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.
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.
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.
Running in video games is a concept that’s dense with meaning. There’s the idea of running away from something, wherein your assailant controls and limits your world by binding you to a troubling situation. But outside horror games where the point is to evoke that specific mood, this isn’t a motif games are all that interested in emphasizing. A far more common depiction is running as a liberating force. Here, it’s presented both as a claim of ownership over one’s self and an act of power against a world that might encroach on that self. It’s saying to the world, “I refuse to accept whatever limits you’re trying to place on me.” Hence its popularity in a number of games, like endless runners, the Bit.Trip games, Mirror’s Edge, Sega’s movement-oriented games, Runbow, etc.
I’m not going to discuss why freedom and running are so tied together, why games invoke both so often, or even whether that logic makes sense as applied to video games. These topics are all worth digging into, but that would be beyond the scope of what I can achieve here. Rather, I want to discuss how these ideas manifest in one particular game: Buffers Evolution, a small WonderSwan game released early in the system’s life. On the surface, its mechanically focused, fun-for-fun’s-sake approach to game design appears to prefigure the rise of indie games in the late 2000s. However, I’m not comfortable reducing the game to that level. What I see in Buffers is a deeply personal interpretation of running; one that enables people to challenge the world they inhabit and to find value in themselves, even if only a little bit.
By now, the relationship between reality and fantasy in blockbuster video games – their presentation as both a perfect simulation of reality and a perfect escape from it – is so obvious to everyone it might as well be a cliche. Yet in spite of how prevalent knowledge of this relationship is, the relationship itself is still worth exploring. Not only are games still transparently pursuing it, but they’re regularly successful in doing so. It seems that as capable and as willing as we are to critique this mode of presentation, we’re not quite at the point of acting on those critiques.
It’s in this light that Shenmue, despite being released nearly twenty years ago, still has something to offer. This game came into being just as that relationship between reality and fantasy was starting to take form, and its stance on this new development isn’t easy to summarize. On the one hand, it finds a lot there to admire, if the sentimental depiction of the world is anything to go by. But if the overarching story is anything to by, then the game is also aware of the dangers a pursuit of fantasy can bring if left unattended.
The Dark Souls franchise may have put Japanese game developer FromSoftware on the map, but the company spent years refining the artistic sensibilities that made those games what they are. Nowhere is that clearer than in Echo Night, an unsung horror/adventure game from the company’s PlayStation days. On the one hand, the game demonstrates FromSoftware’s talent for building richly detailed worlds. But it’s what the game does with that world that catches my attention. Despite how strongly your surroundings code for horror, Echo Night is more interested in moving past horror than it is in reveling in it. Terror gives way to healing; to breaking the chains that tie us to the past.
System Shock 2 is going to be a difficult game to write about. This has nothing to do with its popularity (there’s still a lot to be said about this game), but because there’s just so much to talk about. System Shock 2 is such a dense, multifaceted game that picking one point of discussion feels impossible. Nonetheless, I’ll give it a shot. What stands out about System Shock 2 for me (IE what I think the game devotes most of its energy to) is its deep interrogation of the biology/machine divide. These are already common motifs in science fiction, and although System Shock 2 hedges closely to its source material, it carries the discussion into unexpected new territory.
Fear Effect was a subtly frustrating game for me. I don’t mean that in the sense that it was difficult to beat (I still have Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest fulfilling that role), but in the sense that it’s difficult to write about. Given the nature of Fear Effect – its unabashed use of Hollywood action movie tropes, its blatant racism and sexism – you’d think the game would be easy to dismiss. But at least where that first point is concerned, there’s a sense of purpose to the game that makes me reluctant to do so. In fact, when you consider those tropes in context, Fear Effect’s combination of action and horror conventions is incredibly clever and meaningful. Or at least it would be if the game didn’t commit so heavily to the action side, depriving the game of a powerful impact it might otherwise have.
The first thing most people learn when they find out about Tonic Trouble is its production history: Ubisoft wanted to find out how Rayman-style gameplay would work if given a third dimension, so they made this game as a sort of safe experiment. That way, they could prepare themselves for a real 3D Rayman game without potentially tarnishing the series’ reputation. It’s not a hard angle to read into the game (the protagonist already bears a striking resemblance to Rayman), but just introducing the game like this is enough to make a part of me feel guilty. Not only have I devalued the game by tying it to this other, largely irrelevant title, but by framing Tonic Trouble as Ubisoft’s experiment for Rayman 2, I suggest that the game has no inherent value of its own.