Phasmophobia and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Ghosts

It’s spooooooky season! I hope you heard that in a sufficiently spooky voice in your head. I’d say you can imagine my voice but you probably don’t know what I sound like, unless you know me (hi, Amy!). Just trust me: I sound very spooky. Okay, no, I don’t, but you don’t have to know that. What was I talking about again? Oh, right, it’s spooky season and I’ve been celebrating with horror movies and video games all month long. In addition to finishing Days Gone, I’ve been playing Castlevania from the Castlevania Anniversary Collection and, more to the point of this post, a little Steam early access game called Phasmophobia.

Phasmophobia is a 1-4 player co-op game where you and your team investigate an empty house to figure out what kind of ghost has been causing a ruckus. Yes, I said a ruckus. A ghostly ruckus. There are different kinds of ghosts, like poltergeists, demons, spirits, and yurei, and each has different strengths, weaknesses, and clues that they leave behind. You have several tools that “real” ghost hunters use, like EMF readers, thermometers, UV flashlights, and more, and you use these tools to detect the traces unique to each ghost. You might catch a spooky handprint on a window with the UV flashlight, freezing temperatures with the thermometer, or some demonic scrawls in a spirit book you left on the floor of the room you suspect is the specter’s “spot.” Once you collect three clues, you can narrow down which ghost you’re dealing with and get the fuck out of there.

And you will want to get the fuck out of there, because while the ghost may be harmless when you first arrive, after you and your team poke around too much, calling the ghost’s name or setting up gear, it gets angry. It might simply try and spook you by knocking something off a shelf, making the lights flicker, or lightly tapping a key on the family piano. Eventually, however, it will enter a “hunting phase,” where your flashlights will begin to flip out, all external doors will slam and lock, and the ghost will search high and low for a victim. You communicate with team members via walkie talkie, so if a team member dies you might not even know it unless they don’t respond to your calls or you come across their dead, sometimes twisted corpse. I have been playing with my friends Tab and Ron, and here is an example of Tab’s corpse:

What’s that? Are they looking under the car for some keys they dropped? No. They are dead, folded in half by a ghost. I have played a lot of horror games in my time (*strokes long, white beard, indicative of great age and eternal wisdom*), but I have honestly never been so scared playing a game. Okay, maybe that one time, but I was a child. I am a full grown man now (in body, anyway). I served in the military for six years, trained briefly with Marines on a deployment to the Middle East, and live on my own in a very old and creepy house – and yet, when I am alone in a dark room, holding a small glowing radio that’s hissing static, and I whisper “where are you?” only to hear the radio immediately chirp “behind,” followed by a loud hiss whooshing by my ears, I get chills and almost projectile vomit from fear. Okay, the second part was an exaggeration, but this is legitimately the first game to give me chills. Mr. X? Psh. Pyramid Head? *yawn* Betty Brown, formerly of the Ridgeview Road House? *shudder*

At the time of this writing, I have played this game for 61 hours, and while we’ve certainly gotten better at the game and are less scared, we are still very often scared out of our wits. We strut in bravely, thermometers and flashlights in hand, and as soon as we hear a low gurgle accompanied by heavy footsteps, we run as fast as our slow, janky legs will carry us. The game is janky and unfinished, but it’s still a blast to play with friends. And more than almost any other game, I really do feel like friends are necessary for this. Can you play by yourself? Yes. I tried just such a thing, early on, before I knew the stench of my own solitary fear (I’m not even kidding, my sweat seriously stinks when I play this game. My gym sweat? Not bad! Phasmophobia sweat? Like a skunk that shit the bed. Ladies, I am available *kissie emoji*).

It takes a long time to make money at first in this game, so after a play session with Tab, I decided I would try a solo run. I gave myself an actual pep talk before I went in. “It’s just a game. You won’t lose anything if you die. You’re not risking anything. You don’t even believe in ghosts! Just do it. It’s. Just. A. Game.” So I stupidly went in this dark, empty house, all by my dumbass self, and after about two minutes I was in a darkened laundry room. It was cold so I knew the ghost was there. I needed to set up some equipment before I left. I would just make this one trip, I told myself. It’ll be quick. I found a shelf to place a remote video camera and began positioning it when the door to the room slammed and I heard a very loud “HHAAAHHH” move right through me. My heart leapt through my fucking chest, I almost choked, and I straight up closed Steam. Nope.

Let me talk you through a few pictures. First up is a ghost that killed me, stalking Ron. When you’re killed, you return as a spectral form, though you can’t do all the fun stuff that the evil ghost can. You can basically just follow your friends around and ask eerily “why didn’t you save me?” even though they can’t hear you. In this game, I died and watched Ron stand outside the front door, trying to call in and get the ghost to respond. He made the mistake of stepping just a smidge over the threshold, though, and the ghost seized its chance, shutting the door behind him and immediately entering its hunting phase. Ron couldn’t see the ghost but he could hear its heavy boots and gross, ghosty throat gurgles behind him. I, however, could see the whole thing. The ghost, an old man, jaw broken and half hanging from his face, wielded a machete and chased Ron to another room, where Ron was actually lucky to escape.

I don’t have a lot of great screenshots of ghosts because when they do appear as visible in the game, there is a good chance you are either about to die or you just shit your proverbial pants and the last thing on your mind is reaching over and hitting fn>F12. We were determined to get a picture of the ghost once, though, so we hatched a plan. Closets, we deduced, are safe spaces. If you hide in a closet the ghosts don’t seem to kill you, no matter how angry they get. So, in one house, Tab hid in one closet while Ron monitored the ghost’s location from the team van. I opened a different closet near Tab’s so that I could run in and hide once I snapped a pic of the ghost, then I waited in the hallway, camera in hand, as Tab spoke to the ghost to anger it. We were both nervous and jumpy. Finally we saw lights flash and I heard the telltale ghost sounds, but I didn’t see the ghost so I freaked out and ran for the closet. Immediately I knew my mistake. I saw it before I even stepped in. The ghost was in the closet. In leaving the door ajar, I apparently left it wide open for ghostly tenants to hop in and scare the ever-loving shit out of me. As you can see from the picture in the top right, I did get the photo, though.

This next picture was taken tonight. Ron and I were playing, and we narrowed the ghost’s room down to either a bedroom or the adjoining bathroom. We had set up some equipment but we didn’t have much in the way of evidence. We gingerly wandered back into the room to look for stray fingerprints or a polite “DIE DIE DIE” written in the spirit book. We entered and as soon as I spun around the lights went out and we heard ol’ groany. Our characters’ hearts began thumping loudly (as they do when a ghost is very close), and without thinking I snapped a picture, hoping to catch a glimpse of something before my head was twisted around the wrong way. We hauled ass and made it out alive, but check out the shot I caught:

One of our favorite things to do now is play “roulette.” We need a catchier name for it. Ghost roulette? Spectral roulette? Roulettemeoutofhererightnow? We’ll figure it out. Anyway, this is a game I suggested a few days ago and we’ve played it twice so far. The first time we played, we located the ghost before starting, but it’s not necessary and we didn’t do it the second time. Basically, we only bring in photo cameras and maybe a flashlight to toss on the floor so we know when the ghost is hunting. We pick a room, each stand in a different corner, then take turns saying things to the ghost. Last person standing wins. Even though it’s more predictable than a normal round, it’s still very scary. I have also suggested we play a version where we take turns running through the house (in the front door and out the back), calling the ghost’s name the entire time. If the back door locks and you can somehow escape the ghost, you get to try again. I also think it would be fun to each stand in a separate room when we play roulette and only say something once every full minute. That way, if one of us died it would be at least three full minutes before the others realized it (because the dead person wouldn’t say their line), and three minutes is more than enough time for a ghost to start a second hunt.

Okay, I think I’ve babbled on enough about this game, but it was a very fun and unexpected surprise, and the absolute perfect game for the Halloween season. I’m sure our interest will drop off eventually, but I’m already looking forward to our next session, and I can’t wait to check the game out once it gets out of early access and the developers have implemented all of the features they’re planning. Until then, I’ll just be here, in the dark, speaking in a hoarse whisper into my glowing hiss box: “Where are you?” “Are you a girl?” “Can I help?” “Are you single?”

