One of the themes with my writing has been to unearth the ideas that games express in their design without realizing. I approach this task on a game by game basis because by limiting ourselves to this scale, we can show how a given video game responds to the trends of its day and illustrate what those trends are/were capable of. That being said, it can also be helpful to apply this to the wider world of video games. Looking at the games that are the most readily commercially available, one finds that they tend to speak a common language: one focused on heavily structured behavior, absolute control (whether bodily or mental; often both), exhibition of skill, and promises of personal empowerment to make the rest enticing.
Consider this an addendum to the Hardcore Gaming 101 article on Hiza no Ue no Partner: Kitty on your Lap. More specifically, this will dissect that which constitutes the game’s core: its refutation of meaning in the pursuit of aesthetic. Just because Kitty on your Lap refutes the construction of meaning doesn’t mean it successfully opts out of that process. For as much as it wishes to be a pure symbol with no real world equivalent, to become that symbol would prevent the general audience it courts from relating to it, contradicting its own purpose. The game must ground its anime tropes in a reality the player can recognize, commenting on that reality in the process. All the earlier refutation does is ensure the game will mirror the thoughts in the larger culture around it while preventing the game from recognizing those thoughts, much less engaging with them in a meaningful way.
Note: Because my thoughts on this game are too long to fit a single article, I am choosing to split them up into two parts. You can read the first part here.
This only leaves one major question unanswered: what are those traditions, and what moral system does Dragon Quest II specifically model? If we were being generous, we might note how communal in nature the action is. We don’t see anything like the rugged self reliance or ensuing loneliness that typify the original Dragon Quest. The Hero journeys with others, and he has a meaningful relationship with the NPCs he finds wandering around many of the game’s towns. They are his subjects. His status as the Prince of Midenhall only holds meaning insofar as he is able to ensure their prosperity. Hence we could argue that the game’s traditions, morality, understanding of personality etc. all arise from and point back to a communal understanding of the world. Consequently, the game would arrive at a simplified version of virtue ethics that emphasizes the importance of reconciling one’s personal existence with a world of others.
Note: Because my thoughts on this game are too long to fit a single article, I am choosing to split them up into two parts.
When discussing video games from a historical perspective, it’s both easy and tempting to envision previous aesthetic styles as merely a prelude to what we know today. Although there’s value to be had in making these connections, it’s important be aware of one’s self and be careful as they approach these matters. Left to its own devices, this kind of historical determinism can not only be nihilistic, but also inaccurately represent the very eras it wishes to discuss. These games didn’t need some later historical trend to give them essence. They defined themselves through themselves, always exploring the subject matter/perspectives that interested them and growing along paths of their own choosing. Indeed, the idea of history as the march toward some singular end breaks down when one accounts for the variety of schools of thought present at any given time. To describe historical games as anything less is to deny them the autonomy they exercised and overlook the connections between contemporary styles.
This is in large part what makes Dragon Quest II (more specifically the MSX version released in 1988) such a fascinating game to discuss. It may only be capable of representing a single aspect of this era (more specifically, a single line of thought), but it’s a line of thought that intersects with many others and affords a wide breadth of thought. On the one hand, it invites comparison to similar projects of the time whose philosophies subtly contrast against one another. On the other hand, the ways in which it resists the historical moment (albeit unwittingly) illuminates the relationship between aesthetic and theme. In either case, Dragon Quest II puts that historical moment in relief and puts us in a position to appreciate where that moment could lead without reducing it to its eventual effects.
To say that Super Mario Bros. has had a strong influence on video games would be an understatement. That influence has proven so strong, in fact, that many have just taken it for granted. Often, the only analysis available is more sycophantic than informative. Beginning in an era when players and critics had a limited imagination as to what video games were and could be, both saw a game that had very thoroughly penetrated into the mainstream culture, and so not only accepted its mythologized status as the Platonically ideal video game, but began actively contributing to that myth and explaining the game’s success through it. Circular logic like this does little to help us understand the issues at hand: what manner of game Mario is, what specifically its influence has been, the conditions that led to its being influential, and the implications all of this holds for both contemporary video game culture and what would follow.
There’s value to be had in contemplating how video games both reflect popular perceptions of Japan and how they’ve shaped those perceptions. With the country having maintained a monumental presence in video games for several decades, many have taken that presence for granted and so don’t stop to think about how video games approach Japanese history and culture. This isn’t to say the games themselves neglect the topic. Far from it; video games have proven eager to engage with many areas of Japanese history, from myth to Taisho to pre-boom Japan to more aesthetic and philosophical thought. However, a cursory glance shows that all of these games are Japanese games dealing with their own history and philosophical/religious/cultural traditions. Although worthy of interest in its own right, this set of games won’t be conducive to our present discussion.
As far as video game companies are concerned, Nintendo is unique among their peers. Or, to be more accurate, they are one of the few remaining relics of a much older age. Although Nintendo as a company has existed since the late 19th century, as a video game company, they trace their origins back to the 1960s and 70s, when post-war Japan’s growing economic prosperity led to a boom in the leisure/amusement industry. Many Japanese developers and publishers share similar origins. Continue reading
As a rule, much of the writing I do here involves putting games in a context that allows us to form a strong critical understanding of them. More specifically, my writing reveals which process(es) of meaning making a game is already in and explores the consequences of the game’s relationship to that. This relies on the assumption that all games already exist in some such process; a relatively safe assumption, in practice. True, some games try to opt out of meaning making (games like RUN=DIM and Flying Hero come to mind), but it’s the rare game that confounds the process entirely; much less without doing so as an act of meaning making itself. Even Captain ED affords players a few esoteric interpretations.
Trampoline Terror is the rare game that thoroughly frustrates even the possibility of interpretation. The game was first released in 1990 by Masaya, but given the wide variety of games the company has made (from Gley Lancer to Vixen to Langrisser to Cho Aniki) and the lack of stylistic similarities between them, this information is of little help in understanding the game. This leaves us only with the game itself. In my time with Trampoline Terror, the only consistent trait I could find was its inability to come together to form a coherent experience.
It’s rare to encounter a game like Liquid Kids. Typically when talking about video games from a critical/historical perspective, a game’s historical legacy will stand at a remove from the game itself. It’s usually something that manifests out of the game after the fact; possibly the result of the game’s actions but rarely something the game itself can consciously engage with. Liquid Kids rejects this logic. There is not an air of indecisiveness to the game, but instead a bold confidence in every area of its being. Moreover, what enables this confidence is an awareness of itself and its situation and a willingness to accept everything that makes it what it is. By embracing the opportunity to engage with the historical forces that it does, the game is able to take ownership of them.
Generally speaking, two things hold true when talking about game criticism. First, game criticism is largely a first-come-first-serve field where the first things written about a game define any other writing that follows. The practical explanation for this, at least as far as players are concerned, is that most people don’t have the time or the interest in revisiting older games through a fresh lens. Critics, meanwhile, often feel a pressure to be aware of what’s already written about a game so their own commentary isn’t immediately obsolete.
All of this poses a risk for game criticism in that marketing and authorial intent take on far more importance than they otherwise might. Further compounding matters is the the fact that meaningful game criticism only started to emerge within the past ten years or so. Hence the heavy focus on mechanics in early video game writing: games were sold as a series of enjoyable challenges, so writers believed that’s what video games should be and treated them as such. Although even that isn’t strictly true. Writers didn’t deal with the game as it was to them so much as they did the game as it was marketed through its most easily understood features. Taken together, these various aspects of game criticism mean a completely wrong reputation can stick with a game for years because nobody (neither players nor critics) show any willingness to correct it.