“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.
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 13thand 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Summer, 1994. I was eleven years old and just starting sixth grade. I, like many kids at the time, was obsessed with fighting games. Well, the two fighting games that really mattered: Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. The former was such a massive hit in both arcades and on consoles that if you pick up a gaming magazine published between 1991 and 1993, there is more than a fair chance that there is some kind of Street Fighter II art on the cover. The latter reached similar heights, due in no small part to its controversial violence. I lived in Chicago at the time, near the Brickyard Mall, and as often as I could I would haul a handful of quarters to the mall’s arcade, or to a corner store near me that replaced its sole arcade cabinet, Mortal Kombat, with its sequel shortly after its release.
You have to understand, these games were huge at the time. Their reach was similar to Minecraft or Fortnite in that many people who did not consider themselves regular gamers played them. My classmates and many others shared tips, talked favorite fighters, and obsessed over what we wanted from sequels. When Mortal Kombat II was released in 1993, we were enthralled with the new characters, like Baraka and Kitana, the elaborate new levels, and the many new fatalities, babalities, and friendships. We would huddle around the cabinet, trying our best to master new characters and moves, and, when we’d win, nervously try (and often fail) to perform a finishing move. Unlike most of my other gaming experiences, it was an incredibly active social event. I was regularly playing with friends from school, from around my neighborhood, and even strangers, despite not usually spending much time with most of them otherwise.
This engaging social aspect of the game aside, myself and most of the people I knew could not wait for the home release, and the closer the release got, the more excited we became. Can you imagine? We wouldn’t have to scrounge together quarters, or walk to the mall, or wait in line to play! We could practice as much as we wanted, whenever we wanted, and finally see all of the finishing moves. We were counting down the days.
My family, like many in the area, was lower middle-class, so my parents rarely bought me new video games, particularly at full price, and especially when we could rent them from the local Blockbuster Video. Of course newly released games were more expensive to rent and you could only keep them for two days, but I took what I could get. Unfortunately, I wasn’t even sure I could get a copy of Mortal Kombat II. The anticipation for this game was immense and my local Blockbuster said they were expecting copies to fly off the shelves as soon as they hit.
And they did. I convinced my dad to drive me to Blockbuster as soon as he got home from work that release day, and the entire way over I was saying “what if they ran out? What if we’re too late?” He assured me that with such a popular game they would doubtless have plenty. They did not. They had four full shelves of display boxes, but the guy at the counter said they didn’t last long. On the way home, I felt sick. My dad noticed and felt bad, thinking I must be (perhaps unreasonably) upset by not getting the game, so he agreed to drive me to the Blockbuster that was farther away. I had very low hopes. If one Blockbuster had run out so quickly, any other in a densely packed urban area was sure to be out as well.
We arrived and as sickly as I felt, I zoomed over to the video game section. They also had four shelves of Mortal Kombat II display cases, and, again, there were no games behind them. I was devastated. My friends would probably have gotten a copy and I was going to be stuck at home (probably sick, given how I was starting to feel) with no way to get a copy for at least a few days, when people started returning them – if I was lucky. On the way out, with no expectation, I asked the guy at the counter how quickly they ran out of copies. “We never even got them on the shelves. People were asking for them before we finished putting them out.” Just as I’d thought. Sigh. “We still have one copy left, if you want it.” W-what? A single copy? Of the most sought-after game in the world? How? How could I have gotten so lucky? I accepted his offer, but even as we were checking out I was convinced something was going to go wrong and he was going to say “on second thought…” He did not have second thoughts, however, and as we drove home I took the game cartridge out of the plastic case and just looked at the label… and I was feeling more nauseous than ever.
When I got home I ran inside and excitedly told my mom the whole story. As I explained how significant, monumental, and historic this event was, she interrupted me. “You feel okay? You don’t look so good.” I did not, and I said as much. She took my temperature and as luck would have it, I had a fever of 101. I wasn’t too surprised. I felt like a pile of burning human garbage. “Can I still have friends over?” I asked. She advised against it, but if I was feeling up to it and if they wanted to, I could, she said.
I began calling all of my friends. “Matthew? Did you get it?” “Robert, I got it!” “Marcin, wanna come over? I’m sick but we can still play.” Not a single friend of mine had gotten a copy, and they were all eager to come over and get some turns in. You know how when you’re that age and you have friend groups that never hang out together, even though you spend time with each of them separately? Those divisions didn’t matter. I had friends that hated each other coming over, willing to ignore social insecurities and elementary school politics for the opportunity to play this long-awaited game.
As I waited for this eclectic group of friends to arrive, I decided to pop the game in and get a few practice rounds in before I would surely demolish my fri- *grrp* My, uh, fri- *grrrrp* My frien- *violent vomiting* Many aspects of this story are stitched together from hazy memories, but I can very, very clearly remember thinking “oh no. This can’t be. Not now. Why?” with my face thrust in the toilet bowl, spewing up my school lunch. When it felt over, I splashed my face, brushed my teeth, and went back to my SNES. I started a match and… I played, I guess. But it wasn’t fun or exhilarating, like it should have been. I felt like I was going to puke again, and my head was throbbing. I lost the match and ran for the bathroom again.
My friends began trickling in, abuzz with excitement to take as many turns as they wanted without pumping quarters into a slot. I played a match against one of them and then passed the controller to another. After one of them lost, they offered the controller to me. “No, thanks. I don’t feel so good.” They shrugged and went back to virtually pummeling each other, and as more friends piled in, I retreated to a green, plastic-feeling couch we had in that room. My mom had brought me a bucket at some point, in case I needed it, and some ginger ale and crackers. I did need it. As my friends got more and more intensely competitive, I grew more and more distant. I watched them at first, but they kept offering me the controller and I had to keep refusing. “Are you sure? I feel bad. It’s your game and you’re not even playing it,” one of them said. “I know. It’s fine. I’ll play later,” I replied. I got tired of them asking, so I eventually curled up on the couch and rolled away from them, turning back only to occasionally throw up bile, ginger ale, and crackers into the bucket next to the couch.
And that’s how I spent the day of Mortal Kombat II’s console release. Feverish, shivering, and vomiting into a paint bucket just feet behind the largest group of mismatched friends I’d ever had over as they tried every level, character, and fatality that they could.
I am a little over 200 hours into Persona 5 Royal at the moment and I’ve detailed my love of the core game and the seriesinpreviousposts. I have yet to play the new post-original-endgame content yet, so maybe I’ll cover that in the future, but I just made a purchase that is incredibly timely and relevant. As those very astute readers may have guessed by looking at the title of this blog or the featured picture, I recently bought replicas of every Phantom Thief mask (except Morgana, because his mask is, uh… kinda his face) and I am so excited about it that I wanted to share.
Remember Erin, my tattoo artist? She is in the process of moving and doesn’t have space for these masks so she wanted “[her] babies going somewhere they will be APPRECIATED.” Her words, not mine, but she is 100% correct. I appreciate them so, so much. She originally purchased them from an artist who makes movie and video game prop replicas, DetravoidConcept. So today I woke up, wiped them down with a diaper (not really, ew, gross), and took a bunch of pictures that I’d like to share, along with some thoughts on the characters that they are worn by. Let me just note that I am close to the furthest thing from a photographer, but I tried my best, okay? *nervously sweating emoji*
Joker – Protagonist: “I’ve leveled up.”
Joker doesn’t have many memorable quotes because, well, he’s mostly a silent protagonist. This, combined with the ability for the player to select many of his dialogue choices, makes him a mostly blank canvas for the player to project themselves onto. Which means, Joker is me. So I think he’s a pretty cool guy. Sometimes. Usually. Maybe. On good days.
