Pen and Player

Because some stories are worth changing

A Positive Side of Violent Videogames: Father and Son Save the World

The following is a personal response to Katie Couric’s tweet that followed her recent piece on videogames.

I remember when I was 13 years old and beat Halo for the first time. As it happened, I finished the game alongside a good buddy of mine while we played splitscreen on a <25 inch TV. That good buddy also happened to be my dad.

To give some background, my mother and father got a divorce only a couple months after I was born, so my time with my parents was always a bit tenuous. While I lived with my mother, she was often swamped with the responsibility of trying to fulfill both father and mother roles with her two children while still trying to provide for our livelihood. My father would come to see us for one weekend every month, and for a month during the summer I would stay at his house. While these times were nice, they didn’t particularly allow my father a lot of time to do typical fatherly things, like teach me how to ride a bike or how to throw a football. This only really started to bother me when I entered my teenage years. I became very aware that I didn’t have a “real” father, and my connection with him started to suffer.

So what does this have to do with Halo or any other violent videogame? You see, prior to my dad first buying an Xbox and a copy of Halo that particular summer, we had occasionally played videogames together in somewhat short spurts. We’d do rounds of the original Mario Bros. arcade game, but we never embarked on a true videogame “campaign” together. Although he picked up the game due to critical acclaim from Electronics Gaming Monthly, I wasn’t really enthralled with the idea of shooting aliens in their tiny faces. My dad, a person who proudly proclaims that he brakes for squirrels, was no different. But that’s not why we played Halo. In fact, the violence in any violent videogame we played was never the reason we enjoyed them. Halo was a sweeping science fiction adventure in which the fate of the world rested on the shoulders of the hero(es), and in order to prevail, my father and I would have to learn how to work together by formulating and executing strategies against increasingly insurmountable odds.

In a way, think of the violence as the result of a much more important catalyst. Our hero, representing the good side, is confronted by a much stronger enemy and its corresponding army. A battle in any form of media is not enjoyable because people get hurt or killed. Rather, we enjoy these “epic” battles because they are the manifestation of the stakes and emotion that has been building throughout the story. For example, when Luke fights Darth Vader at the end of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, what we witness is much more than some fancy special effects. It’s the climax of Luke’s struggles with himself, his struggles with his father, and his struggles with his darkness. The outward battle is representative of everything happening internally for our hero, which is why this battle still keeps movie goers at the edges of their seats to this day. Likewise, videogames are generally good at building narratives of “lone warrior(s) facing impossible odds,” which is why the majority of videogame stories tend to be violent in some way. The battles against many classic videogame villains – Final Fantasy VII‘s Sephiroth, The Legend of Zelda’s Ganondorf, even Sonic the Hedgehog’s Dr. Robotnik, to name a few – are all so memorable because they are climaxes for the “against all odds” journeys that the players embark on to get to those points. In a way, I would say that I hate killing, but I love battles.

For my father and 13 year old me, being able to embark on an against-the-odds adventure was a perfect way for us to bond. We’d order pizza and play through the game one level at a time, occasionally replaying earlier levels just to sharpen our skills. Because this was the first time either of us had played the game, much of the experience involved us sharing our tactics and observations in order to come up with effective battle strategies. This extended beyond just playing the game, as we would usually talk about our adventures over breakfast. Due to the nature of the game, we both constantly had to play to the best of our abilities in order to prevail, as either of us failing or “dying” had serious repercussions for the other player’s effort to finish each section. Numerous were the times we’d see the influx of enemies and say to ourselves “how are we expected to get through this?” but with enough perseverance and teamwork, we were able to overcome everything the game threw at us.

For these moments, I didn’t think about my father as “the guy I get to see on occasional weekends.” My father was my partner, my equal, and my friend. Our battles in the game were not only the representation of the game’s narrative, but also our narrative.

The world is full of senseless violence. According to 2011 statistics, there will be around 40 murders today in the United States. Around 90 US citizens will die in car accidents today as well. These realities are, frankly, terrible, and if videogames truly are to blame for any of these, then something has to be done. At the same time, I have to wonder how many people are just scared of videogames because they don’t understand them. From the outside looking in, I could see someone looking at my father and me and shaking their head, wondering why we’re wasting so much time with one of those “murder simulators.” Maybe if my Father didn’t play videogames himself, he might have had a similar reaction. Maybe I would have sat there by myself that summer, playing my new copy of Halo, while my father wondered why I was so enthralled by these images on the screen instead of all the sports and girls that other guys my age should be obsessing over.

