Wednesday, 11 November 2015


I am learning to cry.

Not learning to stage-cry. Not learning to perform crying, whether in honest fiction or dishonest manipulation. Not training a nerve pathway to bypass my emotions en route from brain to tear ducts (if that's how it works – I wouldn't know).

I am learning to cry when my chest tightens and breathing becomes difficult. Learning to cry when I have a reason to cry. Learning how to tell when I have a reason.

I am learning to cross an emotional wall that I don't remember building. I haven't cried a lot since childhood. I internalised early the idea that crying is weak or shameful, so that by the time I learned otherwise I had ruined the emotional pathways to doing so.

In my first nine years of adulthood I think I cried three times.

This is not healthy. I have spent the last year trying to re-engage with myself, to allow what I feel – which is who I am, really – to manifest in what I do and how I live. I've written a bit about it before.

Video games are helping. Virtual worlds are an emotional gym, albeit one I often stare through the window of rather than using. Like going to the gym, it takes an act of will and an openness to pain to engage with a game.

It's interactivity – I extend myself, and something responds. It's as interactive as any button-press, except that the buttons are inside me.

Okay, I freely admit that sentence is ridiculous. I'm using humour to restore emotional distance.

The inner button I'm pressing is the power switch.

Tales of Symphonia was maybe the first game to bring a tear to my eye, long before I realised crying was something I would have to learn. I can't now remember exactly what it was that got to me, but somewhere in Symphonia's convoluted turns, Lloyd and Colette were so alive that even I couldn't stay numb to them.

Don't Kiss the Prince

Not all tears are the product of sadness.

Emil, the hero of Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, is one of the queerest characters I've encountered. He talks openly about how handsome Regal is, at one point suggesting the other man take to carrying a rose in his teeth. His struggle, both literally within the world and thematically within the story, is against his violent second nature, his 'Ratatosk Mode'. But for incongruous baggy trousers, his outfit is pretty much a dress:

(Somebody please buy me this outfit)
Marta, who accompanies him throughout the game, initially idealises him as her heroic 'prince', mistakenly believing he saved her life once. She pushes him constantly to play into a romantic fantasy. He resists the casting, even to the point that doing so drives him into Ratatosk Mode.

There is no noble core to Emil's masculinity, only the physical, verbal and emotional savagery of Ratatosk. And Emil feels this, deeply. He dreads this loss of self.

So I cried when, on the last night before the final confrontation, Marta went up on tip-toes to kiss Emil. I cried – or at least achieved a single, proper, rolling tear – because she accepted Emil for what he is, because she released him from her fantasies, because Emil was not required to be something he was not in order to be loved.

(Emil never protests anyone's use of male pronouns for him, or I wouldn't be using them)

It must be said, too, and I will try to say it with as little scorn for myself as possible, that I am easily moved by the simplest romantic resolutions. Emil is given this – and given it without cost to his identity, given it as an act of faith in his eventual freedom – without Marta or the game forcibly normalising him. However far it felt from reality, the assertion of the possibility felt powerful to me.

I cried at the end of Tales of the Abyss, too, even though that's a much more normative romance. I try not to put scorn on myself for it, but I really am a sap.

Turds in the Soup

It doesn't take much turd in your soup to ruin it. Once there's a turd in there, you aren't going to keep eating. It doesn't matter how good the rest of the ingredients are, or how carefully they were prepared.

There's an archetypal character in the Tales franchise that is a turd in the soup. In Tales of Symphonia, he's Zelos Wilder. Tales of Vesperia has Raven, Tales of Xillia Alvin and the latest incarnation is Tales of Zestiria's Zaveid.

A brief summary of crimes:

- Constantly hitting on female characters

- Forcing physical intimacy on other characters

- Responding to literally every situation with humour, irrespective of the mental and emotional cost to anyone else nearby
Pictured: turd
It's weird to me that these characters are such a consistent feature of the franchise (Tales of the Abyss doesn't have an obvious example, but Jade is close in some ways; I've written about the displays of masculine toxicity in Tales of Graces before). Tales games, if they exhibit any common feature, specialise in emotionally rich male characters, men and boys who feel and grow and communicate better than many real male human beings.

And yet, floating in the middle of every otherwise delightful soup, a turd. Tales of Xillia 2 almost fixed the problem by spreading the unwelcome behaviour across multiple characters. This had a diluting effect; to some chefs, absolutely anything can be seasoning.

Indeed, if we're really going to tell stories that grapple with masculinity as Tales aspires to, we're going to have to deal with this behaviour, because it happens, it's real. It's common, even. But playing Tales games is generally, to me, immersing myself in something better. It's participating in a world where that archetype doesn't feel realistic.

Zestiria is the best yet for this. The central theme is respect for the feelings of others. Maybe it's an unrealistic picture of a better world (maybe it isn't) but it's at least a consistent one.

Except for Zaveid's turdery. And while the rest of the cast are unanimous in their rejection of his behaviour, when the emotional tone of a scene has been tainted it is very difficult to restore. Too often, I cannot get the odour out of my nostrils.

If there's one Tales game I don’t think I'll ever cry at, it's probably the one I know best: Tales of Vesperia. It's just a little too cynical, and it concerns itself more with other emotions. Moral abhorrence, mostly.

A Tale of My Own

I sprinkled tears right across Tales of Xillia 2, but I think the superlative writing team would be surprised at where.

I didn't cry at the first grand sacrifice of the story. By that point I was more than a little distracted by upheavals in my living arrangements over the summer, having to take significant breaks from the game because I was away from my consoles. The longest of those breaks, over two months, broke the spine of the game's wider story despite my best efforts.

I didn't cry at the ending, responding to its cruelty with angry defiance instead. Between that and struggling with the bosses because of the break, I found it hard to engage.

When I did cry with the plot, it was in sympathy with Elle's tears. They served as training wheels in a way – we're conditioned quite deeply to be moved by the distress of children. It could be seen as manipulative, I suppose, though that depends a bit on whether you feel the game exploits Elle or whether her situation is treated with respect. There are definitely questions to be asked of Ludger's paternalism.

But mostly I cried about Nova. The circumstances that justify her presence in the game are a cruel mismatch for her personality and force her into a conflict with Ludger that just isn't fair. When it came to a head, and I realised that her displays of affection towards Ludger weren't just sprightly service manner, I was cored.

For the rest of the game, her periodic phone calls carry hints of the hurt she feels. Her attempts to regain good cheer ring desperately hollow. Her voice falters in greeting, her eyes drop away in parting.

I wanted the game's finale to reconcile them. For once, I found myself with a headcanon, something I'm never normally comfortable with. The game didn't deliver, but that wasn't why I cried. I cried because the part of my version of the story that the game allowed me to enact is the kind of thing I would cry at.

If I were able to cry.

I'm learning.

The Uses of Eyes

Which brings us up to the present day, and Tales of Zestiria.

I could talk about the story. That provides plenty of reasons to cry.

The plot, of necessity, is a tapestry of tragedies. The malignant power that provides the story's existential threat is a manifestation of human inhumanity – the tangible essence of a lack of empathy. Hero Sorey, whose defining advantage is the limitless empathy facilitated by an upbringing without spiritual or material want, can't save everyone.

I could talk about the masterful subtlety of the writing, or the moments when it breaks and the characters do too.

But one thing I've heard about, that I'd never managed before, is to cry for beauty. To be moved not by an emotion of my own or one borrowed from a story, but simply by a raw phenomenon, an experience without leverage of pain or triumph.

I can't quite claim to have achieved that, if achievement is the right word (and it is, but in the therapeutic rather than the Xbox Live sense). When the sun-haze and scudding cloud-shadows over the golden fields of Pearloats Pasture became too much to look at, when I had to look away, blinking, a little of that was the transformation of the place from my first visit to it, and everything it implied about what Sorey had achieved there.

But I cried for the low sweep of the valley, and for the beams of daylight I could almost feel. I cried for the breeze and the gentle swell of the music, for the view across the walls and rooftops of Pendrago and the towers of the great bridge beyond the hill in the distance, and for the wonder of motion, Sorey's divinely-empowered run eating up but somehow also reinforcing the miles.

I can't really express my gratitude to this series of games without gushing. There are other experiences I've learned from this year, too, and I'd gush about them if I got started. What I'll finish on is this: open your heart, if it needs opening, and give some Tales a try.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Whose Silence is This?

Devon Carter's 'This Silence is Not Mine' stands as one of my favourite pieces of critical writing. It resonates with me because it points towards the novelistic understanding of narrative that I prefer over the dominant conception of video game narrative built around agency and expression[1]. Normally I can tolerate the silent protagonist only in worlds that are silent.