Of X-Wings and Zombie Things

With new consoles and big games on the horizon, I’m feeling an urge to write about the games I’m playing before I end up with a big, multi-game post again. I want to chronicle my PS5 launch experience, and so many big games like Cyberpunk 2077, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla are claiming space in my brain, so I want to share my thoughts on the two games I’ve been spending a lot of time with recently: Star Wars: Squadrons and Days Gone.

Star Wars: Squadrons

Although I missed out on the X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter game(s), I have mostly enjoyed the space combat components of many of the Star Wars games I’ve played. It’s not exactly “space,” but one of my fondest Star Wars video game memories is playing the Hoth level of Shadows of the Empire over and over and over again, and I played the hell out of the Rogue Squadron games. So I was all in when the trailer dropped earlier this summer, and I couldn’t believe the game was going to be out so soon after the announcement. And at $40? It seemed too good to be true! “Wait,” I thought. “It really does seem too good to be true.” And thus began the doubt. Was it going to be too short? Too niche? Too technical and inaccessible? I was nervous.

Well, as a wise little alien once said, “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” That alien was Yoda and, as usual, he was wrong. My fears were not only unfounded, they certainly did not lead to suffering. I really love Squadrons and am still playing it when I have time. The gameplay is not nearly as dense and technical as I thought it might be. It’s not as loose and arcade-y as most of the other Star Wars flight experiences, sure, but I actually prefer this type of flying. I think I’ve complained about this before, but I dislike flight games where you control a point out in front of your craft. As much as I loved the Rogue Squadron games, they controlled like that. When you tilt your controller in these games, the “nose” of your craft points in that direction. It feels unrealistic and unsatisfying to me. I much prefer games where you are controlling a point in the center of the craft. This allows for more realistic turns and you can do an actual barrel roll, as opposed to what would essentially be a corkscrew.

So, for me, that was the biggest win for this game: it feels good to play. Do I have to flip switches and monitor gauges? Yes, but there aren’t that many and it was very easy to pick up. It feels so cool to divert power to engines to increase the speed of my X-Wing toward a Star Destroyer, switch to weapons systems to launch a volley of blasts toward a shielding subsystem, then immediately cut to shields to make an escape. Well, try to make an escape. I’m often so determined to do as much damage as I can that I end up being destroyed before I can get safely away, heh. I was also a little nervous about the first-person perspective, as I usually prefer seeing the ship I’m flying, but I ended up really liking that, too. Again, my fears were unfounded. While I would like some kind of replay feature, where you see your ship and all the cool stuff you did from a third person perspective (like in the Ace Combat series), I found myself enjoying the cockpit view very much. Another one of my favorite experiences in the game is lining up a perfect shot on an enemy, unloading, and then bursting through the fiery remnants. I doubt it would be so thrilling in third person.

Squadrons isn’t quite as pretty as Star Wars Battlefront II, and it certainly doesn’t offer as much variety in terms of locales and ships, but there were still plenty of times I found myself in awe, scraping the hull of a cruiser with my TIE Fighter or rounding an asteroid to see a shattered Star Destroyer with beams of the nearest star cutting through my cockpit window. I’ve completed the story and played a handful of fleet battles, but I haven’t had as much time as I’d like with this game. With the new consoles, Cyberpunk 2077, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla coming soon, I don’t know when I’ll even have time to return to it. But I really liked it and I can’t wait to get back to it at some point.

Days Gone

One of the reasons I haven’t had as much time to play Squadrons is because I started Days Gone earlier this month, and I have been trying to knock it out before November hits. It’s a much bigger game than I expected, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It had a lot of negative press when it came out, but as we know by this point, often the negative (or positive) hype around a game has little to do with any given person’s enjoyment of said game. Gaming culture can be toxic, and tainting a game’s reception because of some predisposed perception of it (or its developers), without having played it, is just one example of that toxicity. It’s certainly not a perfect game, and seemingly could have used a bit more polish, but overall I am having a lot of fun with it.

Part of my enjoyment might be coming from my love of zombie games in general, and this game has elements of Left 4 Dead, Dead Island, and I’d argue there’s even a little Resident Evil influence in there. All of that zombie goodness takes place in an open world where you help to build up outposts, earn money to improve your motorcycle (mount), and go out on exploratory missions and tasks. This is My Type of Game™. I didn’t really think I’d be too into the idea of a motorcycle as a mode of transportation, but once I was able to start modding and customizing my bike, I was in. Throw in a custom Horizon Zero Dawn paint job and I was soon dreaming of how to quickly gain experience to unlock even better mods. I like games that have horses but to be honest, I rarely use them. I typically prefer to explore on foot. Throw in the fact that a loud motorcycle would attract the terrifying zombie hordes and I fully expected to leave my bike behind 90% of the time. Nope. I am almost never without my bike.

“Dude, where’s my bike?”

Speaking of the hordes, they aren’t quite as massive as I was expecting, but they are about as terrifying. Given the damage that just a few infected can do if they get to you, I knew I would never survive a close encounter with a few dozen or more of the rabid sonsabitches. So I steered very clear whenever I caught a glimpse of one. And then I found my first cave in the game, and if you’ve ever played a video game you know that caves are Where It’s At. There had to be something good in there. So I crouched low and started sneaking in, casting my flashlight about, watching for spookies. I got pretty deep before turning a corner and swinging my light toward a huddled mass of heaving infected, hunched and breathing heavy. They whipped their collective heads toward me and it was like that scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest where Jack Sparrow is running from the big group of cannibals. I busted ass out of the cave and hopped on my bike quicker than you can say I am Legend: The Video Game. Later, when I was slightly more proficient in combat, I found a NERO camp under a railroad bridge. NERO camps are exciting because once you power them up and get inside, an injector that permanently increases a stat awaits. So I hopped off my bike and got to work on finding gas for the generator when I spotted a horde… above me, in a car of the train stopped on the bridge. I backed away slowly, but then I noticed there were explosive barrels, crates, and gas cans placed at seemingly strategic places around the camp. Could I take out a horde this early? I could just time my shots and take out a few chunks, then clean up the rest… yes, I thought, and decided to go for it. I positioned myself in the road below, shot a few of them to get their attention, and as they spilled out of the car, dozens of arms and legs clamoring over each other, I lined up a shot with a gas truck. I pulled the trigger. *Click*. *Ting*. Nothing. I hit it but it didn’t explode. Uh. Uhhh. They’re moving so fast, they’re going to get *click* I shot again. *BOOM* Huge explosion. But I was already jumping on my bike. I was two seconds too late with the second shot. The truck took out a handful, but the rest were already on me. I managed to get away but not without a few swipes to my bike.

I did take a horde out, eventually. I found one on the edge of a swamp and it seemed smaller than the others. I decided to see if I could thin its numbers with explosives, then run away and come back with more. I parked my bike facing away, then threw two Molotovs and two pipe bombs before the horde could react. It was perfect. Each pipe bomb took out 4-5, and the Molotovs looked like they got 2-4 each. I zoomed a short distance away on my bike as they chased me, but they quickly gave up and started ambling back to their original spot. I returned and did the same thing, and when I rode away this time I made sure to guide the stragglers a little farther than the core. When the core turned back I took out the stragglers with silenced guns, then went back to the very small remaining core and was able to just melee them. I don’t imagine I’ll get that lucky with the rest of them, but I felt pretty accomplished with the 45+ ears I’d collected.

It’s these types of events that really win me over in open world games. The outpost building, bike modding, and side quests mentioned earlier are key, too, but when there is enough freedom and flexibility in a world to allow for unique approaches to solving problems, I am 100% there for it. I love that if me and ten of my friends played this game (lol I don’t have ten friends – hi, Amy!), we would all probably have very different stories about taking down our first horde. I’m not finished with the story yet, but I think I’m pretty far. The story has been pretty decent, but even if they completely botch the landing, I can safely say that I enjoyed my time with the game and am looking forward to finishing every side quest, collectible, and mission. And then it will be… Days Done. Get it? Instead of Gone? Done? Okay, I’m out.