Instead, I am left with the memory of an epic escape scene. My blood pumping, my father driving while I manned the gunner seat, neither of us knowing exactly what was going on, but only knowing that we literally had to work as one unit in order to overcome this final trial. I remember giving each other a high-five during the ending sequence, feeling triumphant with the thought of how much we were able to accomplish together. It is because the world is so dark, so depressing, and so violent that we need these “violent” videogames. These stories give us hope for the future, even in the face of a world that seems to stack impossible odds against us around every corner. Claiming victory in these battles gives us that feeling of courage that let us know that there is always a way to prevail, even if we feel small and insignificant in comparison to what we’re up against.

In that one moment, I felt like my father was my best friend in the whole world. In my opinion, that was a positive side of violent videogames.

Could You Write the Next Sensationalist Blog Post in Five Easy Steps? (Part 1/2)

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In preparation for taking the analysis of this blog in a slightly new direction, I thought I’d write something completely different. That’s probably not how you prepare for something.

Let’s face it: journalism is dead. According to some inside sources that wish to remain anonymous, there’s an 85% chance that 72% of news outlets with a public approval rating of 65% or higher could see a 76% drop in revenue from 95% of the country. This is because no one wants to talk about these “facts” and “figures” and “things in quotation marks” that old media people do all the time. In other words, the future of information consumption is all about blogs, because why should anyone pay for the investigation and analysis conducted by professionals when bloggers can copy it for free?

That said, everyone is blogging and no one is reading, so how on earth are you supposed to quit your day job and live off of ad revenue in an economy like this!? Well worry not, because I have organized five easy steps that will guarantee that your blog, regardless of the subject, will become an overnight sensation in just two days. No writing skills required, just write a blog post according to these specifications! And if you wish to thank me, just visit this page on as many computers as you can with various wordpress accounts and make sure to like comment and subscribe with every single one of them.

Step 1: Pick a popular creative work, person, or organization.

This may be obvious, but this is arguably the most important step. Think of the types of things that popular people are still talking about in their Facebook or Twitter accounts. Memes aren’t good because they go out of style by the time you even realize they exist. For example, as of writing there’s some Harlem Shake thing that I haven’t even seen yet, but I know that this will be an outdated reference by the time I finish typing this sentence. Creative works tend to stay relevant for a little while longer, which explains why Twilight is only just now starting to not be the butt of every joke. Therefore, think of movies, TV shows, videogames, politicians, companies, and anything else that you could exploit for personal gain. Examples include:

Super Mario Bros
Barack Obama
Django Unchained
Game of Thrones
McDonalds

Also insert barely relevant pictures throughout

To demonstrate, throughout this blog I will also be building my own sensationalist blog post to demonstrate each step, so I will go with Super Mario Bros. I have chosen this because this is supposed to be a blog about videogames, and also because brand name characters like Mario are both relevant and steeped in 80s/90s nostalgia, which is the weak point of every possible reader you might have.

Step 2: Combine your choice from step 1 with a controversial topic

You might be thinking to yourself: “what controversial topics could possibly apply to Super Mario Bros.?” The answer, of course, is “shut your dirty mouth and never say that to me again.” As you will see, it doesn’t matter if the topic happens to apply in any particular way, just as long as it can fit in a headline.

Examples of controversial topics include:

Sexism
Racism
Homophobia
The new layout on Facebook and/or Youtube
Gaffe*

*I’m not 100% sure what Gaffe is, but apparently people search it on google.

Now you might also be asking yourself: “Isn’t it morally and ethically wrong to treat these topics with anything but the utmost respect, which might not be something I’m qualified to do?” The answer here is, of course. “hahaha, sure, you and your ethics can go back to the small town 20 page publication that makes minimum wage for 60 hours a week, but we’re here to make money off the internet. And if it happens to involve treating these subjects with the tact of a salt launcher in an infirmary, then so what!?”

Now that I’ve explained this point simply and elegantly, I will choose sexism to be my topic of choice to combine with Super Mario Bros. This is a good choice because some of my best friends are women and that makes me an authority on the matter.

