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.
By now, the relationship between reality and fantasy in blockbuster video games – their presentation as both a perfect simulation of reality and a perfect escape from it – is so obvious to everyone it might as well be a cliche. Yet in spite of how prevalent knowledge of this relationship is, the relationship itself is still worth exploring. Not only are games still transparently pursuing it, but they’re regularly successful in doing so. It seems that as capable and as willing as we are to critique this mode of presentation, we’re not quite at the point of acting on those critiques.
It’s in this light that Shenmue, despite being released nearly twenty years ago, still has something to offer. This game came into being just as that relationship between reality and fantasy was starting to take form, and its stance on this new development isn’t easy to summarize. On the one hand, it finds a lot there to admire, if the sentimental depiction of the world is anything to go by. But if the overarching story is anything to by, then the game is also aware of the dangers a pursuit of fantasy can bring if left unattended.
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.
System Shock 2 is going to be a difficult game to write about. This has nothing to do with its popularity (there’s still a lot to be said about this game), but because there’s just so much to talk about. System Shock 2 is such a dense, multifaceted game that picking one point of discussion feels impossible. Nonetheless, I’ll give it a shot. What stands out about System Shock 2 for me (IE what I think the game devotes most of its energy to) is its deep interrogation of the biology/machine divide. These are already common motifs in science fiction, and although System Shock 2 hedges closely to its source material, it carries the discussion into unexpected new territory.
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.
The first thing most people learn when they find out about Tonic Trouble is its production history: Ubisoft wanted to find out how Rayman-style gameplay would work if given a third dimension, so they made this game as a sort of safe experiment. That way, they could prepare themselves for a real 3D Rayman game without potentially tarnishing the series’ reputation. It’s not a hard angle to read into the game (the protagonist already bears a striking resemblance to Rayman), but just introducing the game like this is enough to make a part of me feel guilty. Not only have I devalued the game by tying it to this other, largely irrelevant title, but by framing Tonic Trouble as Ubisoft’s experiment for Rayman 2, I suggest that the game has no inherent value of its own.
Meremanoid and I have a curious relationship. Night after night, I’d spend time plugging away at this arcane PlayStation RPG, slowly losing interest as I proceed through the game. It felt like I was going through the motions, probably because I saw the game going through the motions as well. But I don’t want to reduce Meremanoid to sweeping genre cliches, since so much of what it does lies outside them. While the heady messages about finding an authentic self in an inauthentic world had been explored in previous games, the exaggerated gestures and flowery language the game uses to explore those ideas are entirely its own.
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.
It’s been a while since I’ve come across a game as difficult to parse as iS: Internal Section. Not that the game looks that difficult on first glance. It’s clearly a rail shooter, and it’s clearly operating in the tradition of games like Rez and Lattice 200EC7. Unlike those games, though, Internal Section is a complete visual mess. As you rush through the game at high speed, it constantly assaults you with a glut of colors and symbols. Surprisingly, this is exactly what gives the game its value. It’s this aesthetic that gives the game the cadence that sets it apart from its peers.
Despite 90s nostalgia becoming a cliche in the past few years (especially where video games are concerned), it’s worth remembering why so many people look back on those years so fondly. Back then, most of the video game genres we know today were still young and malleable enough that developers were willing to test the boundaries. It’s these experimental games, with their distinctive identities, that we often remember today. Or don’t, as is the case with Pop’n Tanks. (I have no clue what relation this game has to other Pop’n titles.)