But then there's Tales of Xillia 2's Ludger Kresnik, a character without significant dialogue of his own yet probably the character I've engaged most deeply with this year. Ludger is no blank slate – he emotes both vividly and subtly, and indeed occasionally even utters the kind of not-quite-verbal speech that silent protagonists are sometimes allowed. But in all scenes where there is explicit communication among characters, Ludger is silent[2].

Part of what brings Xillia 2 so powerfully to life is the richness of the characters around Ludger, but more is the incomplete and very human structure of submission it imposes on him. However dire the circumstances, Ludger cannot speak. Whatever his anger or frustration, explicit goals and plans must come from other characters. Ludger exists only in tension with the will of others.

This is something I seek in games, in quasi-circumscribed virtual worlds, because lifelong anxieties make it difficult for me in the 'real' world. Games are safe spaces to allow external forces free rein; their dominance and their costs are confined to a small box which can be switched off if it becomes too much[3]. In-game events cannot affect one to quite the same extent that rent, bills and hunger can, to say nothing of more complex relationships.

This is why I love Vaan in Final Fantasy XII, the perfect viewpoint character for a game about the unmanageability of history. It's why I feel such empathy for Final Fantasy X’s Tidus, who can only ever be a hanger-on to Yuna's journey. And it's why more competent, driven protagonists like Tales of Vesperia's Yuri and Tales of Graces' Asbel leave me cold (see also: protagonists on whom the broader story centres, like Cloud and Squall).

There is a second twist to this, though, because Xillia 2 has dialogue choices. Quite a lot of them, even. It's almost retro, a throwback to the idea that a plot is more interactive if you chuck a menu up on screen occasionally.

At the very moments when silence and submission would be most comfortable, would exonerate me of the party's toughest decisions, I'm forced, with Ludger, to take responsibility. I found it paralysing. Often choosing would take me far longer than the pace of real dialogue would have afforded Ludger. At least once, on a choice for which there was a time limit, I deliberately elected to let the timer run out, as if I could force the game to take responsibility back.

It's never clear what effect the choices have on the game's core narrative (for some choices, the game will tell you which other characters you've impressed, but only after you make the decision). More than once, I found myself doggedly opposing choices that led to plot events that were probably inescapable. Even when it comes to affecting which ending you get, few choices before the game's climactic chapter matter.

The choices exist to reward engagement in the characters with the agony of choice. It's an interactivity far more palpable than pushing buttons. More importantly, because of the way choices are framed, because of the game's narrative structure taken as a whole, Ludger's voice is restored in them, and harmonised with my own.

I played Ludger as a reluctant, stumbling non-hero, unwilling to make tough choices and struggling to communicate with his allies. Partly this was because I struggled to intuit which potential nuance of any given phrase the game would pick up on, so I often made choices which the characters put a different spin on to the one I was expecting[4]. But by accident (or maybe design, though not mine), there was a coherence to my errors.

Ludger's silence, and the awkwardness I bequeathed him, fitted. My Ludger made bad decisions and hurtful remarks because neither of us could handle loving the people around him as much as we did in such cruel circumstances. His silence was not mine, but it was so like mine – a silence I often find myself in – that the difference seldom mattered.

All of which was only enough to earn me the sorta-OK ending, out of the game's four choices. For the true ending, not only would Ludger have to be braver, nobler, and more confident, but so would I. It may be a while before I can face trying again.

[1] Herein lies the (perhaps over-strong) line I draw between games I play for narrative and games I would prefer display as little narrative as possible. Silent protagonists – truly silent protagonists, the Gordon Freemans who are silent because they are protagonists in a video game, not because their silence is part of the plot – feel to me like holes, like an absolute barrier to my engagement rather than a necessary precondition for it.

[2] It was pointed out to me after I drafted this that in Xillia 2’s new game plus mode, Ludger’s speech is restored for his dialogue choices. I imagine this changes a few things about how the story feels, but I can’t comment on it directly as I haven’t experienced it myself.

[3] So the orthodoxy goes, anyway. Perhaps I would be a healthier being if I had not spent so much of my life believing it.

[4] A familiar experience. I'm not great at verbal communication.

Monday, 28 September 2015

What a Wonderful Genre

I sometimes wonder whether there’s a value in genre-based critique, particularly for a genre as diverse and nebulous as JRPGs. Looking at Tales of Vesperia means addressing the genre at large as well as its contemporaneous western perception, but I’m wary of falling into the trap of fanboyism. I’m not even sure what might constitute a ‘genre crisis’, never mind whether one actually occurred.

The perception of a genre crisis persists, though. I think it’s probably been there for a long time – some of the things that bring it about are inescapable consequences of an international games industry – but the phenomenon of games being proclaimed ‘the saviour of the JRPG’ is newer, I think. The World Ends With You is the first such game I was aware of.

To quote the almost inevitable arch-villain of any extended defence of the JRPG, Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw, from his 2008 review of TWEWY:
“I had heard that The World Ends With You does things differently to most JRPGs, and while I took that with mountainous piles of salt … I thought if the release dates are from bizarro world, maybe the entire game is, too, and will turn out to be the first good JRPG.”[1]
And that’s very much the perception I remember having of TWEWY. That it does things differently. Maybe it’s just what this genre needs. TWEWY certainly positions itself as modern and exciting, not always successfully. Its contemporary setting, punk aesthetic and action combat were all trumpeted as much-needed progress; even Yahtzee found a positive word for the game’s look.

But the actual extent to which the game innovates is unclear. Modern settings weren’t new; the Persona franchise was a decade old by TWEWY’s release, and more obscure modern-set games go back much further (the original Mother, for example, came out in 1989). Action combat in Japanese RPGs goes right back to the SNES (Secret of Mana, Tales of Phantasia). Even the ‘punk fashion’ doesn’t actually look so very different from the outfits on display in any number of earlier titles.

The game’s treatment of its female characters is sadly predictable. Shiki, Neku’s first partner, gets damseled at the end of the first act to provide motivation for acts two and three. One of the female villains is an ‘ice queen’ archetype, the other emotionally erratic and constantly being told to calm down. Rhyme gets fridged in act one, then turns out later to have already been in a different fridge all along[2].

On the mechanical/structural side, the game really isn’t that innovative at all. The plot progresses as the search for cutscene triggers, along with the completion of occasional arbitrary challenges and a steady supply of boss fights. You can overlook it at first, but about half-way through the second week there’s a day where all you do is go to a new area, find out what the next challenge is, backtrack to grind it to completion, and repeat.

There are genuine innovations here – the gender-neutral but not gender-ignorant clothing/bravery mechanic is one that I wish had taken off – but the game’s biggest strength lies in its dialogue writing. When not burdened with the demands of exposition, the dialogue is incredible. But TWEWY isn’t the first well-written game, and good writing predates digital games by a few years at least.

In fact, I’d argue, one of the things that got the game touted as forward-looking, the non-turn-based combat, is a real weak spot thematically. For a game trying to engage with the modern, digital era, where combat serves among other things as a metaphor for brand advertising, I feel like turn-based combat would have been quite at home. It could have been built around the frantic exchange of text messages or emails – discrete bursts of activity followed by an anxious wait for the potentially disastrous response.

Turn-based combat was a favourite punching bag of JRPG haters, though, and probably still is. Certainly Yahtzee went after it with knives drawn – reviewing Super Paper Mario, he crowed that “The stupid, effeminate, blouse-wearing turn-based combat is replaced with wholesome, traditional, masculine head-stomping,” which is a perfect distillation of the insecurity that underpins a lot of JRPG criticism.

But attempts to get away from turn-based combat have had mixed results. TWEWY’s system at least produces some sense of rhythm and party interaction. Eternal Sonata and other games that adapted Paper Mario’s action command system tended to end up with blind guesswork and repetition. More drastic experiments like the gunplay in Resonance of Fate could be bewildering, not to mention difficult to balance because of a lack of precedent to learn from.

Meanwhile, games that stuck to a known formula for combat tended to draw less notice, but be more consistent. Tales of Vesperia adds only tweaks to a system polished through Tales of Symphonia and Tales of the Abyss. Blue Dragon worked wonders with a modified version of Final Fantasy X’s completely turn-based battles.

I’m not complaining about innovation per se. My problem with all these examples is that they’re innovation at gun-point, innovation not driven by the needs of the work but the demands of a hostile audience. If there is a genre crisis at all, it resides in this tension. Certainly that’s what Vesperia engages with at every level of its design.

What I’m not sure of is whether there’s any great value to my pointing this out, which is a bad thing to say at the end of a thousand-word blog post. I don’t expect to be able to persuade people, and I don’t really want to try. I’m certainly not qualified to approach this as a design textbook, or even as a way of advocating a design principle. I do want to capture what Vesperia expresses, though, and that involves at least a little of both those other things.