Paper Mario (and More-io)

The dawn of the next generation of consoles is upon us. Last week, the PlayStation 5 preorders went up, this week it was the Xbox Series X/S. I was lucky enough to secure a PS5, but I haven’t had any luck getting a Series X. I was late in trying for that one, though. For the PS5, I suspected Sony would pull another “and preorders are open now” deal, like they did last generation, so after their Showcase Event I and several of my gaming scholar friends formed an alliance to scour the various retail sites for any sign of a preorder opportunity. After the event, Sony said that preorders would begin “tomorrow,” but having been present for a few modern console launches, I had my doubts, and when rumors emerged that some retailers would open preorders that day, the alliance went into action, refreshing page after page. About an hour after the event, I noticed Target’s PS5 landing page changed to a less marketing-oriented page to one where you could preorder PS5 games. I knew that meant something was about to happen, and my guess paid off. Within minutes the preorder link went up. As I was excitedly typing my payment information in, I used Siri to call one friend and tell them the link was live, then when I submitted my order, I sent a link to the rest of the alliance. All but one of us got one. It was an exciting victory. I only decided on a whim to get an Xbox Series X, so I was hours late in trying for one of those preorders. I ran into some of the widely reported issues where I was able to get one in my cart on the Best Buy site but then it would empty my cart and say “whoops,” basically. And Target almost let me get one as well, a few times. But alas, I have been refreshing all of the main sites every now and then since yesterday and have had no luck. It’s cool. It was going to be a Christmas present to myself, so as long as I can get one before then I’ll be fine.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars

As close as the next gen is, we won’t be there for another month and a half, so let me continue my periodic rambling about what I’m playing in the now. Did I just say “in the now”? Ugh. I want to punch myself in the face. Speaking of punching myself in the face, I recently got Super Mario 3D All-Stars and tried a bit of Super Mario 64 for the first time in… too many years. The last time I played it was probably around the time the game came out. Let’s not do the math because my birthday is coming up and I’m old. Keeping with the theme of feeling old, my experience with this port (which was surprisingly crisp and good looking) highlighted how kind the fuzzy filter of nostalgia is. In my memory, the controls in Mario 64 were so smooth, responsive, and precise. I remember feeling so amazed at tilting the joystick forward just slightly and Mario tiptoeing, or spinning it in circles and watching him respond in exactly the same motion.

Now, in my defense, at the time all of that was pretty groundbreaking. It felt precise and responsive compared to the few 3D games I’d played. Now? Oof. I mean, it’s not at all terrible. But between the less-than-perfect feeling movement and the terrible camera (which, again, what did we have to compare it to at the time?), it was kind of painful revisiting this gem. I can’t wait to play Super Mario Sunshine, because I loved that game when it came out and expect it to feel much better, but I think I’ll tuck Mario 64 back into the dusty, warm recesses of my memory and leave it at that.

Paper Mario: The Origami King

Speaking of Mario, I finally did the thing! I played a Paper Mario game at launch! I spent over 50 hours playing Paper Mario: The Origami King and I loved most of those hours. [some spoilers ahead] The biggest draws of the series for me have always been the bright, cute art style and character/environments, witty writing and humor, and generally just seeing familiar Mario characters in big narratives where they really get the chance to shine. Those elements were all here, even if there wasn’t as much papery Peach goodness as I’d have liked. Kamek was a standout in this entry and had some of the best lines, and I loved Bowser’s role in this one as well. Something I realized with this entry: Mario is the character given the least amount of personality in these games. The designers seem to get the chance to expand almost every other character’s personality, including minions like Bob-ombs. Mario is reduced to a silent protagonist, probably because of the series’ JRPG roots.

Much has been made of the combat system, and I have mixed feeling about it. Some people seem to love it, some people seem to hate it. I thought I liked it more than I’d expected to, until I encountered some of the more difficult combat puzzles later in the game. I was so excited when I got to the gameshow level… until I realized you essentially had to solve combat puzzles to win points. There were also some boss fights that had particularly frustrating aspects related to the puzzle grid. It wasn’t bad enough to ruin the game for me, and most encounters were either fun or just passable. I would just absolutely love a return to party-based, RPG-like combat. We won’t see another Paper Mario game for some time now, I guess, but I’ll have my fingers crossed anyway.

I am Setsuna

Another game I’ve recently spent a significant time with is I am Setsuna, a game that I’d heard several versions of “if you like Chrono Trigger, you’ll like this game” about. I’ve heard that before, many times, and I’ve almost always been let down. I am Setsuna is not so close that you’d mistake it for a cousin, but it’s definitely the most Chrono Trigger­-y RPG I’ve played, from the active-time battle system to the mysterious scythe-wielding enemy/friend, to the dual and triple tech-likes, and more. One of the things I really liked about this game was how simple and direct it was. Areas were small and contained, you could virtually never get lost, yet with the inclusion of an overworld it felt like you were traveling over vast distances, like the JRPGs of old. I didn’t have to think very much while playing this game, and while that might be a complaint for some other RPGs, I welcomed it here. This felt like a short(ish), simple(ish), straightforward old school RPG. A proverbial cup of hot cocoa with whipped cream and marshmallows. A sweet reminder of simpler times.

Hi, Amy!

Things that were not so sweet, though: the archaic save system. Yes, okay, I get it: there was a real dedication to being old school here. But when you spend two hours grinding and unwittingly wander into a new enemy that wipes you out in two turns, and you’ve lost two hours of your life because of that dedication to old school design, you begin to see why autosaves are actually pretty great. I also did not love the character models. The character designs were great (in their avatars), and I absolutely loved the environment art. Some sections literally looked like paintings. But then to contrast that with chibi-like characters with oversized heads and hands and absolutely no feet? Blech. Hrk. Other gagging sounds. It was something I hated about the original Final Fantasy VII, and while it’s not quite as bad here, it still made my skin crawl. You may be Setsuna but you need to put Some-shoes-on your feet. Wait, that didn’t work. If you say it out loud it works better. Except they don’t have feet to put the shoes on… you know what? Let’s move on.

Return of the Obra Dinn

I have been so excited to get this game since I saw the first trailer. The art style, reminiscent of very old school PC games, is so unique and cool that I was almost all-in for that reason alone. When you add the premise – that you are an investigator tasked with exploring a ghost ship to determine the identity and cause of death of every former passenger – I was sold. I’ve played about eight hours at this point but I think I’m going to put it aside. It’s not that I don’t like it. I think it’s rad and it definitely allows you to do the detective work without holding your hand or giving you much help. That means that it requires patience, though, which I don’t have much of at the moment. When you come across a new corpse (or some indicator of a former corpse), you get to see a 3D model/flashback of that character’s death. From this snapshot and any other clues you might have gathered, you have to determine the person’s name, cause of death, and (if applicable) killer. It’s rarely obvious, and in most cases you have to recall the smallest of details that were in no way highlighted in a different memory you may have viewed hours ago. If you’re looking for a challenge and the reward that comes with truly solving some mysteries on your own, that complicated process is really cool. When you have a stack of games that you’re trying to catch up on before the next generation of consoles lands, it can be a bit anxiety inducing. So I would definitely recommend it to people, and I will almost certainly go back to it someday, but for now I think I’m going to move on to some spooky games (like Days Gone and some classic Castlevania games) to celebrate the upcoming Halloween season.

End of Summer Snippets

Well, the nights are getting cooler, the days are getting shorter, and I can already smell the scent of pumpkin spice on the veritable breeze that is social media bandwagoning. I love summer and will be sad to see it go, but I am trying to look forward to the nice things about fall. The beautiful autumnal leaves, the opportunity to make various chilies and stews, and I will, of course, once again embrace the spooky majesty that is Halloween by attempting to watch a horror movie every day in October and playing various scary games (I just picked up the Castlevania Anniversary Collection on PS4, as a matter of fact). I’m getting ahead of myself, though, as this blog is a look back, not forward. I’ve spent a ton of time with some big games this year, like Yakuza 0, Persona 5 Royal, and Final Fantasy VII Remake, so with this last month I’ve mostly been poking around and dabbling with shorter games. As has become habit, I wanted to share my thoughts on what I’ve been playing before the list grows longer than I can manage. Some [SPOILERS] throughout, if you care.

