I guess it was inevitable that I would eventually encounter a game like RUN=DIM: Return to Earth. As a writer, my ethos has always been to promote stronger critical engagement with games, and my approach to this has always been to look at games that people routinely overlook and/or dismiss. What alternate histories do they point to? How do they conceptualize games? What new possibilities do either of these things allow us to realize? These are the questions I hope to answer through my writing. Of course, there is a problem with my method: my focus on older games overlaps with a focus on commercially sold games, and time and again, games in the consumer space have proven themselves not only artistically dead, but also opposed to any sort of wider artistic or historical engagement. My response to this has been to resist the consumerist mentality embedded in games like this to find the value they may not realize they ever had.
RUN=DIM inadvertently challenges this. To provide a brief summary of the game, it’s a Wonderswan shooter based on the anime of the same name. Despite these origins, it may be better described as a Korean video game than as a Japanese one (at least judging by the credits). However, nationality is less important to understanding RUN=DIM than the fact of its being a consumer product. The game is remarkably honest on this point, but that honesty serves to deflect the question of what substance, if any, the game actually has. This is because RUN=DIM has no substance to speak of. What it instead offers is a sort of brazen nihilism: “I am nothing. I speak to nothing and what you do with me means nothing; play me anyway.”
It’s a very easy thing to say that games are little more than distractions from much larger problems. In the face of an Other that’s too large, too abstract, too disinterested to care about any one individual, these compact virtual Others become tempting substitutes. Of course, this stance is incredibly reductive – there are so many possible relationships a game can create between itself and its player – but for certain games (particularly some in the blockbuster space), this line of thinking points us to some sort of truth, albeit accidentally. In one sense, yes, these games can distract us from larger problems by purporting to solve them in a realm where our capabilities are expanded.
But in another equally important sense, games also lessen the abstract existential threat we read in the Other. In fact, we might describe games as performances for a virtual Other where we affirm our worth by submitting to and fulfilling its demands (much like we do for the non-virtual Other). The performance is inherently unstable; unsatisfied with with our original success, we demand yet more (rigorous) chances to prove our worth until we’ve completely exhausted the game of such opportunities. For a time, at least, those brief moments of success will have to do.
Why do I highlight all of this? Because Kaze no Klonoa: Moonlight Museum highlights a very valuable alternative. Granted, many games highlight alternatives already, usually through language outside that typically used in conventional game design. But Moonlight Museum firmly situates itself in that very language: one plays the game by completing challenges with a limited, well-defined toolset. The only difference is the ends toward which that language is used. It’s the Lieve Oma model of player/game relationships: unconditional acceptance over continually proving one’s worth, and play as a reprieve from rather than a solution to problems in one’s life.
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.
Generally speaking, it’s not often that licensed video games are seen as deserving critical scrutiny in their own right. Why should they be? If they’re not already the object of nostalgic fervor, then it’s easy to dismiss them as the failed products of much larger forces like merchandising and transmedia strategies which are themselves worthy of serious critical analysis. And at first glance, SD Gundam: Operation U.C. seems to fit that bill. Released on the WonderSwan Color in late 2002 (right around the time Gundam SEED first started airing), the Gundam franchise had already seen nine television series, eighteen movies, countless games, OVAs, and every other form of merchandising. This isn’t even considering the bevy of fan produced material since the series’ 1979 inception. In light of all this information (along with the first half of the game’s title being SD Gundam), Operation U.C. looks more like a minor embodiment of the success the Gundam franchise had garnered by this point than it does an artistic endeavor in its own right.
The Mega Man series has always held an ambivalent stance when it comes to social issues. I’m not saying the games cover these issues poorly, or that their views aren’t worth defending. In fact, that’s been one of the series’ strengths, whether you see it in the original’s positive view on a technological future or the X games’ commentary on political extremism. Their weaknesses lie in how little the games openly emphasize those views. Maybe it’s because they pursue other desires relating to the sci-fi genre, or maybe it’s because, being flagship platformers from a fairly large video game developer, those games never had a desire to cover these issues in the first place. Whatever the reason may be, I’d be interested in seeing a Mega Man game that looks at these issues in greater depth.
Note: the avoid confusion, Rockman and Forte refers to the game I’m reviewing, where Mega Man and Bass refer to the characters the player controls in it.
Last week, I wrote about Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, an unfocused game without any conflict or direction. So it’s eerie that I find myself writing about Rockman & Forte: Mirai kara no Chousensha, the mechanical equivalent of Re:coded. Just like that game’s trivial story, Rockman & Forte is a hollow recreation of the better games to precede it. Its world is barren and devoid of life, and while the game has the power to change, it never seems to realize that it does.
When I think of arcades, the first image that comes to mind is games designed to suck quarters out of player pockets. Most games did this by focusing on challenge above all else: the idea was that by making play sessions shorter (and thus worth less money), players would be willing to spend more money to play. While these games also had to be enjoyable (why else would anyone play them?), joy wasn’t as important in the face of challenge.
Dicing Knight Period is a very intelligent game. Now I don’t mean that in the sense that the game has some profound, overlooked narrative to dig into, or an intricate set of mechanics to play around with. In fact, it’s nothing more than a humble action game released toward the end of the WonderSwan’s life cycle.