There are two approaches to understanding the creative process that I want to discuss. The first is one that psychologist Tamaki Saito discusses in his book/study Otaku Sexuality. In considering why media aimed at otaku is so sexually charged, Saito notes how, romantically/sexually speaking, otaku lead far more normal lives than this media might suggest. The sexuality we see on display there is completely limited to the world of fiction. In addition, he mentions how otaku’s affection of their object of desire almost always manifests through an attempt to possess it (IE by creating works based on that object).
Lieve Oma (Dutch for “Dear Grandma”) strikes me as the kind of game that would be hastily dismissed as “not a video game.” I say “hastily” because claims like these tell us more about the narrow range of experiences many enthusiast circles value than they do the nature of the medium at large. They’re convenient in that they justify our refusal to engage with these games by saying the ideas they explore and the conclusions they arrive at don’t hold any relevance to us. The irony, of course, is that Lieve Oma never strays too far from the fundamental mindset underpinning most popular video games. Play is centered on the self and its unfettered ability to sate its own desires; that self is forced to act within tightly defined boundaries it isn’t able to question; and the basic premise represents an escapist fantasy. Lieve Oma shows no interest in critiquing these points.
Again, though, I don’t see the value in dismissing the game out of hand. Its strengths lie not in critique, but in requalification; preserving the use of a specific convention, but removing the attitudes typically associated with it so that we might value that convention along a different axis. For example, as eager as the game is to present itself as a game, it’s just as eager to pose nuanced questions about what a game is. Likewise, escapism takes on an entirely different meaning: not one of denying problems through an appeal to power, but of emotional comfort that prepares one for the world on their own terms.
Hopefully the examples I’ve provided illuminate just how much the game has warped the ideals that Persona is supposed to represent. Or maybe Sessions’ follies reveal problems that had always plagued the series in one way or another. Whatever the case may be, this much is clear: there’s a mismatch at the game’s heart between what it claims to be achieving and what it actually achieves.
Note: Like my Nier blog, this piece ended up longer than I thought it would, so I’ve decided to split it up into two parts.
Another thing that bothered me was the trend of the main character always being portrayed as someone special — a legendary warrior, for example. It was the equivalent of saying you can’t succeed unless you’re from a wealthy family, and I just couldn’t stand that. I wasn’t born with special genes, and I’m sure most other players weren’t either. No matter who you are, if you’re given a chance and have the guts to try your best, you can become a hero… That became the concept of Megami Tensei.
These words, spoken by Kazuma Kaneko in a 2004 1UP interview, are often seen as perfectly summarizing the Shin Megami Tensei ethos. I’ve often seen them quoted as praise for the series, but that overlooks the fine line this ethos asks its creators to walk. They contradicted that spirit as early as Shin Megami Tensei II (whose protagonists are specifically engineered to bring about change in the world), and even if the creators hold true to the idea, venerating the average person presents its own dangers to avoid. Still, judging by games like Shin Megami Tensei If… and Persona 2 (and to a lesser extent the later Persona games), Atlus has successfully managed to tread the line for the past 25 or so years.
Experimental games in the commercial space have put themselves in a strange position for a number of years. They may promote themselves as questioning the assumptions we take for granted or exploring a subject matter that games typically don’t explore, but because these games force themselves into formats we typically associate with games, there’s always a limit on what they’re capable of accomplishing. It’s a respectability thing, I suspect; fearing that nobody will take what you’re doing seriously unless it can be openly recognized as a game. Sometimes that works out, like with Little Inferno’s scathing commentary on the futility capitalist consumption. Other times, you get 1979 Revolution: Black Friday awkwardly trying to fit its interpretation of the Iranian Revolution into a Telltale-esque format.
Unfortunately, OneShot fits into the latter of these two categories. Originally released as an RPGMaker 2003 game a couple of years ago, OneShot follows a young girl named Niko on her quest to restore light to a dying world. It confronts the possibility that this world is already beyond saving and then asks how we might continue to lead our lives in the face of its perhaps-unavoidable descent into ruin. This game is by no means the first to probe into questions like these, but the answers it provides are infused with enough warmth, hope and humanity that the world feels as though it has meaning even if Niko doesn’t succeed in her quest. Or at least it would if OneShot were presented in any other way. However, the game’s unconscious desire for legitimacy as a game drags it down in ways it can’t hope to recover from.
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.
Over the past couple of years, there’s been a trend of small independent game artists eschewing traditional standards for video games in favor of something more artistic and experimental. There’s even a name for this phenomenon: altgames. These kinds of games forgo the premises we’ve come to expect from video games and choose to explore entirely different subject matter. And instead of taking it upon themselves to explain and inform the player of every element in their design, they just as trust the player to accept things as they are and to come up with their own interpretation of the events that follow.
Where does Fingerbones fit into all this? I really don’t know where. Looking at the game, it’s clear that Fingerbones wants to be part of this growing movement, or at least that it was adjacent to it. It was first released two years ago, right around the time altgames were picking up momentum, and it employs enough of the group’s tricks that I feel comfortable grouping it alongside those other games. I just wish Fingerbones understood the movement’s strengths, or at the very least, its own strengths. Unfortunately, those strengths lie buried beneath a mountain of indecision, all but ensuring the game can only reach a fraction of its potential.
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.
Recent years have seen video games being criticized for how poorly they discuss human sexuality. A lot of those critiques focus on how games depict sex (usually in a voyeuristic fashion that loses a lot of nuance), but it’s also important to consider what games choose to focus on when it comes to sex. That’s why I was so interested in Lucky Me, Lucky You, the latest visual novel from Ebi-hime (writer of The Sad Story of Emmeline Burns and Strawberry Vinegar). The only other time you see pornography directly depicted in games is when some Shadow Moses guard is reading it, but here we have a game that discusses pornography upfront. Unfortunately, it’s far from the nuanced take on pornography I was expecting. Rather than discuss the topic with any sense of tact, Lucky Me, Lucky You instead makes needlessly judgmental and untenable statements about its worth.
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.