[1] Yes, I watched that video carefully enough to transcribe it. Don’t say I never suffer for my work. (The note about release dates refers to the fact that TWEWY – like more recent ‘genre-saviour’ Xenoblade Chronicles – came out in Europe before America).

[2] Okay, yes, I’m indulging my love of tortured metaphors here. Bigger-than-average-spoilers for explanation: having been killed off in act one to get Neku angry at the Reapers, Rhyme turns out to have come into the Reapers’ game as a result of a death whose function in the story is to motivate Beat.

Monday, 21 September 2015

The World Trends With You

For a game that went into development in 2005, elements of The World Ends With You feel outright prescient. This was a time before Facebook or Twitter even existed (or at least, before they were open to the general public), when ‘social media’ meant MySpace and Livejournal. Unfortunately, largely because of how Facebook and Twitter, and their explosive success, have changed social media and social patterns, other bits of the game haven’t aged well at all.

The good first: TWEWY has a ‘trends’ mechanic whereby most equipment in the game has a ‘brand’ and different brands are in vogue in different areas. Over time, trends shift and brands rise and fall. Equipment with trending brands gets bonuses. The ever-shifting trend chart will feel pretty familiar to anyone who spends a lot of time on Twitter, as will the way trends shift unpredictably and arbitrarily over time and from region to region.

What feels less in-touch is how you interact with these trends. You can boost a brand by wearing it and fighting battles, and some plot events involve using protagonist Neku’s mind-reading powers to manipulate others into setting or following trends. Neku, trapped in a shadow version of Shibuya, invisible to its ordinary inhabitants, becomes a sort of spooky, subliminal influence, enacting the unintelligible whims of vast and sinister powers.

For 2005-7, you can see where the developers were coming from. I’m sure that people who know the ins and outs of the fashion industry have some sense of where the trends one sees in the street come from, but otherwise it can seem very mysterious indeed. This is particularly true for those of us of a male persuasion, who are socialised to find fashion completely opaque.

Having the combat promote brands is one part pure ludus, of course, but it’s also a metaphor for being seen wearing. This is how fashion brands work, or at least how they’re supposed to – people see someone influential wearing <brand> and want to imitate them. That TWEWY also has supernatural forces and mind control at work to create this effect is a pointed comment.

But our understanding of trends – and certainly the definition of the word ‘trend’ – has been transformed over the last decade. There’s nothing in TWEWY to make you feel involved in trends. Neku stands apart from the culture he influences, boxed off by the metaphysics of the Reapers’ Game. Trends happen to the background humans, even to the point that in the end they are all brainwashed into one particular pattern of thought.

And there’s another quirk of the game that takes this from being merely dated[1] to actually off-putting. Neku is a misanthrope; we are first introduced to him as he bitches about how noisy and irritating other people are. The enemies you fight to promote your brands are collectively referred to as ‘Noise’, too.

One of the few insights the game gives into Neku’s character is his preference for one particular designer’s work and philosophy, but the philosophy in question is a conceited, shallow existentialism that feeds Neku’s contempt. Neku seems to hate other humans for existing (and to assume they can generally do no more than exist). His dislike of noise isn’t a now-familiar objection to the ceaseless howling of twitter or the noxious stew of Facebook[2], he’s just petulant and self-centered.

Yes, by the end of the game Neku has begun to open up. One of his final lines is “I have friends now”. But there’s no sense that this is part of a wider development of his empathy. His friendships were developed in isolation from humanity, just like everything else that happens in the game.

It’s the isolation that no longer feels resonant. It’s not just that we see ‘trending’ differently now. It’s that the idea I remember having in 2007 of how trends work seems naïve. Had I played the game then, I might have felt reassured by its portrayal of trends and fashions as the work of a sinister corporate nether realm. But the failure to address how we ‘ordinary people’ participate in and propagate trends is now obvious.

The separation between Neku, along with the other residents of Underground Shibuya who can shape and exploit trends, and humanity at large grants the latter group the comfortable innocence of the powerless. They are only ever victims of trends, or occasionally unwitting pawns of trendsetters. If Twitter has a general lesson at all, it’s that this is a fiction.

This is where the passage of time really hasn’t been kind to TWEWY. Something that was hidden in its understanding of its theme has been laid bare. There’s more to be said about TWEWY’s relationship to modernity, but for a game touted as a much-needed update to the JRPG genre, its theme now feels simplistic and outdated.

[1] Not actually a sin, for what my saying it is worth. TWEWY feels right to me as a piece of its time – the retro phone graphics of the HUD are spot-on for the kind of phones I had as a undergraduate (2005-8).

[2] Both of which are probably not quite as bad as the hype suggests, but bad enough that I’d be sympathetic now to most people complaining about noise in those contexts.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Dog Time

‘World’ is, by root, as much a temporal concept as a spatial one. I’ve said before that one of the things that Tales of Vesperia struggles with is conveying the passage of time between its plot developments. The plot moves in fits and starts, tied tightly and transparently to the movements and actions of the player characters.

There is one side-quest in the game, though, which is a little more sophisticated. At roughly the end of Vesperia’s first act, you can run across Little Wolf, the nemesis of Yuri’s canine companion Repede (Repede being a playable character in his own right). Little Wolf challenges Repede to a ‘marking battle’, a contest to say which of them can claim more territory around the world.

The way this works is simple; rest in an area of the world map and Repede will claim it as his own. Meanwhile, over time, Little Wolf slowly builds an empire, taking unclaimed territories and nibbling away at Repede’s. If you, at any point, manage to take 95% of the world map from Little Wolf, you win and he shows up to concede. He will still, even more slowly, claim territory, but his submission is clear.

After starting the side-quest, you can get an item which displays Repede’s and Little Wolf’s territory on the world map – not the live one that tracks your position as you move around, but the more detailed one available from the pause menu. Repede’s territory is marked with blue blobs, Little Wolf’s with red, and the boundaries pulse and blur enough to make them seem dynamic and in constant conflict.

What the slow swelling of Little Wolf’s territory conveys, in a way that little else in this game can, is the passage of time. It’s not perfect – you have to keep opening a pretty deeply-buried menu to see it – but it’s there, and it does suggest that some things happen in the world without Yuri’s direct intervention.

It conveys some broad things about the party’s situation, too. You can only claim territory that you can get to, and if you start the side-quest as soon as it’s available, your travel options are extremely limited. Many areas are inaccessible until you get the airship late in act 2, by which time Little Wolf can claim a lot of land you can’t reach.

The world changes as the plot progresses, as well. A handful of the areas you have to claim are lakes or mountain ranges when you first encounter them, and only become places where the airship can land after the earth-shaking events of the final act. In my early play-throughs of the game I spent a long time searching for concealed landing-spots in act 2 before discovering these transformations.

Perhaps the most important function of the Little Wolf side-quest is its interaction with the sections of the plot that restrict your mobility. In particular, during the section where you’re trying to rescue Estelle, your airship is damaged and you’re forced to ground. On recovering to the nearest town, you find that a civilian exodus has tied up every last boat, and you’re trapped on one particular continent.

Vesperia then sends you on a long, torturous journey to where Estelle’s being held. From having granted you and your characters an exclusive mastery of the skies, the game narrows down to a single convoluted path, fraught with monsters and harsh terrain. It never really manages to convince you you won’t rescue Estelle, but it does its best.

Functionally, of course, the rescue of Estelle will wait for you to reach your destination. Until you hit the right series of triggers, Estelle – and her captors – remain in limbo. There’s time to chase up any of the side-quests that are available to you (not many, but there are a few diversions, at least one of which is only available during this sequence). So it’s hard to feel much urgency.

But through it all, Little Wolf advances. He’s always moved fastest on the far side of the world from where you’re stuck. Now there’s hours of gameplay where you can do nothing to stop him. Whenever you come back to the dog map, Little Wolf’s territorial gains are a diagram of your delay.

You can always recover – tents aren’t expensive by the standards of the late game, and once you have your freedom back you can claim territory pretty quickly (though you must fight at least one battle each time you rest before you can rest again). Nothing is missable, you don’t get locked out of the rewards[1], but time does pass.

It’s this sense of the inexorability of time that I think games often struggle with. In-game time is malleable in a way that real-world time isn’t, and many ways of making in-game time more restrictive also place harsh demands on players that have little respect for differences in ability or circumstance. Vesperia’s dog map offers a way to weave between this limitations.

[1] Though Vesperia is quite happy to lock you out of other sidequests if you miss particular steps. I’m of two minds about this, but it’s a topic for another time.

