When I started this site, one of my intentions was to use it as a place to write notes and short blurbs about my dissertation as I researched and worked on it. I did post a thing or two about some book notes, but I haven’t really done much else. There are a couple of reasons for this. One, I think, is that I just didn’t feel very confident about my topic – for a while, at least. I am in a fairly traditional English department, so other than our one digital rhetoric professor, there isn’t much of a place for a dissertation that is essentially a video games studies project. The process of writing my prospectus was basically filled with anxiety and stress about convincing my committee that this project had the potential to be important and relevant. I was continually hearing dissenting voices in my head. “But why does this thing matter? What are you actually bringing to the field? Do you really know enough to write this?” But after I wrote my prospectus and began converting it into a presentation, I found my confidence again. Mostly. I won’t sit here and say there aren’t still doubts, but in the process of condensing my prospectus and thinking of how to verbally pitch it, I ended up convincing myself that it was as good as I had originally thought when I came up with the idea.
So, having said all that, I am going to start posting blogs about my work. The second of the previously mentioned reasons for not doing so earlier is that I was nervous about people taking my ideas. After much reflection, I have come to conclude: who gives a shit. I’m doing this work with the intent to share it anyway, and I don’t love academia’s habit of hoarding and gating off knowledge to boot. What scenario is that little anxiety-corner of my brain imagining? That someone will see my blogs and publish their own version of my dissertation? I mean, maybe, but that seems pretty unlikely, especially given that I have lots of material that I’m not posting. What is more likely, I think, is that someone might end up seeing this and thinking “hey, that’s kind of like my work,” and if I’m lucky, they’ll reach out and I’ll have a new contact/friend to chat about video games and research with.
Future posts will probably be a lot more specific. I don’t have an exact plan for what I’ll be sharing. Sometimes it will be fully formed thoughts, sometimes it will be aimless rambles, sometimes it will just be interesting tidbits (to me) that I may or may not even end up using for anything. With that, I suppose I should say a little about what my project actually is. The working title of my dissertation is Soft Power-Up: Japanese Games as Cultural and Rhetorical Exports. The “soft power” in the play on words in the first part of the title is kind of a key component of the project. Soft power is a term that essentially describes a nation’s capacity to influence other nations with culture, rather than traditional forms of global power, like military might and economics. There have been lots of studies on Japan’s use of soft power to fill the gap left by its loss in economic superpower status in the 1980s. Most of these studies focus on widely known things like sushi, karaoke, tea ceremonies, anime, manga, and more. Studies on the use of video games as a part of this national strategy seem surprisingly lacking. The most recent edition of The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture has chapters on music, education, food, anime, and much, much more, but there is not a single chapter on video games. This edition was published in 2009, which is far too recent for any excuses of “well video games weren’t big yet.” Video games are and have been huge exports for Japan since the 1980s, to the point of being the only cultural product that Japan exports more than it imports.
So it seems like a no-brainer to me to study this. I was recently pointed toward Rachael Hutchinson’s book Japanese Culture Through Video Games, published just last year (after I had stopped research for my prospectus), which seems to cover much of what I intend to look at in my work. I have yet to read it, because academic texts are vastly overpriced and I am a poor grad student, but I’ll hopefully find a cheap copy soon. I feel pretty confident that my approach will be different enough that I won’t be treading the same ground, but I can’t deny I was a little sad to see that someone had (at least partially) beat me to print. On the other hand, I was so excited and felt weirdly vindicated (to the doubting voices in my head, anyway) to see that a very close approximation of my idea was not only taken seriously by another scholar, but published by a major press as well.
One thing that differentiates my project from Hutchinson’s (I think) is our choice of case studies. Of all the games noted in her introduction and table of contents, I don’t see any mention of the Persona, Yakuza, or Resident Evil series, or Death Stranding, and these are the games that I’ll be looking closely at. She does have a whole chapter on absentee parents which I am interested to read, because that is one of the many aspects of Japanese culture I see reflected in a metric crap ton of Japanese games and was planning on talking about in my project. I chose the Persona and Yakuza series because they both take place in real Japan, often depicting real, specific locations that exist today. So they offer insight into how the developers chose to depict their culture in explicit terms. On the other hand, there are notable Japanese games that are set in America or other Western settings, like the Resident Evil games and Death Stranding. I want to use these games to show that, regardless of setting, there are a whole host of aspects of Japanese culture that end up showing through in these games (in implicit terms). When consideration of these two types of games are combined, I hope to show what Japanese games are “saying” about Japan to the Western world, how that message has changed over time, and why it all matters.
