Space travel is boring

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For the most part, I enjoyed my time with No Man’s Sky. It’s a beautiful game and I appreciated the opportunity to live out the weirdly solitary space western fantasy the game had to offer. I explored planets, lived off the land by mining precious elements, and when I got bored, I blasted off to somewhere new.

In her book, Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal writes that the reason we are so eager to do menial tasks in video games, such as grinding in an RPG, is because “almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work.” She later writes how games allow us, “to make our own happiness–by working hard at activities that provide their own reward.” At first, No Man’s Sky is seemingly full of this type of good, hard work. McGonigal later explains how so much of modern professional life–returning emails, filing paperwork, sitting through meetings –fails to give any feedback or sense of accomplishment. These tasks can be completed, but we can’t see any visual evidence that we achieved anything. It’s immensely satisfying to blast away at a pillar of iridium with your multi-tool in No Man’s Sky, then book it to the nearest space station and sell it back at 102% above the galactic average, which the game (very cleverly!) tells you. But it’s a hollow experience that neglects the second, and most important part of McGonigal’s thesis. It’s nice to watch the space bucks roll in and see your bank account spill into the next number place, but what’s the point? Sure, you can buy a bigger ship, but all that allows you to do is store more shit to flip. But there’s never a reward or anything new to do, there’s no upgrade to any ships that unlock gameplay features. Your original spaceship is able to explore the same areas and planets, which all offer the same basic tasks of discovering new species, alien vocabulary words, and of course, elements to mine. So the player is left trapped in the neverending cycle of grinding for money to buy something which allows them to do it all over again only on a slightly larger scale.

No Man’s Sky is a good game, but it feels like there’s a big missed opportunity here. If there wasn’t such a low ceiling place on reasons to continue exploring after the ten or fifteen hour mark, perhaps the game would have been truly special. Landing on a new planet in No Man’s Sky to take in its incredible terrain and alien wildlife is a unique video game experience and feeling in a medium which is currently dominated by copycats and studios hesitant to take risks. It’s just a shame that the gameplay rests its laurels on that and expects you to continue just for the sake of doing so.

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Telling stories without words

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Metroid turned 30 earlier this month. Though I had played video games before–Golf, Baseball Stars, and a dozen or so Atari 2600 titles–it was the first game with a true narrative that I encountered. I got an NES for my seventh birthday in 1989 and with it, a copy of Metroid which I had begged my parents for. My uncle owned the game and I had watched him play it for weeks while he filled me in on all its lore: what the name of the planet and its three main areas were, where the various weapons and upgrades were hidden, how there were two minibosses and one (Kraid) had a fake form, and of course, what the eponymous Metroids were. The concept of Metroids (or Metroid depending on whatever video game style manual you subscribe to) along with their illustrations in the manual, terrified me. I remember being genuinely scared the first time I watched my uncle reach Tourian and immediately have one latch itself around Samus’s helmet. We yelled, not knowing what to do, watching Samus’s energy quickly drain. It’s moments like these which still draw me to Metroid decades later. The most impressive thing about the original gamealong with two of its direct sequels: Metroid II: The Return of Samus and Super Metroid–is that it does an incredible job of world building with very little text outside the manual and a scant introduction screen to start the game.

With my own copy, I quickly became obsessed with the game. My younger brother and I played constantly in our basement, diligently returning everyday after school, but we were too young to be able to make it through such a long and opaque game. Instead, we poured through Nintendo Power for passwords. Volume 29 came out several months later and had an eight-page spread recapping the game, even though it was five years old at this point. At the very end there were two notes that intrigued me:

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I found the idea of there being a hidden area within Zebes fascinating. I tried going to the hidden world over and over, but eight year-old me could never get the complicated trick to work. I wrote to Counselors’ Corner asking if there were a password to this area, not understanding that the hidden world wasn’t actually a new area, but rather a glitch. They didn’t publish my letter, but Nintendo Power wrote back, thanking me for my interest and taking the time to write and that, unfortunately, there was no password. (Sadly, I didn’t save the letter, though I kick myself constantly for not doing so.) I dreamed about what was in the hidden world. Again, not knowing it was a glitch, I assumed there were new enemies, sub-areas, and perhaps even minibosses to be found. It wasn’t until I was in high school years later that, with the help of the internet and some Game Genie codes, I was finally able to access the area.

