Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages

Almost a year after its release, buying a Nintendo Switch is not a casual process. After several months of questing, I was finally able to find one on Amazon. I decided that it was worth the hefty price markup, so I went ahead and bought it. And now I have a Switch!

One of the reasons why it took me so long to bite the bullet and order a console is because I have a long backlog of games I’ve purchased and downloaded but never finished. Part of my annual New Year cleaning ritual is to delete these games and then forget about them, but one of the games it seemed like a shame to just get rid of was the half-finished copy of Oracle of Ages I had downloaded onto my Nintendo 3DS. Although I’ve played the game several times before, I began this playthrough of Oracle of Ages over the summer in a state of postgame euphoria after finishing Link’s Awakening, and I needed something to take with me on a trip to Europe.

So I boarded the plane, turned on my Nintendo 3DS, and launched the game…

…and this is when I remembered that Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages are my least favorite Zelda games.

The primary reason I dislike Seasons and Ages is that they both include multiple gameplay elements hinder the player’s sense of flow. In most Zelda games, Link becomes increasingly capable of overcoming the challenges presented by his environment as he acquires more tools and knowledge. By the end of the game, Link is free to go anywhere and do anything, which gives the player a sense of empowerment and mastery. Moreover, since the player is no longer stymied by small obstacles, she is free to embark on a deeper level of exploration. This is unfortunately not the case in Seasons and Ages.

Let me give a specific example from Oracle of Seasons. Fairly early in the game, on the way to the third dungeon, Link befriends a boxing kangaroo named Ricky, who can hop over large holes in the ground and leap up certain cliffs. Immediately before the specific cliff Ricky needs to scale, there is a lone house containing a woman who forms a link in the chain of the game’s trading sequence. If Link jumps out of Ricky’s pouch and enters the house, however, Ricky will be gone when he comes out. Because several pits lie between Link’s location and Ricky’s grove, Link can’t simply return to the screen where he originally encountered Ricky. Instead, he has find a way to change the season to winter so that snow drifts will have piled up over the otherwise impassable holes. According to several walkthroughs I’ve consulted, this apparently gives many players (including myself) trouble because the snowdrift mechanic has not yet been introduced and is only really useful in this particular series of screens.

Both games are full of arbitrary overworld puzzles like this, and the player must repeatedly make her way through the same ones if she wishes to navigate their maps on foot. A quick travel mechanic (in the form of Gale Seeds) is available, but this discourages exploration and has made my own experiences with the games resemble a series of chores to check off a list.

I also find the (mostly) randomly generated rings that Link can collect to be not only useless but also a taunt to the player’s sense of progress, as it’s impossible that any sane person unwilling to devote dozens of extra hours would be able to obtain more than a small fraction of them, even with the rings from one game linked over to the other. As far as “replay value” gimmicks go, this type of randomized collection is particularly obnoxious.

The two Oracle games strike me as a cash grab on the popularity of the Pokémon franchise right as the Game Boy Color was at the tail end of its life. I get the feeling that Capcom didn’t have a lot of oversight from Nintendo, especially with the main Zelda team enmeshed in the development hell that ultimately resulted in The Wind Waker. Although they contain clever references to the original 1986 The Legend of Zelda game, I find Seasons and Ages to be lacking in the smooth and ergonomic game design that characterizes the series. I used to wonder why there aren’t more Zelda clones out there, since it seems as if the mechanics would be fairly easy to duplicate, but Seasons and Ages proved to me that mechanics alone do not make a Zelda game.

Still, I will admit to being moved by the scene proceeding the final battle of the linked game, in which Ganondorf’s adoptive mothers, the witches Kotake and Koume, sacrifice themselves to resurrect him. According to Hyrule Historia, the ritual is improperly performed, and Ganon is “resurrected as a mindless beast.” Aside from the tragedy of Ganon’s situation, however, I’m not a huge fan of the stories of the Oracle games, and none of their characters are particularly memorable. To be honest, I vastly prefer the humor and worldbuilding of Akira Himekawa’s manga adaptations to actually playing the games.

Perhaps the best thing about Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages is that they served as a training ground for their director, writer, and scenario planner Hidemaro Fujibayashi, who would of course go on to serve as the director for Breath of the Wild. I guess the moral of this story is that, even if you produce something that has major problems, you can still learn from your mistakes and keep going. After about twenty days of owning a Switch, I’ve already put more than a hundred hours into Breath of the Wild, and it’s still hard for me to believe that this game was created by the same person responsible for that Game Boy Color game on my Nintendo 3DS that I suppose I will eventually be able to bring myself to finish at some point.

( Header image by Sarlisart on Tumblr )

Pokémon Sun

“Everyone’s smiles shine so brightly. Those smiles led us to so many other people. And those meetings will lead us to a bright future. I’m so glad I got to meet everyone. I’m so glad I got to meet you.”

