Monday, April 30, 2018

VN Talk: Root Double: Before Crime * After Days - Part 4: √Double

√Double is the conclusion of Root Double and it's remarkable how the story manages to turn so much of what we already know on its head. It's also a ridiculously talky route that requires boring into the memories of almost every character in the game, which means it's flashback city.

This is a bit of a shame because the overall story is quite good, but it's hampered by the designers wanting to be absolutely the player got everything, to the point that they'll do two or three times the amount of flashback necessary to get the message across.

That wasn't what expected given the opening of the route. Natsuhiko and Watase don't fully trust each other, but the two of them reluctantly decide that due to Natsuhiko's condition (having sustained numerous gunshots wounds from pre-memory loss Watase) they need to work together if they're going to get out of here. Natsuhiko has the knowledge, but Watase has the mobility. I expected much of the route with be a give and take between the two as Watase gets closer to recovering his memory and Natsuhiko wants him to stay away from it.

Then the first chapter takes a nosedive when Natsuhiko meets Yuuri. As mentioned in the √Before route, Yuuri is Natsuhiko's dead childhood friend, except that it turns out she's not really dead and she's also implanted the phantom version of herself that was haunting him for nine years of his life. It was a misguided attempt to move him out of the catatonic state he was in when he first learned she was dead.

My problem with this is twofold. First is that it undoes all the emotional growth that happens at the end of √Before. The goodbye scene between the phantom Yuuri and Natsuhiko was perfect. We saw Natsuhiko grow to the point he could live without her. By bringing her back, all that growth became unnecessary, and then made everything awkward, as Natsuhiko had realized at the end of √Before how much Mashiro meant to him, only for the real Yuuri to show up and make a love triangle (which is not resolved by the end of the game!).

The second part of that I disliked is that Yuuri created the phantom thinking that would make everything better. She was eight or nine at the time, so I can understand that as a child she thought this was a good idea, but the thing is that she kept updating the phantom year after year when she saw him unconscious during his annual hospital stays. At no point did she decide this was a bad idea until the √Before route started and she realized that he was going to discover she was legally dead. If he hadn't tried to stop the terrorist attack, he probably would be seeing phantom Yuuri the rest of his life.

Given Natsuhiko's relationship to her, I'm not surprised he forgives this, but from an outsider's perspective, her nine years of screwing with his mind is horrifying. She even doctored the beautiful goodbye scene specifically to make an impact.

Fortunately, the game does upend expectations shortly after that, as Watase asks Natsuhiko directly if he had hurt him before. Natsuhiko and Yuuri certainly try to dodge the question, but by the end of √After Watase already had enough information to conclude he'd done some awful things and that he was possibly the one to shoot Natsuhiko. Once he guesses what Natsuhiko did to his memories, he asks if Natsuhiko can restore them, and then to shoot him if he tries killing him again.

The interesting revelation here is that we discover there are two sets of memories in Watase. Someone else had previously altered his memories the way Natsuhiko had done, and once Natsuhiko reverts everything properly to its original state, Watase comes back as a third personality, obviously his original one, which is the hardass that his squadmates remember, but he's no longer a psycho or as unquestioningly compassionate as his amnesiac self.

We also get his backstory, since it was the alteration of his personal history that caused him to hate telepaths to the point of justifying killing them. (Though he's always feared the idea of someone else reading his mind, original Watase wasn't inclined to kill people over it.)

The nutshell version is that Watase is a terrorist, but only as a means to an end. His sister was killed in the largest case of arson the city had ever seen. It was blamed on an extremist group, but in truth a telepath who was working with a government research group had become N-ified, which is a dangerous state that Rank S telepaths can degenerate to if they overuse Senses Sympathy, the highest level telepath ability that allows for the copying, altering, restoration, and destruction of memories (what Natsuhiko is using). The city hid the truth of the incident and built the fake nuclear facility to research telepaths in secret, and the N-ified telepath was incarcerated there.

On learning that the city's carelessness led to the N-ification of the responsible telepath and in turn the arson, Watase joined Ukita, a researcher at the facility (and currently one of the nine trapped underground), as part of the terrorist group Q. Their plan was to rescue the two currently living test subjects in the facility and then blow it sky high. They would then have the test subjects testify against the government to bring it down and end the secret testing on telepaths.

Being conscientious people, despite their terrorist affiliation, Watase and Ukita's deal with Q allowed them to choose how organize the crisis and they arranged it so that all staff would evacuate (the mysterious explosions at the start of the game) with the goal being that the facility would be completely empty when the bomb blows and no lives would be lost.

Naturally, there were complications.

Yuuri was one of the test subjects (which is why her death was faked, so she could be incarcerated), but the other, called Subject N, had already been N-ified. And the problem with N-ification is that the telepath loses their sense of self. When that happens the telepath becomes a destructive ball, flinging out malice to every unprotected mind in range. During the rescue, Subject N came into content with many minds, resulting in all the deaths discovered over the course of √After, including her own (she was an unidentified body found by the cargo elevator). She was the one responsible for rewriting Watase's memories.

I talked about pacing issues in √After and how the stakes aren't clear until the end of the first chapter. √Double is much the same way. By the time we reunite with Yuuri and get Watase's memories back, it's the end of Chapter 2 out of 7 and then the opening movie plays, because this is when the stakes are clear.

There are only two hours left until the bomb blows, it is no longer possible to use the escape route Watase originally intended, and they want to escape with all nine survivors alive.