The other thing that piqued my interest was the JUSTIN BAILEY code. Looking back, the blurb doesn’t even mention the best part about the code, just that you’ll have six energy tanks and full missiles. But being this powered up excited me enough. (Plus! it used my first name!) I ran down to the basement and started plugging in the password, only to find that half of it was deliberately missing. I don’t know why Nintendo Power published it this way. It’s weird thinking about it through the lens of 2016, but there was no website to log onto or way to search for the rest of the password. You just had to crack it yourself or hope for someone to pass it along to you at recess.

I don’t remember how long it took, but I remember who told me. I was in third grade and the year before, my class got a new student from Brazil. At the time, he didn’t speak English and none of us in my impossibly small Massachusetts town spoke Portuguese. He was in my class again in third grade and had picked up English quickly and easily. He wrote down the entire password on my brown paper bag bookcover, which I dutifully punched in the second I got home from school. Though I had known Samus was a women and my Brazilian friend told me the password allowed you to play as her without the Power Suit, I remember seeing Samus in her magenta leotard, with her green hair flowing, hardly believing that the password actually worked.

It should be noted that all of Metroid’s intrigue and wonder is built with very little text. Hidden areas, weapon upgrades, alternate costumes, and a mysterious protagonist whose true identity isn’t revealed until after the game’s conclusion all help develop Metroid’s allure. Back then, I thought every video game would be filled with as many secrets and feature such a rich lore. Thirty years later, outside the 2-D Metroid franchise, which remains at a scant four entries, few games have taken such a literal showing-not-telling approach to storytelling. (The most notable exception, of course, being Another World/Out of This World.) Compare Metroid to whatever text-heavy JRPG you’re playing on your 3DS right now or the cut-scene filled game currently in your console. Which does a better job at world building and storytelling?

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Game Center CX chronological viewing guide

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I’ve put together a chronological list of Game Center CX episodes. Though there are already much better lists, such as SA-GCCX (which is updated with each new translation) and the sadly retired episode guide on Crunkgames, none document the episodes in the order in which they aired. This can get particularly tricky, as in addition to the normal episodes of Game Center CX, there are specials, live events, as well as Nintendo Channel and DVD exclusives. So, if you’re obsessive as I am and want to (re-)watch the 300+ episodes in order, here it is!

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The two paradoxes of Persona 4

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At its core, Persona 4 is a game about interpersonal relationships and identity. Particularly how the bonds forged through friendship can triumph over personal strife—such insecurities, anxieties, and self-doubt—and allow one to find their true self. There’s plenty to be explored there later, but first, one oft-overlooked aspect of the game is its criticism of television.

Persona 4‘s criticism of mass media–of which video games are firmly a part of–begins early. After the game’s introduction in which the player inputs his/her name, the narrative opens with a commercial starring Rise, a pop star who’s also one of the game’s protagonists. She’s clad in a skimpy bikini, holding a can of Calorie Magic, a fictional diet drink, in which she proclaims “I’m tired of diets! Enough with going to the gym! Good thing there’s something even I can handle!” over a peppy jingle. This commercial is purposefully vapid, satirizing the insipid and ubiquitous advertising that litters contemporary society. (Soon after, Rise retires from being a pop idol–and doing such commercials–to attend high school in the small town of Inaba.) The camera then pans out, showing a crowd watching a wall of televisions at a train station. The commercial ends and a news broadcast begins. “Now on to some juicy news,” a stonefaced anchor states, as he transitions to a news story of a news reporter having an affair with a politician, setting the game’s plot in motion.