Secret Little Haven

I’ve professed my love for the Emily is Away games, and apparently I have a thing for throwback Internet/instant messenger games because I found this game to scratch that same nostalgic itch. The narrative unfolds through instant messenger chats, like the Emily games, but unlike those games Secret Little Haven is more firmly rooted in what seems to me to be the memoir genre. Both games’ developers would, I imagine, point to real life experiences from their past as influences for their games, but while the Emily games center on a more ‘universal’ experience of online flirting/romance, Haven is more narrow, centered on a young trans girl exploring identity through pop culture and finding community in online spaces. So, while I enjoyed the game on a subjective level, I also think it’s an important and interesting game to look at when considering games as a unique medium for memoir or just a rare example of a trans narrative in games. Also, the protagonist finds personal inspiration in a character from what appears to be a fictional version of Sailor Moon, which made me want to see/hear/read/play more stories of people discovering important aspects of their personalities through pop culture characters. I feel like that’s something that’s downplayed or thought of as ‘childish,’ but I have to imagine it’s more common than people let on.

Hatoful Boyfriend

This game started out as a joke Flash game, and it doesn’t seem to have evolved much beyond that. That’s not really a harsh criticism, because I don’t think the game was ever meant to be some deep, highly polished masterpiece, but it’s hard to avoid commentary on its bare-bones presentation. It was very weird and did show some cleverness in its awareness of the tropes in the visual novel genre, though. I only played through one ending and chose to pursue Nageki, the melancholy mourning dove.

Arcade Spirits

This game tapped directly into a very nerdy vein for me. I mean, it’s a dating sim about gaming. Uh, yes, please. The writing and characters were very charming and the story was far more involved and lengthy than I’d expected. I did wish there were more in the way of illustrations/animations (particularly in terms of player character design), but as an indie game I don’t exactly hold it against the devs. The writing was the highlight, anyway. Still, I loved these characters and this world so I would kill for Dream Daddy levels of art production. It was hard to ultimately determine how much impact on the story my choices had, but I was so invested in the world that I found naming our big public event (Funplex Alpha 3) and eventual independent arcade (Quarter Up Arcade) so much fun. I chose to date Naomi and she was a no-brainer for me. A smart, capable, nerdy girl in glasses who is passionate about video games? *swoon* It says on the official site that they’re working on a sequel, called Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers, and though I don’t expect it’ll be out anytime soon, I am already hyped for it.

NBA 2K20

As was the case with NBA 2K16, I got this game free through PSN, but this time around the story mode didn’t hook me as deep. I played through a few games, cutscenes, and minigames, but ultimately I didn’t love the feel of the gameplay. I’m happy to have it and might return to it to mess around with some friends eventually, but I wasn’t altogether too impressed with this entry in the series.

Rage 2

Speaking of not being too impressed, I also started Rage 2 recently and, well, you’ll be surprised to read that I was… not too impressed. Granted, I’m not terribly far in the game, but so far the only thing bringing me back is that sweet, sweet id gunplay. I have such fond memories of some of the older Quake games that this old-school-esque gameplay feels comfortable and cozy. Unfortunately, many of the other gameplay elements, like level design and animations, also feel dated, but in a negative way. When they showed the trailer at E3 a couple/few years back, some people complained that it looked too similar to Borderlands. At the time, I thought it was premature to make that claim and figured there is room for various takes on a neon-tinged post-apocalyptic Mad Max-style open world. And maybe there is, but Rage 2 ended up being way too similar to Borderlands for my liking, and it makes any weaknesses that much more glaring because there is a critically acclaimed series to make direct comparisons with. I’ll keep playing because the gameplay is fun, but I’ll probably move on before finishing the story.

GRIS

I beat GRIS in a single sitting and it is just such a simple and beautiful game. It would make an excellent game to play with a class and discuss game design. It takes advantage of universal platforming knowledge and only complicates it beyond that in the slightest. The mechanics are minimal, which frees the player to just take in the gorgeous art that makes up the world. One of things that impressed me the most was how singular the world seemed to be. It didn’t seem like a series of screens with individual elements that had been placed here and there to make environments. It seemed like one gigantic canvas, each element drawn as a part of the whole, and you are a small blip that is just moving along as the camera sometimes slowly zooms in or out to reveal just how interconnected everything is. It’s hard to explain. I guess I might say that most platformers (because the individual platforms/assets are obviously separated from the background) seem like a series of ‘screens’ or small paintings, whereas this game seems like one gargantuan painting that you are navigating slowly but surely. Either way, what a moving story told almost exclusively with visuals. I think the only word in the entire game is “HOLD.”

The Last of Us Part II

I swear I usually finish games. Like, it’s a thing. I don’t like starting something if I have no intention of finishing it. I have finished some games that I really, really did not like. And yet this is the third game thus far that I have given up on. I do plan on going back to it, eventually, but I just didn’t feel like I was in the right emotional space for it at the time. I played for maybe 6-8 hours, and I liked what I played enough. It is, as you have probably heard/seen, a beautiful game. The subtleties and nuance in the acting performances were most impressive to me, and I look forward to seeing how the story plays out, but some of the implications about where the characters are going to be led were a bit heavy for me at this time. So maybe I’ll write a separate blog sometime down the line, when I finish it.

Ghost of Tsushima

I saved this one for last because, well, like literally every other person who’s played this game, I have a bunch of pictures that I am going to force upon you. I was so pleasantly surprised by Ghost of Tsushima. I thought the E3 trailer from last year looked pretty cool but it didn’t seem like my kind of game. I suppose because everyone seemed to assume it would play like a Souls game. I preordered it after a more recent gameplay trailer, because the open world looked beautiful and fun to navigate. It was, but the combat honestly ended up being my favorite thing about this game and kept me coming back. I wandered deep into a harder section of the map almost immediately, so I had virtually no skills to survive one particularly neverending group of enemies that kept killing me over and over again. Out of sheer stubbornness, I kept trying to best them, though, convinced I could pull it off. I could not, it turns out, but that practice against so many difficult foes made me very good at dodging and parrying early on, so once I started gaining abilities and stances, I felt unstoppable.

Before playing I was convinced I would choose the stealthy approach. Years of Assassin’s Creed and Metal Gear Solid games have prepared me for the art of the sneaky sneak. But, no. I enjoyed combat so much in Ghost that I would actively seek out large groups of enemies at every turn, to engage in the fast dance that was slicing my way through their ranks one parry at a time. Did I get myself into trouble and die? Sure, a few times. But more often I would stroll up to a camp of two or three dozen Mongols, as brazen as can be, and walk away soaked in the blood of my enemies mere minutes later. It was such a visceral thrill. Aside from that, yes, the game was gorgeous and I loved taking a million pictures in photo mode. I also liked the story and characters quite a bit and, as a fan of Ubisoft’s open-world games, I loved traveling around the world and writing haiku, chopping bamboo, collecting sword kits, and more. In a year with Persona 5 Royal and Final Fantasy VII Remake I don’t think this is my game of the year thus far, but it’s close.

Diss Bits: Punch Line and Trans Representation

I said recently that I wanted to start using these posts as a way to work out some thoughts as part of my dissertation work, and I just finished reading a chapter that contributes something to my previous thoughts on the game Punch Line. In those thoughts, I stopped short of calling the game a queer game or the protagonist a transgender character. After thinking about it more and discussing it with a friend, I began to think it probably was at least in part an allegory for the trans experience, intentional or not. As a refresher, from that post: “Yuuta is a man’s spirit in a woman’s body, presenting as a man (and voiced by a woman). It’s a little convoluted. He was a man, and because of an event in the game, he ended up swapping spirits with a woman, who swapped spirits with another man. In the end, a plan does emerge to return Yuuta to his original body. So, technically speaking, Yuuta is not a trans character, but I think it’s interesting and important that the main character of this game is, in an abstract (or symbolic) way at least, trans.”

If Yuuta was intended to be a character that represented the trans experience, I later thought, does that suggest that the Japanese see transgender people as the soul of one gender in the body of the opposing gender/sex? So Yuuta would be a trans man. The spirit of a man “trapped” in a woman’s body. Let’s ignore the performative part of his gender because it only complicates things and is more superficial than his lived gender.

