Teaching Final Fantasy X, Part Three


The Spring 2017 semester is already a quarter over, and my class and I have just crossed the Moonflow! I thought it might be fun to share our first three weekly quizzes with anyone who might be interested in the progress of our journey.


Quiz One (until you board the S.S. Liki)

(1) What sport does Tidus play?

(2) Who are the first people Tidus encounters after he leaves Zanarkand?

(3) What is the name of the island where Tidus eventually washes up?

(4) What does Yuna become after she completes her trial in the island temple?

(5) What do you think is the main visual motif of Final Fantasy X?

(6) How would you describe Tidus’s attitude regarding his father?


Quiz Two (until you set out on the Mi’ihen Highroad)

(1) What video game company gave Sony investment money to develop the PlayStation?

(2) What happens to the village of Kilika immediately before Yuna and company arrive there?

(3) Who is Seymour Guado (the man with the impossibly styled blue hair)?

(4) According to Auron, what is Sin?

(5) What type of black magic is strong against Yellow (lightning) Elementals?

(6) How would you describe the relationship between Tidus and Yuna?


Quiz Three (until the morning after the Djose Temple)

(1) Why were the Nintendo DS and Wii consoles so successful?

(2) What happens when a summoner defeats Sin?

(3) Why do some people in Spira (including Wakka) dislike and distrust the Al Bhed?

(4) How successful is Operation Mi’ihen (the battle against Sin on the beach)?

(5) What type of enemies are Wakka’s standard attacks effective against?

(6) How would you describe Seymour’s behavior and attitude regarding Yuna?


So, how did you do? Any questions?

( Header image from SpookiePie on Tumblr – please check out the full comic! )

Teaching Final Fantasy X, Part Two


I’ve finally finished the syllabus for my “Video Games and Japan” class, and you can download a copy from my webpage: (link)

My first day of class is tomorrow, January 24. I’m very excited! The course has a full enrollment of 25 students, and I intend to overload anyone who shows up and asks to be added. The more the merrier, right? For what it’s worth, roughly half of the students are female.

The class meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’ve structured it so that we will talk about industry history, Japanese culture, and game design theory on Tuesdays, and on Thursdays we will apply this information to Final Fantasy X. In terms of assignments, this means that students will be asked to read academic articles and book chapters for Tuesday classes, and they will need to have played FFX up to a designated point by the beginning of class on Thursday.

FFX is extremely well written and has excellent pacing, and it lends itself to division into “chapters” of relatively even length. It actually wasn’t that difficult to figure out that students should play “until the morning after the Djose Temple” and “until you wake up in the Sanubia Desert” and so on. The kids should be in the Calm Lands by spring break, and they will have beaten the game at the end of the first week of April.

Something that is true of all undergraduate students everywhere in the world is that there are a lot of demands on their time, and they often have to make difficult decisions regarding what assignments they are and are not able to complete. I understand that playing a video game can feel as if it’s not work, which means that many students may procrastinate if they’re not given an incentive to treat these “reading” assignments as serious coursework. I’m therefore planning on giving written quizzes on FFX at the beginning of class every Thursday, which should be fun.

A friend of mine who teaches at a university in Australia has been thinking of developing a course like this, and he asked me a good question regarding a practical concern, namely, what happens if students get stuck? At the boss fight with Seymour on Mount Gagazet, for example?

In my own experience, dealing with the difficulty curve in FFX is mostly a matter of level grinding. One of the reasons I chose this game is because it’s fairly easy – and because it has a minimum of grinding. I took the major hikes in difficulty into account in the syllabus, and I’m going to do my best to alert the students to potential problem areas in advance. I also put PDF copies of two strategy guides up on the course website on Blackboard, and I’m planning on including links to a number of fan-written online guides as well.

From what I understand, the way that other instructors teaching games have handled the issue of difficulty is to pair students up or put them into groups of mixed skill levels so that they can help each other out. When I was an undergraduate, however, I worked well over 40 hours a week at multiple jobs, and I think there is a special place in hell for college professors who assign mandatory recurring group work. The university where I’m teaching this class has a fairly high number of nontraditional students, so I don’t think something like that would work there anyway.

