The Fanfiction Issue

The Fanfiction Issue
Hooking Up in Hyperspace

Brendan Main | 13 Apr 2010 12:30
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As an RPG with an exhaustive amount of detail, Second Story is replete with a variety of complicated game systems, and retains a staggering amount of depth even now, a decade after its original release. But at the time, many of the excesses of JRPGs were still new and added to its mystique as a larger-than-life phenomenon. With a massive plot, a ridiculously high level cap and personal skills leveled through use, Second Story's method of handling character relations through a system of "emotional levels," in which character relationships are micromanaged through varying levels of both "friendship points" and "relationship points," might seem like more of the same. But surprisingly, a large amount of the game's considerable depth was bent towards the central purpose of playing matchmaker.

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There is the unlockable audio bank, which showcases all the voice acting you've encountered in the game - some of which is only available if you ratchet up a character's emotion towards another, then off him or her in a climactic battle, producing melodramatic wails of surprise from your surviving characters. The relationship system informs gameplay, granting a surviving character a burst of superhuman strength at the sight of a fallen comrade or lover. The A.I. is even programmed to protect and cast beneficial spells on preferred targets, turning combat into one ongoing popularity contest. And then there is the "Private Action" system, in which a party may split up when visiting a town, leading to the possibility of short cut scenes depicting certain characters as they get to know each other better.

In this manner, the raw elements that shape character relationships are put in players' hands. Whether it's to sort out RPG staples like strategy and healing priority or to rustle out a batch of specific endings, Second Story skews towards a dating sim, with consequences not only on the gameplay but on the narrative itself. Different pairings lead to different encounters, each given treatment as a potential possibility at the game's outcome. Instead of seeing one central romance through to its inevitable conclusion, any characters, no matter how oddly they match up, could be brought together. The game gives players the building blocks of fiction, the tools to decide what will and will not happen within the context of the story - but it's a very specialized sort of fiction, similar to the "shipping" of fanfiction.

It's a common philosophy in game design that if anything can be broken down into a system, rewarding successes and punishing failures, it can be turned into a game. And with Second Story, we see exactly that philosophy at work. In a game where anybody could end up with anybody, fanfiction's impulse towards shipping becomes systematized: Any pair of characters may become canonized with an ending cut scene so long as you nurture their budding friendship or romance. The very act of playing the game with these endings in mind is an act of fanfiction. Find the right cut scenes, nurture the right atmosphere on the battlefield, and the course of the story bends toward a predetermined and idealized ending. In "shipping" fanfiction, relationships are often proffered as the most logical conclusion to the story, cases of "true love" evident within subtext but never realized for various reasons. Sometimes, then, "shipping" serves to replace a seemingly false ending with a true one, more consistent with character behavior and narrative arc. This approach to storytelling has a primacy within Second Story: Change the "ship," change the story.

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