Panther – Ann Takamaki: “A beautiful rose has thorns!”
Oh, Ann. So beautiful. So whippy. Ann looks like a bubbly, preppy, popular girl cliché, but it’s not long before you realize that she is an outcast much like you and the many friends you will meet on your journey. Ann is very pretty, yes, but I think it’s the mix of tenacity and hope that she exudes that I like most. A beautiful rose has thorns, indeed. I like making her my hard hitting magic user, because there’s something about her calling forth a shadow and absolutely incinerating enemies in torrential flames that just gets me every time.
Skull – Ryuji Sakamoto: “For real!?”
Ryuji is the comic relief, yes, so he’s always good for a laugh – at him or with him. He’s hotheaded and a little light in the brains department, so when he attempts to spar with someone like Morgana or Ann, hilarity ensues every time. But you know what? He’s also always in your corner. Always. And sometimes you want nothing more than a hotheaded numbskull of a friend to have your back. That’s Ryuji. Cue sound clip: “What did you say!?”
Fox – Yusuke Kitagawa: “I do not paint for the sake of others’ comprehension.”
Okay, so I know I painted Ryuji out to be the oafish comic relief, but Yusuke is also a bit daft. I suppose his dullness is more due to social ineptitude, because he seems to be a stellar student, but he sure is dense at times. I was not the biggest Yusuke fan, at first. Can you blame me? Our introduction to him is his stalking of Ann, and he is generally a vain, oblivious tool… for a while. He learns and reflects a lot over the course of the story, though, and even if he’s maybe not the best friend you could ask for by the end, at least he’s always good for a funny, all-too-serious comment about painting Ann in the nude.
Queen – Makoto Niijima: “Fists of justice!”
I had to go with that quote from Queen because I get it stuck in my head all the damn time. I’ll be walking to the kitchen and pretend like I’m going to punch my refrigerator end-over-end and faux scream that quote. I’ll be playing with Bella, my cat, and yell “fists of justice!” as I slow-motion punch her in the stomach (and she grabs my hand with her claws and punishes me for my foolishness). It’s such a well delivered line, but I love that it comes from the typically prim and proper Ms. Student Body President. In my second playthrough, after seeing Makoto’s full story and getting to know her character beyond her initial pushy, aggressive profiling of us, I found her shadow awakening to be one of the most emotionally resonant. If anyone needed to suddenly sprout spiked shoulder pads and a badass, other-worldly motorcycle, it was Makoto Niijima.
Oracle – Futaba Sakura: “Welp, ain’t no time like the present! Come on, let’s go!”
Oh, Futaba. Futaba, Futaba, Futaba. She has to be one of my favorite characters in all of gaming at this point. I was already with Ann by the time I got to Futaba in my first playthrough, but as soon as she started slinging zingers at Ryuji, or Inari, or anyone else who annoyed her, I’d decided to romance her in my second playthrough. It felt too weird for me, personally, so I don’t think I have that kind of affection for her, but her story is so tragic and her personality is so unique and goofy that I can’t help but feel some kind of intense love for her. This playthrough of Persona 5 Royal is my fourth time playing through the core P5 story, and I straight up cried again when I was doing her palace and the story that ensues. I would die for Futaba, man.
Noir – Haru Okumura: “If I act with resolve and believe in my actions, I know I’ll be able to achieve anything.”
Haru is another character that took a while to grow on me, which I know is a sin to some, since she appears to be a huge fan favorite. She is adorably inept when you first come across her in the Metaverse, which was certainly endearing, but growing up in extreme privilege has crippled her in so many ways that it takes a while for her break through all of the shackles that bind her, emotionally, psychologically, socially… but she does, and she evolves into a strong, capable, compassionate businesswoman. And yet she retains her adorable voice and her elegant style… like a true Phantom Thief.
Violet – Kasumi Yoshizawa: “I love you, Joey-senpai!”
Okay, so that quote is a joke because I have yet to reach the new story content so I don’t have any fun quotes from her memorized at this point. I have interacted with her throughout the core story, though, so I already feel very good about my choice to romance her in this playthrough (though I have yet to get to that point, sad face). In her very first scene, which is surprisingly early in the game, she makes a graceful and impressive entrance, and then proceeds to gracefully impress her foot up some enemy ass. At one point early in the story, Morgana says that the Phantom Thieves are all about style, and Kasumi fits right in in that regard. I love her red, bouncy hair, I love how skilled she is, and I love that, like the rest of us, she is something of an outcast, beaten down by a system that doesn’t appreciate her. I can’t wait to get to know her better.
And there you have it! I’ll include a few close-ups at the end, here, so you can see how good the detailing and paint jobs are. I should note that these things are very sturdy, too. Fully ready for cosplaying. I have yet to find a place to display them, but you can bet your ass they’ll be somewhere very visible, very soon. I love them. And I love the faces they were designed to cover (except Goro). And I love Persona 5 Royal, so I’m going to go play it now. Bye bye.
Alright, I said I would blog more regularly now that I’m at home slightly more than I was before the shelter-in-place order was given, but, well, it’s been a month since my last post. Hey! Don’t look at me like that, hypothetical reader! I want to make a joke about how I have been “busy,” but I honestly do feel busier now than before I transitioned to online teaching. Part of it is a mandatory “academy” that my university is making me take in order to teach an online summer course, part of it has been grading and wrapping up the semester, and part of it has just been trying to come up with and maintain a routine that will help me overcome any possible summer depression or anxiety that might be made worse by the pandemic. Part of that routine, of course, is video games. I have played a lot of Persona 5 Royal these last few weeks, but I’ll save thoughts on that for after I finish the first playthrough (at least). I also beat Resident Evil 3 seven times and got the platinum trophy for it, but I posted that previous blog (on Jill Valentine) after my first playthrough, so I won’t dwell on it much longer. I loved it, though not as much as its predecessor. It’s not as long or spooky-atmosphere-centered as 2, but it’s still beautiful and fun and it has Jill. That’s good enough for me.
So I thought I’d make this post about the other game I’ve spent almost 200 hours with: Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I don’t have anything new or profound to say about it. It has quickly become one of those rare games that breach the wall between “gamers” and the non-gamer sector of the public. It’s sold a proverbial buttload, it was (and still is) all over social media, and celebrities were visiting people’s islands and being super nice (looking at you, Elijah Wood).
Because of this ubiquitousness, I don’t have much to add to the broader conversation on this game and will do what I end up always doing: making it personal. Okay I sound like I’m about to star in an 80s action movie where I seek revenge on this game for killing my family, but I just mean… well, you know what I mean. Let’s, uh, move on. *nervously sweating emoji* My first experience with the Animal Crossing series was the original game on the GameCube. That era of consoles was the first where I was able to buy my own games, so when I got a GameCube I was snapping up anything that looked interesting. Animal Crossing looked weird and, honestly, kind of ugly (not surprising, given that it started its life on the Nintendo 64), but the premise was so completely novel: you lived in a randomly generated village where you could own and decorate your own home, clothes, and town layout, the in-game clock and calendar reflected the real time and date, and you could own homes in your friends’ villages, where you could send villagers letters that they would then show to your friends. This all sounded so wild that I bought it on day one but was convinced that I would probably play it for a week and then move on. But no. Oh, oh no. I spent weeks filling my basement with fish to sell, sent obscene letters to my friend’s villagers so they would, in turn, proudly show them to him when he played next, and (most importantly) collected as many NES consoles as I could so I could play NES games… on my GameCube. I ended up so completely loving the game.
