Hard Project: Front Mission
I like Front Mission a lot. Except I don’t, not really; I like the tiny amount of it that I’ve played a lot, which amounts to two officially localized games, two other games handled as a fan translation project, and a whole lot of carefully researched side materials. It’s possible that there’s something within the other chunk of the games and supplementary materials that would change my entire viewpoint, I don’t know, but you’d think that there would be more than a fragment of the 11-game-strong series over here.
The entire franchise appears to be consigned to die the death of a small yappy dog now, and while I’m sad about that, I can kind of understand it. Sure, the people in charge had ideas about where to take the franchise next, and that’s a good thing. But the overall scope of the thing is a hard project to take on, and after the by-all-accounts-execrable Front Mission Evolved, perhaps the challenge was just too great for too little reward.
Slow, plodding, real
On paper, Front Mission is a series focused around troops doing battle in massive battle robots known as wanzers, a pormanteau of the German term “wanderung panzer” or “walking tank.” This might come as a surprise to people who play one of the games and quickly find that the game is filled with terse political drama and philosophical debates about the merit of using force to stand up against oppression or the complex geopolitical ramifications of a minor territory being claimed by an enemy army.
This is part of the appeal of the series. This isn’t just real in the sense that the machines are huge hunks of metal that move slowly and act like enormous pieces of hardware; while the governmental bodies are abstracted, they bear a not-so-loose parallel to real-world players on the world stage. The main villains are usually exploiting technology and genetic engineering, but they do so in service to national agendas and general warmongering. The plot of Front Mission 4 moved back and forth between two groups of protagonists, one of which was involved in a tense European political standoff meant to mirror internal fears of a union still learning to trust its members, the other one working as a functional equivalent to the film Three Kings but in tinpot dictator portions of South America.
At the same time, this is the problem when getting people into the series. Bring up “military drama” and the images that come to mind are Tom Clancy-esque orgies of jingoistic propaganda and machine pornography, or equal doses of things exploding and people standing around talking in hushed tones to let you know that Very Serious Things Are Happening. Just describing the plots makes you almost want to apologize for them, despite the fact that they’re immensely engaging and make you seriously think of the ramifications for every action that the characters and the nations they work with are taking. It’s a hard sell to people who aren’t familiar with it, though.
The snarl of continuity
Up until Front Mission Evolved, every single game, manga, and so forth took place in the same continuity. Front Mission Evolved‘s reboot didn’t change the affection for the original continuity. And much like real-world geopolitics, the events that took place had a profound effect on later games, to the point that Front Mission 5 was written as a companion piece for the existing games that tied together everything that had happened in the world and shed new light on several events that had already taken place.
On the one hand, this is really cool. The fact that playing Front Mission 4 spins off as a direct result of the events in the original Front Mission without being a direct sequel is nifty. But it also makes any new projects set in the universe an exercise in tiptoeing over landmines, because another game could completely derail the web of interwoven events and create a world state that makes no sense. Everything ties together, everything is related to everything else, and you really have to play the series several times to fully understand how one minor incident can be hugely important five years down the road.
This is complicated enough to sell to people who have been playing since the beginning, and even harder to sell to people who missed a game or two. Harder yet when you’re dealing with the fact that anyone outside of Japan is missing a massive amount of information which, again, plays into the complex history at play between the major world powers that the characters have to inevitably deal with.
No borders, unfortunately
I think part of what made the games really take a dive, however, was the combination of two important points – the global nature of gaming and the march of time.
Front Mission – the first one – takes place in 2090 CE, but it was made in 1995. Part of what made it charming was the fact that its setting was functionally twenty minutes into the future, with the development and use of wanzers being the main technological difference. That, and putting the nations of Earth through a slight funhouse mirror. Yes, it’s obvious where the parallels fall, but it’s technically not the United States, so there’s no reason to take direct offense to all of the awful things the bizarro US does during the plot, right?
Of course that was never going to work. The UCS isn’t the United States and the DHZ isn’t China, but trying to pretend these aren’t thinly veiled stand-ins is like claiming that President Greg Walter Shrub is a completely original creation with no connection to any person living or dead. You’re not really fooling anyone, which makes life just a wee bit more problematic when you’re trying to sell games in the nations that are (intentionally or otherwise) demonized for the game’s plot.
This is compounded by the fact that a near-future society to the people of 1995 has some obvious gaps to the people of 2014. Later games did their best to address these issues; Front Mission 3 makes it clear that the internet is a thing, but it uses screamingly primitive technology for something taking place about a century into the future. In another ten years, it’s all going to seem even stranger, especially when one considers the ways that wars in general have changed over the past decade and how the views of military hardware have shifted on a cultural level.
I will note, however, that I’m still on-board for rebranding this franchise into an ersatz Pacific Rim clone. That would knock out another entry in this feature, even.