I thought I remember coming across this idea of a gendered spirit trapped in an opposite gendered body in another game, in which they explicitly state that, but I can’t seem to find it. I thought it might have been Catherine: Full Body, and it might just have been, but I skimmed through the hundreds of screenshots I took of that game and I couldn’t find any line of dialogue that stated that. Regardless, I just ran across it in Mark McLelland’s chapter in the book I’m reading, Popular Culture, Globalization and Japan, titled: “Japan’s Original ‘Gay Boom’.” In it, he says “The category most commonly used to describe postwar danshô was ‘urning’ (ûruningu), a sexological term that had been devised by German sexologist and homosexual Karl Ulrichs (1825-95) to designate a ‘female soul in a male body’ and which had achieved widespread currency in prewar sexological writings” (161). McLelland is introducing this concept to describe the Japanese gei bôi, who are more akin to femme gay men rather than trans women, but I think the fact that the phrase and concept were so popular in queer communities so long ago in Japan is significant and might support my previous idea that many Japanese people see trans people differently than people in the West: as simply one ‘spirit’ in the body of another.

With that in mind, I would go back and revise my previous claim that I can’t call Punch Line a queer game, or Yuuta a trans character. I would argue now that they are, regardless if the developers meant them to be or not. I think there’s sufficient textual evidence to back that up, plus now I know that the concept of ‘spirits’ (probably not in the literal sense, though that’s worth investigating, too) is a popular way for Japanese people to understand gender, which makes me think that the game’s depiction of genders being swapped is not at all an accident.

Obviously I need to do more research specifically on this issue, but because my dissertation will probably only briefly touch on queer representation in Japanese games, I’ll have to wait on that. It’s something I’m very interested in, though. As I’ve said before, Japanese game developers have a complicated history with queer representation, and I think it bears a much closer examination than we give it in our mainstream discussions. Hopefully someday I can get around to doing some of that work. For now, the dissertation.

Regret

This is not a video game post. So, no, I won’t be talking about my regret for ever having played Myst or not placing higher in the 1994 Blockbuster World Video Game Championship regional finals. No, this is a post about plain ol’ regret. More specifically, I wanted to write about my own relationship with regret. Nothing too specific, so this is also not some kind of private journal entry, but I came to a realization about my history with regret recently and wanted to write it down for future reference. I’d hate to… regret not sharing it. Eh? Eh? No? Well, damn. Now I… regret making that joke okay okay I’m sorry, I’ll stop.

For much of my younger life, my teens and early twenties, I was the type of person who loved to proclaim that I wouldn’t change a thing about my past because, if I did, it would probably change who I was in the present and I didn’t want that. You know the type. “No regarts.” Which, looking back, was kind of weird, given that I was often deeply unhappy with certain aspects of my life. I think it might have been rooted in a fear of losing myself, of becoming someone unfamiliar. I clung to an authentic “me” that I was proud of, even if I’d wished I was better looking or smarter or more charming or whatever. I feel like many of us struggle to define ourselves in those years, trying new things and experimenting to find the “us” that we subconsciously want to be. So to imagine throwing all of that hard work away by hypothetically changing something in the past felt scary.

Later, during some of my most serious bouts with depression and anxiety, I regretted everything. I would find myself dwelling on the past often. What if I had asked that girl out? What if I had stood up for myself that one time? What if I’d actually tried to do well in high school? My regrets were both broad and specific. I might wish I had been more, I dunno, outgoing. Or I might wish that I had been more clear about my feelings when making a sad attempt at asking Amy out in my first semester of college. Either way, I’d wish something had been different. It makes sense, right? I was so unhappy with how things were that I would have gladly risked any changes to my present state by making changes, big or small, to the past. Any bit of happiness, even if just a brief moment years ago, seemed completely worth it.

I’ve been in therapy for a little over a year at this point, and one of the most useful aspects of the process, for me, is introspection. I “did the work,” as my therapist says. And when I thought about regret, and how my relationship with it has changed over the years, I realized that it used to be toxic (in both previously mentioned ways). But over this last year I think I’ve come to find a healthy balance to my regrets. I can’t change the past, of course, but while I may not dwell on it and actively wish I could change it, I can still look back at my regrets and admit to myself that maybe I do wish I’d done things differently. Instead of wallowing in sadness and anger about it, though, and wishing I actually did do things differently, I ask myself what I would do if that thing happened today. I can’t fumble my way through a relationship proposition with Amy from college again, but if I happen to be attracted to a woman now, instead of being indirect and coy about my feelings, I would be direct and open. If someone does something that makes me uncomfortable or crosses a clear boundary, instead of avoiding the subject and just hoping that they’ll “get” why I’m upset, I’ll tell them. I still allow myself to regret things, but only if I learn from them. I did something I didn’t like? Don’t do it again. I wish I would have done that one thing? Do it next time.

I’m not deluding myself by believing that my relationship with regret is perfect, even now. I’ll continue to make mistakes, even some of the same I’ve made in the past, and I’m sure I’ll find myself in a position where I dwell on a particular regret for too long. But I feel much better about my past, my present, and my regrets than I used to.

Gaming Memories: Faxanadu and the Filthy Sword

“Daggers and wingboots, mantras and monsters await you,” the cover to Hudson Soft’s 1989 NES game Faxanadu claims. Since it’s Father’s Day here in the US, I figured I would share a dad-related gaming memory. I haven’t spoken with my father in about 18 years. I’m not upset about it and this blog is not meant to be a confessional, but it’s difficult to separate such facts from stories like this one.

Source: http://rarity.club/games/NES/Faxanadu

It was probably 1990 when we got the game. I had finally convinced my parents to buy me an NES after raving about it for months. It was the Super Mario Bros. 3 bundle that came out, I believe, not long after the launch of that game. Given these dates, I was probably just turning 8. I had spent many days over at my neighbor’s house playing on his NES, so it felt so amazing and exciting to finally have my own console. I could play single player games! I could replay some of my favorites, like Jaws and Contra! I could die over and over and over (and over and over and over) in games like Friday the 13th and Castlevania! I could almost shit my pants before quitting A Nightmare on Elm Street!

I loved the original Zelda games on the NES but I found the turn-based combat of Final Fantasy to be too slow and confusing, so when we looked at Faxanadu’s box in some store one day, it seemed like the perfect marriage of the two games to my young mind. There were swords and magic, yes, but you could also run around and slash at creatures to your heart’s content. I have a very specific memory of staring at the back of the box and thinking “yes. This is a good one. I want this.” That thought didn’t always lead to a good game – sometimes you’d buy or rent a game that had great box art and was a total dud. But this game sounded mature, epic, and the graphics were great, which was a big deal to me. I was pleasantly shocked when my dad read the back of the box and carried it to the front for purchase. How did I get so lucky? I so rarely got games and was well acquainted with “no. Put it back.” We rented games, sure, but a game purchase was a big deal. I was so excited to get those wingboots, whatever the hell they were.

When we got home, my dad called Eddie and Jerry, two of his friends, over to the house. They were pretty high energy and usually friendly to me. My dad had told them all about the game and wanted to play it with them. I was a little confused because this wasn’t exactly a normal occurrence. I asked if I could play and my dad said that I could watch. It was “their turn to play games.” So I watched them play, taking in all of the exciting things I had imagined when I’d read the box. The music in particular was amazing. The graphics were great. I loved the concept of starting at the bottom of a great, expansive tree and climbing your way to the top. It felt torturous having to just watch. Even when I played on my neighbor’s console, we shared play time, handing off the controller when one of us died. They handed the controller off to each other, but when I did the annoying kid thing and asked to play a second time, I was told “no” more firmly. “This is a game for grown-ups. If we let you play you’ll just die and mess up our progress. Just be happy watching.”

Source: https://www.thevintagegamers.com/2017/06/faxanadu-for-the-nes/

I’d felt particularly wounded at that. I was eight years old, so maybe I was being childish, but I remember feeling that the situation was supremely unfair. “It’s my console,” I recall pouting. “And who paid for it? Who paid for the game? You want me to take it back? You have to learn to share,” he said. Maybe he realized that commandeering someone’s things and then claiming that “they need to learn to share” is a wholly masculine, very American sentiment. Probably not, though. He was a bit of an idiot.

