Book Notes: Rise of the Videogame Zinesters (Anna Anthropy)

This series, Book Notes, is just my thoughts on some of the books I’ve been reading about video games. I don’t have a thesis for my dissertation yet so I’m casting a wide net, and these are loose and unfocused because I’m not sure what I might end up using them for. I may or may not end up using them, but I hope they’ll be useful to me at some point, and if they’re useful to other people too, cool.

“I have to strain to find any game that resembles my own experience. This is in spite of the fact that videogames in America are an industry and institution” (2). This might bepp; a catalyst for the book’s momentum, propelling Anthropy toward her thesis, which is an argument that game development tools are easier to access than ever and a broad community of people should be using them to make games that represent their own experiences. She gives lots of examples of people who do just that, and I think it’s something to keep in mind when using games in a classroom of students who have various backgrounds and different levels of expertise with games. Some of the tools she mentions seem relatively easy to use, but probably aren’t easy or intuitive enough to use as a tool in a first year English class. Twine might be a fair solution, though, and is worth checking out in more detail.

“The ability to work in any art form with the digital game’s unique capabilities for expression shouldn’t be restricted to a privileged (and profit-oriented) few. If everyone is given the means to work in an art form, then we’ll invariably see a much more diverse, experimental, and ultimately rich body of work” (21). When we talk to students about authorship and intent and the rhetoric of video games, it can be tricky. Most big, studio-driven games don’t have a single person who we look to as the primary creative force. It took decades for us to do the same with film, as producers were more readily given credit for a film’s ‘message’ or creative success until the 50s and 60s. With the smaller games that Anthropy and others make, there is typically one person who is responsible for the game, making authorship clear. This makes them nice, easy texts to use in the classroom, but I think it’s important to discuss how those big studio games still have authors and messages and should be critiqued as such.

“Given the expenses of distributing a game – lot check, compatibility testing, printing, marketing – how does anyone afford to make games?” (33-4). She tracks the tie between development cost and who has made games historically – middle-upper class white guys – and how computers and the Internet (35) have made distribution of small, independent games much easier, changing the landscape of what games look like and how we view game developers. This is one of the most interesting and important points in the book, I think.

“A game is an experience created by rules” (43). She goes into considerable detail in arguing for this definition of a game, and I think it works. Without rules, a ‘game’ is just activity, and video games automatically introduce rules by having a world that is run by rules – of physics, and systems, etc. It might be interesting to ask students to define what a game is, especially if we discuss games like Gone Home or Her Story, since they don’t have the trappings or rules that are typically found in popular games. But I’m not sure when I’d fit this in during a composition class.

“Folk games, like folk songs and folk texts such as the Bible, have no single credited author, but rather many untraceable authors over many years. They’re artifacts shaped by entire cultures, and generally they can tell us a lot about those cultures” (49). This is a huge part of how I already teach games to my students. Why should we study videogames? Because they are a reflection of who we are as a culture, regardless of the genre or platform or audience. Most games are commercial products first, yes, but like film and popular music before them, they still say something about the producing culture’s values, beliefs, and attitudes towards itself.

“Folk games tell us about the culture that created them; authored games tell us about the author that created them” (51). Yes, but I would argue that they also tell us something about the culture. Authors and their creative visions are shaped by the culture that they are immersed in, and if enough authored games are studied, patterns begin to emerge to reveal the same kinds of patterns that folk games do. I don’t think Anthropy would argue against this, I just thought it was important to note.

Anthropy talks about what she calls “grown-up games” and gives the example of a paper and pen RPG called Gang Rape, developed by Tobias Wrigstad in 2007 (58). Wrigstad’s intent was to highlight the mishandling of rape cases in Sweden. This is an important discussion to have, maybe with students. Video games have mostly shrugged the stigma of being for children, but they are still seen as a form of entertainment for kids, teenagers, or dumb, immature adults (see almost any movie or TV show where video games are played by characters). If we’re accepting that video games are a modern art form, which we are, then they should be allowed to deal with mature subject matter without discussions of appropriateness or censorship. I think some would like to say we already allow for that, because we protect games with the first amendment, but we still censor games as a culture in other ways, which is why sex, nudity, and sexuality is rarely shown in western games but violence is prevalent, and vice versa in eastern games. Our cultures dictate what’s acceptable in art, even if not explicitly stated or regulated.

