Friday, December 18, 2015

Understanding Undertale

Warning: Given the subject of this essay, expect spoilers throughout.
It's tough to call something a “masterpiece.” When you assign that label, the subject instantly becomes singled out and scrutinized in a vacuum. A masterpiece challenges convention and begs to be looked at alongside its more conventional contemporaries. Context is always important. Take Chuck Jones's “What's Opera, Doc?” for example. It was voted the best cartoon of all time by 1,000 animators in the business for the way it elevated the art form to a new level. If you try to explain a Bugs Bunny cartoon to someone who has never seen one before and use “What's Opera, Doc?” as your example, you'll be left with a person who is probably confused and maybe even upset. Why would someone watch cartoons if they're so sad? What's with the singing? Why does that bald guy have an oversized suit of armor? By looking at this single example, you miss the convention of the Bugs/Elmer Fudd relationship. You lose the context of the methods the hunter has used for years to best the rabbit, and the way Bugs has outsmarted him at every turn. You miss out on how “What's Opera, Doc?” took that formula and flipped it around completely in order to surprise the audience and open them up to the larger picture of what animation can do. Undertale is, I believe, a masterpiece. And to explore how they did everything right, it's important to see what its contemporaries did wrong.

In 2013 a company called Eden Industries wanted to pick up the Mother series' mantle with their game, “Citizens of Earth.” CoE was an attempt to create an RPG with a “modern setting and (the) humorous tone of Earthbound,” according to the Kickstarter page. On paper, the idea was great. Fans of the Mother series were old enough now that they had jobs in the industry and wanted to take hints from their favorite game to forge a Western take on a JRPG that, in turn, was a JRPG take on Western culture. The trailer for CoE showed off the irreverent humor, an eclectic cast of characters, and familiar battle sequences that stirred up visions of Dragon Quest and Earthbound. We had a series that looked like it could deliver and fill the Mother-shaped holes in our hearts. A new group of developers could carry Itoi's torch. The stage was set, and the bar was high.

And, by all accounts, Citizens of Earth should have worked. The game opens with, in typical RPG trope fashion, the main character, the Vice President of Earth, being woken up by his mother. The game knew from the outset exactly how to skewer the beloved genre. It was as if Mel Brooks tried his hand at game design. The VP was funny, the battle mechanics were interesting and engaging, and the game knew its fanbase, sneaking sly nods to Earthbound in for those of us in the know. But the problems with CoE became apparent very early on. Load times grate on your nerves, especially when you're trying to get familiar with a new area. Directives can be vague, frustrating, or not exist at all. This is particularly frustrating when moving the plot forward requires a certain character and the game gives no information to do so. However, the real failings of CoE lie in the details. The characters, as varied as they are, have no real personality. They just spout their lines, and only exist as tools for you to use to battle wave after wave of the same few enemies, made doubly frustrating by the insane respawn rate. Items are unimaginative and useless. You'll be swimming in the same few HP-restoring coffees and donuts for the whole game. It also makes collecting chests more of a compulsion than an exciting experience, because an overwhelming majority of the time, they contain nothing but another coffee.

There's also an inherent problem with having an aloof main character like the VP who is impossible to identify with, and only bland support characters to back him up; The plot loses any momentum. And some of you may be saying “Well, Ness or Crono never even speak, and those are two of the best JRPGs ever.” And to you, I say that Ness and Crono are silent protagonists, and the player projects themselves and their intentions onto them. Those protagonists are also surrounded by a myriad of characters who DO have a stake in the game. They become your moral compass. Jeff and Apple Kid and Lucca and Frog become rallying support for the cause. CoE's very talkative protagonist who thinks only of himself is surrounded by characters who have almost no personality at all. So at no time does the player feel compelled to move forward, because none of the characters seem invested. Nobody in the game seems to care or understand what they're doing, so why should the player? The game also makes the mistake of thinking that ramping up the insanity of the plot is the same as raising the stakes. You find yourself on an alien spaceship eventually and for the life of me, I can't remember why. It's as if it happens simply because Earthbound has aliens. Like it's expected. And that's the biggest sin that this game could have made; it did what was expected of it. It didn't rise above its peers, but instead, it sold itself on the promise of being a Mother successor and only succeeded in being a serviceable, run-of-the-mill RPG experience, albeit with a sense of humor. Again, when the great Mel Brooks makes a parody, it's because he loves and understands the source material. He know how to make homage and also how to get you to identify with his characters. There's a heart in his films that comes across, hand-in-hand with the insanity. Citizens of Earth takes a half measure in heart and the experience suffers for it. It got the wackiness right, but Eden Industries making a parody more along the lines of “Epic Movie” than “Blazing Saddles.”

