My Gaming Tattoos

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

[Cue nostalgic 8-bit video game music]

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

[Joey turns to camera, slightly surprised and bemused]

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

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

1

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

2

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

3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31

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

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

 

 

Don’t Speak: Silent Protagonists

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

EarthBound Ness

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

Chrono Trigger

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

legend_of_zelda_wind_waker_hd_10

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

Dragon Age Inquisition

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

tali10

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

Morrigan

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

Visas Marr

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