Video Game Crushes: Delores Edmund

I just finished Thimbleweed Park, so while this blog will mostly be dedicated to the woman named in its title, I would like to open with some general thoughts on the game. Since its release in 2017 I’ve continually heard/read that if I liked Maniac Mansion, I’d like Thimbleweed. They were, after all, created by the same core developers and share much of the same design in terms of gameplay, art style, and writing. And I was indeed a fan of the 1990 NES version of Maniac Mansion. It didn’t make my top 25 list because, well, I was eight years old when I first played it and I wouldn’t beat it until years later, as an adult. While it was difficult, I loved the colorful art style, the ability to choose from a roster of characters, the weird and mature(ish, for a 1990 NES game) humor, and maybe most of all, the music.

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So it’s probably no surprise that I also loved Thimbleweed Park. It is, as far as I can tell, as close to a sequel to Maniac Mansion as they could get without getting into legal trouble. I was especially impressed with how it maintained so much of the charm of those late 80s/early 90s point-and-click adventure games while using clever plotting, sequencing, and checkpointing to pave over what made the older games frustrating at times, like dead ends and the ability to miss required items. I still prefer direct input movement in games, because sometimes navigating a point-and-click game world can be annoying and slow, especially when you have to backtrack or you get lost, but I suppose there is an attractiveness to the faithfulness of the old school control scheme. For some, anyway.

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Okay, having said all of that, let’s get to the point of this entry: the wonderful Delores Edmund. Delores is, arguably, the main character of the game. Her contentious relationship with her wealthy uncle, Chuck, is the focal point of the narrative, and her absolute readiness to buck her uncle’s expectations of her in order to follow her dream and forge her own path is one of the reasons I love her. Her father is unwilling to stand up for her, and her uncle is aggressive in his demands that she take over his factory and business for him when he dies, but through her own mastery of programming she gets a job offer from the video game company Lucasfilm – er, I mean MMucasFlem – and leaves behind a life of luxury and privilege in order to make video games.

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That determined, independent, strong-willed attitude was immediately endearing, but Delores is not a brash, aggressive character. She is strong-willed, yes, but she is also caring, friendly, and diplomatic. You know what else she is? A huge, gigantic geek. Aside from the previously mentioned programming skills, she is a math champion, Tolkien lover, Alien fan, and Trekkie (“I want to live on the Enterprise!”). She also loves Star Wars, though, and thinks, as I do, that “Revenge of the Jedi was a much better name.” She has beaten every game at the local arcade, still holds many of the high scores there, and eagerly awaits her copy of a video game magazine every month. She also has an affinity for action figures, is actively trying to cut down on new figurine purchases, and she “loves [her] books,” including science fiction titles and Nancy Drew mysteries.

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Plus, just look at her. With her pink shoelaces, red hair, nerdy glasses, side ponytail, and messenger bag, not to mention the goofy dance she does when she finds out that she got the job of her dreams, she is peak geek chic. She is voiced by Elise Kates, who plays her with a steady and nerdy, cute style, making her sound at once self-assured and somehow also a touch naïve. Maybe naïve is not the right word. Maybe she sounds, idealistic? Hopeful? Regardless, she is absolutely a person I would 100% get along with and love to be friends with, and if I lived in the fictional town of Thimbleweed Park and was lucky enough to catch her eye, I would totally love to take her on a date to the arcade, where she would probably demolish me at Meteor Menace. Then we could take a stroll to the S&D Diner, where we’d get anything but the hot dogs. Or hamburgers. Or, well, maybe we’d just skip dinner altogether. Either way, Delores is a radical lady and I have no hesitation in calling her my latest video game crush.

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Birth of a Backlog

I’ve felt pretty fortunate lately. For the last handful of years I’ve always been behind on new releases, still catching up on games that came out months ago while reading about the latest, most exciting releases. I was able to catch up at some point, so I’ve actually been playing new games as they release these last few months, and it feels nice to do something as simple as tweet a screenshot to a game that people are actively still engaging with.

That’s not to say I don’t have a backlog. I do, and its shadow is long and looming. I chip away at it, when I can. I’m getting ready to start the Assassin’s Creed III remaster, in fact, which will check another game off of ye’ olde list. But I also keep adding to the stack, stretching the shadow out ever longer. I’m probably not alone in this, but I sometimes fantasize about retirement and how I’ll not only have time to travel and read books ‘for fun’ again, but I’ll also have time to actually sit down and start methodically working my way through all of the many games I bought and never got around to playing. And there are a lot of them. If I glance at even just my Nintendo Switch games, I see Civilization VI, Disgaea 1 Complete, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, and Octopath Traveler. That’s like half the games I own for that platform. I just realized that and now I’m even more shook, as the kids say. Well, they don’t say it like that, but… you know what, let’s move on.

So the list is long, but where did it start? I’m a casual collector, so I have Atari 2600 and NES games that I haven’t played, but I bought them years after their release, so they haven’t actually been on my backlog for that long. My family didn’t have much money growing up, so new games were rare and I played every game I got, even if I didn’t much like it (looking at you, ESPN Sunday Night Football). Even when I got my first job, during the late N64/PlayStation era, I was careful with what I spent my meager paychecks on. It was somewhere in this period when it began, though. The list.

Secret of Evermore was released for the SNES in 1995, the same year Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy III, and EarthBound made me fall in love with JRPGs. I’d received Chrono Trigger as a gift, I repeatedly rented Final Fantasy III, and I was lucky enough to find EarthBound on clearance at Best Buy, so a brand new JRPG just wasn’t in the budget for that year. No, it wasn’t until a few years later, with the money from my first job, that I excitedly bought a copy of Secret of Evermore, having waited since its release to play it. I was so in love with Chrono Trigger that this game, being from the same publishers and having similar promotional art, seemed like a perfect game for me.

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Source: https://loganplaysgames.wordpress.com/2015/10/29/secret-of-evermore/

So how did it end up on my backlog? I had been excited to play it for three or four years, I spent a fair chunk of money from a meager paycheck to buy it, and then… I didn’t play it. Ever. It’s been 20 years and here it sits at the bottom of an ever-growing stack of games that I have bought and want to play. To start, I think it had something to do with the fact that by that point I’d had both an N64 and a PlayStation, and while it’s easy to slip into a classic 2D 16bit game now, at the time it felt less exciting than Final Fantasy VIII or Chrono Cross. Then, in that same year, news of the new Nintendo and PlayStation consoles started spinning up, so I got caught up in the excitement of that, which made sprite-based games even less enticing and easier to hold off on playing until I ‘ran out of things to play.’ I should have known that day would never come.

Once I got a PlayStation 2 and, eventually, a GameCube, it was over. I had a job (at one point, two) and no bills, so I bought a lot of games that I was excited about, even if I had more than I could play at the time. The most egregious was Star Wars Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike. I’d played and loved the first game in the series on the N64, and Rogue Squadron II was the very first game I bought for my GameCube at launch. I was in full Star Wars obsession at that point, and in the third game in the series you could pilot ground vehicles like an AT-ST for the first time. An AT-ST! That was so exciting at the time. And so I bought it and, of course, never played it.

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Source: Wikipedia

There are more of these kinds of examples, and there are other stories where I’d buy a game because it’s cheap or I’ve heard good things, but it’s situations like these, with Secret of Evermore, that make the backlog a painful thing, because the further I get from older games, the less fresh and influence-free my experience with them will be. When I play Rogue Squadron III it will have been after years of newer, probably better Star Wars games. This blog is not an attempt to solve this problem, nor do I have the desire to go through every game on what is now an extensive list spanning five console generations. This was mostly my way of excavating the earliest fossil in the pile and attempting to answer that question of “how did I get here?” But, you know what? I did just begin my winter break, and writing this entry has made me determined to play Secret of Evermore at long last. It’s about time, I think.

Late Fall Video Game Medley

I don’t love doing long blogs that cover multiple games, but I’ve had the fortune of playing several games over the last couple of months, and the misfortune of not having as much time to write about them. So, here we are. Because this is in large part my way of tracking my own thoughts about games, I should put a general spoiler warning out there, in case anyone happens to read this and has yet to play any of these games, particularly since some of them are very new. I’m not used to writing about newly released games, so yeah. The screenshots are especially potentially spoilerific. Having said that, it feels good to be “caught up” with my recent backlog enough that I can actually play new games and be active in the conversations around them. I’ll have to go back to playing specific Japanese games for my dissertation soon, but I’m giving myself until the New Year for that. So, without further ado, I begin with a couple of games that I didn’t finish.

Ghost Recon: Breakpoint

I haven’t played a Ghost Recon game since the GameCube days, but my friend wanted to play this co-op and I liked the idea of getting back to some multiplayer action. The story didn’t quite hook me, and as with the Division games, I wished there were more character customization options at the start, but I did have a fair amount of fun in my time with the game. Sneaking around in my tiger stripe camo, crawling through mud and resting behind a tree stump to line up the perfect shots on two unsuspecting enemies never got old. What did get old was clearing out enemy strongholds. It was fun enough the first few times, but after playing games in the Far Cry and Assassins Creed series’, it felt a little uninspired after a while. The lighting and environmental effects made traversing the map visually stimulating, but when I was playing alone I found exploration less rewarding than it was in other open world games. There were a few times in particular when I’d see something mysterious on the map, spend a fair amount of time carefully making my way to it, only to discover that it was blocked off for a later story mission or something. I didn’t dislike the game, but with so many games to play, I moved on without much regret.

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Borderlands 3

And Borderlands 3 is what I moved on to. I played and liked the first two games in the series, but I wasn’t rushing out to buy the third. I think I got the first two on sale, but I’m generally not much of a looter shooter fan. Having said that, I like playing games like this with friends, so the previously mentioned friend and I played this for a while after giving up on Breakpoint. Having not played the first two games for such a long time, the first thing that struck me was how crisp and vibrant the graphics were. The smooth controls that I remember made a return, so running or driving around from battle to battle was fun enough. The humor was, as expected, hit or miss, but overall it was a fun, lively world. But, as with Breakpoint, I eventually got bored, especially when not playing with my friend, and since we both had other games to move on to, we gave up on completing the story after a while. I can see myself going back to it someday, though, maybe.