Okay, I should shut up. As usual, I am mostly writing these for myself, to work out and solidify ideas, and just start writing things out that might be useful later. However, I’m also sharing this for anyone that’s interested in Japanese games, is or will be writing a dissertation, or is in any of the many fields related to games studies. If you want to reach out, please do. I’d be happy to answer any questions or share/swap sources. Thanks for reading, and look forward to more posts like this. Or don’t, I guess. That’s cool, too. You do you.
I don’t love doing long blogs that cover multiple games, but I’ve had the fortune of playing several games over the last couple of months, and the misfortune of not having as much time to write about them. So, here we are. Because this is in large part my way of tracking my own thoughts about games, I should put a general spoiler warning out there, in case anyone happens to read this and has yet to play any of these games, particularly since some of them are very new. I’m not used to writing about newly released games, so yeah. The screenshots are especially potentially spoilerific. Having said that, it feels good to be “caught up” with my recent backlog enough that I can actually play new games and be active in the conversations around them. I’ll have to go back to playing specific Japanese games for my dissertation soon, but I’m giving myself until the New Year for that. So, without further ado, I begin with a couple of games that I didn’t finish.
Ghost Recon: Breakpoint
I haven’t played a Ghost Recon game since the GameCube days, but my friend wanted to play this co-op and I liked the idea of getting back to some multiplayer action. The story didn’t quite hook me, and as with the Division games, I wished there were more character customization options at the start, but I did have a fair amount of fun in my time with the game. Sneaking around in my tiger stripe camo, crawling through mud and resting behind a tree stump to line up the perfect shots on two unsuspecting enemies never got old. What did get old was clearing out enemy strongholds. It was fun enough the first few times, but after playing games in the Far Cry and Assassins Creed series’, it felt a little uninspired after a while. The lighting and environmental effects made traversing the map visually stimulating, but when I was playing alone I found exploration less rewarding than it was in other open world games. There were a few times in particular when I’d see something mysterious on the map, spend a fair amount of time carefully making my way to it, only to discover that it was blocked off for a later story mission or something. I didn’t dislike the game, but with so many games to play, I moved on without much regret.
And Borderlands 3 is what I moved on to. I played and liked the first two games in the series, but I wasn’t rushing out to buy the third. I think I got the first two on sale, but I’m generally not much of a looter shooter fan. Having said that, I like playing games like this with friends, so the previously mentioned friend and I played this for a while after giving up on Breakpoint. Having not played the first two games for such a long time, the first thing that struck me was how crisp and vibrant the graphics were. The smooth controls that I remember made a return, so running or driving around from battle to battle was fun enough. The humor was, as expected, hit or miss, but overall it was a fun, lively world. But, as with Breakpoint, I eventually got bored, especially when not playing with my friend, and since we both had other games to move on to, we gave up on completing the story after a while. I can see myself going back to it someday, though, maybe.
Night Trap: 25th Anniversary Edition
I was only ten years old when Night Trap came out, but my former diehard Nintendo fanboy self didn’t own any Sega system, let alone a Sega system add-on like the Sega CD. I have to admit, though, reading about a game with real video of young women running around in nightgowns was certainly something that ten year old me was, shall we say, curious about. The game’s role in the 1993 senate hearings on violent video games only increased my curiosity, but as you might have guessed by its inclusion in this post, it wasn’t until this year that I would get around to giving it a shot. I picked it up when Limited Run Games released a physical copy for several systems, but I didn’t get around to playing it until this past Halloween.
And, oh boy, was it not a fun experience. I mean, on one hand, it was very campy and dated and I love things that are really obviously from a specific time period because they’re fascinating time capsules that offer a much more authentic view into the styles and culture of a time than you might see in a modern throwback TV show or movie. On the other hand, it’s a frustrating mess of a game that is impossible to really enjoy in terms of the video content because the core mechanic is not watching the screens on which action is happening, so that you can trap the many, many enemies that are trying to sneak into the house on other screens. For some of the traps you have to spring, you only have a 1-2 second window, and if you miss it, it’s game over. I had waited so long to play it, though, so after making several attempts on my own, I eventually gave in and used a guide to beat it a few times. I think the core concept of the game is interesting, and if they had spread the story out enough so that you weren’t constantly having to miss narrative progress to trap enemies, it could have been a lot of fun. With the recent revival of the FMV genre, I would very much love to see a remake of this game, set in and satirizing the 90s.