From the moment you begin Undertale, the game greets you with visual cues, all before you even enter your first battle. The pixel art is simplistic and made up of a few colors. It looks as if it could fit in with the likes of the SNES brethren that inspired it. Like in every Mother game, Undertale's protagonist wears a striped, two-tone t-shirt. Like in those traditional JRPGs, Undertale's protagonist is mute. And the bed of flowers the protagonist wakes up on looks very familiar to a recurring flower in Mother 3. You may not even notice that your brain is taking all of this in, but from this moment on, Undertale has you exactly where it wants you. And it doesn't let go.

The most clear-cut example of subversion of expectation is in Undertale's battle system. Similarly to Citizens of Earth, the enemies are presented in full view, just like in Dragon Quest or Mother games of old. You're given a couple options from the menu, as in an old Final Fantasy game, and you're led to believe that those commands are the same as always. For those new to the genre, Flowey, the unassuming first enemy of the game, instructs the player on the unique “bullet hell” minigame that occurs on every enemy turn. A red heart, a stand-in for the player, is confined to a small box where projectiles move around and try to make contact with you. Flowey instructs the player to gather up the “friendliness pellets” in order to proceed, and with that, Undertale has introduced its central mechanic by lying to the player. If you figured it out and dodged Flowey's attack, you feel smarter than the game. If not, you're rescued by another NPC who will teach you how to “really” play the game. Either way, you're playing by the game's rules, even if you don't know it. If you suspect Undertale is just going against convention and you play along as if it's some kind of anti-RPG, Undertale knows that, too. The game knows what you know, and it knows how you can plan to overcome the obstacles it throws at you-sometimes literally. If you've caught on, be assured that the game knows this and it already several steps ahead of you. After you've met the friendly NPC Toriel, you settle in and begin to learn how to play from someone you trust. Then the game goads you into accidentally killing her.

Undertale is layer upon layer of tropes, reversals of tropes, self-referential humor, fourth-wall shattering dialogue and characters, and surprise after surprise after surprise. Even if, in a panic, you reset the game because you've accidentally killed your new friend, the game knows. It knows if you've played the game before. It knows if you've closed the game in the middle of important dialogue. The game of Undertale extends beyond the act of playing it. It's not just a timeline of events from the intro to the final boss. Undertale is an interplay of experimentation and branching paths of human choice and itself. The game invites you to try new approaches, then calls you out on it. The world of Undertale is a post-postmodern look at not only RPGs, but video games, morality, and gaming culture in general. Every time you think you've figured out the game, the rules change. Undertale is the world's best Poker player and you think you can take them on because you've mastered Go Fish.

By the time you reach the game's first “real” boss fight, one half of the comedic skeleton brother duo, Papyrus. The rules change, and the bullet hell becomes something of a Mario-style platformer where your heart must leap over giant bones to avoid damage. The end of the battle showcases the action box expand ever-upward as your heart leaps over all obstacles. It's hilarious, unexpected, and just a hint of the surprises to come. Each boss has a different take on battle, and with each one, conventions fall away. And yet, the game still manages to surprise you when the final boss (on one of the paths) shows itself to be a photorealistic monstrosity of eyeballs and thorns that is as shocking to see revealed as it is disturbing to look at. “But of course,” you think. “This isn't REALLY a SNES game. It's been a computer game the whole time. It doesn't have to adhere to any rules.” Undertale has tricked you again.