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Night Trap: 25th Anniversary Edition

I was only ten years old when Night Trap came out, but my former diehard Nintendo fanboy self didn’t own any Sega system, let alone a Sega system add-on like the Sega CD. I have to admit, though, reading about a game with real video of young women running around in nightgowns was certainly something that ten year old me was, shall we say, curious about. The game’s role in the 1993 senate hearings on violent video games only increased my curiosity, but as you might have guessed by its inclusion in this post, it wasn’t until this year that I would get around to giving it a shot. I picked it up when Limited Run Games released a physical copy for several systems, but I didn’t get around to playing it until this past Halloween.

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And, oh boy, was it not a fun experience. I mean, on one hand, it was very campy and dated and I love things that are really obviously from a specific time period because they’re fascinating time capsules that offer a much more authentic view into the styles and culture of a time than you might see in a modern throwback TV show or movie. On the other hand, it’s a frustrating mess of a game that is impossible to really enjoy in terms of the video content because the core mechanic is not watching the screens on which action is happening, so that you can trap the many, many enemies that are trying to sneak into the house on other screens. For some of the traps you have to spring, you only have a 1-2 second window, and if you miss it, it’s game over.  I had waited so long to play it, though, so after making several attempts on my own, I eventually gave in and used a guide to beat it a few times. I think the core concept of the game is interesting, and if they had spread the story out enough so that you weren’t constantly having to miss narrative progress to trap enemies, it could have been a lot of fun. With the recent revival of the FMV genre, I would very much love to see a remake of this game, set in and satirizing the 90s.

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Alien: Isolation

Speaking of games I played for Halloween, I was very surprised by how much I liked Alien: Isolation. The game is a masterclass in atmosphere. From the persistently mindful use of lighting, to the accurate sound effects, to the appropriately retro futuristic technology, this game truly feels like it’s a part of the same universe as the films (particularly the first few). If I’m ever lucky enough to have the chance to design my own class on adaptations, I would seriously consider pairing the first Alien film with this game.

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I think my only real complaint is that the pacing near the end is a little frustrating. It’s from a British developer, but it does the thing that a lot of Japanese games do, where it keeps leading you to believe that the game is almost over, only to pull the rug out from under you and give you another challenge. In my experience, that move is effective once, maybe twice if you’re careful and one of the challenges is short. But when each challenge stretches the game out longer and longer, it starts to feel frustrating and makes me want the game to just end. This game isn’t as guilty as others (*cough* Death Stranding *cough*), and ultimately it didn’t overshadow the incredible achievements in the rest of the game. One of those achievements is respecting the alien and making it as formidable as it is in the early movies. It is truly tense and terrifying when the alien is nearby. In one area, I knew the alien was crawling around in the vents above me, searching, but I didn’t know hostile humans were also nearby. I sneaked over to a terminal and began stealthily reading an entry, when, well, I captured a video of the encounter:

The way this scene played out was quintessential Alien. Just when you forget about the alien, just when you let yourself get distracted by a strange woman hacking a terminal, hisssssss. Ya dead.

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The Outer Worlds

As a fan of Fallout 3 and 4, I was of course excited that a Fallout-like game was coming from the developers of Fallout: New Vegas and Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (which I loved). And it really, really feels like a Fallout game, down to the retro corporate propaganda posters and artwork. That’s not a bad thing, but it is inescapable. Weirdly, it felt like a kind of mashup of their experience with both BioWare and Bethesda licenses, because while the gameplay and style is certainly Fallout-esque, the party system and planet-hopping are straight from their work on KotOR II. So, in short, I was here for it.

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While the game isn’t as engrossing and immersive as a Fallout game, I enjoyed the more compact, punchy story, and I loved having my own ship and a crew. Parvati was my favorite, so I almost always had her in my party. I did miss a romance system, even if Parvati was off the table. I would have totally made a play for Celia Robbins, if I could convince her that she’s too good for that dumb merchant she was swooning over.

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Okay, ouch, never mind then.

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The game is stylized, so it doesn’t quite have the same realistic sci-fi wow factor that the Mass Effect games did, but I think it gives it a unique personality and will allow it to age more gracefully than the Fallout games tend to. I think they did a nice job of making the planets look unique and interesting, though I wish there were more to explore. The Outer Worlds doesn’t really break any new ground, but it’s a good, fun, safe game.

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Death Stranding

Phew. I just finished Death Stranding a couple of days ago, and I ended up playing it for over 75 hours, so my brain is still a little addled. From Hideo Kojima’s split with Konami, to the bizarre reveal trailer, to the celebrity cameos, this game was hyped to hell, so I did my best to avoid most discussion of it. It was everywhere, though, so I can’t say that I evaded the hype with 100% success, but its launch was (as is becoming normal for AAA titles) beset by a loud seeming-minority of people that absolutely hated it, which clashed with what seemed to be a fairly positive critical response overall. So I went in not knowing what to expect, really, and I was wary about making any judgments about the game until I was a good 20 or so hours in.

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There is a lot I could say about this game’s themes, characters, and messaging, but I’m going to keep that commentary brief (partly because this would be a massive post if I didn’t, and also because I plan on including some of it in my dissertation). So I’ll just say that Kojima is a very ambitious, visionary game director, whose love for Hollywood is apparent in how he tells a story. He tries to rely on style and visuals to tell the story, like, say, Stanley Kubrick did, but he seems to always pull back and use endless exposition as a crutch. The visuals in this game are phenomenal (the Decima engine is amazing), and I appreciate the chances that Kojima is taking with the narrative, but there’s not much denying that it’s sloppy and redundant in places (like the incredibly long and drawn out end sequences that I alluded to in my discussion of Alien: Isolation).

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Okay, having said all that, I still really loved this game. As I said, the visuals are stunning, and more specifically, the geology and various landscapes are amazing. Furthermore, the walking mechanic works really well because the landscape is mapped so well that your feet land where they should land, instead of on invisible planes. This made navigating the map an immersive and visceral experience for me. This was most obvious during my journey to scale the highest mountain in the game. I wrote previously about my experience climbing Death Peak in Chrono Trigger, and even in that 2D game I felt a weird sense of accomplishment at braving the elements and overcoming environmental diversity to reach the top of a snowy mountain. The same can be said here, though there was much more working against me.

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I should also point out that I didn’t have to climb to the top of the mountain. I was in the area, though, and it seemed like a fun challenge. Could I even do it? It was quite steep in places, and snow in the game quickly erodes most equipment that you’re carrying, so I probably couldn’t rely too much on that. Welp, I decided to give it a shot, so I strapped a couple of ladders, climbing anchors, repair spray, and an extra pair of boots on my back, and I set off on what looked like a safe enough route.

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It snowed almost the entire way up, so one by one, my pieces of equipment started decaying and becoming unusable. Sometimes I could climb pretty steep inclines, but this was before I had gloves or level 3 boots, so I spent a lot of time zig-zagging through deep but somewhat level snow. The storm increased in severity, and plodding through the snow began to take a serious toll on my stamina. It dwindled, dwindled, I would rest a little or drink some water, but I had to keep moving to keep from freezing and to protect what remained of my equipment. I slipped a few times, lost some cargo at one point, but I kept picking myself and my gear up and trudging along. Each time I thought the peak above me was the very top, I’d crest it and see that there was another to be won just a short distance away. I made it, finally, as evidenced by the screenshot below, but my stamina was shot, most of my gear was destroyed, and I wasn’t sure I had enough water or equipment to make the descent.

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Lucky for me [/sarcasm], a whiteout hit as soon as I began my descent, which meant I could barely see what was around or below me. I would plant an anchor and drop a rope, only to slide down into nothingness, hoping to find footing. I did, and I made it to the bottom having only faceplanted a couple of times, so when I finally reached a Bridges post I was on the verge of collapsing but filled with a sense of achievement and adventure. It was moments like these that made me love this game. The characters and stories and all that were varying degrees of weird and fun, but this, for me, was a game about adventure and overcoming all kinds of trouble. I really dug it.

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Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

I’ve only just started Fallen Order, but I wanted to leave my thoughts about the opening sequence before they fade or are subsumed by the rest of the game. I think it’s especially noteworthy given how similar but different it is from Death Stranding. Both games are very cinematic, but where Death Stranding ends up not fully trusting its audience to pick up on visual cues, the opening of Fallen Order is rife with them, and they subtly tell a whole story that connects previous events in the Star Wars universe with the game. There is no overt narration or pre-game text that explains the characters or settings, but we get small snips of dialogue or background animations that do that for us, making for a very natural feeling mix of visual and audio storytelling. The game uses a guided camera at specific points to draw attention to the background, and if you hold a second to take it in, you’ll see Republic cruisers, a droid control ship, and lots of Separatist artillery. If you’re familiar with the prequel trilogy of movies or the animated Clone Wars features, the game doesn’t need to say anything: you can deduce that the Clone Wars are over and both the Separatist droids and Republic clones are, like their ships, out of commission. This is confirmed by the appearance of Stormtroopers, placing this somewhere after the execution of Order 66 and (probably) before the events of A New Hope, when all Jedi have reportedly been wiped out. And this is all conveyed without the game saying “hey, just so you know, this game takes place…” Which is really cool, I think.

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Other than that, as I said, I’m not very far in the game, but I can feel myself getting hooked. Wielding a lightsaber feels, looks, and sounds great, I love that I get to travel around on a ship with a crew (callback to The Outer Worlds), and the environments of the only two planets I’ve been on so far are very detailed and Star Wars-y. The Second Sister, who I’m assuming is the main villain, seems super cool. My character feels a little float-y, which I never like as much as precise movement, but I will hopefully get over that if the rest of the combat is solid. I’m also marathon-ing all of the Star Wars movies and TV shows and reading the newly released Star Wars: Resistance Reborn, so I feel like I’m in the midst of another Star Wars Renaissance. I’ll probably post more thoughts on the rest of the game later, but for now I have a prospectus to write. Dang it. May the Force be with me.

