Save Point: Discussing My Dissertation

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.

Video Game Crushes: Jill Valentine

Oh, Jill Valentine. Won’t you be my valentine? No, wait, that’s cheesy. And it’s April, not February. Ahem. Please be my Jill sandwich – no, wait, weird and gross. You truly are the master of unlocking… my heart. *cool sunglass guy emoji*

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The original Resident Evil was a huge reason I betrayed my pulpy Nintendo fanboy blood and asked my parents to help me buy a PlayStation. I had a Nintendo 64, so why did I need a PlayStation? All those games are ugly and stupid and not Nintendo, I thought. Wait, there’s a game with zombies? And a big, creepy mansion? A-a-and there’s, like, giant spiders and snakes and stuff? I mean… I guess I could get a non-Nintendo console. Just this once.

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It didn’t quite happen like that, but it was close. My sister’s then-boyfriend had a PlayStation, and when I told him about RE he went out and bought it right away. He and my sister preferred to watch me play, though, so we huddled in his attic with the lights off and played through the game bit by bit, jumping at the zombie dogs, solving puzzles together, and reading all of the creepy notes lying around. That experience satiated what hunger for the PlayStation had risen in me, but as soon as I heard there would be a sequel the hunger returned and I began the classic console negotiation with my parents, where I had to explain that this new console was not the same as the N64 and played completely different games that I couldn’t play on the N64. They eventually relented, and my first games for the PS were Resident Evil: Director’s Cut and Resident Evil 2.

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Okay, so I love the Resident Evil games, but where does Jill come in? Well, my love for Jill started with my preference for playing as her in the first game. If you haven’t played the first two RE games, you have the option to play as one of two characters: Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine in RE, and Leon Kennedy or Claire Redfield in RE2. I remember we chose Jill for our first playthrough because she had more inventory space than Chris, but we played through Chris next. Regardless, I always found myself gravitating toward Jill, whether it was in the original, Director’s Cut, or the remake for the GameCube. I was sad when Capcom announced that she wouldn’t be in RE2, but ecstatic when I found out that she would be the star of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis.

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Source: https://gameranx.com/updates/id/193437/article/capcom-producer-reveals-why-they-redesigned-jill-valentine-for-resident-evil-3-remake/

Jill has come a long way since those famously cheesy lines from the first Resident Evil. As mentioned, she starred in the original Resident Evil 3, she had a very cool surprise appearance in Resident Evil 5, she once again took the lead in the surprisingly good Resident Evil: Revelations, and she returns in the latest RE game, the remake of Resident Evil 3. Her long and harrowing journey reveals one of the reasons I crush on her so hard: she has seen some serious shit. As an Army vet and member of Raccoon City’s Special Tactics and Rescue Service (STARS), Jill was already a badass with military weapons and explosives training, combat skills, and a quick, keen intellect. Layer on top of that all of the horror and hardship she’s seen, and her readiness to not only endure but to return to these terrifying situations in pursuit of the truth and a way to contain the dangerous bio-weapons she’s discovered, and it’s clear that she is one. tough. lady.

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When I poll my students about what they would do if a zombie outbreak happened, you’d be surprised how many of them say some variation of “lay down and die.” A real zombie outbreak would be terrifying, indeed, and after Jill survives just that during the “Mansion Incident” in the Arklay Mountains, she doesn’t collapse in defeat. She begins her own investigation into the event, because it’s clear that her superiors aren’t going to do it. And after the events in Raccoon City, when so much has been lost and she once again survives unimaginable trauma, her response to a villain challenging her ability to discover the truth is a sly smirk and “I’m not afraid of a little detective work.” *swoon*

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She’s not all brawn, though. She cares about those she trusts and she is loyal to her friends and steadfast about her personal ideals. She has some serious trust issues (uh, same, and how can anyone blame her?), but if you demonstrate loyalty she returns it in kind. She has escaped death several times, and she could count herself lucky and stay away from the madness, but she genuinely wants to protect others and help those who are also fighting, like her old friend Chris Redfield or her new friend Carlos. Given her personal fashion choice in the original RE3, a mini-skirt and tube top, I also like to think that she wasn’t always all business. That maybe she had a fun, casual side before she was pulled into the never-ending cycle of horror that is Umbrella and its nefarious products. Regardless, she is strong, smart, capable, caring… and one hell of a locksmith… of my heart… I overplayed that a bit, didn’t I? Damn it.

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Sienna Guillory as Jill in Resident Evil: Apocalypse

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Source: https://residentevil.fandom.com/wiki/Jill_Valentine

Resident Evil 2 Infects My Heart

So the semester is well under way, and although this is my first semester with no coursework, between lesson planning, grading, and reading/prepping for my prospectus (not to mention making time for games/relaxing), I’ve once again fallen behind on posting blogs. I really want to write out my thoughts about Resident Evil 2 before they slip even further from my mind, though, so this is going to be a ramble-y mess of a blog, but here goes.

