Gaming Memories: One, Two, Freddy’s Coming for Me

Drive-in movie theaters were not completely extinct by 1984, but they were scarce. Like any cliché 80s family unit, mine would occasionally pile in our station wagon and drive an hour from our home in Chicago to watch newly released movies on the big screen from our backseat. The original A Nightmare on Elm Street was released on my second birthday, and according to my mom it was the second movie in a double feature that we went to see in November of that year. The first, of course, was a family film, so after it had ended, most of the cars, ours included, began lining up at the exit while the second movie started. The way my mom tells it, the line of cars waiting to exit creeped forward until the scene where Freddy Krueger drags Nancy’s friend Tina up to the ceiling of her bedroom, then cars began to peel away and drive back to spaces to watch the rest of the movie. Again, ours included.

ANightmareonElmStreetSmall
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

I was only two and remember very little from that night, but I did end up falling in love with the series, and my family rented each new entry as it came out on VHS. I had an odd relationship with Freddy Kruger, though. Half of me loved watching him on screen. He was frightening in a way that other horror villains were not, and of course as a kid I appreciated his quickness with a joke. But I was also genuinely terrified of him. I’d watched other horror movies as a kid, but killers like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers had specific domains that they stuck to, or particular people they went after. Why would they come all the way to Chicago to kill a little kid? But Freddy could infiltrate dreams, and he was originally a child killer, meaning I would have been a prime target. So of course I had many, many nightmares about him, some of which I can still remember clearly today.

I was seven when A Nightmare on Elm Street was released for the NES in October of 1990, but I might have been eight by the time I rented it from Blockbuster. The game was developed by, of all companies, Rare. Yes, Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie – that Rare. It’s not a direct adaptation of any of the movies, but I didn’t know that when I rented it. I was just excited to play a game that might give me the experience of running from or fighting or maybe even playing as Freddy Krueger. Excited and, well, nervous.

NOESad
Ad – A Nightmare on Elm Street (NES)

The first time I sat down to play, it was a pretty standard action-platforming experience. I died several times trying to get the hang of the controls, started learning how the different enemies tried to kill me, that kind of thing. Your character is awake when you start the game, and it’s not until you fall asleep, when your sleep meter runs out, that you have the chance to run into Freddy. So it was a while before I fell asleep in the game, but when I heard the 8-bit version of “One, Two, Freddy’s Coming for You,” I can’t deny that I was scared. I frantically rushed through the level, trying to find one of the boomboxes that would wake me up. It was too late. A screen flashed “FREDDY’S COMING!” In a moment of panic, I jammed the NES’s power button.

Freddys Coming
Stay Away, Pizza Face

That night, as I lay in bed, I wondered how possible it was for Freddy to sense me through the game and use it to haunt my dreams. It seemed like just the thing he might do. Would I dream about him that night? Is this how I was going to die? But that was dumb. Freddy wasn’t real – probably. And if he was, why would he come after me? It was just a video game. A video game that many other people had probably played and I hadn’t heard of anyone being killed by it. They wouldn’t rent it out at Blockbuster if that had happened, right? Right? At some point, I fell asleep.

The next afternoon, the house was quiet and mostly empty. I thought about the previous night and felt a little silly for being afraid of a game. The light of day filled me with a certain kind of hesitant courage. I should try the game again. I only had it for one more day and I knew I’d regret it if we returned it and I hadn’t even seen Freddy Krueger in it. The NES was hooked up to a small TV upstairs, in a tiny room with a sloped ceiling and a single window that looked out over our back roof. I walked upstairs and looked at the NES. A series of brief and irrational thoughts came to mind: I saw Freddy laughing and sitting on our roof, waiting for me to start the game. I saw the “FREDDY’S COMING!” screen flashing. I saw Freddy bursting through the window like he jumped through Nancy’s door mirror in the first movie and chasing me down the stairs. But that was so stupid! I was stupid! It was a game! I was good at games. I could beat him in this game. I turned the NES on and the creepy opening music started. The title screen faded in and Freddy grinned menacingly at me.

NES-A-nightmare-on-elm-street-2-small

I stared at him.

NES-A-nightmare-on-elm-street-3-small

He stared at me.

NES-A-nightmare-on-elm-street-4-small

I stared at him.

NES-A-nightmare-on-elm-street-5-small

I turned the power off and ran downstairs.

E3 2017 Wishlist

I’ve been thinking about E3 for a few months now, particularly with Nintendo’s anemic release schedule for an otherwise successful Switch launch. E3 is not quite the spectacle it once was, but it certainly seems to have gotten some of its mojo back in recent years. So much so, in fact, that I continually find myself excited to watch the keynotes (as awkward as some of the speakers are) to see what surprises are in store. Since E3 is just a few weeks away and I have the space to ramble about the games I hope to see revealed there, I figured I’d post them here. Some of these are pie-in-the-sky wishes, I know, and I’m skipping games that have already been announced or are heavily rumored to appear (like the new Assassin’s Creed game or Super Mario Odyssey). But speculation can be fun, even if hopes are dashed or wishes go unfulfilled.

Nintendo/Switch

New and Improved (and Retroactive) Virtual Console

Okay, so I just finished saying I won’t be including obvious things on here, but it seems like there is a genuine air of mystery surrounding Nintendo’s plan for their Virtual Console service. It makes sense that Nintendo would save it for the fall, though, to add a huge bonus for holiday shoppers who might be on the fence about Nintendo’s new console. What’s less certain, it seems, is what the service will look like. Will they start from scratch? Will they include GameCube games now? Will it include handheld games, given the Switch’s ability to act as a portable system? The Virtual Console was incredible on the Wii, but it definitely dropped off early in the Wii U’s life. I suspect this might have been due to slow sales and Nintendo’s determination to introduce a radical new console successor so (relatively) soon after the Wii U’s launch. So my guess is that Nintendo saved their resources by shifting their Virtual Console development from the Wii U to the Switch much earlier than we might have thought. So, in the end, here’s my hope: they announce the entire Virtual Console back catalog will be available this summer, and new titles and platforms (including GameCube and portable systems) will start rolling out regularly in October.

switch-virtual-console-launch

Mother 3/Brand New EarthBound Game

Part of what informed my thought process for my Virtual Console prediction/hope is how Nintendo handled their release of EarthBound Beginnings (Mother) for the Wii U Virtual Console. Nintendo’s announcement that they would release the game for the first time outside of Japan came out of nowhere and reignited the rumors that Mother 3 would eventually be released here, too. Reggie Fils-Aimé was even sort of evasive when asked about the prospect of a port, saying something about not having anything to announce and waiting to see what happened with EarthBound Beginnings. Well, what happened with EarthBound Beginnings was that it was very successful for them, and it was a mainstay on the front page of their Wii U Virtual Console store for months. So all signs seemed to point to an eventual release of Mother 3, and 2016 made the most sense, being the tenth anniversary of the game’s Japanese release. A loud, widespread rumor that an announcement was imminent made the rounds that year, but nothing came of it. So why now? Well, by 2016 Nintendo was almost certainly winding down Wii U development behind the scenes, and as I said about the Virtual Console, I bet they abandoned most plans to introduce new games or console options and moved team members to the Switch team. It makes sense when you look at the Wii U’s weak Virtual Console offerings in its last year (or longer, really), and it would explain them holding off on a release of Mother 3. With the Switch and NES Classic, Nintendo is riding high on a wave of nostalgia and adoration from both casual players and hardcore Nintendo fans, so they know they need to capitalize on that this fall. Announcing Mother 3 (or, if I’m really dreaming, a whole new EarthBound game) at E3 would be something for the faithful Nintendo fans and would definitely make a splash with the gaming press. I have been disappointed many times before with regards to this series, but I’m holding out a little more hope than normal this year.