Step 3: Create a headline that asks a question,  yet implies the answer to that question simultaneously

I lied about step 1, this is arguably the most important step. Normally, in Journalism, a headline is meant to summarize a story concisely, so as to inform the reader of whether or not the article might be interesting to read. For example, an article about a man crashing into a supermarket and injuring no one might be called “Man Crashes Into Supermarket, None Injured.” This tactic of actually informing the reader is also one employed by people who are allergic to money and will disappear into the mighty claws of new media.

What you want is a headline devoid of anything that could inform the reader of anything upon reading it, which is why it absolutely must be in the form of a question. To use our current example, the headline “Super Mario Bros. is Sexist” is unacceptable for two reasons. The first is that it actually makes a claim that you are now responsible for, and the second is that the reader will expect some kind of silly “analysis” filled with “research” and “facts.” However, the headline “Is Super Mario Bros. Sexist?” is infinitely better because  now it’s the reader’s responsibility to decide whether Super Mario Bros. might be sexist, which will lead to the impulse of clicking the article in order to be absolved of this new found responsibility. And of course, the writer is now free from any responsibility because asking the question is completely different than having some reason to entertain the possibility of what is being asked to begin with.

Hold on, before you start coming up with the next golden headline, there’s still a little bit of spicing up required here. See, the question “Is Super Mario Bros. sexist?” could potentially be claiming that Super Mario Bros. is definitely not sexist, which is not nearly as interesting as the possibility that Super Mario Bros. is sexist*. So the next step is to frame the headline in an accusatory tone, while still asking a question as to absolve the writer of responsibility.

*Of course, if majority opinion is that Super Mario Bros. is indeed sexist, do the opposite of what I say.

Take, for instance, the headline “What Have Women Ever Done in Super Mario Bros?” The use of the word “ever” implies that women have never done anything in Super Mario Bros., yet because this is in the form of a question, the “I’m just asking the question” defense is still viable. This would be the equivalent of visiting a friend’s house with your brother and sister, when your brother suddenly asks  “how come there are no pictures of Native Americans in here?” You know that the obvious answer is that your friend has no Native American relatives. Conversely, Your sister doesn’t know that and assumes that, because your brother felt the need to ask the question, there’s a deeper evil at work. What kind of deeper evil? That’s left all to her imagination, which is the beauty of question headlines.

With this questionable topic and headline alone, one could potentially generates enough clicks to pay for a week’s rent. However, to truly go viral, we’ll need an actual article written. Tune in next time when I discuss all the graphic details that will force the masses to love you, hate you, and continually give you ad money by accident.

Sexy vs. Sex

The following was written for a Blogger’s Wanted prompt on Destructoid.com. You can find this same post written on my Destructoid account here.

Sex.

It’s been on many a gamer’s mind as of late, which means we can consider ourselves among those who have discussed literary criticism since the beginning of time. That might seem to be a very weird and vague blanket statement, but let me explain. You see, we sometimes can think of the way sex is depicted in videogames as a new and recent problem that is unique to videogames. Nothing could be further from the truth. From Plato’s Symposium dealing with elements of pedophilia, to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice dealing with the narrator stalking a young boy, to Narbokov’s controversial Lolita detailing the graphic relationship between a man and his 12 year old step daughter… okay maybe I’m picking some bad examples.


The trailer for the 1962 film adaptation of Lolita, directed by Stanley Kubrick

MY POINT IS that sex is a broad and nuanced topic that will be constantly struggled with as long as there is media to be discussed by people. And I don’t just mean sex as something we scoff at and brush under the rug because it’s dirty and filthy. Hell, Lolita is something we study in universities and consider a literary classic, and let me reiterate that it’s about the sexual relationship between a grown man and his 12 year old step daughter. Sex is something that, for better or for worse, society is fascinated with, and the sooner we acknowledge this when discussing sex in videogames, the clearer our arguments will be in the end.

As the title might indicate, I’ve tried to divide the subject of sex into two different talking points. While sex seems to imply sexy and sexy is thought to lead to sex, the two are actually quite different despite usually being lumped together. As an up front disclaimer, I am not exactly a gender studies major or something even a little qualified to talk so authoritatively on these subjects. What I am, however, is a guy who wishes to have a conversation about the subject, and I hope that what I bring to light in this blog will help conversations about sex in videogames to become clearer in what they are actually addressing.