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First off, as I like to do, I should explain my history with the series to contextualize my feelings. I grew up a Nintendo kid, so I loyally bought a Nintendo 64 even though the then-new PlayStation was getting a surprising amount of hype. There were several games that got my attention and made me want to betray my fanboy roots, but ultimately it was the original Resident Evil 2 that pushed me to convince my parents to buy me a PS. Before then, my sister’s boyfriend had one, and we three played the hell out of the first game, Resident Evil. I usually played while they watched, but we turned the lights off and eagerly consumed every classic, b-movie moment.

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Source: http://horadoterror.com/top-13-jogos-terror-ps1/

So of course Resident Evil 2 was the first game I bought for my shiny new PlayStation, along with Resident Evil: Director’s Cut. I wrote about the former on my Top 25 list, saying “Resident Evil 2 was magical in that it retained the same haunted, abandoned feeling that the first game had, but amped it up in every aspect.” I think that sums up my feelings about it pretty nicely, so let’s fast forward 17 years to when Yoshiaki Hirabyashi announced in a 2015 YouTube video that Capcom had approved a remake for RE2, and you can probably guess that I was pretty ecstatic. Over the years I’ve learned to be cautious with my excitement, though, so after my initial freak-out session, I allowed myself to forget about the game until it came out this year. And here we are.

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Original Video

Having said all of that, I might come off as biased, but I objectively think this game is going to make for an interesting conversation piece when the game of the year discussions begin. It’s clearly going to be in the running for some awards, but will gaming sites consider it a new game, thereby eligible for the top spot? Or is the fact that it’s ‘mostly’ a remake disqualifying? I suppose what matters more is the standard it will set for future remakes and reboots. This game didn’t have to be this good. Look at the recently released Spyro Reignited Trilogy. That game’s developers largely left the core game untouched, but they did an excellent job of updating the presentation. Fans were, from what I hear, mostly very happy, but the game(s) didn’t seem to reach a profoundly expanded audience. Resident Evil 2 sold millions of copies and was all over social media for weeks. It seems likely that many of the people who played it had never played the original, meaning that if done well, remakes can actually greatly expand a series’ fanbase and not just appeal to the base that already exists.

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I’m waxing philosophical, so let me get a little more specific in what I loved about the game. I’d like to start with the feeling I had when first entering the police station. Although I was more excited to play as Claire, I chose Leon to start with because he was the recommended starting character for the original game, so I wanted to experience this version just as I did its source.

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Entering the police station in the original RE2 was like entering the mansion in RE (with the difference being that you are in control of the frantic fleeing that precedes it). It was a safe space, a refuge from the madness outside, but in both cases something seemed… off. In RE2 it’s a combination of the looming, carefully lit statue that dominates your view, and the emptiness and quiet of a seemingly-abandoned police station during a massive emergency. If the police are gone, how bad must things be in this city? This is one of the things the developers nailed: atmosphere.

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Atmosphere is one of those nebulous things that is really the result of several elements coming together, though. The original games felt atmospheric in their own ways, but the improvement in graphics allowed the team to make a key change to this iteration: it is dark. Like, almost pitch black where your flashlight isn’t shining. Where the original games used camera angles to obscure your vision and create anxiety about what might be in each new room, this game uses darkness, and it’s super effective. Sound is key in both games, because a common strategy is to pause when you enter a new area, listening for a telltale zombie moan or licker click. It made for an exhilarating back and forth, where one minute you’re lulled by the security of a cleared room, only to exit into an unknown and potentially deadly situation.

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But, really, what do you know about anxiety in the first half of the game? You certainly feel like an old, grizzled veteran of it… until you meet Mr. X, when a new kind of terror promises to haunt you at every turn. In the original game you’re treated to a cutscene that shows some kind of pod dropped through the roof of the station – a hint of something menacing to come. There is no such hint in this version, which I think is great because even though I was very familiar with the old game I was still caught off-guard when he popped up in this one.

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He was a son of a bitch in the old game, but in this version he is absolutely overbearing. Where you used to be able to duck into a safe room and have him leave you alone for a while, in this one he is relentless in his pursuit. The sound of his heavy stomps triggers a sense of panic, and the use of context-specific controller vibration dependent on his distance from you is a reminder of how effective (and neglected) that technology is. The pulsing music that follows him contributes to the fear, and it reminded me of the use of harsh, grinding music in the old horror movie The Entity, where the music is used as a way to indicate when the invisible spirit is ‘on-screen.’ More impressively, I think, they managed to give Mr. X a personality using posture, head movement, and gestures, without him ever uttering a word, which is something that I don’t think the old game accomplished nearly as well. I’m being too clinical in my description, I think, but it’s difficult to capture his presence without shifting into narrative prose. If I recommend this game to someone who hasn’t heard about it, it will be in part because I’ll want to hear about their response to Mr. X.

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A great throwback to a similar scene in the original game

The game also gets a lot of the little things right. One of my favorite little things about the older games was the brief notes and journal entries you’d find. You didn’t need to read them to understand the main story, but they made the world so much more real and rich. In this iteration, when I came across Chief Irons’ notes on his taxidermy subjects, I excitedly flipped through each macabre page. And then I came across this:

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The tone was definitely different than the previous pages, and the measurements didn’t seem to make sense. It was pretty clear that he was talking about a woman, but… did he kill her? It says “captured,” but also “forever.” Did he kill a woman and stuff her, like an animal? I didn’t think much about it beyond that, but later, when I was playing as Sherry and sneaking through Irons’ secret office, I found answers.