Mother3small

New Eternal Darkness Game

Nintendo recently renewed the trademark for Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, though that doesn’t necessarily mean a sequel is on the way. It could, sure, but it could also just be a matter of housekeeping for Nintendo, or it might mean a port of it is coming for the Switch’s upcoming Virtual Console. I’m hoping that it really does mean that a new game or a remaster is coming, though, for a couple of reasons: first, the Switch has lots of new technology that a development team could play with. The most interesting and innovative thing that Sanity’s Requiem introduced was the “sanity meter” and the weird effects that the game would employ when your sanity meter ran low, specifically the ways in which they tried to mess with the player and make them think that weird things were happening independent of the game – the console rebooting, sudden deaths, fake television volume changes, etc. The Switch’s Joy-cons have infrared sensors on them, meaning they could actually change your television’s settings (if you have it synced). Those same sensors can apparently read movement and shapes, too, and the HD rumble can produce sensations that the GameCube controller never could. Bugs crawling in your palm? Maybe. The game could also force you to switch between the handheld mode and television mode, or read your game history (like Psycho Mantis does in Metal Gear Solid). So the possibilities for fun, creative, disturbing uses for the Switch’s hardware make a sequel an exciting and not totally unlikely scenario. My second reason for hoping for a sequel is in Nintendo’s new approach to their core audience. After the relative failure of the Wii U, they seem more keen to listen to their core audience than they have been in a long time, and they seem almost giddy with unannounced secrets. Sequels to games like EarthBound and Eternal Darkness would be shocking to many, so the buzz among the hardcore audience would increase noticeably, I think. Also, the Switch is going to need some original content for mature audiences, since it seems unlikely that many of the popular shooters will make their way to the system for a while, if ever.

eternal_darkness_screen_1_small
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem

New Smash Bros.

This one might also seem like a given, but what I’m actually hoping for is a new Smash Bros. game, not a ‘deluxe’ version of the Wii U Super Smash Bros. The odds are not in my favor, though, since Nintendo could probably have a deluxe edition ready by year’s end, and with much less cost, but if they announced a brand new game that would be out by next spring or fall, I’d be excited. I know some people are hoping for a deluxe version with all of the current DLC and maybe a couple of surprise new characters or levels, but I’m worried that a precedent will have been set by Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, with deluxe versions of other Wii U games delaying new entries in some great series. So, yeah, sure, I’d buy Super Smash Bros. Deluxe, but I’m really hoping for a new game announcement.

Bayonetta SSB

Animal Crossing Switch

What worries me about the prospect of a new Animal Crossing is that there is an upcoming mobile Animal Crossing game. I’m cautiously enthused about that game. I don’t think it will be a full Animal Crossing experience, though, so what does that mean for the Switch? Will it give Nintendo an excuse to neglect the series for a while? It’s been five years since the series’ last proper installment, New Leaf for the 3DS, so it does seem like a good time to announce an Animal Crossing for the Switch. If we’re lucky enough to get that at E3, I’m hoping to see an easier way to visit people’s towns, vastly improved detail in the graphics (the simple design is fine, but Nintendo’s always seemed to use that as an excuse to be lazy with the graphics), and maybe more non-village places to visit (vacation homes, perhaps). Also, I know Nintendo abandoned the ability to collect and play classic NES games after the original Animal Crossing because they would go on to sell those same games digitally, but I think it would be kind of neat if you could buy/earn/find various consoles in a new Animal Crossing game and then access Virtual Console games directly from your Animal Crossing world (games you’ve already purchased, of course). If they threw in a free NES game (one per account) for your first birthday in the game, that would be even cooler. But now I’m really dreaming.

animal-crossing-mario-kart-8-small
Animal Crossing track in Mario Kart 8

Sony/PlayStation 4

Dragon Quest XI

Nintendo’s 3DS has gotten plenty of Dragon Quest love in recent years, but the last numbered entry in the series to be released on home consoles in America was Dragon Quest VIII. That was in 2004. From what I’ve seen, the world of Dragon Quest XI has the same colorful beauty that I loved about VIII, so I very much want it to make its way across the Pacific, and an announcement at E3 would be amazing, if not the most shocking thing to be announced. With the release of several successful remakes and spinoffs, like Dragon Quest Builders and the Dragon Quest Heroes games, it seems like Square Enix have every intent to fully invest in making the core series as successful in the US as it is in Japan. But the fact that their MMO, Dragon Quest X, never got a western release makes things a little more complicated. If that one wasn’t worth translating, manufacturing, and distributing, will XI be worth the same financial risk? We’ll see, I suppose, and hopefully at E3.

Dragon Quest XI small
Dragon Quest XI

Until Dawn 2

Until Dawn was such a nice surprise when it came out. The premise and mechanics are so simple and straightforward that it would have been easy for me to overlook, but luckily I had a friend that highly recommended it to me. The game is gorgeous, the subtle (and not so subtle) nods to a myriad of horror films were fun to catch, and the game was short and exciting enough to easily invite multiple playthroughs. Some of the actors have said that they’d be willing to do a sequel, and the game’s executive producer has expressed interest in continuing the series beyond the game’s spinoff, Until Dawn: Rush of Blood. But other than that nothing has been announced or even heavily rumored. So I’m hoping for some kind of announcement at E3, even if the game itself is a couple of years away. Bonus round: What if the sequel is fully VR? Yes, please.