I’ve played every mainline game since, and spent a fair amount of time with each, but I have to admit that I was always disappointed when a new game would come out. The original game looked rough because it was a last-gen game (essentially) ported to new hardware, so with every new iteration I waited for a huge leap in graphics and general presentation… but that never came. Each version of the game had some twist on the core concept but I always felt that it wasn’t “growing up” in terms of presentation like it should. That changed with New Horizons. The simple style is the same, but Nintendo has finally seen fit to #bless us with modern, crisp graphics. The fish, the water, the sky, pretty much everything has a nice sheen on it. Or maybe it just looks normal and I’m just used to blurry, low-res graphics. Either way, I love it. So, without further ado, I’d like to take you on a tour of my island: Isla Brie. I think every town I’ve had prior to this has been named Gotham, but I wanted to change it up so I named it after two of my biggest celebrity crushes: Alison Brie and Brie Larson. That way, if I ever end up in a situation where I’m flirting with one of them I can totally be like “hey, I named my Animal Crossing island after you” and it won’t be a lie! Hey. Stop – stop laughing. Please. Stop… laughing. 😦 ANYWAY, Brie Larson is also a huge Animal Crossing fan and has been playing New Horizons and posting about it on her social media accounts (@brielarson), which warms my ever-shriveling heart.
Let’s begin the tour in my home. As always, it takes forever to get a healthy amount of furniture to decorate with, so this is definitely a work in progress. Here is my living room, which I’ve made into a kind of meditative garden. Impractical? Yes. But the snapping turtle I decided to keep as a pet needed a home where he could roam free and feel comfortable, so we just kind of hang out by his pond and occasionally I feed him sushi. I haven’t named him yet but apparently I’ve decided that his gender is male, so I will name him Ewan McGregor so that if I ever end up flirting with him, you know what, never mind, we’ve been down this road and it ended with you laughing at me so let’s move on.
Before I discuss my very pink and very messy bedroom, I want to comment on my outfit. What’s that? I’m the absolute definition of cute-yet-glamorous? Oh, stop, you old flirt. *slaps arm playfully* But seriously, this game and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp are the only two games that I regularly crossdress in. I’m not against crossdressing in real or virtual life, but I typically try and make characters that look and dress like me. So why the dresses? Because they. are. so. cute. Seriously, the dresses in these games are so pretty and I like looking at them, so if you run into me on an island somewhere, I will probably be in a dress. Sup. And my favorite color is pink, which should explain why my bedroom looks like a stereotypical 8 year-old-girl’s dream room. It needs some work, too, but as with the rest of the house, it’s a work in progress.
I also have a little bathroom to the side of my room, here. I have taken full advantage of the ability to upload real pictures to a third party site and then import them into the game as custom designs, but I didn’t place them with much thought… which is why both Ana de Armas and my cat, Bellatrix, appear to watch over you as you bathe. I mean, Bella will definitely lay next to the tub with me in real life. Ana de Armas has never done that. Yet.
Next up is my workout room. Before the Quarantimes (I stole that from my friend Amy – hi, Amy!) I was a few months into a really solid workout routine. I was going to the gym five days a week, I had lost 17 pounds, my clothes were fitting better… then, after the Great Plague of 2020 hit, I continued to run outside a few days a week and lost a few more pounds, but I’ve fallen off the wagon in the last couple of weeks. I signed up for a gym because that has always been the best way for me to stay motivated, work out my entire body, and lose weight fast. So I made a virtual gym in the game, with added drum set because I wish I could play the drums and it seems like a pretty good workout.
Here is my office. It’s where I do important things like play foosball by myself, do puzzles, and watch porn. I really have been doing puzzles in real life, which is why the aforementioned friend Amy (hi again, Amy!) sent me the puzzle in the game. I had a few puzzles in real life from a “party” I threw for one of my classes a few years ago, so I decided to make them a new quarantine hobby. The first one I did was a 750 piece Breath of the Wild puzzle, and it was very challenging but rewarding, so I have been hooked ever since. Every day, I wake up, make coffee or tea and breakfast, and sit down to work on a puzzle for a bit. It’s something I actually look forward to when I go to sleep.
Okay, so the entries preceding this have been like “I have this in real life too!” but I assure you I don’t have a grave or a skeleton or a samurai sword in my basement. My basement is very old and dark and creepy, because this house is 150 years old, so… I mean, I guess I can’t say for certain there’s not someone buried down there. And if they were a samurai, then there very well might be a grave, a skeleton, and a samurai sword in my basement in real life. That’s so ridiculous and probably totally impossible, though, right? HahahawhatwasthatnoiseIthinkitwasaswordunsheathingI’mgonnadie.
With my home out of the way (I’m skipping the kitchen because it’s not a kitchen without counters and I know those Nook kids are just holding out until I’m desperate and then they’ll be like “oh, you’re interested in these counters? Just 400,000,000 bells!” but I’m not bitter), let’s move to the museum. The museum is not customizable, of course, so there’s a good chance that my museum looks like yours, if you play the game. However, the museum in this version is so god damn beautiful and serene and soothing that I want to post pictures anyway. Is that okay? Can I do that? Sheesh. Giving me all the attitude. I intend to completely fill my museum for the first time ever in this game. I’ve only ever finished the fossil wing in previous museums, so I am determined to remedy that this go-round. Anyway, look at these pics. If I was dating, I legitimately think it would be cute and fun to have a virtual date at this museum.
Enough of the confined spaces. Let’s start making our way around the island, shall we? Speaking of cute date locales, this little beach setup has everything you need for a virtual romantic romp: a cozy bonfire to huddle up to and talk about the fall of capitalism, a sand castle that you can pretend to build together because it’s already made, a beach ball that doesn’t move, and much more. Ladies, ladies, please form an orderly queue for this once-in-a-lifetime dating experience.
Speaking of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, here is Godzilla(-like) toppling the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Haha, just kidding. It’s already leaning. He’s just admiring it.
“But, Joey,” I can hear you saying, “how did a Godzilla-like creature come to invade your island? Surely you’re not relying on nuclear energy to power such a small area of land? Where would you even build a reactor?” Okay, well, you’re oddly very invested in my island’s infrastructure and power sources. No, we don’t run on nuclear power, though I think when done safely it’s our most efficient option. Instead, we have a wind farm on one of our upper plateaus!
We also have a lighthouse, and when you look at the door and windows on it you can tell it is obviously not made for people my size. When combined with the rack of squid left out to dry, I can only conclude that a very small squid fisher lives in it. Is that a band name? That could be a band name. Joey C. and the Squid Fishers. We play mostly nautical-themed covers.
Anyway, let’s move on to… hold on, my phone is ringing. Seven days?
I saw a very cute set of designs for Zen garden sand on Twitter (posted by @uuTg1Ou0smRbBB, designer code MA-0398-2700-9169) so I snatched it up and made my own little garden, where I like to imagine I go to relax and write in my journal. Journaling is another part of the routine I’ve been trying to maintain during quarantine, so I’m starting to see a pattern in that I am basically just living my Animal Crossing life as a mirror of my real life. What is happening to me.
And this, I mean, this probably requires no explanation. It’s your standard, run-of-the-mill gnome baby summoning. Everyone has one of these laying around their island somewhere, I’m sure.
Also, let’s not talk about this dark period in my island’s past.
