Video game writing (my own not exempted) has a habit of either misjudging or misrepresenting the relationship between video games and whatever container is used to explain them – brand, genre, etc. We know that the relationship is there. In fact, we’ve little choice but to acknowledge its presence, given both its staggering ubiquity and how firmly entrenched it is in the world of commercial video games. Yet the language through which we discuss that relationship remains very limited. We often reduce it to the game’s mimesis of some nebulously defined concept (usually whatever the game was marketed as), as though the container alone holds supremacy; as though the game is merely an instance of that container, or some other passive object. In doing so, we risk overlooking how the container is constituted through the game, and thus the active role a game plays in interpreting and modifying the containers thought to exist outside them.
This isn’t to say that all these interpretations are revolutionary, or that they can’t converge on mimesis anyway. That being said, neither of these statements preclude a game from actively reasoning through whatever material it’s presented. It’s this active reasoning that makes Lupin III: Densetsu no Hihou wo Oe a compelling game to examine if not an exciting one to experience firsthand. Playing through the game, one learns to appreciate its keen understanding of the source material and its ability to translate that understanding into practice. Unfortunately, Densetsu no Hihou chafes at applying that understanding to the strict generic limitations that being a mainstream commercial video game imposes on it. These limitations ultimately prove to be the game’s undoing.
Chu Chu Rocket is an uncomfortable game to cover; or at least it is for me. I don’t mean this in the sense that it’s thematically uncomfortable, and I don’t mean to suggest the game is too out of my depth to render meaningful commentary on. Quite the opposite, in fact. Despite touching on ideas I’ve already talked about at length – from Bubble Symphony to Hani on the Road, from Shantae to Runbow – the surprisingly frank nature of Chu Chu Rocket’s design renders those ideas bare in a way I’m not used to.
Yet if that directness puts me off guard, then it also poses an advantage as far as critiquing the game is concerned. Returning to the four games I’ve connected Chu Chu Rocket with, I may speak of them as though they occupy fundamentally different classes of games, but the truth is the similarities between them are greater than I’d previously acknowledged. Chu Chu Rocket directs us toward this truth: the quirks in its design demonstrate how thin the line that divides them really is. The game also directs us toward the meaningful distinction between those categories, as it’s this distinction the game’s success or failure (mostly its failure) hinges on.
Looking at the most popular trends in conventional game design, what stands out is how optimistic the assumptions underlying those trends are. Much of that comes down to how video game are conceptualized. Assuming that video games are primarily composed of actions (they aren’t) implies a host of other things about them: an agent who performs the action, a reason for performing the action at all, and a tangible effect on the world through which we can verify the action’s existence. Despite the wide range of responses to this situation, many can be boiled down to the following formula: a player commits these actions to solve problems in the game world, and in doing so, they make the world a noticeably better (or at least different) place than it was before.
If you hope to understand Japanese pop culture, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll come across Macross sooner or later. Although it didn’t introduce the narrative and aesthetic conventions that have come to define that culture (Gundam and Yamato both precede it), Macross was instrumental in codifying those conventions and making them into what we recognize today. On the one hand, it admires all the possibilities that technological advancement opens up and is eager to celebrate them whenever it finds the slightest opportunity. The intricate transformation sequences, Ming-Mei’s elaborate pop-idol performances – one can easily feel the unbridled enthusiasm that bursts out of these images. At times, that enthusiasm can be so strong that the image alone is enough to satisfy Macross. This lends the work a certain hollow quality, even if it’s still aesthetically pleasing.
As I write this, my mind is fixated on the link between technique (the tools and methods responsible for a creative work’s production) and aesthetics. The two are often seen as strongly linked, as though a given aesthetic naturally flows from a given technique, or like that technique strictly dictates the possible range of aesthetics that can be rendered through it. It’s an easily dispelled illusion, but one that we maintain anyway because it provides us a meaningful vocabulary (one which we can negate if it circumstances deem it necessary) through which we might articulate our understanding of a given work. The art world developed this language over several centuries with concepts like oil paintings and watercolor, and in video games, this trend is mostly easily seen in regard to specific engines, like RPGMaker, Ren’py, or Unity; or with aesthetic styles like retroism and literalism/hyperrealism.
