Friday, November 24, 2017

Mouse Guard

It's a commonly held belief that mice like cheese.  In truth it isn't their preferred food source.  They can eat cheese to be sure, mice are omnivores, but ideally higher calorie meals are desirable.  Mice and cheese, expectations versus reality, they encapsulate Mouse Guard in a nutshell.

In case it's unfamiliar, Mouse Guard is a series of comics by David Petersen.  Described by the author himself as "mice with swords," the setting is very medieval and european in flavor.  Akin to novels like A Secret of NIMH, Watership Down and the Redwall series, the world is grounded in our own except that some of the animals exhibit characteristics and a level of intelligence typically associated with humans.  Normally, I'm not a big fan of stories about anthropomorphized animals, but Mouse Guard is an exception in that it takes the ordinary and turns it into the fantastical simply by changing the perspective from from a human one to that of a society of fully sentient mice.  The backdrop is essentially a bunch of independently governed mouse settlements that have entered into a compact by forming an chivalric order known as the "Guard" that is charged with protecting the "Territories" (as they are collectively called) from potential threats.  Keep in mind that mice are at the bottom rung of the animal hierarchy.  Pretty much any creature in nature that isn't a herbivore sees mice as a potential repast.

The stories told in the comics use this as a jumping-off point, but subverts expectations to varying degrees.  In the initial six issue run, for example, an internal mouse rebellion turns out to be a much greater danger to the Territories than incursions by hungry predators.  Unusual in these sorts of tales, carnivores are not depicted as being unequivocally evil.  A ferret-king appearing in the third volume is depicted as honorable, only eating mice out of necessity rather than cruel desire.  There's also a Mouse Guard table-top RPG, but this being a blog about video games, I really want to talk about the potential for a video game adaptation of the IP.

When I look at a map of the Mouse Guard world, I can't help but feel reminded of Strategy RPGs such as Tactics Ogre, Vandal Hearts, and Final Fantasy: Tactics.  Because of this, it's my instinct to consider Mouse Guard best suited to some kind of turn-based, story driven, single-player experience.  I'm not sure it's the best fit though considering most foes of mice are considerably larger in terms of physical dimensions.  We're talking about Shadow of the Colossus sized threats here...or at the very least Dragon's Dogma.  Either way, most SRPGs prefer to operate on a chessboard-like grid which isn't a very good framework for such wildly differently sized opponents.  However, therein lies the potential for innovating the subgenre.  If you were to combine the freedom of movement in Arc the Lad or Valkyria Chronicles with the mobility of Mario+Rabbits: Kingdom Battle then it might be possible to depict these kinds of large-scale skirmishes in a way never seen before.

The increased size and breadth of the battlefield could be a problem, but one of the nice things about Mouse Guard is the fact that each Guard member wears a distinctly dyed cloak that, when combined with variations in fur color, gives each mouse a distinctive look even from a zoomed-out perspective.  Animation is another tricky point, considering motion capture isn't really an option.  That said, it's amazing to see what one small team of indie developers has accomplished with Ghost of a TaleDark Maus also serves as an excellent example of how a strong visual style can make up for a lack of fidelity.  Something that people tend to forget is how much more steeped in shadow pre-industrial societies were.  Natural light was the main source of illumination and artificial sources were either expensive (candles), didn't last long (torches), or were serious fire hazards (lamps).  Ask anyone who has worked as a director of photography and they'll tell you that atmospheric lighting can make a huge difference.  I imagine the above also holds true for the kind of dwellings anthropomorphic mice would inhabit.   

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