If I had better library or media lab support, I would consider scheduling something like a “lab” for class, meaning that I would book a room for a certain number of hours a week where my students could play the assigned texts together. If I were assigning multiple games instead of just one, I think this would be an ideal scenario, and it’s something I might consider if I have an opportunity to teach a class like this again.

The one thing I’m somewhat worried about is that I will have one or more Final Fantasy Experts™ in the class, by which I mean people who are obsessed with game trivia. I’ve played FFX five times, and I will play it again along with the students, but I don’t remember all the tiny details of the game perfectly, and there are other Final Fantasy games I’ve only played once or twice. I don’t want to try to pass myself off as some sort of authority on the series, but I do need to act as a moderator and as an administrator, and I hope I will be able to maintain a friendly atmosphere while still commanding at least a small degree of respect. Please wish me luck!

( Header image by Chereshi on Tumblr )

The Last Guardian


The premise of The Last Guardian is that you are a boy who has mysteriously woken up in a hole in the ground next to a chained creature that looks like a Chihuahua with feathers. Either the species of animal is called Trico or the boy decides to call this particular puppy-bird Trico, but Trico is not doing okay. After the boy and Trico work together to escape the underground area where they’ve been imprisoned (or discarded?), they emerge onto a cliff overlooking a giant floating castle, which turns out to be totally empty. Since Trico really wants to go to the castle, and since the boy has nothing better to do, into the castle they go.

The game is very pretty, but it suffers from terrible controls, a terrible camera, Trico’s terrible AI, and several terrible glitches.

I rage-quit the game twice within the first hour.

During the opening sequence, the boy needs to feed Trico three barrels of food. When I started the game, one of the barrels was not there. Even though the initial area isn’t that large, I spent twenty minutes looking for the last barrel until finally going to the internet for answers. Apparently it’s a glitch that one of the barrels will randomly not generate. That was my first rage quit.

A bit later on in the game, when the boy first enters the floating castle, Trico is too large to fit through the doorway. The boy is supposed to run through an upper hallway to emerge back outside at the front of the building, where he is supposed to call for Trico. Trico will eventually make his way outside; and, if the boy stands for long enough on a high balcony, Trico will hop on up and follow him back inside. Although this sounds simple, my description doesn’t convey the sheer gigantic scale of the architecture. There is absolutely nothing to indicate to the player that Trico can “hop on up” to a ledge easily as tall as the Washington Monument, or that it can hear the boy calling from several football fields away and through multiple stone walls when its attention is focused elsewhere. That the poor game design forced me to get up, turn on my laptop, and use a walkthrough for such a seemingly easy puzzle was infuriating. This was my second rage quit.

After the semester ended, I did my best to play this game for half an hour every evening, which is about as much of it as I can take in one sitting. I kept telling myself that it’s supposed to be good, and that maybe my patience would pay off.

Unfortunately, The Last Guardian is hard in the way that NES games were hard in that it teaches the player a set of rules and then refuses to play by them. Basically, the controls don’t work properly. To give a concrete example of what I mean, there is a point in the game when the following sequence must be undertaken:

(1) The boy climbs onto a pile of rubble.
(2) The boy jumps from the rubble to a free-standing bell tower.
(3) Trico will jump on top of the tower’s cupola.
(4) The boy jumps and grabs Trico’s hanging tail.
(5) The boy climbs up Trico’s tail onto the creature’s head.
(6) Trico will look toward a ledge.
(7) The boy jumps from Trico’s head onto the ledge.
(8) The boy runs along the ledge to a broken bridge over a pit.
(9) The player jumps over the small gap in the bridge to the other side.

This seems like fairly run-of-the mill video game spatial navigation, except for two things.

First, Trico does what it wants. There are no special trigger points on the map or actions that the boy can take that will ensure that Trico positions itself appropriately, so the player frequently has to wait. If Trico doesn’t jump onto the bell tower when the boy calls out to it, the player has no way of knowing that the game expects the boy to use Trico to get to the higher vantage point. Once the boy is on top of Trico’s head, there’s also no way of knowing that the boy can jump to one specific ledge while Trico is looking in that specific direction. I suppose some gamers are born with an instinct for these things, but I’ve had to rely heavily on a walkthrough.