“A better comparison [for games] than film is theater, which is where a lot of our game vocabulary (“the player,” “stages,” “set pieces,” “scripting”) comes from” (60). She goes on to explain that players interpret intent and narrative differently, performing the same role – say, of Master Chief – differently based on how they interpret it. I think this is an interesting idea, but I’m not sure I agree. The vocabulary she points to seems to have come from other arenas, like game terminology (a chess ‘player’) or film (stage and film share much in the way of terminology, including ‘set pieces’ and ‘scripting,’ but given the latter’s vast popularity, it seems more likely that we took terms from it and not from the former). The idea of players interacting and creating scenes intuitively does smack more of theater, but I think games that are collaborative and less narratively structured, like MMOs or online shooters, are really the only good examples of this. Many games are cinematic and have fairly rigid narratives that have something very specific to say, leading the player through it. They use camera angles, music, and scripted action/dialogue that can’t be improvised, making them very much more like film than plays.

“I thought (and think) that ‘higher education’ is bullshit” (96). Ouch. There are certainly some aspect of higher education that are, in fact, bullshit, but I think it’s dismissive and short-sighted to label it all as such. Sure, the closer we get to a profit-based jumble of bureaucratic crap the further we get from the original intent of our institutions, but I’m sure there are millions of people who have had intellectual awakenings thanks to engaging in scholarly study and debate. But I very much digress.

“That’s part of the reason why contemporary big-budget games have so much clutter and so few strong ideas. The games are all over the place because the creators were all over the place. It’s hard to have a strong singular vision when the process of creation is spread so thin” (102-3). This is a fair point, but I would add the commercial nature of many games, too. Some of these big-budget games are not created with any artistic intent, they are crafted as products that should perform well and entertain consumers enough that they spread the gospel. Yes, it can be argued that every game is a piece of art, but sometimes the art is just a byproduct. Games like World of Warcraft or League of Legends or Overwatch are primarily focused on user experience, value, and social engagement, so it’s this focus on the product as a commercial object that keeps them from having a unified artistic vision, not a large, non-unified group of artists. There are, in my opinion, big-budget games that can have narrow artistic visions despite not have a clear artistic leader at the helm, even if it is rare.

“What videogames need right now is to grow up. The videogame industry has spent millions upon millions of dollars to develop more visually impressive ways for a space marine to kill a monster. What they’ve invested almost nothing in is finding better ways to tell a story, and in exploring different stories to tell. That’s for us to do … Every game that you and I make right now – every five minute story, every weird experiment, every dinky little game about the experience of putting down your dog – makes the boundaries of our art form (and it is ours) larger. Every new game is a voice in the darkness” (160). And here it is: the thesis, a call to action. This book was published in 2012, which is forever ago in video game years, and it’s interesting to consider its message in the wake of the indie game explosion that’s happened since the book came out. I suspect Anthropy would look at many of the commercially successful indie games – Minecraft, Stardew Valley, Firewatch, etc. – as different than the short, experimental games that she often highlights, but I do think that the number of these types of games shows that things are changing. Slowly, yes. And painfully, given that every time a game like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture or What Remains of Edith Finch is released we have to suffer through the vocal minority that claims they’re ‘not really video games.’ Either way, I think this text’s focus on authorship and voice in the art of game making interesting to consider when teaching games as texts.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I stared at him.

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He stared at me.

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I stared at him.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Final Fantasy XV Forever

I spent the last two weeks of my winter break playing as much Final Fantasy XV as I could. I’d hoped to beat it before the semester started and things got busy, but of course that didn’t happen. I’ve since completed the story, using every scrap of free time I had, but it still wasn’t enough. FFXV is the kind of game that I don’t want to stop playing. I don’t want the game to be over. Luckily, this entry in the series is in line with some of the old-school Final Fantasy games in that it has tons of post-game stuff to do, like super hard dungeons to conquer and ultimate weapons to hunt down and wrestle from the jaws of some particularly nasty creatures.