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Farewell, Old Friend

Just about five years ago, in November of 2014, a beautiful, custom, pink DualShock 4 was bestowed upon me for my birthday, by my ex. Pink has been my favorite color for most of my adult life. I didn’t care much for it as a kid, but that changed in my teens. There was a period during that time where my friends and I played a ton of multiplayer Mario games for the N64, and because Princess Peach was my chosen character in almost every game, I eventually gained the nickname “Peach.” It didn’t last long, and other than a somewhat amusing anecdote involving my English teacher hearing that he should “call me Peach,” the name faded. The association and my love for the character didn’t, though. As such, a friend gave me a light pink paperclip that reminded her of me, which I clipped on my student ID and wore around school. I liked looking at it, and at some point I realized that the color was so much more pleasant to look at than black or silver, my two favorite colors at the time. Thus began a pink-tinted love affair that resulted in the purchase of pink pens, folders, phones, blankets, Nintendo DSs, headphones, various other items, and, yes, video game controllers.

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This DualShock 4 controller wasn’t the first. Microsoft released a powder pink controller for the Xbox 360, and I snapped it up as soon as I could. It was my primary controller from that point on, and I used it until it, for whatever reason, just stopped working. This controller wasn’t the last, either. Though I rarely use my Xbox One, when I saw that the Xbox Design Lab was having a sale on their custom controllers, I grabbed a pink controller of my own design.

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But this DualShock was special. I have, by far, put more proverbial miles on this controller than any other. I’ve had favorite controllers going back to the red N64 controller I bought alongside Castlevania 64, but I ended up either wearing them out or not quite investing the same amount of time in games as I have with my PS4. I’ve played a ton of games on this console, and spent a ton of time on those games. I got my first platinum trophy within a year of getting this controller. I was never much of a trophy hunter, but when that platinum trophy popped after my fourth playthrough of Until Dawn, I realized I could use achievements to extend the life of games that I didn’t want to stop playing. So, with my beautiful pink controller in hand, I got platinum trophies for 19 games, including massive time-vampires such as Final Fantasy XV, No Man’s Sky, Dragon Quest XI, Persona 4 Golden (after two full runs), and Persona 5 (three full runs). I tilled fields, mined the earth’s depths, and started a family in Stardew Valley. I collected every Riddler trophy and punched every villain face in Arkham Knight and Arkham City. I even got a few Victory Royales in the months I spent playing Fortnite. This time wasn’t wasted. It wasn’t for nothing. I have vivid, warm memories of my time with many of these games, some of which I’ve chronicled right here on this site, and I’ve spent time with my closest friends. Five years of magical memories.

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Day One: The start of a beautiful friendship

During those five years, like former favorite controllers, this one broke down after repeated use. The DualShock joysticks are notorious for the rubber wearing down and tearing off. When it began happening, I was nervous about the idea of cracking it open to try and repair it myself. The only time I’d tried repairing gaming hardware was when my PS2’s disc drive broke and, well, I kind of just broke it worse. But I didn’t want to leave this controller behind. If I didn’t try and fix it, I’d have to stop using it anyway, so I did lots of research, bought the tools, and very, very carefully opened it up and replaced the sticks. It worked, and I ended up having to do the same procedure five more times over the years. I also had to transplant a newer battery from a different controller into this one when it started losing the ability to hold a charge. Like a well maintained classic car, I put a lot of work into extending this controller’s life.

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Maintenance also meant cleaning… whatever this is.
Back
Serial number? We ain’t seen him in ages.

But, as with most things, sometimes you have to know when to say goodbye. One of the controller’s smallest, most delicate parts – the springs inside the triggers – have worn down. The triggers still work, somewhat, but not completely. Neither of them have the full range of context sensitivity that they should, and the right one in particular has to be pulled all the way in for it to work with some games. I could certainly transplant springs from another controller, as I did with the battery, but I think it’s time to move on. We’ve had a great many hours together. Because the company that made it (Colorware) offers a range of colors for the front, back, and buttons, along with different texture options, it’s very likely that this controller is one of a kind. The glossy, pearlescent face is so beautiful, and the matte, soft pink of the back is both gorgeous and offered the perfect grip. It’s so lovely. I can always have another made, of course, and maybe someday I will. But I’ll never have this specific, singular controller again.

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“Uh, it’s just a controller, man,” you might be saying, especially after all of this. And I guess it is. But maybe it’s about more than just knowing when to let go of a beautiful, pink, sentimental controller. The pink ribbons of twilight will fade and night will come. But the morning sky will bring an abundance of color, if we have the patience to see it.

Late Summer/Early Fall Reflections

Between writing a syllabus and assignments for a new class this semester and reading for my dissertation prospectus, I haven’t had much time to blog about what I’ve playing these last couple of months. I want to, but there’s nothing like “writing for fun” to trigger anxiety about the fact that I should be writing my prospectus as we speak. Well, I speak. Well, I write and you read. Well, I don’t have any readers so I just write NEVER MIND JUST SHUT UP JOEY. Ahem. Please excuse me. As I was saying, since I haven’t had much time to write individual blogs about what I’ve been playing, I wanted to write a catch-up blog before my thoughts about these games began to fade. I’m leaving out games that I’ve replayed recently, like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate or Arkham Asylum and Arkham City.

Untitled Goose Game

Wow, this little game really blew up, didn’t it? Chrissy Teigen is playing it, Blink 182 mentioned it at a live show, it’s all over social media — I’m not sure I could have predicted that this would be the next game to breach popular discourse outside of typical gamer threads. But it deserves it, I think, because it executes well on its quirky and cute concept. It’s a pretty short game, but it invites a lot of experimentation and messing around, which could extend playtime. I don’t know why I’m being so clinical here. There were lots of fun and adorable little moments in the game. My favorite was when my objective list told me to “get dressed up in a ribbon.” I saw a ribbon in a woman’s garden, but almost everyone in this game seems to hate me, so how am I supposed to get this cranky woman to put it on me? I mean it’s already on her goose statuohhhhh. Once I saw what I had to do, I had to distract her by dragging her paint brush across the yard, then when she was retrieving it I dragged her goose statue into the neighbor’s yard, and before he could throw it back to her I waddled back to where the statue used to be, crouched in place, and the woman found the ribbon and popped it on my neck. Then, of course, I honked at her and started running around her yard to get away from her and continue my goosely gallivanting.

Untitled Goose Game (2)

Untitled Goose Game (1)

Tetris Effect

These next few games are all VR games I’d been waiting to try with others, so when my friends came to stay with me for the weekend I finally got a chance to try them out. I’d heard so many great things about Tetris Effect, but like many VR games, you kind of have to experience it for yourself. This game was much the same. It’s “just” Tetris. Like, that’s all you need to know to play it. No fancy new mechanics, no weird gimmicks. But the presentation is what makes it such a new and unique and kind of mind-blowing experience. I’ve only tried hallucinogens once so I’m no expert, but I imagine this game is reminiscent of a really wild trip. The visuals and music and texture, if I can say texture, of the levels is crazy and beautiful and, surprisingly, not distracting. I didn’t get many screenshots from my time playing it, but I don’t think it would matter much if I did. My friend watched on the TV as I played, but it wasn’t until he put the VR headset on and tried it himself that he was like “wow.” Combining the hypnotic, rewarding gameplay of Tetris with stimulating, beautiful visuals is a singular experience that I would recommend to anyone who has the PSVR.

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Beat Saber

This is another VR game that I’d heard lots of positive things about, and like Tetris Effect it lived up to its reputation. I was a little skeptical about whether or not it would feel like I was actually holding a lightsaber, because I imagine them to have a little heft to them, but once I was in and slicing away, my brain was convinced that they were real. It’s definitely a lot of fun to slice through the various blocks to the beat of some pretty decent music, but I will say that some levels are confusingly difficult. Different levels have different requirements to beat them, and one of those requirements is getting to a minimum score. There are two levels that I can complete without missing a single block and still not reach the minimum score. Maybe I’m not hitting the blocks perfectly, but I don’t feel like there’s much in the game to teach you how to get better at hitting them. It’s not a huge problem, and the game is still fun, but it was a source of frustration for me and my friends. I can’t wait to get back to playing it, though, even if all of the squatting to duck under oncoming obstacles left me with sore legs the next day.

Beat Saber
Source: https://store.steampowered.com/app/620980/Beat_Saber/

SUPERHOT VR

I had one friend in particular that has been recommending the non-VR version of this game since its release. I wasn’t opposed to it, exactly. The mechanic of only allowing time to move when you did sounded interesting, but I guess it just didn’t catch my fancy enough to get me to check it out. Playing it in VR seemed like a worthy venture, though, and it was surprisingly addictive. The game makes you feel like the ultimate badass by choreographing scenarios that make you feel like you’re really juggling guns, dodging helicopters, and punching out the onslaught of blocky, red bad guys. It was a fairly short game that we beat in just a few hours, but it is definitely a cool VR experience to check out.

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Erica

Erica is an interesting experience, and I hope more companies take chances on projects like this. It’s not perfect. It’s not going to win many awards for its filmic or writing components, but it merges film and interaction well, making each choice seem like it makes perfect sense in the narrative. I played through the game twice but I’m still not sure I have a full grasp of the story. I don’t know if that means the writing is sloppy or that they’re purposely encouraging multiple playthroughs, but it was entertaining enough in both runs.

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Catherine: Full Body

I played the original release of Catherine, on the Xbox 360, and I liked the story but not so much some of the punishing puzzle levels. Most of them were easy enough to beat on the first try, but having to replay a level that might take ten or more minutes again and again always rubs me the wrong way. So the fact that this release made the puzzles easier, added a bunch of new story content, and revamped the visuals, won me out. I played through all three romance options, and I really liked the new character, Rin. I gave a general spoiler warning earlier, but I should again mention that I will be discussing some serious spoilers here.

I could (and might) write a separate blog post about the way the game treats sex/gender, but I can’t talk about this game without at least mentioning it a bit here. When I played the original, one of the things that I liked was that it was attempting to deal with mature, real issues like infidelity, albeit in a goofy, anime-esque way. In this version, they really lean into issues of sex, gender, and societal norms. While they certainly stumble (by not using Rin’s new name in the credits, the main character’s initial response to her revealing her true identity, and more), I also appreciate that they do try to push a positive, accepting message about this new, trans character. They could definitely have done better, but it seems that discourse around games like this is always so polarized – it’s either totally condemning or totally defensive. I think Atlus deserves both here, especially considering the fact that representation matters, and very few games include trans characters period, let alone those that are depicted in a positive light. Again, I agree that Atlus has had some problems with depictions of LGBTQ characters in their previous games, but I feel like this game shows a purposeful attempt to get things right – even if they stumble along the way.

