Loose Interpretations and Martin’s Tale

Martin’s Tale is the result of a collaborative game jam. Seven OHRRPGCE devs made a single chapter, telling and passing forward the art and narrative to shape a collective rpg. It’s a really neat, exciting idea, that of course didn’t work out. There is absolutely no cohesion in assets, art styles, or tone, to give the game singularity. Martin’s Tale feels instead like an anthology of seven games. Each person made a game in their own style and passed it forward. In each chapter the world completely changes around Martin, his goals shifting and changing with those whims. The beginning and the end have virtually nothing in common.

Every chapter in Martin’s Tale, except the final one, is a subversive mess or a prototype that takes about 15 minutes. Not a single experiment works – it’s basically untrue to even call them experiments – however I found the works incredibly endearing. A few dug at and got me to question what the jrpg is capable of, to question its default utility.

The long-winded final chapter, Chapter 7 of Martin’s Tale, is a fairweather analogy for the actual utility of the jrpg, being an exact construction of the common perception of a jrpg. Chapter 7 has tuned and careful balance between wearing down resources and the difficulty of individual encounters; a party dynamic where each character is individual to play and yet pulls their own weight; flowing orchestrated pacing that starts contained and yet still blossoms into intensity and complexity. There is yet no identifiable energy or passion in the meticulous creation. Despite its grace with numbers, Chapter 7 is the most cold and mechanical rpg experience I’ve ever had. I think this demonstrates how a jrpg is expected, first of all, to have what I’ll be referring to as craft, and that craft’s relationship between expectation and impact is taken for granted.

This craft has no inherent meaning.[1] Craft an imitable, mathematical sweet spot, that puts only enough pressure to get me to feel as though I’ve struggled, without disempowering me. A model existing to repurpose older iterations. A comfortability that comes from emulating the values of my favorite games. Genre convention is stressed so extremely and blindly – so unconsciously! – that the historically developed jrpg container is still being used to cover similar emotional and aesthetic beats over and over again.

I hadn’t thought about repurposing elements of a jrpg until I played Martin’s Tale. The rpg is so inherently compelling and effective at the kinds of expression I’ve come to expect that the idea of twisting expectation or expression – an idea to represent illsuited abstraction – wouldn’t be something I could entertain without demonstration. I’d even say the rpg is so much calculated for comfort and glacial representations. There’s an expectation to support and desire the formalities of play to be encompassingly accessible and comfortable. Some iterations of the jrpg have a lot more in common with interactive fiction than their pen and paper origins (though that’s an interesting subversion in itself).

There are a lot of exceptions: a lot of the experiments I’m aware of come from entrenched and well-known jrpg developers and publishers. I still think, while something like the SaGa series flips a lot of the how around, as it recontextualizes a lot of the actions in a jrpg, it doesn’t change the what. Nearly every rpg treats the fundamentals as sacred, as expectations, as checkboxes to construct a specific, imitable experience.

Honestly, no part of Martin’s Tale does or can do anything complex. It’s not the depth or the effectiveness of experiment I want to praise. It’s blind audacity to break what’s seemingly sacred.

C H A P T E R  4

Chapter 4 is by Paul Harrington (known charmingly for Walthros) and it has a simple premise: make a RPG that focuses on stealth. In a world with Alpha Protocol this might not be such a novel premise unto itself, though at least this game predates Alpha by four years. Assuredly, Chapter 4 is not as complex as Alpha Protocol or, even, complex at all. Chapter 4 isn’t a stealth game, but a rough, direct subversion of the jrpg. Combat isn’t the goal of the game, it isn’t part of the journey. Any combat experienced is a partial, or a total, game over.

Sounding reminiscent of Journey – the band not the videogame – Chapter 4 is on to emulate a tonal experience of a melodramatic, nonexistent, 80s action movie. Martin is now suddenly redesigned as an strange and awful inbetween of Rambo and Solid Snake, instead of his more personable designs before. Warm, saturated colors surround, backing small tiled structures and fences. Strange, unidentifiable, fauna dots the surrounds with aggressive, contrasting bright colors. There’s a moodiness, a yet plain, beige exuberance. An excitement for existing on singular, personal terms. The steeped unsurety of what the correct path is comes to head with the juxtaposition of familiar structures and unfamiliar landscape. Though movement itself is confident and assured, like most tiled-based structures, the environment is conflicted and encroached, a felt pressure while figuring out where is safe.