Written for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table:

Monday, 14 September 2015

Of Maps and Men

Right from the very first lines of the opening narration, Tales of Vesperia emphasises how wild and uncharted its world is. Towns are only safe because of vast and powerful magical barriers; few humans ever go outside, and those who do will be eaten by monsters if they can’t defend themselves. The failure of a town’s barrier is a cataclysmic event.

Given this strict binary between townsfolk and travellers, the game quickly sorts the player characters into the latter category. Yuri and Estelle are forced to flee from their homes into the wilderness. Before they go, though, they are given a map. Apart from the immediate area around the city, it’s blank.

Yuri and Estelle decide to fill in the map as they go; it updates automatically from this point forward. Shortly, they meet Karol, a young trainee monster hunter about to be thrown out of his guild for cowardice. Karol doesn’t have a map of his own, but takes over the role of cartographer when he realises how little of your map is filled in.

Later, your quest brings you to a forgotten shrine, Baction, where you find a dungeon consisting mostly of repetitive square rooms differentiated only by monster placement and cracks in the floor. Here, again, Karol is given mapping duties – this is the only dungeon in the game that has an on-screen minimap. Numerous skits and cutscenes emphasise Karol’s love of mapmaking, of which the most striking is when he says:

“Nothing calls to a man’s heart like the thrill of making maps!”

This is not a sentiment the other male characters share (Yuri responds, drily, “I’ve never had that thrill.”) Both Yuri and Raven emphasise a more familiar violent and promiscuous masculinity. Throughout the early part of the game, Yuri constantly trolls Karol for his cowardice, apparently with the idea that this will toughen him up. Later, when Karol does get to ‘prove’ his manhood by defending the rest of the party from a boss all by himself, Raven says, “Facing down challenges like that is part of becoming a man.”

But while Karol does fit or try to fit some parts of this image of masculinity – trying to be a monster hunter, carrying comically oversized weapons – his actual manhood is constructed very differently. It’s in his building a guild of his own, and developing its reputation through hard work and respectful business with other guilds. It’s in his interest in mapmaking and his (implied) willingness to step back and let others benefit from it[1].

In other words, Karol’s masculinity is sited in responsibility, and in engagement with community. What Karol seeks is not just manhood in himself but legitimacy, a place in society. For Yuri and Raven, masculinity is no such thing; one way or another, their masculinity is about the freedom of power and self-determination.

Karol’s love of cartography dovetails with his masculinity. As Kaitlin Tremblay writes in this month’s Critical Distance Blogs of the Round Table prompt:

“Maps… order and define spaces… They set a boundary to what otherwise feels vast and potentially limitless, a way to compartmentalise and therefore tackle the world.”

Where Yuri and Raven – along with most of the game’s other male characters – are erratic and chaotic, Karol’s is a masculinity of order and control. It is a masculinity that takes wild spaces and tames them, and this sounds like a good thing. At least, it sounds preferable to Yuri’s rampant individualism.

But control and categorisation are the subtle weapons of masculine hegemony. Yuri’s violence – and Raven’s lechery – may seem more dangerous, but many of the game’s villains are motivated by the desire to control, to keep people in their places. And, on the face of it, Karol’s maps only really serve those already capable of using the spaces he charts – since these spaces are dungeons and the hostile wilderness, only those who can already take care of themselves benefit[2].

Mapping the world, by implication mastering it, is an expression of privilege. Maps that go beyond the purely topographical – surveillance maps, maps of national boundaries or battlefronts – are often tools of power. We see this in the refugee crisis in Europe at the moment, thousands of people dying or being mistreated for the sake of lines on a map.

Vesperia doesn’t address this facet of maps directly. Its world, Terca Lumireis, is not really divided among nations, since the land outside the magical barriers is equally hostile to everyone. While there are occasional references to governance and military action, it’s basically never the focus of events. Karol’s maps are never used to express collective, institutional or hierarchical power.

The game does entrust the map to hierarchical power, though. When you complete the world map, the ‘reward’ cutscene and title go to Estelle, an Imperial princess. By this time, she’s already passed over the possibility of succession, but she remains an image of royalty – indeed, the supernatural legacy she inherits suggests her bloodline may be exceptionally pure.

What does she use the map for? In the cutscene, an NPC notices her looking at it and asks Estelle to tell her about all the exotic places she’s visited. Estelle, whose passion is storytelling, obliges, talking right through the night.

Maps can be tools of power, but they can also be souvenirs and reminders. Somewhere I still have the map of New York I bought on a trip there in 2004, because without a map I can’t fit the memories of those four frantic days together in a coherent order. Estelle’s use of the world map does more than that, arguably; it enables her to bring the now-tamed spaces of the wilderness to those not privileged to be able to visit them.

Whether this is enough to defang the map as a tool of power, I’m not sure. The game could be seen as naïve in suggesting that. But as a suggestion of a better way – not just for maps but by implication for masculinity – it bears some consideration.

[1] I’ll return to this point later, but the rewards for completing the world map all go to Estelle.

[2] It should be noted that not all such characters are male in Vesperia. In their own distinct ways, all three of the party’s female members are empowered to be outside the safety of the towns, but where addressed at all this tends to be framed as ‘unladylike’.

Written for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table:

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

What the Hero Cannot Save the Princess From

Tales of Vesperia is the story of a young man going on an adventure with a princess, so of course, at one point, she gets kidnapped and he has to ‘rescue’ her. As this happens about two-thirds of the way through the plot, there will be some more detailed spoilers than are usually necessary in what follows.

The kidnapping happens shortly after the game’s sequence of big reveals plays out. We discover that Estelle, the Imperial Princess Yuri has latched onto, is the Child of the Full Moon, imbued with a power that threatens the natural order of the entire world of Terca Lumireis. Estelle, who is possessed of a compassion that borders on the cherubic, has already once said that if her power cannot be controlled she is willing to accept death for the sake of the world.

Yuri will have none of this. When the party work out, collectively, just how much of a danger Estelle poses, Yuri insists that Estelle not give up on the slim chance that they may be able to find some way to control her power. As he pressures Estelle, berating her for saying that she’s prepared to die if necessary, she cracks and runs off, seeking a moment alone to process her desperate straits.

The rest of the party give her space, spending the time discussing what might be done to help her. After a few moments, Raven, the shifty older dude who’s latched on to your party for as-yet-suspect reasons[1], complains he can’t follow the discussion and goes outside. When the rest of the party emerge later, both Raven and Estelle are missing.

It seems pretty obvious what’s happened. The only ambiguity is where Raven might have taken Estelle, and who exactly he might be working for. This prompts a search of the current town, which – if taken at face value – the game makes an oddly laboured affair, with some really awkward progress triggers.

The complicating factor in all this is that the town in question is the sky-city Myorzo, isolated and secret[3] home of the Kritya (basically Vesperia’s ‘descendants of the Ancients’ race). The only way out of the city is your airship, which is still docked. Eventually, you find an old, decommissioned teleporter which has been reactivated, and the guardian spirit of the city tracks its signal to tell you where to go.

Here’s where things get weird. When someone asks how the teleporter was reactivated, the party’s magic expert and expositor, Rita, specifically says that it could only have been Estelle’s powers that got it working. On top of that, when you follow the trail that the spirit identifies, you go to a location that there’s no sign Estelle ever visited.

Now, when you finally catch up to Estelle after blindly chasing another false lead, she’s definitely being held against her will, tormented and puppeteered by the current arch-villain to serve his ends. But while it’s unclear exactly how much power he has over her, what is clear is that the threat she poses to the world is contained.

What’s suggested, subtly but insistently, is that Raven, acting on the mastermind’s behalf, made some vague promise to Estelle that he knew someone who could control her power, and Estelle jumped at the chance. The mastermind’s solution is cruel and painful, but Estelle is still conflicted about whether she wants freedom – even during the rescue, she begs you to kill her.

Some of this – the cackling, sadistic villain, the tortured princess – could be chalked up to standard and regrettably exploitative video game melodrama, and it’s clear that Yuri himself reads it that way. It never occurs to Yuri that the Princess might not want to be rescued, or might be terrified of the implications of rescue even if she wanted it, or even that he can’t actually save her by rescuing her. He just chews his way through three levels of delaying tactics and diversions and rescues Estelle.

Rescuing Estelle, by the way, means fighting her as a mind-controlled boss; in the final phase of the battle, Yuri fights alone, without the rest of the party. On the way he’s accepted that it might be necessary to kill her to save her from Alexei – he’s willing to do that, even though he wouldn’t let her give her own life up willingly. All through this, he has no answer for the question of what they might do to prevent Estelle accidentally destroying the world.