You can play Undertale like a traditional JRPG, but doing so demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to play video games. Inventory management gets skewered when you try to pick up some mystical object, only to be told that your inventory is full. You drop the item, and that dropped item runs off with the mystical object in question. Even the “But thou must” options become irrelevant in regular dialogue, because the real choices aren't even delivered in that format, opting for an “actions speak louder than words” scenario. In battles, you can kill every frog or depressed ghost you come across to gain EXP and cash, but the game openly challenges you on it. By the time you reach the end, Sans, the second of the skeleton brothers, reveals that the traditional EXP and LV, present in so many JRPGs, aren't exactly what you might have believed. Altering something so integral to the role-playing experience puts everything into perspective. Undertale holds you personally responsible for your actions. After all, that blank slate of a character was you. It wasn't Ness or Cecil or the Vice President of Earth. The purposefully nondescript protagonist is a proxy for you, and Sans makes sure that you know that there is no separation, in his eyes, between you.

There's a heart in Undertale that makes it stand out. It plays to the fans of the genre by including ineffectual minibosses in the tradition of Final Fantasy V's Gilgamesh in Papyrus, it features an homage to Final Fantasy VI's famous opera sequence with the killbot, Mettaton. A village of cute, Mr. Saturn-esque creatures called Temmies, and a sequence in Dr. Alphys's lab that seems straight out of the Chimera Lab in Mother 3. It helps you grow to appreciate the characters by giving them dialogue that changes with your choices. One particularly touching scene, if you plan to kill everything in sight, has Sans beg the player not to continue, because he knows that deep down they just want to “finish” the game. On the other hand, going out of your way for a perfect ending, nets you a similar sequence begging you not to replay, because as things are, all the friends you've made are so happy. This, in itself, is a huge mixed signal, because the alternate approaches to the game and branching character directions and actions just beg for experimentation and replaying. But that's exactly what Sans warns against. This isn't just grinding on FF6's Veldt to learn new attacks, or mowing down wave after wave of FF4's Bombs to get a worthless-but rare!-secret summon. It's about the choice and the weight of every small step you've taken. And that's where games like Citizens of Earth got it wrong. Playing a Mother game isn't fulfilling simply because it's funny. The fandom hasn't grown and expanded because they laugh at the little things. Undertale shows that being laugh-out-loud funny is done best when there are high stakes, your characters are likable and full of personality, and you care about the characters you're interacting with.

Years ago, Roger Ebert asked if videogames can ever be considered art. The internet exploded and rallied against him with example after example of game design and art and emotion, but Undertale is the most concrete example yet. Undertale delivers an experience that can only be delivered in a video game medium. A film never changes due to your mood, but Undertale in particular shows that the game is a reflection of the player. It's a novel in the way you read into and experience characters and motivations. It's is an art exhibit, from the small things like character art and music to its lessons on morality and the consequences of your seemingly innocuous actions. It's an interactive puzzle in the way it invites the player to explore the very data files it's contained in to discover it's biggest mystery.

As, I mentioned, there is a bed of flowers that the player wakes up in at the beginning of Undertale. They look strikingly similar to the flowers that feature in Mother 3 as a symbol throughout most of the story. At first it bothered me because this game has no right to compare itself to Mother 3, let alone be so bold as to appropriate one of the most prominent and emotional symbols in the game. But it does. Toby Fox and Undertale have proven that they understand exactly what it means to make a video game in the modern day. Undertale stands on the shoulders of giants, and it looks down on them with fondness, appreciation, and determination.

Friday, November 13, 2015

An Overview of Undertale

Warning: This is a review/discussion of several role playing games, expect spoilers to be used liberally.

You're generally in one of two camps when it comes to “Undertale.” Either you peruse Tumblr or Reddit or Twitter for new fan art and secrets on a daily basis, or you're already moving to close this tab because you're just sick of hearing about it. If you're in the second camp, I get it. I've been there. I was there with “Five Nights at Freddy's” and with “Steven Universe” and with “Adventure Time.” The fanbase gets so rabid and excited that they talk about nothing but the subject in question weeks after you first heard about it and shrugged it off.

But “Undertale” deserves most of that hype. It's that good. On its face, it's nothing revolutionary. It's riding the nostalgia wave that “Shovel Knight” and “Retro City Rampage” and now even “Mario Maker” have exploited. It presents itself in a familiar 16-ish-bit graphic style that hearkens back to a simpler time in video games. Maybe to when you were a kid, when everything was flat and brightly colored and chip-tuned. But that's how “Undertale” first subverts your expectations.

