The first thing you’re likely to notice about Socket’s title screen is probably going to be the background. A mosaic of warped clocks Salvador Dali style, it’s clear that the artists are communicating a basic time travel motif. However, anything beyond this fact refuses to make itself known. We can’t know how time travel will inform the game to follow because those facts aren’t apparent and the game refuses to offer any kind of explanation. Instead, it continues bombarding us with symbols that refuse to connect: a duck, an electrical outlet, the title itself (Time Dominator 1st in Japan), etc. What we end up with is a chaotic soup of imagery, one that disorients us and frustrates any attempt to make sense of all this noise.
When you’re in a long distance relationship with another person, how do you maintain that relationship? How can you be sure the other person feels what you think they feel for you? Can their words be enough, or will they always leave something to be desired? And who exactly do you have a relationship with? Does the other person only exist as an idea in your mind, or are they something more than that? Would things be any different if the two of you met face to face? Perhaps most important of all, does any of this even matter?
Blackthorne (or at least this particular incarnation of it) leads an interesting dual existence. As a historical object, the game is a product of Blizzard’s pre-Blizzard days, when the company was still experimenting with any trend they could to find their own voice. They dabbled in comical puzzle games with The Lost Vikings, tried their hand at miniature car racing with Rock’n Roll Racing, and explored contemporary comic book trends with Blackthorne.
But among these games, Blackthorne was special. It really was the first place where you could see Blizzard’s voice beginning to form; not just because the –craft games were still a ways off but also because this was the first game under the Blizzard Entertainment label (the other two games were made under Silicon & Synapse). The GBA version (which I played for this) adds another wrinkle to the story, being part of a series of GBA re-releases of Blizzard’s early games. It acts as both a reflection on how far the company has come and a valuable act of preservation as that same company looks toward the future and bigger and better things.
Mario Kart 8 is best described as one huge discrepancy. I know what the game’s appeal is supposed to be (or at least I can guess based on its marketing, its brand, the fan discourse surrounding it, etc.), but I don’t see any of that reflected in the game itself. What I see is a soulless shell of a game; something ready to lop off even the slightest hint of personality that it might better fit the mold of a theoretically perfect game. Moreover, it asks something very similar from its players, telling them that they can find the perfection they seek by abandoning themselves to the digital experience. The fact that Mario Kart 8 was able to pass as an obviously good game for a lot of people says more about the culture that video games have created than it says about this specific game’s merits and faults.
Running in video games is a concept that’s dense with meaning. There’s the idea of running away from something, wherein your assailant controls and limits your world by binding you to a troubling situation. But outside horror games where the point is to evoke that specific mood, this isn’t a motif games are all that interested in emphasizing. A far more common depiction is running as a liberating force. Here, it’s presented both as a claim of ownership over one’s self and an act of power against a world that might encroach on that self. It’s saying to the world, “I refuse to accept whatever limits you’re trying to place on me.” Hence its popularity in a number of games, like endless runners, the Bit.Trip games, Mirror’s Edge, Sega’s movement-oriented games, Runbow, etc.
I’m not going to discuss why freedom and running are so tied together, why games invoke both so often, or even whether that logic makes sense as applied to video games. These topics are all worth digging into, but that would be beyond the scope of what I can achieve here. Rather, I want to discuss how these ideas manifest in one particular game: Buffers Evolution, a small WonderSwan game released early in the system’s life. On the surface, its mechanically focused, fun-for-fun’s-sake approach to game design appears to prefigure the rise of indie games in the late 2000s. However, I’m not comfortable reducing the game to that level. What I see in Buffers is a deeply personal interpretation of running; one that enables people to challenge the world they inhabit and to find value in themselves, even if only a little bit.
Human Entertainment isn’t a name a lot of people know, although they’d certainly be familiar with their creative output. Taking a brief glance at all the games they made reveals a spotty record: they were fond of experimental diorama games (SOS, the Twilight Syndrome games, and most notably of all Clock Tower), but just as many of their games never stray far from their clearly announced genre expectations. In addition, the quality of any given Human Entertainment work is just as various as the kinds of games they worked in.
