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.
Anybody who’s followed Mighty No. 9 on its arduous three year journey will already know the legacies it’s inherited; its relationship to Mega Man, the numerous production problems (delays comprising the majority of them), etc. And from what I’ve heard, it’s these legacies that many other reviewers have tried to disavow that they might approach the game on its own terms. Such a task is impossible. Mighty No. 9 takes such specific inspiration from Mega Man and wears that inspiration so proudly on its sleeve that it would be unfair to pretend it never existed. It’s better to admit how much of an impact all this has left on the final product.
Now I’m not saying this to criticize the game. In fact, it’s within this specific context that Mighty No. 9 shines its brightest. The game holds a deep understanding both of what makes Mega Man work and how to repurpose that within a modern context. That’s why you see the story meaningfully advance everything you didn’t even realize makes Mega Man great. It’s also why the game focuses on the kind of sleek, slick action that gives it life beyond its source of inspiration. No matter the circumstances, Mighty No. 9’s history serves to uplift the game rather than undermine it.
If you’re anything like me, then years of watching television (The Simpsons, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) have given you a precise image of what a bar looks like. Dark, glum, miserable; it’s the kind of place where those who have hit rock bottom go to drown their sorrows one glass at a time. It’s also the type of image you won’t find in VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartending Action. In fact, not only does Sukeban Games’ latest release do everything in its power to distance itself from that image, the strategies it uses to achieve that goal are what make it such a distinctive experience in the first place. Through its vibrant cast and intelligent approach to game design, VA-11 Hall-A brings a hopeful warmth to a world in dire need of it.
1979 Revolution: Black Friday was an odd game for me. I can’t outright dismiss iNK Stories’ rendition of the titular Iranian Revolution (in which the Shah was overthrown and ultimately replaced with a theocratic republic). In fact, I have absolutely no desire to do so. Yet as I continued to play 1979 Revolution, my problems with it piled up to the point where I could no longer ignore them. To be more specific, the game finds itself caught between its desire to inform the player of these events and its desire to craft a compelling story from them. Although it chooses to solve this problem by relaying information to the player through narrative, 1979 Revolution would ultimately be better served presenting itself as more of a documentary. The solution it opts for ultimately creates several other problems it’s unable to solve.