Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Megaman Starforce 2: BrotherBands Part 1 (Story)

I believe games should have strong central themes that gets integrated into their mechanics, and the two Megaman Starforce games are examples that only reinforce this belief. These are games that are built around the ideas of loneliness, friendship, and the struggle between the human need to be accepted and the all too real ease with which people can hurt each other and push each other away, and these powerful themes find a perfect reflection in the BrotherBand system. This system, which exists as both an element of the game's setting and an extremely important game mechanic, works as a bond that lets friends give each other additional power. People who haven't formed any BrotherBands are isolated, miserable, and often helpless against the evils of the world, while people who have many BrotherBands are happy and strong, and this applies equally well to the player as it does to any of the game characters. It may seem a bit simplistic and overly exaggerated at times, but it works amazingly well to create an endearing story.

One of the most important roles Brotherbands have in the game story is the impact their existence within the setting has on the way characters act and think. Everyone in the world of Megaman Starforce is absolutely obsessed with the idea of BrotherBands. It seems like every character talks about nothing but the BrotherBands they have formed, BrotherBands they want to form, their difficulties in forming Brotherbands, etc. As a result, the subject of the importance of friendship is brought up almost constantly throughout the course of the game. The player has no choice but to think about the topic almost every time he plays the game. The idea that friendships are important is made clear to the player from the very beginning.

The constant discussion of BrotherBands is taken to new levels in Starforce 2, where the addition of "Link Power", a numerical rating of the strength of a person's BrotherBands (which you can see displayed for every character in the game), adds whole new levels to the obsession. Among many other things, in that world someone can apparently get discounts on bus fares, VIP treatment at hotels, and preferred seating at theaters simply by having a lot of close friends. Because Link Power, a numerical value for the "power of friendship", is portrayed as providing the various material goods that many people associate with "being happy", the game is pretty putting forward the idea that friendship is the thing that gives people the things that make them happy. This is only expressed more strongly when Link Power is put forward as being more important than money in various parts of the game (such as the snow resort chapter in which a man who tries to get everything he wants with money is the villain trying to force a man with very high Link Power out of business). And of course, the player has a Link Power score as well, and building this value up is necessary for a lot of the fun things in the game.

With a world built upon BrotherBands and Link Power, it is no surprise that the villains of the Starforce games embrace the idea of loneliness. The villains of the original game, the FM-ians, are alien entities that take over the bodies of those who are consumed by loneliness. Every boss battle in the original Megaman Starforce is a battle against someone who has essentially been eaten away by their own suffering and turned into a monster against their own will. Thus, the FM-ians (and their monstrous weapon Andromeda) are essentially metaphors for the destructive effects of loneliness, as well as the terrible mix of emotions that both lead to that feeling and result from it, such as fear, despair, anger, jealousy, and paranoia. Megaman Starforce 2 continues the trend by including a villain (appropriately named Solo) who has rejected the world and hates even the idea of friendship, though I have not yet reached the end of the game so it is hard to say any more about him. In every case, loneliness is portrayed as the worst possible state a person can be in, something that eats away at the soul and leads nothing but hatred for the world, and worse still is the situation for those who reject what friendship is offered to them.

Surpassing all of these elements, though, is the basic story of the main hero, Geo Stellar, in his growth from being a lonely kid who has no friends to help him get through the misery of the loss of his father to becoming a hero who helps others and has many close friends to rely on. Having the main hero start out without any friends at all was one of the great decisions made by the game designers, and even greater still was the way they link progressing through the main plot to Geo's slow acquisition of BrotherBands (and strengthening those bonds further in Starforce 2, which is the reason the addition of Link Power to the BrotherBand system in Starforce 2 was so good). Still, the greatest aspect of Geo's story is that it isn't simple, straight path from "lonely" to "happy"; it is filled with ups and downs in which his attempts to open up and find new friends hurt him almost as much as they help. It portrays the act of forging meaningful bonds with other people as a terrible struggle (both directly and metaphorically), but one that must be fought and has great rewards awaiting at the end. This message, that it is important to open up and understand others despite very real difficulties, is the heart of the Starforce series.

It seems that I might have wandered a little bit away from the whole "story and mechanics are integrated" idea that I started with, but that assertion is still true. Just as Geo's story is built upon the idea that it is essential to have friends, the game mechanics are built around the idea that the player should have friends, and that having friends makes the player stronger. However, this post is probably long enough already, so I will focus on that aspect a bit more next time.

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