Before the game proper even begins, Splatoon greets you with an image of a young person’s room. The small details adoring this room – part trendy, part comfortable, but mostly mundane – should be familiar to many of the game’s young players: a squid-themed iPhone; a desk with a laptop on it, maybe with a can of soda off to the side; posters and stickers from popular music or fashion brands adorning the walls; shelves with various books and collectibles populating their surfaces.
Whenever I think of the discourse surrounding this game, one point comes to mind: “Freedom Planet (finally) got the Sonic formula right.” The idea is that after years of failure from Sega as they slowly forgot the hedgehog’s appeal, a group of Sonic’s fans returned the series to its roots and restored its lost spirit. It’s an enticing narrative – the passionate individuals come out victorious over the profit-driven corporate powers – but it’s far from airtight. For example, in light of the many Sonic games that did get the formula right (the Advance games, the Rush games), it becomes clear that the problem isn’t so much that Sega couldn’t make a good Sonic game as much as it is that the community values certain video game experiences above other, regardless of their quality. However, this is a symptom of a much larger problem that’s far beyond the scope of what I’m discussing.
What I want to address is the main thrust of this argument: that Freedom Planet stays true to the Sonic ethos where Sonic itself has faltered. Already we’re implying a certain truths about the situation: that the older Sonic games have a clearly identifiable ethos and that this ethos can be perfectly understood and replicated in the present. It’s this second premise that I take issue with the most. In practice, many understandings of how games were in the past paint a somewhat romantic image, one that’s no doubt interpreted through a nostalgic lens. While studying these games for a significant length of time (as the developers of Freedom Planet certainly had to) helps remind one of the mundane reality such an image covers up, we run into another problem: how does one understand older games without letting the present day affect that understanding? It may well be impossible to avoid this issue, much less bring past design trends into the present completely intact.
By now, I’m certain that the points I’m going to make in the following 2000 or so words are points that I’ve harped on in previous places. In fact, I distinctly remember (and when gathering material, caught myself in the act of) discussing these points in relation to Shantae, Retro City Rampage, and Eufloria. So they’re definitely recurring elements in the culture that indie game developers have cultivated for themselves since about 2009. Yet even at this juncture, I still find these points worth discussing. In addition to emulating and building on aesthetic/design sensibilities from the 1990s, many games in the indie space aim for refinement above all else, as if they can achieve some Platonic ideal of the perfect video game. But if the end results of their efforts consistently feel hollow and meaningless, I’m left wondering what good game design is supposed to be.
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.
SC2VN: The eSports Visual Novel may belong to a class of games I can’t yet meaningfully analyze. As experienced as I am with visual novels, that experience doesn’t amount to much in the face of such unfamiliar subject matter. The closest experience I have with eSports is watching AGDQ speedruns on YouTube, and that’s a tenuous connection, at best. But that doesn’t mean the game was completely without value for me. In fact, it may have been my ignorance about eSports that let me see the value in Team Eleven Eleven’s visual novel in the first place. The game’s enthusiasm for competitive gaming not only helps it convey the appeal to eSports, but it also extends an open hand to newcomers. In other words, it’s a perfect introduction to eSports for somebody like me.
Despite being hailed as a children’s classic, Disney’s The Beauty and the Beast has been criticized for not understanding how love actually works. Critics say that Belle doesn’t actually love the Beast; she’s just in an abusive relationship where she mistakes the absence of abuse for love. I bring this up because I see very similar dynamics in Amnesia: Memories. Idea Factory’s latest game fashions itself as the ideal romantic story, yet its skewed ideas of romance make it that much harder to see any of the male leads as desirable.
It would be careless of me to say that video games only cover a small range of emotions. Yet in my experience, I can’t think of too many games that directly address emotions as their subject matter. And it’s not hard to understand why: they’re a thorny subject, and faithfully representing them requires a different kind of thinking than many games employ. Devolver Digital understands this, if Dropsy is anything to by. Their throwback to LucasArts-style adventure games approaches the subject with a mature, nuanced understanding that lends it a lot of credibility. It’s that understanding that allows the game to recognize all suffering as valid without giving up hope that people can find happiness.