukon and his men are faced with an impossible danger. Rather than tackle it head-on, which might get them killed (himself certainly), he calculates a strategy that saves them all. Even under pressure, he keeps his calm and saves the day.
Other characters are similarly balanced: Kuon, for example, is willing to aid everyone and anyone, always working extremely hard (unless it involves her studies) and is incredibly deft socially, yet this deftness is sometimes used in a tricky, manipulative manner (albeit playfully most of the time) she can also be stern, secretive and competitive; Maroro, who I will talk about more in just a moment, lacks in self-control and restraint, is socially inept, daft, overly dramatic and fearful but is also one of the most sincere members of the party, loyal and trusting, extremely well-educated and… well, I’ll get to the rest; and Rulutieh is painfully shy, anxious, naive and unable to assert herself in any given situation at the start, but is also gentle, kind and affectionate, treating those around her with sensitivity where she can given the confidence.
I am nowhere near the end of this game and am aware I’ve only met a fraction of the cast. Only several hours in, however, and I had already written pages of character notes. That every character I met was a mixed bag of attitudes, styles, behaviours etc that could be considered unappealing or disagreeable as well as admirable or traditionally good, felt unusually daring to me and something more than worth talking about.
13:15 Playing Against Type
So often in games we are presented with characters that live up to your expectations — no more, no less: the delicate healer, the tough soldier, the wise sage. We are presented far less frequently with characters that defy expectations or, better yet, transform into completely different people by the end of a game. Though I can’t speak to the latter point as I have yet to finish Mask of Deception, and though it has its fair share of clichés, the cast is offset by an equal number of surprises.
When Maroro was first introduced, for example, I assumed he would be the game’s comic relief who, if he didn’t die, would only ever be played for laughs because those are the unwritten rules.
A scholar and arcanist for Ukon the sword-for-hire and his band of merry men, Maroro’s techniques are a little unconventional, just like everything else about him.
Though he often IS played for laughs because of this unconventionality he isn’t the only character known to be funny and there is so much more to him there than meets the eye.
One of Maroro’s defining moments happens a long while after his introduction.
Fighting a swarm of Gigiri, he steps into the arena, does a ridiculous song and dance, [insert shake my gourd scene] and levels three or four of them in one sweep! If I had ever wondered why someone like Maroro was travelling with a commanding sword for hire, that moment told me everything I needed to know. Let that sink in… the silly Shakespearean man who can’t hold his drink or take a hint, is the most powerful starting party character in the game.
This sucker punch was not unlike assistant manager Ollie Weeks’ arc in Durabont’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist; a bespectacled and unassuming little man, Weeks not only manages (no pun intended) to maintain his sanity through increasingly insane situations but is revealed to be a certified dead-aim, which saves the protagonists at a crucial moment.
To put it simply: Maroro surprised me.
Furthermore the arcane master’s interactions with others and vice versa are just as unique. He is captivated by Kuon’s beauty, for example, in the way an artist is captivated by his or her muse and flatters her endlessly, which she enjoys (arty-intellectuals are her type, she tells Haku much to his shock); Maroro is comfortable around Ukon the way travel companions often are though not so much that he doesn’t maintain a level of respect or deference around him, I would go so far as to say Maroro almost draws out of the swordsman a brotherly or fatherly sort of quality.
But the most surprising dynamic is that of Maroro and Haku.
You see, Maroro is often passed off onto Haku, who is not strong enough in the beginning for combat and so winds up saddled with babysitting duty. This is something Haku doesn’t want to do (of course) but he tries, despite his attitude toward this, in his view, silly, stupid man. His efforts are received with much adoration and gratitude. So much so that Maroro sticks to Haku like glue. First in the battle I mentioned before, where he goes against every instinct to flee and aids Haku in luring the Boro-Gigiri off a cliff; and just before this where he staunchly defends Haku against the unfavourable opinions of Ukon and his men.
I suppose the two are quite similar in a way: both physically frail and not a little cowardly at points but highly intelligent individuals just the same!
Joss Whedon once said about writing good character dynamics, that the person you trust will betray you, the person you hate will come through for you and your best friend will let you down; and that makes for good character interaction, because that’s life, it’s how people are — not an exact quote obviously.
I suppose what I am getting at here is that the very same principle is true for the Haku/Maroro dynamic, as well as others in the game. Moreover, the relationships between characters are just a surprising as the individual characters themselves — they are unpredictable, enigmatic, morally grey.
To summarise this very wordy video: even though Mask of Deception is a visual novel and therefore almost solely (though not quite) focussed on storytelling first and ‘gameplay’ second it puts flesh onto the bones of its varied cast of characters, firstly by not only presenting their strengths and flaws but doing so with equal attention, secondly through the element of surprise and lastly by accenting them with small details of personality that come to help define who they are in the bigger picture. At least, these are a few of the things I noticed within the first ten or so hours of the game!
Mask of Deception is by no means the only game or visual novel for that matter that does these things. This is certainly not the kind of game I have talked about at length before either! I suppose that, for me personally, the reason I felt so compelled to talk about this game was because I enjoyed it a great deal — it captured my imagination within seconds. It was also quite the breath of fresh air, having played a few disappointing titles recently with ‘beautifully marketed’ characters that, I felt, didn’t live up to the ad campaign. I was frankly stunned by all the things Mask of Deception got so right by contrast.
The back of the box reads: how will you shape the future of Yamato? This game might not be the kind that involves crucial decisions at every turn, but whatever lies in store for Haku, whatever characters he may come to meet on his path, means that question only fills me with anticipation.
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