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I’m sad just thinking about not having anything left to do once I complete my last few objectives. I’m currently grinding AP to unlock some of the pricier Ascension skills that I feel like I’ll need to take on the hardest secret dungeon in the game and Adamantoise, the enormous turtle that apparently takes hours to defeat. That will take care of the ‘big’ things, so if I’m really feeling depressed about finishing I’ll just have the high level hunts left to do.

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Prior to the game’s release I avoided virtually all hype or even discussion about it. I learned the dangers of buying into hype long ago, so for games I’m already excited for, I play it safe and stay away from news and previews (I still get burned, on occasion, but it’s pretty rare). There’s something about the purity of experiencing a game with little expectation. Anyway, I say this because I’m glad I avoided previews and reviews, because apparently some people really didn’t like the game (or some parts of it, anyway), and I can’t help but wonder if seeing that stuff ahead of time would have subconsciously affected my enjoyment of it. Would I have gotten to the section that seems most harshly judged and been looking for it to be bad, making me appreciate it less? Retrospectively, I don’t feel the way others do about that part of the game. I won’t be too specific, in case anyone except Russian bots (thanks, Google Analytics) reads this, but the complaints are mostly based on the sudden change of pace and a change in your party’s line-up. That’s sort of a Final Fantasy thing, though. It doesn’t happen in every game, but some of them definitely have major shifts in pace when the world map becomes inaccessible due to apocalyptic events, or cases like FFIII (VI), where you are forced to split your party into three groups for the final dungeon. Sure, it was a little annoying because I was so used to having my friends back me up in combat, and a little quiet because they weren’t there to add color commentary, but the change in atmosphere felt purposeful. I was on my own, a little anxious about what I’d have to face, a little worried about my friends’ safety… it was an effective change to the cadence of the game to that point.

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That aside, I just genuinely loved playing this game. I was resistant when Square-Enix began messing with (modernizing?) their traditional turn-based/active-time battle system, but I ended up loving the fast-paced and fluid combat in FFXII, and the combat in FFXV reminds me a lot of it, but even better. Initially I was hoping for a return of the gambit system from FFXII as well, where you can essentially program your party’s behavior, but I didn’t miss it all that much. I was always aware of my partner’s location, weaknesses, and strengths, and once I found a balance between using that information with my own attacks, it was incredibly fulfilling, especially against large, difficult monsters.

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While I had reservations going in, the world and characters ended up becoming a natural part of the Final Fantasy landscape for me, too. I know the worlds in previous games have been drastically different from each other, but the few screenshots I’d seen of FFXV before playing made me worry it was going to be too slick, modern, and realistic to feel like a, well, fantasy. I was wrong. I mean, there are better characters, but these characters seem to have more personality and are more memorable than most of those in FFXII and FFXIII.

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I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t build and customize my group for a fair chunk of the game, but after a while I grew used to and appreciative of my bromantic partners and the chemistry we’d built. [Some spoilers ahead, dear non-bot readers] Still, I wanted to see a lot more of Aranea Highwind, and I wanted her to be a (permanent) party member even more. It almost seems like she was meant to be, at some point, given that you fight her, temporarily join her later, and she has her own set of moves and weapons/armor. I would definitely play a Final Fantasy XV-2 that starred a group led by (or including) her. From the early days of my Final Fantasy playing, I wished you could choose and woo the romantic partner of your choice, as you can with BioWare games now. Sorry, FFVIII’s Rinoa – I would have gone to the moon for Quistis, and you would have had to help me get there. Aranea would have probably been the object of my romantic efforts in FFXV. She is, as the kids say, bae.