Until Dawn small
Until Dawn

Multi-platform

Bully 2

Every time there is a rumor of an upcoming Rockstar announcement, or they say that they’re working on more than one project, I hope that it’s Bully 2. It’s strange, really, because it took me a while to warm up to the first game, and even still it’s not one of my favorite games. It is fun and quirky, though, and I did end up growing quite fond of the characters and the small world that they inhabited. Members of Rockstar have said that a sequel is likely inevitable, but with Grand Theft Auto V, released four years ago, we’ve seen a dedication to producing extra content for existing IPs rather than development of a number of new games or sequels. Red Dead Redemption 2 is scheduled for spring of 2018, but what beyond that? Four years of DLC and then another game? I doubt it, but I want at least a couple of non-GTA games in the next few years, and I hope that one of them is Bully 2.

bully-scholarship-edition-xbox-360-small
Bully: Scholarship Edition

New Tomb Raider

With two and a half years separating the release of Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider, the announcement of a spring 2018 release of the next installment in the series at E3 would be of little surprise to anyone, especially with the release of the rebooted movie slated for March of next year. I haven’t heard much from Crystal Dynamics or Square Enix, though, which makes me think an announcement at E3 is likely. Will it be another timed exclusive, though? Where will the game be set? Will they try something shockingly new with this one, or will it be another refinement of an already solid formula? I’m hoping for a big, flashy, informational announcement at E3.

Rise-of-the-Tomb-Raider-2-small
Rise of the Tomb Raider

Soulcalibur VI

I could swear I recently read an interview with someone at Namco Bandai where they said they have no plans to continue the Soulcalibur series, but I can’t seem to find it anywhere. I can’t find very much about the future of the series either, though, so maybe that’s saying something similar. As it stands, it seems like there are no immediate plans for a Soulcalibur VI, but I would love to see something at E3. I do feel like the last couple of games have been less accessible than Soulcalibur II, but the games are always visually stunning and fun to (clumsily) play with friends. I’d love for the next entry to be a bit more casual/arcade-y, because I don’t have the time to commit to mastering fighting games like I used to, but I’ll take anything at this point.

soulcalibur-v-viola-small
Soulcalibur V

I have other hopes and dreams, like a surprise fall release date for the Final Fantasy VII remake, or a Chrono Trigger sequel, or a new Parasite Eve game, but those seem pretty unlikely, so I’ll just cross my fingers and hope I get half of my list above.

Dear Nintendo: Where is Dr. Peach?

I find myself thinking a lot about games I’d like to see made, especially when a new console or technology is released. I don’t mean “I want Nintendo to make another Mario Kart,” because that’s inevitable. I mean the sort of far-fetched, pipe dream type of games that seem unlikely candidates for development – actually, a good example would be a mobile or 3DS/Switch version of the old LucasArts game Pipe Dream, funnily enough. My time with the Nintendo Switch has spurred a flurry of these ideas. Some, like a new Eternal Darkness game, are not unique, especially given the fact that Nintendo recently renewed their trademark on that title. One of these ideas is not likely as popular, though: I want to see a new Dr. Mario game. Actually, I want to see a Dr. Peach game, to be more specific.

princess_peach_made_on_gimp_by_buggzz-d4hftra

Dr. Mario came out for the NES and GameBoy in 1990, and I remember renting it several times from Blockbuster video because it was colorful, fun, and challenging. It was the only puzzle game that held a candle to Tetris for me, and it had an equally excellent and memorable soundtrack to boot. The game has been ported to several Nintendo consoles since, and has even received a couple of updates/sequels: Dr. Mario 64 (N64) and Dr. Mario Online Rx (Wii). Both were slightly upgraded glossy remakes, though, with a few new game modes and not much in the way of evolutionary gameplay. With Nintendo riding a new wave of nostalgia with the NES Classic Edition, and its surge in brand popularity with a strong release for the Switch, now seems like a perfect time for a new Dr. Mario game. Snipperclips has done well for Nintendo, showing that there is an audience for puzzle games on the Switch, and the genre is a popular choice for mobile gamers, who Nintendo seems to be catering to. Nintendo also seems to (finally) be fully on board with small, downloadable, indie (or indie-like) games, so all of this makes for an optimal opportunity to release a flashy new reimagining of an old classic. And the marketing would take care of itself. I mean, look at the Joy-cons, then look at the pills in Dr. Mario. You’re welcome, Nintendo marketing department.

But hold on a second, Nintendo. I can see you over there in Japan, reading this and thinking “how did I come across this blog, nobody visits this site,” but then also thinking “what a great idea, let’s start production tomorrow!” Before you do that, I have one major request: make Princess Peach the doctor. Why was Mario the one with the advanced degree in the first place? Who was more likely to have the money and privilege to attend medical school: a plumber who never actually practices his current profession in the real world, or the princess of a royal family who has a title and vast wealth? I understand there were probably some 1980s-era gender norms coming into play, which is why Peach was in the game… but only as Mario’s assistant, nurse Toadstool.

Dr Mario Booklet
http://www.thegameisafootarcade.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Dr.-Mario-Game-Manual.pdf

The picture above is a page from the original game’s instructional manual, and as with many NES-era games, the premise of the game was presented in a short blurb in the manual. So, according to this premise, Mario ends up as a virologist in the Mushroom Kingdom’s research lab, which is already a little odd, but somehow Princess Toadstool (as she was known at that time) ends up as his assistant? The ruling monarch of the Mushroom Kingdom is letting a plumber run his research lab, and he makes his daughter, who is royalty, an assistant nurse?

DrMario5
http://thevideogameartarchive.tumblr.com/post/115868716674/not-from-the-game-specifically-but-nintendo-power

Wait, wait, Nintendo, don’t get all defensive. I know that Dr. Mario was released a long time ago and I’m sure you’re cautious about revising the elaborate and nuanced background you so carefully introduced on that single page of an instruction booklet.  So don’t do that. Just give Princess Peach her own story. Maybe she got tired of being an educated, cultured nurse for an unqualified doctor, so she went to Mushroom Medical School and got her own PhD in microbiology. Or maybe, on all of those long nights when she was captured by Bowser (in the Super Mario Bros. games, Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario, etc.), she did a lot of independent studying. If you really want to get crazy, pull a Super Mario Bros. 2 ending and show us a scene where we find out that the previous Dr. Mario games were Mario’s drug-fueled hallucinations, with him strapped to a hospital bed and Peach having attended to him as the kingdom’s primary physician.

DrMario1
http://thevideogameartarchive.tumblr.com/post/115868716674/not-from-the-game-specifically-but-nintendo-power

However you decide to develop the plot, a Dr. Peach game would be an excellent move. The Princess has long deserved a more prominent role in your games, and women’s rights are once again a hot political topic. Disney, who you have modeled yourself after in many ways, has made great strides to introduce stronger and more independent female characters in their work, so why not you? Some might argue that Peach is not smart or capable enough to be a doctor, given that she is always ‘getting herself kidnapped by Bowser’ (scare quotes to remove myself from that kind of victim blaming), but isn’t it about time she becomes strong, independent, and accomplished? It’s never too late for her to grow and mature as a character – and it’s not too late for you, either, Nintendo.

