Lieve Oma (Dutch for “Dear Grandma”) strikes me as the kind of game that would be hastily dismissed as “not a video game.” I say “hastily” because claims like these tell us more about the narrow range of experiences many enthusiast circles value than they do the nature of the medium at large. They’re convenient in that they justify our refusal to engage with these games by saying the ideas they explore and the conclusions they arrive at don’t hold any relevance to us. The irony, of course, is that Lieve Oma never strays too far from the fundamental mindset underpinning most popular video games. Play is centered on the self and its unfettered ability to sate its own desires; that self is forced to act within tightly defined boundaries it isn’t able to question; and the basic premise represents an escapist fantasy. Lieve Oma shows no interest in critiquing these points.
Again, though, I don’t see the value in dismissing the game out of hand. Its strengths lie not in critique, but in requalification; preserving the use of a specific convention, but removing the attitudes typically associated with it so that we might value that convention along a different axis. For example, as eager as the game is to present itself as a game, it’s just as eager to pose nuanced questions about what a game is. Likewise, escapism takes on an entirely different meaning: not one of denying problems through an appeal to power, but of emotional comfort that prepares one for the world on their own terms.
As a game critic, I’m generally more interested in failures than I am in successes. This doesn’t mean I seek out games like Tokyo Mirage Sessions, whose failures derive from a thorough dishonesty about what they are; or Lucky Me, Lucky You, where the cause is a lack of self-awareness (not to mention the language it uses). What I look for are the games that strive for some sort of goal but fall well short of achieving it, because it’s in that falling short that they’re most expressive of their own identity. The mistakes these games make are proof that they’re the result of real human effort and not simply the output of a mathematical formula engineered to produce conventionally good games.
Moreover, they provide us a means of pushing back against the standards that lead us into such formulas. True, the game itself may never realize this, but its foibles show how easily those standards break down; how open they are to being questioned. They lay the groundwork for alternative aesthetics that designers can elaborate upon.
There’s a famous Wittgenstein quote that says, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” His point wasn’t that people should remain quiet on matters they’re unqualified to speak about, but that silence can be its own form of expression. Silence can paint a picture in vivid detail in ways that speech isn’t equipped for. To illustrate this point, let’s consider a negative example: the 2013 remake (more a light re-imagining than a strict remake) of Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse.
Broadly speaking, the original game tended to leave things unstated because it didn’t have the tools to speak at length about them. It was an approach that worked well for what the designers had in mind. The remake, on the other hand, has those tools at its disposal and is determined to make its voice heard. The problem is that this Castle of Illusion doesn’t know how it should express that voice but feels compelled to express it anyway. It overspeaks; it overexplains; it fills previously quiet moments with activity. What you end up with is a game that, while technically sound, leaves too little to the imagination while adding little to our understanding of the experience.
Hopefully the examples I’ve provided illuminate just how much the game has warped the ideals that Persona is supposed to represent. Or maybe Sessions’ follies reveal problems that had always plagued the series in one way or another. Whatever the case may be, this much is clear: there’s a mismatch at the game’s heart between what it claims to be achieving and what it actually achieves.
Note: Like my Nier blog, this piece ended up longer than I thought it would, so I’ve decided to split it up into two parts.
Another thing that bothered me was the trend of the main character always being portrayed as someone special — a legendary warrior, for example. It was the equivalent of saying you can’t succeed unless you’re from a wealthy family, and I just couldn’t stand that. I wasn’t born with special genes, and I’m sure most other players weren’t either. No matter who you are, if you’re given a chance and have the guts to try your best, you can become a hero… That became the concept of Megami Tensei.
These words, spoken by Kazuma Kaneko in a 2004 1UP interview, are often seen as perfectly summarizing the Shin Megami Tensei ethos. I’ve often seen them quoted as praise for the series, but that overlooks the fine line this ethos asks its creators to walk. They contradicted that spirit as early as Shin Megami Tensei II (whose protagonists are specifically engineered to bring about change in the world), and even if the creators hold true to the idea, venerating the average person presents its own dangers to avoid. Still, judging by games like Shin Megami Tensei If… and Persona 2 (and to a lesser extent the later Persona games), Atlus has successfully managed to tread the line for the past 25 or so years.