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The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan

I am a huge fan of Until Dawn, and while some of Supermassive Games’ follow-up titles haven’t impressed as much, Man of Medan looked to return to the same great formula they established with Until Dawn. This game was not terrible. I still very much enjoy playing interactive horror games. The graphics are excellent and create a spooky atmosphere, and I liked the story setup. But some of the acting was less than impressive, and because this particular story isn’t an homage to b-level teen horror, as Until Dawn was, the lackluster acting seems less appropriate. My real gripe is with the writing, though. My friend and I played through the game twice but we couldn’t quite find a third act. In our first playthrough (again, spoilers), we got to a part in what seemed to be the middle act, where we had to fix a radio to call for help or to find a part to fix our ship so that we could escape. I missed a context prompt and broke the part to the ship, so as we fled to the upper levels of the ship we figured we were either dead or would have to do something else to escape. But, well, when we got aboveboard there was a helicopter approaching to save us. Uh, okay? So how did we resolve the conflict? And why give us those obstacles when they apparently don’t matter? It all seemed pretty arbitrary and made some or most of our choices feel cheap or inconsequential. It left us feeling disappointed, because we both loved Until Dawn and we want Supermassive to keep refining these experiences, but this particular entry seemed rushed and unfinished, or at the very least unpolished.

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The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan_20190904204753

Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Last, but most certainly not least, I’ve spent an absolute ton of time playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses. 275 hours and two extensive playthroughs of both Black Eagle House routes, to be exact. I could/should probably just give this game its own blog post, because I have a lot to say, but as I mentioned, I have a lot of reading and prospectus writing to do so I’ll just slap it in here at the end, where I can ramble to my little heart’s content and post a bunch of pictures.

I’d never played a Fire Emblem game before Three Houses, but I’ve wanted to for a while. The appeal was the romance mechanics I’d heard so much about. I love me some good dating mechanics. What always scared me away was the strategy aspect. I’ve only played a few strategy games in my life, with mixed results. Some of them were completely engaging and rewarding, and others were overly dense and intimidating for a beginner. But Three Houses was getting lots of hype, and while I am usually pretty inoculated against hype, something about this buzz got me right in the impulse buy. I ran out and got it the day it released. It probably goes without saying, but I’ll be mentioning some major [SPOILERS] ahead.

I played it on Normal and Casual difficulty settings because I was afraid that, if it was as intense as some of the other strategy games I’ve played, I’d lose important characters and have to reload more often than I’d like to, to undo critical mistakes. I will say that I probably could have played it on Hard. The grid-based battles reminded me of the strategy mechanics in Suikoden II, so they were pretty straightforward. Early on, I went into each battle carefully zooming out and surveying the field, planning several steps ahead, adjusting for terrain and enemy types. I mostly employed a strategy of luring enemies into situations that were advantageous to me, so for a while combat was a fairly lengthy affair. But eventually I realized that if I matched our units well enough, I could just one or two-shot most enemies, so I began rushing in and striking fast and hard. Late in the game I very rarely lost characters, and by my second playthrough death was something I almost never thought about.

Fire Emblem Three Houses (1)

As for the story, I completely loved what I experienced of it (I can’t exactly claim any expertise on the Blue Lions or Golden Deer storylines). I can see why someone would play through all four major story paths, too. On my first playthrough, I chose to side with Rhea because she was very kind to me, everyone loved her, and, well, she seemed like she was supposed to be the good guy. It was a difficult decision to make, though, because I chose to join the Black Eagles House because I liked Edelgard. So to have to choose between the two was pretty difficult. The new characters under Edelgard’s command (when she showed up to challenge Rhea in the tomb) seemed so cocky and malevolent, and Edelgard herself did little to explain her sudden and violent actions to me, so my decision to stick with Rhea and the monastery seemed like the “right” choice. From there, Edelgard seems (from your perspective as Rhea’s defender) to be a cold, calculating, stubborn leader, so I never much questioned if I had taken the right path.

But during my second playthrough, I chose Edelgard over Rhea, and doing so revealed a whole new side to Rhea. While Edelgard had no qualms about engaging in large-scale combat in my first playthrough, Rhea callously sacrificed innocent lives in her quest for revenge for your “betrayal.” I began seeing her earlier actions in a different way, driven by a desire for control and power, and not the benevolence that I once believed her to embody. And when it came to light that my character was essentially an experiment, created by Rhea for selfish reasons, I felt strongly that this second playthrough was the actual “right” one. But I never would have known that if I’d just played through the one storyline! The fact that these two stories can stand on their own yet also affect each other so significantly shows how great the writing for this game is on the macro level. On the micro level, too, I was impressed by how every single character had their own voice and linguistic profile. Also, the voice acting was excellent. I was so excited to hear so many Persona voice actors all throughout the game!

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I have to say, I was surprised by how unimpressive the graphics were, though. Unimpressive might be putting it kindly. The characters are stylized, so I suppose I wouldn’t have expected them to be all that sharp and crisp. When I saw that many of the backgrounds were just blurry 2D renders, folded/stretched to give the appearance of a 3D space, however, combined with many of the corner-cutting steps they took (like just superimposing characters in front of existing fishing pole assets to make it look like they were actually fishing), I couldn’t help but wonder if this game was originally intended to be a 3DS game that they decided to upgrade to the Switch. I still loved the game, and the characters look great, but I can’t deny that I kept hoping that the next game looks better.

One thing I think they really nailed was the balance between the three major mechanics: battles, stat management (instruction), and social. I never felt like any of them went on for too long, so I always looked forward to every new event. I thought I was going to be overwhelmed by stat management but they really do a good job of making it simple enough that you can succeed with minimal forethought, but deep enough that you could be super effective if you spent more time planning and going through every character’s progression paths.

Okay, I should wrap this up. Still with me? No? FINE. Be that way. Anyway, I would love to go through every single character and share my thoughts (because boy do I have some), but ain’t nobody got time for that. Instead, I’ll just mention some of my favorites, plus, of course, my romance choices. In my first playthrough I didn’t fully understand how best to recruit people until it was too late, so I only ended up recruiting a few students from other houses. In my second run I got everyone, though my party almost always consisted of all ladies. In part because, well, aesthetics, but the women seemed to generally be my best warriors, too. Bernedetta could be annoying sometimes in conversation, but on the battlefield she was an incredibly effective bow knight for me. I really liked Dorothea’s personality, and she turned out to be a wildly powerful black mage (gremory) as well. Annette and Lysithea were similarly liked and equally as powerful. Having that trio in my second game was so useful against monsters and heavily armored units. They were really awesome. Flayn was funny and nice. I wished I could recruit Hilda. Claude seemed cool. I didn’t necessarily need Shamir, because Bernedetta more than sufficed as my mobile archer, but dang if Shamir isn’t a sexy badass. She ended up being a little too stoic and stony for my tastes, but I really love her design and capabilities.

Fire Emblem Three Houses (6)

Ingrid ended up being a big favorite of mine, especially after recruiting her and getting to know her better in my second run. Plus she was an absolute terror on the battlefield. On my first playthrough I wasn’t able to recruit her, and when I came face-to-face with her in battle she one-shot killed one of my characters. Once she was on my team, I quickly made her a falcon knight, and she brought her fierceness down upon anyone I needed demolished. I liked her backstory, too, and after seeing her fight and getting closer to her character, I eventually decided she would probably be my choice for a romantic partner if I ended up playing through a third time.

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Speaking of romantic partners, let’s get to my two choices. It’s difficult to say if I would have ended up with Edelgard in my first run if I had chosen to side with her over Rhea, but I chose her in my second game, regardless. I mean, her character design is totally eye-catching. She has such sharp, bold features, and she looks great in her emperor or academy uniforms. So, yeah, she’s beautiful, but she was also magnetic and such a commanding presence, especially when I got to hear her reasoning and see her inner turmoil over the decisions she has to make to oppose Rhea and attempt to reunify Fódlan. She’s smart, cunning, and absolute in her determination to do what’s best for her empire. I was more than excited to enter a romantic partnership with her and rule by her side.

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But… well… Petra. Petra came out of nowhere and stole my heart faster than you can say Phantom Thieves. When I first saw her, I was under Edelgard’s spell, so I thought “she’s cute” and moved on. But the more time I spent with her, learning about her backstory as a warrior princess with an entire kingdom’s future resting on her decisions in the coming battles, hearing stories about her homeland, listening to her adorable yet earnest attempts to master a new language, the more I realized I was falling for her. I seemed to gravitate toward strong warriors, and she was my right hand woman on the battlefield in both playthroughs. She was fast, agile, and deadly with a sword, but she eventually mastered some powerful black magic and was a total force to be reckoned with. She was also easily one of the kindest and most compassionate characters. In fact, I think she balanced ferocity and battle-prowess with empathy and humanity like no other character. This balance, along with her incredible skill, her sense of humor, her impressive history, and her unparalleled beauty, is what made her far and away my number one choice for romantic partner. I was so happy to be by her side at the end of my first game, and I even felt myself flush a little when pulling her screenshot for use in this blog. Laugh at me if you will, I can take it. I’ll probably end up repeating much of this when I post the inevitable crush blog about her, because Petra is definitely one of my all-time favorite video game romances. She’s the best.

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Okay, phew. We made it. That was quite a trip. I hope to keep writing throughout my dissertation process, if I can, even if it means posting more academic stuff and less “fun” observations and thoughts. Then you’ll be bored by the length AND the content! But seriously, there are some very big games coming up, so I look forward to playing them and – hopefully – sharing my thoughts. Thanks for reading.

My Gaming Tattoos

I’ve been meaning for a fair while to write a blog about my gaming tattoos, but my problem is that, uh… I can’t stop getting them. So every time I sit down and think “time to write that blog,” I remember that I have a new design in mind for a few months from now. Oh, and one for a few months after that. And I’ll probably get one when… Ultimately, I’m working on a “piecemeal” sleeve, which is basically a sleeve of various tattoos that aren’t necessarily connected (though usually there is a “filler” between them that brings the disparate pieces together). So I still have a few small-medium designs that will fill the gaps on that arm, and then some tiny-small designs to act as filler. I’ll share those at the end, but because I’ve been collecting these for some time, I guess I want to start at the beginning.

