Friday, May 22, 2009
The Wave of the Future: Games as Novels
I have remarked in the past on the fact that Harvest Moon and Rune Factory games actually resemble interactive novels, but with the recent Rune Factory 2 and Rune Factory Frontier games, it is obvious to me that the genre indeed has reached a point where a game can be considered to be the equivalent of a novel in every respect.
Rune Factory 2 contained over 420,000 words of dialogue. Rune Factory Frontier must include at least as much text. In fact, a player wrote in disgust to me that he didn't like Rune Factory Frontier because there were too many Events and too much reading to be done!
A player who is looking exclusively for slash and stab action is NOT going to like ANY Harvest Moon or Rune Factory game. At the same time, a player who never wishes to wield a sword or weapon will be unhappy with the Rune Factory series as it extends the Harvest Moon traditional activities of farming, ranching, mining, fishing and social interactions to include combat and adventures as well.
It seems to me, however, that the Rune Factory series is an incredible achievement in terms of embracing ALL the best aspects of gaming while emerging as a true embodiment of the concept of interactive fiction. Furthermore, all Rune Factory games are interactive novels as opposed to short stories. Of the three existing Rune Factory games, it is the two most recent additions that represent a perfect acihevement in this. The original Rune Factory appeared to be driving towards it, but it is only in the two games that followed that dialogue and Events reached a point where they could be considered to constitute a real novel in interactive form.
As some one who has attained a small measure of notoriety as 'Mistress of Harvest Moon' even internationally, I tend to receive hundreds of emails from players on the subject of Harvest Moon and Rune Factory and therefore have some knowledge of the type of player who has become increasingly involved with the genre. To the general public who may have been influenced by negative portrayals of gaming in the media, I can offer proof positive that players of games such as Harvest Moon and Rune Factory are educated individuals of all ages, actually read prolifically and find intellectual and spiritual stimulation in both the Harvest Moon and Rune Factory series.
Marvelous Interactive and the creators of Harvest Moon and Rune Factory should be added to the league of great contemporary novelists. Note that the original versions of all Harvest Moon and Rune Factory games are Japanese, a language in which I am not proficient, very sadly. Natsume, the company who brought these games to the English-speaking world, deserves eternal gratitude and social recognition for its accomplishment. More recently, XSeed has joined the list by making the first Rune Factory game for the Wii available in English.
I would like to challenge any individual who considers himself/herself to be a superior judge of the written word to explore either Rune Factory 2 or Rune Factory Frontier and find it less than worthy of his/her regard. Furthermore, these games offer a very detailed education in farming, fishing, mining, ranching, cooking, business and social interactions. Above all, they force an individual to become proficient in the art of multi-tasking and budgeting time. The latter are skills required of any person who lives in the 21st century and both Harvest Moon and Rune Factory offer the opportunity to improve these skills significantly. The fact that the games have incredibly detailed characterisations that can be poignant and very humourous at turns is a bonus.
On a spiritual level, more than one player has remarked upon the 'zen-like' quality of daily routines in Harvest Moon and Rune Factory. There is an opportunity for the soul to achieve a state of peace when tilling a field, growing a crop and ultimately harvesting it. Clearing a field of weeds, stumps and rocks, then watching it flourish, even if only in a virtual reality, does give an individual a sense of accomplishment and the attitudes of the villagers reinforce the idea that harmony with the earth in creating bounty for humankind and animals is a worthy goal.
Every character in these games possesses depth and individuality. It is not like a classical RPG where you simply speak to a character in order to obtain a clue to unlock a new option. Not at all. You speak to a character in order to gain more knowledge of that individual's personality, history and an increase in friendship or love. Humour is very much a part of these games and laughter eases the heart and soul. Lest any one attempt to argue that games like these foster unrealistic expectations of utopia or an existence unmarred by loss, this certainly is not the case. These games do recognise the inevitability of death and a player will experience the heartache of age and loss. On the other hand, the worlds of Harvest Moon and Rune Factory do represent 'better' worlds in a sense as good actions receive rewards and friendship is not met with betrayal.
Unlike some 'virtual reality' games, Harvest Moon and Rune Factory teach a philosophy that places friendship and loyalty above financial benefit and personal gain. Although the message usually is oblique, a character in Rune Factory Frontier states it very clearly:
Lara: Money is necessary to live, but obtaining more than necessary will only cloud your heart. Please don’t be too attached to money, Freyr.
Both sides of the coin are true in any Harvest Moon or Rune Factory game. 'Money is necessary to live' and your character will struggle at the start of his/her life on a dilapidated farm, with very few initial resources and yet, hard work is rewarded ultimately with prosperity not only for oneself but for the entire village. It is by spending money and sharing the bounty of nature that one achieves true success in any Harvest Moon or Rune Factory game. Patronising local merchants allows them to feed their families. In participating in festivals such as the 'Harvest Festival' or 'Year-End Festival', one is reminded of the value of community spirit.
On a side note, I never knew much about fishing until I began to play Harvest Moon. Becoming aware of the varieties of Fish in different habitats is very much a part of both Harvest Moon and Rune Factory. Being able to cook offers an opportunity for greater knowledge of crops, fish and wild plants. The addition of a few bizarre recipes in every game simply adds to the enjoyment.
Working at a forge always has been a dream of mine but it is only in Rune Factory that I have been able to achieve that goal. Forging a blade or farm tool really does offer a measure of real satisfaction. It is far more fulfilling than placing an order with the local bladesmith!
Finally, although Rune Factory does include combat, killing plays no role whatsoever in these games. Defeating an enemy simply returns that enemy to its own world. Often a human enemy, once defeated will become a friend or even potential life partner.
The landscapes both in Harvest Moon and Rune Factory are utterly breathtaking. Although any good reader can imagine the landscapes created by a novelist, actually being able to move through a fictional universe as incredibly beautiful as those of Harvest Moon or Rune Factory is an experience that becomes a valued memory. A virtual memory, after all, becomes as much an integral part of the soul as any 'real' experience.
There are those who believe that too much imagination can be a negative or corrupting influence, especially for children. Some religions preach avoidance of 'fiction' for that reason. I personally feel that imagination is the equivalent of wings for the soul, and that it is a privilege to be allowed to experience another person's world of the imagination.
While Amazon has made the concept of a virtual library a reality in the form of the 'Kindle', Harvest Moon and Rune Factory have extended the form of the novel itself. The trend towards acceptance of virtual realities in general increases daily. Speaking of Second Life, one individual predicted that having an avatar soon would become as essential as having an email address. Perhaps the concept of entering into fiction in order to 'read' a book will become as much a part of every one's ordinary expectations as well. Certainly it is the stuff of which dreams are made and it has achieved reality both in the Harvest Moon and the Rune Factory series.
N.B. The photographs are screenshots from Rune Factory Frontier. 'Monsters' who are tamed with a Petting Glove will serve as transport, farm workers or allies in combat. Here, in one screenshot, you see an 'Elefun' watering crops while the main character rides a 'Unico' through the village. In the other screenshot, it is sunset at the Beach. Two of the 'Eligible Girls' (characters you can court and marry) fish on the pier as the sun sets over the beach.