Demon’s Crest is a frustrating game, although I fear presenting it like this may be misleading. My frustration doesn’t steam from the game’s difficulty. It is a difficult game, but this is beside the point. Rather, what frustrates me is the tension between what Demon’s Crest is thematically and what it is formally prevents the game from realizing the potential that is already within its reach. More specifically, much of its language (particularly, the narrative premise about demonic rebellion) vaguely suggests high-minded ideals, and when one looks at Demon’s Crest further, they find a game that recognizes how alienating absolute power can be and the necessity of finding something beyond it.
Yet that search will be fruitless. It must struggle against a form that models the same quest for power the game’s themes refute. The tension between them flares up on occasion, but in the end, the form wins out; stifling Demon’s Crest’s capabilities so its protagonist (and possibly its player) can have the satisfaction of an enjoyment that part of the game recognizes as empty. In a video game landscape replete with games that disregard thematic consistency in their pursuit of something as nebulous as the player’s enjoyment, I imagine many other players would regard these failings as mundane. They may be, but as a player who recognizes that emptiness, and in a game that holds out to be something more than it is, it’s hard not to feel frustrated.
As I boot up the game, a lone muted horn coughs up an off key rendition of “Hail to the Chief.” Meanwhile voices (presumably citizens) inform me of the game’s title by announcing with patriotic pride that they are “Citizens of Earth.” Although the moniker gives me no choice but to identify with them, it’s clear that America is made to represent the whole of the world in this context. From this the opening derives its most potent effects. It’s an image both familiar and alien. By prioritizing the performance of emotion above its substance and never acknowledging that choice, it perverts the very ideas it seeks to uphold, revealing the uncomfortable truths both I and the performer accept as commonplace. Put another way, it’s like looking in the mirror and recognizing the form before me and all the monstrosities it holds. Of course, by my admission, I am already too numb to do anything other than accept those monstrosities as normal.
Because much of my writing on video games is historical, or at least focuses primarily on older and lesser known games, there are limits on what I can discuss. One area where we see this is with the player construct – the idea that the player lends a game its meaning and that its design should reflect that. Some of my previous writing has alluded to and criticized this, butonlysome. As important as the player construct may be in general, many of the games I discuss are designed in such a way that acknowledging that idea adds little to our understanding of the game.
But what if we were to address the player construct directly, and through the main ideas that underpin my writing? What alternatives are there to it? Is the player construct an inevitable result of how video games work? What historical processes are responsible for its inception? On this last question, evidence implies the idea developed earlier than some may give it credit for. However, heady questions like these deserve their own space and are beyond the scope of what I can write here.
Before I discuss The Lucky Dime Caper Starring Donald Duck, I wish to revisit some points I originally made when talking about Snoopy Concert. There I asserted that mainstream video game discourse misunderstands licensed games through their expectations of correspondence, both to the brand the game claims to embody and to the generic idea of what a game is. By conceptualizing licensed games like this, we preclude ideas like individual expression or interpretation; ideas that not only frequently appear within those games, but are in fact necessary components of them. There’s room to expand on these thoughts, but what we have suits our current purposes.
As I previously discussed when writing about RUN=DIM: Return to Earth, the economic and cultural realities of video game development place a limit on my goal of promoting greater critical engagement with the games we play. It’s rare to encounter a game that truly approaches that limit; even if the game itself isn’t open to that kind of engagement, players can often find the tools they need within the game to bring it about regardless. Yet rare doesn’t mean impossible. There still exist those infrequent moments when a game, embracing its status as a consumable object to be used for whatever it’s worth and forever tossed aside after, clears away all personal expression in the name of the player’s enjoyment. Because “enjoyment” is a more complicated and fraught concept than the game is willing to acknowledge, it often seals its own doom through those very efforts.
Needless to say, Flying Hero: Bugyuru no Daibouken belongs to this category of games. Information on the game is scarce. Excluding basic information like who created this game and when, we’ve only the game object itself to examine. Looking at the game at this level suggests it reduces itself to others’ expectations of what it should be to a greater extent than RUN=DIM. Not bound by a specific set of standards like its later peer, Flying Hero frees itself to conform to a more general set of standards. The game is quick in committing itself to that task, and while it succeeds, one wonders what the game accomplishes by it.