– Lillie

I really love Pokémon Sun. It’s a sweet and gentle game that’s full of happiness. Everyone is kind to the player-character, and everyone helps her and wants her to succeed. There is no racism or sexism or homophobia, there is no war or poverty, and there is no animal cruelty. There is an overt critique of capitalism, but it’s very gentle, and the real-world history of human migration to Hawai’i is treated respectfully as well.

There’s a famous quote from Slavoj Zizek that goes, “It’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism,” but the dude obviously never played any of the Pokémon games, which all function as beautiful interactive models of what a peaceful postcapitalist society might actually look like.

Money isn’t much more than a game token. Everyone’s needs are met, and there is no scarcity. Jobs pay well, leisure is abundant, and volunteerism is common. There is a state, but it only exists to provide basic services. The villains in the game are aberrations that have to be tolerated as a byproduct of the functioning of the local market system, which is driven by individual interests. Even in a postcapitalist system with no scarcity, some people will still insist on behaving according to capitalist ideology. These people will create problems for everyone else if someone doesn’t talk sense into them, but the organizations they lead can be challenged and overcome by individual members of society.

What I especially appreciate about Pokémon Sun is that it repeatedly emphasizes the message that everyone’s talents are valuable. Success is achieved through cooperation and mutual support, and the goal is not to “get stronger” but to develop one’s unique strengths. The player-character’s friend Lillie is a good example of this value system. She wants to get stronger at the beginning of the story, but gradually she finds the courage to resist the expectation (enforced by one of the game’s villains, who happens to be her gorgeous and fascinating mother) that there is an absolute standard to which she should aspire. That being said, Lillie isn’t content to “be herself,” as she acknowledges that change isn’t something to be afraid of, and at the end of the game she makes a firm decision to direct her own character evolution by setting her own challenges.

If you choose to play as the female protagonist, the relationship between this protagonist and Lillie is one of the most pure and perfect things I have ever seen in a mainstream game. I’m actually really surprised that Nintendo allowed this to happen, considering how gay it is.

It only took me about 45 hours to finish Pokémon Sun, but I spread it out over ten months because the world of the game is a surefire source of happiness and joy. Breath of the Wild, my other favorite game of 2017, was a lot of fun, but Pokémon Sun healed me.

The people who wrote the entries in the pokédex are complete savages, though. Some of that writing is dark, and whoever is responsible for it needs to reflect on their life choices and think about what they’ve done.

( Header image by P-Curlyart on Tumblr )

( The artist also has a lovely Moon+Lillie zine on Storenvy! )

Final Fantasy XV and Slow Gaming

In the year since Final Fantasy XV was released, I think I may have played the game a total of six hours. I’ve been picking it up and putting it back down, mostly because it hasn’t been fun for me. I’m having a lot of trouble with this game, which I’m afraid is indicative of my failure to adapt to modern gaming. My biggest problem is that the map works in a way that isn’t intuitive for me, and the text and maps in the official strategy guide are not in the least bit useful in helping me navigate. I’ve been getting lost a lot, especially when the game decides it’s going to be night and I can’t see anything.

FFXV is an action RPG, and its combat moves extremely quickly. With four people and swarms of enemies, even the battles at the beginning of the game are chaotic. It’s almost impossible for the player to be able to see everything that’s going on during combat, and the fact that the player needs to control the camera as well as Noct does not help. Even in easy mode, the entire screen is filled with rapidly shifting information. Although you can pause the game, there’s no way to slow down the battles, and they are brutal. In other words, the player is expected to start the game at a fairly high point on the learning curve.

After every battle, the game grades you on your performance. I wish you could turn this feature off, because it makes me feel awful about myself. Even worse, every time you rest for the night (which you need to do in order to tally your experience points and gain levels), the game grades you on how well your exploration went that day. Because I want to explore the map and am constantly getting lost, this makes me feel awful as well.

You suck, FFXV keeps telling me. You’re barely passing. You’re bad at playing this game. You’re bad at games. What are you even doing.

A lot of the work I do in real life is invisible, and I don’t typically get a lot of feedback, positive or otherwise. I also don’t get much feedback from my creative work in fandom, which (as much as I would love to say that “I create for myself!”) is also tough to handle. One of the reasons I play games is because I need to feel like I’m capable of accomplishing something. Even if it’s just gaining a level or being told that I found 100% of a dungeon’s treasure, I need to feel that I’m making progress.

The constant stream of negative feedback in FFXV is hurtful and alienating, and I don’t know why the developers felt the need to structure the game in this way. I play Final Fantasy games to experience interesting stories and explore beautiful worlds while falling in love with quirky characters as I manage and customize their growth to suit my playing style. If I wanted to play a hyperdrive murder simulator, I would choose another game. There are a lot of them out there!