Yuri’s actions and misjudgements come from two sources. One is his assumption of his own narrative, what I think of as ‘hero privilege’. While never as overt or self-aware about it as someone like Final Fantasy XII’s Balthier, Yuri understands both the structure of fairytales and the role into which he fits within that structure[4]. One of the key thrusts of Vesperia’s narrative is to highlight how inhuman this can be, how much we accept from heroes that in other contexts would be abhorrent.

But Yuri’s actions, and particularly his insistence that Estelle not ‘give up’ (i.e. accept death), are also part and parcel of his personal ethos. Yuri has a devotion to self-determination and authenticity that would do Sartre proud. Self-serving as his manipulations to prolong his time with Estelle are, it’s clear he earnestly believes that she wants and needs the adventure for her own sake.

Generally speaking, Estelle agrees, too. She speaks often of needing to find her own way. If she does indeed go willingly to Alexei, it is because she gives in to fear of the consequences of not doing so, fear that the cost of her freedom for others would be too high.

Yuri can embrace the existentialist life because he has very few social ties. For Estelle, as a princess and as the inheritor of a powerful mystical lineage, things are more complicated. The game eventually comes down much more on Estelle’s side; before you can go to the final boss, there’s another awkward sequence where you have to go around the world seeking the blessing of its various heads of state for your near-apocalyptic plan.

Rhetorically, Tales of Vesperia positions ‘hero privilege’ as a distortion of responsible interaction with society. Yuri is always willing to take responsibility for his actions, but he is never required to face truly horrible choices the way Estelle is purely in virtue of who she was born. There’s no question that Vesperia’s way of making this point exploits and objectifies Estelle, but its use of dissonant, ‘gamey’ surface to address Yuri is worth some attention.

This is not a game that hangs together well on the surface. Yuri doesn’t really get to be the hero, the rescue of Estelle makes no sense and the final act is unfocussed, confusing and disorganised. You can play this as a Video Game Story, but it won’t satisfy you.

The coherent narrative of Tales of Vesperia is buried under Yuri’s story; just as Yuri is blind to the harshest consequences of his actions, reading him as the hero blinds you to what’s really going on. In a way, this is futile, since the only players who are going to see this are already beyond the shallow engagements the game critiques, so it’s preaching to the choir, but it’s still a very competent use of the narrative to express theme.

[1] There’s a character like this in every Tales game and he’s always the worst[2]. Yes, Devon, that includes Alvin.

[2] Actually, in Tales of Graces, the role is played by Asbel’s younger brother, and the older dude who hangs around with you is pretty cool.

[3] There’s an essay in exactly how isolated and/or secret the city is, but I’m still puzzling that out.

[4] Vesperia plays this up by contrasting Yuri, the social drop-out, with his childhood friend Flynn who has joined the Imperial Knights and steadily climbed their ranks. That relationship is too much to get into here, as is Flynn’s relationship to Estelle.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Coherence, Dissonance and Tales of Vesperia

When trying to characterise the phenomena that induced me to make a study of Tales of Vesperia, I fumbled with a variety of terms. ‘Gamey’ and ‘self-conscious’ were among them, but I eventually settled uncomfortably on ‘absurd’. ‘Absurd’ has a particular sense and history in art, though, and I’m not sure it quite fits what I was getting at.

Fortunately, thanks to Lana Polansky, I now have a better terminology to work with. Polansky discusses two terms, ‘coherence’ and ‘dissonance’. These aren’t opposites; Polansky makes clear that a work can be one or the other, both or neither. They refer to distinct characteristics a work (experience?) can have.

Dissonance, as I understand it, is something felt or sensed; a phenomenal property of things not quite seeming right. As such, dissonance is an artist’s tool, with well-documented uses. Across every genre of music, dissonance is used to create uneasy moods and dark feelings. Elements of a painting may be dissonant with one another, leading to a work that resists simple, literalistic readings.

By contrast, I understand ‘coherence’ as a logical/cognitive property, whose opposite is contradiction. This is very much a philosopher’s understanding, so take it with a pinch of salt, but it’s what I’ve got to work with. Contradiction is what happens when two propositions cannot be held together; a set of statements is coherent if they can all be held together.

It’s very hard, given how the language of academic philosophy has bled into wider culture, to prevent this distinction seeming hierarchical. There’s a cultural tendency to privilege the logical over the sensed/apparent/phenomenal. But whatever your feelings about feels and reals, I think Polansky makes clear that coherence and dissonance can’t stand in a hierarchical relationship because they don’t denote specific points on a shared continuum. They’re phenomena different in kind, not degree.

Simplifying, dissonance is when something feels wrong, whether or not anything ‘actually is’. It’s when a surface reading of a work won’t fit. Incoherence is when the statement being made by a work – or being attributed to a work by a critic – doesn’t make sense because parts of the work actively detract from it. So Clint Hocking’s (in)famous ludonarrative dissonance is actually more a kind of incoherence[1].

Bringing this back round to my interests, we can now say that Tales of Vesperia is often dissonant, but that it is also strikingly coherent. The game’s plot, visual design and mini-games/side-quests make it a jagged landscape littered with obvious cracks. The Wonder Reporter is just the most aggressive; there’s a whole city built to look like a giant mace, and you could drive a bus through some of the holes in the world-building, particularly the schemes of the various bad guys.

For every dissonant chord, though, there is a resolution into harmony. Sometimes this is prominent, as in the contrast between the way the game handles its ‘Wonder Log’ and the other player logbooks. Sometimes it is more subtle, as when one realises that a plot hole is really protagonist Yuri ignoring key plot details because they don’t fit his personal narrative.

Every time, though, a pattern is reinforced; a genre trope is instantiated in a way that brings out its laziness, its familiarity, its gaminess or its wrongness, then subverted to critique the mainstream reception or expectation that created it. In other words, something is first presented as dissonant, and then its dissonance is attributed to forces outside the design of the game.

This establishes a very coherent – not to mention angry – message. For Vesperia, and/or its developers, the ‘genre crisis’ in JRPGs has nothing to do with the actual experiences produced by any of its immediate predecessors, but is instead a matter of conflicting expectations among its audience. I happen to think there’s a lot of truth to this, but the argument would be coherent even if it turned out to be completely misplaced.

Of course, no work of art assembled by the size of team that works on most major industry game titles could be completely coherent. Vesperia fails most prominently in its engagement with temporality, where it just doesn’t do as much with its dissonance. This isn’t necessarily a problem – I am, after all, doing arts criticism right now and not abstract formal logic[2] – since it’s not a broad enough incoherence to obliterate the overall point.

Generally speaking, then, my ongoing work with Vesperia is going to involve taking each point of dissonance in turn and pushing at it until it resolves. Depending on your attitude to art and meaning, this can be seen either as a forensic or a creative endeavour, or a combination of the two. It’s the approach I’ve already applied to the Wonder Reporter, and I’ll have another piece along those lines next week sometime.

[1] I think this is the essence of Robert Yang’s complaint about the term – we don’t feel any dissonance playing, say, violent games that attempt to critique violence, even if on a closer look these games end up seeming terribly hypocritical.

[2] Again, it’s hard to make that sound non-hierarchical, but having taught formal logic I can say its uses in pure form are very limited.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Abstraction and Attention

I’m trying not to say ‘Zelda isn’t an RPG’. ‘Zelda’ and ‘RPG’ both mean too many different things to too many different people for that to be a useful statement. But I think I can say something useful about what I look for in an RPG – and particularly a JRPG – by contrasting it with what I look for and love in Zelda games. For clarity, I’m a 3D Zelda person – I’ve generally found the 2D games frustrating to play, though that may be because I’ve mainly played them on handheld and I kinda hate handheld gaming.

To start, here’s what I understand by ‘RPG’: a system of abstraction(s) that primarily serves to mediate the telling of a story. This is a pretty broad definition (the ‘primarily’ is important), but I think it’s useful because it captures the connection between pre-digital pen-and-paper RPGs and their digital analogues. The downside is that it leaves out the act of roleplaying that makes up such an important part of the pen-and-paper experience.

Anyway, what I mean by it is this. The abstractions in RPGs serve a primarily extrinsic focus[1]. Phenomena like HP and XP encode the labour and temporal cost of travel. World maps and sidequests indicate scale. The more abstract components of the game are there to set a tone and player mindset for the story developments, which are generally treated as less abstract[2].

The 3D Zelda games, though, have a different focus. For one thing, the biggest abstractions in Zelda games are the puzzles; not the player’s actions but the environments that induce them. The player’s attention is drawn more to the phenomenal/sensory qualities of their actions – the flight of the boomerang, the heft of the megaton hammer, the whoosh of flying through the air with the hookshot.