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Aranea was far from the only bit of beauty in the game though, as I was almost constantly catching myself in awe of how gorgeous the world, characters, and almost everything is. One of the weird things I pay close attention to in games is geography/geology. I appreciate open world games that seem natural and realistic in terms of how the land is shaped and the land features work together. FFXV’s canyons, mountains, volcanoes, hills, forests, etc. all seem to have spawned from actual geologic events, even if some of those events might have been more powerful or variable due to the magic-and-god-infused universe in which they reside. The grass, trees, boulders, bushes, etc. seem to be where they should and not just dropped in by the god-hand of some invisible programmer.

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I also caught myself appreciating how similar the CG scenes looked to the in-world graphics. I remember seeing the trailer for Final Fantasy VIII and feeling so awed by how stunning it looked… but then a little sad because I knew the game itself wouldn’t look nearly that good. We’ve come a long way, though. Still, the CG in the middle of the game, when you meet Leviathan and just after, has some of the most incredible and breathtaking graphics I’ve ever seen. I found myself crying during one of those scenes, and I can’t help but wonder how much of it was what was happening in the story and how much of it was how overwhelming the visuals were.

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I could go on and on (chocobos were cool, I like the car stuff, the post-game flying car sucked, etc.), but I just wanted to get some of my thoughts down before finishing the game. I’m sad to see it go, but I’m happy I had a chance to play it. I don’t know if it’s my favorite Final Fantasy game ever, but it’s easily top three. It’s hard to say, either way, because the series is filled with games that are so different from one another, but if I gauge it by how sad I am that I’m almost done playing it, FFXV is probably number 2 or maybe even number 1. I’ll end this blog by posting some of the pictures taken by my characters in-game, along with a few screenshots that I took myself so that I can look back nostalgically at some distant point in time. Farewell, beautiful friend.

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My Gaming Radar: 2017

First, I should say that this is not necessarily just a list of unreleased games that I’m excited about playing in 2017. The stack of games I’ve bought but haven’t played yet is bigger than my bank account, so my immediate gaming future will be spent catching up on some of those, and I begin my list with those that I actually plan on playing in the next few months. I couldn’t hope to get through the entire stack, even if I had several months off (sorry, copy of Secret of Evermore that I’ve had for almost twenty years!), so I’m just going with recent-ish purchases.

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Aside from that, yeah, these are some games that I am very excited about and are scheduled to be released in 2017. It’s a long-ish list already, so I’m excluding games that I’m only passively interested in (sorry, Ni no Kuni II, I still have to finish your predecessor), games that I’ve already played in some form (like Final Fantasy XII or Dragon Quest VIII), games that I’ve started and am still playing (The Division, Rock Band 4, GTA V, etc.) and games that are only rumored to be coming out (like, well, half of the games for Nintendo’s Switch). I’ll conclude with games that I want to see announced this year, because if anyone reads this and gets that far they deserve to be rewarded with even more text to half-read and zero-enjoy. You’re welcome!

Final Fantasy XV

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This game was in development for so long that I hadn’t even thought about it in years. Real, literal years. But when I got an email about pre-ordering it, an old familiar excitement rushed through me. Final Fantasy games have changed a lot over the years, but I haven’t hated any of them, even if some are less memorable than others. And some, like XII, are high up on my favorite-games-of-all-time list, so I am very excited to play this one. I’d been waiting for winter break to start it because playing narratively immersive games is hard for me during the busy semester, so I should get to it before I’m out of time and up to my neck in all kinds of work again. I know very little about it, because I tend to avoid reading previews and reviews on games that I am very excited about, to avoid getting too hyped or running into spoilers, but it looks gorgeous from the few screenshots and videos I’ve seen. I just hope the combat is fun, like it was in XII.

Life is Strange

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This game seems pretty easy to consume in small chunks, so I will likely save this for the middle of the semester, when I can guiltily sneak in only 20-30 minutes of gaming every few days (if I’m lucky). I’ve heard lots of good things about it, and I have very much enjoyed other recent games that have more of a focus on narrative than mechanics. It also came up in a presentation I attended, about using video games in literature courses, so I am curious to play it with that in mind and see how I might fit it into my own future courses.