Because FFXV is so stressful, I’ve found myself fleeing from it into games that are a bit more forgiving, such as Pokémon Sun and Breath of the Wild. Go at your own pace. Take your time, both games say to me. You’re doing great! It’s not that the games aren’t challenging, but rather that they’re able to accommodate diverse playstyles.

I’d like to advocate for “slow gaming,” which I see as a more individualized and sustainable type of gaming. The style of gaming represented by FFXV, which is extremely goal-oriented and only accommodates exploration and experimentation if the player is already highly experienced, should not be understood as normal or standard or something that anyone can enjoy. I’ve resolved to play FFXV all the way to the end in 2018, but I’m going to take it at my own pace without spending too much time worrying about what the game expects of me.

( The header image is from eldi13 on DeviantArt )

Final Fantasy IX, PlayStation 4 Edition

A slightly updated version of Final Fantasy IX was just released for the PlayStation 4 in November, and I went ahead and forked over $20 to download it. I’ve spent the past month playing it, and I have to admit that it’s been somewhat painful. It’s distressing to say this, especially since the game was remarkably beautiful for its time, but it has not aged well. The blurred pixelation of the environments is intense on my widescreen HD television, and this loss of graphic quality feels even more extreme since it’s contrasted against the sharpened character models. So much of what makes FFIX charming is how its art contributes to a sense of exploring a beautiful and fully realized world, and the super blurry backgrounds aren’t ugly, exactly, but they don’t do the game any favors. Also, I know it’s sacrilegious to say this, but I’ve grown so used to ambient and environmental sound design that Nobuo Uematsu’s score of catchy one-minute song loops has been kind of annoying me.

In the PS4 version of the game, there are some neat shortcuts built right into the options menu, such as the option to max out your party’s levels and money whenever you’d like. I don’t think this makes the game any more enjoyable to play, however, especially since it wasn’t grind-oriented to begin with. Very early on I decided to go ahead and use the “cheat” settings to max out my party’s experience and skill points, and though I regret nothing I do think it takes something away from the experience of the game not to be involved in the monitoring of your characters’ growth and resources.

Thankfully, the one thing that hasn’t changed about Final Fantasy IX is the joy of experiencing its marvelous story.

In Final Fantasy X, there’s a scene late in the game when Seymour ambushes the party on Mount Gagazet and says that he just killed all of the Ronso, a race of blue-furred people who’ve made their home at the base of the mountain. Aside from the frustration of the difficult boss fight that follows this pronouncement, it doesn’t really carry any emotional weight, mainly because Kimahri, the Ronso member of your party, doesn’t react to this information in any way. Moreover, there’s no extra scene or sense of mourning that occurs if your party returns to the Ronso village, which feels like a strange narrative oversight.

There aren’t many holes like this in FFIX, which feels satisfyingly complete on its own. Aside from the obvious instances of improbable fantasy hijinks, there aren’t that many gaps in the story, and various characters are paired in new and interesting ways throughout the game in ways that give the player a more well-rounded view of their personalities. The optional ATE (“active time event”) cut scenes are also fantastic in the way that they offer glimpses of the perspectives of characters other than those currently in your main party. I’ve played FFIX several times since it was first released in 2000; but, since I started reading and writing about video games seriously from an academic perspective, I’ve found that I’ve come to genuinely appreciate just how well-crafted it is. The graphics and gameplay may have aged, but the story, characters, and interactive set-piece scenarios are still as fantastic as ever.

When it comes to my relatively diminished enjoyment of the game, then, I think it may be possible that I’m still burned out from having spent so much time playing (and teaching) Final Fantasy X earlier this year. I still love FFIX, but I’m not entirely certain I feel the need to keep playing the game all the way until the end. After all, I still haven’t gotten past the second chapter in Final Fantasy XV, and it feels like something of a waste to keep returning to the same games that I’ve been playing for the past fifteen years.

( Header image from Alice Kaninchenbau on Tumblr )

RiME

The last four paragraphs of this post contain major spoilers for Rime.

Rime (stylized as RiME) came out this past May, and people have been describing it as a cross between Journey and The Wind Waker. This comparison is understandable, as Rime has clearly borrowed visual design elements from both games. Its take on the genre of “exploration adventure” has been influenced from Journey, while numerous gameplay elements have been drawn from Wind Waker.

I think Rime is supposed to be about seven to eight hours long. In addition to an initial hour of wandering around aimlessly, I put about four hours into the game, and I think I’m done. Rime is like Journey without the charm and like Wind Waker without the cleverness and solid gameplay. Where it succeeds visually are its striking and brightly colored landscapes, but it forces the player to spend an inordinate amount of time in unlit interiors fooling around with moving block puzzles. It also opens with an immensely illogical failure in the design of its initial tutorial mission.