From there, the game takes a fairly predictable route. The sane people try to stay alive and capture the people infected with malice (which turns out to be Kazami, Jun, and Ukita, the ones who all went crazy in √After) and Natsuhiko ends up diving in everyone's memories, infected or not, to either free them or confirm they're all right.

The game likes to play with how our personalities are informed by our memories, so changing those memories also changes a person's personality. For instance, it doesn't matter if Watase is innately a good person, if the memories leading up to today gave him a reason to hate. The infected characters aren't insane so much as their memories have been altered to push them to the limit where extreme actions are the only things that make sense.

By checking everyone's memories and dispelling the mental echoes of Subject N, Natsuhiko eventually gets the entire story of what happened this day.

If there's a theme to Root Double as a whole, it's communication, and how no matter how much we want to understand another person, we're unable to completely do so, even in a world with telepaths. The events of September 16, 2030 occur precisely because none of the people involved had the full picture of what was going on before they went in, and once they know each other's stories they're able to unite towards a single goal.

If Watase and his fellow conspirators had known about Subject N's condition, they probably would not have freed her. If Natsuhiko and his friends had known that Watase and Ukita's goal was to rescue test subjects and not cause a nuclear meltdown, they might not have gotten in their way. Even less immediate concerns are covered, such as how Natsuhiko would never have been as cold to his mother if he'd known the real reason she was working so many long hours away from him.

Root Double is unusual in that there is no on screen villain. Though Subject N is certainly the antagonist Natsuhiko battles over most of √Double, she's actually dead before the route even starts. Arguably the city government is the real villain, but it's an abstract one, and one that cannot be fought directly.

So the real climax is after everyone has been freed from Subject N and they have to deal with how to escape. Natsuhiko's mother has been secretly working to free Yuuri independently of the terrorists, and during the evacuation she left behind a means to override the main computer and open the bulkheads for 30 seconds, but three people need to perform it (a more extreme version of the two-man rule).

At this point the player can choose which set of three remain behind to face the explosion so the other six can escape, resulting a Normal ending. If they refuse to sacrifice anyone though (and other conditions are met), the group puts their heads together to figure out a way to escape with everyone alive.

In that event, Natsuhiko, Yuuri, and Watase stay behind while everyone else escapes through the bulkheads. The remaining three hide in the coolant exhaust pipe Watase opened in √After in a failed escape attempt, and the water cushions them from the explosion. They then escape through the water intake pipe, which wasn't possible earlier since opening it would flood the facility, but with the facility on fire and no one else left inside, this was no longer an issue.

This is when the stand-off between Watase and Natsuhiko, alluded to in the first opening movie, finally happens.

To gain Watase's cooperation at the end of Chapter 2, Yuuri agreed to go with him once they escaped, so he would have the telepath needed for Q to confront the government. Naturally Natsuhiko is against this, which results in Watase pulling a gun on him. From here, there are an additional four Good endings (this game loves its endings), which, oddly enough, never involve Yuuri leaving with Watase.

Two of them involve Natsuhiko going with Watase instead (since Watase just needs a Rank S telepath who knows the truth, and Natsuhiko will do just as well), with the variation being how much of Yuuri's memory Natsuhiko wipes out when he leaves. And there are another two where Natsuhiko chooses to wipe Watase's memory instead, with varying degrees of how much he erases, so he and Yuuri can safely escape.

That's pretty much the rub. Natsuhiko doesn't want to let his childhood friend sacrifice her future and become affiliated with a terrorist group after having been incarcerated for nine years as a test subject. Watase lost two squadmates and fellow conspirators this day and has already sacrificed his present day life just for the chance to see justice done against a corrupt government. They both have their points and it seems like there is no good way to end the stand-off without someone getting hurt.

The way I played, I did all the endings in the order of Bad -> Normal -> Good -> True because I wanted to see the progression (and knowing my mentality, once I see the True ending I'm not doing anything else), and I really didn't see any way the two could compromise, and this was after they know the whole story because of all the memory sharing. Completely knowing another person's mind doesn't mean that they'll ever agree.

In the True ending though, Natsuhiko combs through all the information he learned from everyone's memories and manages to dredge out a common thread between all the tragedies leading up this day. He paints an uglier picture of Q than Watase realized, that makes Q ultimately responsible for everything (though the government is still horrible). I found this reasoning a little shaky, since Watase already knew they weren't great people, but it's enough to convince him that he really shouldn't be working with Q anymore, which ends the stand-off and Watase turns himself in.

The epilogue covers how the telepaths involved in the incident flee, how those who remain behind fight to bring out the truth, and depending on the player's friendship with various characters, there are special character-specific epilogues for all of them (except Ukita, because he's another dude and clearly the audience only cares about the fates of the protagonists and their female companions).

Unfortunately we never learn if Q, the Rokumei City government, or the forces behind them are ever fully taken down, but everyone travels to the city park on the one year anniversary of the incident (Watase and Ukita had ridiculously shortened sentences in exchange for their cooperation in hunting Q) to reminisce with the assumption that things will be better going forward.

It's possible that tackling the larger issues and making a better life for telepaths is just too big a thing for the game to properly handle in an epilogue (and would certainly be very complicated in real life), but I think it's more likely that the creative team was more concerned about the inter-character conflict than the external reason the conflict began, so letting the player know knowing the cast is all right and moving on is enough.

There is a final game mode called Xtend Episode that is unlocked after beating the game that allows for additional scenes from the perspectives of different characters to round out a few plot holes, but they're mostly fluff. They do answer who stole the supply of AD in √After though, which never got resolved in the main game.