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Stealth in a traditional jrpg is going to exist either integrated with the battle system or set up in a way besides the core ludics. A few games, Final Fantasy VII and Persona 3 come to mind, have stealth minigames which are constructed to represent and sit in for a single moment. Otherwise, stealth constructs, in a technical, interpretive sense, is the possibility to avoid enemies that are represented on the field. This is utilized in a really neat way in chapter 3 of Paper Mario where Mario has to avoid and run away from the Invincible Tubba Blubba. Engaging with Tubba Blubba, so the consequence of failing the stealth or escape, isn’t an immediate game over, or a restart of the segment, but appropriately just another segue into a battle. However, The Invincible Tubba Blubba is, in fact, invincible. If Mario doesn’t run away, he’ll face his demise.

Chapter 4 also commits into its battle, into its communication of conflict. At the very start of the game, if I fail at avoiding the guards, I’ll be forced to do battle. Martin, however, can’t run away, and the guards can’t be defeated. Martin has to fight this unwinnable battle. I have to live the consequence of being caught. The communication, the abstraction of the rpg battle, is tooled to communicate inevitability and weakness, to evoke and to texture the player’s death.

In a few places, battles can be won. There are no experience or currency rewards. There’s nothing to buy and no levels to be gained. However, the majority of battles are framed consequences, a ritual of undeniable defeat. This is fundamental to the communication, down to the inclusion of a kamikaze attack, for an opportunity to face death on your own terms.

This piercing model of conflict is ideologically opposed to the crafted jrpg’s mode of idealization. Combat is traditionally a series of stepping blocks, conflict for characters to be challenged and grow. In Chapter 4, these systems are a gaping, empty hole. There is no gain from fighting, only a gradual loss, to an eventual death.

C H A P T E R  3

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The intro of Chapter 3 characterizes its content. Text advancement is disabled as to match the beats of dialogue – mind you, completely naked and plain dialogue boxes – and the dialogue is matched with the arc of the music. That is normal composition, yet, humorously, the developer Rimudora confesses they have no idea why text advancement was disabled. Oh, and, the song used is just Final Fantasy V’s opening theme, pasted irreverently.

Rimudora’s only finished games are contrived jokes that, intentionally or not, question our engagement with videogames. Arms Race is a roguelike where the only option is to fight and the only way to win is based on how the randomly generated enemies react, cynically laying out the the structure of a roguelike. It’s kind of a somber collage that is in between insulting and virtuously expressive, claiming that so much success is within factors completely out of our control. Pirates of the Armaggeddon!! is a game where the only options are to drink to death by mashing the arrows or stop playing. It’s much less interesting and seems to posit itself in a place where play is funny, that play itself is compulsory and is only done because it is the means that allows a game to function. The humor of the game comes from the demeaning of the participant, from ultimatums that come from an dramatized state of what a game does, but fails to mirror the enticement that ultimately dictates that relationship.

Yet I would still agree that spatial interactions in themselves are very peculiar; it’s easy to laugh at the contrivances of digital art. A jrpg is a very specific game with clearly defined rules of engagement. I think they require a ton more of a kind of willful belief in their constructions. I think with any game, if I stop believing in the kind of constructs that hold up the conceits, it all becomes funny. This is awful meanness. This is laughing at my limbs because they move, because they work, and it’s impossible to cope. It’s the humor that stems from being scarred, that a working thing is so incredibly funny, because it’s not broken! And it is funny, but only for a moment. It’s not sustainable.

Chapter 3 is a perpetual moment.

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Lampshaded apologetically, texturally different than letting it all stick, Chapter 3 has an extremely flat aesthetic. The slightly more detailed character sprites are starkly out of place. Its music pasted and cobbled from a myriad of other games has it feeling like a careless collage. Objects and transitions are static, unfinished. There’s little confidence in what’s presented here, besides its constant barrage of self-referential text. Any joke is some kind of literalism, but it doesn’t dig at anything, it’s just a flat observation. Nothing here is funny, because it necessitates the constructions themselves to be funny. It requires the demeaning of the participant.