Several months ago, I remember briefly discussing with some people the nature of play and the role it fulfills in video game culture. Despite it being central to our common understanding of games, the term remains undefined. What activities count as play? Does play reside within the space the game sets aside for its players, or within the player’s perception of it? Who do we refer to when we talk about a player? For now, it’s this last question I’m especially interested in, largely because of the common implicit answer many readers would supply it. In spite of whatever ambiguities may surround the term “play”, many of our discussions of play assume these two things: play is something a player does, and the player is almost always the person holding the controller. (For simplicity’s sake, these are the players I’ll refer to as “players” throughout the rest of the article.)
When I first saw screenshots of American Battle Dome, I thought it to be a minor Warlords variant whose own history begins and ends with its release. Researching and playing the game proved otherwise. Far from being a stand-alone title, the game is just one instance of a larger brand of Battle Dome toys. And rather than use an 80s arcade game as the foundation for its own design, American Battle Dome is better described as a competitive pinball game. Four players share the same table and simultaneously compete for the highest score. The exact method varies from table to table, but generally it always involves launching a flurry of balls across the table in the hopes that it hits a score-giving object (monsters, UFOs, fairies, etc.).
In other words, American Battle Dome is just one instance of the larger game of pinball. This imposes certain limitations on how we can approach the game critically. Any commentary we render can only apply to the game insofar as it applies to the larger family of games it belongs to. Yet if pinball limits our ability to comment on American Battle Dome, then the latter expands our understanding of the former by creating opportunities that might not exist otherwise. After all, video games can easily do things that would be very difficult for physical pinball to replicate, something this game is quick to take advantage of. American Battle Dome is replete with imaginative expansions on how pinball works, and although it wasn’t the game’s intention, those expansions illuminate several histories/aspects of pinball as a whole.
As we watch the attract mode play out before us, we see our ninja hero face off against a horde of gunmen on a speeding train. Try as they might, his enemies can never touch him. They have him cornered, but try as they might, his enemies can never touch him. His movements are deliberate; he weaves himself between their bullets with grace and ease. What we’re shown is a man of raw power impeccable control, and an implicit promise that both are available to us should we decide to step in his shoes.
What we see next undermines that promise. Our actors (literal actors now) are no longer the symbols of power and control they once seemed to us. They’re pathetic, almost comical. The ninja’s once formidable opponents can only take a few steps before their bodies collapse and die with no apparent cause. Are these the same opponents that gave him so much trouble before? What prowess can our protagonist have if the greatest threat he faces can be toppled so easily? Why would the game subvert its own image by introducing these tensions it refuses to resolve?
Asmik-Kun is many things; all of them simple. He’s a child, a creature, a cipher through which the player accesses the game. Most of all, he’s a character defined entirely through his animal desires. Whatever he looks upon, he interprets through the lens of his childlike naivete. Assuming his mind hasn’t wandered toward the crayon doodles one would find in the margins of a notebook, his fixation on eating transforms the landscape into a delicious meal: fried egg sunsets, tomato clouds, salmon bushes, etc.
What’s especially interesting is how play makes the player complicit in this transformation, as a significant feature of play is turning monsters into eggs that you then collect. In theory, there is a larger motivation for this – something about waking the Dragon God – but it’s implied the joy of performing the act itself takes greater precedence. In the end, Asmik-Kun remains a flat, very basic character.
I want to begin this by expanding on thoughts I first developed in writing about System Shock 2. Here I argued that the nature/technology dichotomy driving the game’s narrative gestures toward a transcendence of the self made necessary because that self has been revealed as weak and conceptually unstable. In truth, this one dichotomy is part of a much larger network of binaries meant to explain how humanity relates to its own existence. Nature/technology, self/other, body/world – not only do these binaries make existence understandable by breaking it down into distinct and stable categories, but they also justify any attempt to control that existence. With one side presented as inert matter to be worked on and the other (usually us) as making it useful by supplying it with activity, the first term becomes incapable of rejecting the second. Control becomes inevitable and any problem it might have posed becomes easy to dismiss.