The Last Guardian

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Okay, full disclosure: I own both Team Ico’s Ico and Shadow of the Colossus but I have yet to beat either of them. Or, well, play either of them for more than five or ten minutes. But I will! Some day. Some distant, distant day. I am determined to break that habit with The Last Guardian, which I never thought I’d see released at all. I enjoy big, mainstream games as much as the next person, but sometimes I need these smaller, quirky games to remind me of the vast spectrum of what video games have come to be. Also, that bird-dog better not fucking die, man. I’m telling you right now, Team Ico, despite the game already being complete!

Paper Mario: Color Splash

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Now we’re getting into the games that I will probably have to save for summer break, but I am still very excited about games like Paper Mario: Color Splash. The Paper Mario series has followed the Nintendo tradition of refining and perfecting a solid formula rather than reworking and trying to revolutionize new entries. The upside to this is that you end up with some of the best games on any platform, but sometimes it can feel tiring after a while (lookin’ at you, Animal Crossing). It’s somewhere between the two for me, with regards to Paper Mario, so I’m both expecting a high quality, thoughtful experience with Color Splash and hoping for something different enough to make it feel like a very new and different game. But the cute style and odd humor will win me over, either way. Paper Peach is still on my list of tattoos that I might get eventually.

Dead Rising 3

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The first Dead Rising game was, I thought, flawed but fun, and the second improved a bit on my main area of complaint (the whole ticking time-bomb structure). Even if I don’t get into the story or characters in this third entry, I’ve always loved exploring the detailed environments and the many ways with which to dispatch the undead. The previous entries did an impressive job with the last gen hardware, considering how good the games looked and how many objects were on screen at once, so I am excited to see how the Xbox One’s horsepower lends itself to creating an even more chaotic and inspiring world.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

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I don’t have much to say about this one. I’ve enjoyed most of the Call of Duty games and I get around to playing them when I can get them for pretty cheap (I don’t play online so I never feel very rushed). I expect that this will be a solid, fun, short experience.

Halo 4

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Man, I loved Halo 3. I played it online, a lot, and I had tons of fun with the video editor. I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to buying the fourth game, and I don’t expect I’ll get online with it this time around (having the right set of friends being into a game at the same time helps, I think), but I anticipate some epic, cinematic science-fiction battles.

Battlefield 1

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I have a lot of FPSs to catch up on, it seems. Battlefield 1 looks gorgeous and I’m curious to see how they handle the World War I setting. Like many people, I picture that war as being very slow and bleak, but the videos of Battlefield 1 make it look very fast and flashy. For as much cynicism that this  disparity had generated early in the game’s development, it sure has gotten a lot of good press post-release. So I might try and get to this before summer, if I can.

Titanfall

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I never bought into the hype for this game, but it looked good enough to buy at a hefty Black Friday discount, so I’ll play it before I forget about it and it’s doomed to the probably-won’t-play-for-years pile.

Street Fighter V

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Fighting games are super easy to play casually, so I’ll probably play this game (and the next entry)  sporadically throughout the semester. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Street Fighter IV, so I expect this one to be at least as good.

Mortal Kombat X

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I don’t remember the last time I played a Mortal Kombat game regularly, but with fairly strong buzz and a roster of DLC characters that include some of my favorite cinematic villains, I couldn’t pass this one up. Even if I don’t get into it half as much as I did with the first few MK games all those years ago, it will be nice to revisit the characters (and have a current MK game laying around for social gaming gatherings).

Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past

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Oh, man. Ever since Dragon Quest VIII enthralled and enchanted me over ten years ago, I have been waiting anxiously for another Dragon Quest experience like it. With no proper sequels released on home consoles, I made do with the Nintendo DS remakes, which were great, don’t get me wrong, but they didn’t have the same vastness and sense of exploration that VIII did. I don’t expect Fragments of the Forgotten Past will satisfy that sense, but I love the series so much that I will eat it up anyway. It will at least keep me satisfied until…

Dragon Quest XI

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Okay, so, very little has been released about this entry in the series, leading me to doubt it will be out in 2017, but that’s what it’s listed as so I’ll hold out hope. And my hopes are high, given that this will be the first single player game in the main series to be released in the US since, well, VIII. And the few screenshots that I’ve seen look absolutely stunning. I hope they maintain the old-school RPG gameplay, which is a staple of the series, and don’t try anything too revolutionary. Still, just seeing a new Dragon Quest world rendered with the power of the PlayStation 4 is going to make waiting hard. But I will, and I’ll probably self-impose a blackout on reading any press about it, starting — now.

Resident Evil 7

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Resident Evil 7 comes out just two weeks after the semester starts, which means… well, it means I’m going to have to play fast to make it through it before I get too busy. Waiting is not much of an option. Not only am I a big Resident Evil fan, but this game looks like it goes back to the series’ horror roots in the best way. I haven’t decided whether I’m going to play it in VR or not yet. The screen tearing and jaggies in the “Kitchen” demo worry me a bit, as does the fact that some VR games make me nauseous after a while. I’ll probably start out in VR and see how it feels. The graphics and lighting in the regular demo are spectacular, though, and I can’t wait to see where the biological agents come into play, as so far they’re playing the whole ‘inbred, rural serial killer’ thing up, but that is almost certainly a front. Like the mansion in the first game, I’m sure there is some underground or off-site facility where mutant/zombie stuff happens. As disappointed as I was that Silent Hills was cancelled, I like that Capcom seems to be embracing the same kind of tone and style for this new Resident Evil.

Outlast 2

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Another embarrassing admission: I still haven’t beaten the first Outlast game. I died a few times in a row when I got to the basement, and I just wasn’t equipped to deal with that level of repeated tension and anxiety, so I put it aside. I’ll have to get back to it, because as a horror fan I loved the premise and atmosphere, and the sequel looks so great. The cornfield setting is especially exciting for me, because I live and go to school in a city surrounded by corn. I’m even trying to think of a way to bring it into the classroom, too, since my students will be well acquainted with corn field and their creepiness, so we can analyze setting and its effect on different audiences.

Horizon Zero Dawn

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I don’t know much about the plot for Horizon Zero Dawn, other than it’s a sort of post–post-apocalyptic reclamation scenario (right? I might be remembering incorrectly). But the video they showed at E3, and the screenshots that I’ve seen have been stunning. I’m all about large, colorful, luscious landscapes, and this game looks to have that in spades. I’m all for new female lead characters, too, so I’m hoping she is cool and memorable.

Ace Combat 7

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I’m cautiously optimistic about Ace Combat 7Ace Combat 4 is one of my favorite games of all time, but since then the series has disappointed me to various degrees, with the last game I tried playing (Assault Horizon) being the worst of them. Having said that, 7  probably wouldn’t even be on my radar if it weren’t for the fact that it’s going to be fully compatible with the PlayStation VR. Will I get sick and want to have a real barf bag handy in my virtual cockpit? Maybe. But it just might be worth it. I just want the controls to return to the days of the fourth and fifth games in the series. Please. Pretty please.

Red Dead Redemption 2

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Rockstar is so secretive about their games that I can’t even predict whether this will really be released this year or pushed back to spring 2018, but it seems slightly more likely that the former will actually happen. I loved Red Dead Redemption far more than I’d expected to, and Rockstar went so far above and beyond with Grand Theft Auto V that my hopes are apologetically high for the sequel. I’m hoping it’s set up like GTA V in that there is a fully fleshed-out single player campaign and then a vast and full-featured open-world multi-player mode as well. I’m ready to ride or die either way.