It should go without saying that Android Assault: The Revenge of Bari-Arm falls into the latter of those two categories. The game shares a lot of important motifs with the Silpheeds and Rendering Ranger R2s and Ranger Xs and Spriggan Powereds of the day: all action-oriented shooters (often modeled after or explicitly based on some popular mech anime) boasting what game technology at the time was capable of. Where Android Assault distinguishes itself is in the sheer emptiness of its own experience. It embodies emptiness; communicates nothing but it. At the surface, the game searches for a direction it will never find, and beneath the surface, it makes itself a non-being through which the player might forget their own emptiness.
Taking a casual glance at the media landscape, it’s clear that remixing plays a significant role in modern culture. A lot of entertainment today either remixes earlier pieces of pop culture, like vaporwave or YouTube Poops, or presents itself as material for the audience to remix at their leisure, like anime. Even the way we communicate online directly lifts from the media we consume to give it new meaning, whether that’s through GIFs, reaction videos, or anything in between.
However, if these examples are anything to go by, remixing (or at least its prevalence) is a rather new phenomenon, historically speaking. True, mass media has inundated daily life since at least the early 20th century, but it wasn’t until the advent of the computer in the 1990s that the average person had the tools they’d need to create remixes of their own. Obviously, it wouldn’t be until some time after this that remixing would become what it is today. So how is it a game like Silpheed feels right at home alongside modern remixes even though it has nothing to do with them? Despite coming out in 1993, just as the building blocks for modern remix culture were being put in place, Silpheed somehow manages to prefigure where that culture would go completely by accident.
When writing about games that consist only of boss battles, the general rule is that one presents those games as intense, difficult struggles. Titan Souls has been variously described as “comparably difficult” to Ori and Bloodborne, “a stiff challenge[…]to lose yourself in”, and as a game “requires patience, a keen eye, reflexes and skill – and the ability to accept that you will die a lot”. Furi has received a similar treatment.
However, I believe this rule misunderstands what draws people to games like these in the first place. Their appeal lies not in their ability to challenge us, but in their ability to ease our minds. Their heavily goal-driven nature gives us clarity and purpose we might otherwise struggle to find on our own. Moreover, with our minds set upon a single task we’ve devoted our entire being to, that task comes to occupy all our immediate thoughts, clouding out others that might prove too burdensome. What are these creatures, why do I fight them, what impact will their death have on the world – if these questions exist within the game, then I only consider them outside the fights that define it. Within those fights, my mind is set on defeating the enemy before me.
Rollergames is a more confusing, more ambiguous game than it initially lets on. That confusion doesn’t stem from its rendition of beat em up tropes through a roller derby lens. If anything, that’s the easiest part of the game to understand. What’s more difficult to understand is what the game hopes to achieve through that combination. Everything the game does situates itself in this fuzzy space between reality and fantasy, performance and competition, borrowing what it needs from each to realize its unexpectedly appropriate vision. Although the game blends these categories for some other purpose beyond aesthetic pleasure or celebration of the things it remixes (although these are certainly part of what it does), the effects of these creative decisions defy simple judgment.
By now, the relationship between reality and fantasy in blockbuster video games – their presentation as both a perfect simulation of reality and a perfect escape from it – is so obvious to everyone it might as well be a cliche. Yet in spite of how prevalent knowledge of this relationship is, the relationship itself is still worth exploring. Not only are games still transparently pursuing it, but they’re regularly successful in doing so. It seems that as capable and as willing as we are to critique this mode of presentation, we’re not quite at the point of acting on those critiques.
It’s in this light that Shenmue, despite being released nearly twenty years ago, still has something to offer. This game came into being just as that relationship between reality and fantasy was starting to take form, and its stance on this new development isn’t easy to summarize. On the one hand, it finds a lot there to admire, if the sentimental depiction of the world is anything to go by. But if the overarching story is anything to by, then the game is also aware of the dangers a pursuit of fantasy can bring if left unattended.