As a complement to this, Zelda games generally have less involved storylines. It’s telling that the games that do have stronger emphasis on storytelling – Majora’s Mask and especially Twilight Princess – have more in the way of player action that mediates story. Moments like the sequence where you carry the injured Midna to Zelda, or the horse-and-cart bit where you transport Ilia to Kakariko Village, are more about the urgency of the moment, the dramatic interruption to the otherwise pervasive melancholy of Twilight Princess’ Hyrule, than the phenomenal qualities of the specific actions the player takes[3].

There are exceptions on the other side of the equation as well, of course. Action RPGs and even some more recent turn-based ones do take an interest in the intrinsic qualities of their abstractions. This can take the form of Tales-style combat, levelling systems like Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid and the Lillium Orbs from Tales of Xillia, or even quicktime events, as in Final Fantasy XIII-2.

Almost every game that has a story dabbles in abstractions that favour the story; similarly, almost every game period dabbles in abstractions that feed the senses. The question is one of balance. When I go to my collection of Zelda games, it’s because I’m looking to have my attention drawn to a particular sensory/phenomenal mode of engagement. When I go looking specifically for a (J)RPG, I want to focus on the narrative and register other interactions as in service to that.

[1] I think this is true whatever RPG you play, but it’s probably less true for more modern western RPGs than JRPGs.

[2] There’s a whole complicated question of the role of abstraction in fantasy narratives – magic and magical creatures as metaphor, fantasy hierarchies as engagements with real politics and so on – but it’s too big a topic to get into here, hence the ‘generally treated as’.

[3] The cart-and-horse sequence is also a call-back to the similar escort mission in MM, an explicit link between the two games.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

After Icarus

I don’t remember how I found the Princess’ Slide secret level in Mario 64. It’s something like seventeen and a half years since I did. I don’t remember specifically my first time going down the slide, either, but only because the thousands of rides I took all blur together a bit. I can’t quite remember every twitch of the way down anymore, but I rode that slide a lot.

On Marble Blast Gold, years later, there were two levels that started you off on a steep slope, and carried on straight down. Stopping was not possible. I played those levels a lot, too. There, there was the added advantage of an odd physics simulation that meant that at high speed, if you clipped an edge you went bouncing all over the place, faster than the eye could track.

There’s something similar in some of the set pieces in the 2D Sonic games, preprepared paths that move you fast enough to leave the camera trailing behind, that let you move in a way that feels effective but still chaotic. It’s like moshing – you can’t control where you go, but you have to do something, you have to be active, to participate.

In fact, the closest experience I’ve had in real life to the experience I’m poking at here was on a dance floor, back in the days when I wasn’t so elbow-conscious. Something loud and embarrassingly teenage, probably by Linkin Park or Disturbed, came on along with the strobe and suddenly the whole dancefloor was an indistinct mess of limbs. It was too dark to tell which way was up, or where anyone was coming from. There was movement and a sense of urgency, without any room for analysis or anxiety.

I feel like that hasn’t been available so much in more recent video games. Even when games are about movement, they tend to be about movement as mastery of a space, with the penalty for bad movement being death. You see this in games like Super Meat Boy, Escape Goat 2 and even something as simple as Geometry Dash. Staying in control is essential; these games won’t do anything for you the way Sonic used to, and their tracks don’t have walls like that Mario slide.

These are games that you practice. They reward the development of a particular skill on a very even curve. They’re a manifestation of what Austin Walker called ‘the new power fantasy’, mastery not by cheat or shortcut but mastery earned as a benefit of a just world. Harsh as the games often seem, they come with an idea of fairness that’s completely at odds with reality, completely artificial.

It’s a fairness we’d like to believe in[1]. It’s also an idea that flatters our egos as players and manipulates our behaviour as consumers[2]. And I would argue that it harms us directly, as well as manipulating us and squashing our experiences. Hegemonic culture – toxic masculinity, white supremacy, gender binarism and ableism – is built centrally on an idea of mastery. It is the idea that one should be master of oneself in a particular repressive way.

I’ve written at length before on the harm this has done to me, and I’m much more a perpetrator than a victim. Hegemonic culture thrives on the idea that everything that cannot be quantified must be controlled and suppressed, which slides quickly into the totalising idea that every weakness, no matter how transient, is failure.

And those of us who enact and sustain hegemonic culture are fragile for this reason. When something challenges our conception of ourselves as masters, as paragons, we descend quickly through snappish retort and into outright violence, both in rhetoric and often physically. The mere hint of a failing is enough to crack us open and let bursts of toxicity splatter everything we touch.

None of which is new, all of which has been articulated better by cleverer people than me. But the more I think about it in the context of my relationship to video games, the more troubled I become by the latter. Games seldom tolerate failure; it is the bookend of the experience, not a phenomenon to be investigated in and of itself.

Failure is bound up with ideas of blame and responsibility. So, too, is conventional thought about moral choice – but not in video games. In games, we think of choice and action as things without responsibility, their consequences sealed away within the magic circle of the virtual. In video games, failure is about frustration and fairness, and (in at least my case) the occasional flight of a controller across a room.

There is a disconnect there. I say this not to make a moral or sociological claim about games – though I realise I’ve flirted with both. I say it to define an area of interest, to make a statement of intent. I want to make games that address responsibility, that create and explore failure without frustration, that do away with concerns of fairness altogether[3].

There’s an element of meditation in this, too, or maybe self-directed therapy. The problem with fragility is that it makes us dangerous to those who step up to shake us out of our obliviousness. We need to find ways to address our own blind spots before we can open up enough to others to be safe for them to even try to help.

Social relationships are the epitome of what cannot be mastered. You can’t, in the sense I’m talking about here, perfect your control of another human. There are no speed runs for people, no perfects, no Big Boss Ranks. Intimacy requires something that might be called cooperation, or concession, or submission – I’m not sure what the best term is, it’s something I’m very bad at.

I don’t want to blame games for that, though I think they may not have helped. I want to believe they can help, though.

I am starting with a game of falling. This is not a subtle subversion – if a quintessential moment in video games is Mario jumping over a pit, where jump and pit are precisely calibrated to match, falling down the pit is a quintessential failure.

So my game is called After Icarus:

It’s going to be another month or two before I can release (depending when I’m able to get some music recorded), but it should be ready by winter. In the meantime, please follow @everaftericarus and I’ll try to provide at least occasional updates (of course, if I fail I guess I can at least claim thematic consistency…).

[1] Please support Jackson

[2] Please support Lana Polansky

[3] Which is not to say that I want to make unfair games. ‘Fairness’ is neither a neutral nor an objective concept. The rhetoric of fairness in games often serves the most toxic elements of the community, those who demand inaccessibility and pour scorn on those denied access by it. I want to make games that no-one even tries to assess the fairness of.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Price of Time

A couple of weeks ago, I said I’d be talking about time in JRPGs, and one of the particular issues I picked up on was this: “Plot developments that are tied to player progress can seem preposterous coincidences.”

When plot events in a game are tied to triggers based on player progress, whether that’s beating a particular encounter, arriving in a particular location or just talking to the right NPC, that connection can be pretty obvious. Sometimes this is fine, but often it centres the player characters, and through them player action, at the expense of effective storytelling.

Tales of Vesperia, for all its subversion, never quite escapes this. The first half of the story is characterised by coincidences – every other town you arrive at gets attacked or otherwise disrupted within minutes of your arrival – and despite the characters joking that protagonist Yuri must be ‘cursed’, it’s impossible to miss the underlying artificiality of the plot structure. Nor does this crack in the façade feel as planned, as deliberate as other things the game does; Vesperia fails to provide contrast by handling its triggers better elsewhere.

There are ways around the problem, though. Final Fantasy XII is at its strongest when confronting this head-on. It has to be, given its theme of the insignificance of the individual. It would be strange to spend most of the plot declaring Ashe inconsequential only for the grand schemers of the world to wait on her every move.

So, for the most part, FFXII does something a little different. You spend much of the game out of touch with events, travelling on foot through the wilds[1]. The plot triggers are generally associated with your arrival at the end of the journey, whether you travel to defeat or just to meet a plot-relevant NPC. When you arrive, what you feel is not that you have caused something to happen, but that you have missed something happening and must struggle to catch up.

When you return to Rabanastre after escaping prison near the start of the game, it’s the kidnapping of Penelo. When you arrive at Mt. Bur-Omisace after travelling across half the world in search of support for Ashe’s royal claim, it’s the replacing of the kindly Emperor Gramis with his merciless son that removes all hope for parlay. Later, arrivals at the Imperial capital Archades and the summit of the Pharos lighthouse are similarly recontextualised.