Second, even if the player knows exactly what the game requires, the boy can’t run or jump with any degree of accuracy. The joystick will move the boy, but the arbitrarily shifting camera and its uncomfortable “artistic” angles mean that it’s difficult to translate the directional commands of the joystick into the desired direction of movement onscreen. Moreover, the boy runs when he wants and walks when he wants, and the player can’t control his speed. The triangle button will make the boy jump; but, because the player can’t control his direction or momentum, there’s a lot of trial and error involved – every leap is a leap of faith. This renders the game’s platforming maneuvers extremely difficult to pull off. Even something as seemingly simple as hopping over a small gap in a straight bridge will frequently result in multiple time-consuming failures.

I think my problem may simply be that I’m so used to playing Zelda games, in which the controls are engineered to facilitate adventure exploration. I’m not accustomed to having the mechanics of a game actively work against me, and there’s not really a learning curve for mastering controls that aren’t consistent.

The worst thing is that The Last Guardian contains a number of dramatic set pieces in which the camera and controls work perfectly, which leads me to believe the developers could have actually made a good game if they had more… resources? staff? time? From what I understand, they had all of these things in spades, but I’m given to understand that big budget game development is a complicated process. I think that, because of the beauty of its environment and the originality of its concept, it may ultimately prove more interesting for me to read about the game’s development than to actually play it.

I’ve recently been reading a bit of academic work concerning the artistry and emotional impact of video games, and something that I haven’t seen acknowledged with anywhere near the frequency with which I encounter it is the frustration of not being able to understand how a game wants you to be able to interact with it. It’s important for a game to achieve a good balance between challenge and reward, of course, but I also find it somewhat upsetting that many players may not have the time or patience to be able to experience everything that a gorgeous and unique but still critically flawed game like The Last Guardian has to offer.

( Header image by Cerulikat on Tumblr )

Teaching Final Fantasy X, Part One


Starting in two weeks, I will be teaching a class about Final Fantasy X at George Mason University. When I decided to put together a course on video games in a Japanese context, I saw two options for how to structure the class. The first was that I would assign a number of games to emphasize breadth, and the second was that I would assign one game to emphasize depth.

My main concern is accessibility. A lot of people who love (and develop) games genuinely suck at playing them, and I didn’t want to assign any texts that my students can’t “read.” I also don’t want to try to force my students into a major commitment of time or money, which will only result in them not doing the assignments. For practical reasons, it made much more sense for me to only assign one game.

I decided that the game would be Final Fantasy X because of its accessibility. It’s not a difficult game, it doesn’t require a great deal of grinding, and it can be played from start to finish in about forty to sixty hours. There are two official English-language strategy guides floating around in PDF form, and there are numerous fan-written walkthroughs as well. Even if I somehow get a student who has never played a video game before, I’m pretty sure they can handle Final Fantasy X.

The game also exists in multiple versions, which include the original PS2 game, the PS3 HD release as a disc and as a digital download, a digital version augmented for the PS4, a Steam version of the PS3 HD remaster, and a quality ROM for the PCSX2 emulator. What this means is that I won’t have to try to swim upstream to get the university library to make a copy of the game available for students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it, which poses numerous logistical problems.

What I also appreciate about Final Fantasy X is that it’s a good game. It’s not my favorite Final Fantasy, and I haven’t adopted any of its characters as my children, but there’s certainly a semester’s worth of material to explore.

I’ll write more on the course structure later as I continue to iron out the awkward folds in the syllabus.

( Header image from the Final Fantasy Wiki )

Final Fantasy XV Kingsglaive


Kingsglaive begins with an extended exposition dump, which is how you know it’s Final Fantasy.

As far as I can tell, the gist of the story is that there’s an empire engaging in imperialist expansion. The empire uses mechanical soldiers, wild monsters, and terrifying summon beasts called “daemons” to attack the smaller kingdoms it wants to colonize. In order to prevent the city-state of Insomnia from being destroyed by the empire, its king erects a magical barrier around the city walls. Although the king manages to save everyone inside the city, all of the outlying territories are blasted to scorched earth. Insomnia is not completely closed, however, and it has taken in a number of refugees, some of whom have enlisted in the military. An elite task force of immigrant soldiers has been granted a share of the king’s magic, becoming collectively known as the “Kingsglaive.”

