If you hope to understand Japanese pop culture, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll come across Macross sooner or later. Although it didn’t introduce the narrative and aesthetic conventions that have come to define that culture (Gundam and Yamato both precede it), Macross was instrumental in codifying those conventions and making them into what we recognize today. On the one hand, it admires all the possibilities that technological advancement opens up and is eager to celebrate them whenever it finds the slightest opportunity. The intricate transformation sequences, Ming-Mei’s elaborate pop-idol performances – one can easily feel the unbridled enthusiasm that bursts out of these images. At times, that enthusiasm can be so strong that the image alone is enough to satisfy Macross. This lends the work a certain hollow quality, even if it’s still aesthetically pleasing.
I want to begin this by expanding on thoughts I first developed in writing about System Shock 2. Here I argued that the nature/technology dichotomy driving the game’s narrative gestures toward a transcendence of the self made necessary because that self has been revealed as weak and conceptually unstable. In truth, this one dichotomy is part of a much larger network of binaries meant to explain how humanity relates to its own existence. Nature/technology, self/other, body/world – not only do these binaries make existence understandable by breaking it down into distinct and stable categories, but they also justify any attempt to control that existence. With one side presented as inert matter to be worked on and the other (usually us) as making it useful by supplying it with activity, the first term becomes incapable of rejecting the second. Control becomes inevitable and any problem it might have posed becomes easy to dismiss.
As far as I know, Threads of Fate is a game that’s known for many different things at once. It’s known for its two parallel stories united by a desire to obtain a powerful MacGuffin; for the humorous execution of those stories; for its fusion of platforming and role-playing sensibilities; and for its distinct, highly expressive visuals, which may have been a reaction against the Dreamcast to show what the PlayStation was capable of.
Having played Threads of Fate for myself, I’m not in a position to deny any of these approaches to the game, Although some are definitely worth considering, they’re not what sticks out to me, or at least not what immediately sticks out to me regarding this game. No, what catches my attention are the various connections this game shares with Square’s previous work. In fact, they stick out so strongly for me that I would characterize the game as one made by and for the people behind its very production, albeit not to the exclusion of anybody else.
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.
When Ray Tracers was initially released, critics were less than excited with what the game had to offer. Jeff Gerstmann, writing for GameSpot, said of it, “While Ray Tracers is a pretty neat game, it’s way too easy and far too short to purchase. Rent this one, finish it, and forget it ever existed.” I’m inclined to believe other reviews at the time read similarly. Yet given how mainstream game criticism at the time treated games as products to be tested and reported on rather than as artistic statements to be interpreted and evaluated, I’m reluctant to accept whatever conclusions critics at the time came to.
The Dark Souls franchise may have put Japanese game developer FromSoftware on the map, but the company spent years refining the artistic sensibilities that made those games what they are. Nowhere is that clearer than in Echo Night, an unsung horror/adventure game from the company’s PlayStation days. On the one hand, the game demonstrates FromSoftware’s talent for building richly detailed worlds. But it’s what the game does with that world that catches my attention. Despite how strongly your surroundings code for horror, Echo Night is more interested in moving past horror than it is in reveling in it. Terror gives way to healing; to breaking the chains that tie us to the past.
Fear Effect was a subtly frustrating game for me. I don’t mean that in the sense that it was difficult to beat (I still have Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest fulfilling that role), but in the sense that it’s difficult to write about. Given the nature of Fear Effect – its unabashed use of Hollywood action movie tropes, its blatant racism and sexism – you’d think the game would be easy to dismiss. But at least where that first point is concerned, there’s a sense of purpose to the game that makes me reluctant to do so. In fact, when you consider those tropes in context, Fear Effect’s combination of action and horror conventions is incredibly clever and meaningful. Or at least it would be if the game didn’t commit so heavily to the action side, depriving the game of a powerful impact it might otherwise have.
A large part of me resists describing any video game as cheap marketing trash. Even if a game is clearly trying to cash in on the latest fad or was conceived of as another piece of tie-in merchandise (or both), that doesn’t automatically disqualify it from being a legitimate artistic endeavor. With Ms. Pac Man: Maze Madness, though, I struggle to find redeeming qualities in it. In fact, I struggle to find any qualities in the game whatsoever. The most generous thing I could say about the game is that contemporary players/reviewers would have found it mildly enjoyable if unremarkable. Yet I didn’t play this game at the time of its release; I played it well after the fact, and that added time brought with it clarity. What I played was more than an apathetic game in need of an identity; it was also an example of the more regrettable design trends in early 3D video games.
As cliche as idolizing games from the 1990s has become at this point, it’s worth remembering what it was about that decade that still lodges itself in the collective consciousness. It’s not just that people grew up during that time. Looking back on the era, I can see a lot of games that were exploring new waters not only with new gameplay models, but also with themes games still aren’t known for dealing with. This was the era of Yuuyami Doori Tankentai, iS: Internal Section, and the Deception series of games. (The PlayStation wasn’t the only place where developers were experimenting, obviously.)
Unfortunately, not all of these experiments ended with success, as I learned after playing Capcom’s One Piece Mansion. The game is a definite product of its time: a late PlayStation game with arcade sensibilities, all of it built around managing an apartment complex. I appreciate the pioneering spirit driving the game, but I also recognize that it can’t carry the game as far as it wishes it could. As compelling as the gameplay can be, its ideas about community building are too thorny and too riddled with problems for me to completely recommend the game.
As a product, Mad Panic Coaster stands out to me. It’s clear that this small PS1 game envisions itself first and foremost as a piece of marketing material. As it should; the game was made to promote the band of the same name, after all. In light of how few people are even aware of the band’s existence (much less associate this game with the band), though, it’s safe to say that Mad Panic Coaster has failed at its intended goal. Yet we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the game itself as a failure. Where Mad Panic Coaster the promotional product fails, Mad Panic Coaster the video game succeeds. Its sense of danger and excitement do a better job of simulating the roller coaster experience than many of the games to follow it.