That’s it for the tour, but I also want to say that I’ve had a lot of fun visiting friend’s islands! It’s a lot easier to visit other towns (islands) in this version, plus way more people are playing this entry, so there have been lots of opportunities for island hopping, which is very exciting. Remember my friend Amy? The one from earlier (hi, Amy!)? She has a very beautiful island named Sunnydale, after the hellbound town from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Our other friends, Tabitha and Tirzah, have gorgeous islands of their own, and we visited Tabitha’s island to celebrate their birthday in-game. We ran around and played hide-and-seek, we kept popping party poppers all over the place, we fished… it was a lot of fun. Here we are on that day (it’s me, Tabitha, Tirzah, then Amy.. bye, Amy!):
Phew. I’d really meant for this to be brief. Just a few pictures and an equal number of dumb jokes. But I guess when you spend 200 hours on a game you end up having a lot to say about it. Honestly, I think it’s more that I turned this into a kind of chronicle of my quarantine routine. Oh well. If you’ve read this far, hello. Hi. What’s up? Want to go on a virtual museum date with me? *smoochie face emoji* And if you are Alison Brie or Brie Larson, I named my island after you. 😉 ❤
Oh, Jill Valentine. Won’t you be my valentine? No, wait, that’s cheesy. And it’s April, not February. Ahem. Please be my Jill sandwich – no, wait, weird and gross. You truly are the master of unlocking… my heart. *cool sunglass guy emoji*
The original Resident Evil was a huge reason I betrayed my pulpy Nintendo fanboy blood and asked my parents to help me buy a PlayStation. I had a Nintendo 64, so why did I need a PlayStation? All those games are ugly and stupid and not Nintendo, I thought. Wait, there’s a game with zombies? And a big, creepy mansion? A-a-and there’s, like, giant spiders and snakes and stuff? I mean… I guess I could get a non-Nintendo console. Just this once.
It didn’t quite happen like that, but it was close. My sister’s then-boyfriend had a PlayStation, and when I told him about RE he went out and bought it right away. He and my sister preferred to watch me play, though, so we huddled in his attic with the lights off and played through the game bit by bit, jumping at the zombie dogs, solving puzzles together, and reading all of the creepy notes lying around. That experience satiated what hunger for the PlayStation had risen in me, but as soon as I heard there would be a sequel the hunger returned and I began the classic console negotiation with my parents, where I had to explain that this new console was not the same as the N64 and played completely different games that I couldn’t play on the N64. They eventually relented, and my first games for the PS were Resident Evil: Director’s Cut and Resident Evil 2.
Okay, so I love the Resident Evil games, but where does Jill come in? Well, my love for Jill started with my preference for playing as her in the first game. If you haven’t played the first two RE games, you have the option to play as one of two characters: Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine in RE, and Leon Kennedy or Claire Redfield in RE2. I remember we chose Jill for our first playthrough because she had more inventory space than Chris, but we played through Chris next. Regardless, I always found myself gravitating toward Jill, whether it was in the original, Director’s Cut, or the remake for the GameCube. I was sad when Capcom announced that she wouldn’t be in RE2, but ecstatic when I found out that she would be the star of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis.
Jill has come a long way since those famously cheesy lines from the first Resident Evil. As mentioned, she starred in the original Resident Evil 3, she had a very cool surprise appearance in Resident Evil 5, she once again took the lead in the surprisingly good Resident Evil: Revelations, and she returns in the latest RE game, the remake of Resident Evil 3. Her long and harrowing journey reveals one of the reasons I crush on her so hard: she has seen some serious shit. As an Army vet and member of Raccoon City’s Special Tactics and Rescue Service (STARS), Jill was already a badass with military weapons and explosives training, combat skills, and a quick, keen intellect. Layer on top of that all of the horror and hardship she’s seen, and her readiness to not only endure but to return to these terrifying situations in pursuit of the truth and a way to contain the dangerous bio-weapons she’s discovered, and it’s clear that she is one. tough. lady.
When I poll my students about what they would do if a zombie outbreak happened, you’d be surprised how many of them say some variation of “lay down and die.” A real zombie outbreak would be terrifying, indeed, and after Jill survives just that during the “Mansion Incident” in the Arklay Mountains, she doesn’t collapse in defeat. She begins her own investigation into the event, because it’s clear that her superiors aren’t going to do it. And after the events in Raccoon City, when so much has been lost and she once again survives unimaginable trauma, her response to a villain challenging her ability to discover the truth is a sly smirk and “I’m not afraid of a little detective work.” *swoon*
She’s not all brawn, though. She cares about those she trusts and she is loyal to her friends and steadfast about her personal ideals. She has some serious trust issues (uh, same, and how can anyone blame her?), but if you demonstrate loyalty she returns it in kind. She has escaped death several times, and she could count herself lucky and stay away from the madness, but she genuinely wants to protect others and help those who are also fighting, like her old friend Chris Redfield or her new friend Carlos. Given her personal fashion choice in the original RE3, a mini-skirt and tube top, I also like to think that she wasn’t always all business. That maybe she had a fun, casual side before she was pulled into the never-ending cycle of horror that is Umbrella and its nefarious products. Regardless, she is strong, smart, capable, caring… and one hell of a locksmith… of my heart… I overplayed that a bit, didn’t I? Damn it.
It has been a time, hasn’t it? This quarantine business seems to make for a great time to catch up on blogging and *gasp* maybe even start posting more regularly again. Up to this point, however, I have had to transition the course I’m teaching to online, play Animal Crossing: New Horizons and… well… I guess mainly just those two things. So I aim to follow through and use the coming weeks to produce more blogging content. I’m still mostly doing it to track thoughts about games I play, but I also just like doing it. Plus, I passed my dissertation prospectus defense recently and I might start using this as a place to work out some ideas (my dissertation is on Japanese video games as cultural products). I mean, I kind of do that when I write about the Japanese games I play anyway, but maybe I’ll post more explicitly analytical stuff.
As for this entry, it’s your run-of-the-mill catch-up blog. I’ve played more than what is listed here, but I am skipping my ongoing multiplayer adventures with Stardew Valley and Red Dead Redemption 2, and games that I have yet to play much of, like Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. And though I have spent 115 hours in New Horizons since its release just twelve days ago, I am still entrenched in it so I will post a more thorough, standalone blog about it later. I feel I absolutely have to write this post now, because I picked up my copy of Persona 5 Royal yesterday, Resident Evil 3 comes out tomorrow, and Final Fantasy VII Remake lands in a week. I can’t imagine not wanting to dedicate a post to each of those, so let’s quickly cover some ground before I start down that path.
It seems a shame to quickly cover Yakuza 0, though, because I spent so long with it and loved it so much. I had originally planned on dedicating a chapter of my dissertation to both the Yakuza and Persona series, but to appease my committee, who thought my scope was a little too ambitious, I yanked Yakuza and am just going with Persona, since I have already played most of those games. Still, in the last year I’ve collected every mainline Yakuza game in preparation of studying them, so I decided to play them anyway. I chose them for study because they are set in modern Japan and have a reputation for being “very Japanese.”
And “very Japanese” they are. Japanese games that are exported to the West have a history of downplaying or outright erasing cultural markers to make them more palatable for a global market, but recently that has changed. Yakuza 0 (and the rest of the games in the series, I presume) proves that, highlighting numerous staples of Japanese culture: karaoke, sushi, takoyaki, the yakuza itself, video games, English loanwords, fishing, and much, much more. So it makes for a valuable text in terms of games that reflect Japanese culture, but that’s not why I loved it. I probably don’t have the time or space to dedicate to everything I liked about it, in fact, because there is so. Much. To do. There are minigames for singing karaoke, hitting balls at the batting cages, bowling, racing cars, crane games, actual Sega arcade games, card games, dice games, dating, and more. Just when I felt hooked in the story, which is superbly written and impressively voice acted, I’d find myself trying a new minigame and spending hours on it.