Speaking of games I played for Halloween, I was very surprised by how much I liked Alien: Isolation. The game is a masterclass in atmosphere. From the persistently mindful use of lighting, to the accurate sound effects, to the appropriately retro futuristic technology, this game truly feels like it’s a part of the same universe as the films (particularly the first few). If I’m ever lucky enough to have the chance to design my own class on adaptations, I would seriously consider pairing the first Alien film with this game.
I think my only real complaint is that the pacing near the end is a little frustrating. It’s from a British developer, but it does the thing that a lot of Japanese games do, where it keeps leading you to believe that the game is almost over, only to pull the rug out from under you and give you another challenge. In my experience, that move is effective once, maybe twice if you’re careful and one of the challenges is short. But when each challenge stretches the game out longer and longer, it starts to feel frustrating and makes me want the game to just end. This game isn’t as guilty as others (*cough* Death Stranding *cough*), and ultimately it didn’t overshadow the incredible achievements in the rest of the game. One of those achievements is respecting the alien and making it as formidable as it is in the early movies. It is truly tense and terrifying when the alien is nearby. In one area, I knew the alien was crawling around in the vents above me, searching, but I didn’t know hostile humans were also nearby. I sneaked over to a terminal and began stealthily reading an entry, when, well, I captured a video of the encounter:
The way this scene played out was quintessential Alien. Just when you forget about the alien, just when you let yourself get distracted by a strange woman hacking a terminal, hisssssss. Ya dead.
The Outer Worlds
As a fan of Fallout 3 and 4, I was of course excited that a Fallout-like game was coming from the developers of Fallout: New Vegas and Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (which I loved). And it really, really feels like a Fallout game, down to the retro corporate propaganda posters and artwork. That’s not a bad thing, but it is inescapable. Weirdly, it felt like a kind of mashup of their experience with both BioWare and Bethesda licenses, because while the gameplay and style is certainly Fallout-esque, the party system and planet-hopping are straight from their work on KotOR II. So, in short, I was here for it.
While the game isn’t as engrossing and immersive as a Fallout game, I enjoyed the more compact, punchy story, and I loved having my own ship and a crew. Parvati was my favorite, so I almost always had her in my party. I did miss a romance system, even if Parvati was off the table. I would have totally made a play for Celia Robbins, if I could convince her that she’s too good for that dumb merchant she was swooning over.
The game is stylized, so it doesn’t quite have the same realistic sci-fi wow factor that the Mass Effect games did, but I think it gives it a unique personality and will allow it to age more gracefully than the Fallout games tend to. I think they did a nice job of making the planets look unique and interesting, though I wish there were more to explore. The Outer Worlds doesn’t really break any new ground, but it’s a good, fun, safe game.
Phew. I just finished Death Stranding a couple of days ago, and I ended up playing it for over 75 hours, so my brain is still a little addled. From Hideo Kojima’s split with Konami, to the bizarre reveal trailer, to the celebrity cameos, this game was hyped to hell, so I did my best to avoid most discussion of it. It was everywhere, though, so I can’t say that I evaded the hype with 100% success, but its launch was (as is becoming normal for AAA titles) beset by a loud seeming-minority of people that absolutely hated it, which clashed with what seemed to be a fairly positive critical response overall. So I went in not knowing what to expect, really, and I was wary about making any judgments about the game until I was a good 20 or so hours in.
There is a lot I could say about this game’s themes, characters, and messaging, but I’m going to keep that commentary brief (partly because this would be a massive post if I didn’t, and also because I plan on including some of it in my dissertation). So I’ll just say that Kojima is a very ambitious, visionary game director, whose love for Hollywood is apparent in how he tells a story. He tries to rely on style and visuals to tell the story, like, say, Stanley Kubrick did, but he seems to always pull back and use endless exposition as a crutch. The visuals in this game are phenomenal (the Decima engine is amazing), and I appreciate the chances that Kojima is taking with the narrative, but there’s not much denying that it’s sloppy and redundant in places (like the incredibly long and drawn out end sequences that I alluded to in my discussion of Alien: Isolation).