It's no secret that I love RPGs. “Undertale,” I believe, is a great entry in the RPG genre, a genre that has been stagnating for a long time. It's no surprise that people have been flocking to MMORPGs while the latest single-player Final Fantasy game feels like a bloated, pretentious mess. In order to understand what “Undertale” does so well, we first need to look at the RPGs that led us here, specifically those on the NES and Super NES.

An average battle in "Dragon Quest."

Most video game genres give you all the information you need at the outset; Mario must save the princess, Mega Man must beat the evil robots, and Simon Belmont must kill Dracula. That's all the plot you get, and that's what drives you to reach the end. The RPG genre did something a little different; it slowed things down. At the beginning of the story you have almost no information, and by moving forward, you gain not only knowledge, but the drive and the strength to reach the end. The game draws you in and gets you invested. Drape that idea in a medieval theme, and you've got nearly every RPG that surfaced on the NES and most of the Super NES. The Ur-example of these tropes is “Dragon Quest” (called “Dragon Warrior” on the NES). “Dragon Quest” introduced several RPG mainstays that exist even today: the romantic swords and sorcery setting, fire, ice, and lightning magic, killing slimes for money, and then using that money to buy better items, and winning experience points to gain levels. “Dragon Quest” was also dialogue-heavy, allowing the player to interact with Non-Player Characters (NPCs) for additional information and to give the player some illusion of agency in a scripted setting where all outcomes led to the same path. Giving what the game considered a “wrong” answer would loop the dialogue until the “correct” one was chosen. These are the basics of the console RPG. Dragons were slain, worlds were saved, and nobody ever questioned why a ninja would be walking around in a medieval feudal town.

Dragon Quest's dialogue "options."

Enter Shigesato Itoi, a Japanese essayist-turned-game designer. His first game, “Mother,” was released for the Famicom (Japan's NES equivalent) in 1989. Gameplay-wise, “Mother” is a pretty standard RPG. It features random encounters, a mechanic in which monster parties are encountered without warning on the world map, a party of warriors from different backgrounds, and towns with shops that sell the newest equipment to help battle the latest monsters. Where “Mother” differs is in its presentation. Magic is now psychokinesis, swords are baseball bats, bows and arrows are slingshots, slimes are rowdy neighborhood dogs, and medieval European-style castles are now American-style cities. While “Mother” played with genre norms, it remained local to Japan. Western audiences didn't experience it for decades after the NES became defunct. “Mother” was a fun distraction, but the norm marched on, through four more Final Fantasy games and two additional Dragon Quests.

By the time the Super NES rolled around, RPG mainstays were cemented into the genre and everyone basically knew what to expect from the newest Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. “Final Fantasy IV” pushed the genre by introducing dynamic playable characters who seemed to learn and change, all while adhering to the script. Advances in technology made the stories and characters better, but nothing really evolved beyond cosmetics. The fantasy RPG had been perfected and had become predictable, and with art of any form, the moment it becomes formulaic is the moment it becomes ripe for parody.

The story of “Mother 2”, aka “Earthbound”, is an interesting one. Like its predecessor, it almost remained a Japanese exclusive, despite its very American influences. When the decision was made by Nintendo to publish it in America, they weren't even quite sure how to market it. They settled on the “weirdness” factor, saddling “Earthbound” with the unfortunate tagline “This game stinks!” and showcasing a sentient puddle of vomit, a minor character in the story, as the mascot for the ads. What's more, none of the Dragon Quests appeared on the Super NES, despite still being released in Japan. Only two of the system's Final Fantasy games were brought over, and Nintendo of America decided that RPGs just weren't really for American audiences. The high price-tag or “Earthbound,” due to the inclusion of some bonus items, like an air freshener and player's guide, didn't help much. “Earthbound” was dead on arrival, but despite that, it began to gather a dedicated fanbase.

