Grassroots Movements Vs. Gaming's Corporate Inevitability

Grassroots Movements Vs. Gaming's Corporate Inevitability

Please tell me the answer, is fate unchangeable?

Yesterday, I spotted an intriguing thread on popular gaming message board NeoGAF: "Suikoden on Steam and GOG campaign by Suikoden Revival Movement," which details a grassroots movement to get cult favorite RPGs Suikoden and Suikoden II onto Steam.

It's not a bad idea, even if I do question the group's intended tactic of bombarding Konami's social media channels. Unlike many port requests, this one seems feasible. The first two Suikoden games were released on PC years ago in China, so Windows-friendly renditions exist. Converting those versions to use the existing English scripts for PlayStation wouldn't be a massive endeavor. Plus, Steam has proven to be quite a friendly format for Japanese RPGs, creating financial incentive for publisher Konami to jump in. Grassroots movements can make a difference, and even if Konami has been raking in record profits since moving away from video games, it's not unreasonable to think they might be open to making even more easy money.

Still, I can't help but feel a bit ambivalent about the name "Suikoden Revival Movement," because it hints at ambitions that seem unlikely at best and counterproductive at worst. It's one thing to lobby for wider availability of games that have been out of print and climbing in price for a decade — that's the lord's work right there. But while the group's website doesn't state it outright, it appears their long-term goal is to convince Konami to begin making new Suikoden games. After all, it worked for Shenmue III, right? So anything is possible, at least in theory. But even if Konami could somehow be convinced that returning to the high-stakes, high-risk, low-profit video games business was a good move (good luck with that), do we really want another Suikoden game?

I mean, yes, wow, how amazing would that be? Another Suikoden after all this time? Great as it sounds in principle, though, I have a feeling that dream has something of the monkey's paw to it. Yes, an essential element of fandom is an insatiable desire for more, more, more... but I've come to accept in recent years that another part of loving a creative work comes in being able to let go and say, "This is enough."

If by some miracle Konami suddenly felt a profound need to continue to Suikoden series, what are the chances that a new entry would live up to the original trilogy? The creative passion of writer Yoshitaka Murayama drove the first three games to excellence; he acted as the creative force behind its fascinating world and all the rune-based creation myths that fueled both the plots and mechanics of the games. Murayama left after Suikoden III, and you could immediately, and profoundly, feel his absence: Nearly all fans consider Suikoden IV the worst of the series, and while Suikoden V righted the ship somewhat it also felt like a chore to play thanks to its technical issues. Konami attempted to distance the series from Murayama's vision with Suikoden Tierkreis for Nintendo DS, a game that has its share of fans but feels like Suikoden in name only (much like its Japan-only follow-up, and the final entry in the Suikoden franchise to date, The Woven Web of a Century for PSP).

Suikoden Tierkreis wasn't terrible, but its draggy pace and oblique premise felt nothing like a true Suikoden adventure.

Konami could make new games with the Suikoden name, but they'd do so without Murayama's guidance it's doomed to feel ersatz. Meanwhile, Murayama has reportedly been working on his own off-brand spiritual successor to Suikoden, Blue Moon — but even if he nails the feel of the earlier RPG series, it will lack a narrative connection to his previous works. And that, ultimately, was the appeal of Suikoden: The progression of standalone stories that together formed a tapestry of a world and its history. The True Runes, the immortal characters, and the growing sense that each new Suikoden tale pushed these universal elements closer toward some ultimate endgame — more than anything, those were Suikoden's greatest strength. The reality is that the story's creator and the franchise's owner are two different entities, and they've been estranged for more than a decade now. Realistically, they'll never get back together, and that means Suikoden fans will never get the follow-up they want. Murayama can create a follow-up in spirit lacking true connections to the original, and Konami has demonstrated that the best it can do is drag along a hollow corpse of a brand. But they'll never make that crucial connection that would make a Suikoden sequel truly desirable.

In no way is this state of affairs unique to Suikoden. On the contrary, it's practically become the defining nature of modern popular entertainment. Almost everything you love is owned by corporations, and it's rare that an individual creator's vision outlives the desire to sustain a brand. Corporations are not your friend, and they don't have any particular interest in creative integrity. Their friends are their board members, and their interest is in growing profit margins.

Given that video games want to be movies but have more in common with comic books in terms of creative maturity, perhaps it's fitting that the creative-versus-corporate model that most closely resembles the one video games have fallen into can be found in comic book movies. So, too, is the gaming industry's treatment of the people whose ideas drive it. The Marvel film franchise is worth billions to Disney, yet many of the men who helped create the characters that have become global film icons have struggled in poverty and failing health for decades. DC's Bill Finger more or less defined everything about Batman, but he ended up dying poor; Warner, however, continues to make billions from the character. Writer Alan Moore revolutionized the comics medium with Watchmen, a standalone saga that DC has stretched in increasingly crass directions thanks to its beloved status among comics fans. Moore has spoken at length about his distaste for the company's treatment of his work, but he's powerless to do anything about it.

Alan Moore's not even dead, and still he's rolling in his grave.

Anyone who follows comic books from major publishers inevitably has to come to terms with the fact that some writers and artists do great work with the property, but those people eventually move on, and whoever replaces them may not turn out such satisfying interpretations of those characters or premises. Likewise with other media; you can be guaranteed that anything bearing JJ Abrams' name will take a nosedive once he steps away. Consider Alias, or Lost, or the current run of Star Trek films, all of which suffered once he moved along... and all of which loom as an ill omen for future Star Wars films after the success of the Abrams-directed The Force Awakens. Then again, Star Wars is now owned by Disney rather than by George Lucas, and the company wasted no time in concocting a plan to turn it into a conservative, sustainable, serialized franchise. In fact, shortly after I wrote this paragraph, rumors hit the web suggesting that Disney has ordered reshoots on Star Wars: Rogue One in order to make it less dark and more conventional — a perfect case-in-point example.

