Friday, October 21, 2016

Secret of Mana, the World Map, and Flash vs. Function

Secret of Mana is an undeniably important videogame, mostly for illustrating that Japanese RPGs can be very pretty. 

Final Fantasy V, released December 1992:

Secret of Mana, released August 1993 on the same hardware:

For a long time, graphics in RPGs weren't really intended to inspire awe in and of themselves -- they were tools for igniting your imagination. An image of a dragon wasn't meant to terrify you in and of itself. What mattered was that it represented the idea of a dragon. One that could viciously tear your character apart and force them to restart at the last save point.

There's so much power to this kind of language. But when you explore a forest in Secret of Mana, it's not enchanting purely because it calls to mind the idea of a majestic forest. It's also because its representation of a forest is enchanting in its own right.

This was an important shift. Secret of Mana's aesthetic triumphs captured player's imaginations, and paved the way for Square's future successes like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. That it also let you play it with your friends goes a long way to explain the game's enduring appeal.

It's also a very frustrating game. While I still connect effortlessly with older stories like Final Fantasy IV, I hate playing Secret of Mana

It's a game deeply concerned with surfaces. That comes through in the art design, which is still exceptional today. It's also evident in how Secret strives to eliminate many of the abstractions that for a long time defined the RPG. Instanced turn-based combat. Text-based menus. World maps. The problem is that all of its substitutions make the game feel wretched to actually play. 

The real-time fights feel mushy and detached. The interface is miserable to navigate. The AI partners are useless, and multiplayer is hampered by players having to pause the game every two seconds to cast magic. At every turn Secret substitutes functional, time-tested RPG design mechanisms for flashy, but ultimately weaker replacements. 

There's one key complaint I want to focus on though: how it approaches the world map, and how all the different places in Secret of Mana actually fit together.

Dragon Quest popularized the world map in Japanese videogames (which can otherwise be traced all the way back to Ultima and its predecessor Akalabeth). Using nothing but flat, 16x16 pixel four-color tiles, it represents a continent-spanning setting that links together every location in the game. The effect of this device is that instead of feeling like a bunch of disconnected videogame levels, Dragon Quest feels like one big world. 

This layer of verisimilitude is a large part of what makes RPGs special. "Exploring a world" feels different from "beating a level". This distinction is what Dragon Quest offered players used to more immediately fun games like Super Mario Bros., and it's part of why the series became a beloved national icon.

The world map is typically a more abstract space than dungeons or towns. Whereas in a town a single tile may contain a sign or a person, on the world map a tile can easily represent a bridge, a castle, or a mountain. Some games address this aesthetic dissonance by minimizing the spaces between significant areas, often by showing them on a map and letting players point and click to where they want to go (Terranigma, Romancing SaGa). Others present interstitial spaces with the same level of fidelity as in main play areas. Legend of Zelda's overworld is presented in the same scale as its dungeons. The same is true of Final Fantasy Adventure (the first Mana game and Secret's predecessor), Ys, and countless others.

All of these are valid solutions. Secret of Mana's approach is an awkward hybrid of Dragon Quest's and Final Fantasy Adventure's. It loses a lot of what these games have to offer to no real benefit.

At first Secret of Mana seems to follow Adventure's model -- it presents an interconnected world where all spaces function at the same scale. Not only that, but combat takes place on the same screen as exploration. While most RPGs of the era are modally split into "exploring dungeons and towns", "exploring the world map", and "combat", Secret of Mana's presentation is totally unified. This is something none of Square's other SNES offerings could manage, and it counts for a lot.

There are odd wrinkles, granted. One forest area can only be accessed via teleporter, for seemingly no reason. Spaces that you can easily walk between are connected with a deliberately comic and ridiculous fast-travel system in which your characters are launched out of a cannon. 

These wrinkles are off-putting, but for eight hours or so, Secret of Mana's world feels consistent and coherent and true. And because there's no map, you really have to learn your way around, feeling out the various paths and shortcuts, listening to lovely tunes and admiring the gorgeous art. This is my favorite chunk of the game.

Then we're introduced to areas you can exclusively travel to via cannon. This is a major fracture in the game's facade. The cannon travel is deliberately disorientating, and doesn't offer a sense of the two areas' geographical relationship. If you're playing Dragon Quest and walk on a world map from one town to another, you learn the distance between the two towns, the direction you have to walk, whether you cross any bridges or pass through any caves, etc. If you're playing Zelda and walk from one dungeon to another, you know roughly where they exist in relation to each other. The cannon travel offers none of this intimacy.

Before this shift in approach I could honestly deal with the boring dungeons and miserable bosses and fighting with the goddamn ring system. I could deal with the nothing plot and the empty characters. Because, for a little while, its world feels true. And exploring that world is an experience I could actively share with my friends. That's kind of incredible!

Then you blast off to the Upperland Forest and it starts to fall apart. No longer is every space linked together in a continuous world -- it's now a divied up series of videogame levels to progress through. It'd be one thing if it were one off-key note, but from this point on areas become increasingly small and fragmented. More and more levels contain a single town or dungeon and nowhere else to explore, before you blast off to the next section.

Getting the dragon should be such a powerful moment. You can now fly anywhere in this world you've been exploring for the whole game. But because of the disjointed approach, you don't have a real relationship with the setting. The connection between the world map you fly around and the spaces you've been exploring is unclear. It's not helped by the confusing mode-7 effect and the tank controls, but if the setting had stayed true to itself then that stuff wouldn't matter (see Final Fantasy VI).

Does it make sense why this is so disappointing? The grounded world in Secret of Mana's first third promises something unlike anything else Square was offering at the time -- outside of Final Fantasy Adventure of course. But while Adventure soars in its last third and reaches a triumphant, cathartic conclusion, Secret becomes an absolute slog. And while there's dozens of complaints to be made about how the game plays, how its world fails to fit together is maybe its most crucial fault.

This is a game deeply concerned with surfaces. It's full of texture and spirit and life. Later Square games would marry this loving presentation with moving stories and smart design. But, underneath it all, Secret doesn't seem to understand why RPGs were so much fun to begin with, or even the successes of the original Mana game. So it fumbles along, its half-baked design innovations skirting by on the strength of its aesthetic. 

The Secret of Mana I'd have enjoyed would've stuck its guns. It would've actually presented a unified world, a coherent setting. There'd have been no world map at all and fast-travel shortcuts like the cannon would've been minimized or non-existent. We could go further of course (a functional interface and combat that doesn't feel like pulling teeth would be nice), but that key shift in structure would've transformed my experience with the game. 

What's most frustrating of all is that this may have been the developer's original intent. Secret of Mana was originally planned as a much larger SNES-CD game. After plans for that peripheral fell through, the game had to be chopped apart to fit on a cartridge. Frankly the game feels miserably long already, so we may have gotten the better package ultimately. But I'd still be interested in seeing what that version of the game looked like.

We only have the game we have. As it is, I find it very difficult to conceptualize Secret of Mana's world as a singular place. Instead it feels like a disconnected hacked-up set of unfinished maps patched together with glue and string.