My favorite was managing the Sunshine Club as Majima. It seemed a little overwhelming at first, and I never would have expected to spend so much time on it, but I could not stop myself. I liked recruiting and training new ladies, managing customers in real time, facing each bizarre club owner, and the drama that unfolded at every step. There are also many simple moments I loved in the game. Like when you go to a telephone club to talk to and possibly meet a girl, and Kiryu, a stoic and seemingly Very Serious Dude, yanks the telephone receiver dramatically to answer before bringing it to his ear with an excited flourish and saying “moshi moshi.” Or the ways either character excitedly interjects and sings along when someone else is doing karaoke. Or Majima’s masterful manipulation of a rowdy customer in his introductory cutscene. There are lots of little things to love about this game. There are problems, too, like the use of queer/trans people as the butt of jokes, but that’s par for the course with many Japanese games, unfortunately, and it could have been worse, to be fair. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by how much this game enraptured me.
Luigi’s Mansion 3
I remember playing the original Luigi’s Mansion at a pre-release party for the GameCube and being so impressed with the graphics and physics on display. The newest entry in the series isn’t exactly breaking any ground in the graphics department, but there is enough style in the environments and creativity in how you use your ghost vacuum that it still stands out, in a way. It is a very cute game and not very challenging, so it made for a nice, relaxing experience. After that initial preview session of the first game, I never ended up buying it, so this was my first Luigi’s Mansion game and I can definitely see the appeal. As a fan of spooky stuff, even if it’s on the cute or silly side, I will probably go back and check out the last two games as well, at some point.
Call of Duty Modern Warfare
I have always liked the single player Call of Duty campaigns. I mean, there are annoyances, like how the sound mixing always seems to be intentionally bad to simulate the noise and confusion of the battlefield, but overall the campaigns I’ve played have always been very slick and highly produced, making for a fun and exciting experience. That was the case with this remake of the first Modern Warfare, in spades. I confess to not remembering the first game’s plot all that well, but so much of this version seemed fresh and new. The controls were as tight as ever, but one of the things that really stood out was the gameplay variety from mission to mission. The developers have been mixing different mechanics in missions for a long time, but it felt more fluid and natural than ever in this game. Switching from ground combat to drone strikes, or support sniping to trap setting was quick and easy, which made so many of the missions feel varied and fast paced but not needlessly stressful. In previous games, there would be like two or three missions where I’d think “I want to play that again right now,” but in this game I felt that way after most missions. The game deals with some pretty bleak aspects of war, and although there is some fair criticism about gamifying warfare, I also think games like this can be effective rhetorical vehicles for provocative topics that are rarely experienced with much immersion. It can also be used to gloss over or misrepresent actions and events, of course, as this game does, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the stellar gameplay and level design.
Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War
As much as I loved Ace Combat 04 way back in PS2 times, I bought and never played more than a couple of missions of its sequel, The Unsung War. I don’t remember why. It has many of the traits that made its predecessor so good, most notably its controls, so I can’t fathom why I didn’t dive in with every expectation that it would be great. My preorder of Ace Combat 7 came with a digital copy of this game for PS4, slightly more polished, and I finally decided to give it a shot. And, to the surprise of few (meaning, uh, me, I guess), I loved it. Granted, the graphics are rough, even with polish. The ground in particular is a blurred mess at the best of times. But the controls, story, and character interactions were about the same that I fell in love with in 04. The addition of a strong female character, Kei, was cool enough, but she is voiced by Karen Strassman, who also voiced Aigis in Persona 3, which made it even cooler. I loved her work with Aigis, so it was nice to have her as a wingmate on every flight.
Creed: Rise to Glory
Maybe I’m breaking my own rule by writing about Creed, because I haven’t finished it yet, but I always feel compelled to write about VR games because my experiences with them are usually unique to the platform. Such was the case with Creed. The way the game is set up, after the initial story introduction you go through a training session that consists of several microgames (swinging your arms to run on a treadmill, punching a ball and dodging when it springs back, hitting precise points on a punching bag, etc.), then you go on to a fight if you score high enough in training. I completed three training sessions and three fights. While there is certainly something missing in games that simulate fighting (impact, for one), this was a pretty visceral experience. My brain wasn’t tricked into thinking it was real, but I did find myself ducking, weaving, and punching with more ferocity when I felt like I might be in trouble or at risk of getting knocked out. By the third fight I was, to be honest, pretty tired. Sweat was beading on my forehead. But I felt so good about winning the first two fights that I really wanted to try my luck on the third fighter, who actually looked really tough. And he was. I found myself blocking a lot more, only going for combos when it felt somewhat safe, and I still managed to almost get knocked down a few times. I knocked him down once but he was still coming at me with fierceness. I started to feel like I was going to lose. The sweat was more than beads now. I was getting demolished and I began feeling desperate. I finally caught him in a combo and he staggered. I reacted instinctively and quickly stepped toward him to unleash as many hard and fast punches as I could. There was no coffee table in between us in the ring, but there certainly was a coffee table in my living room, and despite it being a good two feet away when I started playing, I stepped into it – hard – when I pounced on my opponent. I won the fight, knocking him out, but I had a small gash and a large bruise in reality to show for it, not to mention sore arm and back muscles the next day.
Focus on You
This VR experience was not quite as visceral. I hadn’t read much about Focus on You, but it was described as a dating simulator in VR, and I mistook it for being Japanese in origin so I thought it might be important to look at as an example of the popularity of dating games in Japan. The developers are Korean, though, so it was not a game I could use for my dissertation. Still, I won’t deny that I am a fan of dating games (although I haven’t quite gotten into the longer, more text-heavy dating “novel” games), so I tried it just for fun. It’s not a bad game, I don’t think, but it’s a very minimal experience. You court a single girl, in only a few encounters, and none of it was particularly compelling. I would love to see them continue working on the idea, and maybe eventually they or someone else could release more fully-featured dating sims, but overall it was pretty disappointing.
Assassin’s Creed III Remastered
Speaking of disappointing – ooh, diss – I was confounded by how sloppy and buggy the remaster of Assassin’s Creed III was. After playing and loving my first AC game, Black Flag, I went back and played AC, AC II, Brotherhood, Revelations, and, later, Syndicate, Origins, and Odyssey. My affection for all of those games ranges from “really liked” to “loved,” so I’ve always had the remaining games on my to-play list, even though III and Unity both have reputations for being quite buggy and broken. Well, I thought, surely they must have ironed out the wrinkles and straightened the kinks in a high profile remaster. Nope. Very early in the game I encountered a bug where the scene transition music kept playing, drowning out all other music and sounds. I didn’t realize what was happening at first. I just thought they’d chosen very somber, ambient music for exploration. Then I entered a cutscene and I couldn’t hear what the characters were saying over the droning horns. When I looked it up on the internet, I found threads confirming that it was a bug… threads dating back to the release of the original game. This was a known bug that not only went unfixed in the original release, it went unfixed in the damned remaster. And that wasn’t the only one; it was just the first I ran into.
Having said that, some of what I love about the AC games was present, though it was hard to go back to what now feels like rather clunky combat mechanics after playing the newer entries, and the enemies seemed abnormally dull. There is some interesting storytelling with American Indians, though, and I would love to someday do some research and write a paper about the various depictions of Native people in video games. I can’t say I didn’t have some fun with this game, but overall it’s very clearly my least favorite in the series.
