Ray returns with an avalanche of mini reviews following his love affair with giant robots and emotional turmoil.
Above all else, I like how 2/2 updates the letter-writing RPG to a futuristic setting; it is themed around how two people, soldiers on opposing armies who once fought together, are still able to communicate despite the efforts of the world to divide the opposing sides thanks to a shared server. It is a simple idea and it is used interestingly; for the first few rounds, as the characters try to remain in contact, the instructions are to alternately read and write, to exchange mail in the usual fashion. It is not until the final battle that the situation changes; then, the players write, imagine what happened to their characters, and then read the message left for them. The game describes this as “a chance to say anything that can’t be left unsaid” – but there is no guarantee it will be read.
The Romeo and Juliet-style war story has been a staple of the giant robot story since the 1970’s and has developed in maturity, I think; stories of beautiful women falling for the hero but being forced to fight to the death against them were lampooned in Martian Successor Nadesico’s Aquamarine episode as part of its interrogation of genre cliches, and taken into stranger biomechanical horror places with Mazinger Z’s Danube storyline and were the driving force throughout Daimos.
Subsequently there were stories like Layzner, Baldios and similar that inverted the situation and had the runaway alien fighting his own side, stories of people corrupted by evil and fighting their own friends and even just straight stories of trying to deal with a turncoat (Shapiro in Dancouga). I could easily list more examples, but it suffices to say 2/2 plays with an important theme of the genre, the idea that in war your enemy could well have once been your friend.
And yet the asymmetry of the final exchange in 2/2, and its whole tone in its suggested prompts of moral ambiguity – wholly implicit, but present to me in prompts like “Injured Allies and How We Care for Them” or “A New Pilot, So Very, Very Young” made me want to put 2/2 to work as a way of recapturing one particularly great storyline in giant robot anime. There is an arc in Eureka Seven about a minor agent of the enemy force becoming more and more disillusioned with his own side’s moral bankruptcy and there is a very good episode early in this story that feels, indirectly, like 2/2; it is a recap episode, summing up the story so far. The hero, Renton, muses on his own turbulent life in a war he does not understand, while Dominic, a young officer in the enemy army, writes up his own interpretation of events.
Unlike in 2/2 they never read each others’ thoughts, but I think 2/2 could interestingly capture that episode’s real point of interest; it is about two people on opposite sides trying to understand the same incomprehensible events through their upbringing and conditioning. 2/2 could very easily do the same and drive that even further by letting the two sides actually respond to each other.
Effigy is interesting; like many of the games in this project it focuses on what is left behind in war, but it does it through practical, interactive means rather than purely being a writing prompt. It touches on a very different aspect of the genre to the other titles I have reviewed – it is themed around the process of restoring an old vehicle to its former glory.
I am not immensely familiar with performance art in the RPG space, and Effigy is described as a performance. It asks the player to speak aloud, even if alone, to make shapes and forms out of paper or some other material and destroy and reform them to physically represent both the destruction and dereliction of a machine and then the emotional bond formed through its restoration. The rules text makes it seem a quite curated experience; the choice of words used at every point describes the intended emotions the player might feel; “Begin with a name, given originally by a crack team of engineers at a time when hope was still young.” As the pregame process goes on, describing the past life of the machine, the player is instructed to blow the paper around, screw it up, tear it – physically damage something they have designed until eventually it is left to “rest for a minute, (gathering) a little dust and dirt.” You create, and then destroy your creation.
At this point the tone of the game changes slightly; you are no longer quite so simply restoring a machine, you are building an emotional relationship with it. Anthropomorphising machinery, especially vehicles, isn’t unusual; for a good example of how this sort of story can be built up check out Love, Death & Robots on Netflix. A lot of the stories in the Emotional Mecha Jam assume some level of relationship between pilot and machine beyond tool and user, some going as far as transhumanist themes and questions of AI relationships. But I’m not sure Effigy is as simple as it appears at first sight. It’s not a game, beneath the surface, about merely restoring a machine, about the bonding exercise that that can be. It almost feels like a game that’s using that to make some deeper point about love and relationships – touching on the concept of the Ship of Theseus as it could be applied to bodily identity.
The first instruction takes things away from the mechanical; “Draw or cut out a pair of eyes… look into them; they can see you too… Collect your thoughts for as long as you need to under their gaze, and consider what you would like to tell them. The repair process takes the form of making controlled cuts and changes to the crumpled paper doll, building a narrative as you do by talking about the past, the future and the personal memories. And then, after a period of reflection and confession, one final chance to make the paper fly.