The exception to the pattern is after the first long journey in the game – here, you’re swooped down on by the Imperials right after subduing and recruiting the powerful spirit that guards Ashe’s inheritance. Why? Because for a brief moment, holding that inheritance, the characters are globally significant. Then the Imperials take it off you and destroy it.

This symbolic disenfranchisement of the player is very FFXII, but doing things this way doesn’t have to be so stark. The key is not that things happen without the player involved (though that helps) – it’s that things happen without a precisely-defined moment. The plot develops while you travel, however long that takes. Even if a specific timestamp were to be given for the event when you’re told about it (‘three days ago’, ‘last week’), the fact that different players will have taken different amounts of ‘real-world’ time to get from trigger to trigger establishes ambiguity.

Plot developments can only seem temporally coincidental if they can be tied to specific moments[2]. The ambiguity of the translation between play-time and narrative time can be used to break these ties and make the narrative feel much more (for want of a better word) organic.

There’s also the brute-force solution, of course: the Majora’s Mask approach. Games like MM and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII keep the clock ticking throughout. Events happen at precise moments whether you’re there or not. This is, in a sense, the most realistic way of presenting time.

But it has costs, at least if you want to tell a conventional story. Narrative triggers must be stretched, pulled out of shape, or repeated, to prevent the player missing them altogether. It’s telling that both MM and LR let you supernaturally manipulate time – without that affordance, the games would be unnavigable.

What FFXII shows is that the structure of in-game time can contribute powerfully to the meaning of the events portrayed. Temporal structures need not be neutral, invisible systems for the delivery of cutscenes; and they need not function based on an analogue of real time to do so.

[1] There’s something to be said, I realise now, about the relationship of this narrative device to the communicative intensity of the modern world. I’ve felt for a long time that this is something that fantasy narratives will struggle (or are struggling) to adapt to, and I’ll probably return to this theme later.

[2] This is actually tautologous, but I couldn’t think of a better way to put it.

Monday, 10 August 2015

When Did I Return to Nibelheim?

I’m replaying Final Fantasy VII at the moment, partly prompted by the announcement of the remake and partly to see how Tales of the Abyss relates to it[1]. I’m having a very different experience of the game than I did either of my previous forays into it. I don’t have much to say about the first of those, on the original PC version in about 2003, since I didn’t get very far before losing interest, but in light of the upcoming remake, I do want to talk about the second.

The second time I played FFVII, and the first that I completed it, I was sharing a house with a number of other gamers, all keen fans of the franchise. Foremost among them was a guy I’ll call Tom, who was one of Those FFVII Fans.

I don’t want to disparage Tom’s love of the game. It’s a great game, and unlike me he first encountered it completely fresh and had time at the right time in his life to explore it fully and have his mind repeatedly blown. But as what might be called a ludocentric gamer – whose play focussed on the mastering of systems and surpassing of challenges – he engaged with a very different FFVII to the one calling out to me.

It’s not even that Tom didn’t recognise the depth and complexity of FFVII’s story. It just wasn’t what he focussed on. When I wanted to include Aeris in my party, because I felt that that was what Cloud would do (not an opinion I hold anymore, but I did then), Tom told me off for wasting XP and equipment on her – we both knew she was going to die, but for Tom that made her useless to me in a way that I just didn’t care about that much.

I played through the whole game with Tom breathing down my neck, pushing me to play in a certain way, take a certain attitude to the in-game events. I enjoyed the game, overall, and indeed enjoyed most of my conversations and arguments with Tom about it, but I wouldn’t say it made much of an impression on me. It was a good game, but I couldn’t feel its tremendous influence.

This is not a complaint about ludocentric play. I know I’m complaining about ludocentric play, but the problem isn’t how Tom chose to engage with the game, or what it meant or was to him. My complaint is with the way he insisted the game had to be the same thing to me. (Something similar happened with a number of other games over the years we lived together – FFVII is strong enough to stand up, but some of the others are probably spoiled for me forever).

It’s only in playing the game afresh, on my own, that I’m starting to find the FFVII that matters to me, that will leave an impression on me. Now I can pause and appreciate the blocking in the cutscenes, the exquisite care of the camerawork and sound design, the surprising nuance of so much of the writing.

Why talk about this now? Well, sometime in the next couple of years, a whole lot of people are going to get the chance to come to FFVII fresh, in a game that really won’t – can’t, for better or worse – match the memories of people who played it when it was new. That disconnect could do a lot to hurt the actual experiences people have with the remake, maybe on both sides (I imagine it’s hurting some people in conversations within the dev team already).

The thing is, FFVII is actually a great game to have as a new experience. It’s a game about having an image of something – Cloud’s image of the past, his fateful return to Nibelheim – that is slowly revealed to not match reality. FFVII is a landmark of games history and culture, but the memories of those who ‘were there at the time’ are necessarily personal, even a distortion.

Like Tifa, shaking her head and murmuring worries while Cloud grandly recounts fighting alongside Sephiroth, those of us who weren’t there encounter a striking dissonance between the deeply-held beliefs of our friends and the actual experiences in front of us. Having the space to explore that dissonance has definitely enriched the game for me, but in a different context – with Tom’s memories of the game pressing in around with me – it could be stifling.

Whatever FFVII is to you, please try to be aware of the fact that that isn’t neutral; you aren’t right about it. It’s a game that can be many things to many different people. It doesn’t need justifying. It doesn’t even need justifying in its current half-updated incarnations, like the Steam version I’m currently playing, with its hi-res low-poly models and low-res un-updated backgrounds. The game is strong enough that it doesn’t need nursemaiding through encounters with new players.

I’d say also that fussing too much over spoilers is counterproductive. That’s for two reasons; firstly, that spoilers are inevitable given the prominence of the game. Secondly, what makes FFVII’s major twists interesting and powerful has very little to do with surprise. This is true for almost everything that people worry about spoiling, and surprise is rarely interesting in and of itself[2], but, as someone who knew all along that Aeris would die and that Cloud’s memories are actually Zack’s, I can promise you from personal experience that those revelations don’t lose their power to foreknowledge.

It is all well and good to love a game, particularly if that game has been important to your love of the form (and provided it doesn’t blind you to its shortcomings). But nostalgia for your own experience of a game can be a prison that keeps the game away from other players, even other players who play it for seventy hours and see every bit of content it has to offer. If you love FFVII, please be prepared to let it go, at least a little bit.

Of course, I can say all this now. You might want to save a link to this article to throw right back at me if and when Final Fantasy XII gets a HD remaster/remake, because I will be insufferable as hell during that launch week…

[1] This is a topic for another time, but Abyss has a protagonist with a whole bunch of false memories and a metaphysics based on the Kabbalah mythology from which Sephiroth’s name is drawn. I am pretty sure this isn’t a coincidence.

[2] Okay, that may be a little strong, particularly since I personally hate surprise and the unexpected in all its forms. I do, however, believe strongly that very little that can actually be ‘spoiled’ is valuable in and of itself – most plot twists are either interesting whether or not they’re surprising, or actually not interesting at all.

Written for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table:

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Elbows, or Video Dancing

My elbows stick out quite a long way. I’m six foot tall, long-bodied for my height, and long-armed even for my body. If I wave my arms in the air like I just don’t care, I’m not quite a danger to low-flying aircraft, but I am a danger to light fittings, not to mention the heads of other dancers. Basically, my persona is this guy:

No style and no grace indeed. Source
So I don’t tend to dance very much from the waist up – it’s not just that I feel like I look conspicuously ridiculous, it’s also that I have actually injured people and inflicted noticeable property damage in the past (okay, so self-consciousness is also a big part of it).

In fact, in general, I’m not terribly confident of the grace of any part of my body, except for one. I’m happy with my hands. Whether on keyboard or gamepad, or at the piano, and of course with a Guitar Hero controller, I feel much less awkward[1].

Video games, at least those controlled mainly with buttons, extend my fingers into a whole digital body, often one hard-programmed for grace. I love games about movement – (‘pure’) platformers, endless runners, driving games. I get frustrated with ‘walking simulators’ because of how little they often have to do with the actual act of walking (but on the other hand, if you made a first-person flying simulator that was just a camera with a little bit of physics behind it, I’d probably never play anything else again).

And yet I haven’t seen any critical work relating video games to dance. Plenty about the relationship between games and theatre, games and music, games and architecture, all of it important and valuable, but nothing about dance. Now, I’ve not been around that long and maybe I’ve missed it or it’s passed me by – please let me know if that’s the case – but we’re in a medium where Chris Crawford can say something like this:

“The problem with artistic expression in games is that the games are fundamentally spatial, and the means of expression available to the player are very limited.”