The game’s combat is exclusively carried out within televisions. I mean this literally, the protagonists of Persona 4 climb inside their televisions to carry out missions. Characters are kidnapped and thrown inside TVs by the game’s villain, where they are forced to (again, quite literally) face the aspects of their own personalities they are most uncomfortable with. These other selves, or shadows, as they’re often called, are broadcasted across the small town of Inaba at midnight for all to see. The parts of these characters’ personalities they are the most embarrassed by and uncomfortable with are manifested on the TV. These traits are typically incongruous with social norms and constructs. One character struggles with his confidence, another with the jealously of her best friend’s better (and more feminine) looks. However, as the game progress, these other selves address more complicated social constructs: one character, Kanji, struggles with his sexuality; another, Naoto, with her gender. The game presents these insecurities on television as it is the medium which is most responsible for reinforcing these stereotypes and expectations, especially when you consider that this is a Japanese game, developed by a Japanese company, in a society that is much more rigid and obsessed with conformity than ours.

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In a sense, Persona 4—a game which features both themes and gameplay about forging bonds and developing social links—is arguing against itself. Aside from warning of the poisonous nature of television, it’s a 60-80 hour narrative that’s essentially telling the player to stop sitting in front of the television and go out and hang out with your friends already.

It’s not often that you see art directly criticizing the medium it is commuting through. There are few novels or poems or films which are critical of their own media. Stranger still, few JRPGs bother to flesh out a story more dramatic than saving a princess or the world from some two-dimensional villain with little motive, never mind developing a theme that address one of the many important problems that plague contemporary society. Exploiting paradoxes can often lead to rich and rewarding fiction, however, this is not the only paradox that exists within the game.

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The second, and problematic, paradox lies within how the game addresses sexuality and gender. At first, Persona 4 seems to take a surprisingly progressive stance on both. The game originally introduces Kanji, a sort of tough guy/bully with a heart of gold character, as a teenager questioning his sexual orientation. His shadow persona is that of a flamboyant gay man. Then there’s Naoto, who is introduced as a boy wonder detective brought to the town of Inaba to assist the local police in solving the disappearances and murders. Later, Naoto is kidnapped and, though the player will almost certainly figure this out first, she is revealed to be a young woman during her shadow’s defeat. Again, considering the time (2008), the place (Japan), and the medium (video games), it was and, to an extent, still is refreshing to see Persona 4 explore homosexuality and gender identity. At least at first.

Sadly, Persona 4 spends the rest of its narrative contradicting and rejecting the two characters’ queer identities. The player is later told that Kanji isn’t actually gay, he’s just terrified of talking to women and feels more comfortable around other men. His dialogue is full of homoerotic double entendres, which he is immediately chastised for. The reactions to these by his friend, Yosuke, range from being insensitive to straight up homophobic. Naoto quickly comes to terms with her gender, explaining to the other characters that she lived as a young man partly because all the hardboiled detectives she loved in pulp and noir books were men, but also so she could advance her career. These other characters then seem to go out of their way to call her “missy”, “girly”, and other variations of such, and constantly pressure her to act and dress more feminine. This culminates in a sauna scene where the other girls physically force her to join in only a towel, and then comment incessantly on her breasts.

Aside from this being both implicitly and explicitly anti-LGBTQ+, which is an incredibly dangerous commentary for a piece of art to make and should not be taken lightly, this second paradox contradicts the theme of the game itself. As Carolyn Petit writes in her essay “Denial of the Self”, “By introducing the idea that Kanji is gay and that Naoto is transgender and then backing away from embracing those characterizations, Persona 4 represents a betrayal of its central theme about people learning to accept themselves and each other for who they are, and sends the message that such sexual orientations and gender identities are too scary to accept.” By the game’s end, the straight and cisgender characters are all able to come to accept who they are and find their true identity. Why deny the same to the queer characters?

The juxtaposition of these two paradoxes—one intentional, the other not—is an accurate portrayal of the state of narratives and storytelling in games. For the Persona series, and the medium of video games itself, there needs to be far more of the first and far fewer of the second if either expect to enter the conversation of great storytelling.