In Chapter 3, everyone is Level 0. Battling is essentially a puzzle set; the abilities and tools of the characters are at a null point. It’s not potential, but an actualization. Despite the lack of acquisition and combat development, every interface is still framed as a RPG, just without the buildup, progression, or manifest of rewarded battling. There are only four encounters in the whole game. They’re boss fights, conventionally, but boss fights in relative to what?

Two of the fights require a specific solution and, in a freakishly fitting fashion, the monsters orchestrate their own demise. The game and these fights are jokes and so the character flaws of these monsters are fatal, exaggerated, and amusing. When provoked (that is the actual name of the input) the monsters throw out their strategies and allow themselves to be beaten. The statistical make-up and battle prowess of the characters is a time limit as well as a thematic representation. These encounters are incredibly binary. The correct input is done on time, or it’s a game over. Yet, there is no difference in the construction of the battles, only the variance of the participants.

Playing Chapter 3 is when I realized that, coldly and ludically, every jrpg battle is a timed puzzleset. Damage inflicted and mitigated are the make-up of a solutionset, damage sustained is a time limit. Dimensions of and the representation of time can transform and texturize how 1:1 this relationship is – variables of an action rpg depend on individual participants – but the components, the distillation, of there being a solution, and there being a time limit, is an unconvertible aspect of a jrpg.

It is the craft of the jrpg that goes to lengths to disguise this. The jrpg is expected to have so many options, so many means of expression, that defeating an enemy can’t really be called a solutionset, because it’s one of thousands. I think this is emulated to a detriment – I specifically mean the emulation is its detriment, as either approach can be valid. It’s contextual. When the solutionset is laid bear, it communicates an absolute struggle. It has room for the participant to be absolutely defeated, or, ideally, allows one to experience struggle to the very brink possible. A catharsis overdrive.

To wax in an admittedly goofy fashion, Final Fantasy III’s final struggle with the Cloud of Darkness is imprinted into my brain as an absolute conflict between natural forces. It’s an emergent scenario that happened because my options were so limited, not because of choice which is traditionally theorized to promote. The Cloud of Darkness outputs massive damage to every party member every turn without fail. I could not heal as much damage as I was taking in. I was practiced though, because every fight in Final Fantasy III is stacked like this. I managed to hold out for a very long time, but it wasn’t long enough. I came to a point with only a Knight barely living, out of any way to heal or resurrect anyone else, absolutely locked into my demise. That very turn where my constraints fell into me, the turn when my time limit would have been up, I defeated the Cloud of Darkness.

That’s an extreme feeling, an impossible, desperate turnabout, that still yet happened to me. A restrained jrpg that allows for the struggle can model conflict and resistance that has a tangibility to it, that has an incredible weight.

Despite any epiphanies Chapter 3 gave me, it’s ultimately a joke of a game. Its other two encounters (and even the last one, honestly) are pithy games of guess who. They require the participant to pick and defeat the right target under the time limit, which won’t happen if the player doesn’t understand the rules of the engagement, and there’s little chance they will.

King Jelly stands out in particular. He’s the first conflict in Chapter 3 and has one of the most bizarre, though ultimately insulting, constructions I’ve ever experienced. Hitting the jelly king spawns a jelly. There are no limits to the number of jellies spawned. Hitting a jelly does no damage unless it’s of a certain element. Martin’s normal attack first phase changes a jelly before being able to defeat it. His attack was the only damaging one. A jelly was being made every turn, but not being defeated every turn. Of course, I was overwhelmed by jellies.

I remember what a npc said something about colors canceling out, though I didn’t strictly pay attention, I also knew that there’s no reason that I needed to. I hit the red jelly with fire. It turned into a blue jelly. I hit the blue jelly with ice. It turned into a yellow jelly. I realized the so-called red sword was making red jellies; hitting king jelly with fire also made red jellies. Hitting red jellies with ice phased them out, but green jellies could only be hurt with cure.