More than a decade later, the unending war and concomitant maintenance of the magical barrier have taken their toll on the king, so he enters into negotiations with the empire. According to the provisions of the treaty he and the emperor will sign, the empire will stop attacking Insomnia if its crown prince, Noctis, will marry the former princess of an imperial holding, Lunafreya. The emperor is already quite old, however, and what he really wants is not the gradual takeover this marriage would ensure, but rather immediate access to the magical crystal that powers the city and serves as the source of the king’s magic. About halfway through the movie, the emperor betrays the king, and Insomnia falls.

This is point at which Final Fantasy XV is supposed to begin, I think – Lunafreya is on the run, and Noctis is trying to catch up with her. It’s important that they find each other because, unbeknownst to the empire, Lunafreya has escaped Insomnia with the king’s magical ring, which allows its bearer to access the power of the crystal and communicate with Insomnia’s guardian spirits.

As for the actual members of the Kingsglaive who help Lunafreya escape, it’s not a spoiler to say that, as with any franchise spin-off, they’re not going to appear in the main story, so they need to be “dealt with” in some way. It’s also not a spoiler to say that Sean Bean is the English-language voice actor for the king, and we all know what that means. Thankfully, everyone still manages to get in some good moments…

…except for the one female member of the Kingsglaive, who is “dealt with” in the first third of the movie. This character is a combination of Rosa from Final Fantasy IV and Lulu from Final Fantasy X, and she’s awesome, and I love her, and she deserves much better. One might argue that the female soldier needs to be taken offstage in order to make room for Lunafreya, but I call bullshit. I mean, heaven forbid there are two female characters onscreen at the same time, right?

If nothing else, Kingsglaive is gorgeous. I watched the Blu-ray via my PS4 on the huge HD television I bought specifically to showcase PS4 graphics, and it was like looking into a window of someone’s house, if their house was a magnificent city filled with attractive people.

Unfortunately, because the named characters are so meticulously detailed and so beautifully animated, the off-model characters really stand out. The cast of the film isn’t that large, so this means that a handful of characters who look and move like human beings are walking around in a sea of digital constructs that radiate circa-2005 Resident Evil 4 uncanniness.

I actually (really) enjoyed Square Enix’s 2001 movie The Spirits Within, where everything was on the same narrow rocky ledge in the uncanny valley. I also enjoyed the visuals of Advent Children, in which the character animations were uniformly unnatural and conscientiously gamelike. In Kingsglaive, however, the disconnect between “strikingly lifelike” and “totally an in-game render” continuously caught my attention, especially when it came to Lunafreya. You can tell that budgets were cut in several of her action scenes, and it’s also weird that her face is perfectly flawless when you can see every pore and blackhead and bead of sweat and ingrown hair on every one of the main male characters.

I watched the movie with the English-language track, and Lena Headey’s performance of Lunafreya is outstanding. Headey’s acting is sensitive and emotionally resonant, which is uncanny, because the animated character has very little affect. I think this is supposed to have something to do with the fact that she’s been a prisoner for all of her adult life, but Lunafreya’s lack of facial expressiveness is taken to a ridiculous extreme. To give an example, she is a passenger during two dangerous car chases, and throughout both she literally never breaks a sweat or gets a hair out of place. In one scene the car she’s riding in has flipped and is skidding precariously along the roof of a building as it bursts into flames, but her face is completely blank and peaceful, like she’s drinking tea and watching the sun rise. I’m no expert on human psychology, but I think even the most perfect of princesses would express anxiety in this situation – or pain, given the crazy angle her neck bends when her head hits the roof of the car.

Essentially I’m upset that the female lead is sidelined when she should be the main character.

I think my problem with Lunafreya is that I watched her way more closely than I was supposed to. I wanted the story to be about her, but Kingsglaive wanted me to pay attention to the male characters instead. My own tendency to identify with female characters aside, Headey’s performance really is excellent, and she stole every scene she was in. When Lunafreya was onscreen, I would settle down into a mindset of “maybe the story is finally going to become as interesting as the graphics,” but then the focus would jerk back to the dudes and their explosions.

