There are two approaches to understanding the creative process that I want to discuss. The first is one that psychologist Tamaki Saito discusses in his book/study Otaku Sexuality. In considering why media aimed at otaku is so sexually charged, Saito notes how, romantically/sexually speaking, otaku lead far more normal lives than this media might suggest. The sexuality we see on display there is completely limited to the world of fiction. In addition, he mentions how otaku’s affection of their object of desire almost always manifests through an attempt to possess it (IE by creating works based on that object).
There’s probably a cognitive bias at work behind this sentiment, but a lot of the time when I look back on older video games, I’m reminded of how little the culture around them has changed. Take Lenar Co. and their 1986 release Bird Week. Judging by their body of work (a paltry six releases across ten years), it’s likely the team got their start as part of the hobbyist boom that hit Japan in the 70s and 80s. In other words, they share a lot in common with the indie boom video games went through around 2008. Their works never strayed too far from commercial video game genres, but they were never content to stay completely within those bounds, either. Lenar would introduce a new mechanic that changed the focus of play, or inflect existing ones differently, all in an effort to see just how far they could stretch these familiar concepts. Bird Week, as the team’s first project, best exemplifies this approach. It shows us how easily the concepts we take for granted in games can be inflected to mean something different, but also how liable such inflections are to lapse back into their original meanings.
As unfair as it might be to Shadow of the Colossus, understanding the game outside its relationship with ICO is difficult. The parallels between the two are too abundant and too significant to ignore. Both played a vital role in the construction of “video games as art*”; both take obvious inspiration from popular media; both draw from the same pool of symbols and motifs, like shadow, light, space, psychoanalysis, etc.; and both paint very broad strokes with those motifs so the player can/will read what they will into them.
However, I want to be clear that Shadow of the Colossus isn’t merely an extension of ICO’s work. In reality it’s a development of that work. More specifically, the game inverts every meaning that Team Ico had assigned its symbols in their first outing. They’re more willing to consciously challenge everything that, previously, they were willing to accept for the sake of discussion. The bond between different peoples gives way to loneliness; a well defined prison gives way to barren wastelands; and any hope for something better is replaced with a dreary cynicism that’s all but resigned itself to senseless suffering.
As counter-intuitive as it might seem, I don’t think approaching Fire Emblem Echoes through the game it was based off will be all that productive. There’s a lot I could (and perhaps will) say about it, but it’s been about a decade since I’ve played Gaiden and my memories of it are hazy. In addition, Echoes, like so many remakes, is a reinterpretation of its source material instead of a faithful recreation of it. This reinterpretation is so removed from the circumstances of the original’s creation that the new set of circumstances clouds out the former, forcing us away from any purely comparative analysis.
How then, do we go about understanding this game? I think it would help to see Echoes not as one unified game, but as several games coexisting within the same body. Its task is a delicate one; it straddles many thin lines at once. Each one pulls the game’s attention in different directions, threatening to disrupt Echoes’ balance. I’d be lying if I said the game never loses its balance, and I’d be lying again if I said the game always lands on its feet when it does. But the tight control the game maintains the rest of the time allows it to reach its greatest heights, and the acrobatic displays during its tumbles lead to some memorable performances.
Gley Lancer begins on a scene far out in space, with two warring factions primed to face one another in combat. We don’t know who the combatants are or what their stakes in the battle are, and frankly, they’re not important to our understanding of the events at hand. The sturdy military march, the admiration for high level military tactics and machinery (both abstracted away from real situations) – these direct our attention toward action and plot. On this level we see a miscalculation on the heroes’ part result in the enemy abducting a commander with his entire ship. Upon hearing of this, the commander’s daughter (and protagonist of the game) Ensign Lucia Cabrock acts against military authority by commandeering a top secret military weapon to save her father.
As far as I know, Threads of Fate is a game that’s known for many different things at once. It’s known for its two parallel stories united by a desire to obtain a powerful MacGuffin; for the humorous execution of those stories; for its fusion of platforming and role-playing sensibilities; and for its distinct, highly expressive visuals, which may have been a reaction against the Dreamcast to show what the PlayStation was capable of.
Having played Threads of Fate for myself, I’m not in a position to deny any of these approaches to the game, Although some are definitely worth considering, they’re not what sticks out to me, or at least not what immediately sticks out to me regarding this game. No, what catches my attention are the various connections this game shares with Square’s previous work. In fact, they stick out so strongly for me that I would characterize the game as one made by and for the people behind its very production, albeit not to the exclusion of anybody else.
Before I even started playing Lost Word of Jenny, the game was a series of mysteries that refused to resolve themselves. It had been sitting in my computer for the better part of two years before I realized it was there, so I’m still uncertain as to how I came across this game or why it captured my interest. The experiences to follow didn’t help, either. What I encountered were a series of explanations and contexts refusing one another, the refusal itself providing no justification for its being there. Perhaps that why unlike so many other games I write about, I can’t read anything of value into Jenny’s refusal to become a cohesive whole. This isn’t the same as Battle Golfer Yui, where the semblance of internal cohesion gives me something to work with, laugh at, and presumably arrive at a deeper understanding of. With Jenny, I’m stuck with my initial confusion about what the game even is.
Before the game proper even begins, Splatoon greets you with an image of a young person’s room. The small details adoring this room – part trendy, part comfortable, but mostly mundane – should be familiar to many of the game’s young players: a squid-themed iPhone; a desk with a laptop on it, maybe with a can of soda off to the side; posters and stickers from popular music or fashion brands adorning the walls; shelves with various books and collectibles populating their surfaces.
From what little I can find about this game, Battle Golfer Yui is frequently presented as a kusoge. You know, the sort of clunky, just-plain-bad video game that’s better enjoyed being made fun of than it is being played; the sort of game that only learn about through a retsupurae video or in some other context that asks you to accept it as not good and then proceed from there. Trusted in the wrong hands, the label can end up either being spiteful, since we’re laughing at the expense of what could have been a genuine effort on the developers’ part; conservative, since it interprets anything operating outside the video game community’s standards as failing those standards and thus worthy of derision; or even both.
With Battle Golfer Yui, though, I don’t get the sense that any of this will ever be a problem. In fact, it’s one of those few games that embraces its role as a kusoge. It’s an over the top performance of media conventions with little to nothing to ground them in. Its premise and characters don’t make any sense; the story bombards you with plot developments so quickly that you have even less of an understanding of the situation than you did before; and the game isn’t above robbing itself of whatever dramatic weight it has. The opponent AI will often choose a ridiculous option that will only hurt its standing, and the final matches against the story’s villains – the best of the best – see them flubbing every shot they make! In short, Battle Golfer Yui flips the script on you, laughing at your futile attempts to take it seriously.
For many video games, it’s possible (albeit to varying degrees of difficulty) for a critic to separate whatever legacy a game has accrued from discussion of their personal experience with that game or their analysis of the nuances and implications of what it expresses. ICO, I feel, is the rare exception to that rule. It’s impossible to ignore this game’s legacy. As one of the first commercial video games that writers hailed as art, any commentary made of the game is going to intersect with this narrative, consciously or not. So rather than ignore this, it would be best to put off any analysis of ICO for now and explore the idea of “video games as art.” This way, we’ll better understand both the idea itself and its relationship with ICO.