The Sexy

The first definition that comes up when we search the word “sexy” is:

1. Arousing or tending to arouse sexual desire or interest.

2. Slang Highly appealing or interesting; attractive

In other words, whether we’re talking about heaving breasts in Dead or Alive or heaving breasts in videogames that aren’t Dead or Alive, we’re talking about what is “sexy” and not exactly “sex.” These are things that are meant to titilate us or otherwise get us excited in our no-no parts. When we hear the words “sex sells” in advertising, in truth the phrase actually means “sexy sells.”

Not Pictured: Sex

So what is there to talk about “sexy” in videogames?

On one hand, sexy images practically define marketing across all forms of media.The very fact that “sexy” goes hand in hand with “marketing” makes any sort of artistic or otherwise worthwhile value in “sexy” seem absurd. How is one meant to justify heavily armored men standing next to barbie doll proportioned women who are wearing barely enough armor to make them appropriate on a public beach, let alone a battlefield? In most cases, it’s probably impossible.

Yet let’s not forget that many classic pieces of art have depicted naked or sexually provocative men and women, which goes to show the importance of the context that sexiness is used. For example, during the play Equus – a play you may or may not know as the story of a guy who gets off to horses – there is one part that features both a male and female character practically naked (or actually naked, depending on what production you see). Yet, without spoiling the story, it’s safe to say that the audience will likely know that this type of sexually provocative content exists for the sake of adding meaning to the story. If we saw these two characters on a billboard trying to sell us 2013 BBQ Cola Car Insurance Online, we would dismiss it as pointless fluff because of the change in context. And because Videogames are a form of media full of all kinds of potential, there’s no reason to say that sexy can’t be used meaningfully.

In fact, even though I haven’t played the game myself, I feel fairly confident that Lollipop Chainsaw is a decent example of how games can use sexy. Now, obviously there is some marketing involved with the choice to paste a scantily clad cheerleader on the cover. Yet one could also argue that the marketing helps shape our expectations of the game, which might be subverted by how this same sexy character is developed through the story. The fact that smart discussion is happening about it is definitely indicative of a success in that respect, even if it is a small one. James Gunn or Suda 51 may very well not have intended anything beyond a hyper silly/quirky fanservice extravaganza. Maybe the game isn’t going to change anyone’s perspective on objectification or anything it entails. Like I said, I haven’t even played it myself, but I am pointing it out as an example because people are talking about it. As many a pretentious English major will tell you, there actually isn’t a definite way to differentiate between a bad story and a great one other than what either society or a bunch of old guys writing a Norton Anthology decides on. In the same way, if Lollipop Chainsaw’s story has enough content to back up these essays that have been written about it, then it proves that not only can “sexy” be used in a way to add meaning to a story, but that there are at least some gamers willing to analyze and appreciate it when it happens.

Or, at the very least, now saying we played Lollipop Chainsaw for the striking social commentary can sound at least a little less laughable than saying we read Maxim for even a single actual reason.

Sex

Noun
(chiefly with reference to people) Sexual activity, including specifically sexual intercourse.

I know I don’t need to explain what sex is, but for the sake of putting something on my resume for teaching a health class one day, sex is when two people come together in a very intimate way and and put the [DATA EXPUNGED] into the [DATA EXPUNGED] and sometimes a [DATA EXPUNGED] is born 9 months later.

I define this because, as I mentioned before, sexy is often called sex. In actuality, sexy and sex are two very different things. Sexy implies a sort of separation: strangers can be sexy and have nothing to do with each other. Sex implies intimacy. It implies two people making either a meaningful connection or a drunken mistake. Looking at a sexy person may not mean a whole lot. Having sex with a person has all sorts of implications, even in cases where it “doesn’t mean anything.”

In other words, barbie doll girls and muscle log men are not sex in videogames. The fact of the matter is, very few games actually deal with the concept of sex, because oftentimes what comes with sex might not be so sexy.

Catherine is a videogame about sex.

What’s funny is that, while I may have been talking out of my ass about Lollipop Chainsaw’s marketing, I am at least a little confident about making that claim about the marketing for Catherine. So many of the promotional images associated with the game have a wink wink nudge nudge vibe, right down to the cover needing to be censored by a few retailers. On the surface, Catherine doesn’t seem that much different than Hatsune Moe Otaku Song of the Ancient Wind Girl, Rated M for partial nudity, suggestive themes, and simulated gambling. After all, that’s just what we expect from anything named after an anime stylized girl wearing lingerie.