Star Trek: Bridge Crew

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Okay, so the screenshots released for this game aren’t exactly inspiring. In fact, they look pretty generic and, well, crappy. BUT! Star Trek! In virtual reality! I won’t be too worried about the graphics being sub-par (I might even welcome it, in VR) if they get the gameplay and simulation parts right. My favorite Star Trek game is the SNES version of Star Trek: Starfleet Academy – Starship Bridge Simulator. I loved being in the role of a cadet making their way through the academy and, eventually, getting my own ship and rank. This game sounds like it could potentially be a spiritual successor to that game, so I am hyped for it. I’m not sure it will start in the academy, but I hope so. Either way, I’m definitely excited to give this a shot. It might be a dud, but at the very least it will be a neat novelty game for the VR.

Mass Effect Andromeda

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Is this the game I’m looking forward to most this year? Maybe. Probably. Maybe. The Mass Effect series is among my favorites, and this game looks pretty spectacular so far. The only thing keeping me from being more certain about its status is the cast of characters. The other Mass Effect sequels had the benefit of returning, beloved characters. I’m sure BioWare will conjure up yet another complex and lovable/hateable (in a good way) crew, but I don’t know anything about them at this point, so… I’m purposefully being wary. I’d rather be pleasantly surprised than disappointed. Anyway, I hope away missions to planets makes a return, like the Mako missions in the first game. It would be even better if it were expanded on and you could land on any terrestrial planet. With games like No Man’s Sky and Elite: Dangerous it seems like an obvious direction to take, but once again I’m not going to get too hopeful. Regardless, I love BioWare and I love Mass Effect, so my life and free time are theirs once this comes out.

Nintendo Switch

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Aside from what Nintendo showed at E3, I haven’t heard much about the gaming line-up for the Switch, so I don’t have much to go off of. There’s supposed to be a new Mario game ready for or near launch, duh. And there will eventually be a new Mario Kart, Mario Party, Metroid, etc. I’ve never been big into mobile gaming, so that part of the design is passively interesting at best for me. I am also a little disappointed (but not surprised) that the core system is not likely to be much more powerful than last-gen consoles. But, at the end of the day, it’s a new Nintendo console that will have new Nintendo games… gimme dat.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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Okay, one last shameful confession before we wind things down: I bought The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess with my Wii at launch. I was super excited for the series’ return to darker and more realistic visuals. I played it for an hour or so and then didn’t touch it again for four or five years. At that point I felt dumb and guilty for never having given it a chance, especially given how much people seemed to like it. So I picked it up, played for seven or eight hours… and stopped. Again. I can’t let that happen again, so I am determined to play the shit out of Breath of the Wild, which looks colorful and fun and pretty wonderful so far.

NES Classic Edition

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I have been trying to get one of these since it launched. It seems Nintendo is up to its old tricks, limiting stock and using the resulting madness to fuel sales for months. It works, of course, but I wanted one before it was the ‘it’ thing to grab. I have many of the games loaded on it, but for those that I don’t, and just to have a slightly up-res version of the NES with classic controllers, I want one. Badly.

Other Wishes

Very briefly, here are some non-obvious games I’d love to see announced or released this year. First up is Bully 2. It’s not that I loved the original more than any game ever, but I did very much enjoy the world and characters, and the fact that a sequel seems like a given and seems to constantly be rumored to be coming, I want it more and more every year. Maybe this year.

Second is Mother 3. After Nintendo’s surprise release of EarthBound Beginnings for the Virtual Console, my hopes for a US release of Mother 3 went from ‘never gonna happen’ to ‘any day now’ instantly. I was so sure they would have announced it last year, on the tenth anniversary of the Japanese version’s release. I lost some hope when it wasn’t, but it still seems like it has to happen at some point… I really hope it’s this year.

What else would be cool? A new Knights of the Old Republic game, thought it seems highly unlikely. A Star Wars VR game. A remake of Final Fantasy VIII, which seems highly likely (but not for another few years, probably). A new, real, huge Animal Crossing. A new Civilization Revolution would be nice, but is doubtful. And, of course, a Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross sequel or remake, as unlikely as it is.

Even without these dream games, 2017 is already shaping up to be a pretty decent year for video games. I look forward to E3 in the spring and how that might change things. Until then, I have an endless stack of games to get to.