In my own work, I often tend to avoid centering a game’s authorial intent. This isn’t to say that intent is useless. In a lot of cases, it can prove quite informative. Yet in many other cases, it can prove unnecessarily limiting, whether because the intent is relatively basic (and thus not particularly conducive to good analysis) or because the creators themselves fail to understand what makes their work compelling. Indeed, some of the most interesting readings on games work outside the scope of what its creators directly wrote into the game.
By contrast, some games demand that we understand them only on their terms, regardless of how uninteresting those terms prove to be. Low G Man: The Low Gravity Man is unfortunately the latter type. Although the game affords a surprising variety of ways to critically approach it, in the end, its only desire is to entertain. This desire is so strong as to cloud out our previous variety, ensuring it either leads nowhere or ends in contradictions. At the same time, however, this is not a desire Low G Man is prepared to fulfill. Its strict position on how players are to approach it can only point to the ambivalence that holds it back.
To say that Super Mario Bros. has had a strong influence on video games would be an understatement. That influence has proven so strong, in fact, that many have just taken it for granted. Often, the only analysis available is more sycophantic than informative. Beginning in an era when players and critics had a limited imagination as to what video games were and could be, both saw a game that had very thoroughly penetrated into the mainstream culture, and so not only accepted its mythologized status as the Platonically ideal video game, but began actively contributing to that myth and explaining the game’s success through it. Circular logic like this does little to help us understand the issues at hand: what manner of game Mario is, what specifically its influence has been, the conditions that led to its being influential, and the implications all of this holds for both contemporary video game culture and what would follow.
When writing about games, I try to avoid interpretations that would dismiss a game as making absolutely no sense. Although a game may look arbitrary at first glance, a sustained analysis of that game will eventually reveal some logic providing the game structure and direction. All embracing our initial impressions would do is justify our desire to avoid that kind of engagement with a game we don’t believe deserves it. Captain ED is the one exception to this rule. The wild disorientation one feels as they play this game is so forceful and so thoroughly enmeshed in the game’s design that one cannot ignore this point when discussing the game. Furthermore, its profound resistance to fitting any clear meanings make it hard to determine what one is supposed to do with these feelings. Unlike so many of the other games I write about, there’s a real possibility that there is no logic underpinning Captain ED, and that its construction is as arbitrary as it initially seems.
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.
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.
In playing Mitsume ga Tooru, I didn’t intend to write a response to what I’d written last week. Swords & Soldiers II draws heavily from trends in the 2015 indie space, like tower defense and classic game design. Mitsume ga Tooru, besides existing alongside the classic games Swords & Soldiers II draws inspiration from, is a Natsume adaptation of an obscure Osamu Tezuka manga, and it only lightly draws from contemporary design trends. Any overlap between these two games would have to be slight, at best.
There’s probably a cognitive bias at work behind this sentiment, but a lot of the time when I look back on older video games, I’m reminded of how little the culture around them has changed. Take Lenar Co. and their 1986 release Bird Week. Judging by their body of work (a paltry six releases across ten years), it’s likely the team got their start as part of the hobbyist boom that hit Japan in the 70s and 80s. In other words, they share a lot in common with the indie boom video games went through around 2008. Their works never strayed too far from commercial video game genres, but they were never content to stay completely within those bounds, either. Lenar would introduce a new mechanic that changed the focus of play, or inflect existing ones differently, all in an effort to see just how far they could stretch these familiar concepts. Bird Week, as the team’s first project, best exemplifies this approach. It shows us how easily the concepts we take for granted in games can be inflected to mean something different, but also how liable such inflections are to lapse back into their original meanings.
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.
Rollergames is a more confusing, more ambiguous game than it initially lets on. That confusion doesn’t stem from its rendition of beat em up tropes through a roller derby lens. If anything, that’s the easiest part of the game to understand. What’s more difficult to understand is what the game hopes to achieve through that combination. Everything the game does situates itself in this fuzzy space between reality and fantasy, performance and competition, borrowing what it needs from each to realize its unexpectedly appropriate vision. Although the game blends these categories for some other purpose beyond aesthetic pleasure or celebration of the things it remixes (although these are certainly part of what it does), the effects of these creative decisions defy simple judgment.
Musashi no Ken serves as the perfect contrast to last week’s Runbow. Both are minor games that represent dominant design trends of their respective eras. Runbow, like a lot of modern indie games, ostensibly sought to emulate classical games from the 80s and 90s, but its preoccupation with techniques and game enthusiast sensibilities about what makes a game good resulted in a mess of a game.
The irony of this is that those older games became classics in part because they were unconcerned with appealing to that specific demographic. They clung tightly to the same principles Runbow used, to be sure, but even today, their expressive power remains strong. They were able to communicate a lot with very little, and even if they stuck to the same set of moods in practice (heroism, campy fun, etc.), they would convey those moods in a subtle but effective fashion. should go without saying that Musashi no Ken isn’t all that different from its peers. If Runbow represents the worst case scenario for by-the-book game design, then Musashi no Ken at least demonstrates how to put that kind of game design to good use.