[Cue nostalgic 8-bit video game music]

[Cut to a younger Joey, age 16, doodling in a notebook]

[Joey turns to camera, slightly surprised and bemused]

“Oh, hello. I’m Younger Joey. And I thought this was a good idea but now that I’m writing lines for my younger self, I realize how absolutely dumb this is. Let’s go back to normal writing, like a normal person.”

Ahem. I’ve wanted a tattoo or two since I was a teenager. I used to doodle ideas of what I wanted my first tattoo to be, including (as you might imagine of a 90s teen), band logos, a scorpion, my astrological sign (Scorpio, and yes I had a pet scorpion and a silver scorpion ring and many other scorpion-related things, I WAS 16 OKAY), something with Freddy Krueger, video game icons, and more. It wasn’t until I joined the Air Force when I was 20 that I decided to actually go through with it. I was getting a decent-sized, steady paycheck, after all, and there were several tattoo shops of varying quality around Keesler Air Force Base, where I did my technical training. My first tattoo was not gaming related, however. I had a fresh new notebook that I was doodling ideas in, and there were several video game designs (an NES controller, Pac-Man and ghosts, a Tri-Force, and other now-cliché concepts, I WAS 20 OKAY), but it wasn’t until about a year later that I got my second tattoo, a Starman Deluxe from EarthBound.

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Let me pause here and apologize for a few things. First off, I am not photographer, and some of these pictures were taken by me. The non-photographer. I mean, I’m not even, like, a decent Instagram picture-taker. So please excuse the bad lighting, posing, focus, etc. It’s hard to take pictures of your own tattoos, man. Second, some of these pictures are fresh, meaning I took them immediately after the artist finished, so they are puffy, raw, and maybe a little bloody. Having someone scrape a violently vibrating needle across your skin for a couple of hours will do that. Lastly, I must apologize for my skin. I know that some sections of my body look like paper-thin sheets of slightly hairy pig skin stretched over a sack of moles and blemishes, and I’m okay with that. So just overlook it, alright?

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Where were we? Ah, yes. I deliberated for a long time about which video game tattoo would be my first. I spent hours scanning through hundreds of images from some of my favorite games. Because I’d only had one tattoo, and I wasn’t planning on getting all that many more, I felt like this tattoo had to pack a lot of meaning into a relatively small space. I decided on a Starman Deluxe because EarthBound is one of my favorite games of all time, and the art design from that game seemed to me to be a lot more tattoo-friendly than, say, Chrono Trigger, my favorite game of all time. There are many great characters and enemies in EarthBound, but I landed on the Starman Deluxe because, well, it’s a badass robot from space with shoulder spikes. Plus the Starmen (Starmans?) are pretty iconic, and given the number of classic rock references in the game, I have always assumed they were inspired by David Bowie’s song “Starman,” and I love David Bowie. So it all just kind of made sense.

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Then, after six years and four non-gaming tattoos, I got my second game related tattoo – uh, yet another EarthBound tattoo. I know! I know. I love a lot of different games, but after getting the Starman Deluxe I really wanted to get the four main characters from the game, too, so they were always near the top of my list of tattoos-to-get. I like that they all have a distinct look, there are multiple colors going on, and my artist (Brian at Spider Tattooz in Sycamore, IL) actually honored my request to do them in their original pixel form. I don’t think I quite appreciated at the time how difficult that is to do, but since then I’ve had several artists compliment them and reveal that it’s a really tricky thing to pull off. So I am very happy with them, and I think they are holding up nicely (unlike the Starman, which you can see is already starting to fade a bit, sad face emoji).

By this point I’d realized that I probably wanted a few other video game tattoos on that arm, so I began collecting pictures and ideas to make a piecemeal sleeve. I made a folder on my laptop and filled it with characters, logos, symbols, etc. from my favorite games, and after yet another couple of non-gaming related tattoos, I made an appointment to get my next tattoo from my current artist, Erin from Proton Tattoo in DeKalb, IL. I’d looked up her work and really liked a thick-lined Link from The Legend of Zelda that she did, so I felt that she was the right person to do a Princess Peach tattoo, which I’d been looking forward to getting for years. It turned out that her handle is Sweet Peach Parfait, and, as she informed me as we discussed the design, the “Peach” was for Princess Peach herself. Serendipity at its finest. I gave her these three pieces of official artwork and asked her to make a design based on her own personal style.

And here is what she came up with. She went with a bust framed by a heart, and she added a flower because those are kind of her thing.

Princess Peach was my very first favorite video game character. Granted, I hadn’t encountered all that many unique characters by the time I’d played Super Mario Bros. 2, so I hadn’t really even thought of who my favorite characters were, but in that particular game she was a clear winner for me. She wasn’t as fast as the other characters, and maybe you had to try a little harder to pull up vegetables, but I loved that she could hover using her dress. Later, when I fell in love with Mario Kart 64, Peach was again my go-to character. So much so that I became irrevocably tied to her among my close friends, and would then always choose her when playing Mario Party, Mario Tennis, Mario Golf, or almost any of the party-based Nintendo games. I was so happy with Erin’s work on this tattoo that I decided that I would go to her for my next tattoo as well, which was:

Ann, from Persona 5! I gave Erin the pictures above and again asked for her to come up with whatever she thought best, and she went with another bust coming out of a geometric shape. This time she went with an oval, which she filled with a beautiful teal that contrasts so well with the red of Panther’s Phantom Thieves outfit. I couldn’t believe how good it looked when she was done. I think even she was impressed with her own work, because she commented that it looked like she slapped a sticker on my arm. I saw someone on Twitter post a picture of their Ryuji tattoo, so I decided to comment on it with a compliment and a picture of my Ann tattoo, and Erika Harlacher (Ann’s voice actor in the game) actually liked and commented on it! How cool was that?

It was, Dear Reader, exceptionally cool. Insert the cool emoji here. The one with the little sunglasses. Cool. Like Ann, who was my bae in Persona 5, a game with incredible style and a million tattoo-able characters (some of which I plan on getting in the future). Interestingly enough (to exactly one person – me), I got that Ann tattoo exactly a year ago today. And it was at that time that I’d decided I wanted to stick with the theme of video game ladies as the primary components of my sleeve, so the next tattoo I got was Chun-Li, my oldest video game crush and the subject of a previous blog of mine.

Once again, I gave Erin the above images and she produced a breathtaking bust framed by a new geometric shape. This might be my favorite tattoo, in terms of aesthetic. It has the thick black outlines that she loves to do, but the delicate line work on Chun-Li’s eyes, nose, mouth, ribbons, etc. always makes me happy that I chose to get this one on my wrist, where I frequently catch glimpses of it. I love the mix of pink, blue, and yellow, too, though I do have to say that in terms of pain, this was one of the worst spots. It swelled a lot. My wrist looked absolutely pregnant when I unwrapped it later that night. It did not, sadly, produce any little baby street fighters, however.

I got my next two tattoos as a part of the Halloween sale that Proton puts on annually. Among the designs that I’d given Erin for future tattoos was a Bob-omb, from the Mario games. For the sale, she posted a whole sheet of Nintendo designs that she’d drawn up for the occasion, the Bob-omb and a Boo among them. I loved the Boo, so I really wanted to get that, but I also wanted to get an original design she made for the sale, which was the Prince from Katamari Damacy rolling a jack-o-lantern. Because, well, it’s the Prince from Katamari Damacy rolling a fucking jack-o-lantern. She was generous enough to allow me to get both designs, which was awesome. Prior to these, I’d always gotten tattoos that I had some kind of personal connection to, so these were the first I got just because I liked the way they looked. I mean, you could count Boo in with my personal history of Mario games, but that’s not why I got it. And that’s okay with me.

The next two on the list were also done on the same day (as each other, not the previous two), and one of them was the previously mentioned Bob-omb. I gave Erin a simple Bob-omb design and she went all out and added text, a bright explosion, and an old-school comic style. It is eye-catching and because of its central location on my arm, it really pulls everything together visually. That central location is my elbow pit, sometimes called “the ditch.” And let me tell you, it hurt like “the bitch.” That didn’t quite work but just go with it. But seriously, it hurt so. Bad. I got the other tattoo first, on the back of my wrist, and as she was doing it I remember thinking “this isn’t so bad. It hardly hurts. It’s more like a minor annoyance.” When she was tattooing my ditch I remember thinking “I might die and defecate at the same time, holy balls, can I just bite on something, does she have something I can bite on, is that weird, has anyone had a heart attack from getting a tattoo, I think I might have a heart attack and die and defecate, shit.” Or something along those lines. For, like, an hour and a half. It was fun. But worth it! It ended up not healing well, because I unconsciously bent it a little in my sleep on the first night and the scab formed weirdly because of that, but I’m going in for a touch up soon.

The other tattoo I got on that day, at long, long last, was a Chrono Trigger design. As I mentioned before, the art style of the game is such that there aren’t many symbols or icons or designs that would make a unique tattoo, so I wanted to get a character. And, since I was filling this arm with ladies, I went with the villain Flea. “Flea!?” I hear you gasp, mouth agape and fingers gently fanned out on your chest. “Not Marle? Or Lucca? Or Ayla? Or, one of your favorite characters, so much so that you’ve considered naming a future daughter after her, Schala!? I thought I knew you, man.” Well, it does sound like you know me, mysterious and fictional person who I just invented, but I went with Flea for a few reasons. First, I loved her character. She was so flirty and fun and I wished I could recruit her to my team instead of having to kill her. Second, I love her design. In a tall, dark tower filled with bats, skeletons, and three heavy metal edgelords (Magus, Slash, and Ozzie), she’s out here in white and pink, with a high, perky ponytail. Third, she has one of the best lines in the game. When Frog tries to out her as a man, despite her presenting and identifying as a woman, she says (in the SNES translation), “Male, female, what’s the difference? Power is beautiful, and I’ve got the power!” I also think the issue of her gender is interesting and perhaps historic, but that’s the subject of a future blog.