"Earthbound's" New-Age Retro Hippie wants to fight. (Note the similarity to Dragon Quest's battles)

But why? Mechanically, “Earthbound” doesn't do anything that revolutionary. Battles still look like they did back in “Dragon Quest,” but coated with a layer of LSD-laced paint. You still fight bosses and buy weapons and save the world. But “Earthbound” thrives in the small stuff. The weight of an evil alien from the future destroying humanity is always there, but it never seems to loom over you. Common enemies are light and funny, including Mad Ducks, UFOs wearing hair ribbons, and, of course, the New-Age Retro Hippie. NPCs like Mr. Saturn and Dungeon Man make you laugh at their absurdity, and the exaggerated musical score, full of a cacophony of horns, gives every scene the same tension you'd get from Elmer Fudd recieving a wedgie. All of this is wrapped in a bittersweet layer of interpersonal relationships, from Ness and his worrysome mother to Dr. Andonuts and his awkwardness around his son, Jeff. The game is light-hearted, but the fun distractions never take away from the creepy zombies that haunt Threed, or the cultists in the ironically-named Happy-Happy Village. “Earthbound” takes what the game presents as a serious threat and has your semi-mute group of preteens trying to distract themselves with small laughs before they have to deal with it. It has equal parts goofiness and darkness, and that spoke to people. Those fans who played “Earthbound” before it was a phenomenon still clamor about it today, partially because of the fresh paint on a tired genre, and partially because of the way the humor vs. seriousness can hit home.

When “Earthbound's” sequel, “Mother 3”, was announced, expectations were high. Think back when “Toy Story 3” was announced. The initial reaction was that we didn't need it. The story was fine as it stood, and anything new would tarnish what the first movies worked so hard to accomplish. But then, “Toy Story 3” came out, and not only was it good, but it left the first two in the dust when it came to emotional roller-coasters and feeling connected to the characters. “Mother 3” is the video game equivalent of “Toy Story 3”.

There's a reason fans have begged Nintendo to release “Mother 3” in the west for almost 10 years now. Everything “Earthbound” did was improved by “Mother 3.” The characters feel more real, the threat feels more personal, the battles are more engaging. Add parables of loss, family, blind consumerism, greed, and mistreatment of the planet's resources for personal gain, and you've got a sequel that improves on its predecessors in every way. “Mother 3” not only knows how to tell a story, but how to make you feel something. One early scene in particular, Flint's discovery of his wife, Hinawa's, death, remains one of the most poignant scenes in gaming. It's book-ended by jokes, but still filled with raw emotion. It's also played out with almost no dialogue.

The Mother series is brilliant because it not only embraces weirdness, but uses that weirdness to elevate its story. You're fighting hippopotamuses-turned-rocket launchers and hammerhead sharks with kangaroo pouches, but when you find out the selfish antagonist from “Earthbound” is doing it because he's now immortal and is simply bored, it feels wrong. You feel guilty, because those animals didn't deserve it. They're victims, just like you are. There's a streak of Vonnegut in the Mother series. The games are about humanity and it's flaws. It's about the relationship we have with Mother Earth and the line between using her resources and abusing her. It blurs the lines between the hilarious and the grotesque. It's the joy of small personal victories meeting the sheer disappointment of what humanity can be at its worst. It was... odd. But you couldn't appreciate the heartache without laughing at the oddness first, and you couldn't find relief in the oddness without caring about the heartache.

The Mother series not only flipped the RPG genre on its head, but proved that the player can have a personal stake in the story. It showed that the player can feel pity for those small enemies they come across on the way to the bad guy that leads them. It showed that the people you meet have a stake in how you continue your journey. And it showed that humanity can be terrible, but there are always some who are willing to question if we have to be. And not just because that's what the story dictates.

So what does all this have to do with “Undertale”?

Friday, October 23, 2015

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

Final Fantasy VI is a good game. That's not a controversial thing to say at this point. It enjoys nigh- universal praise and often comes out near the top of many “Greatest X of All Time” lists, beating out the RPG juggernaut/little brother that is Final Fantasy VII . Despite its 16-bit limitations, FFVI manages to accomplish in storytelling, theme, and characterization what some films today can only dream of. FFVI has so many strong character moments, that if you ask any fan of the game what the standout moment of the story is, you will get a range from “Kefka vs. General Leo” to “Sabin suplexing a train!”, but far and away, the most popular, game-defining, number-one beloved scene is the opera.

But why?

In relation to the rest of the game, the opera is a blip on the radar. It sticks out as an unrelated segue that links two major plot points. Any writer could have snipped this portion out and written around it, and the story would have progressed exactly the same way without any story lost. In fact despite the heavy romantic themes of “Maria and Draco,” none of the characters involved have any emotional investment in the opera at all, and your party's role (pun only mostly intended) in it is solely based on manipulating a character that they haven't even met at this point. So why did the opera make the cut? Why do so many fans point to it as their favorite part of FFVI's story? What is the purpose of this sequence at all?