It’s an old clip and this next one isn’t, but the means available to these dancers don’t seem very limited in expression:

Or these:

(okay, some of that is Ginger Rogers being a fantastic actress, but also the dancing)

Or this:

Of course, because I don’t dance and I’m pretty much terrified of trying to learn where anyone might see, I’m the last person who should start writing about the link between video games and dance, but there’s got to be something we can say about this:

Or this:

Or even, perhaps too obviously, this:

I like games about movement, when I’m not obsessively focussed on games as story-delivering systems. Even there, it’s often the ability to direct my own motion through a story that most engages me, and increasingly I find the lack of the same in film and TV to be a turn-off. It’s part of why I talk so much about travel in my games writing.

When I dabble in making games, it’s usually to convey something with or through movement. When I play games to unwind, to relax, to feel good rather than Deeply Engaged, I’m almost always seeking new forms of movement. Not my movement – I feel safest and least dangerous with my scarecrow body confined to a chair – but the movement of my dancing digits.

[1] The mouse is another matter – to move a mouse you pretty much have to use your elbow, and I hate that. I feel like my mouse control is about a tenth as reliable as using the keyboard, and if a game relies on mouse control I’m much less likely to play it/stick with it for very long.

Monday, 27 July 2015


In my work on Tales of Vesperia particularly and JRPGs in general, I’ve been poking at a lot of virtual worlds, looking for the places where they start to come apart and the meaning that can be gleaned therefrom. In trying to develop a theoretical framework for this, I spent some time going through the etymology of the word ‘world’[1], and hopefully what I found is at least worth this post.

‘World’ comes from a Germanic root, a combination of ‘were’, meaning ‘man’ (as in ‘werewolf’) and ‘old’ for (if this isn’t obvious) things relating to age. The OED gives an ‘originally literal’ meaning of ‘age of man’[2]. What interests me about this is the temporal component.

I think it would be fair to say that we generally use ‘world’ as a geographic or ontological descriptor; ‘the world’ is either a place, or a(n in-some-way-maximal) set of objects. That’s not universally true, as we might speak of ‘the Jurassic world’ or ‘the modern world’, or say of some era of history that ‘it was a different world back then’, but I think it fits how the word is used today (I’d be very interested to hear from anyone who disagrees). We tend to use ‘age’ or ‘era’ to speak of periods of time.

And I think this is worth remembering when discussing ‘world’ in videogames, because it’s the temporal dimension of game worlds that tends to be the more complicated. Games compress distance, and even chop it up a bit, but as I’ve argued before, game spaces are generally straightforwardly spatial.

Time in game worlds, though, is rather more complicated. Partly out of technical limitations and partly out of courtesy to players, games have to convey the passage of time in mostly-abstract ways. Even the most literal driving/racing game, with a millisecond-precise lap timer in the top corner of the screen, will run its career mode, car tuning and car select menus in abstract time (thank heavens).

One of the coolest and most effective single experiences I’ve had in a game was Queers in Love at the End of the World by Anna Anthropy (go play it quickly and come back). This seems, on the face of it, to be a game with very literal time – a timer at the top of the screen counting down from 10 in seconds – but it relies on an abstraction to make that time meaningful. Specifically, the duration of your actions is abstracted to the time it takes to read, understand and navigate the hyperlinked options.

Without wanting to dig too deeply, this does complicate things. Time in Queers in Love passes differently depending on your reading speed. I tend to have time for about two choices; I feel like I can usually do more than ten seconds’ worth of actions in the game’s ten literal seconds. A slower reader, someone reading in their second language or with a condition like dyslexia, may find time flowing rather faster for their in-game avatar than I do.

The kind of games I spend most of my time playing – JRPGs and other epic narrative games – have to compress time much more severely. Sequences of events that by rights should take years must be fitted into forty hours or less. There are lots of ways to do this, all of which can be clunky in some contexts and entirely graceful in others.

It’s often in handling time that JRPGs get most abstract, or furthest from literalism. Plot developments that are tied to player progress can seem preposterous coincidences; taking time to complete sidequests after reaching the final save point before the final boss can drain all urgency from the impending apocalypse.

I’m not going to go into these topics in more detail this time, because each is worth at least a post on its own. But I do think it’s important to look at how games represent time, how we should interpret those representations, and how virtual experiences may conflict with our relationships to non-virtual time – and the non-virtual world.

[1] This is a Thing Philosophers Do, and I don’t necessarily mean to advocate for definitions based on etymology over use, but it’s often helpful when trying to develop a lexicon to get a sense of what other linguistic roots may be relevant.

[2] It should be noted – though it’s by no means my place to do more than note – that ‘were’ means ‘man’ in the sense of ‘male person’, not as a generic term for human beings. I leave it to more astute feminist scholars to examine the fact that ‘world’ is by root a gendered term.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Only 'Real' That Matters

You know that feeling of disbelief when you beat a difficult final boss and instead of another phase the ending cutscene starts to play? The sunrise-slow shift from breathless relief to triumph?

Has a plot twist ever punched you right in the gut (looking at you, Aeris)? Has an environment ever sent chills down your spine[1]? Ever find yourself wanting to chew your controller (don’t inspect my old Gamecube pad for toothmarks, please), or pitch your TV out the window?

These are the kind of effects that often get forgotten in the popular debate about whether games can have ‘real effects’. The focus tends to be on whether games are turning ‘our children’ into (a) uncontrollably violent beasts or (b) posthuman supergeniuses. But of course games can have real effects at the personal level, and the other concerns are best left to psychologists with some grasp of proper investigative methodology.

And it’s not just that certain pieces of digital software can cause effects on real people. If you cried when Aeris died, or punched the air when you beat your first Bowser, it wasn’t the flipping of a bit somewhere inside the console, or a shifting pattern of electromagnetic radiation emitted by the screen that had that effect on you.

Okay, in a way it was, but describing the pattern of light or the behaviour of the silicon isn’t the best explanation of your response. You didn’t punch the air because of [obscure technical description of computer hardware]. You punched the air because YOU BEAT BOWSER YEAAHHHH.

And really, that should be all it takes to justify the serious study of games and gaming. We shouldn’t need esoteric philosophical arguments like this and this to defend what we do. In an ideal world, the capacity to cause real experiences would be the only thing that counted when deciding what’s worth taking an interest in[2].

It can be tempting to dismiss this position on the grounds that game events or objects are just fictions – that we can account for them in the same way that we account for Sherlock Holmes, or Batman, or Narnia. And you know, fair enough provided you’re going to take the study of Sherlock Holmes and Batman and Narnia seriously (pulp crime fiction, comics and children’s fantasy have all had their own fights for recognition in academia). But there is a bit of a difference.

A fiction is a kind of tacit agreement between audience and author. Very roughly, when you open a novel, you’re accepting that the author is going to tell you a bunch of lies (or at least, things that aren’t true), but that something in those lies will be worth your attention. You’re entertaining the lies in the hope or expectation that they will have some positive effect on you – make you feel good, teach you something new, guide you to self-reflection.

Some games are fictions, of course. But some don’t really involve straightforward fictive assertions at all. Look at a game like Geometry Dash, a game that consists almost entirely of level geometry. The geometry of a Dash level isn’t a lie about how things are in some other realm, it’s just there. If I tell you there’s a sequence of spikes at a certain point in the level, that’s true.

In this way, game objects are more like the notes of a piece of music. They may contribute to the telling of a story, or the communication of fictive claims, but they are real parts of the work, however transient or intangible. “There’s a mushroom in the second ‘?’ block of Super Mario Bros level 1-1.” is the same kind of statement as “The first notes of Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer are a D octave.”

This is why I think it’s useful to consider game events real; it’s not just that they’re causally effective (though in some ways that’s enough on its own), but that they are also intersubjectively consistent in a way that fictive events are not. If you claim that ‘Sherlock Holmes lived at 221B Baker St.’, I am not obliged to agree, since the statement is only accurate to Conan Doyle’s fiction, and not the Baker Street that you can walk along in London. We must agree a frame of reference before that statement is true. But ‘The Companion Cube appears in Test Chamber 17’ is true simpliciter.

There’s more to be said on this, particularly concerning the types of fictional statement (‘221B Baker Street’ is a fictional address in a real place, whereas somewhere like ‘Bag End, Hobbiton’ is a fictional address in a fictional place), but I do need to leave something for the academic paper I’m writing on this subject, so I’ll leave things here for now.

[1] I’m not able to offer any intelligible examples of this one because I scare easily and I’m not admitting just how terrified I was of the Great Deku Tree for a while in early 1999…

[2] For more on this terrible philosophy joke, I wrote a brief and slightly clunky introduction to philosophical idealism here.