While the world and his dog is playing XCOM (which I fully intend to at some point — just not yet) it’s been quite interesting to contrast the experience of playing Aselia the Eternal, which I first mentioned a few days back. At first glance, you might not think there’s much to connect these two games, but after about 6 or 7 hours of Aselia’s visual novel stuff (which is good in and of itself — but more on that in a future READ.ME column on Games Are Evil) you get into a surprisingly hardcore strategy RPG type thing, where you have a big scary overworld map, squads of warriors, buildings, resources and a need to actually think about what you do.
But there’s an interesting side-effect to the fact that you’ve spent 6 hours reading before you get to pick up a sword and start twatting things — you develop an emotional investment in these characters. And this is where the XCOM comparison (or, more accurately, contrast) comes in. In XCOM, people typically rename their characters to customise them and feel like they’re playing with people they “know” or have designed. The simple act of renaming a character, in most cases, is enough to develop a degree of “attachment”.
In Aselia, meanwhile, you don’t get to rename the characters, but you do get to see what they’re like off the battlefield — and not just in a training room sort of scenario. No, a big part of Aselia involves having conversations and seeing these characters going about their daily lives. We learn a lot about their attitude towards combat, and even more about the game world’s social hierarchy.
This means that when you go into battle with Aselia, Esperia and Orpha, you know who these people are, you care about them and you want them to succeed. You want them to come back safely — and not just because in most cases allowing one of the main characters to die causes an immediate Game Over. You’re cheering for them as they take on increasingly-improbable odds, and you nurture them, training them up to be as badass as they can possibly be in order to take on these rising challenges. I can only assume this feeling of attachment will increase as the game progresses and the romantic subplots start.
It’s one of the most interesting things about Aselia the Eternal, in fact. Like most visual novels, it’s primarily been designed as a storytelling vehicle, in which the gameplay serves the narrative. The “battle” gameplay will frequently break for the characters to have a moment of soul-searching (or, more often, the protagonist to have some sort of at least partially-justified mental breakdown). Between battles there may be several hours of sitting around talking, drinking tea and bouncing underage-looking girls on your knee. But there’s a great feeling of coherence to the game, helped partly by the fact that even though the strategy component is broken into discrete missions, there is persistence in the game world — any character improvements, buildings and other business you did in a previous mission will still be there when you next hit the battlefield.
It’s clear, in short, that the game is someone’s vision rather than something that’s been focus-grouped. While this means it undoubtedly won’t be universally appealing — not everyone enjoys spending six hours reading before they get to “do” anything — it makes for an experience that is dripping with personality and a feeling of authorial ownership. Someone wrote this as a story rather than designing it as a game, and it’s a very interesting contrast to titles where the lines between narrative and gameplay are more clearly demarcated.
Further thoughts as I continue — it’s a lengthy game, so expect at least one or two more posts on the subject.