Just What I Needed: A Grand Start for Games in 2017

Wow, what is happening with 2017? I don’t remember a year as busy with big, great games before E3 even hit. Developers usually save their big hitters for the holiday season (or rush them out the door for the same season), and sometimes there’s the odd game or two that couldn’t quite make the holiday window and is pushed back to spring. But with games like Horizon Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, this year just seems… different. It’s like 2016 was so unbelievably shitty that some ethereal force that controls video game releases has blessed us with a year of bliss to make up for it. I can (and probably will) write some pretty extensive entries about each of the games I’ve played so far, but I am currently juggling lots of work and class stuff, so I just wanted to give some brief but semi-coherent thoughts about each. It’s been a great year – for games – so far.

RESIDENT EVIL 7 biohazard_20170228010649

Resident Evil 7

Like many fans of the Resident Evil series, I’ve been  increasingly disappointed by the recent RE games, most notably the sixth installment. I didn’t dislike RE 5, like many people, though I will agree that I missed the creepy atmosphere that the best games in the series had once mastered. But RE 6 was bad, and Resident Evil: Revelations couldn’t wash the bitter taste from my mouth, as good as it was.

As many have said, RE7 is a wonderfully dark return to the earlier games’ quiet, grim, claustrophobic atmosphere. I kind of wonder if the choice to use just one or two locations (the mansion and lab of the first game, the police station and sewers of the second game) had something to do with being conservative with design elements and saving on memory. Either way, when developers know the player is going to spend a lot of time in one place, it forces them to design that place very carefully and results in an added sense of detail and realism, I think. It makes the space more memorable, if anything, especially if it’s designed creatively. That’s how I felt about the house in RE 7. Every room told its own story about the family that once used it. Every maggot and newspaper scrap and rusted knob made me feel like this house has been lived in, so even when I wasn’t being chased by a walking oil-slick, I was unnerved and made anxious by my surroundings. I loved it. The PlayStation VR headset did make me feel nauseous after about fifteen minutes, so I stopped using it because I didn’t want it to affect my experience with the game. I’ve since read confirmations that ‘getting your VR legs,’ like sea legs, is a real thing, so I plan on trying to condition myself to play VR games that involve lots of movement soon and maybe replaying the game again this summer.

Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn was a truly wonderful surprise, and I want to write about in great detail at some point. When I saw the trailer at Sony’s 2016 E3 presentation, I thought it looked kind of cool, but I was hesitant to be very excited about it. When the tag line for a game involves mashing two disparate genres or periods together, I generally cringe. I’ve seen too many movies and played too many games that meld styles or genres just for the novelty of doing so. So I don’t feel too bad about being cautious about a game that might be described as ‘cave people fighting robot dinosaurs.’

Horizon Zero Dawn™_20170311231102

But holy shit. However justified, my caution was ultimately unnecessary. Horizon is a beautiful game that is fun to play and satisfying to experience in terms of the narrative. Aloy is a wonderful character, the machines are superbly designed and animated, the world is lush and vibrant and feels natural, and the diversity of the supporting cast is inspiring. There were so many moments that made me feel powerful or capable, and I couldn’t help pausing frequently to take tons of screenshots – with the great built-in photo mode – of the sun cutting like blades through a dense tree line, or rain dappling a pond around me, or a hulking, screeching robo-tyrannosaur stomping through the grass next to where I’m hiding. I’ll include a few here, but I have a ton more that I might post at some point.

Horizon Zero Dawn™_20170313043051

Horizon Zero Dawn™_20170313041734

Horizon Zero Dawn™_20170313025651

Horizon Zero Dawn™_20170310054235

Horizon Zero Dawn™_20170311072905

Horizon Zero Dawn™_20170311143250

Mass Effect: Andromeda

Mass Effect: Andromeda has gotten tons of hate after its release, and much of it, in my opinion, is unfounded or overblown. I will say that it has its problems, especially in the first few hours or so. One complaint that I concede to is the fact that the game does little to inspire you in the first few hours. It kind of assumes that you’ll be excited about a journey to a new galaxy and the ability to explore a small part of it, but if you’re not, you’re out of luck. I wish they’d had an intro movie that showed the preparation that went on in the Milky Way before departure, the excitement and anxiety that was building, the haunting spirit of adventure into the unknown that would certainly have pervaded the shipyards and space stations. And then, after a celebratory launch… darkness and silence. Let it linger. Fade some stars in, but hold that darkness close so that the audience begins to feel the same loneliness and isolation of six hundred years sleeping in the absolute stillness of intergalactic space. Then blast us awake with an unrelenting siren. Create that sense of chaos and frantic confusion that you want us to feel after waking up and finding not hope and adventure, but fear and futility. Everything is falling apart. The ship is damaged. The crew is either still sleeping or bewildered. All of that hope and intrepidness is cracking under the weight of panic, and the lives of countless people across several species is at stake… and you have to fix it. That would have been a better way to start the game, I think, especially for players who aren’t automatically excited by being a starship captain in unknown space.

Mass Effect™: Andromeda_20170405010613

I was one of those nerds who was excited and invested just by the premise, so it didn’t take me too long to find myself hooked, but I had some other issues with the first handful of hours. I had graphical issues, like facial clipping on almost every alien character model – eyes poking through eyelids, lips clipping through lips. Textures on characters, especially their suits, and ship walls and floors were muddy and had jagged lines, to the point where they looked worse than last-gen Mass Effect games. Oddly enough, even without a patch, this issue seems to have mostly cleared up for me. I’m around 45 hours in and characters and environments look a lot better. I don’t see any facial clipping and textures look a lot more crisp and clear. I wonder if it had something to do with how the game was loading its artifacts during the first playthrough.

Mass Effect™: Andromeda_20170326173237

I realize that at this point I sound like so many of the game’s detractors, but it’s partially because these issues seem mostly present in the first stretch of the game, and partially because I expected better of BioWare. In general, I very much like the game. I wish I’d had the ability to create a better looking Joey Ryder (why can’t I have an actual beard, like in Dragon Age: Inquisition?), but I’m definitely invested in my character and am forming strong attachments to my team. I haven’t fallen for someone as hard as I did for Morrigan of Dragon Age or Bastila of Knights of the Old Republic, but I’m having fun being flirty with Peebee. She’s smart and cute and spunky, so I imagine she’ll end up being my main squeeze. I’ll have more to say when I’ve played more, but I’m enjoying it a lot and foresee at least a few dozen more hours of planetary hopping about.