Like Journey, Rime doesn’t tell the player how things work but instead helps you figure things out for yourself through environmental design. At the beginning of the game, the player washes up on a deserted island, and within the first few minutes you’re given the task of activating four statues. Each of these statues is marked by a bright blue beam flaring directly upwards, the four of which collectively serve as obvious goalpost indicators. One statue is just off the main path from the beach to the interior of the island, one requires you to feed some fruit to a boar so that it will move out of your way, and one requires you to dive and swim through an underwater passage in order to be able to climb onto a small offshore structure.

The game guides the player through the actions needed to achieve these three goals. When you’re standing next to the first statue, the triangle button appears onscreen, showing you how to activate it with the “voice” command. When you’re standing close to the fruit bushes right next to the second statue, the square button appears onscreen, showing you how to pick the fruit with the “interact” command. When you’re swimming around the small structure in the bay, the x button appears onscreen, showing you how to dive using what you’ve already probably figured out is the “jump” command. No problems here.

The difficulty with the fourth statue is that it’s far away from the point of specialist action needed to reach it, and this target point is not flagged for the player in any way. What you’re supposed to do is use the circle button (which otherwise makes the avatar character perform a somersault) to drop down from a cliff so that you’re hanging from it by your fingertips. You then shimmy along its edge until you can jump to another cliff, which you then climb before following a path to the other side of the island. There are plenty of other cliffs on the island, but most players will have learned that they mark boundaries, as jumping off of them will result in death. Climbable ledges are marked by white erosion patterns (or guano?), but you can’t see these patterns from above, and you cling to and scale them with the jump button. Since the key action point involving the circle button is the only time that the player is required to actually drop down from a cliff, and since you can’t see its “climb marks” from where the camera is positioned looking down on it, and since it’s so far away from the actual statue, it would stand to reason that the circle button would appear onscreen when the player approaches this particular cliff – but it doesn’t.

I therefore spent a good hour running around and trying to jump over or climb up or somersault through piles of rocks close to the fourth statue, all to no avail. When I finally gave up and resorted to a video walkthrough, I noticed that the circle button prompt didn’t appear onscreen for that player either, which leads me to believe that it’s not something I missed but rather a deliberate feature of the game meant to help the player develop exploration skills.

Because I’m a shitty casual gamer, I frequently have trouble figuring out the internal logic of games that are new to me, so this could just be a consequence of my own relative lack of skill. Regardless, I still think exploration challenges with this level of difficulty should not be included in a tutorial mission. This wouldn’t be a flaw in a game that is in fact meant to be difficult, but it’s definitely a problem in Rime, which is meant to expansive and atmospheric instead of twitchy and stressful.

Speaking of twitchy, Rime’s platforming elements are atrocious. The player-character will not successfully land his jumps unless he is positioned in exactly the right place and at exactly the right angle, and the camera angle often doesn’t help. The character moves so slowly that returning to the jump point is often a tedious process, especially later in the game when chains of jumps must be completed. I could only stand to play about half an hour of this game at a time, and I had to take a few days in between play sessions to allow my frustration with the poor game design to abate.

I eventually got to the point where I started to search for spoilers. I suspected that, like other indie games in which a child must complete trials in a world with no other people, the boy who serves as the player-character might already be dead. If that was the case, I wasn’t sure that the emotional payoff of the game would be worth the frustration.

Spoilers ahead.

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It turns out that the kid is in fact dead, having fallen overboard during a storm while on a boat with his father. It’s not clear whether you play as the kid’s soul making the transition from life to death or whether you play as the father imaging the kid’s fantasy adventures as he navigates the seven stages of grief, but the last bit of the game involves the father walking around the kid’s room and picking up the kid’s toys, each of which played a symbolic role in the game (a stuffed fox is the fox spirit that leads you through the early stages, and so on). I am predisposed to cry at video games, but this revelation came so totally out of left field that my reaction was basically, Wow that grieving father has some nice real estate, I wonder how much his house is worth.

I think I would have preferred a more straightforward story of a kid being shipwrecked on an island and discovering the remains of an ancient civilization. The game is structured so that the boy is able to visit the island in what seems to be different time periods: in one it is lush and green, in another it is filled with ghosts and sand-choked ruins, and in another there are robots. Also, many of the game’s puzzles involve circles, orbits, the sun and moon, light and darkness, and other elements that suggest the cyclical nature of time. It would therefore make sense, both in terms of game design and gameplay, to have the game’s theme be the ultimate ephemerality of even the most monumental human achievement within the endless flow of time.

I think it would also be cool if the game involved the kid gradually realizing that he is the heir to this ancient civilization but then leaving everything behind on the island so that he can go home. Or the kid inadvertently (or deliberately) destroying everything on the island and being okay with it. Or the island being some sort of trial or pilgrimage the kid has to undertake in order to become an adult, kind of like a spirit quest.

