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.
I guess it was inevitable that I would eventually encounter a game like RUN=DIM: Return to Earth. As a writer, my ethos has always been to promote stronger critical engagement with games, and my approach to this has always been to look at games that people routinely overlook and/or dismiss. What alternate histories do they point to? How do they conceptualize games? What new possibilities do either of these things allow us to realize? These are the questions I hope to answer through my writing. Of course, there is a problem with my method: my focus on older games overlaps with a focus on commercially sold games, and time and again, games in the consumer space have proven themselves not only artistically dead, but also opposed to any sort of wider artistic or historical engagement. My response to this has been to resist the consumerist mentality embedded in games like this to find the value they may not realize they ever had.
RUN=DIM inadvertently challenges this. To provide a brief summary of the game, it’s a Wonderswan shooter based on the anime of the same name. Despite these origins, it may be better described as a Korean video game than as a Japanese one (at least judging by the credits). However, nationality is less important to understanding RUN=DIM than the fact of its being a consumer product. The game is remarkably honest on this point, but that honesty serves to deflect the question of what substance, if any, the game actually has. This is because RUN=DIM has no substance to speak of. What it instead offers is a sort of brazen nihilism: “I am nothing. I speak to nothing and what you do with me means nothing; play me anyway.”
As a game critic, I’m generally more interested in failures than I am in successes. This doesn’t mean I seek out games like Tokyo Mirage Sessions, whose failures derive from a thorough dishonesty about what they are; or Lucky Me, Lucky You, where the cause is a lack of self-awareness (not to mention the language it uses). What I look for are the games that strive for some sort of goal but fall well short of achieving it, because it’s in that falling short that they’re most expressive of their own identity. The mistakes these games make are proof that they’re the result of real human effort and not simply the output of a mathematical formula engineered to produce conventionally good games.
Moreover, they provide us a means of pushing back against the standards that lead us into such formulas. True, the game itself may never realize this, but its foibles show how easily those standards break down; how open they are to being questioned. They lay the groundwork for alternative aesthetics that designers can elaborate upon.
I feel like emotional resolution in games is a critically under-explored topic. By this, I’m referring to the specific kind of resolution you see in Persona 4, where characters are forced to confront deep emotional issues, overcome them, and grow as an individual. I can understand why this topic may be ignored – only a small set of games center social interaction as something with inherent value, and the main character is bettering other people’s lives through their actions – but there are a number of questions such a scenario raises. On what terms does the emotional resolution take place? What does that process look like (is it the same for all people or does it vary from person to person)? What should the result look like? Whose perspective is centered in all of this? These aren’t questions we should be ignoring.
Stella Glow shows us some of the problems that arise by turning a blind eye to these issues. Quietly released for the 3DS last year, Stella Glow is a fairly conservative game from Atlus. It’s a mathematically precise combination of popular anime motifs. More specifically, it borrows the previously described emotional resolution of Persona and Madoka Magica‘s emotionally turbulent young witches. Unfortunately, Atlus’ calculated effort backfires horribly. Despite centering female characters in the story, the game pays no attention to its own gender politics nor how its story (plot, themes, characters) fit into them. While it may approach the topic with good intentions, the results are dismal: female characters end up objectified, stripped of their autonomy and reduced to stereotypes.