I don’t want to end on a down note, so I will briefly say that I am so excited for the very small window of gaming that we exist in at the moment. The world is in turmoil, yes, but Animal Crossing New Horizons, Persona 5 Royal, Resident Evil 3, and Final Fantasy VII Remake are among my very most anticipated games of the last few years, and they’re all coming out within three weeks of each other. New Horizons, P5R, and FF7 are sure to be massive, massive games, too, and if I play RE3 as many times as I did RE2, I have a very full, very exciting, and very nerdy couple of months ahead of me. Insert smiling nerd emoji here.
I see lots of people on Twitter posting their top ten games of the last decade, so I wanted to do something here, where I have more room to say a little something about each game. So I made a list of games I loved from the last ten years, then when I thought about having to whittle them down to ten and order them, I groaned. Then I wondered why I had to do that. This is not a print source, where I’d have limited space, nor do I represent an online outlet where my ordering of them matters much. So, you know what? I’m just going to write about all of them. How do you like that? What’s that? You’re not evening reading this long, boring blog? Well then how did you just read that sentence? Got ya. Check and mate.
I’ve written about several of these games already, so I will try and be brief, but I love revisiting the warm and fuzzy memories associated with some of my favorite games. I’ll probably post an ordered top ten list on Twitter, but the list below is not in any particular order.
Persona 5 (PS4, 2017)
I have written pretty extensively about my love for Persona 5, but it’s hard to overstate my adoration of so many facets of it. I love the art, I love the characters, I love the world, I love the music, I love the combat… I just love it. I now have a tattoo of Ann, and I hope to get more characters in the future. I would love to get a whole back piece based on characters from Persona 3, 4, and 5, but that’s a big decision and a lot of money, so I doubt it’ll be any time soon. Anyway, I am very excited to play through the game a fourth time when Persona 5 Royal comes out in just a few short months. I’m sure I’ll have even more to say then, so clear your calendar of all important and unimportant plans so that you can read it.
Horizon Zero Dawn (PS4, 2017)
I have yet to replay Horizon Zero Dawn, but I think about it often. Aside from being one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played, it has some of the most satisfying combat as well. It’s perfectly balanced between complex/deep and straightforward/accessible. Every time I’d enter a new area and see a new type of robo-dino, I’d feel nervous about engaging them, certain I’d get my ass kicked. And I did, a few times. But I quickly learned to sneak carefully, observing the enemy’s movement, analyzing its armor and weak points, then using the right tools to strike at the right moment. It was almost always thrilling. A sequel is a given, and I assume they’re developing it for the upcoming PS5, so I can only imagine how gorgeous it’s going to be.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (Switch, 2017)
I have been such a huge fan of the Mario Kart series since its debut on the SNES, and Mario Kart 64 was one of my favorite games of all time for years. Mario Kart 64 doesn’t age very well, sadly, but Mario Kart 8 plays like my memory of 64 likes to pretend that the older games do. It’s smooth, precise, and the balance between chance and skill is *chef’s kiss*. And with four different Princess Peach’s, I’ve never had a problem getting my favorite racer. It’s also still exciting to play the Hyrule level, and I very much hope that the next iteration of the series takes a cue from the Smash Bros. games and expands the roster to other first party Nintendo games and, eventually, maybe even third party games.
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age (PS4, 2018)
Dragon Quest VIII has more warm fuzzies in my memory than XI, but I think XI is the better game. It has much of the same charm and style of previous entries I’ve played, and I grew to adore the cast in this installment, even more than I loved the ragtag group in VIII. DQ XI takes what I love about classic JRPGs and continues to smooth the rough edges, like grinding, and further perfects the formula. I got the platinum trophy for the game on PS4 because I just didn’t want to stop playing, and I loved every second of it. I recently got the definitive edition for the Switch and though I probably won’t get to play it anytime soon, I’m excited to experience that world and those characters again.
Doki Doki Literature Club! (PC, 2017)
As I said in my blog on this game, I don’t want to give anything away by saying too much, but this game surprised me and plays on established genre tropes in a way that is so exciting and refreshing. It’s a free game on Steam, so I always want to tell people to go and play it, but it’s tricky because I don’t want to say why. Either way, I really loved my time with it, and I’m hopeful for an expansion on that universe sometime in the future.
Gone Home (PC, 2013)
Every time I revisit Gone Home, I’m struck by how great it is. I don’t know how I seem to forget. I think it’s because it is such a simple, straightforward experience, but there is so much meaning packed into its narrative and world building that it’s easy to be fooled into thinking it’s a pretty standard ‘walking sim.’ It’s not, though, and I love both its story and the way that it’s told. The way it builds atmosphere and tension through sound, music (or lack of), and snippets of monologues, is among the best in narrative games, I think. And I just really like exploring big, empty houses.
Emily is Away Too (PC, 2017)
So much of my affection for this game is tied to the nostalgia that its AOL Instant Messenger interface and gameplay evoke, but I also think there is a very obvious attention to detail and affection for game making that went into it, and it shows. The first game, Emily is Away, was also great, but the sequel really struck my emotions in a powerful way. Its developer, Kyle Seeley, is working on a new entry, Emily is Away ❤, based on early Facebook interface, and if his tweets are any indication, the release isn’t too far away. I’m super hyped.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt (PS4, 2015)
I was late to the Witcher party, so to speak, so after having heard so much about it before even starting the game, I don’t feel the same kind of personal connection to this game as I do with other games on this list. Even still, I loved not only the core game, but the DLC as well. I am usually disappointed by DLC, but The Witcher III has maybe the absolute best DLC I’ve ever played. The world that CD Projekt RED built is so grim and beautiful and exhilarating to explore, and the cast is captivating. I just finished watching the new Netflix show, which is great, so I have the itch to play it again.
Tomb Raider (Xbox 360, 2013)
I have to admit, I didn’t love the original PS1 Tomb Raider games. I liked the idea of Lara Croft more than I did the clunky platforming and chunky graphics. So I was pleasantly blown away by how great the 2013 reboot of the franchise was. Lara Croft was a richer, more nuanced character, tough and strong but also vulnerable and human. Plus the game is gorgeous, the exploration is fun, and I very much enjoyed the stealth and limited combat. I could have used more actual tomb raiding, but for an introductory tale I completely understood why they held back on that aspect of the game. I loved each of the sequels less and less, but I have high hopes that the next entry will build on the new formula in a meaningful way.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (PS4, 2013)
I got this as a free game with my PS4 at launch (I think it was a buy three games and get one free deal?), and my expectations were bracketed by the fact that this was a last-gen game that was ported to the next-gen systems. Despite that, I was immediately blown away by the beauty with which the Caribbean seas and tropical locales were rendered, and I fell deeply in love with the experience of sailing the seas with my own ship and crew, singing shanties, diving for treasure, and demolishing enemy ships. It was the kind of game I would play for hours only to lay in bed thinking about what I would do the next time I played. I have a feeling the mechanics and graphics will only stand the test of time for so long, so revisiting it after playing the newer entries will probably be at least slightly disappointing, but nothing can erase the magical memories of the weeks I originally spent with it.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (PS4, 2018)
I loved Black Flag so much that I went back and started playing the original games, and I’ve played all but a couple of the mainline entries by this point. Having said that, I feel pretty comfortable saying that Odyssey is probably the best in the series. Objective assessment aside, I subjectively loved it as well. I didn’t have the same kind of magical tingly feeling that I did with my time playing Black Flag, but it was pretty close. The game is huge, beautiful, and I liked Kassandra, the main character, more than I did probably any other AC protagonist (though I still have a soft spot for Evie).