Then you actually play the game.

One might expect a videogame about sex to include some ridiculous button timing minigames that are eventually censored but accidentally left in the code to scar the nation some time later. Except Catherine doesn’t even depict the act of sex. Instead, the game focuses on all that comes with sex in two different scenarios. On one hand, we have the main character’s girlfriend, named Katherine. She represents the side of sex that comes with dedicated relationships. With this comes the question of how committed Vincent (the before mentioned main character) actually is to Katherine, and what exactly the nature of their relationship even is. With this also comes the “pregnancy scare” scenario, as Vincent struggles with the idea that he could very well be the father of a child when he himself is certainly not ready for that kind of responsibility.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Catherine, the mysterious girl that Vincent finds himself waking up to every morning during the course of the game. One would expect the girl representing no strings attached sex would constitute the “sexy” side of the game. In actuality, while Catherine is clearly playing the part of a sexy character, parts that might actually be considered titillating are few and far between. Yet all the while, the “no strings attached” nature of Vincent’s sex with Catherine is really just a facade. In actuality, this “meaningless” sex follows him and haunts him in his waking hours. It quickly becomes apparent that Catherine wants Vincent to form his own kinds of commitments to her.

In both cases, players see the role that sex has in these relationships. One relationship faces the consequences of sex, and the other relationship is defined by it. All the while, Vincent’s thoughts and fears are personified in the playable nightmare sequences, oftentimes to horrifying results. Obviously, we can see Vincent to “good” endings, so this isn’t to say that sex is a vessel which makes terrible things happen to us. However, in a way, the marketing versus the actual product is somewhat of a metaphor for Vincent’s predicament in Catherine. One may be drawn in by the sexy images, expecting a fun and sexy adventure, but what actually ensues is much larger than that first temptation would let on.

So that’s it!?

Not even close.

There’s still so many topics and so many examples to be used that I’m sure this could become a novella if I even attempted to go over all of it, but that is a wonderful thing in so many respects. There is so much to the idea of sex that to dismiss its use in videogames is to limit the medium. Does this mean that we need to stop and defend every male power fantasy as some profound commentary? Far from it. Yet the cheap usage of sexy that has been prevalent thus far is no evidence that it can’t ever be used properly. Again, it’s certainly testy waters to tread here, and I barely even touched on the gender struggles and implications that can come with the territory. But hey, if everything is a learning experience, then talking about the subject with an open mind will, at the very least, lead to some enlightening discussions.

And when all else fails and the industry feels doomed, just remember one thing: A bunch of smart, intelligent guys who have dictated what is brilliant literature in this day and age are raving about a book that is about sex with an underage girl, and let’s thank God that videogames have never…

… oh Japanese visual novels, why did you have to go and ruin my trump card?

Bonding Over Time

A few months back, I mentioned that the silly idea to only include the story segments from Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days into the upcoming Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD collection might be a wiser move than I had once thought. See, at the time, I happened to be playing 358/2 Days, and while I was enjoying the story, the gameplay was about as fun as trying to murder a moose with a wet stick. A friend of mine responded to this by noting that the story’s strength primarily comes from the structure of the gameplay, and by removing that element – as bad as it may be – the seemingly strong story would actually suffer quite a bit.

Not only did I realize that I was being completely hypocritical after what I wrote in my last post, I began to recognize one of the greatest strengths that videogames tend to have as story telling vessels. An effect that I believe is best summed by the words “Bonding Over Time.”

What in the deuce is bonding over time?

Think back to the longest amount of time you spent on a videogame’s single player campaign. Whether it’s trying to catch all the Pokemon or just exploring the world in an installment of The Elder Scrolls, it can be pretty easy to watch that playtime clock tick into areas of 40 hours or more. Now ask yourself: “How many hours of ‘story’ would I say was in that game?” This would mean moments spent reading dialogue, watching cutscenes, or doing anything that could be considered advancing the plot. The ratios of total time versus story time can be fairly shocking. To give an example, my save file for Final Fantasy X ended with the clock in excess of 60 hours. To be fair, this was after getting all the ultimate equipment and doing all the frivolous post game stuff, but let’s just say that, going at a steady pace, I was capable of fighting the final boss after 45 hours of total playtime. Final Fantasy X is a very story driven game, and considering it’s voice acted, there’s no margin of error over how fast someone might be reading the dialogue. So how much “story” is in this game? Well, according to this video, ten hours, twenty seven minutes, and fifty seconds.

