The MoeGamer Awards are a series of made-up prizes that give me an excuse to celebrate games, concepts and communities I’ve particularly appreciated over the course of 2017. Find out more and suggest some categories here!
There are certain games and series whose reputation precedes them. Of course, there are those series that are legendarily excellent — which, to be honest, I tend to find often sets you up to be disappointed and underwhelmed when you finally try them — but there are also those that are known for… less salubrious reasons.
Today’s award looks at something which I had held off trying for a while because I wasn’t sure I’d be into it… but subsequently it turned out to be one of my favourite things ever. That is, as they say, the way game chasin’ go… wait, that’s something else, isn’t it?
And the winner is…
The Rance Series
I first heard about the Rance series a good few years back when someone I used to podcast with (and someone who was more of a proud weeb than I am) was enthusing about a game he was playing. That game was known as Sengoku Rance, and was part of a series that had never made it to the West — he was playing a fan translation, since despite it never coming across in an official capacity, there was still a substantial community of players hungry to enjoy it in English.
He told me a bit about Sengoku Rance and it sounded… well, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It sounded like a strategy game (a genre I wasn’t into) with a heavy focus on sexual content, particularly rape. While I have no objection to sexual content whatsoever, as regular readers will know, the idea of rape is something that has always made me extremely uncomfortable, and not something I find the least bit arousing, even within the “safe space” of hentai’s pure fantasy world where no-one is actually getting hurt.
Then there was this screenshot, which was probably the most common image for the Rance series I’d seen floating around the Internet prior to looking into it further.
This image, from Sengoku Rance, taken entirely out of context, was not doing a great deal to convince me that the game was anything more than a rather rapey nukige with some form of strategy game attached to it. And while there’s a time and place for nukige, I tend to find when there is gameplay involved, it distracts and frustrates from the main reason you’re there. The unashamedly named Boob Wars is a good example — the rather dull and largely luck-based card game that title revolves around simply gets in the way of the erotic scenes, and the actual story isn’t really interesting enough to make it worthwhile on any other level.
It’s fair to say, then, that I’d pretty much written off Rance for a time, and in the intervening years I played lots of other things. During that period, I also learned how often and to what a degree Japanese games get misrepresented all over the Internet, with some of the most notorious examples to date including Criminal Girls (which NeoGAF replacement forum ResetEra still bans all discussion of, incorrectly and possibly libellously describing it as “child pornography” owing to its provocative imagery and S&M themes) and Dungeon Travelers 2 (which Polygon’s Philip Kollar wrote off immediately as a “creepy, porn-lite dungeon crawler”, but which actually turned out to be one of the most interesting, mechanically dense and well designed RPGs I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing).
So when prolific localisation company MangaGamer announced that it was finally bringing the Rance series to the West officially and legally for the first time, I figured I should probably give it another look — a more comprehensive look. Because, I felt, I had probably done a bit of judging the book by its cover when I previously had that passing encounter with the series; perhaps there was something more to it. A lot of people were really into it, after all, and that’s not something you tend to see with a simple nukige.
So it was that this year I finally booted up Rance 5D: The Lonely Girl, not entirely sure what to expect. Less than an hour after starting, I was well and truly hooked. This was a series that absolutely revelled in its excellent characterisation and black humour, and I was enjoying it immensely. And it became apparent almost immediately that this was most certainly no simple nukige, either; there was a clear story here, there was some obvious context based on things that had happened previously, though the game had also obviously been carefully designed to remain accessible to series newcomers, which is why MangaGamer had picked it as the first title to come West alongside its more substantial sequel.
I looked into things further. And I was astonished to discover that the Rance universe has some wonderfully absurd yet internally consistent lore that rivals similarly long-running fictional comedy-fantasy works such as Terry Pratchett’s legendary Discworld series. I was in deep now, and so, having finished the bite-size Rance 5D, I jumped into Rance VI: Collapse of Zeth.
By this point, I was unsurprised to discover that Rance VI was an excellent game, building on the strong foundations of its predecessor, albeit with a completely different gameplay style. It maintained its core components of strong characterisation and a compelling narrative, however, only this time around it was telling a far more epic, world-changing tale than the rather personal story that Rance 5D focused on. And it was a beast of a game, too! While the game lacks an in-game timer so I can’t say for sure how long I spent on it, it was definitely a substantial number of hours, and it never got boring along the way, either, thanks to its good pacing, interesting dungeon design and wide selection of playable characters.
So what of that rapey aspect that had caused me to hesitate somewhat? Well, there’s no denying it’s there, for sure. Rance, as a protagonist, is an asshole, and is sex-obsessed to a fault, often going so far as to assault people that he saves because he believes himself to be deserving of such a “reward”. For sure, this is something that it’s difficult to defend, but you’re not really supposed to defend it; Rance is supposed to be a shit, that’s the point. What’s interesting, though, is that Rance is not the worst person in the Rance universe by a long shot, and this puts his behaviour somewhat in perspective.
While his behaviour is, without a doubt, morally reprehensible by our societal standards, there’s an obvious distinction between Rance’s selfish behaviour and, say, the extreme and violent abuse that the main antagonists of Rance VI inflict on people. Rance doesn’t do what he does to hurt people or out of maliciousness, he does so out of a selfish desire for pleasure. Of course, in doing so, he often does hurt and traumatise people, but that’s not his primary intention.
By contrast, the scenes of sexual torture we see over the course of Rance VI’s story are just that — torture. They’re not designed for the perpetrator to derive any sort of pleasure, they’re just there to hurt people, often break them beyond being able to ever recover. This distinction is thrown further into focus where Rance has the opportunity to torture someone partway through Rance VI’s narrative and finds himself unable to do anything too extreme because, when it comes down to it, he doesn’t actually want to hurt the person; he just wants to have sex with them.
The upshot of all this is that Rance becomes an interesting character to explore; a true anti-hero. You can’t condone his extreme behaviour, but at the same time there’s a strangely appealing sense of childish immaturity about him, almost as if he doesn’t realise what he’s doing is hurting people. With his long-suffering slave Sill frequently acting as a rather motherly figure towards him, this feeling is further emphasised, and there’s the distinct sense throughout the series that “if there’s no-one better around to act as a hero, can you really rely on someone like Rance to do the right thing?”
We’ve had anti-heroes in games before, with the most notable and high-profile examples appearing in games like Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series. But there’s something about Rance that makes him a thoroughly interesting character and an excellent centrepiece to the series in a completely different way. He’s a truly — some might say tragically — flawed character who undergoes considerable development just over the course of these two games, and with Sengoku Rance (aka Rance VII) and Rance Quest Magnum (aka Rance VIII) both confirmed for localisation, I’m very interested to see where his story goes next.
And beyond that, with Japan getting the absolutely, positively, definitely final Rance game ever next year in the form of Rance X, we can, at the time of writing, only conjecture whether or not he will ever truly be able to redeem himself. It’s going to be a wild ride, I feel.
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