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown (PS4, 2019)
This is another game that tapped into my nostalgia pretty hardcore, because it is in many ways a throwback to Ace Combat 04, which is one my favorite games of all time, and one that I spent many, many hours playing back in the day. The return to form made it impossible for me to not love it, even if there are a couple of things that show how small of a budget this game had. It received strong reviews, so I’m hoping that sales were good as well and Namco decides to invest a little more heavily in a next-gen sequel that looks as mind-blowingly amazing as AC04 did when it came out on the PS2.
Resident Evil 2 (PS4, 2019)
The original Resident Evil 2 was also one of my favorite games of all time, so I was very nervous but excited about this remake. I was excited because even if it was a one-to-one remake with better graphics, I would have been happy. But nervous because what if they tried to change things or made it action-heavy like the more recent entries in the series? Well they did make some changes, but for the better. They were subtle but made the game feel very fresh, even in 2019. The RE Engine is amazing, and it allowed the devs to make this a game with some of the most incredible lighting and textures, and it really brought the streets of Raccoon City alive. The gameplay, voice acting, story, and (of course) Mr. X were all also wonderful, so it’s no surprise that the upcoming Resident Evil 3 remake is at the top of my most anticipated list for 2020.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Switch, 2019)
This was my first Fire Emblem game, and I was worried that the strategy elements might be too hard or overwhelming for me, given that I don’t play many games like it. I had nothing to fear, though, because the combat was fairly easy, which allowed me to focus more on some of the social and academic systems, which I really liked. And how could I not love such a vast and varied cast of characters? I like so many of them, but Edelgard and mah girl Petra were my favorites. It’s a very long game but I played through it twice just to see two different story paths, and I didn’t regret a second of the time it took to do so. Do I wish that the game didn’t look like a glossy 3DS port? Yes, of course. But that just makes me even more excited for the next installment, which I’m sure will be developed natively for the Switch.
Grand Theft Auto V (Xbox 360, 2013)
I still play Grand Theft Auto Online, so I was kind of shocked remembering that this game came out in 2013. 2013! And it still looks great (the PS4 port does, anyway). Say what you will about the story and characters and such, but Rockstar, like Ubisoft, is phenomenal at creating open worlds that feel organic and dynamic, so most of my favorite times in San Andreas happen when I’m just messing around, launching my Batmobile off of rooftops, or pushing around random cars in bulldozers with friends, or screeching to a stop next to a car illegally parked in a handicap spot so that we can destroy it with bats or gasoline. As long as Rockstar keeps spending time creating intricate, organic worlds, I’ll keep coming back.
Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 Scarlet (PS4, 2019)
Okay, yes, this is a game about a bunch of scantily clad fighting ladies with unrealistic proportions playing volleyball and collecting bikinis, but I won’t deny that I had a ton of fun playing it. The volleyball in particular was very satisfying, and given that I like collecting things in games that I enjoy, I found myself trying to collect every bikini for every player. And I won’t sit here and make any excuses for liking a game with half-naked women in it, but I will say that I ended up really liking Momiji and do you think she likes me? Should I ask her out? Do you think I should try and be friends with her friends first? Okay well somehow I ended up being creepy about it anyway.
Red Dead Redemption 2 (PS4, 2018)
Much of what I said for Grand Theft Auto V holds true here. I played and liked the single player story, but most of what I really loved about this game was the open world and my ability to interact with it in a multitude of ways. Doing a mission where my posse robs a bank and escapes the law is fun, but the memories that will stick with me are being out in the wilderness, cooking meat (from a wolf that attacked me) over a fire, feeding my horse some peppermint after a long ride through a dusty canyon, stumbling into an expansive cave system that seems too large to even exist… things like that. And I just started playing Red Dead Online with a friend, and so now it’s fun to share some of that same experiences with a friend, and the griefing is far less prevalent than I’d expected. So I see quite a bit more of this game in my near future.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Switch, 2018)
Super Smash Bros. Melee was one of the finest, most well balanced fighting games in history, and I think the fact that it has had such a long life in the competitive circuit attests to that. But the balance that I mean, and the balance that makes me love the game, is not so much the technical, professional kind, but the kind that allows for almost anyone to pick the game up and play it, with its simple two button design. It’s so simple and allows for all kinds of very easy moves, even if you don’t commit to learning a bunch of combos, but it has the ability to be deep and lets you learn combos and defensive moves and more, if you want to. And Smash Bros. Ultimate is the, well, ultimate version of the game. It restores much of the balance that was a bit lost in the last version, and it has such an incredible roster of characters, levels, and music, from such an impressive array of games and companies. I am not very good at the game, probably, but I sure played the hell out of the single player, and I would love to play it casually with friends at some point.
Stardew Valley (Switch, 2017)
Oh, man. My adoration of Stardew Valley seems to grow more and more intense over time. I wasn’t even all that interested in it at first, because I thought it might be too stressful having to get enough work done before the end of the day or season. But one of the lovely things about this game is that you get what you give. You certainly can put in a lot of work and try and accomplish things rapidly, or you can take your time and just spend your time having fun. The game doesn’t really punish you much, so I ended up pushing myself to get a lot done, but feeling very rewarded instead of pressured. I also love the retro graphics, the soundtrack is amazing, the characters and their backstories are memorable, and the little nods to Chrono Trigger are cherries on top of a fun, delicious sundae.
Dragon Age Inquisition (PS4, 2014)
So Dragon Age: Origins gave me more warm feelies than Inquisition, but I still thought the latter had much of what make Bioware games so magical and memorable for me. The sense of building a character much like me, gaining power to stand against impossible odds, developing relationships along the way, and finding someone to romance. The romance aspect is a big part for me, though, and I have to say that I was slightly disappointed in my options in this entry. Morrigan was absolutely my top choice in Origins, so the fact that I couldn’t romance her here was sad, and my second choice, Sera, is a lesbian so she had no interest in me. I ended up with Cassandra, who was okay, but she’s no wild, wicked, dragon-blooded witch, I’ll tell you that.
Fallout 4 (PS4, 2015)
I feel like a broken record, but Fallout 3 was really the game in this series that won me over and maintains a special place in my heart, but I also loved my time with Fallout 4. Part of what I loved about the third game was the sense of isolation and lonely adventuring in the vast, open, broken landscape, so when I realized that the fourth game had a companion system I was a little wary about how that might affect my experience of wandering the Wasteland. As luck would have it, however, I had just seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens and was completely smitten with Rey and BB-8, so having Curie (a similarly spherical, robo companion) follow me around was actually very nice and made me feel like Rey. And the fact that Curie was charming and smart and funny made it that much more interesting, and then helping her to become human and romancing her was the ultimate payoff. Am I saying that I would turn BB-8 into a human and be his boyfriend? No, you monster, what is wrong with you? He’s a sweet little bb.
Final Fantasy XV (PS4, 2016)
Man. Final Fantasy XV did not sound all that attractive to me on paper. So I’m a dude taking a road trip with three other dudes? And this is a Final Fantasy game? A series which has had some amazing female party members that I still love? And they won’t be in my party. Okay. Got it. Sounds terrible. But it wasn’t! It was pretty great, actually. I actually ended up really digging the dynamic of the four guys, and although I would have preferred she be a permanent party member, I really liked Aranea and enjoyed having her as a temporary party member. The world was so beautiful, too, and I actually found the combat to be one of the most enjoyable in the series. The story itself was a little confusing at times, but the ending is pure melancholic beauty.