I’m so used to seeing CG explosions that I wasn’t too terribly impressed by the choreography of the action sequences. I’m given to understand that Kinsglaive has been in production since 2013, yet the recent conversations we’ve been having in the United States about depictions of destruction in superhero movies seem to have gone over the producers’ heads.

After the credits roll, there is a short scene in which Noctis and his three bodyguards drive around in a fancy car while joking around with each other, which felt incredibly weird to me. I just witnessed the destruction of an entire city and watched a bunch of people suffer and die, and now I’m supposed to be happy? If I’m being honest, this severe shift in tone doesn’t make me feel kindly disposed toward Noctis. Thankfully, the short animated series Brotherhood Final Fantasy XV provides a much more sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of Noctis and his companions.

Despite my frustrations with Kingsglaive, I enjoyed the experience of watching the movie, and I’m looking forward to playing Final Fantasy XV when it finally! comes out!! in two days!!!

( Header image from DualShockers )



Oxenfree is a teenage conversation simulator set on a haunted island.

The protagonist of Oxenfree is a teenage girl named Alex, who takes the last ferry out to Edwards Island with her pothead friend Ren and her edgy stepbrother Jonas with the intention of spending all night on the beach, where two girls named Clarissa and Nona are waiting for them with a cooler of beer. Alex has brought an old-fashioned transistor radio with her; and, after hanging out around a bonfire for a while, Ren suggests that Alex go with him to show Jonas a cave where her radio can pick up strange distortions. This ends up opening a portal to another dimension… sort of.

I enjoyed Oxenfree. The graphic design is gorgeous, the OST is ambient and chill, and the horror elements build on each other and are genuinely creepy.

The actual conversation feels a bit off to me, though. I can’t put my finger on why, but I suspect that my discomfort stems from the male writer/director’s misunderstanding of how young American women tend to communicate.

Alex spends the beginning of the game walking around with Jonas and Ren, and these two young men don’t respond well if the player chooses the conversation options that don’t read as “masculine.”

To give a generalized example, let’s say that, after something terrible happens, Jonas says to Alex, “I’m scared.” If she demonstrates sympathy or empathy, responding with something like “Are you okay?” or “I’m scared too,” Jonas will become annoyed or openly hostile. Meanwhile, a stiff upper lip response such as “Let’s keep going” is usually configured as “correct” and doesn’t result in passive-aggressive snark being directed at Alex. Each conversation branch generally has three option, but there’s always an additional option of not saying anything, and as I played I found myself “choosing” it more frequently.

Regardless, the story of Oxenfree is fascinating, and moving through this story is a unique and interesting experience. Still, as a game, it suffers from two major problems and two minor problems.

The first major problem is that Alex tends to walk slowly. On one hand, this encourages the player to enjoy the scenery and the ambiance. On the other hand, backtracking is a slog.

The second major problem is that the loading times between areas are obscene, usually exceeding ninety seconds. Because these loading times are so punishing, I felt strongly discouraged against unguided exploration.

The first minor problem is that, in order for Alex to uncover the full story of what’s happening on Edwards Island, she needs to go on a scavenger hunt to collect a dozen letters scattered across the various areas of the game. Because of the slow character movement and unbearable loading times, I couldn’t be bothered. As far as I can tell, a Cold War era submarine somehow managed to get itself caught in a time loop just offshore, and the “ghosts” are the sailors trying to free themselves. It’s strongly implied that the protagonist has gotten herself caught in a time loop as well. The main story is about the interpersonal relationships between the characters, however, and I don’t care enough about the deeper story to undertake this optional sidequest.

The second minor problem is what I’m going to go out on a limb and label as misogyny. Oxenfree really wants Alex to spend the majority of its playtime with Jonas and Ren. As someone who has actually been a teenage girl, I tend to find that interaction with teenage boys is best in moderation, and neither of the teenage boys in this game does anything to make me feel more sympathetic towards them.

I therefore wanted Alex to spend time with the two other teenage girls on the island, but the game was not having it. One of the girls, Nona, is set up as Ren’s love interest, while Oxenfree goes way out of its way to make the player dislike the other girl, Clarissa. I like both Nona and Clarissa a lot, and I found them to be extremely compelling characters. I wanted to know more about them and their lives, but the game doesn’t give Alex many dialog options to interact with them that aren’t disdainful or downright mean.