None of this feels at this point comfortably like a performance piece about restoring vehicles. It has somewhat transcended that; it is about helping something or someone sort out their bodily presentation until they are once again happy in their body. Recent criticism of the cyberpunk genre has explored how the matter of cybernetic enhancement, in an era where acceptance of trans identity remains an important debate, takes on a different tone to historical concerns about the loss of humanity inherent in changing the body at will. Now the process of human enhancement and modification is increasingly being read as a chance for people with dysphoria to express themselves how they wish, and the view that this is an unnatural, dehumanising process is obviously appearing rather outdated. The language used in Effigy during the process of restoring and reshaping a body makes me rather feel it is a piece about exploring those themes.
And yet I am uncomfortable about reading it that way because it is about someone reshaping something else in the image of their ideal. Forming a relationship and changing another until it happy, capped off with an epilogue that once again de-anthropomorphises it to a machine to be preserved or scrapped or left somewhere. As a result I feel Effigy is a confusing game, thematically. It begins and ends with something that is very clearly a machine, evoking the nostalgic, complex world of restoring historical vehicles, but in the middle takes the anthropomorphisation of machines into more challenging places, of reshaping and restoring a body that no longer is right for its owner.
I like things that question my preconceptions and I like that Effigy, among other titles in this collection, is interpreting the emotional side of the genre in a way that strikes out into different directions to questions of the horror of war and mortality. I also like that while I came into it with preconceptions about scenes I’d seen of people restoring robots in mecha media none of them mapped nicely to what Effigy offered (as it is often the case that restoring a machine, for example in Gundam 0083 Stardust Memory, is used as a way for humans to bond over a shared love of machines). Effigy’s mission statement, so to speak, is that it is about “restoring a relic of a painful past.”
The process of restoring a body, reshaping it and making it finally suit its owner, is a loaded one that as I become more aware of the world around me has numerous interpretations. Perhaps I am conflicted about Effigy purely because I have been made aware of these things. Perhaps if I hadn’t considered them in reading about the shift in thought around bodily freedom and enhancement I’d read Effigy purely as something about building a wordless rapport with a humanised machine. I think I would be missing the potential interest, even if that interest does leave me conflicted and challenged. Out of interest I looked into author HB’s other games; The Otherselves is a fantasy game about the risks of losing one’s humanity (or transcending it) in the pursuit of magical power to pursue an anti-capitalist revolution. Collapse/Consciousness is about the emergence of an AI, with the players defining an artificial being’s nature and testing its limits before learning its fate. There are definite transhuman or posthuman themes running through this, which in turn further re-contextualises Effigy.
Whereas many of these games are independent things, designed to be played as an isolated, intimate experience, Running Hot is a diceless depiction of a duel that could be slotted into any system, and easily rethemed to any kind of duel – even if it does work so very well as a mecha scene. It absolutely gets what most RPGs cannot, that a one-on-one duel is rarely about applying mechanics to the combat but should be about the spirit of it, the emotions. Either a one-on-one duel is unsatisfyingly short as a well-tuned character beats a similar opponent, or drags on past the point of dramatic tension owing to overly-tough characters unable to inflict meaningful damage.
Which is where a subsystem like Running Hot, that turns the fight into a conversation, works a lot better than trying to rebalance a crunchier combat system. The game as written suggests two players wishing to play it as a standalone game could take the roles of each combatant, but in a longer-running game the GM could easily take the role of the “enemy.”
So how does it work? The players throw questions and accusations at each other and build up “Heat”, a measure of their control of the fight. And, when one side reaches seven, the fight ends – the rules say there is no “specific win or loss condition”, but what matters is how the fight reflects the resolution of the emotional conflict. The three “Vents” – end conditions – would need a little house-ruling to fit into an ongoing campaign, but are very thematic. Either both pilots die, one sacrificing themselves to take out their opponent, there is one dramatic final shot which leaves the conflict open to a narrative call, or there is an absolute victor – except the victor is not the person who reaches seven Heat. In the third case, though, the loser is not guaranteed to die – they are merely left at the mercy of their opponent, which is the most dramatically interesting way of continuing the story.
I really like the Heat mechanic in Running Hot, because it is not as simple as control over the fight – as it may first seem. What is being built up is not mastery or momentum but the loss thereof. And the way the questions are worded call into question the heroism of the pilots on both sides – from the protagonist’s perspective calling out their rival, accusing them of all manner of crimes, justifies their heroism. But the enemy can ask the same of them, can remember every friend they have lost.