That's the Disney way: Safe, predictable, sustainable, and quite possibly dead the moment things start to take a downward turn. Hence the death of Disney Infinity at the first sign that its profits might diminish. Certainly you'll never see Disney's Marvel films take bold, controversial steps like the comics' recent decision to reveal Captain America as a lifelong secret villain. Which isn't altogether a bad thing. Chances are, most people won't complain — they'll find the cautious, steady Disney approach superior to the comics' new Captain America continuity, or the Lucas-helmed Star Wars prequels. But while taking a middle-of-the-road approach means we'll almost certainly never see another scene as terrible as Anakin Skywalker attempting foreplay by lamenting the roughness of sand, it also means we'll never see the shocking, boundary-breaking creative highs that gave us Star Wars in the first place, either.

At some point, we have to ask ourselves, "What is it that we actually love about the things we love?" Do we love the property or the creators who gave it life? Sometimes, talented people can keep a concept fresh long after its original creator exits the scene. In my Mega Man-a-thon streams, I've spoken quite a bit about the role designer Akira Kitamura played in defining the series — but even after he left, the franchise continued to hit new highs. Mega Man 3 was excellent. Mega Man X was even better. Mega Man Legends was spectacular. Yet Capcom cranked out plenty of terrible Mega Man games over the years. And now, Mighty No. 9 — created by people who had a direct hand in some of the finest Mega Man entries ever — looks like a major letdown to many fans of Inti Creates' previous work. (Publisher Deep Silver's legendarily wretched trailer for the game certainly didn't win any hearts, including that of the game's producer, which offers as perfect a summation of the one-sided relationship between corporations and creators as you could hope for.) On the other hand, Capcom isn't doing anything in terms of new Mega Man games, and hasn't for half a decade. When Mighty No. 9 launches in a few weeks, hungry fans will be forced to ask themselves a soul-searching question: "Is this, in fact, better than nothing?"

Submitted without comment.

Controversial writer Devin Faraci recently lamented the "broken" state of media fandom, and there's some truth to his remarks... but the angry, violent corner of fandom he paints as the entirety of fandom ultimately represents a minority. Certainly groups like the Suikoden Revival Movement don't radiate that sense of malevolent selfishness. They might be a bit overzealous in their approach, sure, but they appear motivated by positivity and earnestness rather than entitlement and resentment. Is there actually anything to be positive about, though? The nature of corporate ownership over creative media seems unavoidably geared toward destroying the properties that fans love. Look at how overstuffed and garish the X-Men movies have grown compared to the 2000 original. Consider all the promising TV series that have descended into trash once the showrunner leaves — or when the original showrunner is forced to stretch a premise across far too many seasons. Look at the way music labels exploit musicians before strip-mining their work.

Certainly corporate ownership over media properties has its benefits. I never imagined as a teenage nerd that the biggest film franchise in history would be based on the comics I was reading 20 years ago, movies graced not only with massive budgets but also big-name celebrities and, miraculously, meticulous inter-film story continuity. Yet here we are, with one of the world's largest media conglomerates using its resources to somehow turn even C-listers like Ant Man and Dr. Strange into box office gold. Or consider Final Fantasy XV, which has seemingly found redemption with an infusion of new blood in an attempt to solve the development troubles it suffered under one of Square Enix's best-known and most successful directors.

A smaller company might have simply let the troubled Final Fantasy Versus XIII wither on the vine, but Square Enix turned it into a flagship release. We'll know soon whether or not that was a good idea.

These seem more like exceptions than the rule, though. More often, the relationship between corporation and creator tends to be one of friction: The latter comes up with a great idea, and the former squeezes and twists it in directions that were never intended until at last the creator leaves in frustration and the corporation wrings out every last drop of integrity and profit (usually in that order). This, then, has much to do with the appeal of independently published games. There are many things to love about indies, but perhaps most of all is the guarantee that those creators make their own choices. OK, maybe there are entirely too many Five Nights At Freddy's games at this point, but at least the glut exists as a result of creator Scott Cawthon's own choices. If we ever see sequels to Shovel Knight or Axiom Verge or Stardew Valley, it will be at the discretion of their respective designers rather than at the demand of shareholders or a board of directors, and you can be certain Sean Velasco or Thomas Happ or Eric Barone will be involved in their creation.

In other words, as the media world increasingly comes to be defined by board rooms smothering the life from creative concepts through endless sequels, spin-offs, and remakes, independent creators have become essential fonts of creativity and inspiration. Just look at the stunning lack of hype leading into this year's E3; the wild-eyed speculation and excitement that once defined the show has fizzled away, because there's so little potential — so little room! — for genuine surprises at the event. Those moments seem reserved for smaller events now, at the indie booths of EGX or PAX.

In any case, I strongly encourage everyone to support the Suikoden Revival Movement's campaign to get those PlayStation classics onto Steam. Getting wonderful RPGs in front of a wider audience is never a bad thing. But at the same time, keep your fingers crossed that Suikoden never makes a true comeback. The series gave us some excellent games, but the environment in which those classics came into existence no longer exists. New games absent the saga's original visionary would only cheapen our memories of the long-ago days when Suikoden meant greatness.

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