There are several different variations on Alex’s personality that the player can choose to express at any given conversation branch, but I’m not interested in any variations in which she’s mean to Clarissa and Nona. Unfortunately, her options for being kind to them are extremely limited – in fact, I’m pretty sure that I was able to choose them all in one playthrough.

I just saw a post on Tumblr about a similar narrative tendency regarding female characters in stories created by men, “when we’re supposed to dislike a female character but she’s obviously a straw-woman the writer’s using to work out some unresolved issues he has with an ex or his mom or an unrequited crush so you actually kind of like her out of spite.”

Despite the lags in gameplay, Oxenfree only occupies about three to four hours of playtime. My concerns aside, they’re three to four hours well spent, and I’ll more than likely return to Oxenfree at some point in the near future. When I do, though, I intend to be just as bitchy to the boys as the game seems to want me to be to the girls.

( Header image from Kotaku )

I Am Setsuna – Part One


I’m about ten hours into I Am Setsuna, which was purposefully designed to feel very much like the classic SNES RPG Chrono Trigger. The battle system is snappy, and the writing is competent.

The scenery is all snow all the time, which has been dampening my enjoyment (so to speak). The snow is pretty but unrelenting, and there are no lighting or physics effects of the sort that made the sand in Journey interesting and dynamic. The graphics are very pretty, but every time I enter a new area I’m like, I bet it’s going to be another snowy forest, and lo and behold it is. Almost all of the enemies have the same color palette of white and gray, with occasional touches of brown or blue. This makes them less lovable than they should be, because their designs are interestingly stylized and remarkably cute.

The piano music that serves as the score is also pretty but unrelenting, and I ended up turning the in-game slider for the BGM almost all the way down. I’m still having trouble dealing with the soundtrack. There’s a discordance between the pieces that seem to be performed by an amateur musician and the pieces that sound more like a traditional MIDI file played by the computer. The overworld music for certain sections of the game is kind of catchy, I suppose.

The voice acting is embarrassing, so I turned it completely off.

In terms of the game’s characters, Setsuna is basically Yuna from Final Fantasy X, a “sacrifice” who has been sent out from her village to appease “the monsters.” She will give her life in “the Lost Lands,” and that will for some reason keep everyone else in the world safe. Setsuna is accompanied by a Rikku character and an Auron character (the allusions to these Final Fantasy X characters are obvious), and the player-protagonist is not so much Crono as he is Squall from Final Fantasy VIII. So mercenary, much angst.

Despite the tedium of the music and graphics and the anime stereotypes used to differentiate between the protagonists, the story of I Am Setsuna has started to pull me in. What I’m picking up on is that the events of the game were proceeded by one or more failed pilgrimages, and that multiple people have been at pains to cover this up. What’s going on with these pilgrimages, and why is there a conspiracy surrounding them? There are small touches of darkness scattered throughout the game, especially in the dialog of the older NPCs. For example, an unnamed old dude at a way station says something completely out of nowhere about how “spatial distortions” have been getting worse over the past ten years. Spatial distortions? I’m intrigued.

It’s fun to play the game while I’m playing it, but I never really feel compelled to pick it up. To be honest, the strongest feeling I’ve had toward I Am Setsuna is nostalgia for Final Fantasy X. I never thought I’d prefer Tidus to… anyone, really… but so far I Am Setsuna feels merely derivative and doesn’t add anything new or interesting to the genre.

Still, I’d like to see how the story turns out, so I guess I’ll just keep going.

( Header image from Trusted Reviews )



When people write about Playdead’s new game Inside, they tend to say things like, “It’s incredible, but I can’t describe it without spoiling it.”

I’m going to “spoil” the beginning of Inside and make vague allusions to its ending, so please proceed with caution.


Your player-character is a ten-year-old boy who begins the game in the woods, where he has escaped from some sort of shadowy facility. He’s being chased by masked men with guns and attack dogs, and he will be killed instantly if he’s spotted. The player’s goal is to move the boy constantly to the right side of the screen while evading capture.