What I’m saying, I guess, is I wanted the game to be more thematically cohesive. As it stands, it’s a waste of what could have been some gorgeous environmental storytelling. I’m not sure that even the most resonant of themes and the most brilliant of storytelling could have made up for the endless series of contrived puzzles and the godawful platforming, though.

( Header image from the game’s review on Kotaku )

What Remains of Edith Finch

This post contains minor gameplay spoilers.

What Remains of Edith Finch is a walking simulator that takes about two and half hours to complete. It was released back in April on Steam and for the PlayStation 4, and oh my goodness it is gorgeous.

What Remains of Edith Finch falls into the most perfect category of video games: It was created for an adult audience by a small team of developers who take full advantage of the interactive gaming medium but have no intention of frustrating the player with unnecessary and artificial puzzle or platforming elements. The game is emotionally challenging, and there’s a lot to explore and take in. The design is flawless, and the atmosphere is never broken by the player having to get up and check a walkthrough.

You play as a teenage woman named Edith Finch, who is returning to her family’s house on a small island off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. The house has been abandoned ever since Edith’s mother moved away in order to escape what has become known as “the family curse,” which seems to be that everyone who is born into or marries into the Finch family dies before their time in a tragic accident. In order to find closure, Edith tries to reconstruct the details of these deaths, which the player is allowed to experience for herself in a series of vignettes that play out in the form of games within the game.

The story progression is definitely on rails, but it doesn’t feel particularly linear or forced. Even though we know that each vignette will end in death, the player’s interaction with the game is integral to the storytelling. I’m going to use the case of Edith’s older brother Lewis as an example of what I mean.

Lewis is a kid who loves fantasy novels, 16-bit video games, and smoking pot. When he graduates from high school, he gets a job at a salmon cannery, which is just as dreary as you might expect, but he daydreams while performing menial labor. As the player, you use one joystick to control the repetitive motion of decapitating fish and throwing them onto the conveyor belt while simultaneously using the other joystick to guide Lewis’s avatar through his RPG-themed fantasies.

Lewis doesn’t die by slicing off his own hand if the player messes up the controls. That would be a cheap shot, and this game does not take cheap shots.

What happens instead is that Lewis’s daydream becomes more interesting and complex, which is reflected by upgrades to its graphics and sound. The controls for the salmon cannery aspect of Lewis’s life never change, and they remain a constant annoyance as the fantasy gradually fills the screen. When the player is jolted out of this daydream back into the bloody and poorly lit factory, it’s much more jarring than it would be if we were simply reading or watching Lewis’s story.

The psychiatrist who narrates this vignette says that Lewis’s death was caused by a hallucination triggered by withdrawal, but the player knows that it was suicide brought about by his overwhelming desire to no longer be anchored in an unpleasant and unsatisfying reality.

What Remains of Edith Finch made me tear up not because it’s sad or sentimental, but rather because it’s nuanced and incredibly beautiful. It doesn’t give the player the same sort of transcendent experience as something like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture or Abzû, but it offers a smaller story that still manages to contain mystery, wonder, and breathtaking landscapes. Epic postapocalyptic science fiction is all well and good, but it’s also nice to see the gaming medium used to apply magical realism to a Gothic drama of family ghosts and dying communities that is uplifted by the emotional catharsis of voyage and discovery.

( Header image from the game’s review on Wired )

Final Fantasy X – Seymour and Video Game Villainy

When it comes to video game villains, there’s a certain amount of puppy kicking that you have get past in order to figure out what’s going on with them. Nintendo villains tend to not kick a lot of puppies, especially compared to Final Fantasy villains, who routinely have puppies positioned directly in front of their waiting feet.

Seymour is especially bad in this regard. He doesn’t particularly come off as insane, but the game gives him so many puppies to kick that it’s hard to understand who he would be if he weren’t a video game villain. He behaves with utmost creepiness toward Yuna and then tries to kill her, he murders multiple highly ranked members of Yevon (including his father), he orchestrates the mass slaughter of Yevon radicals that is Operation Mi’ihen, and his ultimate goal is to become Sin himself so that he can end human suffering by destroying every person in Spira. I define all of this as “kicking puppies” because it’s over-the-top evil behavior that doesn’t really serve any narrative purpose aside from establishing the villain as the bad guy. Seymour is difficult to understand because, once you take away all this puppy kicking, there really isn’t that much there.

In the Japanese version of the game, a lot of the heavy lifting is done by Seymour’s voice actor, Jun’ichi Suwabe, who is quite prolific and especially known for playing characters who are brilliant but slightly unhinged (such as, most recently, Victor in Yuri!!! on Ice). Suwabe’s voice is smooth and lovely, which goes a long way toward establishing a seductive quality to Seymour’s character, thus offering a partial explanation as to why he would have risen so high in Yevon. In Japanese, there’s a strong social positivity attached to the sort of highly formal and “soft” speech that Seymour uses, which is supposed to give us an impression of him being cultured and intelligent and every bit the summoner and scholar everyone makes him out to be.