1-2 Switch

For as much hate as Mass Effect: Andromeda has gotten, I’m surprised at how little hate 1-2 Switch has gotten. Well, I don’t know if it deserves hate, exactly, but it deserves some criticism for its lack of depth and hefty price tag, I think. When it was first announced I was convinced it would be packed in with the system. When it wasn’t, I thought Nintendo would use the variable pricing of many Switch games and charge like $30-35 for it. When I saw that it was a full $50, I thought it might be a far more developed and fleshed-out game than I had originally envisioned. Nope. Just a collection of mini-games. Some of the mini-games are fun, sure, and it’s a great game to have to highlight the local multiplayer aspect of the system, but some of the mini-games don’t seem to work as well as they should, and some are just boring. You might have made the same claims about Wii Sports, but packing a game in with the system forgives many sins. I’m glad I have the game, and I look forward to playing with people who have never played it before, but I don’t expect to get much mileage out of it, and that makes $50 far too high of a price tag.

NintendoSwitch_12Switch_Presentation2017_scrn04_bmp_jpgcopy

I also have three 2017 games that I’m itching to play: Persona 5NieR: Automata, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’ve heard many great things about all three, most especially Breath of the Wild, which seems to be destined for a hundred Game of the Year awards. I have an exciting summer ahead of me, it seems.

nier-automata-1030-screens-01-1280x720

I’ve also just gotten around to playing a couple of 2016 games recently, so I’ll throw in some thoughts about those as well.

Street Fighter V

I have a spotty history with the Street Fighter series. Street Fighter II was one of my favorite SNES games, and I loved Street Fighter Alpha 3 on the original PlayStation, but many of the games in between just didn’t grab me. They often felt either too familiar or too new. I know, I know. Pick a side, right? When Street Fighter IV was announced, I thought the art style looked a little too goofy, but I figured I’d give the series another chance. After playing it, well, I still thought the art style was a little too goofy (I really hate when characters have gigantic feet, for one), but the fighting was pretty great. Street Fighter V keeps the art style, sadly, and the fighting is… mostly the same. I’m not a fighting game aficionado, though, so maybe I’m missing some nuanced mechanics or something. The new villain, Necalli, is terrible and I cringe every time he opens his mouth. I very much disliked how limited the roster was, especially because they make obtaining other characters a case of buying them as DLC or earning ranks in the online mode. Neither of those sat well with me. I was glad to have Chun-Li and Cammy, but I wished Akuma and Crimson Viper were in the core line-up. The story mode was weak until they added the free DLC version, which was actually pretty decent. I don’t know how often I’ll go back to the game, though. My crush on Chun-Li was once again reignited, though, and it inspired me to consider future short blog posts about various video game crushes I’ve had/have. But we’ll see.

Street Fighter V Chun Li

Dead or Alive Xtreme 3: Fortune

My first instinct is to begin my discussion of this game with a sort of embarrassed apology, but two things: 1) I’m not writing this for anyone other than myself, and 2) I know that this instinct comes from how the culture that shaped me treats sexuality, which is to hide it and be ashamed of it. I fight against that urge every chance I get, for many reasons, but that’s for a different entry, perhaps. I understand that this game hypersexualizes its female characters, and there are some problematic issues with gender throughout it, but I enjoy it and I’m not ashamed of that.

DEAD OR ALIVE Xtreme 3 Fortune_20170207011538

This is the game that I wanted to play when I bought the first Xtreme game, Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, for the original Xbox. That entry and its sequel were, to me, too difficult, mostly because they imposed a time limit on how much you could get done before you’d have to start all over again. There was no way you could build up a collection of items and bathing suits because you could only make enough money to buy a handful of things before you had to start a new vacation and go back to not having anything. Xtreme 3 fixes that, allowing you to carry over all of your money and items to a new vacation, which makes getting rare or expensive swimsuits much easier. The mini-games feel balanced in this game, too, which is another definite improvement, specifically when it comes to the volleyball. It’s the core of the game and I never felt like it was very much fun or rewarding until this entry. The graphics seem a little lackluster for this generation, but they’re pretty good overall. And, speaking of video game crushes, I have a new one, thanks to this game. Momiji is the best. I’m actually considering getting the newer Ninja Gaiden games just to be able to play her in a cool combat role. I am in love. Don’t judge me, non-existent reader! But I digress.

DEAD OR ALIVE Xtreme 3 Fortune_20170218234007

As I said, I may end up writing about these in more detail over the summer, but I am going to try and write a little about every game that I play from now on. I want to capture initial impressions and thoughts for later use. And I’ll have a lot to capture soon, it seems. Not a bad predicament to be in, I’d say.

Pedagogy, Please: Using Papers, Please in the Classroom

I am teaching a first year English class titled Rhetoric and Composition – essentially, it’s what many people would call English 101. As teachers, we’re required to stick to the course objectives, but otherwise we have the freedom to design our own course and syllabus, and I like to get creative with my classes. I’ve taught the second semester of this course – Rhetoric and Composition II – using video games as both the primary text and as a framework for the course (gamification, sort of), but I had yet to use them to teach a first semester class. The second semester course works well using games because students are doing a lot of group work and research, and using a virtual environment for group meetings or virtual demonstrations is super useful and illustrative. The first semester course is focused on analysis, though, and I had previously felt like video games might be too ‘big’ for that, since analyzing a game, with its movement, visuals, sound, dialogue, narrative, gameplay, or any combination of the many elements that make up a video game, might be too much to handle in our limited amount of time. I’ve used horror movies to teach the course twice already, and I felt like those sections went pretty well. This semester, however, I decided to jump in and use video games. They are the focus of my research, but I very rarely study them in any of my courses. I wanted a way to not only integrate what I’ve learned about games as cultural artifacts and educational tools into what I was doing, but also to force myself to keep up with thinking about my field while taking classes that have very little to do with it. So using them for the class I was going to teach seemed a natural conclusion.

I will probably write something about my overall experience after the semester ends, but today I wanted to write a little bit about how I’m using a specific game in the class: Papers, Please. We have four main paper assignments in this class: a video game review, a visual analysis (of video game art, advertisements, screenshots, cover art, etc.), a video game critique, and a synthesis (‘baby’ research paper) paper on any issue concerning video games (violence, sexuality, intelligence, education, etc.). This structure is meant to get them from a subjective argument with relatively little close analysis (review), to close, objective analysis of static objects (visual analysis), to close analysis of a whole artifact with its many parts (critique), to close analysis of several objects mixed with some objective research (synthesis).