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This brings us to my latest video game tattoo, one that, as a huge Legend of Zelda fan, Erin was pretty excited to do: Princess Zelda. Like Chun-Li, I wrote a blog about my love for the character, and also like Chun-Li, she is now my favorite tattoo. It’s difficult to choose between them. They share a level of grace and smooth detail, and I am honored to have them on my body forever. This was the largest of the pieces that Erin did, and it’s in a sensitive spot, right on the inside/back of my bicep. The colors are so bright and crisp, the lines are elegant, and she added one of those flowers that she loves – this time, a silent princess flower, which is obviously so perfect. I completely love it. Now I do that obnoxious thing where someone flexes their bicep and kisses it, but I’m just doing it to give Zelda a little smooch. I’m just kidding, I don’t do that. Because I just thought of it. So now I will probably start doing it. Forever.

People get tattoos for all kinds of reasons. For some, they are showpieces – reflections of their personalities through art. I won’t deny that I’m not super flattered when someone compliments my tattoos, but I mostly get them for myself. They are a celebration of the things that I love. I like looking at them, even now. I am planning on going in for another one or two in a couple of weeks, and I have several more planned. I was going to write about those future tattoos now, but this is already woefully long, and I like the idea of posting an update blog in a few years, when the sleeve is totally done. Until then, thanks for reading, Dear Fictional Reader, who I am fantasizing made it all the way to the end of this blog.

 

 

Video Game Crushes: Momiji

In my discussion of Dead or Alive Xtreme 3: Fortune, I called Momiji a new video game crush, and having recently played the newly released Dead or Alive Xtreme 3: Scarlet, I figured now would be as good a time as any to write an official entry about her. Momiji is not an original Dead or Alive character, but the team behind the DoA games – Team Ninja – also made the Ninja Gaiden games, where Momiji originated from. She is the apprentice to that series’ protagonist, Ryu Hayabusa, so her ability to kick serious ass should be apparent.

DEAD OR ALIVE Xtreme 3 Fortune

I haven’t played any of the newer Ninja Gaiden games, though, so my only video game experience with Momiji is in the DoA volleyball games. I realize that saying I have a crush on a character from a series known for scantily clad, heavy-chested, anime-esque girls probably sounds a little skeezy, but I’m not normally into the “big tiddy anime girl” archetype. Does Momiji have an incredible body? Yes. But what made her stand out was her attitude and personality. Most of the women in these games come from fighting games, so they are hyper-competitive and, at times, harsh in their criticism of teammates. There were certain women, like Nyotengu, who would openly berate you for missing a shot, even when they themselves had made several mistakes. Momiji, on the other hand, was kind, supportive, and sweet as a partner. I was so conditioned by the other players to expect some snarky or snide comment when I missed a block or dove for a ball too late, so when I first played with Momiji and she had nothing but encouraging comments for me, I was taken aback. In a way, she reminds me of Chun-Li: strong, skilled, dedicated to her training, but somehow still sweet, carefree, and capable of having fun.

Momiiji_DS
Original Character Design — source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Momiji_(Ninja_Gaiden)

Given the similarities between Momiji, Chun-Li, and the next character I plan on writing about (my special lady from Fire Emblem: Three Houses), I’m starting to wonder if I have a type. This “crush” series might prove enlightening in that way, so maybe after a certain number of entries I’ll write a summary of what my choices say about me. Or maybe that’s too personal, not game-centric enough. For now, I’ll just conclude by saying that Momiji, my shrine maiden ninja, with her elegant high ponytail and twinkling hazel eyes, has a part of my pixelized heart.

DEAD OR ALIVE Xtreme 3 Fortune

Video Games Shouldn’t Have to be Fun

I attended my first Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCCs) this past April. As the largest conference in a crowded field, it is a pretty big event. It’s basically the E3 of composition conferences. Part of what makes it so big is that there is a lot of overlap with other fields, like rhetoric and my area of interest, game studies. So I was very excited to attend a panel called “Performing Games/Performing Composition: Playing, Imagining, and Creating Embodied Rhetorics in the Writing Classroom,” one of the few video game-centric panels at the conference. The panel itself was a mixed bag, but there was one moment that really struck a chord with me. During the Q&A portion, one attendee framed their question with “Video games are supposed to be fun…” And, after furrowing my brow and biting my tongue, I tweeted:

CCCC tweet

It’s not exactly a new sentiment, and I’ve ranted about it with friends before, but I guess the reason that it bothered me was its source: a video game scholar. If a person who never plays games is under the illusion that video games are supposed to be fun, that’s one thing; but when someone who (I assume, to be fair) studies the medium seriously and academically says it, it tells me that the problem with society not taking video games seriously as art might not be constrained to non-gamers.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, as I cracked open issue 315 of Game Informer magazine. In his editorial about the upcoming handheld system Playdate, editor-in-chief Andy McNamara says “Games are supposed to be nonsense. Games are supposed to be fun.” Then, on last week’s What’s Good Games podcast, episode 116, host Andrea Rene says “games are supposed to be fun,” in discussing the controversies surrounding the upcoming Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s violence and realism.

I don’t know that either Andy or Andrea would actually argue that all video games are supposed to be fun, so I’m not about to read too deeply into their individual statements, but I couldn’t help but be struck again by how common this notion is. It’s not just non-gamers that seem to believe it – it’s professionals that people trust to have expert insight or an educated opinion. Again, I’m not slamming any of these people individually, but I think the fact that it’s not an uncommon refrain, even from prominent proponents of the medium, means something is wrong with how we talk about it.

I’ve taken several graduate courses that covered the history of the film industry, and in each class I found myself noting how similar the film and video game industries are. They are both industrial, collaborative art forms, there was an element of spectacle to them early on, and neither was widely considered a serious art form for decades. With film, it wasn’t until André Bazin and others began writing about movies in a serious way in the 1950s and 60s that critics and scholars began studying movies as texts, with authorship, meaning, and relevant cultural markers. Even western movies, once thought of as cheap, shallow entertainment made for kids, received serious study, elevating the genre’s status in the process.

I don’t think video games have reached that point yet. Popular film, in its first few decades, was “supposed to be fun.” It was meant to captivate and astound, to entertain and bewilder. Now, after years of both refinement of the form and criticism of it, very few people would argue that film is not a serious art form, and (I would wager) few people would claim that movies “are supposed to be fun.” A Clockwork Orange isn’t “fun.” Brokeback Mountain isn’t “fun.” Schindler’s List isn’t “fun.” Movies aren’t “supposed to be fun,” and we’re okay with that. We don’t expect them to be. So when will we become okay with that for games?

The reason this matters is not because I love video games and want to feel better about playing and studying them. There is a certain guilt in studying something that so many people view as a juvenile waste of time, sure. But in the last few weeks we’ve seen, yet again, news commentators and armchair social activists turn their attention toward violent video games and their (mostly fabricated/exaggerated) influence on people. It’s been a long time since we as a society have allowed the same kind of allegations to be lobbied at other art forms. But for many, video games are still meant for kids and teenagers, and when we casually claim that “video games are supposed to be fun,” we don’t exactly shift their reputation away from that and toward being taken seriously. Gamers want games to be called art and want them protected as such, but they don’t want them to “be political,” which art inherently is. It’s those same kinds of gamers that would hear a prominent games scholar or personality claim that “games are supposed to be fun” and feel vindicated for their belief. After all, “fun” games don’t have politics, right?

I might be making a mountain of a mole hill, but words have power, and if serious game scholars, critics, and commentators choose their words loosely, video games will continue to be considered an immature, unevolved art form, and game developers (both AAA and indie) will feel less inclined to use games to explore all aspects of the human experience, as other art forms do – and, more immediately, politicians and exploitative media outlets will continue to get away with making baseless claims about a diverse art form with which they have very little experience.

 

Gone Home (in the Classroom)

Yesterday was my last day teaching an English course for high school students, part of a college prep program, and I wanted to write a blog about my experience using Gone Home as a text in the classroom. This is mostly just a collection of thoughts, so there’s not too much in the way of organization or a driving thesis. This is my second year teaching this course, and given that it’s only a five week program, I only have the students write two five paragraph essays. The first is meant to give them experience tailoring a message to a specific audience, so I share some information about my likes and dislikes and have them write a review of something they think I would like. The second is an analysis paper, where they analyze a text and present a thesis about any number of things (theme, genre, tone, narrative, social issues, etc.). Last summer we played the 1992 version of The Oregon Trail and they discussed who they thought the game was meant for and why it was or wasn’t effective as an educational tool.

This year, I really wanted to use Papers, Please with them, because it fits my parameters for a good game to play in the classroom: it’s easy to control, you can either finish or get a good sense of it in four or less hours, I can get it on PC or Switch (much easier to lug around), and it lacks graphic violence/sexuality. I also like the games I use to have some kind of relatively contemporary social relevance so that students have a point of reference and can tie the two together if they want. Papers, Please worked very well in all regards, but my boss asked me to submit some info on the game to her, and she wasn’t keen on the idea of students playing a game about immigration at this time, mainly because she feared parental reaction. So it was back to the drawing board. After considering my options, I presented both Gone Home and Emily is Away to the four classes I taught, and they unanimously voted for Gone Home. I would have been happy with either choice, but what I liked about the idea of using Gone Home with high schoolers was that, because it’s a narrative adventure game where the player is in control of triggering story elements at their own pace, we could talk about video games as a storytelling platform and compare it to other mediums, like film and fiction writing.

Library

Of course I was still nervous about whether or not they would be into it, even though they voted for it. I had a bad dream the night before we started playing, where none of them cared and I had to keep prompting them to go to a new room and search for clues. So I was very excited when the students in my first class rolled their chairs up to the projector screen and eagerly began instructing the player with the controller where to look and what to investigate (they played the Switch version). All four classes played, and we played for two class sessions, which were two hours each (so, 4 hours). I asked for volunteers to handle the controls, and when there were multiple volunteers they handed the controller over after a set amount of time. The rest of the class openly discussed what should be done, and, as mentioned, told the player where to look, what to read, etc. I’ll be discussing story spoilers, if that matters to you.

