Hello, GRH! I'm WanderingWordsmith, and I'm here to talk about narrative.
There are several reasons for this. First, when we look at video games, we often talk about 'the writing' and 'everything else'. As Extra Credits, my main inspiration for this series, argues, this is a flawed stance to take. Writing, like every other aspect of game design, is a tool developers use to convey emotional standpoints, ideologies, and various other things that artists try to encapsulate in their work. When people talk about 'the writing', or 'the story', I feel like what they're actually trying to talk about is 'the narrative', which is the conglomerate of everything the game presents; of which the writing is just a very small part.
Secondly, I'm a writer myself, so I only know how to talk about things in relation to narrative. So here we go, with the first instalment of A Narrative Lens! This time, we're gonna look at the narrative mechanics of the BlazBlue franchise.
I'm a huge fan of the series for more than just the tuned combat system. I'm also incredibly interested in how it weaves the visual novel and fighting genres together, and how it expresses the identity of each character on both sides of that coin.
As a demonstration, I'm going to take a look at one of the central characters in the series - Noel Vermillion.
(By the way, I'm going to try and keep spoilers to a minimum, but as you probably know, this is kind of impossible. Secondly, I'll be using the numeric keypad legend that most online forums use when discussing movesets. It's not hard to grasp - just look at the numeric keypad on your keyboard to get a rough idea of the directional inputs.)
When Noel's introduced in Calamity Trigger - the preceding game - Noel is revealed to be an awkward First Lieutenant in the Novus Orbis Librarium with hardly any confidence in herself or her abilities. She's abused by her commanding officer, Jin Kisaragi, reacts especially badly to slights against her intelligence (a la Ragna's taunting), and adores cute things to the point of it being paralyzing for her. She wields the Nox Nyctores 'Arcus Diabolus: Bolverk' in battle and has been dispatched to the central setting of the game in order to retrieve her commanding officer after his desertion. The story of Continuum Shift isn't entirely important at this point, as her character is what I'm focussing on, but it's important to note that Bolverk is revealed to suppress her emotions when in action, putting her into a sort of trance whilst she fights, and that Bolverk has been with her since an early age.
Now, there's an adage in writing, 'show, don't tell'. This basically means that, when writing, you shouldn't tell a reader how someone is feeling; you should show the reader and allow them to interpret and empathise with it. Essentially, you give the reader room to breathe, because they will always make themselves feel things better than you can make them feel it.
There's parallel adage in game design, which is 'do, don't show'. This steps up the previous adage by incorporating what you want the reader to understand into what they're doing. This could be as simle as matching up the stats of a character in an RPG to what their job and character might suggest, for example a White Mage in a Final Fantasy game, traditionally, has high magic and low defense. It can also be as complicated as what I'm about to talk about with regards to BlazBlue's narrative. In BlazBlue, they incorporate the personality and ideas behind the character into every aspect that they feature in. So, without further ado, let's look at how Noel's character is presented in the game.
First off, her animations. Noel's standing animation can be seen here:
It's fairly obvious from the outset that Noel's insecurities show through the mask of Bolverk's control here - her right arm is crossed over her body, her left is kept close to her side, her feet point slightly inwards, and her body is turned slightly away from her opponent. This persists when she's moving, too - walking backwards, Noel crosses both arms tightly over her chest, and only ever removes them from that style of posture when back-stepping.
Bolverk's control can also be seen, as she somersaults around with any of her moving jump arcs, keeps almost impossibly low when dashing, and the near-total determination that's evident on her face. When that control is released at the end of a fight, her match victory animations frequently see her fall to her knees, staring at the ground as she bewails her reluctance to fight her friends (such as with Tsubaki) or highlights her insecurities about her body (with Taokaka).
A special mention also deserves to go to her taunting animation, which, all things considered, isn't really a taunt. Her beret simply slips over her eyes and she quickly corrects it, with a panicked cry of 'Ahh! I can't see!'.
Onto her moveset, and this is where things get really interesting. Noel very rarely uses her body in the actual fight, by punching or kicking. In fact, as I ran through her moveset, she has three standard attacks (5A, 6A, and 2B), one Drive attack (6D), and one special attack (623D during a Drive combo) where she uses her body. This ignores her throw, and the special attack 'Type IX: Muzzle Flitter', but even adding those in that makes for seven attacks out of her entire moveset where she actually makes body-to-body contact with her opponent. In every other attack, she uses Bolverk either physically - such as with a standing B attack - or by firing it - such as with any C attack or her special 'Type XI: Optic Barrel'. This further emphasises her reliance on Bolverk during fights, as nary a moment goes by in a battle where she isn't using it.
With regards to her special moves, Bolverk's control over Noel is also stressed. All of the inputs for her special attacks are incredibly simple, with the only notable exceptions being 'Type VI: Spring Raid' (the aforementioned 623D attack), and the Distortion Drive 'Zero-gun: Fenrir', which requires the input 632146D. Even her Astral Heat 'Valkyrie Veil', which with some characters are notoriously difficult to execute - such as Hazama's, which requires an input of 1632143D - is a fairly simple 214214C. The simplicity of her inputs enhances the narrative-side of her personality, as Bolverk's control over her body would naturally imply that she moves and fights with almost superhuman grace.
Even her voice wasn't left out of this. During fights Noel flits between a haunting monotone as she rolls off the Chain Revolver combos, listing each attack calmly as she tears her opponents apart, to a desperate cry for aid or shout of frustration, such as when she cries 'Fenrir, don't fail me!' when executing the 'Zero-gun: Fenrir' Distortion Drive, or 'Please let this land!' when using 'Type XI: Optic Barrel' against Ragna. The only time she shouts with any certainty is when Noel hides behind her title and station as an NOL officer, such as her cry of 'This is a... major violation!' when using 'Zero-gun: Fenrir' against Sector Seven agent Iron Tager. As mentioned before, her insecurities also glare in her victory cries, which are very rarely triumphant.
As you can see, Arc System Works paid very close attention to Noel's character when considering her in both the visual novel side of the game, and in the fighting side of it. They ensured that her character would shine through in every moment the player spends with her, and they did this with the rest of the cast, too, from Jin Kisaragi's easily accessible Drive attacks to Hazama's torturous moveset.
With that, the first instalment of A Narrative Lens is complete. I hope you enjoyed it.