First, let’s thank God for the internet and people that would string together all the story segments of a videogame so I can make a point more effectively.

Second, adding time spent reading flavor text and unacted dialogue (which FFX didn’t have a lot of), one can conclude that, at most, the story time/total time ratio is approximately 1/4. Let’s cut to the chase: what even remotely worthwhile things were happening during the other 75% of the game!?

tl:dr answer: having fun and playing the game, jerk.

Long answer: you spent time with the characters. You helped them fight battles, manage their resources, and grow stronger. Maybe you felt a special type of connection with Auron when he finished off a boss fight while you were just barley hanging on to survival, or you smiled when Lulu finally got to use her level two spells and tore through enemies like they were passive aggressive notes from your roommates telling you to be a little quieter after 10:00 PM. Even if there were only ten hours of “plot,” Tidus’ party is effectively on your mind for much longer than that by the merit of the medium. This, my friends, is Bonding Over Time.

What makes 358/2 Days so special?

While bonding over time is something that generally happens automatically with most longer games (typically role play games, in case you couldn’t tell), 358/2 Days brings this element to the foreground in both its storyline and how it plays. You may have noticed that, various fan interpretations aside, the title essentially represents a length of time. More specifically, it’s representative of the time that Roxas, the main character of the game, spends with Organization XIII, whose members make up the majority of the game’s cast. Since the game’s story at it’s core is essentially about Roxas spending time with the other members of the organization, this seemingly meta element of the player’s time investment takes a deeper meaning. The majority of the game follows Roxas’ life on a day to day basis, with the exception of a few moments that skip a week or two here and there. The actual game structure revolves around Roxas going to “work” everyday by accomplishing short missions on the game’s various worlds.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I initially felt that this style of progression was a bit stale and repetitive, but it’s undeniable how it changes the context of the story. By making the playable sections follow a “work” structure, the player is able to feel Roxas living a life that isn’t too terribly different from our own. Following almost every “work” day is a scene with Roxas eating some ice cream, usually accompanied by his friends Axel and Xion. This begins to feel like a more innocent version of the cliche “nice cold beer after work,” as this pattern repeats itself right until the very end of the game. Sometimes the scenes are brief when neither Axel nor Xion show up, but again, this is very similar to wanting to crack open that cold beer and realizing that your roommate had other plans for the evening. In any other type of media, this storytelling style would be a mess. A movie maker would take this script and likely cut 90% of it like it was a steak with way too much fat, leaving us with maybe an hour of the stuff that’s actually plot relevant. Yet only in a videogame like this do we have the experience of actually feeling a rhythm of working and relaxing that follows Roxas’ life throughout a long period of time, which makes the events that shatter that rhythm all the more tragic in the end.

Isn’t there another Videogame that uses this bonding over time thing in a smart and effective manner?

Oh, you mean like Persona 4!?

To be honest, I don’t have too terribly much to say about Persona 4, especially since everyone is already talking about it. I’m mostly putting it here as another example of bonding over time that’s very similar to 358/2 Days, although there are a few twists to the formula. While both games take place over a preset amount of in-game days, Persona 4 places emphasis on your choices rather than a steady rhythm. Whereas 358/2 Days is largely linear outside of choosing whether or not to do a few additional missions, Persona 4 lets you choose who to hang out with, how to build your “social stats,” and whether or not you even want to “work” (read: explore dungeons). This makes the game your story, as a player, instead of the game being about the main character you play as. You choose what friends you have, you choose whether you want to try to eat a giant bowl of meat or not, and you choose whether you want to date every girl in school or go steady with the one you like best. Many of these choices are a bit frivolous as to whether or not you are capable of finishing the game or not (although there are certainly some handy bonuses), but the point is that much of your “downtime” in game is spent growing closer to the characters you wish to grow closer to. And when we’re talking about a game that can take an excess of 80 hours to see to the end on an initial playthrough, that’s a lot of time available for you to have these characters on your mind.