Class

One thing I found interesting is that, of the four classes, three of them immediately went to the left when entering the house — as did I, and as did my friend who’s played it. We’d talked as a class a few weeks ago about games using the environment (geography, floor plans, visual cues that are not prompted, etc.) to communicate with the player unwittingly, so after they played I shared with them the fact that 5/6 players had gone to the left without prompting and asked them why they thought that was. They picked up on the fact that the door to the bathroom just to the left was cracked, creating a sense of intrigue and making them think that they could investigate it, whereas to the right was a closed door and a hall that was slightly darker than the one on the left. The game does this elsewhere, so I think this might be something to keep in mind when I do this again. I only interrupted their gameplay once this time around, but maybe next time I could stop them shortly after entering the house specifically to talk about that decision and what the game designers had to do to sneakily urge people to go the direction they wanted them to. You’re meant to start on the left, so (besides locking doors, which they do), how can developers “compose” their level to convince players to go where they want “on their own”? This might prime them to note other places that it happens in the game.

Basement

Three of the classes were really into the game, but the fourth was less so. It was a small class, only seven students, and a couple of them were invested, but the others sort of drifted in and out of being focused. They were a bit of a talkative class that sometimes had trouble focusing in general, so I wasn’t too surprised. They were the class that went to the right when entering the house, and they weren’t sure why they chose to. They were also the only class to miss Terry’s adult magazine in the library, because they weren’t totally focused or investigating extensively. They missed quite a number of artifacts, actually, so when they found the attic key and went directly up there, they were somewhat confused and disappointed by what they found.

Attic Lights 3

Speaking of Terry’s magazine, I found it very hard to keep from laughing when the students found it, because although it’s not at all explicit, it is very apparent what it is, so with every class that found it, I would catch some students whipping their head around to look at me, like they were caught with something or like I was going to yell at them to drop it. And then one student kept trying to pick up the books around it but kept accidentally picking up the magazine, which made everyone joke about how they really must want to take it with them. It was a fun moment.

Oh Dad

The classes that were into it really dug around for clues, and I was impressed that they picked up on the probability that Oscar may have sexually abused Terry. That was something I only vaguely suspected on my first playthrough of the game, but they practiced some great deductive reasoning and collective analysis and were convinced of it, so much so that several of them wrote about it in their papers.

 

Basement 3Basement 2

Only a few students from any of the classes suspected that Sam and Katie’s mom may have been having an affair, and that their parents were using couples counseling to try and save their marriage. They were also less than phased by the queerness of the relationship between Sam and Lonnie. They expressed no shock when listening to the first recording that really seems to solidify the feelings between them (the sleepover, where Lonnie tells Sam that she “really likes” her, and Sam hopes that she “meant what I think she did”).

Heart

The only time I stopped my students was just before they went into the attic. Just as they reached the door, I asked them to hold on, and I asked them what they expected to find up there. When I played, I avoided the attic at all cost, even when I’d found the key. Through the notes, context clues, and journal entries, I had the impression that Sam was in love with Lonnie, who was leaving for the Army. Sam was also ostracized at school for her queerness, her parents called it “just a phase” and said that she was “confused,” and her big sister (me, the player) was far away. So I had the grim sense that she might have committed suicide and that I had been hearing her suicide note narrated throughout the game. This was not at all helped by the fact that the attic door was awash in the red lights strung around it, giving it an eerie, dangerous air. Unfortunately, playing on a classroom projector washed out some of the colors, including the red attic door lights. Still, some of my student’s first responses to my question were “a body.” “Whose body?” I asked. Some of them said Oscar, some said a person that Oscar had killed, some of them did say that it might be Sam’s body, some said that it might be the parents, some just shrugged.

Attic Lights

When they went into the attic and got the ending messages, most of them were shocked – but not like I’d expected them to be. When the first class finished and the credits started rolling, one student literally said “Wait, that’s it? So the daughter was a lesbian and she ran away with her girlfriend? I thought there was going to be something scary.” They seemed slightly disappointed, but when we started discussing it they came alive again. I asked them why they thought it was going to be something scary, and they started listing off hints left throughout the game. I said that they didn’t seem to think that the queer relationship was all that surprising, to which they said something to the effect of “well, yeah, that’s normal.” I asked them when the game took place. One student said “ohhhhhh. 1995.” I asked them why the game was set in 1995 and not 2019. They immediately recalled environmental clues, like the “don’t ask, don’t tell” reference, and the ‘zines that Lonnie put out. They didn’t make the connection that Sam probably didn’t have the Internet at the time, either, so she would have much less connection to other queer folk (and I didn’t think to bring it up), meaning that she would feel far more isolated than a normal teen going through a similar situation in 2019. So I asked them if the story could take place today, and they said maybe but that it probably wouldn’t have the same ending. Some students wrote their papers about this — the importance of time, setting, and location on the meaning of the story.

I also asked them how they felt about the horror elements of the game, because some students were using words like “trick” to describe how the game “felt” like a horror game but ended up being more akin to a family drama, or even a teen romance story. They said they liked the horror elements, which I believe, because any time they came to the top of a set of dark, shadowy stairs, or turned a corner to see a curtain that was vaguely shaped like a person, there was hushed tension and sometimes they verbalized their fear (and one student kept covering her eyes). One student briefly mentioned in their paper that the horror elements made the tragic aspects of Sam’s story feel slightly more horrific or scary, and although I wish she’d gone deeper with that thought, I was very happy to see it regardless. Several students did talk about the eerie atmosphere in smart ways, like talking about how it’s Katie’s first time in this house, too, so she would be as creeped out as we were.

 

Stairs

I’m having a little trouble remembering all of the papers that students wrote, because I had to grade fifty papers over the course of two days and I’ve gotten very little sleep this week, but I was generally very impressed with their responses. They were, in some ways, more detailed and textual-evidence rich than the analysis papers that my college students write. I suspect that it might be because I expect my college students to play and analyze the texts on their own time, but my high school students played it collaboratively and were discussing themes and symbols and narrative beats as they went, building off of each other’s ideas and observations. I normally shy away from group work in my college classes, but after this experience I think I want to try this kind of whole-class collaborative analysis with my first-year rhetoric and composition students. It only took my high school students three(ish) hours to beat this game, on average, so I feel like a two week sequence, where we play the game one week, then discuss and write about it a second would be a good practice exercise. Then I could have them choose another game to analyze on their own.

So, in the end, this was a great experience. I asked some students what they honestly felt about it afterward, and they all said that they loved it, and I had a really good time watching them play. I’m also happy about it as a text, because they were heavily invested in unraveling the narrative on their own, plus their group analysis resulted in some very insightful assessments. I can’t wait to use it again.

 

 

Dragon Quest XI Performs its Best Puff-Puff: Joey has an Enormous Grin on His Face

Dragon Quest VIII is high on my list of favorite games of all time. I bought it on a whim while on vacation, and I spent two solid weeks playing it for hours and hours. I hunted down and crafted all the best gear, I beat all of the post-game quests, and I took down the most difficult optional bosses. It was the kind of game that made me want more, even if it was just merchandise, so I ran out while I was still playing it to buy the official strategy guide and this beautiful and completely ridiculous controller:

DQ Controller

That was almost fifteen years ago. Since then, I have been desperate for a new console DQ game. I’ve played DQ IV, VII, and IX on the DS/3DS, and I bought but haven’t yet played V.  These portable versions of the DQ experience are excellent. They vary slightly in mechanics, but they all capture their own version of the classic and magical DQ formula. But I have always preferred my RPGs on console. It would be easy to say that it’s because the graphics are often better, allowing for more fully realized and visually stimulating worlds, but I think it goes beyond that, in a way. For some reason, I forget about portable games more easily. Sometimes I even have trouble remembering which portable DQ game was which. I still loved them, but there was something missing, and only a new, full console entry would satisfy that craving I had.

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And Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age did indeed satisfy that craving. It scratched that itch. Satiated that hunger.  It was big, beautiful, familiar and fresh.  This isn’t a formal review, but I want to get some of my thoughts down, so there will be some spoilers. First, I want to say that, as with DQ VIII, I was consistently impressed with the graphics. Both games are obviously highly stylized, with VIII using the then-fairly-new cel shading approach. That was a good choice, as it allowed Square Enix to create what looked like an anime or a comic book in a 3D space, which was charming and surprisingly immersive. The graphics in DQ XI are more refined and advanced, of course, but they are similarly successful in using crisp black outlines to make the game look like a really good cartoon realized in 3D. They used the Unreal Engine, which I guess explains some of the realistic lighting and water effects, which adds an interesting element and makes the world feel a bit richer and more real. Technical stuff aside, the art style, colors, shadows, enemy animations, environments and more were gorgeous and I found myself in awe of one scene or another all the way to the 200 hour point, which is when I stopped playing.

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There have been some complaints about the soundtrack, since the orchestral versions of many tracks that were already recorded were not used. I can understand and agree with this to some extent, but contributors to two different popular podcasts used words like “atrocious” and “terrible” and “horrible” to describe the existing digital recordings, which I think is ridiculously overstated and hyperbolic. They aren’t as good as the orchestral versions used in DQ VIII, true, and maybe the composer is a raging, closed-minded asshole, but the tracks themselves are as solid and classic as they always have been. It seems odd to retroactively evaluate them because they aren’t the better versions.

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I had my doubts about the cast going into the game. Though I successfully avoided most discussion of the game, I had heard from one person that this was the best cast in the series. Being so fond of the cast from VIII, of course, I was unsure how anyone could top them. And looking at the designs of these new characters did little to alleviate that concern. But, once again, I was taught the valuable lesson that you have to experience something fully in order to appreciate it, for better or worse. In this case, it was for better. Between each character’s backstory and their excellent voice acting, I quickly fell in love with this cast. They may look like fairly typical anime types on paper, but the game’s writing and performances elevate them, as is the case with many an admirable anime or video game. I’ll talk more about some of the characters later, but whether it was the lustful old nobleman, the stoic and loyal-to-a-fault knight, or the sassy little witch, I adored my friends and travel companions.

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In a blog post I wrote for 1UP.com ages ago, one of the things I talked about was how fun the combat was in DQ VIII, despite its old-school design and the usually-annoying random battles. Well, even though I was okay with random battles in VIII, they got rid of them in XI while maintaining the straightforward yet still strategic turn-based combat, which just means that it was that much more rewarding. I found myself actively seeking out new enemies to fight, just to see how they looked and fought on the combat screen. I also liked that you could see your characters, and though I didn’t use it, the option to move around the combat field (or revert to classic, first-person mode) was also nice. And the fact that you could team up with teammates to do combined attacks was pretty cool, and reminded me of a certain other game that pioneered these kinds of attacks in RPGs: Chrono Trigger.

