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.
Before I even started playing Lost Word of Jenny, the game was a series of mysteries that refused to resolve themselves. It had been sitting in my computer for the better part of two years before I realized it was there, so I’m still uncertain as to how I came across this game or why it captured my interest. The experiences to follow didn’t help, either. What I encountered were a series of explanations and contexts refusing one another, the refusal itself providing no justification for its being there. Perhaps that why unlike so many other games I write about, I can’t read anything of value into Jenny’s refusal to become a cohesive whole. This isn’t the same as Battle Golfer Yui, where the semblance of internal cohesion gives me something to work with, laugh at, and presumably arrive at a deeper understanding of. With Jenny, I’m stuck with my initial confusion about what the game even is.
Like many of the games I write about on this blog, Ai Senshi Nicol doesn’t neatly map to conventional ideas of what a good or bad video game is. What’s more, the game’s failure to slot into either of those categories is more the result of a mismanaged execution on those conventions than it is a purposeful break from them. While this would normally be cause for celebration, I remain hesitant in Ai Senshi Nicol’s case. The game isn’t Decap Attack; it’s not an anarchic mishmash of elements that flagrantly break the rules of good game design. Ai Senshi Nicol wants to follow those rules, and to that end, it exhibits a certain level of polish. Characters tend to be round and non-threatening; music is composed of easily understood melodies; and play is relatively skill-based, focusing on things like pattern recognition and acquisition of power.
Were I to judge the game only as a series of systems for the player to navigate, I’d likely describe it as a conservative yet competent addition to Konami’s long line of shooting games. But this strikes as a somewhat narrow view. Expanding that view, I find a game that tries to parody contemporary action movie conventions, is equipped to do just that, but for whatever reason, never quite accomplishes its goal. Where there should be harmony between the energetic crossfire you’re expected to navigate and the levels’ humorous nature, there’s instead a weak conflict that the game isn’t entirely able to resolve. And because of how strongly Ai Senshi Nicol pursues aesthetic refinement, it’s not in a position to embrace these blemishes, either. All it can do is uncomfortably hang in that space we call “average”, unable and unwilling to claim ownership of itself.
Yuko Ahso, a typical Japanese high school student, happens upon some magical entity that interrupts her otherwise conventional life. She is soon whisked away to the magical world of Vecante, where she learns of a war between good and evil. As the wielder of the Valis Sword, it is up to her to put an end to the conflict. This is a narrative that the Valis series has retold numerous times. It’s boilerplate, as far as fantasy stories go, and I won’t pretend the games have done anything revolutionary with them. But that hasn’t prevented them from telling the story well. Each game advances the overarching plot enough and adds enough personality to make it their own.
So how is it that Valis: The Fantastic Soldier, the NES reimagining of the first game, utterly fails to do the same? Within the series’ context, the game appears on the right track. Rather than present itself like its action-oriented brethren, this game plays more like an exploration-centric action-RPG. Surprisingly, though, Valis forgets to do anything with this set-up. All it has to offer is a flat expanse of nothing, bereft of any character.