I think this is the key to understanding the real conflict that Seymour represents, which has more to do with the Yevon religion than it has to do with him. In Spira, Yevon controls everything. Although tradition and religious faith comfort the people, the institution of Yevon is thoroughly corrupt and does nothing to actually protect people from Sin. The high-ranking clergy know that Sin can never be defeated by summoners, but they still take advantage of the people’s faith for political and economic gain. Because Yevon’s power is so deeply entrenched in the culture and society of Spira, only an outsider would be able to resist it.

As a the child of an interracial couple who lived in exile for most of his life, Seymour had the potential to be that outsider, but he devoted all of his energy to becoming an insider. He rose high in Yevon, which is, after all, what his father and mother wanted him to do, both of them hoping that he could prove instrumental in easing the racial tensions that were exacerbated by Maester Mika’s integration policies. As one of the members of the esoteric inner circle of Yevon, and as someone who has witnessed the horror of what it means to be a Fayth, Seymour has access to information that most people in Spira do not, but he is not able to do anything productive with this knowledge and insight.

Seymour resists the myth that Spira can be saved from Sin, but he has also bought into it so deeply that he has begun to embrace the original purpose of Sin, which was to protect Spira from complete annihilation by blasting its level of technology back to a preindustrial level. Seymour could have become a radical, but he is way too invested in the system. Essentially, his “evil” is that he has assimilated.

Tidus is a true outsider, which is why he gets to be the hero of the game. Still, Seymour is correct in his understanding that everything in Spira is a “spiral” of death from which it is difficult to escape. If Sin is not defeated, people may suffer at some undetermined point in the future; but, if Sin is defeated, everything will change, and people will suffer right now. Change is hard, even if it’s beneficial in the long run. If the system changes, people will lose things that are important to them. Tidus is clueless about all of this, and so he questions and undermines the system without really thinking about the larger consequences.

In the end, however, neither Tidus the radical nor Seymour the reactionary is a sustainable position, and it’s actually Yuna, the compassionate young women who can understand both positions, who survives and addresses all of Spira after both Tidus and Seymour are gone.

I think Final Fantasy X is a very political game, and I get the sense that what is being critiqued by its story is Japan’s Imperial system. With strong references to Okinawa and hip hop fashion, Final Fantasy X draws on the culture of Japan’s “lost decade” of the 1990s, when people desperately wanted to see change in their society. Japan can’t escape the dark legacy of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War if it doesn’t change, but it can’t transform itself if it doesn’t let go of the Imperial system, which is difficult to reform or dispose of. The older Seymours are too invested in the system, while the radical inclinations of the younger Tiduses fade like a dream. Someone like Yuna, who is both an insider and outsider and possesses the empathy to see the problem from multiple viewpoints, needs to step forward and save Japan by uniting disparate groups of people with a message of hope and a vision of an alternate future.

There’s also a fair amount of nuclear imagery in the game, especially during the Operation Mi’ihen sequence, when human bodies are vaporized into particles within the blinding light of Sin’s attack. That being said, there are no easy parallels between nuclear energy and Sin, which takes the form of an enormous cetacean monster. As in any game in the Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy X revolves around a conflict between technology and magic, with magic being associated with organic or genetically inherited human potential. While technology is artificial and often at odds with the environment, magic is natural and elemental. It is only when magic is misused, generally in tandem with technology, that it becomes a threat to humankind. Unlike a nuclear bomb, Sin is not so much a weapon as it is a symbol of the hatred and xenophobia that necessitates weapons – a monument capable of transferring the suffering of the past into the present.

It’s therefore interesting that Yuna does not, strictly speaking, “defeat” Sin, as such a thing cannot be defeated. Rather, she releases the victims of the conflict that Sin represents from their suffering. When Yu Yevon, the summoner who created Sin and the supposed deity unjustly worshipped by the Yevon religion, is struck down by Yuna, all of the Fayth who have been trapped in a living death are finally allowed to disappear, with the Aeons and Tidus’s Zanarkand disappearing along with them. When the ghosts of the past (including Tidus) are finally laid to rest as the ideology that sustained them is discredited, the spiral of destruction is finally broken, and Spira can finally move forward.

Within the value system of the game, Seymour existed as the purest expression of the ideology of warfare, whose compulsion was so powerful that not even an outsider could escape it – and this is why the story casts him as a villain.