So I sulked and pouted as I watched them fumble their way from screen to screen. Eventually they got to a fountain, and when they later returned to it the water had stopped flowing. There was a door nearby, blocked by something that looked like it needed to be unlocked. The fountain seemed key in some way, but they couldn’t figure it out. They left, came back, went and spoke with some NPCs, came back, traveled almost all the way back to the beginning of the game, came back. They just couldn’t figure it out. They weren’t making any progress so I asked again if I could play. My dad used his annoyed voice and shut me down again, so I sat back and stewed while they kept wasting time, running back and forth, wondering if they had missed an item or the game was broken. Eventually they took a smoke break and were talking about giving up. One of my dad’s friends said “why not let the kid try?” And, of course, when someone else suggested it, he relented and acted like he was doing me a great honor, letting me play my own console. I sat down and picked up the controller.

Source: https://www.mobygames.com/game/nes/faxanadu/screenshots/gameShotId,559167/

Okay, look, this isn’t some story about how much of a wiz I was at video games. I didn’t wrinkle my brow, push up my non-existent nerd glasses, and puzzle the hell out of the game until I found the secret and won the day. I just wanted to wash my sword. Most of the details of this memory are fuzzy and pieced together, but I very clearly remember saying that I wanted to wash my sword. So after jumping around and killing a few enemies to get the hang of things, I declared that my sword was dirty and I needed to clean it. I went back to the fountain and started jumping around it, stabbing at it with my sword. “Hey, look, I’m washing my sword,” I said to them. Yes, I understand this story makes me out to look like a bit of a dense, slightly moronic child, but I’m just speaking the truth here. They could care less about my sword cleaning endeavor. “Okay, wow, cool,” my dad said without looking at the screen. I was annoyed for a brief moment, but then I remembered I had the game all to myself and regained some slight semblance of joy. This is exactly what I’d wanted, after all. Then, as I jumped around the fountain like a mindless idiot, I pushed a block on the top of the fountain and bright blue water came gushing out, triggering a ladder to release under the door. I did it. I did it! “He did it!” Eddie said! “Good job, kid!” “I was just washing my sword!” I said, grinning like I was half the age I truly was.

“Move over,” my dad said, and reached for the controller. “I thought I could play?” I said, visibly confused. “You had your turn. It’s our turn again.” “But I just –” “Come on, move. You can play this later all you want. Go.” And I went, taking a valuable lesson about family and respect with me.

Source: http://rarity.club/games/NES/Faxanadu

Featured image source: https://www.sportskeeda.com/esports/10-under-the-radar-nes-gems-that-should-be-remade-now

Whispers from a Forgotten Past: Final Fantasy VII Remake

There probably isn’t much that hasn’t been said about Final Fantasy VII Remake, but that’s okay. I’m not here to make some grand, unique contribution to the conversation. I have a lot of thoughts, though (and even more screenshots), and I want to start sharing as I often do – with a bit of personal history. This game, more than almost any other, requires it, I think. I should, of course, give a pretty explicit [SPOILER WARNING] for those who haven’t played it yet.

The original Final Fantasy VII came out in January of 1997 to much pre-release marketing and post-release fanfare. I wouldn’t get my PlayStation console until the end of that year, mainly for Resident Evil 2, so I was in a bit of a rough spot. In the year or two prior to FFVII’s release, I had fallen deeply in love with JRPGs. After Chrono Trigger sucked me in, I sought similar games, and Final Fantasy III (VI) had a similar art style (in my young mind, with not much to compare them to, anyway) and was made by the same company, so it was a logical follow-up for me. Like Chrono Trigger and EarthBound before it, it entranced me. I loved the characters, the story, the systems, and, of course, the music. The title sequence and opening scene is still one of my favorites of all time, and its score is a big part of that. I played all of these on the SNES, of course, and like a devoted Nintendo fan I dutifully pre-ordered and picked up an N64 on day one.

So when the hype for FFVII began to spread like wildfire, I was a little sad. A little bitter. A little without the ability to adequately convince my parents that I needed a second video game console (until later that year, as mentioned). I had to suffer through hearing how incredible and amazing and groundbreaking and massive this fantastic JRPG and follow-up to my beloved FFIII was. I wouldn’t play it until the following year, and to this day I have to wonder if playing it at launch would have allowed me to appreciate it more. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. It really was massive, the cinematic cutscenes were rad, and the music, again, was top notch. I found such joy in seeing callbacks to previous games, like the moogles and chocobos. But I absolutely hated the character models, especially because the environments were so much more realistic and not bizarrely proportioned. Overall, I didn’t love it like so many others had, and since then it has occupied the middle of my list of favorite Final Fantasy titles.

How could I not be excited for a remake, though? Since playing VII I have played every mainline FF game, plus a few of the spinoffs and one of the MMOs, and I have loved most of them. Some of the elements shared between games – summons and chocobos and moogles and airships and such – have become woven tightly into the fabric of my gaming identity (and, in the case of moogles, inked right into my skin). So any new FF game is cause for celebration in my mind. But people have been asking for a FFVII remake for years, and I was always curious about how Square would pull off such a feat, so I did end up getting more hyped than expected for this game.

I’m sure if you’ve gotten this far you’re thinking something like “uh, okay, can you just get to the point?” or “why do we need all of this context? Just show me the pretty screenshots,” or “oatmeal raisin cookies are better than chocolate chip cookies,” and with that last thought you are absolutely out of line and have ruined any semblance of credibility you might have had so I will be dismissing any further criticism from you.

The reason I wanted to share so much of my backstory is that it mattered more to me and my experience with this game than I would have imagined. I’ve had strong emotional ties to FF games and characters and stories, but I wouldn’t have claimed the same for my time with the original FFVII. But as the game booted up and “The Prelude” played, I felt strange stirrings of nostalgia. With every familiar shot – Aerith on the street, a high view of Midgar, Cloud looking up at a Mako Reactor – I felt my eyes tingle with the threat of tears. The moment it really dawned on me that I was nearly choking on nostalgia was when I heard “Mako Reactor 1” play out as I made my way through the game’s first chapter. The previous cues, visual and audio, had prompted some nostalgic whispers, but this track really made everything swell forth. I remembered the small apartment in Chicago that my family lived in at the time. Just off Belmont and Laramie, right behind Jade Dragon Tattoo, where I told myself I’d get my first tattoo. It was the end of my freshman year at Lane Tech High School. An unusually warm spring. We didn’t have an air conditioner so we had the windows open and box fans puttering along. I played on one of those big, old, floor TVs. My family was falling apart. I was depressed but excited for summer. I thought I might get to go to summer camp and maybe, just maybe, have my first kiss with my first “real” girlfriend. I made nachos with too much cheap cheese and Kool-Aid with way too much sugar. We had an infestation of giant ants with wings near a window in our living room, so occasionally one would smack me in the face when I was playing late into the night. I had dreams of becoming a rock star.

It might seem dramatic, and maybe I’m expanding on what were much briefer flashes of memory and emotion, but all of this sprang from just the opening scenes of the game. These characters, this music, this story that I had once felt was just pretty okay and not nearly my favorite, suddenly they meant everything. They are and were a part of my life. A more important part than I’d realized, I guess. I’m not trying to overstate anything. I understand that this is just one of many, many games I’ve played, and it does mean less to me than, say, Final Fantasy III or VIII. But I don’t know that I’ve ever had such a strong nostalgic reaction to a game before. It might be because I haven’t played the original in, what, 22 years? Whereas with games like Chrono Trigger and EarthBound, I play them every so often so the nostalgia is tempered. One core reason for starting this blog was to chronicle some of my gaming memories, so I wanted to share this as well.

After all of that, you might be sleeping. Or you’re still fuming over my justified criticism of your taste in cookies, you absolute monster. So let’s get to the game itself. In short, nostalgic kick in the feels aside, I loved it. This is not a review so I won’t go through all of the systems and every facet of the story, but the combat was fun and pleasantly reminiscent of FFXV. And like FFXV, I wish there were more summons. The six that I have (and I think there might be one more?) are pretty great, but I miss the days of having a healthy number of dazzling magical beings to call to my side (yes, this is just the first installment, I know). I also wish there was a dedicated photo mode, but I was able to capture some decent shots. Like this little gem:

I mean look…

…at that face.

