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.
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.
Our game begins with the words “L’Arc in Ciel” printed against a grainy film backdrop. We then quickly jump to objects that are much more modern by contrast: kawaii anime heads and a mix of hip phrases in an angular bubble font. The rest of the introduction proceeds like that: a chaotic mix of various pop media styles, each of them juxtaposed and remixed to the point that they’ve lost all meaning. All of this is supposed to connote youthful rebellion and an “I’m above caring about things that are beneath me” attitude, but the effect doesn’t completely come through. It can’t. Media remixing like this was a staple of the 1990s (others having done it better), and so was the idea of imbuing a product with a rebellious attitude. Considering how Gekitotsu Toma L’Arc: Tomarunner vs L’Arc-en-Ciel was released in 2000, people had a decade’s worth of time to adjust to those concepts and see the game for what it is: a carefully calculated marketing ploy.
A large part of me resists describing any video game as cheap marketing trash. Even if a game is clearly trying to cash in on the latest fad or was conceived of as another piece of tie-in merchandise (or both), that doesn’t automatically disqualify it from being a legitimate artistic endeavor. With Ms. Pac Man: Maze Madness, though, I struggle to find redeeming qualities in it. In fact, I struggle to find any qualities in the game whatsoever. The most generous thing I could say about the game is that contemporary players/reviewers would have found it mildly enjoyable if unremarkable. Yet I didn’t play this game at the time of its release; I played it well after the fact, and that added time brought with it clarity. What I played was more than an apathetic game in need of an identity; it was also an example of the more regrettable design trends in early 3D video games.
If you were to read most of the video game criticism that’s been published in recent years, you’d come away with the impression that video games abound in social ignorance. Some games exhibit a level of political awareness and merely fail to acknowledge a potential issue, and many others deny the problem in the first place by suggesting they exist in a political vacuum. Now I’m not here to argue that these games don’t exist. Rather, I want to point alternatives; games whose strengths lie in their hyper-awareness of the issues at play. Games like Jet Set Radio. While the game’s most appealing feature has always been its zealous energy, what sets Jet Set Radio apart is that its energy is not the product of social ignorance. If anything, the game is all too aware of how capitalist ideals structure our lives, which is why it suggests transcending them by turning life into a radical performance. Given how stylishly Jet Set Radio renders those performances, it’s hard not to be swayed by the game’s arguments.
I never enjoy seeing a video game with unfulfilled potential. On some level, it’s a painful experience: I see the possibility of what the game could have been, and the greatness that it’s already capable of achieving. But then I have to acknowledge whatever shortcomings keep said greatness out of the game’s reach. It’s as though the game is teasing me without really meaning to.
Or at least that’s how I felt playing The Misadventures of Tron Bonne. Even from the beginning, this game demonstrates a lot of potential. Its anime presentation works perfectly to evoke a sense of nostalgia while also incorporating the gameplay into a clever episodic format. Yet the gameplay systems have trouble keeping up. Despite their good faith efforts to engage the player, many of the action segments are too rote to keep the player invested. And while the Servbot system is a good idea in theory, it remains under-equipped to do what it needs to do in practice. While by no means a bad game, The Misadventures of Tron Bonne leaves something to be desired.
Lattice 200EC7 (a horridly obscure PlayStation shooter) begins on a dark blue title screen, the name presented in a digital font. Standing behind those letters are two elements in particular: three hypnotic circles slowly rotating, and giant metal bars that infrequently shoot off into the back of the screen. Within its first few minutes, Lattice creates an uncomfortable dissonance as it tries to pull my attention in two opposite directions. And accompanying these visuals is complete silence, broken only by the grating drum rolls you create by navigating the on-screen options. So it appears that the game has no interest in resolving that tension any time soon.