Before Celes Chere masquerades as the actress, Maria, in the opera “Maria and Draco,” she is found by the thief--er, treasure hunter--Locke Cole, chained up for treason in a basement in the occupied town of South Figaro. We learn that she is an ex-general in the Gestahlian Empire and has recently been sentenced to execution. We're not quite sure why, but it may have something to do with her objection to a preemptive act of war on the neutral kingdom of Doma. Then, just like every other character we've met thus far, we're given a short summary of Celes and the option to name her.

The character introduction screen.

The English translation of Celes's text describes her as a “Product of genetic engineering, battle-hardened Magitek Knight, with a spirit as pure as snow...” which invokes an air of innocence about her. Though, the fact that we later find out that Celes led an assault on the city of Maranda contradicts the narrative. The real meat and potatoes to this scene is actually in the original Japanese text, which describes Celes as “Artificially built by the Empire, and specially trained, born a warrior, a Shogun who has fought many battles, and yet, beneath the mask of her rank, she is nobody...”

While it's easy to see how the English translator could conflate “emptiness” and “uncorruptedness,”- after all, words like “pristine” and “immaculate” teeter on the line between both, the descriptions imply very different things. The English translation would lead you to believe that Celes is a noble character, but a victim of circumstance who would be a saint if not for the fact that she's a general for a violent regime. The Japanese text implies that Celes's only identity is the rank that she carries, wracked with insecurity. 

The second detail that interests me about Celes's introduction is the music that accompanies it. Every character, save Celes and the primary protagonist, Terra, have their theme songs playing when they are introduced. Thematically, the song that plays over Terra's introduction, “Awakening,” which features a leitmotif of her theme, makes sense because at the time, she is suffering from amnesia. It suggests her identity is bubbling up from below the surface, breaching momentarily, but obscured. For Celes, the song that introduces her is “Under Martial Law.” This same song also plays in any Empire-occupied town in the game, and suggests that Celes, as a person, is currently “occupied” by the empire. Celes still identifies as a general when the player meets her, despite having lost the title officially. Her true theme isn't heard until much later.

Celes describes who she is.

It's also interesting to note that Celes has an artificial presence to her. Not that she is purposefully misleading the player or the other characters, but, like her introduction screen, she constantly proclaims herself to be something that the narrative demonstrates she isn't. She protests that she is a general and not an “opera floozy” or a “love-starved twit,” but she eventually becomes both, an opera star and the lover of Locke. Additionally, everything about Celes is manufactured. Her magical abilities, which Terra has naturally developed, are the result of an infusion as a baby. Her special skill, Runic, lets Celes absorb the magical abilities of others and use them for herself. The emptiness inside Celes is so all-consuming that everything about her, from her misconceptions of who she is, to the way she has trained herself in battle, to the ease that she becomes an opera singer, all suggest that she is floundering without her title and actively drawing from everything around her to discover how she should relate to the world.

Celes absorbs the abilities of those around her

In the story of “Maria and Draco,” the titular characters are lovers residing in the Western Kingdom. The West is defeated during a war, and the spoils for Ralse, Prince of the East, include Maria's hand in marriage. Ralse keeps Maria atop his castle where she pines for Draco. Eventually, Draco arrives to stop the wedding and defeats Ralse in a duel to save Maria. The climax of the play showcases Maria's solo and dance sequence with a phantasmal Draco before she tosses a bouquet, a symbol of her love, from the balcony of the castle. During this scene, in which Celes stands in for Maria, we finally hear Celes's theme play for the first time as she sings "Aria di Mezzo Carattere." She has finally shed her identity and imperial occupation as a general and has now, after becoming Maria, begun to find herself. It's as if the game held off on her theme until we got to see the “real” Celes.

In opera, the phrase Aria di Mezzo Carattere is the name for a piece that is mid-way between seriousness and comedy. While this could be a metaphor for Final Fantasy VI as a whole, I believe the literal translation of the phrase, "Aria of Half Character," is a direct reference to Celes. Before this point, Celes is a blank slate, "pure as snow." "Maria and Draco" leaves a lasting impression on Celes and allows her to become a whole character long after the curtain closes.