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Video game writing never changes

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In the opening essay of his book, Extra Lives, Tom Bissell writes how he, and many other players, accept bad writing in games that they would not tolerate in other media. His theory is a poorly developed protagonist or convoluted plot in a game that is shrugged off by our internal critic would not necessarily fly if it appeared in say a film. I would extend this one step further, as mediocre writing is often lauded as profoundly insightful.

One thing that’s always bothered me about Fallout–a series whose canon includes perhaps one of the best games, New Vegas, of the past ten years, if not all-time–is the vapid and intellectually empty motif: “War. War never changes.” This line is repeated multiple times in the introductions and conclusions of each entry of the series, delivered in a rough grumble, overwrought with drama by Ron Perlman. No offense to Perlman–who, coincidentally, is a graduate of one of the universities I teach at–it would be impossible for any actor to read any meaning into this line, but my response to this narration at the conclusion of the game is always, “Dog, I just spent 80 hours killing giant radioactive scorpions and super mutants with laser rifles and a cannon designed by Tesla; I think combat has changed at least slightly since, I don’t know, the Revolutionary War.”

It kind of reminds me of the episode of Seinfeld where George brags to Jerry about regaling his date the night before with his seemingly witty observation on how toilet paper hasn’t, and won’t, changed over the course of 10,000 years; only to have Jerry point out that yes, toilet paper has changed, in terms of color and softness and perforated sheets to name a few.

So, Bethesda, there you have it. War does change.

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Game Genie and other stories of postmodernism

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I’ve always loved cheat codes. The first thing I did whenever I got a new copy of Nintendo Power in the mail was to check Classified Information. If there weren’t any codes for any of the games that I owned, I’d beg my mom to take me to the video store to rent one that did. Top Secret Passwords became my bible shortly after its publication. So it should come as no surprise that when ads for Game Genie started appearing in comics and on television, I had to have it.

I don’t remember exactly why, but my parents insisted that my brother and I purchase it with our own money. Looking back on it, they were probably using the situation as an opportunity to teach us about the value of money and hard work. Nevertheless, our entire combined savings weren’t enough, so we had to save and scrounge for weeks before we could come up with the money. However, we weren’t able to track down a copy. Little did I know back then, but Game Genie was an unlicensed product and many stores and distributors did not stock them for fear that Nintendo of America would suddenly delay or stop shipment of their orders. I was only eight at the time, so my mom–with her heavenly patience–called store after store until she finally tracked one down at a Sears or Service Merchandise over the state line in Rhode Island.

My brother and I used it constantly. We were finally able to reach later levels on impossibly difficult games that we otherwise adored, like Battletoads and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Playing games out of order had an enormous impact on how I perceive narrative. Along with other cheat codes–such as the infamous JUSTIN BAILEY Metroid password–and a far too early viewing of Wayne’s World, Game Genie introduced me to postmodernism and nonlinear storytelling. If my brother wanted to play Battletoads, we could skip to the final level to make a run at the Dark Queen; then when we got bored, jump Stage 10 to race Giblet the rat. It trained my then very impressionable mind that stories don’t necessarily need to be told in order.

I often try to articulate this to my students when they ask why I chose to study literature and pursue a career in academia. It’s still an abstract concept to them. We no longer have cheat codes in the traditional sense. There are no codes to punch in to skip to the final stage of Alien Isolation, no way to get right to the final showdown in Fallout 4. Sure, many games are open worlds now and the player can choose which quests to do in which order and even skip many if they so please. However, with game lengths bloating into 40, 50, or sometimes even 80 hours, there’s something inherently sad about no longer being able to skip ahead to the good part.

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Splatterhouse: The comic

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via VGjunk

It’s a Splatterhouse comic ad! This appeared in Fantastic Four #346 back in November, 1990, though I’m sure it appeared elsewhere. For those who are unaware, Splatterhouse is a single beat ’em up which totally does not rip off Friday the 13th at all. Nope, no intellectual properties are being infringed here. I’m pleasantly surprised with the quality of the artwork. And the story lines up with that in the manual, though like the American box art, Rick’s mask is red instead of white as it is in the game. Love how Jennifer breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the reader directly in the final panel. There wasn’t enough postmodernism in video games back in the 1990s.

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