Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
08 November 2006
Storytelling and Elite Beat Agents
So there's this DS game that hit the market just yesterday, called Elite Beat Agents. The Americanized sequel to the import favorite Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, it centers upon a fictional, and quite silly, covert operations agency whose task it is to find people (and some creatures who don't quite qualify as people) in various kinds of trouble, send out trios of agents to the scene in Blues Brothers outfits and bizarre hairdos, and have them essentially perform a musical number on the spot to cheer them through their problems. This is done by tapping numbered circles that appear in various places on the touchscreen in time with the music. The better the player does with his timing and hitting the circles in order the more a meter fills, but it's constantly draining. It is very easy to lose, as the meter drains quite rapidly later on and you're constantly having to hit circles to keep the darn thing full. The more successful the player is, the better the characters in the story progress. Doing badly, but not too badly, in a section can also cause a "bad" result for that section but not fail the level, which doesn't give you as positive an outcome at the end but at least gets you through the thing.

But that's beside the point. The levels themselves are inspired, chosen specifically to illustrate just how weird the idea of a secret agency that exists to cheer people on is. The first level has the player helping a babysitter through a problem session in order to keep her boyfriend around long enough to ask him to go steady. (There is a subtle bit of innuendo at the end in the thought balloons of the athlete boyfriend, who thinks of everything in terms of football....) The atmosphere is maintained masterfully, through the player's smirking agents and their over-the-top serious leader, Commander Khan. Every level begins the same way, with a comic panel presentation of the situation, ending with the harassed character yelling "Heeeaallpp," then the scene is revealed to be on a computer screen presided over by Kahn, who calls out dramatically "Agents... are... GO!" Then your guys arrive on the scene (always from out of the blue, in transportation appropriate to the setting), the agents and the character do a bit of hand-waving, the level's title appears (usually something that seems amusingly mistranslated, but probably on purpose) then the (usually painful) level begins, and so on.

And that's how the game continues, with the same basic structure in every level. A director is having problems on the set of his movie, "Agents are GO!", and in they come on jetpacks! A taxi driver has to get a pregnant woman to the hospital, "Agents are GO!", in they come in their Agentmobile! Leonardo da Vinci is having trouble with the model for the Mona Lisa, "Agents are GO!", and in they come in a horse-drawn carriage! A dog is lost miles from home, "Agents are GO!", they pull up on motorcycles! A track star's come down with a cold and his immune system (portrayed as a sexy white blood cell) needs help overcoming the viruses, "Agents are GO!", and in they go down the track star's throat in a miniaturizing capsule! In one level a couple of starlets are stranded on a deserted island, and when Commander Khan shouts his words and does his pose, he's unexpectedly wearing a Hawaiian shirt. In this way the game sets up the expectations in early levels, then plays with them in later levels, to enhance the goofy atmosphere.

Until level 12, "A Christmas Gift," that is. The pseudo-military drumbeat is absent from the opening prologue, replaced with sleigh bells, a subtle clue that this one's going to be different. A little girl and her mother is seeing her father off on a trip. She excitedly asks him for a girlfriend teddy bear for her own toy, and he says he'll get her one. She says, "Promise you'll be back by Christmas?" He says yes, he promises. Fade to black.

Six months later... no word has been heard from the father. The girl's faith begins to waver. She asks her mother and she angrily tells her to stop talking about him. Daddy's been in an accident she says, and won't be coming back. (Has he really? It's not clear.) The little girl is heartbroken, and begins to cry.

She does not call "Heeaaalllppp!!". Commander Khan watches on his screen, but doesn't shout out "Agents are GO!" There is no scene of the agents showing up. There is no hand-waving. There is just a short cutscene and the level begins, just like that.

It's a brutal level too. When the player fails (and he will, the first few times at least) he gets a scene, ten years later, of an emotionally-scarred 17-year-old clutching her teddy bear. But that's not how it really happens, right? Maybe if I tried it again....

What happens if you get the level right is happy, but seems purposely a little vague. The father seems to come back, but it's unclear if it's him or a kind of shade. The victory image doesn't help.

After that exceedingly cathartic level, the game picks right up again afterwards with the usual zaniness. But wow, to set the player up like that through the whole game really to just bring it all crashing down like that. It's just awesome how it was executed. In a different game, the whole family, Christmas & teddy bear scenario, presented exactly as it is in the level, would come across as oppressively sappy, as melodrama. It wouldn't work as well, if at all. It only works here because the game's been so irrepressibly silly up to that point, but because of the silliness the impact is tremendous.

Well done, Inis.
--John Harris at 13:40
Comment [ 6 ]

Comments on this post:

I generally can't stand rhythm games, mostly because I'm very bad at them but I've been planning to pick this one up for a while. Thus I intentionally quit reading your post when it got into territory I hadn't seen yet (the football player scenario was in the demo) so as not to spoil any of it. And now you've got my curiosity all piqued. And I'm hoing to have to call and endure the retaildroid on the phone to see if the Best Buy down the street has it...

By Blogger BruceC, at 08 November, 2006 15:48  

I don't know that I'll ever get to level twelve. At least now I can try imagining it... This game is hard.

By Anonymous TrueTallus, at 08 November, 2006 18:08  

There's a sappy level in Oendan too, it's about a guy who dies in a motorcycle accident and goes to heaven. They allow him to come back to say goodbye to his girlfriend/wife for one last time, and you have to help him communicate with her to tell her he loves her. Think of it as Ghost and you're Whoopi.

Oendan is great, and I plan on picking up EBA. It will be nice to actually understand what's going on in the stories, plus I hear there's a Bowie song in there.

By Blogger Bigelow, at 09 November, 2006 15:56  

Ah there is, "Let's Dance."

Wow, that was him? It's one of my favorite songs on the cart! Awesome, I might have to get an album sometime..

By Blogger JohnH, at 09 November, 2006 19:49  

Welp, you've got me wanting to play it, but even more remarkable is that Craig Harris was able to review it without using the word "damn."

By Blogger rufbo, at 10 November, 2006 23:18  

TrueTallus,

I never thought I would make it either, but a month ago, I made it to the final level on the hardest difficulty. It's insane. Here's what you're in for:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HnOjFIcPdc

Good luck!

By Blogger Bigelow, at 12 November, 2006 02:43  

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