A few gameplay hours after the opera, the world ends. And not hyperbolically, either. The villain causes an apocalypse that kills most of the population of the world. Celes wakes up on a solitary island in the southeasternmost point on the map with her surrogate grandfather, Cid. As far as they know, they are the only two remaining humans on the planet. Even the monsters outside the small hut where Cid has taken refuge succumb to death moments after they are encountered without any input from the player.

"Maria and Draco" (L), and Celes's suicide (R).

Shortly thereafter, Cid dies, leaving Celes alone, and the importance of the opera comes to light. Celes resolves to kill herself (despite what the English Super Nintendo translation says. Nintendo notoriously censored any references to death on their systems.), and heads to the cliffs to the north. As she does, Aria di Mezzo Caratterre plays, bringing the importance of the opera full circle. Celes pauses, thinks to herself, makes her way to the cliffs, and throws herself to the mercy of the ocean in a near-identical sequence as "Maria and Draco's" climax.

Celes soon finds herself on the shores of the Solitary Island, reborn in the post-apocalyptic world as a complete person. It is in this moment, she resolves to set out and save the planet.

“Maria and Draco” is the way Celes learns to cope with the world after the apocalypse. Celes begins her story as a blank slate with no title or identity, despite her protestations, and absorbs from those around her to feel whole. By becoming Maria, Celes adapts the message of the opera to her own life and eventually becomes a complete character, full of drive and purpose. Seemingly inconsequential at first, "Maria and Draco" becomes the impetus that allows Celes to save a world that she finally feels she could have a place in.