Okay, having said all that, I still really loved this game. As I said, the visuals are stunning, and more specifically, the geology and various landscapes are amazing. Furthermore, the walking mechanic works really well because the landscape is mapped so well that your feet land where they should land, instead of on invisible planes. This made navigating the map an immersive and visceral experience for me. This was most obvious during my journey to scale the highest mountain in the game. I wrote previously about my experience climbing Death Peak in Chrono Trigger, and even in that 2D game I felt a weird sense of accomplishment at braving the elements and overcoming environmental diversity to reach the top of a snowy mountain. The same can be said here, though there was much more working against me.
I should also point out that I didn’t have to climb to the top of the mountain. I was in the area, though, and it seemed like a fun challenge. Could I even do it? It was quite steep in places, and snow in the game quickly erodes most equipment that you’re carrying, so I probably couldn’t rely too much on that. Welp, I decided to give it a shot, so I strapped a couple of ladders, climbing anchors, repair spray, and an extra pair of boots on my back, and I set off on what looked like a safe enough route.
It snowed almost the entire way up, so one by one, my pieces of equipment started decaying and becoming unusable. Sometimes I could climb pretty steep inclines, but this was before I had gloves or level 3 boots, so I spent a lot of time zig-zagging through deep but somewhat level snow. The storm increased in severity, and plodding through the snow began to take a serious toll on my stamina. It dwindled, dwindled, I would rest a little or drink some water, but I had to keep moving to keep from freezing and to protect what remained of my equipment. I slipped a few times, lost some cargo at one point, but I kept picking myself and my gear up and trudging along. Each time I thought the peak above me was the very top, I’d crest it and see that there was another to be won just a short distance away. I made it, finally, as evidenced by the screenshot below, but my stamina was shot, most of my gear was destroyed, and I wasn’t sure I had enough water or equipment to make the descent.
Lucky for me [/sarcasm], a whiteout hit as soon as I began my descent, which meant I could barely see what was around or below me. I would plant an anchor and drop a rope, only to slide down into nothingness, hoping to find footing. I did, and I made it to the bottom having only faceplanted a couple of times, so when I finally reached a Bridges post I was on the verge of collapsing but filled with a sense of achievement and adventure. It was moments like these that made me love this game. The characters and stories and all that were varying degrees of weird and fun, but this, for me, was a game about adventure and overcoming all kinds of trouble. I really dug it.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
I’ve only just started Fallen Order, but I wanted to leave my thoughts about the opening sequence before they fade or are subsumed by the rest of the game. I think it’s especially noteworthy given how similar but different it is from Death Stranding. Both games are very cinematic, but where Death Stranding ends up not fully trusting its audience to pick up on visual cues, the opening of Fallen Order is rife with them, and they subtly tell a whole story that connects previous events in the Star Wars universe with the game. There is no overt narration or pre-game text that explains the characters or settings, but we get small snips of dialogue or background animations that do that for us, making for a very natural feeling mix of visual and audio storytelling. The game uses a guided camera at specific points to draw attention to the background, and if you hold a second to take it in, you’ll see Republic cruisers, a droid control ship, and lots of Separatist artillery. If you’re familiar with the prequel trilogy of movies or the animated Clone Wars features, the game doesn’t need to say anything: you can deduce that the Clone Wars are over and both the Separatist droids and Republic clones are, like their ships, out of commission. This is confirmed by the appearance of Stormtroopers, placing this somewhere after the execution of Order 66 and (probably) before the events of A New Hope, when all Jedi have reportedly been wiped out. And this is all conveyed without the game saying “hey, just so you know, this game takes place…” Which is really cool, I think.
Other than that, as I said, I’m not very far in the game, but I can feel myself getting hooked. Wielding a lightsaber feels, looks, and sounds great, I love that I get to travel around on a ship with a crew (callback to The Outer Worlds), and the environments of the only two planets I’ve been on so far are very detailed and Star Wars-y. The Second Sister, who I’m assuming is the main villain, seems super cool. My character feels a little float-y, which I never like as much as precise movement, but I will hopefully get over that if the rest of the combat is solid. I’m also marathon-ing all of the Star Wars movies and TV shows and reading the newly released Star Wars: Resistance Reborn, so I feel like I’m in the midst of another Star Wars Renaissance. I’ll probably post more thoughts on the rest of the game later, but for now I have a prospectus to write. Dang it. May the Force be with me.