I’ve always been fascinated by how games writers and players talk about nostalgia. To be more specific, I’ve been fascinated with the unspoken assumptions and limits regarding how people discuss nostalgia. It’s a topic I could write at length about, but to choose just one facet, there’s what games try to accomplish through nostalgia. It’s almost never just a call back for its own sake. Nostalgia is a powerful and flexible tool developers can use to relate to the present through what the past has to offer. Read Only Memories and (especially) VA-11 Hall-A, for instance, are creative endeavors: they invoke nostalgia to explore alternatives to the world we currently live in.
Retro City Rampage, on the other hand, is far more insular in its use of nostalgia. It has absolutely zero interest in exploring alternatives or evaluating what value, if any, the objects of its nostalgia have in today’s world. If anything, the game shuts down inquiry like this by shrouding players in a veil of ignorance. It overwhelms them with action and spectacle, and then asks them to affirm whatever value it’s already read into its own past. Far from being creative, Retro City Rampage is a meaningless celebration of destruction for its own sake.
When I first started playing Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, I ascribed all the problems I kept finding to “design by textbook syndrome.” By that, I mean the game is so focused on replicating the principles you’d learn about in a game design course right down to the letter that it never considers what it’s actually going to do with them. Hence you end up with a game that looks technically impressive, yet ultimately has very little to say. As accurate as these assumptions were, I eventually realized that they don’t sufficiently explain the thought processes the game does operate on, accidentally or not. After all, if Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse can somehow execute good game design principles without being a good game, shouldn’t that make us wonder what we think good game design means in the first place? Once I took these points into consideration, I arrived at a satisfying answer to what it was about the game that I didn’t like. Peel away all the flash and spectacle, and you find a game that not only trains us to participate in capitalist systems, but also to enjoy our participation in them.
I feel like emotional resolution in games is a critically under-explored topic. By this, I’m referring to the specific kind of resolution you see in Persona 4, where characters are forced to confront deep emotional issues, overcome them, and grow as an individual. I can understand why this topic may be ignored – only a small set of games center social interaction as something with inherent value, and the main character is bettering other people’s lives through their actions – but there are a number of questions such a scenario raises. On what terms does the emotional resolution take place? What does that process look like (is it the same for all people or does it vary from person to person)? What should the result look like? Whose perspective is centered in all of this? These aren’t questions we should be ignoring.
Stella Glow shows us some of the problems that arise by turning a blind eye to these issues. Quietly released for the 3DS last year, Stella Glow is a fairly conservative game from Atlus. It’s a mathematically precise combination of popular anime motifs. More specifically, it borrows the previously described emotional resolution of Persona and Madoka Magica‘s emotionally turbulent young witches. Unfortunately, Atlus’ calculated effort backfires horribly. Despite centering female characters in the story, the game pays no attention to its own gender politics nor how its story (plot, themes, characters) fit into them. While it may approach the topic with good intentions, the results are dismal: female characters end up objectified, stripped of their autonomy and reduced to stereotypes.
Over the past five months or so that I’ve played the game, Fire Emblem Fates has proven quite the journey. Even though all three games in this pseudo-trilogy are made up largely of the same parts, each one leaves their own distinctive mark. Birthright, for example, while structurally sound, was nonetheless uneasy about challenging or otherwise experimenting with anything it presented and suffered for it. Then Conquest picked up the mantle, doing more to challenge its story while preserving a lot of its predecessor’s idealism. The result was a richer, far more grounded counterpart to the Hoshidan campaign.
So where does that leave Revelation? Somewhere in between. This may not sound that surprising for a game that expects you to have completed both of the previous Fates (and is impossible to play unless you already own one of them), but it’s honestly the best way I can describe Revelation. For everything the game does to forge its own path, it achieves that by remixing various bits and pieces from the last two games. Unfortunately, such an awkward approach doesn’t work, at least not as well as it could have. Any chances Revelation had to realize its full potential are noticeably reduced by creative decisions that either distract from or drag down the story’s thematic thrust. Some of that potential shines through, but it also casts a long shadow of what the game could have been.
A couple of months back, I reviewed Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright on this blog. While there was quite a bit I admired about the game, I ultimately found it too idealistic to accomplish the goals it set out for itself. There were never any significant roadblocks for the relationships to overcome, and the narrative was all too willing to affirm the good/evil dichotomy between Hoshido and Nohr. So imagine my surprise when I found Conquest, a game born of the same blood, more willing to challenge many of these assumptions. In fact, Conquest is a lot more challenging a game all around; not just in the sense that it presents difficult tasks for the player to overcome (although that is part of why I liked it), but also in the sense that it’s more willing to challenge itself. The results speak for themselves. Conquest comes out as a more robust and grounded game than its Hoshidan cousin.
Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright is by far the strangest game I’ve played in a while. Even putting aside the surface oddities, like the subtle intricacies to the rules or all of Chapter 3 (just trust me on this one), there’s a much deeper weirdness permeating the game. Before I go any further, I want to clarify that I found Birthright to be a compelling game; just not for the reasons it thinks it’s a compelling game. And to be perfectly honest, I’d very much prefer to forget those reasons altogether. But I can’t. They’re so strongly connected with Birthright’s greatest strengths that ignoring them is impossible. While they don’t condemn the game to outright mediocrity, they still hold it back in some very important ways.
By now, anybody reading this should understand how avid a fan I am of the Kingdom Hearts series. So much so, in fact, that I still feel the need to begin all my writing on these games with an insecure disclaimer that announces my love for them. But that doesn’t mean I’m above criticizing their shortcomings. In fact, I had to wrestle with such thoughts while playing Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, the most recent entry in the series. It’s a game that feels caught in an uncomfortable place, only able to half recognize its own potential. Unfortunately, halfway just isn’t enough. Halfway leaves the game stumbling between brilliance and normality.
The only difference between Yoshi’s New Island on the 3DS and its predecessor on the SNES is the word “new.” Yet that’s not a bad thing. In fact, Yoshi’s New Island is a better realization of Yoshi’s Island in some very important ways. This new game uses the full technological potential of the 3DS to hit this satisfying balance between game and toy. It stands as one of the easier, more calming experiences that the 3DS has to offer.
In “Driving Off The Map”, James Clinton Howell asserts, among other things, that Metal Gear Solid 2 uses both its narrative and interactive forms to characterize Raiden and establish theme. According to him, Raiden is only able to achieve autonomy when both he and the player abandon their failed wishes to reenact the scenarios of the original Metal Gear Solid.
Why do I bring this up? Because I think something similar happens with Bravely Default, and the relationship it establishes between player and character. It offers very similar genre and mechanical deconstructions, albeit with one very important difference. Both games force their heroes to transcend their own narratives, but in Bravely Default’s case, the heroes don’t achieve a greater sense of self because of it. Quite the opposite, in fact. Bravely Default uses this narrative device to force the characters to confront their lack of autonomy and identity, and that their only existence is as player puppets.