( Header image by Magistera on Tumblr )

Video Games as Art

While doing the preliminary groundwork for my class on “Video Games and Japan,” I found a Wikipedia entry on video games as an art form. The major strain of criticism I’ve encountered (generally from inside the game dev community) that holds that games are not “art” tends toward the argument that the ontological category of “art” is transcended by the multimedia and nonlinear nature of games. The sense I get from the Wikipedia entry, however, is that there is still a debate focused on the participatory elements of the medium and the ostensible lack of creative direction of an auteur.

I’ve frequently run across references to Roget Ebert supposedly saying that video games are not art, a quote that I was finally able to track down

Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control. I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.

Five years later, in April 2010, Ebert posted an essay titled Video Games Can Never Be Art, which was written in response to a TED Talk in which Kellee Santiago quoted him being old and grumpy. Here he writes…

One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film.

Elsewhere in the essay he references Werner Herzog, which is never a good indication of having an open mind about new technologies. In any case, the internet exploded in response, and two and a half months later Ebert made another post conceding that…

I thought about those works of Art that had moved me most deeply. I found most of them had one thing in common: Through them I was able to learn more about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of other people. My empathy was engaged. I could use such lessons to apply to myself and my relationships with others. They could instruct me about life, love, disease and death, principles and morality, humor and tragedy. They might make my life more deep, full and rewarding. […] I had to be prepared to agree that gamers can have an experience that, for them, is Art.

He’s not happy about it, though, and mostly he justifies why he’s not interested in engaging with the argument, his reasoning basically boiling down to the fact that he’s not interested in playing video games. So that’s a dead end.

When “video games as art” are discussed in other contexts, it seems to be in terms of “game art,” which is when games are presented in the context of gallery spaces, as in the case of installations like Super Mario Clouds. Like the Ebert posts, those conversations feel dated (probably because they in fact occurred almost ten years ago), and I wonder if the sort of games profiled by 365 Tiny Games are what are now considered to be “art games.”

Meanwhile, in her new book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, Dr. Angela Nagle prefaces a brief discussion of Gamergate by writing…

First, let me be clear on my own position on gaming. If you’re an adult, I think you should probably be investing your emotional energies elsewhere. And that includes feminist gaming, which has always struck me as being about as appealing as feminist porn; in other words, not at all.

This statement is striking to me because it indicates that, even in 2017, a highly educated and internet-literate person can still get away with saying that video games are not a legitimate medium of artistic and social expression, even though she’s written an entire book about online cultures shaped by engagement with video games.

It’s odd to me that this “debate” over whether video games are art is anything more than an interesting footnote in the history of the medium, although I’d like to believe that the sort of conservative mindset expressed by Nagle is fading as games continue to eclipse cinema and television within the mediascapes of global popular cultures.

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Breath of the Wild – Questions and Concerns

I’ve been playing Breath of the Wild slowly, only about one or two hours a night, and I’ve been focusing on working my way through the shrines. There may still be parts of the story that I’m missing, but so far I’ve seen a number of things in the game that make me go “Hey, this is 2017, why are we still doing this?”

For one thing, there are multiple queer-coded characters whose gender presentation seems to function primarily as a target for humor. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t poke fun at the gender binary, and I’m certainly not saying that over-the-top gay camp silliness isn’t wonderful, but it would be nice if there were more normalized queerness to go along with the jokes.

It’s also really cool that people of all races and genders are in love with Link, and it’s cool that Link is totally okay with this, but the insistence of the game designers that he is male still rubs me the wrong way. For some reason it’s okay to queerbait a shark boyfriend (fish pun totally intended) with boy Link, but heaven forbid that Mipha or Princess Zelda becomes romantically attracted to girl Link. Ditto for Link dressing up as a Gerudo – couldn’t it have worked just as easily for female Link to have needed to wear special clothing?

I’m also fascinated by the gender politics of Gerudo society. If there are male Gerudo, why don’t we see more of them? It’s fun to joke about how a homosocial society finds heteronormativity strange, but I think that it would have been super interesting to see how that plays out for the male minority.

And speaking of the male minority, I definitely want to know what happened with Ganondorf. Was he the reason the Gerudo ditched the whole “the one male born in a hundred years becomes king” tradition? It’s kind of a bummer that, while the Hylians have a long history that affects their actions and worldview, the Gerudo seem ahistorical. If the Hylians have been able to transmit information about Ganon from generation to generation, why would the Gerudo have forgotten about Ganondorf? Since they have their own language, don’t they have their own books? Why is their history given less weight than the history of the Hylians?

Before the game came out, I was beyond excited that the Gerudo were making another appearance. After all, it’s 2017, and Nintendo has demonstrated greater sensitivity to global diversity (in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, and so on) for the past several years. The amount of time and care the Breath of the Wild development team was putting into the game made me optimistic that they were devoting significant attention to rectifying the boring and ugly tropes formerly allowed to pass because of technical limitations and the relative lack of conversation surrounding the Zelda series. The more I actually play the game, however, the more I’m becoming frustrated with various aspects of the worldbuilding and storytelling.