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M-Magus’ castle? No, but…

It’s no surprise that these games share design elements. It’s in their DNA. Chrono Trigger was the product of a collaboration between some key designers of the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games, including artist Akira Toriyama and writer/designer Yuji Hori, who created the DQ series. So I’ve seen some familiar strands in all of the DQ games that I’ve played, but this game was by far the most Chrono Trigger-esque of them all. Some of what they shared: Silent protagonist. Character who sacrifices their life to save their friends, only to be saved by breaking a time egg/sphere and travelling back in time. The aforementioned double/triple(/quadruple, now) techs. The need to upgrade your air “ship” to break through the final enemy’s outer layer/shield. Floating islands inhabited by ancient beings. A monarch who is corrupted by the final boss. The main character being thrown in jail (by a different corrupt monarch in CT), only to escape (I should note that you fight a dragon tank to escape in Chrono Trigger and there is a dragon in the caverns beneath the prison in DQ XI that chases you as you escape). The daughter of the corrupted monarch is a tom-boyish princess who shuns the normal trappings of royalty, and in both cases there is a scene where they share a moment of understanding and open up to their father, who returns the sentiment. The main character is fatherless. There’s a scene in a dark wizard’s castle where a doppelganger of a familiar character asks you to die for them. There is a mythical sword that you need special, ancient material to transform into a weapon that can pierce a major boss’ defense. And aside from the standard design elements that you’d expect from Toriyama (spiked hair, earrings everywhere, etc.), there are a few specific artifacts that seemed far more Chrono than the other elements. Namely, the places out of time in the two games:

Chrono-Trigger-End-of-Time
The End of Time, a stone island in a sea of dark fog (source: http://www.onrpg.com/news/editorial/retro-review-chrono-trigger/)
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The Realm Between Worlds, a stone island in a sea of dark fog

And the final boss in both games begins in what looks to be a space suit, and has a right arm/pod and left arm/pod that you have to destroy (and that he can revive).

Chrono Trigger Lavos1
Lavos, inner core: large creature with an exosuit and arms that you have to attack separately in order to destroy the body
Chrono Trigger Lavos
Lavos, final form: creature with what looks like a space helmet, with two pods that you have to attack separately in order to destroy the body
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Calasmos: large creature with an exosuit and space helmet, with arms that you have to attack separately in order to destroy the body

And I’m probably missing/forgetting a bunch of other parallels. Look, I’m not saying this is so close in design as to be a near perfect DNA match, but there are enough similarities that I found myself wishing Square Enix would assign this team to whatever future Chrono Trigger project they deem worthy of development. They won’t, because the DQ series is still huge in Japan and I doubt they’d even divert a notable portion of the team to something as risky as a new Chrono game, especially given that the most recent entry in that series came out twenty years ago. But, still. It was enough to stir up pleasant memories, and enough to make a fella hopeful.

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One last similarity between the two games, and one that relates to another topic I want to discuss, is the female characters. While there are valid criticisms about gender representation in both games, they also both have lots of interesting, varied, and strong female characters. And because I’ve been spoiled by the romance mechanics of series like Mass Effect and Persona, I couldn’t help but find myself wondering who I would romance if I had the chance. I must not have been the only one, either, because Square Enix is adding the ability to marry characters other than Gemma (or live with, if same-sex, which is disappointing but not unexpected) to the upcoming Nintendo Switch version of the game. With that said, I will now spend an unreasonable, borderline creepy, amount of time going through some of the ladies I would date, if possible, in the Switch version of the game.

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Krystalinda, the feisty ice witch of Sniflheim, is as good a place to start as any. I mean, she’s a feisty ice witch. That descriptor alone would make her a nominee for romance in an RPG that gave me the choice.  She’s powerful, smart, flirty, and she seems to have a deep and interesting backstory that the game barely touches. She has crazy, cute hair, she’s curvy and sexy, and she’s a reformed bad girl but current badass. I guess there’s a chance she might freeze me or trap me in a book forever or something, but I think I might be willing to take that chance. Feisty. Ice. Witch.

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Frysabel is Krystalinda’s current BFF. She is also queen of Sniflheim, and as queen she is graceful, thoughtful, and willing to make hard choices, like forgiving Krystalinda for attacking her queendom despite her people’s reluctance to trust the (feisty ice) witch. She is also impossibly cute. I have a bit of a thing for glasses, so maybe that’s it, but I couldn’t stop myself from visiting her court every now and then just to see her, with the hopes that I might be able to help her once again and see her warm smile.

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I’m going to pretend she was preparing to hug me DON’T JUDGE ME OKAY I’M LONELY

You know what else I might have a thing for? Queens. Because I was also head over heels – head over tails? – for Marina, the queen of the mermaids of Nautica. I mean… come on! It’s almost unfair. She’s the queen. Of the mermaids. She has such a presence. Her people love her, she is firm and decisive, she’s powerful and wise, she looks strong as hell, and she thinks I’m cute even as a fish. If this game did have a romance mechanic, I would feel so torn and weirdly guilty for not choosing her. There’s a point in the game where it seems like it’s hinting that she might not come back from her mission to protect her queendom, and I actually felt myself starting to get misty-eyed. Yep. I know. We don’t have to say it. Let’s move on.

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And while we’re revealing patterns, maybe I also have a thing for mermaids, because one of my favorite quests in the game centers around Michelle, a pink-haired, love-struck mermaid. Like the other mermaids, she spoke in rhyme, and she did so with an adorable accent. And pink is my favorite color, so she is extra visually appealing to me. Her tale is tragic, but I can’t help but admire how absolutely unshakable is her dedication to Kai, the sailor she saved. Because of that dedication, I doubt she’d be a possible dating choice, even if the game allowed it, but she would totally be on my list otherwise.

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Grand Master Pang is the head of Angri-La, training grounds of the most disciplined and skilled martial artists in the world. And who trained and disciplined them? That’s right. Grand Master Pang, the baddest of asses. Nothing seems to phase her, even death, and she is a master of all of the moves that even the legendary Luminary has yet to learn. She’s strong but never seems to break a sweat, she is gorgeous, witty, and supremely wise. In fact, she might be the most intimidating of any character in the game to romance, if she were ever even an option. But would that stop me from trying? No. Even if it meant a few whacks from the discipline stick. Heck, maybe because it meant a few whacks from the discipline stick, ho ho, ha ha, okay moving on.

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Miko. The hottie from Hotto. She is yet another badass warrior, though I wish they’d done more to actually show that side of her. We do see her being a firm and commanding leader of her village, and making an incredibly tough decision, but we only hear of the ferocious battles from her past. We do see her as a mother willing to sacrifice everything, including her life, for the chance to save her son, though, and I took the fiery heat beneath Hotto to be a metaphor for Miko’s passion, so she has plenty to offer as a romantic partner. Plus, again: hottie.

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So far the list has been in no particular order, but these last two are in categories of their own because they are party members, so I spent a lot of time with them and learned much more about their personalities and histories. At first glance, I wouldn’t have expected to be into Serena. Her beauty isn’t as explosive or apparent as the other women I’ve mentioned. She comes off as fairly timid, soft-spoken, pretty, and… safe? But I really loved her backstory, and I especially dug her metamorphosis after Veronica’s funeral. She doesn’t maintain the attitude, powers, or look once you go back in time, but I understood that transformation to mean that she had those underlying traits within her.  Even with those aside, she is selfless, compassionate, sweet, charming, and often surprisingly funny. If I had to make a split decision about who I was going to date, I might have chosen her in the scene where she cuts her hair short. She went from vulnerable and defeated, to determined and resolute. And that accent. *swoon*

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But, ultimately, who would I probably end up pursuing at all cost? Who would I peek at a guide or an FAQ to make sure I wasn’t messing up my chances with? The answer, of course, is Jade, but I never would have expected it, myself. With her huge boobs and long ponytail, she seemed in danger of being a stereotypical sexpot character. At least that’s what I thought when looking at the game art, before playing the game. But her introduction in the game, as a seriously kickass martial artist who takes no shit and has a kind of jaded mystery about her, made me rethink my assumptions in short order. She was almost always the first to attack the most powerful foes. When Hendrik showed up and tried to cut me down, she leapt into action, literally, relieving him of his horse and riding off with me on the back. When Jasper arrived at the Tree of Life, she again jump-kicked right at him with no fear. She always had my back no matter what, she is brave, fierce, and intelligent, and she can even transform into a dark and somewhat more risqué, sexier version of herself. She was my most powerful ally, too, so she never left my side in battle. So, yeah. If I ever find another 200 hours to sink into the Switch version, which I am definitely buying, my first choice for a romantic partner will be the supremely divine Jade.

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Okay, phew. I’m all tuckered out, like I just finished a lengthy Puff Puff session. I have many more thoughts about the game, like why not just say that Sylvando is gay? Why hide it under the subtext of a carnival? What is this, the 1960s? And yes, I know Japan is behind the times a bit when it comes to LGBTQ representation, but this could have been a huge stride forward for them. He’s a great character and I think they did a fairly decent job making him well-rounded and deep, but don’t just bury his sexuality in a vague journal entry in his father’s house.  They could have done it in one line. But that is one of my very few minor complaints about the game. As I did with VIII, I became obsessed with Dragon Quest XI. I hunted down and crafted all the best gear, I beat all of the post-game quests, and I took down the most difficult optional bosses. And, because of the miracle of modern console gaming, this time I got a platinum trophy for my trouble. But it wasn’t trouble. Every single minute of it was fun, and I seriously, seriously, seriously hope we don’t have to wait fifteen years for a console sequel. If Square Enix doesn’t hear my prayers and have this team work on a new Chrono game, at least let them iterate on the excellence of this game, as it itself is an iteration on all of the best parts of the games that came before it. VIII, for me, has the benefit of fuzzy, warm, magical nostalgia, but ultimately I think XI is a better game in almost every way. But I love them both. A whole heck of a lot.

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