Injustice 2 (PS4, 2017)
Seeing as how I don’t play fighting games with friends, because I am a friendless loser (hahaha, just kidding… unless…) the only way for a fighting game to make it onto my list is to have great single player content. And both Injustice games have excellent single player content, with great stories, lots of solid fights, and in the case of the sequel, tons of unlockable gear and customizable equipment. I had way more fun than I thought I would unlocking new costumes and accessories, and the graphics and effects are so good. I like just collecting cool costumes and, like, looking at my characters. As a fan of the DC universe and simple, straightforward fighting games, I had lots of fun times with this game.
Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360, 2010)
When BioWare announced that they were not working on a new Knights of the Old Republic game, and instead were working on a new, original sci-fi RPG, I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed. I loved KotOR and their follow-up, Jade Empire, and though it was developed by Obsidian I also really loved KotOR II: The Sith Lords. ”Why create a new universe and characters when you have the Star Wars brand?” I wondered. But I ended up adoring the original Mass Effect, and its sequel was even better. The storyline of becoming the first human Spectre, the terrifying Reapers (and the sound they make), commanding your own ship and crew, finally getting a chance to romance Tali, moral decisions carrying over from the first game… it was all so great, and if they release the long-rumored HD remastered trilogy set, I will almost certainly play through the saga again someday.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PS4, 2015)
Once again I feel like I’m seeing a trend in some of my thoughts on these games. Several of them, this one included, begin with some variation of “I didn’t think I was going to like it, but I did.” I loved the previous Metal Gear Solid games, but the concept of an ‘open world’ entry in the series was very concerning. And while the narrative experience in MGS V didn’t have the same impact as previous entries in the series, probably because of my many sidetracks and wanderings, I ended up really fucking hooked to the gameplay loop. Part of it was, of course, the old “here’s a base to fix up” move. I love that shit, so I found myself doing mission after mission to collect money, personnel, and equipment for my base. And you get D-Dog to come home to? I also found Fultoning things and people out of places a ton of fun, I came to appreciate the 80s songs I could play on my Walkman, and despite the problems inherent in her depiction, I really liked Quiet. I walked away from MGS V shocked both by how different it was than previous MGS games, and how much I liked it.
Rock Band 3 (Xbox 360, 2010)
Frickin’ Rock Band, am I right? I still get angry when I think about how Activision flooded the market when they got the Guitar Hero IP, leading to oversaturation and players and developers (mostly) abandoning music rhythm games. The first two Guitar Hero games, along with the Rock Band series, provided an experience like few others. You played with plastic instruments, sure, but they gave you a real, tactile sensation of rocking out to so many awesome songs, familiar and not. They eventually let you create your own character and band, and embark on a tour, features I was very excited to see develop in later installments… that never came. Rock Band 4 was solid, but Harmonix was open about the very limited budget the game had, which probably explained the shallow single player experience. So Rock Band 3 was, for me, the pinnacle of the series. Whether I just wanted to chill and play guitar on random songs or get out some aggressive energy on drums, I was set. And don’t get me started on playing with friends. One person on guitar, one on bass, one drumming, and one singing? Such a magical experience. Even writing this is making me want to pick up the ol’ plastic axe once again.
Batman: Arkham City (Xbox 360, 2011)
I am a huge Batman fan, and this game is a huge love letter to huge Batman fans. The first game to successfully pair a super hero with an open world, it really captured what many of us imagined the Batman experience to be: being overwhelmed with crimes occurring in multiple places, solving mysteries with a keen eye and a few gadgets, dropping down from the shadows to thrash a group of thugs and zipping out again, and coming face to face (or face to Two-Face) with members of the infamous Rogues’ Gallery. And Solomon Grundy! The story is such an excellent Batman tale, too, subverting expectations and shocking us in the best ways. Arkham Knight may be superior in some ways, but Arkham City holds a special place in my heart.
Jurassic World Evolution (PS4, 2018)
I haven’t played very many sim or tycoon games, but I love Jurassic Park a ton, and the screenshots for this game looked like the closest approximation of the Jurassic Park experience that I’ve seen over the years. I was still very hesitant going into it, and I didn’t buy it right away. Would it stress me out? All of the building and managing? I just wanted to hatch and take care of some dinosaurs, I didn’t want to worry about customers or money or any of that. But then I read that you could drive a gas powered jeep around your parks, and you could fly a helicopter around to take photos or tranquilize/medicate your dinosaurs. That pushed me over the edge and I bought the game, still uncertain about how long I’d be able to stand the pressure of having to make a park that performed well and didn’t just house rad fucking miracles of modern science. To my great surprise, I actually enjoyed the management aspect of the game, even in intense situations, like when a predator broke free from its pen, a pen of herbivores got sick, and a huge storm hit my island, breaking fences and taking out power, all at the same time. It was stressful handling it, yes, but it was so rewarding when everything settled down and I had control of the park once again. They recently released DLC that allows you to recreate the original Jurassic Park on Isla Nublar, so I might very well be returning to the game again soon, and I’m excited.
Until Dawn (PS4, 2014)
I grew up with horror films, and I still love the genre. Until Dawn is 100% a playable horror film. Even in its sometimes cheesy lines and stilted acting, it reminded me of so many classic slashers and scary movies set in cabins in creepy woods. It pays homage to lots of specific horror movies and tropes, and the author of the narrative brings in elements of his own horror movie, Wendigo, to add an element of surprise to the formula. The game is also gorgeous, rendering its human characters among the best in all of gaming. I also grew fond of the cast, and how many games have Academy Award winners’ (Rami Malek) likenesses in them? Though some of the decisions and consequences were, shall we say, suspect, I enjoyed playing the game multiple times to try different paths and save or kill different characters. I haven’t loved the follow-ups from the studio, but my affection for this game has me hoping they’ll produce similar caliber experiences in the future.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch, 2017)
I sometimes hesitate to call myself a Legend of Zelda fan, because there are quite a few more Zelda games that I haven’t played than those that I have. But the original Zelda games for the NES, and Ocarina of Time were formative parts of my gaming history, and, uh, I have a fairly large tattoo of Princess Zelda on my arm. And it’s specifically the Zelda from Breath of the Wild, because she is strong, smart, sassy, and my favorite version of her in all of the games I’ve played – and the ill-fated animated series (though she was pretty cool in that, too). Her aside, it took me a while to appreciate this version of Hyrule, but the more I uncovered bits of story and history, the more I saw a seemingly large, empty world as a living tomb, a once great kingdom now overgrown with trees and moss, ghosts of the past haunting its ruins and shadows. Add to this a simple but classic Zelda story, and eventually I found myself in love with the world, the game, and my adventures within them.
Persona 4 Golden (PS Vita, 2012)
Maybe it’s fitting that we begin and end with a Persona game, because I’ve played three of them in the last two years (and the dance game associated with each) and I have fallen in love with the series because of them. So it’s safe to say it’s impossible for me to look back at this decade of games and deny how much they’ve defined my experience as a lover of games. In terms of gameplay mechanics, combat, and interface, Persona 4 Golden and Persona 5 are very similar, but one of the things that makes each Persona game special is its characters, and as with 5, I grew to greatly admire my friends and party members in Golden. Chie and her love of kung fu, Yukiko’s traditional Japanese grace and contemporary attitude, Kanji’s closeted queerness, Rise’s adorableness, and more. If every Persona game going forward has the same gameplay but with new locations and characters, I would be totally happy. The ability to play a character in long, elaborate, multifaceted drama with a cast of colorful characters will never get old.