I also bring up Persona 4 because out of almost nowhere it blew up into rockstar status and actually received its own anime adaptation. So, since there’s no longer bonding over time, clearly the story suffered, right? Well, not exactly. The anime adaptation may tell the same story that the game did, but the storytelling itself is significantly changed to fit within the media. Because the player no longer can make choices, the main character develops a set personality and the story changes quite a bit as a result. Also, the anime deals with the significant drop in time spent with the story by occasionally representing the main character’s life as chaotic, with a dearth of time to do everything he wants to do. This is best summed up in two particular episodes where the main character is shown tired and exhausted throughout while trying to “bond” with five different characters. In game, each of these stories represent full character arcs that would take hours to get through, so it’s only natural that the main character would be so exhausted by trying to cram all that time into, well, less time.

Because both the game and anime adaptation work so well within their mediums, it is particularly fascinating to compare how the same story is told in very different ways between the two. That, in and of itself, could be worth its own blog post in the future.

Some kind of conclusion

Bonding over time is important because it explains a large part of why we enjoy videogame stories. For example, does 358/2 Days have a better storyline than (AUTHOR’S NOTE: INSERT WHATEVER THE LATEST MOVIE THAT THE KIDS LIKE HERE BECAUSE I CAN’T BE BOTHERED TO WATCH ALL THOSE AWARD SHOWS)? Probably not! But could I find a group of people that enjoyed the story of 358/2 Days more? It might take me into the darker realms of various fandoms, but I’m sure I could. Videogames don’t have to try to be movies because videogames aren’t movies, and to recognize the ways that videogames work on their own merits is to recognize why we even care about videogame stories in the first place.

That is to say, videogames aren’t movies until someone records all the cutscenes and edits it together for youtube.

Thesis Statement, Cake, and Castlevania

Tired of looking at sophomoric gaming media that may or may not be completely paid off by greedy game developers? Are you looking for critical analysis of new and old games alike? If so, then I have some great news for you: you can get everything you need and more at http://www.brainygamer.com/. However, if you’re looking for some down to earth examination of video games and media culture that may or may not take itself 100% seriously, then you might find something of value here too.

Pen and Player is an attempt to create an environment of analysis in order to interpret the ways videogames create narratives that engage us as players. Questions of what constitutes “good” or “bad” take a backseat to looking at the effect of what videogames do now and can do in the future.

Why care about stories in videogames?

How many times have you heard someone say something along the lines of this?

I don’t really care about the graphics or story, I only play videogames if they’re fun to play.

Or how many times have you read something along these lines in (usually positive) game reviews?

While the story is weak, the gameplay is what matters.

The pervasive attitude of many in the gaming media and culture is that videogames ought to be only judged by how it plays among all other things. That is, as long as players have fun pushing the buttons, all other elements are merely icing on the cake that is the gameplay. Just to be clear, there is nothing particularly wrong with this mindset. After all, Super Mario Bros. doesn’t exactly have fantastic graphics or an enthralling story, yet to this day it is one of the most approachable videogames ever made. The only issue with this compartmentalized approach is that it provides a model of analysis that allowed me to compare a videogame to a cake three sentences ago. It suggests that the individual elements of a game are separate entities, working alongside each other and only creating a cohesive experience by accident.

Instead of this compartmentalized model, it would be much more effective to view the individual elements of games in relation to what they contribute to the game as a whole. This, in turn, actually creates an outlook that is much more story centered than before, because it focuses on the entire experience of playing a game and not just the button pushing. It also permits a form of discourse that has the potential to foster newfound appreciation for even “storyless” retro games.

Crafting experiences without “story”

Castlevania on the NES is a perfect example of how a game is capable of telling a story using the sum of its parts. On the surface level, it would seem safe to say that the story in Castlevania is overall inconsequential. There is absolutely no dialogue, and in fact, the only words ever used in the game are related to the title screen, the ending credits, and outlining the HUD (words such as “score,” for example). Sure, there’s a story if you happen to read the manual (as per usual in those days), but that’s somewhat irrelevant for this argument. The point is, although the game doesn’t appear to be telling a story, it still manages to use story telling elements that frame the experience.

For example, let’s take a look at the game’s intro sequence, which lasts less than ten seconds (starts 47 seconds in  to the video):

Despite it’s brevity, we can infer the following as players about how the game will play.