After the boy leaves the woods, he emerges onto a farm littered with the carcasses of parasite-infested pigs. It’s here that the game introduces its central puzzle mechanic, which involves using a headset to control braindead adult humans. After the boy makes his way from the farm into a decaying city, it becomes apparent that these braindead humans are being tested and possibly marketed by normal humans.

Inside eventually finds its stride, but the puzzles at the beginning have the potential to be frustrating for a first-time player. To give an example, in order to progress through one of the barns on the farm, the player has to backtrack in order to open the door, which allows a gaggle of chirping chicks to enter. Since the game has never asked the player to move from right to left, and since there’s no indication of the chicks other than a faint chirping on the other side of the barn door, it’s not immediately apparent that these chicks are a necessary element to a puzzle that otherwise has four moving parts.

The first quarter of the game also features another type of frustrating puzzle – let’s call it the “crossing long distances to escape anthropophagic attack dogs” puzzle. If the player dies at any point during one of these sequences, she has to start over at the beginning of the set piece, not from the point of death. Repeatedly playing the same three minutes only to fail at the end is not fun, and it breaks the game’s mood and sense of flow.

Thankfully, such puzzles don’t appear again after the first third of the game. Many of Inside’s later puzzles involve a similar combination of careful timing and brutal death, but they allow the player space to stand still and assess the situation, and their respawn points are non-punishing.

Tiny birds and bloodthirsty canines aside, Inside is beautiful and seamless, with no loading screens or frame rate drops. In addition, the sound design is brilliant, with the audio working alongside the shadows and dim light of the graphic design to create a palpable sense of danger and menace. I was so wired and on edge after I finished this game that I couldn’t sleep for hours.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of playing Inside. Unlike Playdead’s earlier game Limbo, which was more abstract and fantasy-themed, Inside is grittier and more focused on apocalyptic imagery. Inside’s realistic stylizations render it less creepy and darkly atmospheric than Limbo, but the game’s graphic slickness and polish underscore several of the central themes of the story while rendering the ending sequence all the more bizarre.

When I had gotten about an hour into Inside, I could can see its story evolving in two ways. The first is that the boy is a host for the same parasite that killed the pigs on the farm; and, if he escapes into civilization, the infection will spread and the world will be doomed. The second is that the boy is being controlled just as he controls the braindead adults; and, after he accomplishes his mission, he will be unplugged.

The actual ending of Inside is nothing even remotely resembling what I expected. The game ended up becoming a surreal meditation on bioethics and subjectivity, and to be honest I’m still trying to process what happens. In addition, apparently there is a secret ending that the player can unlock by going back into the game with a walkthrough, collecting all the MacGuffins, and starting over from the beginning. I need to step back from this game, but I hope to return to it within the next few months.

( Header image from Playdead’s official website )

Ocarina of Time -Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly


I started playing the Master Quest of the 3DS release of Ocarina of Time. The Master Quest is a more difficult version of the game that is unlocked when the player beats the regular version. Damage is doubled, and the overworld maps are flipped along their y-axis.

In addition, all of the Master Quest dungeons are different in strange and surprising ways. Last night I played through the “Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly” dungeon, which takes the form of the cavernous interior of a living fish. This dungeon is weird to begin with, with mucus and dangly bits and “suck holes” and breathing pink walls that twitch and bleed if Link strikes them. In the Master Quest version, there are cows embedded in the walls. This means that, as well as the normal wet sloshing sounds of the dungeon, there are also cow noises.

It gets better.

The cows function as switches, meaning that the dungeon environment changes in various ways if Link shoots their faces with his slingshot. In order to reach some of the cows whose presence is only indicated by their irritated lowing, Link has to blow up boulders stuck in the fleshy walls of Jabu-Jabu’s stomach. Because these boulders are located in inconvenient places, Link has to employ roving explosive devices called Bombchus, which are a lot of fun to play with. When a Bombchu strikes a boulder a detonates, the dungeon walls spasm, presumably to indicate that Jabu-Jabu is tickled or in pain. The final cow “switch” must be shot three times before the membrane blocking off the boss room becomes permeable. Each time Link shoots it with his slingshot, it moves further up the wall, a motion that is accompanied by a grotesque animation of creeping slime and muscle set to thick slurping sounds.