By now, the influence American action movies have had on (early) Japanese video games is both well documented and widely understood. There are logical explanations for why these two spheres would come into contact with each other: action movies’ focus on spectacle leaves very little that needs translating/altering, making them easy to market to international audiences. I’ve also heard arguments that phrase this pairing as an inevitability: the simplest form a video game can take is essentially one or more players in conflict and projectiles to eliminate that player from play. (Or so the argument goes. This doesn’t explain why so many early video games were sports-based, and many others were even simpler than this.) Combine that with technological progressivism and follow-the-leader design philosophies, and action movies almost seem like a perfect fit for the industry.
Still, I can’t help but feel like these arguments leave something to be desired. They leave no room for an individual developer’s autonomy, which the games themselves suggest is a very significant factor. That pairing wasn’t accidental, but the product of a very real and very genuine love for American action movies. These games often have an air of absurdity to them, but they’re never critical of their source material. In fact, they celebrate the over-the-top spectacle that fuels action movies. Games like Bloody Wolf, Streets of Rage, Final Fight, Bionic Commando and most of Konami’s output in the 80s and 90s are fun specifically because they have fun with themselves.
Experimental games in the commercial space have put themselves in a strange position for a number of years. They may promote themselves as questioning the assumptions we take for granted or exploring a subject matter that games typically don’t explore, but because these games force themselves into formats we typically associate with games, there’s always a limit on what they’re capable of accomplishing. It’s a respectability thing, I suspect; fearing that nobody will take what you’re doing seriously unless it can be openly recognized as a game. Sometimes that works out, like with Little Inferno’s scathing commentary on the futility capitalist consumption. Other times, you get 1979 Revolution: Black Friday awkwardly trying to fit its interpretation of the Iranian Revolution into a Telltale-esque format.
Unfortunately, OneShot fits into the latter of these two categories. Originally released as an RPGMaker 2003 game a couple of years ago, OneShot follows a young girl named Niko on her quest to restore light to a dying world. It confronts the possibility that this world is already beyond saving and then asks how we might continue to lead our lives in the face of its perhaps-unavoidable descent into ruin. This game is by no means the first to probe into questions like these, but the answers it provides are infused with enough warmth, hope and humanity that the world feels as though it has meaning even if Niko doesn’t succeed in her quest. Or at least it would if OneShot were presented in any other way. However, the game’s unconscious desire for legitimacy as a game drags it down in ways it can’t hope to recover from.
Our game begins with the words “L’Arc in Ciel” printed against a grainy film backdrop. We then quickly jump to objects that are much more modern by contrast: kawaii anime heads and a mix of hip phrases in an angular bubble font. The rest of the introduction proceeds like that: a chaotic mix of various pop media styles, each of them juxtaposed and remixed to the point that they’ve lost all meaning. All of this is supposed to connote youthful rebellion and an “I’m above caring about things that are beneath me” attitude, but the effect doesn’t completely come through. It can’t. Media remixing like this was a staple of the 1990s (others having done it better), and so was the idea of imbuing a product with a rebellious attitude. Considering how Gekitotsu Toma L’Arc: Tomarunner vs L’Arc-en-Ciel was released in 2000, people had a decade’s worth of time to adjust to those concepts and see the game for what it is: a carefully calculated marketing ploy.
Musashi no Ken serves as the perfect contrast to last week’s Runbow. Both are minor games that represent dominant design trends of their respective eras. Runbow, like a lot of modern indie games, ostensibly sought to emulate classical games from the 80s and 90s, but its preoccupation with techniques and game enthusiast sensibilities about what makes a game good resulted in a mess of a game.
The irony of this is that those older games became classics in part because they were unconcerned with appealing to that specific demographic. They clung tightly to the same principles Runbow used, to be sure, but even today, their expressive power remains strong. They were able to communicate a lot with very little, and even if they stuck to the same set of moods in practice (heroism, campy fun, etc.), they would convey those moods in a subtle but effective fashion. should go without saying that Musashi no Ken isn’t all that different from its peers. If Runbow represents the worst case scenario for by-the-book game design, then Musashi no Ken at least demonstrates how to put that kind of game design to good use.
By now, I’m certain that the points I’m going to make in the following 2000 or so words are points that I’ve harped on in previous places. In fact, I distinctly remember (and when gathering material, caught myself in the act of) discussing these points in relation to Shantae, Retro City Rampage, and Eufloria. So they’re definitely recurring elements in the culture that indie game developers have cultivated for themselves since about 2009. Yet even at this juncture, I still find these points worth discussing. In addition to emulating and building on aesthetic/design sensibilities from the 1990s, many games in the indie space aim for refinement above all else, as if they can achieve some Platonic ideal of the perfect video game. But if the end results of their efforts consistently feel hollow and meaningless, I’m left wondering what good game design is supposed to be.