Speaking of faces: damn. The characters in this version look so good. It seems like they may have cut some corners on some other visual assets, because there were some less-than-crisp textures here and there, but the faces, eyes, hair, clothes, skin textures… all looked stellar. I was also impressed by the work they put into mouth movement, to make them match the English voices. I appreciated that even more after watching Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (for the first time, despite owning the special edition DVD since the day it was released *nervously sweating emoji*), where a lack of regionalized facial animation meant some truly awkward looking and sounding lines.

One of my absolute favorite things about this version is how much they expand on the characters and really round them out. I haven’t played the original in a very long time, true, but I feel like I know these characters more and have a deeper connection with them after this game, compared with how I felt after the entirety of the original game. The writing, voice acting, and animation brought so much life and energy to the smallest of interactions. FFVIIR’s writer, Kazushige Nojima, recently said that he wanted to make Cloud a more complex character in this version, not so “lame.” I think they pulled that off. In the original, Cloud felt a little like a brat. He comes off as cold in this version, but not exactly bratty. More distant, jaded, hesitant to trust, maybe. I also love how they built out Barret, Tifa, Aerith, and even Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie. They are not only cool, full characters on their own, but their interactions with Cloud and the rest of the party are important and help to further develop those characters, too.

I probably won’t write much about this game in my dissertation because it takes place in a fantasy setting (and I’m looking at Japanese depictions of real places), but I did think there was a lot of cultural stuff ripe for analysis. This is already running long so I will just briefly discuss one: the controversial Honeybee Inn scene, where in the original, Cloud is dressed like a woman and some insensitive, homophobic remarks/suggestions are made. Japanese games have a complicated history with queer representation. They have, for a long time, been more willing than big Western developers to include women and queer characters in prominent roles in games, but this increase in inclusion has meant an increase in problematic representation as well. I think it’s important to note that much of the criticism of Japanese games and their portrayals of queer characters comes from a Western perspective, with a Western sense of what is “right and wrong,” or “good and bad.” Having said that, I am not defending every warped depiction of queerness in Japanese games. There are plenty of examples of (usually) gay male characters that are used to create fear in straight characters, or are made to be over-the-top, clownish caricatures that are problematic in any culture, I would argue, because regardless of audience they remove or lessen the humanity of these characters and create an unrealistic trope which real queer people are then unfairly expected to mirror.

That said, I have noticed a trend in Japanese games where queerness and queer characters are treated with increasing respect and realism. From the explicit statement of LGBTQ+ support in AI: The Somnium Files, to Atlus’s inclusion of a new, datable trans character in Catherine: Full Body, their acknowledgment of the issues with queer representation in Persona 5 and their edits in Persona 5 Royal to correct such issues, to overt discussions of gender and identity in Punch Line, to, well, the new Honeybee Inn scene in FFVIIR. In this scene, I was waiting for signs of Cloud’s refusal to participate in the dance or makeover, but he is all in and the entire scene is big, exciting, and fun. Cloud expresses a desire to not talk about it afterward, but given his stoic, guarded nature, they seem to have made it more about his discomfort with being in the spotlight and not his dressing as a woman. Andrea, a queer-appearing character, even makes a comment that “True beauty is an expression of the heart. A thing without shame, to which notions of gender don’t apply.” This echoes some of the remarks made about gender in Punch Line, and seem to align with a Japanese sense that gender is something that is, for lack of a better word at this point in my studies, spiritual, rather than cultural, psychological, or scientific. None of this is to say that any of the examples I’ve given are perfect in their representation of LGBTQ+ characters, and of course this is coming from the perspective of a straight man who is still learning much about queer representation in media, but I was happily surprised by how well they pulled this scene off.

Speaking of true beauty, however, you know I have to comment on the classic debate among old school FFVII fans: Tifa or Aerith? Who is more worthy of Cloud’s romantic attention (or the player’s, for that matter)? I never really had much of a horse in that race. I never really developed a crush on either when I played the original game, in part because their character models looked like plastic dolls that had been mostly melted and then put back together by a near-sighted Popeye fanatic. With the new character models and expanded personalities, though? A much more difficult choice.

I chose Aerith as my date in the Gold Saucer segment of the original game, and I figured I would probably go with her in this one as well, to stick with the choice the narrative seems to want me to make. But in the scene where I could choose to help either of them up after a fall, fully knowing that this choice was significant and would probably affect the story down the line, my gut instinct was to help Tifa. Don’t get me wrong, I love this version of Aerith. She is funny, kind, optimistic, powerful, and quite beautiful. I would 100% offer to be her bodyguard (even when she clearly doesn’t need it).

But Tifa… I don’t know. I guess I really connected with the indecision and sense of powerlessness that she so often seems to struggle with. She is clearly a badass and has some really kickass scenes where she’s, well, kicking ass. But from the beginning she’s dealing with the mixed emotions that come with seeing her childhood best friend (and crush) back from war, but seemingly different and with some pretty clear memory issues. Yet she doesn’t express this to Cloud. She represses it to focus on her role in this revolution against Shinra. Maybe not the healthiest approach, but I can relate. And, like Aerith, she too is gorgeous.

And so it seems in the next installment(s) Cloud will be forced to choose between the safe comfort of his childhood friend or the exuberant warmth of this bright new girl. As for me, I have a new crush: Jessie Rasberry.

I mean, no question. As with the other characters, she is fully developed with an interesting backstory, in which she came to the big city to be an actress but ended up joining a militant group trying to take down Shinra in order to enact justice for her father. So we see that, like Aerith, she has this cheerful, flirty persona that hides a serious side that fights for justice and is willing to sacrifice everything to help others. And, again, like everyone in this damn game, she is breathtakingly beautiful. Not to mention, she throws herself at Cloud! How was he able to resist! I mean, look:

Where is the “yes, absolutely, 100%, what time should I be there, I will do anything, please” option!? Look at how she’s looking at him! Sorry, I’m yelling. I just can’t understand how Cloud could so casually cast her aside. “But she’s so desperate!” I hear you shriek between disgusting mouthfuls of oatmeal raisin cookies. Well so am I! Even if I weren’t, though, come on. She is a catch. She’s cute. She’s tough. She’s talented. She’s dressed like a knight ninja. And:

I will hear no further arguments. Jessie for life. That headband in the ending cinematic better fucking mean she’s coming back in the next game.

Okay, this is approaching the length of a bad fantasy novel, so I need to end this. I have many more thoughts, but I just want to comment on one final thing: the Whispers, of which Barret says:

I took the Whispers to be symbolic of the struggle that must have come with remaking such an iconic game. Video game development is part business, part art, and I’ve heard many creative-minded developers (including some from Square) express no desire to revisit old ideas. They want to create new worlds, characters, and stories. So for them to return to such a venerable game, they must have faced immense pressure from within and without to both stick to the old formula and shake things up. These Whispers seem to represent that struggle. They, and maybe fans, want something new and exciting to happen in this familiar world, but they also kind of want what they know they already love. So, for most of FFVIIR, we get the safe, the recognizable. Prettied up, expanded, bulked out… but mostly the same. But when you defeat the Whispers at the end of the game, that would suggest that these safety nets, these shackles of the past, are no more, right? If so, and we’re looking forward to games that deviate in some ways from the original game (like Aerith surviving? Or Sepheroth joining your team to face a greater foe, à la Magus from Chrono Trigger? Or Cloud ending up with Jessie because she’s clearly the best choice, no more arguments?), I am so excited for what the future of this series might bring. I guess you can call me a FFVII convert.

Save Point: Discussing My Dissertation

When I started this site, one of my intentions was to use it as a place to write notes and short blurbs about my dissertation as I researched and worked on it. I did post a thing or two about some book notes, but I haven’t really done much else. There are a couple of reasons for this. One, I think, is that I just didn’t feel very confident about my topic – for a while, at least. I am in a fairly traditional English department, so other than our one digital rhetoric professor, there isn’t much of a place for a dissertation that is essentially a video games studies project. The process of writing my prospectus was basically filled with anxiety and stress about convincing my committee that this project had the potential to be important and relevant. I was continually hearing dissenting voices in my head. “But why does this thing matter? What are you actually bringing to the field? Do you really know enough to write this?” But after I wrote my prospectus and began converting it into a presentation, I found my confidence again. Mostly. I won’t sit here and say there aren’t still doubts, but in the process of condensing my prospectus and thinking of how to verbally pitch it, I ended up convincing myself that it was as good as I had originally thought when I came up with the idea.