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It’s the little things. Another one: the gore. Of course a game where you’re killing zombies will have some gore, but there were a few particularly noteworthy scenes where they really turned it up a notch. I’ll just let the screenshots speak for themselves.

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After beating the game with both characters and thus getting the “true” ending, I still felt like I wasn’t quite done with it, so I decided to get the platinum trophy, which would require at least a few more playthroughs. On one such playthrough I decided to try Claire’s alternate noir costume. The game flashed a prompt asking me if I wanted to use the included filter, but I honestly didn’t read it or think about what that meant. I was happily surprised, then, to see that the game was in black and white once I was dropped into the world.

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Having studied film in grad school, I was a little embarrassed to realize only as I made my way through the game just how noir it was the entire time, even without the filter. Gumshoe with a heart of gold, femme fatale, rainy urban setting, symbolic use of light and shadow, Mr. X’s trench coat and fedora (plus the fedoras strewn all over the police station)… how did it take me so long to see it? It’s something I’ll probably write more about later, but things like that are really exciting to me, because if we read video games as texts with ‘authors,’ like we do with film, we have a Japanese team making a game set in the west and very clearly influenced by western texts (themselves influenced by German texts). And how does a Japanese player read it? Super fascinating stuff.

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Okay, I have a million more things I could gush about (performances, story tweaks, enemies, gameplay, etc.) but I’ve already spent more time than I should have writing this, and there is something that really stood out to me but that I haven’t seen anyone talking about on social media or in the press. I mentioned the lighting earlier, and while that’s great on its own, in some cases it highlights how excellent the textures in this game are. The textures in Resident Evil 7 were great, but Capcom really seems to be mastering the RE Engine.

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Okay, these screenshots aren’t big enough to do them justice, but check out the shot of Leon in his alternate Arklay Sheriff’s costume. There’s lots of impressive stuff here, like the fact that everything on his uniform bobs and sways realistically with his movement, but let’s just focus on textures. The braided belt actually looks braided, not like a pattern overlayed on a flat surface. His handcuffs have a realistic metallic gleam. His pants are a heavier weave fabric than his shirt. You can see that the display and buttons on his walkie-talkie are actually depressed and the light creates appropriate shadow on them. Most impressively, I think, are the textures of the different leathers on his belt segments. Look at the walkie-talkie holster closely. You can not only see a realistic imperfection on the surface, a bubbling where the leather may be separating, but it too casts a very minor shadow of its own. Crazy.

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Look at Leon’s uniform in this next shot. You can not only see that his shoulder pad is a different material than his shirt, but it’s saturated from the rain that he just came in from in a different way, too, and in a different way than his neck, which is shiny as opposed to soaked. You can also see the stitching at the seam of his shirt in great detail. Ada’s dress is another feat, as it looks like real, slightly bunched (there must be a word for that) fabric, even when she moves.

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You can see several textures in this shot of Claire, too, like the lighter leather of her knife sheath, the metal of the gun, the fabric of her fannie pack, and more, but what I really want to draw attention to is the design sewn into the back of her vest. It might be a little difficult to make out because I made this image smaller (to save muh tables), but you can see that it truly looks sewn in, as the stitching is very detailed, follows realistic patterns, and actually casts a shadow as if it were really imprinted on the vest. Plus you can see the little wrinkle/bunching of fabric just below the pattern, which is also realistic, because stitchwork like that is often more stiff than the surrounding fabric, so it doesn’t bend as easily as that same fabric.

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I could talk extensively about William Birkin’s mutated design, but I just wanted to specifically draw attention to the way the bones in his ribs protrude from his side (it looks cooler in motion) and his main eye (below). His eyes are especially impressive, because they look realistically gelatinous, including the ability for us to see through the cornea when it’s angled to the side. These are things that developers could only sort of achieve in cutscenes in the past, but now this is all in real time.

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Lastly, just check out this zombie. The most basic and common of enemies. The filminess of the eyes, the gloss of the teeth, the hair matted with filth, the wounds… the level of detail and the ability of this engine to render even the most mundane of enemies as interesting and exciting to look at just blows me away.

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So, yeah, I don’t have an elegant conclusion to this unwieldy beast of a blog, so I’ll just end by saying that this is one of my favorite games of all time. I loved the original, but Capcom improved on and added to virtually everything that made that game so great. It makes me so happy to see the near-universal love and praise the game’s been getting, so I hope when the end of the year does come it gets the accolades it deserves. And as much as everyone seemed to hate Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, I really liked it, so I would be so beyond excited if they brought the same level of refinement and innovation to remaking that entry next (can you imagine if Nemesis could break through almost any barrier!?). But, hey, I’ll be happy with a Resident Evil 8 announcement at E3 2019, too.

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