I love how bizarre the design of Zelda series is sometimes, and I think the experience of moving through such absurd digital spaces is one of the main reasons why I play video games.

( Header image by saltycatfish on Tumblr )

A Link to the Past – New Nintendo 3DS Playthrough


Because it’s possible to download A Link to the Past onto a New Nintendo 3DS, I happily did so, and I ended up playing the game for the second time in six months.

After watching the Game Grumps playthrough of Zelda II (which was released in 1987), I now appreciate just how innovative A Link to the Past (released in 1991) truly is. Of course there are major benefits attached to working with 16 bits instead of 8 bits, but jumping from Zelda II to A Link to the Past is like jumping from the cinema of the 1910s to the cinema of the 2010s. Saying “the difference is incredible” is an understatement.

What immediately struck me when I launched the game was the color palette, which manages to be both charmingly pastel and brilliantly vibrant. The background music has mostly turned away from “catchy and repetitive” and shifted toward “unobtrusive and atmospheric,” and the sound effects, from the hefty swipe of Link’s sword to the wet squelching of his boots as he walks through puddles, are surprisingly well realized given the limits of the technology.

A Link to the Past is filled with unique and gorgeous details. When Link enters the Eastern Palace (the first dungeon), there are two large bronze monster statues staring back at him. Most players probably never spend more than sixty seconds in this room, but the decorative statues serve to establish the setting – an abandoned ruin where humans no longer walk – while building on the eerie ambiance created by the sonorous echoes of the background music.

There are a multitude of small touches like this in A Link to the Past, random glints of beauty that serve no other purpose than to deepen the world of the game. In Turtle Rock (the second-to-last dungeon), tiny black creepy crawlies skitter out of a newly opened doorway as if they’re desperate to escape a room that has been sealed shut for so long. Southeast of Lake Hylia, there is a creature resembling a Metroid floating in an isolated corner; and, when Link approaches it, it explodes into a swarm of baby Metroids. In the southern swamp, a purple rabbit(?) leaps in and out of the tall grass, and it will curse at Link if he cuts the grass out from under it as it’s jumping. At the base of a waterfall in the eastern foothills of Death Mountain, the king of the Zora will sell Link a pair of flippers, seemingly taking pride in the fact that they’re not cheap. In roughly the same location in the Dark World, a giant catfish sleeps at the bottom of a pool marked by a ring of stones, and it pops its head up and yells at Link if he throws something into its pond. None of these creatures appear anywhere else in the game, and they’re just five examples of the strange and wonderful things an adventurous player can uncover.

Shigeru Miyamoto has said that he envisioned the fantasy world of Hyrule as “a miniature garden that you can put into a drawer and revisit anytime you like” (source), and the message conveyed by the gameplay of A Link to the Past does in fact seem to be, basically, “Explore and you will be rewarded.”

A Link to the Past was the first Zelda game I played as a fully sentient being. A handful of critics have specified to A Link to the Past as the point at which the Zelda series started to turn away from its true potential as an open-world exploration simulator, but I think what these critics are missing (aside from the reality that different people enjoy different things) is that there are a lot of little kids playing the Zelda games. Whereas most adult gamers would see an irregularity in a wall and think, “Oh, I should try to bomb this spot,” a child who hasn’t been alive long enough to play that many video games is going to have to figure out the mechanics of the game environment for herself. If there are no hints at all, then the lauded exploration elements of the Zelda series may as well be nonexistent for many players.

My own experience as a baby gamer cutting her teeth on A Link to the Past was nothing short of transformative. Every time I played through the game I uncovered something new, and I truly believed that Hyrule was full of infinite secrets and endless possibilities. Like every Zelda game, A Link to the Past trains the player to look carefully and read closely, to pay attention to the world, to navigate by memory, and to try various solutions until something works.

There’s a pervasive pop culture trope that fictional geniuses like Sherlock Holmes are rare and special, but any good Zelda player employs similar methods of observation and deduction. Although I wouldn’t characterize myself as a particularly talented gamer, I still feel that A Link to the Past trained me to interact with the real world at a deeper level of engagement.

( Header image by Jay Epperson on Tumblr )