A real contrived, pointless, crappy system. I’m sorry to even string people along with it. Annoyingly, so infuriatingly, that’s the entire conceit of this conflict. You see, there is no King Jelly. Hitting the King Jelly, playing with the jellies, that’s just useless, empty. Rimudora again preys on the presumed emptiness of content. To actually win, press left, and target the True King instead.

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Chapter 3 destroys and disrupts its flow for the sake of a joke. It turns interfacing with the game into a joke, a joke at the participant’s expense. I don’t think it’s a funny joke or, really, at all an interesting one. It’s actually an infuriating one and an insulting one. It’s prank that had me yelling, “That… was it? That’s was freaking it!? That was all there was to it!?” Relief and anger coursing, dissipating, a cocktail of negative emotions. Because really, I got played, and it was in a such a way that a traditionally crafted game would never be able to support.

C H A P T E R  6

Blue Pixel is one of my favorite devs, at least, I think. I can’t get a read on their work and I’m not sure exactly what they’re striving for. Blue Pixel succeeds in comedy and in terror in ways that come only from the ironic act of pure creation, a very specific phenomena. Blue Pixel’s Chapter 6 is like the anime music videos I’ve made in my life. I carefully, lovingly, seriously make bad content, because I enjoy watching bad anime music videos. Through this intentionality and the audience they’re meant for, my creations are always successes. They’re paradoxically good anime music videos under these filters.

Honestly, there is nothing funny about appreciating the earnestness of crude art, there is nothing funny about paying tribute to it, and there’s nothing funny about putting so much of yourself into an activity. What’s funny is the absolute contrivance of the whole situation; what’s funny is that a very small number of people would be able to celebrate these anime music videos with me. I’m laughing with myself and despite myself, because being holistic, and opposite, to any value system, even something as surfacely benign as the aesthetics of anime music videos, is a struggle.

It’s not funny in a disparaging way, not in an insulting way, but a sad way. It’s a way to cope, that such things are not acceptable or appreciable. Chapter 6 is full of misspellings, awful numerous, extremely irreverent misspellings, and a disregard for grammar. A surface read, what a disregard for language conventionally communicates, is that Blue Pixel is showing disrespect. Yet the meticulousness and the amount of misspellings betrays such an interpretation, the misspellings show an extremely careful use of language. The misspellings are a rejection of the inert state of language, the normalized and presentable aesthetic that’s conditioned to be the jrpg.

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Chapter 6 is still outsider and amateurish, but not in any of the ways OHRRPGCE games usually are. The earnestness doesn’t come from reaching for a mark and ending up somewhere else, but honestly sticking to whatever they needed to make and see. Chapter 6 is like a nuuup game, a violent collage of recognizable images, placed in an amusing way and in a terrifying way. It’s also an annoying block puzzle.

The blocks shape a cacophony, a wall of noise, but principally serve to make Chapter 6 have a goal and a game to play, to texture Martin’s Tale. The block puzzle makes sense in the context of the banal conversation, the dithered textures, the normal greens and grays of the forest. Statues and treasures stick out as they’re placed just within, they’re put somewhere in the mazes, without regard for symmetry or meaning. A hole in a rock is a keyhole, a cave rests within. The key doesn’t work, the rock just moves.

It’s so important that Chapter 6 is so overtly soothing. The puzzle is obvious (though punishing) and the blocks move rhythmically to the single tones of the forest ambience. Fights are overly long, but there’s only a few enemies, and they’re defeated permanently. Enemies are swirls, orbs, shapes. They’re models of aggression, but are still formless in a formed world.

The forest doesn’t matter. It’s the default expression of Chapter 6, but it’s the least amount of its identity. Chapter 6 is: Martin’s gun being a part of his body. That his name is the only name capitalized, denoting no particular importance. Martin’s ability command is spell, but everyone else’s is spells. It’s the amount of times shock orbs zap and barrage and damage the party, just to do it. It’s the blue flames, enemies that can’t hurt the party and actually restore their mana. These strange benefactors that are the only way to safely restore the party; these swath of “enemies” that for no identifiable reason support the party. These blue flames representing that some conflicts are completely one-sided, that there might be only one aggressor. They’re a situation where, even if one side has the best intentions, it’s still not sustainable, it still can’t work out.

