I’ve accidentally created something of a subseries, wherein I complain about an article on the web that reads like a chimpanzee dying of lung cancer wrote it. Looking for atrociously written articles isn’t a part-time hobby of mine, believe it or not. I just happen on these like a sleepy person’s big toe finds the leg of their coffee table at two in the morning, and the coffee table leg I’ve stumbled into recently comes from Cracked.com. Once upon a time, I was an avid reader of Cracked but stopped when their 3,536 ads per page ran my CPU on a flaming hamster wheel, and glancing at the site today, it looks like a Chinese knockoff of CBR, which goes a long way to explaining why this article moaning about Fire Emblems: Three Houses is so brain-dead.
The article contains exactly four paragraphs, sorted as follows:
First Paragraph: Introduction that Three Houses broke the writer’s mind, body, and soul.
Second Paragraph: The gist of the gameplay, ending with a note of how the writer played on Classic mode.
Third Paragraph: The writer’s dismal experience of trying not to permanently lose their units.
Fourth Paragraph: A complaint that the characters talk too much.
Feel free to read the article on your own, to absorb everything the writer has to say, but that’s the essence: they chose the wrong game mode, and there was too much dialogue for their liking. Their experience is valid, and they’re free to voice their discontent, but how they go about discussing it is so bereft of proper analysis that the cynical part of me suspects this was originally going to be a Tweet, but then the writer realized they were short on rent, so they convinced an underpaid Cracked editor to publish this.
Unbelievably, however, the writer, whom I’ll from henceforth refer to as Bob, has a point about the difficulty settings. He just doesn’t make it.
Choosing whether you want to play a game on easy, normal, or hard mode at the start of a new save file is a terrible way to program in difficulty, because you’re making that decision in a vacuum. One game’s normal might be another’s easy, and so forth. Until you actually sit through a playthrough, you have no context for why this mode is “easy” or that mode is “hard,” and the inflexibility of those settings within Three Houses made for a frustrating time for Bob, who would’ve been more content on Casual mode, where he could still play with the mindset that his characters only have one life but not feel forced into playing so conservatively. There’s no reason why a player needs to be locked into a particular difficulty value if that value is making for miserable gaming sessions. Most games are designed so that the player has fun, and if enemies that hit for too much damage frustrate the player, without the ability to tone down the damage by whatever means, then the game isn’t meeting that goal.
As for Bob’s barb against the game’s plethora of dialogue, that chalks up to personal taste, as well as the exact medium. Sometimes, I read books, and books are filled with words. In fact, books are often nothing but words, but when I pick up a book, I’m fine reading all those words. However, if I’m playing an FPS and come across a diary entry that’s a three paragraphs long, I slam the diary shut and go back to shotgunning zombies because fuck reading.
It’s a curious distinction, and one that doesn’t seem to match up, but the force at work is priming. I can pick up a 50,000+-word novel and read it cover-to-cover, yet it annoys me when I come across a wall of text in a comic book. That’s because the most you get in the latter is a few lines of dialogue per page. You get used to reading at that volume, and walls of text are larger chunks than what you’ve been biting, as well as are massive interruptions to your reading flow. But walls of text are the norm in the former, so it doesn’t catch me off guard when I turn the page and see a metric ton more words.
This translates similarly to video games, where even the genre dictates my reading tolerance. JRPGs are notorious for copious amounts of dialogue, but one of the reasons I play JRPGs is for that copious amount of dialogue. JRPGs have built themselves up as the one-stop shop for charming characters and balls-to-the-wall stories, and they’ve achieved that status primarily through heavy dialogue interspersed through the adventure. They can also get away with this because of how they’re paced. Battles are peaks in your journeying, and in between is downtime to probe for goodies, manage your equipment, and, naturally, hold conversations. The Tales franchise has an entire, separate narrative column known as skits, in which your party members just shoot the shit. Most are wacky and don’t have the slightest thing to do with the plot at large, but they’re great avenues for exploring your party’s various personalities and how they clash and meld. The upshot of skits is that they slow the pacing down, so while they might find a home in a leisurely paced FPS like Fallout 3, they’re a beastly chock in the rapidly paced Call of Duty franchise, where you run from one side of a level to the other and pump lead into everything that moves.
But all this is just me covering the finer points Bob glossed over. None of it addresses why I wanted to address his article in the first place: that across his four paragraphs, he doesn’t say a single thing of substance.
I’ve done my fair share of nitpicking in books and games, which very well includes Three Houses. Much of my review was criticizing it. However, I didn’t rake it over the coals to be mean. I love video games and want the best for them, so I noted its flaws and missed opportunities so that inspiring game developers can take those lessons into their own creations. Bob, on the hand hand, doesn’t share in that goal. What does griping “the characters talk too much” communicate? That the heavy amount of dialogue drags the pacing? That none of the Support Conversations are significant? That a ton of dialogue isn’t in Bob’s tastes? Each of these is a legitimate criticism one could levy, but all Bob says is, and I quote, “After listening to each line of dialogue I would think ‘surely, this is the end of the scene.’ But nay, there was always more.” Taken literally, this means that after Character P says, “Good day to you, Character Q,” Bob expected the exchange to end right then and there. Then when Character Q replies, “Same to you, my fellow classmate,” he, again, expected the conversation to finish. But facetiousness aside, that quote doesn’t relay anything about the game’s dialogue other than that there’s apparently a lot.
And then we have the very thesis of the article, that Fire Emblem: Three Houses ruined JRPGs for Bob. That’s a highly attractive headline. Very clickbaity. And luring in eyeballs appears to be its only purpose, because Bob provides absolutely no context on his experience with JRPGs. The title itself suggests that he had a deep passion for JRPGs, and Three Houses, a singular title, smashed that passion with a sledgehammer. But then the article’s very first sentence states that JRPGs ain’t his cup of tea, inferring the opposite, that he’s hardly touched a JRPG, if ever, and Three Houses didn’t sell him on the genre. But then that same sentence mentions JRPGs having the best soundtracks and romance options, and a line in the last paragraph mentions how stacks of dialogue is standard JRPG affair, also implying that he has a familiarity with the genre (though whether that’s general knowledge from YouTube essayists, Let’s Plays, what have you or he’s played a fair share is neither mentioned nor discussed).
I could continue with my dissection, and then I’d end up writing a sequel to that one post I made on learning to write/edit from a horribly written and edited CBR feature, but my broader point is that Bob’s article contributes nothing to a conversation on anything. It’s all the exact sorts of lines you’d throw out in casual conversation with a friend: “Yeah, I wanted a challenge and played on Classic but ended up having a bitch of a time because of that.” “The characters talked way too much. I was falling asleep halfway through.” It’s not internet law that every opinion piece needs to be some overly analytical opus which dedicates 2,000 words to scrutinizing a difficulty setting, but an article needs to offer the reader something of value, otherwise that contrarian hook is just a waste of time.