Being the first analysis paper, my students often stumble on the visual analysis, and this semester was no exception. So, for the follow-up paper, the critique paper, they asked for a model. I saw an opportunity to play a video game in class, since we could play a game together, take notes as a class, and then use those notes to come up with an outline. I wanted it to be a short game that we could get through a fair amount of in just one or two class periods, and while there are numerous great, free, browser-based games over at the Internet Archive, I wanted something a little more contemporary and relevant. Papers, Please seemed to be a perfect fit. The gameplay is drag-and-click, so any of my students could step up and play it in class, and it deals with contemporary issues like immigration, nationalism, and, well, certain Eurasian countries. We played for half of two different 75 minute class periods, and while I can’t speak to how successful the play sessions were on their papers (for a couple of reasons), I did want to walk through some of how things went.

papers

The first thing we did, before they knew anything about the game they were playing, was make two lists: themes or topics that games might be saying something about/commenting on, and some of the elements of games that could be used to ‘say’ those things. Here is what we ended up with, after some discussion:

Topics/Themes:        War / Poverty / Politics / Gender / Race / Growing up / Teenagers / Maturity / Religion / National identity / College / Education / Parenting / Social status / Sexuality / Sexual preference / LGBTQ issues / Work (occupation)

Elements:        Graphics / Art style / Color / Spoken or written dialogue / Plot or narrative / Representation / Gameplay (goals) / Gameplay mechanics / Music / Sound / Tone / Setting / Audience / Advertising

I wrote each list on either side of the projector screen so that we could refer to it while we were playing, and then started up the game. The distinctively militaristic music started up and the title made its way onto the screen, marching up from the bottom to the beat of the music. I asked if anyone had played the game or knew anything about it, to which I got a unanimously negative response. “So what can you tell me about this game, just based on the title screen? What kind of game is it? What is it about? Is there a theme you pick up on just from what you see and hear?” I was hoping that they would pick up on the militaristic tone by noting that the music resembles a march and the title comes onto the screen in a marching fashion, not to mention the militaristic insignia at the top of the title. They didn’t quite get there, but they made some insightful observations. One student thought it seemed like an adventure game because the music seemed kind of exciting and action-y. One student thought it took place in Italy, because of the music, but another chimed in and said it sounded like Russian music, which a couple of other students agreed with. When I asked what the title meant, and what it might tell us about the game, there was some head scratching. When I pointed to the comma and asked if that had anything to do with direct address or implied audience, there was some visual and audible realization in several students and one student said that it must be about someone asking for someone’s papers, “like at customs,” which I was happy about.

I had a volunteer to act as the player, and I told the rest of the class to help her out and shout out opinions and suggestions about what she should do. The first day was slow, as she stumbled a bit getting the hang of how to play with little help from the rest of the class. There was some discussion at the end of the (game) day, when they realized how the game was set up: for each successful person processed, you get five dollars, and you need at least fifty dollars a day to pay for rent, heat, and food to keep your family alive and well. Oddly enough, what really seemed to get people involved was the first time she, the player, rejected a character’s passport and they cursed at her. They found that funny and started speaking up after that, helping her to look for the important information she needed to match up to make faster decisions and get more people through the checkpoint.

It was too late, however. Just as they were getting the hang of it, the terrorist attack on Day 2 cut their day short and meant that they didn’t have enough money to pay rent. They were arrested and their game was over. “What happened?” “So, the game’s over?” they asked. I responded in the affirmative, and took the opportunity to ask some questions to try and prompt some critical thinking that we might use in future discussion.

“Would you guys want this job?”
“No.”
“Hell naw.”
“Nope.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because you get thrown in jail for something you can’t control.”
“People are mean to you.”
“But you won this job in a work lottery,” I reminded them. “There are other people who aren’t as lucky as you and don’t have a job. Shouldn’t you be happy that you’re working?”
“Not if you go to jail for not paying rent.”

I’d wanted them to start thinking about what the game was saying about civilians who have to live and make a living in war zones or under oppressive regimes. I could have probably kept going with the discussion and got them there, but we were running short on time so we pressed on and they started a new game. We only got through two days before class ended, but those two days were filled with cooperation and students openly debating whether or not to let people through and catching things that other students had missed. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, which made me feel like my choice of game and approach was a big success. I told them we would continue playing during the next class and go through an outline of a possible paper using our discussion of the game that followed our play session.

I’m sad to report that only four students showed up to that next class period (as opposed to the maybe twelve or thirteen that had shown up for the first class). I have had four of them contact me since and apologize for missing, saying that they enjoyed the game and wish they could have made it, but it’s hard not to feel like it must have had something to do with the game. I may have them fill out an anonymous questionnaire at the end of the semester (to go alongside their regular class/instructor evaluation) to ask them how they felt about my choices of games for the interactive class discussions. If they had seemed like they weren’t into it on Tuesday, and/or were not interacting with one another, I might have just chalked it up as a loss and moved on, but they really did seem to be getting into it. So I’d like some answers about what might have potentially made them skip out on the second session so I can, if anything, adjust my gauge for what a positive student reaction to a game is.

That aside, the second session went alright. With a different student in control, we had to go through some of the awkward learning moments over again, and we only ended up getting through four more days in the game. I was happy that we encountered the colorful character Jorji twice in this session, and the class responded with the same level of incredulous adoration that I had, once upon a time. At some point they pointed out that each day was getting harder and you had more and more to do every day. While this was frustrating for them, they showed a determination to get through as many people as they could each day and were openly helping each other spot the various discrepancies. They breathed collective sighs of relief when a character successfully exited their booth without the ominous mechanical sound of a violation notice being printed out, and their joined frustration when they did miss something and received a violation slip was enjoyable to watch. Those who did show up were invested, at least.

Because only four people showed up, and because we didn’t make it through as much of the game as I might have liked, I cut our in-depth analysis of the game a bit short to field questions about their specific paper topics, then gave them tips on how to structure a critique paper using those topics as examples. We did talk about the game a bit, mainly circling around the ideas it presented about government control over workers (it seemed unfair that the government could imprison you for not doing a new job well enough), propaganda (getting what seemed like a government-controlled newspaper every day), and making hard choices about who to let in and who to deny when your family’s well-being is directly affected by your success at work. There was a very brief discussion about gender while we were playing, because some students thought a character looked male when  their passport stated that they were female, but it didn’t go anywhere.

Overall, I felt like it was a mostly successful endeavor. If not for the students that missed the second session, I’d say it was an astounding success, but I can’t deny that that may have been in response to the game choice. That survey I mentioned might help me figure how just how true that is. I do feel like we needed more time to play it, so in the future I go through a mini-tutorial beforehand to avoid some of the learning-curve hurdles that slowed us down. I might also have them think about organizing a bit more as a class after they play for a few days. They could have two people looking at expiration dates, two people looking at pictures, two people looking at issuing city, etc. Of course I’d love for them to do that on their own, but if it means saving time and having more time to get a sense of what the game is saying about certain issues, I can help them get started with it at least. So, depending on how the end-of-semester survey turns out, I plan on tweaking my lesson plan a little and using this game again in the future.

Phoenix Down: Video Games and (My) Mental Health

I love video games. I probably don’t need to say that. I created a website to spew poorly organized, mediocre writing about the things, knowing that virtually no one will read it. That’s probably not something you do for a hobby you don’t care about. I don’t allow this love to identify me as a person. The older I get, the less I feel comfortable about calling myself something and allowing others to make assumptions about me based on those labels. But there are times when I realize just how much games mean to me. The loud, popular media narrative about video games often focuses on their potential to negatively affect people’s mental health. That wouldn’t be a surprise for people who follow the industry, and it would also not be much of a surprise to hear about the many (but less popular) articles, academic papers, and presentations about the potential for positive impact on people’s mental health.