  • The dark colors of the gate and the design of the castle evoke a Gothic tone, suggesting the game’s aesthetic will have horror elements.
  • The music builds in intensity as Simon walks toward the gate, establishing a threatening presence in the castle.
  • Simon approaches the gate slowly, despite his sprite animation that seems more fitting for someone walking at a steady pace. This indicates that Simon is not the most capable hero in the world, effectively foreshadowing the style of the game’s control scheme.

Without using a single line of dialogue, the player is introduced to both the hero (Simon) and the antagonist (the castle) while simultaneously being informed of the game’s tone (Gothic horror) and the power struggle between the two established characters (Simon is weak and small, the Castle is large and ominous). Yet if we were to examine this scene by reviewing all the elements individually (example: “the graphics use shades of blue and orange, which looks nice”), one could come to the conclusion that Castlevania is a game with “no story.” Let’s also consider the inclusion of this ~8 second scene to begin with. If Castlevania were a game that had no consideration for its story and was strictly about “gameplay,” then there would be no reason to include anything devoid of player agency.

This isn’t to say that Castlevania’s narrative is only found in the intro. While a full level-by-level analysis of Castlevania could certainly be done, I’ll focus on only one other section of the game to demonstrate the flow of the story. This section happens to be the part right before the final battle of the game. We’ll look at the first 35 seconds of this video:

Although this is indeed a playable section, notice how this compares and contrasts to the intro sequence. The music has a similar build in intensity as it did in the intro, but instead of the music tapering off to indicate that danger lies ahead, it instead continues to build in intensity, indicating that the once far of threat is now within reach. Also consider how Simon starts the section at the bottom of a staircase. There really isn’t a gameplay reason why Simon wouldn’t just start in the hallway on the top of the stairs. There’s no challenge in just walking up the stairs, and it would likely save the art department some time to take out the scene all together. However, it’s inclusion serves to set the scene for the final battle. It helps establish the location (Simon is now, presumably, at the highest point in the castle), and it only increases the tension for the player, knowing that this kind of build up is completely unlike any of the other enemies seen previously.

The tension building continues once Simon enters the final room, prompting Dracula to appear. The open casket sends the message that Dracula has escaped, yet he is nowhere to be seen. Then, after a couple seconds, Dracula’s head appears, slowly floating upwards until the rest of his body appears. Again, to frame this sequence strictly in terms of gameplay, this is kind of boring. After all, the less time spent doing nothing and more time spent whacking everything with your whip, the better, right? At the same time, these few seconds establish how powerful Dracula really is. If we had to put the message being portrayed into words, it would be something to the effect of this:

“Bwahaha! I’m the lord of darkness! Not only do I rule over this castle, but my powers are so great that I can teleport wherever I want and create an entire body out of nothing! What are you going to do, spray water on me?”

Again, this helps reinforce the power struggle as established in the introduction, as Simon, the relative weakling, is now faced against an enemy much stronger than he is. Building this drama helps establish the severity of the moment, which is felt directly by the player, who is charged with defeating this superior foe. Furthermore, cunning players may use this sequence to both expect Dracula to teleport throughout the battle and figure out that Dracula’s head is actually his weak spot.

Although there are no shocking plot twists or emotional moments of character development, Castlevania establishes the stakes in its good versus evil story by using all of its parts, which in turn enhances all of its parts. The feeling a player has while playing Castlevania is very distinctive from the feeling of playing Super Mario Bros., which in turn creates a memorable experience that would not be possible if Castlevania had no regard for its atmosphere or aesthetics.

Even if the story is there, why should I care?

The above analysis may seem insignificant, and I doubt anyone is going to argue that Castlevania‘s story of “good guy fights big bad guy” should be studied alongside Joyce, even though that would awesome.

However, even if the story is not the main attraction, there’s no reason to ignore its presence. It’s these kinds of subtleties that create memorable experiences that undoubtedly enhances the entire experience for the player, despite a possible unawareness of what is at work. Besides, the more we are capable of seeing the ways videogames are capable of telling stories and creating dramatic experiences, the more we can evolve and appreciate videogames as a growing medium. What we see in Castlevania in 1986 are the types of roots that become Limbo in 2010, and the sky’s the limit for how high the tree can grow. As videogames become more innovative and advanced with new technology, the playing field for completely new and original ideas can only become wider. It is our job as consumers to not only demand more, but to recognize the nuances that create great videogame stories.

I like to eat my cake, but I’m ready to have something else.

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