So, having said all that, I am going to start posting blogs about my work. The second of the previously mentioned reasons for not doing so earlier is that I was nervous about people taking my ideas. After much reflection, I have come to conclude: who gives a shit. I’m doing this work with the intent to share it anyway, and I don’t love academia’s habit of hoarding and gating off knowledge to boot. What scenario is that little anxiety-corner of my brain imagining? That someone will see my blogs and publish their own version of my dissertation? I mean, maybe, but that seems pretty unlikely, especially given that I have lots of material that I’m not posting. What is more likely, I think, is that someone might end up seeing this and thinking “hey, that’s kind of like my work,” and if I’m lucky, they’ll reach out and I’ll have a new contact/friend to chat about video games and research with.

Future posts will probably be a lot more specific. I don’t have an exact plan for what I’ll be sharing. Sometimes it will be fully formed thoughts, sometimes it will be aimless rambles, sometimes it will just be interesting tidbits (to me) that I may or may not even end up using for anything. With that, I suppose I should say a little about what my project actually is. The working title of my dissertation is Soft Power-Up: Japanese Games as Cultural and Rhetorical Exports. The “soft power” in the play on words in the first part of the title is kind of a key component of the project. Soft power is a term that essentially describes a nation’s capacity to influence other nations with culture, rather than traditional forms of global power, like military might and economics. There have been lots of studies on Japan’s use of soft power to fill the gap left by its loss in economic superpower status in the 1980s. Most of these studies focus on widely known things like sushi, karaoke, tea ceremonies, anime, manga, and more. Studies on the use of video games as a part of this national strategy seem surprisingly lacking. The most recent edition of The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture has chapters on music, education, food, anime, and much, much more, but there is not a single chapter on video games. This edition was published in 2009, which is far too recent for any excuses of “well video games weren’t big yet.” Video games are and have been huge exports for Japan since the 1980s, to the point of being the only cultural product that Japan exports more than it imports.

So it seems like a no-brainer to me to study this. I was recently pointed toward Rachael Hutchinson’s book Japanese Culture Through Video Games, published just last year (after I had stopped research for my prospectus), which seems to cover much of what I intend to look at in my work. I have yet to read it, because academic texts are vastly overpriced and I am a poor grad student, but I’ll hopefully find a cheap copy soon. I feel pretty confident that my approach will be different enough that I won’t be treading the same ground, but I can’t deny I was a little sad to see that someone had (at least partially) beat me to print. On the other hand, I was so excited and felt weirdly vindicated (to the doubting voices in my head, anyway) to see that a very close approximation of my idea was not only taken seriously by another scholar, but published by a major press as well.

One thing that differentiates my project from Hutchinson’s (I think) is our choice of case studies. Of all the games noted in her introduction and table of contents, I don’t see any mention of the Persona, Yakuza, or Resident Evil series, or Death Stranding, and these are the games that I’ll be looking closely at. She does have a whole chapter on absentee parents which I am interested to read, because that is one of the many aspects of Japanese culture I see reflected in a metric crap ton of Japanese games and was planning on talking about in my project. I chose the Persona and Yakuza series because they both take place in real Japan, often depicting real, specific locations that exist today. So they offer insight into how the developers chose to depict their culture in explicit terms. On the other hand, there are notable Japanese games that are set in America or other Western settings, like the Resident Evil games and Death Stranding. I want to use these games to show that, regardless of setting, there are a whole host of aspects of Japanese culture that end up showing through in these games (in implicit terms). When consideration of these two types of games are combined, I hope to show what Japanese games are “saying” about Japan to the Western world, how that message has changed over time, and why it all matters.

Okay, I should shut up. As usual, I am mostly writing these for myself, to work out and solidify ideas, and just start writing things out that might be useful later. However, I’m also sharing this for anyone that’s interested in Japanese games, is or will be writing a dissertation, or is in any of the many fields related to games studies. If you want to reach out, please do. I’d be happy to answer any questions or share/swap sources. Thanks for reading, and look forward to more posts like this. Or don’t, I guess. That’s cool, too. You do you.

I Digress

I woke up sad today. The memories and musings this blog are supposed to capture are of the video game variety, but I wanted to write something a little more personal and revealing today. For purely selfish reasons. I keep a journal but something about sharing this, regardless of how few people see it, makes it feel more useful. I’m not trying to get pity or attention. I’m not hoping someone will see this and reach out or notice me. I just have an urge to write.

I used to write poetry. That was my outlet for these kinds of emotions. To be clear, I’m not depressed. I’m well acquainted with that asshole at this point, and this is not he. No, I suspect this is some kind of hormonal thing because my emotions are all over the place. Poetry used to help, in part in the same way that I’m hoping writing this will help. I rarely shared my poetry but there was something about writing it with the thought that someone could read it and might understand me made the turmoil feel less pointless. It’s easy to spiral when sadness seems meaningless. To get caught in a cycle of repeated questions. Why am I feeling like this? Is this normal? How long will this last? What do I do if this doesn’t go away? Rinse and repeat.

The problem with this spiral is that it widens. The more I go over the same questions again and again, the more I start to add questions, interrogating things that were not even on my radar. “Am I lonelier than I think?” A simple enough question. I have lived by myself for three years and have always thought of myself as independent. I have serious trust issues, so over the years I’ve convinced myself that I don’t need anyone. Or, I don’t want to, anyway. Over the last year I’ve come to terms with the fact that I do need people, though. So when I get sad I can’t help but wonder if it’s loneliness. Loneliness is okay, though, right? It’s normal. It passes.

It’s the related questions that begin to pop up that compound the issue. “Am I lonely” becomes “Do I want to be in a relationship” becomes “Would someone like that one girl ever be interested in me,” “why not,” “am I too old,” “am I not funny or talented or smart or handsome enough,” and on and on and on. These questions don’t really matter, of course, but when you spiral they seem to be the only things that matter. Worse, there are answers. Not my own. Echoes of voices I’ve created, representative of various types of people I’ve met or seen online. Am I too old to date? No, you can date at any age. So-and-so found someone new when they were some-age-higher-than-yours. But you are too old to date someone in their 20s. Don’t be gross and weird. Are you funny enough? When’s the last time you made someone laugh? Your sense of humor is too weird. Are you handsome enough? Hah.

The most frustrating thing about this whole process – the questions and the answers and the cycle and the scattershot of multidirectional emotions – is that I am aware of it and that awareness doesn’t mean shit. I used to think it would. If I knew I was sad, I could figure out what was wrong and avoid it or find something to distract myself, right? No. Because it’s not some mental exercise. It is, most likely, brain chemicals. A lack of dopamine or serotonin. I see a lot of jokes on social media about serotonin and I like that people are so aware of its impact. I saw a video on TikTok recently of this girl doing a dance to Matthew Wilder’s “Break My Stride,” and the caption was “instant serotonin.” It wasn’t one of those highly choreographed TikTok dances. It was just her messing around. And she looked really happy. It really was instant serotonin… for me. I couldn’t help but smile while watching it. I watched it a bunch of times. Saved it to my favorites. Went and bought the damn song and listened to that on repeat. I even thought about sending her a message and being like “thanks for the serotonin!” But that’s dumb, right? And the questions start again. Why would she care what you think? She doesn’t need your validation. Are you just another one of those guys? And I can’t really argue with them. She doesn’t. I might be. But I was grateful for whatever elements of the video produced the happy chemical cocktail in my brain. I could use that today. I watched it this morning but the chemicals aren’t coming.

Now I’m watching Jurassic Park and writing this. I am almost done getting the platinum trophy for Jurassic World Evolution so I was in the mood. I had a pint of frozen custard. Took my cat on a two hour outdoor adventure. I’m sure things will even out. I think this has helped. The insecure part of me wants to apologize for seeming whiny or egocentric. To just delete this and let it do its thing privately. But that’s one voice I think I will ignore.