Specifically, Breath of the Wild could have been much more sensitive regarding its portrayal of transgender issues, and I don’t think it would have hurt the game if there had been some solid LGBT+ representation. Also, it’s more than a little disturbing that the theme of gendered otherness is conflated with racial otherness, and if I never have to see another Orientalist stereotype of a harem outfit presented unironically for the viewer/player’s pleasure then I can die happy.

It’s a bit weird to see “legitimate” and generally fairly progressive venues like The New Yorker hail Breath of the Wild as being “a perfect game.” I can’t help but wonder if perhaps it’s not being unduly rewarded for reflecting the interests of “serious” (typically white male) gamers while the vocal demands made by a number of groups overwhelmingly marginalized in mainstream gaming journalism were ignored, even when they were repeatedly made directly to the developers in interviews. Journalists have basically been like, “Breath of the Wild is everything that the sort of people who read and write for ‘serious’ gaming publications like Edge magazine think a good game should be,” all the while amplifying the voices of a small and very specific group of gamers. Meanwhile, it’s apparently not worth discussing that the story and visual imagery of Breath of the Wild actively reinforce stereotypes that harm real people.

I am head over heels in love with Breath of the Wild, and I really appreciate how the game gives the player a sense of moving through a huge open world. I just really wish the story elements were as expansive and as carefully considered as the gameplay.

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Breath of the Wild – Initial Impressions

I’ve really been enjoying Breath of the Wild.

To be honest, I wasn’t crazy about the game when I first started playing, as the “go anywhere and do anything” mode of gameplay can be a bit overwhelming at the beginning. Now that I’ve put a solid two months of my life into this game, however, I can say that I’m having a crazy amount of fun with Breath of the Wild. It’s everything that I’ve ever enjoyed about the Zelda series in terms of adventure and exploration and the thrill of discovery. The player is free to go off on her own in any direction, but there’s just enough guidance to ensure that you’re never going to be completely lost or unsure of what to do next. In other words, I think the game developers were able to create a perfect balance between creative direction and player agency.

Breath of the Wild is deep and rich and full of cool things to interact with, and it’s saturated with color and charm and humor that ranges from stupid dad puns to surprisingly clever sex jokes. It’s also been breaking my heart with its sheer beauty, with the music and lighting effects being especially phenomenal.

My favorite thing about the game is that it’s filled with plants and animals in a vibrant and interconnected set of ecosystems. Link can ride around on a horse all day hunting and fishing and collecting mushrooms and herbs, and it never gets boring. Whatever you chose to do (or not do), the game will reward you by being an absolute joy to play.

Because Breath of the Wild is so rewarding, I think I’ve become more disciplined about playing it than I’ve ever been about anything in my life.

Don’t get me wrong – the game doesn’t feel like work, but it does require mental energy. It’s not difficult, exactly, but it requires that you be fully engaged with the diegetic environment. Sometimes when I get home in the evening I just want to take a bath and read for a bit and go to sleep, but I’ve been forcing myself to sit down on the couch and turn on the Wii U so that I can get just a little farther in Breath of the Wild.

Every night I try to play through at least one shrine. Shrines are puzzle-based mini-dungeons, and since they’re hidden all over the world (often in dangerous areas) locating and then being able to access a shrine is often a major task. There are 120 shrines in the game, and some of them are significantly more difficult than others.

If I can, I’ve also been trying to complete or at least trigger one sidequest a day. Some of these are basic fetch quests, while others encourage the player to venture out into the world and investigate strange phenomena far off the beaten path. I have seen some extremely strange and interesting things in this game, and I don’t think I’ve covered even half of the map yet.

Meanwhile, I haven’t gotten very far in the main quest at all. The overarching story (such as it is) is told through a series of flashback sequences, and I watched them all on Youtube a day or two after the game came out. I mean, this game really isn’t about story. There’s a princess who wants to be a hero, but because she’s a girl and doesn’t have The Phallus Of Destiny her job is to sit in the castle and wait for the hero to save her. Some story, right? Aside from some of the randomly dropped weapons becoming incrementally more powerful, nothing in the game really changes if the player completes one of the dungeons, so I’m saving them for when I get around to it.

For the time being, my goals in the game are to make Link (1) rich, (2) swol, (3) fashionably dressed, and (4) a certified master chef, and I am making good progress. When I walk in on Ganon in Hyrule Castle, I want him to be impressed.

Even though I must have put well over sixty hours into Breath of the Wild, the game still feels infinite. Its plot and background information is offered to the player in such small fragments that people will probably still be trying to put everything together years from now. I have some major concerns about the story, but it’s easy to put them aside and just have fun in the wide open world.

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