2385996-vlcsnap_2012_12_09_18h23m08s71

The tale is probably familiar and almost cliché to many video game fans: “video games saved my life,” the refrain goes. For people who don’t play games, or do and have little experience with mental health issues, it probably sounds trite or hyperbolic. And maybe in some cases it is. There are always people who exaggerate things because, well, I don’t really care why. It doesn’t matter. Some people might claim that something has saved their life every other week, but that doesn’t mean that everyone who claims it is lying or being hyperbolic. Some of the mistrust is probably due to the ambiguity surrounding the claim that anything other than the obvious (a medic giving you CPR, an injection of adrenaline, a deployed airbag, etc.) can save your life. It’s easy to point to something like bypass surgery and say that it saved your life, but mental health issues are far more nebulous. It’s much harder to definitively prove that a video game, or a therapy session, or a hug prevented someone from losing the will to live and giving up on life (literally, in terms of suicide, or figuratively, in terms of completely withdrawing from friends, family, work, etc.).

This is all just a longwinded introduction to talking about my recent experience with video games and mental health. Even though I’m not making the claim that video games saved my life, because I don’t know how close I was to being suicidal or in danger of serious social and professional withdrawal, I can say that last year (2016) was a very dark year for me. I was having internal crises in every aspect of my life. Success in one or more sector of my life usually gives me a sense of balance, or at least staves off the feeling of complete uselessness or self-loathing. I felt no such balance during that time. Every sector felt like it was collapsing, and I was struggling to feel optimistic about any of it.

It’s a far too complex story to share here, but I was engaged in a constantly escalating battle with my university’s housing and financial offices in the fall of 2015. I had clear evidence that they were at fault, but I had to go all the way to a neutral appeals panel – after months of fighting – to win my claim. ‘Winning’ meant that I could stay at the university, but I didn’t exactly feel welcomed anymore. No one fought for me. I was told more than once that no one at the university could help me or stand up for me because it would be acting against the university’s best interest (which didn’t make sense, because if the housing and finance offices had won I would have had to leave the university and they would have lost out on the money that they were trying to unjustly squeeze from me anyway).

So I began 2016 feeling less than enthused about my place of work – I teach here as well, as part of my grad student financial aid package – and academic study. Where I once felt like I was wanted and valued, I then felt like I was a troublemaker who would have been better off somewhere else. Combine this with my first issue with a grad professor who seemed to have a personal problem with me during the spring semester, financial problems from the fight with the school and having to move on such short notice (again, as a result of the fight with the school), and summer was not as fun as it should have been. I tutored seventh grade math over the summer, and that went relatively well, but it didn’t do much for my career so it felt like a bit of a hollow victory. The rest of the summer was a haze that I barely even remember now.

I dreaded starting school again in the fall, and I’d been experiencing some chest pains and breathing issues just before the semester started, but I had to wait for the official start of the semester to see a doctor because I have student insurance. I was feeling easily winded, sweating profusely from short walks, having moments of dizziness where I felt like I couldn’t stand, and my legs often just felt weak. Granted, I’d gained a lot of weight over the preceding months, but all of this was new to me and I was worried that I was having heart problems or had developed diabetes. I was at the doctor’s office every other week for most of the semester, being tested and trying various medications that had varying levels of non-success. Mentally and emotionally, I felt detached from most things. I dropped one of my classes early in the semester, and I was having trouble keeping up with one of the remaining two classes I was taking. The attendance in the classes I was teaching was lower than normal. I felt distant from my friends and family, and my relationship was suffering (more than it had been previously).

My doctor ended up diagnosing me with depression and anxiety, and said that I was having physical manifestations of the two – I was having frequent ‘panic attacks.’ The diagnosis didn’t really help like I thought it might. It made me feel worse, actually. How could I not handle my life? Surely I’d been under greater stress in the military. I’d been through divorce, uprooting my whole life, being asked to suddenly move out as a teenager – how could I have gotten to a point where I was physically breaking down because I couldn’t handle the mental and emotional pressure? By the time the semester ended and winter break approached, I didn’t care about anything. I didn’t check my grades. I stopped checking my email. I avoided social commitments. I wished I was dead.

That sounds dramatic, but it was a thought that passed through my mind at least             once every couple of days. I didn’t want to kill myself, and I wasn’t fantasizing about dying or how my death would affect others – I just didn’t want to have to deal with my life and I didn’t see any reasonable way out of it. I didn’t want pity or people to think that I was overreacting, so I stayed pretty quiet about it.

Winter break was very busy and had its share of headaches, but ultimately I came out of it in a much better place. The various medications that I’d tried during the fall hadn’t helped, and most of the issues I had were either still around or poised to get worse in the coming months, but at some point I became angry about where I was in life and became determined to not let it defeat me. I live my life in Batman metaphors (I know, don’t we all?), so I couldn’t help but think about my situation as being similar to Bruce Wayne in Bane’s prison in The Dark Knight Rises. He ended up there because he felt lost and irrelevant, and as Bane points out, he’d wanted to die. I didn’t have a city that needed me, but I felt a similar kind of anger and determination to pull myself out of the hole I had gotten myself into, so I began my own journey out of darkness. And here I am. I still have a lot to deal with, but I feel strong enough to deal with it. Bring it, life.

So where do video games play into all of this? Did video games play a role in causing my mental health issues or pulling me out of it? Those are hard questions to answer and I’m not going to try and argue for either, but I do want to lay my gaming experience alongside my mental health issues and see what comes up. The reason I’m even thinking about it, honestly, is because I had pretty much given up on playing video games until the spring before all of this started. That spring, around a year and a half ago, I decided to make room in my life for games again, regardless of how hectic and busy it might seem at times. Prior to that, I’d basically given up on gaming completely during school months, but I was increasingly resentful about feeling guilty over wanting to do something that I enjoyed because of perceived professional pressure (say that three times fast). So I wanted to change that, and have been pretty good about keeping my promise to myself throughout all of my health issues.

I don’t think I ever let my game playing get too out of hand, to the point where I was missing out on important work stuff, so I don’t think it was a direct contributor to the decline in my mental health. It seems more likely, if anything, that I was perhaps avoiding having to face some of my issues by doing one of the only fun things I had access to, which was playing games. That could also be considered a positive thing, though, if you consider it a coping mechanism. I might have engaged in some other kind of avoidance, though, like YouTube binges or aimless Internet browsing, if I hadn’t played games. I thought, during the summer, at the center of that storm, that having more than a month to play video games and relax would recharge me and pull me out of what I thought was a temporary funk. I had no such luck, which means that video games aren’t necessarily like a medication that you can take regularly to get well. At least, they weren’t for me at that time.