Note: Because of the length and nature of this article, I am choosing to split it into two parts. You can read the first part here.
All well and good, but Deception III’s presentation of these systems and aesthetics can run counter to its own intentions. Maximalism entails an odd excitement toward the carnage it would otherwise condemn, for instance. “Try out all these different combinations of murder weapons”, the game giddily blurts out. “See how you can fit them together. Watch these traps, emblems, orbs, and rings combine like a deadly LEGO kit.” This is to say nothing of the voyeuristic delight the game seems to take in presenting to us the death pangs of our victim’s last spasms as the life slowly bleeds out of their body. Far from condemning the tragedy of violence, Deception III goes out of its way to celebrate that violence in all its gory detail.
I don’t mean to say this hypocrisy in itself is worthy of critique. One could just as easily defend that celebration by arguing that while the game recognizes the corrupting effect torture exerts on its practitioner, it’s also not afraid to acknowledge the darker parts of our own being that we would otherwise shy away from. Yet this only returns us to the same moralist/anti-moralist cycle we’d intended to avoid. Deception III may more thoroughly articulate that (anti-)moralist stance, but the fact remains that analyzing the game on the terms it presents us with risks lapsing back into that cycle.
Note: Because of the length and nature of this article, I am choosing to split it into two parts.
Few discussions in video games are as old as the discussion of how the medium depicts violence. There are a number of reasons contributing to this longevity: video games have engaged the topic just as frequently as it’s been discussed, from Chiller to Pandora’s Tower, and as recently as this year, questions of the medium’s worth fall back on its depictions of violence. Yet the sad irony is that for all that longevity, the discussion of violence in video games has yet to move beyond its initial appraisals. In fact, those discussing the issue may not even have a solid grasp on the subject matter they purport to understand.
Throughout the past decade or so, it’s become more commonplace to accept the messiness of video games. Consider it a part of the critical sphere’s efforts to move past games being mere consumer products and toward understanding them as a form of artistic expression. To do so, critics feel they must reject the notion that a game’s failures have no value of their own to contribute. But in this same feeling we see just how incomplete the transformation is. If messiness is phrased in terms of the game’s failures, IE as lying outside intention, then we remain incapable of approaching it as an artistic method in itself that a game can purposefully employ. In effect, we limit ourselves our discussions to assuming all methods of creating art as aiming toward a single ideal of polish and refinement.
This isn’t to say polish and messiness are mutually exclusive concepts. In fact, a lot of what makes Twinkle Star Sprites so distinctive (and much of what I want to discuss about it) is how it figures refinement into its oddly chaotic artistic method. Released for an aging system in late 1996, the game is defined by its historical moment. It deeply admires the genres and motifs that dominated arcades of the time, and it demonstrates a keen understanding of both as it works with them. It is both confident in its vision and intelligent enough to possess the clarity needed to make that vision a reality. At the same time, the game constantly expresses that admiration by disrupting the objects of its affection – all to bring out a potential in them that a more conventional approach may leave out. This is how Twinkle Star Sprites can be both so chaotic and so charismatic.
Judgement Silversword is a deceptively difficult game to talk about. At first glance, this late WonderSwan game appears quick in supplying players lenses with which to understand the action, and I have no trouble describing my own experiences with the game. They were stressful, demanding, and unpleasant. The crux of the issue is that this experience makes up but a small part of what Judgement Silversword is. It’s in working out what those other parts are and the relationships between them where that difficulty shows itself. The lenses the game supplies (IE the trends it happens to intersect with), far from illuminating what the game is, complicate matters significantly either by hiding the game’s complexity or doing away with it altogether.
Our scene opens to an island calmly floating amongst the waves. Although we may not be consciously aware of it happening, the image invokes within our minds the idea of a tropical paradise. It is at once a setting completely isolated from the modern world (and all that world might entail), but also one that it is intricately tied up with that same world by virtue of negating it. What attracts us to such an idyllic setting isn’t merely the idea of a harmonious natural order that has a place for everything and harms none within it. It’s the idea that this tropical (this added specificity is key) setting can offer us refuge from all the arduous labor that life regularly demands from us. It’s these expectations that float about our mind we we begin Nangoku Shounen Papuwa-Kun.