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.
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.
Whenever I think of the discourse surrounding this game, one point comes to mind: “Freedom Planet (finally) got the Sonic formula right.” The idea is that after years of failure from Sega as they slowly forgot the hedgehog’s appeal, a group of Sonic’s fans returned the series to its roots and restored its lost spirit. It’s an enticing narrative – the passionate individuals come out victorious over the profit-driven corporate powers – but it’s far from airtight. For example, in light of the many Sonic games that did get the formula right (the Advance games, the Rushgames), it becomes clear that the problem isn’t so much that Sega couldn’t make a good Sonic game as much as it is that the community values certain video game experiences above other, regardless of their quality. However, this is a symptom of a much larger problem that’s far beyond the scope of what I’m discussing.
What I want to address is the main thrust of this argument: that Freedom Planet stays true to the Sonic ethos where Sonic itself has faltered. Already we’re implying a certain truths about the situation: that the older Sonic games have a clearly identifiable ethos and that this ethos can be perfectly understood and replicated in the present. It’s this second premise that I take issue with the most. In practice, many understandings of how games were in the past paint a somewhat romantic image, one that’s no doubt interpreted through a nostalgic lens. While studying these games for a significant length of time (as the developers of Freedom Planet certainly had to) helps remind one of the mundane reality such an image covers up, we run into another problem: how does one understand older games without letting the present day affect that understanding? It may well be impossible to avoid this issue, much less bring past design trends into the present completely intact.
A common idea I see in Japanese horror stories is the idea that what scares us doesn’t exist out there in the world but is something we create in our own minds. You can find this in Yume Nikki, Silent Hill, Another, etc. Despite its prevalence, though, it’s rare to see a story really commit. Even if the source of their fear is ultimately subjective, the characters’ belief in its realness makes it real anyway. Strange Telephone is one of those rare stories, even if that wasn’t its intention. In attempting to create a lighthearted child-friendly horror experience, Strange Telephone drops us into a world that’s apathetic to our existence and completely beyond our ability to understand.
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.