A Tech Demo that Stuck
In the Spring of 2011, a video game development company in Japan shared a small tech demo with the world. And since then, it's become the template for the type of game I want to play.
tri-Ace has never made a game that I enjoyed playing. The original Star Ocean seems perfect for me, but I got bored with its somewhat overdone Super Nintendo JRPG tropes before the 5 hour mark. I recently played Valkyrie Profile on the Sony Playstation, which again I got bored of with it's shallow story arcs and melodramatic tone. These games are universally praised within JRPG circles, so it seems I've found myself part of a niche within a niche.
With all that said, what is it about this tech demo, built by their R&D department, that makes it stick? It's hard to grasp a feeling but I put it down to a combination of story, atmosphere, music and characters.
The demo starts during sunset with shots of various toys and decorations in a traditional room. A man wearing a hefty futuristic suit opens the door and lets himself in. He's clearly feeling some sort of nostalgia as he goes through the trinkets along the walls and laid across the table. The room shakes and he quickly glances at his projected watch. He's lost track of time. As rockets launch off into space, he rushes outside to join his friend; a younger-looking elven woman in similar clothing. We're given a glimpse of their vehicles: a small spaceship and two hoverbikes. The scene closes as they watch multiple rockets launch in the distant countryside. The sun continues to set and the scene fades to black.
The music itself isn't unique. "Ruin and Creation (Monologue Mix)" is from their 2009 game Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Motoi Sakuraba has composed some of my favourite soundtracks in the industry so the fact that this track works so well is no surprise. It's calm and fleeting with periods of adventure.
The characters are older than your typical teenage protagonists. Both show a sense of maturity and restraint compared to the over-exaggerated emotions present in many JRPG stories. This is probably a by-product of the demo focusing on graphical fidelity over anything else but still, a welcome sight.
The story itself obviously does not fully exist. We can only assume the bigger picture. But the juxtaposition between the traditional countryside room and the futuristic outsider gives us plenty. A man dropping by his childhood room to take a break in his interplanetary journey. Or maybe it's his son's room? In that case it might be bittersweet. We don't need words to tell us that, we can see and feel it. Again, something very rare in a lot of JRPGs.
The False Hope
Having seen this tech demo, and forgetting it's just a tech demo, I had high hopes for the next Star Ocean. Clearly tri-Ace sees what I'm seeing right? Afterall, they just made a perfect scene with all the right notes. Sadly, no. They didn't see it. "Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness" released 5 years later in 2016. Keeping up the trend of games not to my liking.
Surely, someone's making Sci-Fi Fantasy JRPGs with older protagonists, right? There must be a market for it.
The closest game I've found is Xenoblade Chronicles X. It's maybe 50% there. The characters are focused on their priorities, they're not too melodramatic and there's more focus on the world telling a story. Where it falls short, maybe intentionally, is in building its world and characters. The world Xenoblade X resides in is made to be alien, dangerous and mysterious so there are no moments of reminiscence and nostalgia. There are side quests for character building but these are mostly done through simple dialogue with somewhat unfitting music.
Anyways, I thought I'd sit down and finally write this up once and for all. It's kind of lame saying that a tech demo is the type of game I want to play. But there it is. If I manage to finish making a game, maybe I'll take some notes from it.
Thanks for reading.