Something happened when I started playing Final Fantasy XV over this past winter break, though. It was somewhere in the middle of my playthrough that I began to feel differently about my future and my ability to overcome my recent mental blocks and anxiety issues. I don’t necessarily think it was the game itself, but it felt like it had to be a part of it. It was the kind of game that I looked forward to playing, that I would think about when I wasn’t playing, that I would wish I could dream about every night. It wasn’t just a distraction, or something to keep my mind from drifting to stressful topics, it genuinely brought me happiness and filled my brain with positive chemicals and hormones. It was the kind of game that made me remember just how deep my love for video games runs, and what they bring to my life.

Let me just reiterate that I’m not claiming that Final Fantasy XV or video games ‘saved my life’ or in any way solved any of my major life problems. In fact, I still have many of those problems to face as of this writing. But with my love of video games rekindled at a pitch that I haven’t experienced in some time, I can’t deny that video games are playing at least a relevant part in how I see the near future. Will I love every game as much as I did Final Fantasy XV? Probably not. But with high quality games like Resident Evil 7, which I’m playing now, and Horizon Zero Dawn, which I just got in the mail today and getting almost universal praise, I have joyous experiences to look forward to. Even if the rest of my life crumbles around me, I’ll have something. And that means so much.

Don’t Speak: Silent Protagonists

I’m using video games as illustrative texts in the first year composition course I’m teaching this semester, and we’re focusing a lot of our attention on identity. It’s a topic I think about a lot, particularly when I’m playing narrative-heavy games or games that are meant to be especially immersive. I wouldn’t say I actively or consciously think about it, though. It just kind of buzzes around my head when I’m creating a new character or interacting with people in RPGs. “Would I have really said that?” I might wonder as my character says something particularly barbarous to a party member who I actually kind of like. Moments like this, in games like Mass Effect, or Fallout, or Final Fantasy make me think of the days when the silent protagonist was the default lead character in RPGs. While they’re still around, they’ve mostly been replaced by protagonists that do speak, even if prompted by specific user input. Were they better at creating immersive narratives?

EarthBound Ness

Well I’m not here to answer that, but I wanted to sort of work my thoughts out about it. I don’t remember thinking about the fact that my character was ‘silent’ in NES games like Faxandau or The Legend of Zelda. It was just how things were. ‘You’ were Link, or Mega Man, or the countless and nameless other lead characters of many classic games. But when I made the move to RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy III, and EarthBound (a console generation later) I found myself thinking about my character, or ‘me’ more, likely due to how much dialogue there is in games like these and the fact that you actually interact with characters and make decisions that affect the story.

Chrono Trigger

I had some things in common with Crono. We were both teenagers who lived at home and had a particularly hard time waking up in the morning. But he had pretty bulky biceps for a ‘kid,’ spiky red hair, and he ended up being pretty fierce with a katana. I had pretty average biceps, a shaved head, and was only fierce with an SNES controller. I knew I wasn’t Crono, but I named him ‘Joey’ anyway, because I wanted to pretend that I was him for the adventure I was about to embark on. In fact, Chrono Trigger was the first game I remember having a party of characters who I could name, and it is where I began the tradition of naming the main character for myself and my supporting cast for my friends and/or celebrities. It didn’t really matter if I matched up very well with the main character; I was the one playing so I was the character who would make the most difference in how the story played out. It makes sense, given that as a child I wanted to be the main character whenever I played, whether it be something with a clear main character (as with Batman action figures) or with an ensemble (like make-believe Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). It makes me wonder about roles and identity in play outside of gaming, but I’ll have to dig into that in a later blog. I’m rambling enough as it is.

legend_of_zelda_wind_waker_hd_10

James Paul Gee talks about the idea of identity in narrative games, with there being three distinct identities at play: the player, the character (a reflection of the developer’s own identities), and the character with the player’s identity projected onto it. The player brings their own identity to a game: they are, let’s say, adventurous but cautious. The character is written in a way that might be somewhat different than the player: maybe they are adventurous but brash and not very cautious. So the player projects their identity onto the character, reading those moments where the character does something brash as momentary lapses in judgement on their own (fictional) behalf. The player does not become brash in real life, and they can only make the character be cautious some of them time (because the developers choose points in the game where the character must act brashly to develop the plot how they want to).

Dragon Age Inquisition

With silent protagonists, it seems like developers are careful and very conscious of this interplay of identity. They want players to feel like they are in charge of the character’s actions and motivations, but not so much so that they mess up the game’s plot. Even in more recent RPGs, that have speaking protagonists but offer many choices for how your character interacts with other characters, you usually can’t do things that would spoil the main story of the game. You can’t simply leave the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3, searching for a better life. You can’t build a little house on a remote planet in Mass Effect 3 and live out the rest of your days with Tali. The games give you many choices, sure, but it’s never really you in the role. You can make all of the choices that your character might make, but not all the choices that you might make if you truly had the options.

tali10

The same could be said about your interactions with characters in these games. The BioWare RPGs are especially known for giving the player a host of dialogue choices and relationship options when it comes to your party members, but again, you can’t truly say whatever you want. If you’re trying to woo Dragon Age’s Morrigan, who is easily offended and put off (but worth the effort, because holy crap, I mean, come on), and you say something that angers her, the game doesn’t let you immediately apologize or try and smooth things over. Usually, you’ve blown your chance to advance your relationship with her and have to wait for the next opportunity to try again.

Morrigan

I’m not trying to make a point about limitations and reality, because I understand that for every player action, the developers have to code for a reaction, and coding for enough reactions to cover the breadth of human creative input is impossible. I’m just thinking about how these choices impact the player’s sense of projected identity. Games that allow you to choose how you interact with the game’s social world and shape your relationships with party members almost certainly make for a more immersive identity experience, even if it means that the character will say and do things that the player doesn’t necessarily want them to. Silent protagonists allow the player to fill in the blanks, imagining what the character would say to party members or how they would react to plot events. This may allow for a different kind of immersion, but it seems difficult to argue that it would be more effective than the characters that you create and use to carry out conversations with party members.

Visas Marr

I’m also a little curious about why they’ve fallen from popularity, especially in western RPGs. They were, at one point, a bit of a punchline (as many tropes end up), but I don’t recall hearing many complaints about their use in games like Dragon Age: Origins, Knights of the Old Republic or The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. It will be interesting to see if their use declines further, and even more interesting to see if they make it to the (eventual) virtual reality RPGs. With language detection becoming more widely used, I can easily imagine an RPG that shows you your dialog choices and gives you the option of saying them out loud. Anyway, I’m rambling again. I’m not so silent about this topic (see what I did there?), and I could go on and on, but I just wanted to work some of my thoughts out for later use.