This is absolutely thematically perfect in laying plain the brutal emotional side of the combats that are so memorable in Gundam – the ideologies and arguments used as deadly weapons to the point where the swords and guns are secondary. It’s a great way of letting the final confrontation between a player and their antagonist be emotional catharsis – and in a way Running Hot also lets you examine the nature of vengeance. Vengeance is at the core of a lot of mecha anime conflicts because rivalry and war can lead to personal vendettas. Often the pursuit of vengeance in these military frameworks is conflated with the necessity of stopping evil, and then subverted to question whether the hero has become monstrous in their pursuit of this aim.
Of late I have been watching the interesting, if uneven, robot anime Gun X Sword – it is a kind of science-fiction Western about a lone wanderer trying to seek revenge for the murder of his wife, and joining others who, it turns out, have more or less quarrel with the murderer. Every notable fight in that series is a clash of ideals, of attitudes, of emotions more than it is a clash of weapons. Even the side characters and the comedy figures have their convictions and intense feelings that drive them. The series does not really interrogate whether vengeance is intrinsically good or bad as much as it acknowledges that sometimes it is a necessary part of life – and even if it is destructive or poisonous it can lead to some good. It achieves this bluntly by having the subject of the hero’s vengeance be an unequivocally evil man, so horribly misguided in his intentions he wishes great harm upon everyone and surrounded by an equally twisted roster of malcontents. So vengeance here is not intrinsically good (and indeed it gives us a selfish, aggressive and often monstrous hero), but it does in this specific case bring about the demise of a nastier piece of work who gets what is coming.
Running Hot might let players hash out their rivalries with villains in exciting fashion, might serve as a great way of doing a duel in a gaming medium that rarely handles them well, but it should, I think – if the players really want to get to the heart of why mecha anime duels and rivalries are so good – give the player the opportunity to have their own preconceptions challenged, their own ideologies thrown into the fire of debate with lives on the line. Turning a fight with weapons into a war of words tests the fighter’s convictions a lot more.
Reclaimed is another game in this collection that seeks to anthropomorphise an artificially intelligent robot, a recurring theme which opens up interesting cyberpunk and science-fiction thought spaces. But it is ultimately, as so many of these games are, not a game about robots at all. It is a game that asks open, loaded questions. Not necessarily about humanity, or about machine ethics, but about society. At the start of the game the players decide a number of things about the setting – including, crucially, “How has the world changed?” and “Why are you unable to adapt to these changes?” In the core theming of the game, the players take turns assuming the persona of a war machine in a post-war society trying to “get home” in a changed, maybe hostile, maybe incompatible world.
Taken completely at face value this seems like it is asking the same moral and philosophical questions as the movie First Blood or Joe Haldeman’s science-fiction novel The Forever War. How can a soldier – in this case, a machine made solely to fight – reintegrate with society in a time of peace when all it knows is war? The rules say “This game is about time; don’t be afraid to let it pass you by” – Each “turn” in the slow, doomed-to-failure process of reintegration, can last “anything from a day to decades.” And while none of these moments of the story is truly a happy one, they are loaded with the possibilities of finding hope.
Is it possible to escape the horrors of the past with enough time? Can a killing machine learn to be human?
The Emotional Mecha Jam is about asking questions “traditional” RPGs can’t and the generational scale of Reclaimed allows it to ask these questions about how society changes, and then – perhaps outside the scope of the game, perhaps within the vaguely defined scenes of “acting out” these encounters – considering what this might mean on a longer term or a larger scale. There are two endings for Reclaimed. Death or resignment to failure. Either everything breaks on the dying robot and its remains are left to their fate, or it abandons its impossible mission of “going home” to a home that doesn’t exist. The impossibility of a proper, happy, resolution – from the opening rubric asking the players to ask why they cannot fit into the two endings being death or failure makes this a tough game to play. Tougher, in a way, than titles that focus on accepting mortality or dealing with death.
It also throws this quite a way further into awkward questions about postwar integration than most mecha stories I can think of. When I first skimmed Reclaimed and did not digest what it was going for I thought its stories of soldiers returning home to changed worlds like Haldeman’s novel, or the OVA Gunbuster with its famous final image of the whole planet lit up to spell out WELCOME HOME to the heroes, millennia in their future owing to the punishing time dilation of constant faster-than-light travel. But the expectation is very much even in these stories that while the world is different, and hard to adjust to, it is a fundamentally human world and even changed values can be related to. The closest anime example I can think of (to keep things within the intended genre) doesn’t even have robots in – it is the 1980s OVA Area 88, about a pilot conscripted into a mercenary air force who finally attains his freedom but cannot, John Rambo like, fit in a peacetime world.
I’m not sure Reclaimed implies that this is a world that you can return to and adapt to, even if it could be played as such. Indeed, it never makes it clear if your side won. That’s a very interesting question.
Thanks Ray… I’m exhausted…