Friday, May 30, 2008

Golden Sun: opening sequence and writing

I started playing through Golden Sun for the Game Boy Advance again yesterday. I have played it before, though I have never finished it. While I am a big fan of the game and think it has an excellent gameplay system, there is one area where the game is lacking: its writing. As a whole, Golden Sun suffers from very poor dialogue and cut-scene direction, and it is very obvious in the opening stretch of the game.

The biggest problem with the opening sequence is its sheer length. It took me one hour and fifty minutes on the game clock to reach the point where the heroes first step foot onto the overworld and acquire the first Djinn in the game. So it takes almost two hours for the game to really get started. While that time does include exploring a reasonably large town and the game's first dungeon, much of the length comes from the numerous cutscenes that occur during this time. Unfortunately, it feels like Golden Sun's cutscenes do more to waste time than actually move the plot forward.

Overall the cutscenes are weighed down by too much repetition in the dialogue. For example, in the Sol Sanctum, the villains explain that they intend to light the four elemental lighthouses using the stolen Elemental Stars. A bit later, the elders in Vale waste quite a bit of time going over this same information. The line "Jenna will be safe if Felix is with her" is repeated four or five times. One of the most glaring examples comes from the final goodbye scene where the heroes leave the village. The scene starts with two children talking about how everyone is gathering to send off Isaac and Garret, and that they don't see Isaac's mother around. Immediately after that five or so minute sequence, the camera pans down to where the crowd and the heroes are, and spends another five or so minutes going over how Isaac's mother is not there to see her son off. There is no information in the part with the children that is not covered in more depth in the second half of the same scene. The entire opening sequence is full of such examples.

Even more annoying than the repetition is the occurrences where characters stand around doing nothing for 10 to 20 seconds at a time. During these long pauses, the characters will often do a twitching motion, look around at each other, and perform sweat-drops or other emotes, but not say anything. It is impossible to extract any meaning or insight from the characters' actions, so these segments feel like nothing more than long, awkward silences. And yet, they occur frequently, appearing in almost every scene. They don't fulfill any particular storytelling or character development purpose, and should have been stripped from the game.

Perhaps the biggest problem of the cutscenes in the game is the long-winded, rambling tone of it, which is only aggravated by the repetition and pauses. In the big reveal sequence where Felix is supposed to take off his mask and surprise his sister, the dramatic tension of the entire scene is sucked away by the shoddy writing. Instead of a quick, dramatic reveal, one of Felix's companions drops Felix's name first, followed by a couple of minutes where the two companions goad and harass Felix until he finally does take the mask off. Even when a giant floating eye with super-powers shows up and threatens the villains, they take their time to stand around and talk about what to do next for several minutes before making their escape.

Ultimately, the game not only wastes a lot of time during these cut-scenes, it also fails to get crucial information across. In the big scene where the heroes, their family members, and the village elders gather around to talk about what happened and to make the decision that Isaac and Garret need to leave on their journey, many important plot points get lost in the meandering conversation. The game even fails to clearly state what the heroes' (and thus the player's) goal really is. On one hand, the characters say that saving Jenna is important, they also are confident she isn't in any danger with her brother around. While the heroes are told that Alchemy is a dangerous power, they are also told that stopping the villain's plan or not is their choice.

Overall, the opening of Golden Sun would have been much better if the cut-scenes were shorter and more focused.

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