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Knowing what you want is enough

  • Koff
  • 08/12/2019 03:08 AM
You can see a lot of the author in Facets. Every work reflects the values of its creator in some way, of course, but Facets feels especially transparent. The reason for this, I think, is that the game is so uninterested in trying to deliver on player's expectations about how RPGs should play. It's a genre savvy game, but Facets very much has its own vision of what it wants to do, and any RPG conventions that don't serve that vision have been left behind without a second thought. This leaves more room for the author's own interests and values to shine through. It feels much more like the author made the kind of game they wanted to play rather than something with broad commercial appeal, or to satisfy the established tastes of diehard RPG fans. Whether or not it's the type of game you want to play, Facets has its own personality, and I think that's a valuable quality to foreground in art per se. Moreover, Facets has plenty of interesting and worthwhile ideas of its own, especially around turn-based combat, but also about common themes in RPG narratives—and any work that brings original thought so capably to such a conservative genre deserves consideration.

Facets' personality is most clearly on display in battle. Concerned especially with the fundamentals of RPG combat, Facets eschews the bells and whistles of flashy systems and customization playgrounds to focus on underlying skills: observing & anticipating enemy behaviors, learning how best to utilize the moves at your disposal, and exploiting the flexible attack timing of RPG Maker 2003's ATB system. In Facets your party's power levels are fixed from start to finish. They will never increase in level, learn new spells, or gain new equipment (besides consumable items). Consequently, there are no trivial victories in Facets. Victory is instead to be earned by exercising patience and mindfulness: learning how the enemy behaves, judging which of the multiple threats they pose must be most urgently addressed, and executing a response based on cultivated understanding. This is the type of attentive play that Facets wants to explore. Indeed, it mandates it. The conscientious approach is necessary for two reasons: first, because the battles are difficult to win no matter how you play, and second, because healing items are finite, and in fact quite few. You may play recklessly and attempt to compensate by liberally drinking Potions, but you can expect thereby to win your way into a corner with too few resources to finish the game. The scarcity of healing casts a shadow of tension over the whole game: I've never felt so scared of running into a random encounter, and Facets doesn't even have them. The best way to make sure you have enough items to finish the game is to pay attention and play smart from the very beginning.

This style of play mean Facets isn't for everyone. Its design philosophy steps away from the power fantasy of RPGs in the Final Fantasy tradition toward the vulnerability fantasy of survival horror-influenced RPGs like Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter and The 7th Saga. Success entails stressing over whether you can afford to use a fourth Potion this battle, and practicing a willingness to try the same fight thrice over to develop and perfect your strategy. Facets isn't cruel; you don't need to refine your strategies to the point of perfect or manage your resources with 100% efficiency. But Facets does ask you to pay attention to these things and engage with them deliberately where many RPGs only skim the surface, saving their deepest interactions for their elaborate customization and empowerment systems.

The biggest obstacle Facets' battles face is the effort involved in understanding what's going on. The game offers no tutorialization and no way to view characters' stats outside of battle, so the player must learn characters' strengths and the uses of their skills through trial and error alone. Combat can also be difficult to follow due to the limitations of RPG Maker 2003's default battle system. RPG Maker 2003 lacks the sense of timing of (say) Final Fantasy 5, a game that endeavors to ensure only one attack is playing out at a time, and tends to avoid enemies inserting their own attacks between the input and execution of one of your own. In the absence of any such effort to space out its action, combat in Facets can be tricky to follow and make predictions about. No amount of design can avert this chaos—it's endemic to the engine. It is up to the player to accept it and invest the effort in interpreting the events shown on screen. This is a distraction both from the strategic layer of combat as well as from some clever and laboriously considered battle scenarios. The fact that Facets produced such a rewarding experience of combat despite these impediments is a testament to the strength of its encounter design.

To present Facets as concerned solely with combat would be to do it a disservice to its world-building and narrative design. But it's difficult to speak of story and theme without getting into details in a way that would spoil the experience, so I limit my discussion to an abstract summary. In Facets a picture slowly emerges: of a person, of the life she lives in a broken world, of the social forces that shape her life, and of the gravity of question she has to confront: how do you keep fighting in the face of probable doom? The very question hangs in the air every step of the game as you wonder if the next battle will be the one that finally empties your inventory and saps your last ounce of energy, leaving you with no way or will to go on. It's a question that's increasingly important in an world where austerity, fascism, and climate change are just some of the sweeping threats that hang ever heavier over the lives of marginalized people of all sorts. It's a child of the same zeitgeist that produced L.O.V.E. games' Dys, also released in the summer of 2018, which explores the same question in more abstract, psychic terms. Facets' response, much like Dys', is not as inspirational as its JRPG roots might suggest, but it treats the question with the gravity and honesty that it's due. It's a refreshingly mature take on dystopia and its effects, and one that makes Facets much more than just an experiment in RPG battles.

My heart will always belong to works that want to deliver a very particular experience, especially one that diverges from (or clashes with) people's usual desires of a genre or medium. Even when they aren't about the author(s), they're full of personality. Facets is just such a game: thoughtful, earnest, and humble, painted with its creator's passion, and pursuing its own unique vision, even at the expense of the traditions of commercial RPGs. Supported by a diligent understanding of the principles of combat design, Facets offers a promising glimpse of what else—more—RPGs can be doing.