These feelings, pensive and melancholy, fill up Chapter 6, even though its forest is busy, and its cave is evocative. The collage and the lingering necessity of making a jrpg in an identifiable way is this self-existent thing, but only manifests as intentional because of an overt somberness. This crux, the climax, the absoluteness of Chapter 6 comes from inside what I’d call the star room and the unknown hero.

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This hero, Kaizen, floats among an array of small white dots. Crystals, better described as octahedrons, surround him. A gray checkered bridge is crumbling. Mass meets space and is distorting, it’s falling apart. Nothingness that is yet filled by stars and shapes; a juxtaposition of encompassing space and the centrality of bodies. The only movement is Kaizen’s scarf, flowing in the windless room. Kaizen speaks: he is time, space, everything, and nothing. In here he’s feeding on time and will consume Martin too.

Fighting Kaizen is incredibly difficult, requiring mastery and timing of the battle system that before had no threat or weight. It’s a close fight, but they can be defeated. In defeat, Kaizen becomes a ghost, fights with renewed vigor. I tried vainly, with incredible effort, to strike down Kaizen’s ghost. It’s not possible. Nothing in Chapter 6 is communicated as necessary or possible, so there’s no displacement, no betrayed feelings. My energy is taken and sapped from me just like Kaizen said it would be. As a ghost, dead but always lasting, they say, “feal my sarrow, my dispair.” After an empty thirty minute struggle to destroy this being for no reason, within a mirrored struggle to even begin to understand this game, I felt it. I felt that sorrow, I felt the despair, and I knew there was no way to defeat Kaizen. A purposefully unkillable construct, not a boss or enemy in the senses I tried to understand them as.

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This abstraction and weight comes from the inert state of Chapter 6’s creation. Things are placed just to be, so these objects, spaces, and textures, take on faces and meanings beyond the scope of the kind of staged drama and symbolic communication jrpgs necessitate by craft. The affectation of Chapter 6’s world isn’t to support the actor or to stage a setting. It exists with no explanation, to serve no utility, which allows the world to feel incredibly personal. It is shaped by and it is a reflection of the participant.

That, more than anything, is something a practiced and scientific craft cannot sustain. It takes a trust of the abstract and the esoteric. A confidence that immediate symbols, and personal arrangements, will have power without being explicitly confined to a projected utility. Utility is the power a jrpg wields and it is also a binding existence. Through numbers, engagements are codified, and made explicitly clear. Fields of engagement are defined by their class: battles, towns, and dungeons are expected to fulfill specific premises.[2] These premises, the overwhelming utility, are driven by expectation of a market and an audience. The jrpg is a container and it is a style. It is not an expectation and it is definitely not a market. These chapters of Martin’s Tale were made, quite obviously and earnestly, without those expectations. They stand apart in a style where experiments are focused on narrative, themes, or individual systems, but rarely question their own foundations.

  1. lana polanksy argues against craft, against flow, more somberly and eloquently than I do, with great respect to a history of art and expression. I speak of trends and undefined knowances; she speaks of concrete poisons and societal pedestals. definitely read this if you haven’t!
  2. I’ve written about the dissonance of seeing environments as expressive stills, as places to be, and the inherent utility they have to fulfill. this piece too is kind of a continuation of that, the conflict that comes from artistic expression inside very clearly defined and dominating ludics. it’s a conflict that’s core to general and conventional game design; I understand it best through jrpgs. I like this series by rj davnall as a kind of grounding foil to probing this paradox. it is acknowledgeable because game spaces are real. game spaces exist as they are and they exist to be played. a screenshot transforms environments and captures this difference.

I’ve uploaded Martin’s Tale if anyone is curious to try it. It’s spread out across different users on Castle Paradox and was kind of a pain to track down. I recommend having really low standards and going through the chapters in order, that makes chapter 6 and chapter 7 so incredibly heavy!

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