Why You are the Problem with The Muppets

I love the Muppets. I’ve owned more Cookie Monster shirts in my adult life than I’ve owned dress shirts. I have the Electric Mayhem listed as one of my favorite bands on Facebook. I think Gonzo generally has a better grasp on what it means to be human than most people. For my  26th birthday I went to FAO Schwarz to make a Muppet of my own. My love for the felt critters runs deep.
That’s why it hurts to say this, but ABC’s “The Muppets” sucks. When ABC announced that they wanted to relaunch the Muppets for a more adult audience, people got scared. They asked, “How could these characters make crass jokes and say things like ‘hell’?” To which I asked, “I guess you’ve never seen 1981’s  'The Great Muppet Caper.'” The show isn’t even offensively bad. It’s not trying to be an “extreme” version of a kid’s show, like “Death to Smoochy” or “Meet the Feebles,” but inversely, it’s another safe, boring, by-the-numbers sitcom, and that’s really the worst thing you can do to the Muppets.
Since the 70s, the Muppets have been a cultural staple, and in the ensuing four decades, the ragtag band of rags have cultivated their own quirks and personalities; Piggy is brash and selfish, Fozzie is dense and optimistic, Gonzo is adventurous and artistic, and Kermit is the straight man trying to keep everyone in check. Even the secondary characters like Rowlf and Bunsen and Sam the Eagle are all recognized and known for their distinct personalities. So how, with all of this work that has gone into cultivating these puppets into fully realized characters, has the new show fallen so flat? Part of it is, I believe, the setting. The Muppets takes place backstage at a talk show. On its face, this is an excellent idea. After all, the classic “Muppet Show” had Kermit at the Muppet Theater trying to keep it all together and deal with the drama of the week while Peter Sellers or Julie Andrews or Mark Hamill scrambled around with our fuzzy friends and tried to put on a good show. So what changed?
The choice to shoot the show in documentary-style has severely neutered the personalities of the characters. When Kermit used to be the lens we saw the world through, we could see the Muppets for what they were, because we didn’t have to relate to them. We only had to relate to Kermit. As everyone ran around trying to electrocute their costars and shoot themselves out cannons, we rooted for Kermit, who tried to “get things started” week after week. The non-Kermit characters were allowed to be as crazy as they wanted, and through Kermit’s constant frustrations as they tried to steer things off the rails, we had comedy.
The Muppets, in all of their movies, also loved leaning on the fourth wall. Every movie has the troupe acknowledge the fact that they’re playing parts, or has a celebrity friend pop up, or, in the case of the Segel film, reference the fact that it’s really weird when people break into song every time there’s a musical number.
By removing the fourth wall and having the Muppets directly interact with the audience, we lose something. Gonzo isn’t allowed to be experimental and crazy anymore because we have to care about his online dating. Kermit can’t address an aside to the audience, because he has to wait for the next scene to explain his feelings directly to the cameraman. And the characters don’t have to talk to each other or interact anymore because they can talk directly to us, instead, to say what’s on their minds. When there is no fourth wall, there is no boundary to break, and when the Muppets are given no boundaries, there isn’t any anarchy for them to wreak.
Tina Fey’s 30 Rock had a similar setup and it worked because the characters had to live with each other and their decisions. There was no retreating to a room with the crew to express their frustrations. If Tracy was having a problem with Jenna, he’d go to Liz Lemon to complain, or come up with a crazy plan to address it himself. If Gonzo is having a problem with Piggy, he needs to plot with his fellow writers, Rizzo and Pepe, or go complain to a beleaguered Kermit. Instead, the newly boring Gonzo calmly tells the camera that Piggy is annoying and makes a snarky comment as we see Piggy do something funny in the background. The Muppets thrive in interplay and anarchy, not solitude and order. By removing the fourth wall and showing us that the Muppets are just like us, they’ve made them boring by making them just like us.
The throwaway gags are another huge letdown. An offhanded mention of Gonzo’s mother on vacation, or the Swedish Chef wanting an autograph signed “Meghan” exists only for a momentary chuckle, but the lines don’t even deliver that. They’re predictable sitcom fare. Fozzie’s relationship with a human was a hilarious setup that had no followup outside of one episode (so far.) Despite her participation in the marketing of the show, we haven’t seen Denise since episode one. Rowlf has been completely wasted in his one appearance. His one joke was one repeated from the reel used to pitch the show. The Electric Mayhem drug jokes, in particular, are the laziest kind of joke. And what’s more is that any of these jokes could be inserted into any other show and nobody would know the difference. Why bother using the Muppets at all if you’re not going to cater to your “actors”? There’s a whole history of television and film that can be drawn from, and we barely get more than a drug joke. Even Ron Swanson, himself, Nick Offerman, couldn’t escape lazy joke writing with his extended “I owe you one” sequence where he asks for a cappuccino machine, and then a boat. It’s not clever. It’s a joke a 10-year-old would roll his eyes at. It’s as if the crew of the show is playing it safe, but there’s no reason to. They’re the Muppets. They don’t need restraint. New viewers won’t watch because it’d bland, and old fans won’t watch because it’s not true to the Muppets franchise.
Speaking of celebrities, they’ve been used all wrong. That may be because each episode has been bursting at the seams with celebrities, not giving them a chance to breathe. Josh Groban was wonderful as Piggy’s boyfriend, and widened the scope of the show and made room for world-building. It felt more real, mostly because the characters were given time to interact, rather than retreat to the camera crew. Kermit’s reversal of the situation was the show’s best segment, as far as characterization goes, so far. Lawrence Fishburne had one of the greatest cameos I’ve seen, and I’d love to see him pop up to randomly antagonize Kermit more often. On the flip side, Christina Applegate and, again, Nick Offerman, were just there to be there. The fact that they’re celebrities isn’t enough of a joke. “The Muppet Show” usually only had one guest per episode, and that was a much longer running time. The guests should be treated like characters, used as cameos, or just omitted entirely.
There are a few shining spots, however. Sam the Eagle at S&P is brilliant. Scooter has thrived in his gofer role, having some great character moments with Elizabeth Banks and Kermit, himself. He seems to have become a willing participant in the chaos; knowing that something crazy is about to happen, but going along with it anyway. Bobo the bear cracks me up every time he’s on screen. Even the new I.T. guy, Chip, was worth a few laughs in his first appearance.
I had high hopes for The Muppets, and with every episode, I keep praying it’ll find its voice. The pieces are all there. We know these characters. Let them be their crazy selves. Unless they go whole hog (wocka wocka), The Muppets will be remembered the same was as the D.O.A. “Muppets Tonight,” and that’s not what they deserve. Embrace the felt. Let The Muppets do what they do best, and let Kermit worry about the consequences.