While I don’t know what any of you perceive my writing to be (or even if you read the things I write), I like to think that I’m writing critical game reviews. I want to take games more seriously than just checking to see if their systems work, but I still want to answer the question, “Is this game worth your time?” Sometimes, though, I encounter a game that isn’t conducive to that approach.
Consider Athena: Awakening from the Ordinary Life. It’s a game dictated by two major strains of thought: one intricate and open-ended, and another simple and didactic. As much as I’d like to ignore the latter one, that simply isn’t an option. Both perspectives are so deeply intertwined and so important to the game that separating them is impossible. And in that context, questions like, “Is this worth your time”, or “Does this ruin the experience” don’t make a lot of sense. So I’m not going to ask those questions. Instead, I think it’d be better to outline the different strains of thought, see where they go, and how they interact with each other.
Anyway, the first step toward understanding Athena is to examine its roots in anti-scientific thinking. This line of thinking typically rejects scientific thinking in favor of pseudo-scientific mysticism, and Athena is no different. Its story begins with an investigation team discovering a race of psychic beings buried deep below the Earth’s surface. Such a discovery defies scientific understanding, but that doesn’t stop the investigation team from trying to tame it through science, anyway. They clone dinosaurs to entertain people at the aquarium, research and develop psychic powers out of sheer curiosity, and use the power of science to push the limits on what’s humanly possible. Naturally, it’s these hubristic actions that kick off all the game’s major conflicts.
And it’s the nature of those conflicts that reveals the game’s troubling anti-intellectual core. I wouldn’t take so much issue with Athena if it used its premises to incite greater discussion, but that never happens. All the game really does is advance defeatist arguments that are designed to shut down critical thought. “Don’t think about it”, the game says. “The world is beyond your understanding, anyway. Thinking about it is only going to hurt you.” That isn’t so much a defensible stance against science as it is a way to avoid discussing the matter altogether. Promoting mystical alternatives like ESP doesn’t change that situation, either. If anything, it only further stifles discussion. If ancient mysticism really is superior to science, then what agency is left for us? Our role would amount to little more than machines, programmed to follow what our ancestors have taught us.
There’s also a kernel of hypocrisy embedded in the game’s arguments: for all its bluster about the problems that technology creates, Athena can only make those arguments with technology. To be fair, though, this has always been a problem for anti-technological screeds. (Certain ones, anyway. I doubt Resident Evil had to rely on medical science for most of its production.) The Matrix couldn’t denounce its post-apocalyptic setting without a big budget or technical expertise, and for all Walden has to say about the virtues of living with nature, its author still lived a short distance away from civilization. However, it feels especially hypocritical to hear this message coming from a video game, of all things. As a medium, video games absolutely rely on technology. They’re programmed on computers; their code is burned onto discs; those discs are played on more specialized computers; and players interact with these games through a device that converts physical movements into electric signals that the computer can interpret. Simply put, there are no video games without technology.
This isn’t even getting into how video games aestheticize technology. Many video games strive for the most realistic visuals, developing new storytelling methods specifically designed to flout their technical prowess. Again, Athena isn’t much different. A lot of its story is relayed through computer-generated cinematics. (So much so, in fact, that the first disc contains only one chapter’s worth of gameplay; the rest is cinematics.) Like a lot of CG from the era, Athena hasn’t aged gracefully. Characters’ faces look stiff and plastic, and they’re only capable of moving with jerky motions. At the time, though, these visuals would have been cutting edge; maybe even one of the game’s selling points.
And it is for this exact reason that the game’s anti-scientific ideals lose all their credibility. Not only does Athena have to rely on technology to make its case, but it also enjoys technology’s benefits. Yet it has the temerity to suggest that science holds us back from our true potential, even when it can only realize its potential through that same science? All these arguments can hope to do is hide the methods by which the game makes its case. But with the game drawing our attention to those very same methods, it’s all for naught.
Fortunately, Athena’s treatment of character fares much better…kind of. This is where things get complicated. I’d praise Athena more for its accomplishments if they weren’t tied to the game’s anti-science views. The two are inexorably linked: every tool the game uses to develop character, it also uses to develop those views. And it’s not as though Athena pairs those two things capriciously. In anything more nuanced than this, I’d congratulate what the game does as extremely clever. But this isn’t nuanced. It’s inconsistent, and sorely lacking. And as the story continues to develop those ideas, that only becomes more obvious. Now I don’t say any of this to discredit what the game gets right. Rather, I’m only expressing confusion over what’s going on.
I wouldn’t even want to discount the game’s achievements, as they’re too important to ignore. Consider what Athena does with its characters. Not only are the conflicts between them more fascinating, but the weight behind those conflicts is apparent from the beginning of the game. As the eponymous Athena awakens to her latent psychic potential, she has to protect her friends from government forces and a mysterious clown named Astraeus. Yet the more she uses her powers, the more she distances herself from the very people she’s trying to protect.
The tension that Athena’s psychic power creates is more ambiguous than the anti-science shpiel was, which is precisely what makes it so interesting. The player finally has a reason to engage with the game: they can ask why Athena makes the choices she does, or how she must feel as she realizes what her sacrifices bring her. These aren’t idle questions, either. We frequently see Athena attending school and hanging out with her friends, so we know what’s at as she becomes more powerful. (This is especially true regarding her relationship with Rika. They’re depicted as good friends, but I think there’s something romantic happening beneath the surface.)
What I especially enjoy, though, is how Athena’s powers manifest while you’re playing the game. Each one is represented through a short button sequence timed to an EKG monitor. In one sense, this feature offers the most generous interpretation that the game’s mysticism angle can hope for: going beyond our conscious understanding of ourselves in favor of something more intuitive. But in another sense, her powers serve as an oddly good elaboration on how she relates to other people. Consider what happens when she tries to read somebody else’s mind: she has to sync up to their pulse, or else she feels a small amount of pain. It’s a subtle gesture from the game, but it’s also dense with meaning, touching on subjects like the pain Athena risks feeling when she gets close to somebody and the level of trust such an act would require. In short, the game’s structures and their treatments of human relationships stand for everything the game’s views on science don’t. Rather than dictating how the player should feel the topic, they give the player just enough to work with to invite further discussion.
And that’s all I really look for in video games: something for my brain to latch onto and then pick apart, layer by layer. How Athena can simultaneously grant and deny me that, I have no idea. I don’t want to say that the game defies understanding or anything like that: there’s a lot to analyze, and I’m sure better writers than me could make sense of it. I can only speak for my own experiences, and those experiences left me lost in thought. Make of that what you will.