There are certain operating assumptions that writers and enthusiasts alike make when discussing games based on licensed properties. Most can be summed up through the following formula: the game’s identity initially comes to us through an abstract ideal that exists outside what the game actually does. In the situation we’re describing, that ideal is usually either the brand the game is based on or some idea of what games in general should be. From here, it’s simply a matter of how well a given game adheres to this standard. Unfortunately contradictions become inevitable and we’re already primed to see the game as a mere simulacrum of some higher quality original. Hence the negative reputation licensed games have garnered.
There is a grain of truth in this line of reasoning. Many of these games made that discourse relevant to themselves: because they were made for mass market consumption, they had to fit a certain model of what a game/tie-in product should be, regardless of whether the source material would support it.
One of death metal’s most distinctive traits is its thorough acceptance of death. In fact, it’s the genre’s aesthetic backbone. Metal refuses to compromise on the topic of death or make it more palatable via metaphor. It’s raw, blunt, and confrontational on the matter. At times, a given metal work may celebrate death, finding an aesthetic joy in all its morbid details. However, the bare minimum for the genre is simply an acknowledgement that death exists in the world and no further attempt to mask that truth.
This approach is especially relevant to understanding Shadow Man. That isn’t to say it’s the only approach worth considering. Released in 1999 for every major platform, the game exists at the intersection of several contemporary trends: the various approaches to exploration 3D games (Soul Reaver, shooters, platformers) were exploring at the time; the grimdark masculinist fantasies that dominated the comic book scene; and a pastiche of various pop culture (action movie) icons for good measure. As important as this information is to understanding Shadow Man, facts like these cannot establish a character for the game. Moreover, we should be careful not to reduce the game’s character to these facts.
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.
Top Hunter: Roddy & Cathy is a nondescript action game developed by SNK. The game was released for the Neo Geo in mid 1994, just as the system and the company responsible for it were hitting their strides. Normally I’d begin something like this by explaining the critical significance of the game in question, but with Top Hunter, the bare historical facts are all I have to work with. The game is a product of trends that can be better (more clearly and more thoroughly) explained through much more well known games. And narrowing our focus to just Top Hunter, we see that what the game occupies an unsatisfying middle ground between not doing any one thing particularly well but not doing anything poorly enough that we can learn from its mistakes. All I’m left to say about the game is that it exists.
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).
There’s probably a cognitive bias at work behind this sentiment, but a lot of the time when I look back on older video games, I’m reminded of how little the culture around them has changed. Take Lenar Co. and their 1986 release Bird Week. Judging by their body of work (a paltry six releases across ten years), it’s likely the team got their start as part of the hobbyist boom that hit Japan in the 70s and 80s. In other words, they share a lot in common with the indie boom video games went through around 2008. Their works never strayed too far from commercial video game genres, but they were never content to stay completely within those bounds, either. Lenar would introduce a new mechanic that changed the focus of play, or inflect existing ones differently, all in an effort to see just how far they could stretch these familiar concepts. Bird Week, as the team’s first project, best exemplifies this approach. It shows us how easily the concepts we take for granted in games can be inflected to mean something different, but also how liable such inflections are to lapse back into their original meanings.
As unfair as it might be to Shadow of the Colossus, understanding the game outside its relationship with ICO is difficult. The parallels between the two are too abundant and too significant to ignore. Both played a vital role in the construction of “video games as art*”; both take obvious inspiration from popular media; both draw from the same pool of symbols and motifs, like shadow, light, space, psychoanalysis, etc.; and both paint very broad strokes with those motifs so the player can/will read what they will into them.
However, I want to be clear that Shadow of the Colossus isn’t merely an extension of ICO’s work. In reality it’s a development of that work. More specifically, the game inverts every meaning that Team Ico had assigned its symbols in their first outing. They’re more willing to consciously challenge everything that, previously, they were willing to accept for the sake of discussion. The bond between different peoples gives way to loneliness; a well defined prison gives way to barren wastelands; and any hope for something better is replaced with a dreary cynicism that’s all but resigned itself to senseless suffering.
As counter-intuitive as it might seem, I don’t think approaching Fire Emblem Echoes through the game it was based off will be all that productive. There’s a lot I could (and perhaps will) say about it, but it’s been about a decade since I’ve played Gaiden and my memories of it are hazy. In addition, Echoes, like so many remakes, is a reinterpretation of its source material instead of a faithful recreation of it. This reinterpretation is so removed from the circumstances of the original’s creation that the new set of circumstances clouds out the former, forcing us away from any purely comparative analysis.
How then, do we go about understanding this game? I think it would help to see Echoes not as one unified game, but as several games coexisting within the same body. Its task is a delicate one; it straddles many thin lines at once. Each one pulls the game’s attention in different directions, threatening to disrupt Echoes’ balance. I’d be lying if I said the game never loses its balance, and I’d be lying again if I said the game always lands on its feet when it does. But the tight control the game maintains the rest of the time allows it to reach its greatest heights, and the acrobatic displays during its tumbles lead to some memorable performances.
Gley Lancer begins on a scene far out in space, with two warring factions primed to face one another in combat. We don’t know who the combatants are or what their stakes in the battle are, and frankly, they’re not important to our understanding of the events at hand. The sturdy military march, the admiration for high level military tactics and machinery (both abstracted away from real situations) – these direct our attention toward action and plot. On this level we see a miscalculation on the heroes’ part result in the enemy abducting a commander with his entire ship. Upon hearing of this, the commander’s daughter (and protagonist of the game) Ensign Lucia Cabrock acts against military authority by commandeering a top secret military weapon to save her father.
As far as I know, Threads of Fate is a game that’s known for many different things at once. It’s known for its two parallel stories united by a desire to obtain a powerful MacGuffin; for the humorous execution of those stories; for its fusion of platforming and role-playing sensibilities; and for its distinct, highly expressive visuals, which may have been a reaction against the Dreamcast to show what the PlayStation was capable of.
Having played Threads of Fate for myself, I’m not in a position to deny any of these approaches to the game, Although some are definitely worth considering, they’re not what sticks out to me, or at least not what immediately sticks out to me regarding this game. No, what catches my attention are the various connections this game shares with Square’s previous work. In fact, they stick out so strongly for me that I would characterize the game as one made by and for the people behind its very production, albeit not to the exclusion of anybody else.