Touchscreen Shamanism and The Act of World Creation at Your Fingertips

Touchscreen Shamanism

Pokémon fans have been clamoring for an MMO based off their favorite franchise for years. Whether or not that would actually work in practice is best left to another discussion, but the fact is that fans may finally get their wish, in an indirect sort of way.

The app that will make that dream become a mostly-reality is called Pokémon GO. For those who haven’t heard about it, Pokémon GO is an augmented reality app that will let players find, share, and battle their digital companions directly from their phones and with others in public.

The trailer:

The announcement of Pokémon GO surprised me a little, since Nintendo isn’t exactly known for being up to current generation standards with regard to their home gaming consoles, let alone with current social media trends (they tend to be the type of company that defines trends, though, and saying they’re completely clueless perhaps gives them too little credit for popularizing technologies like gyro controls for gaming controllers). It’s not directly made by Nintendo, though, since The Pokémon Company is collaborating with a former Google startup named Niantic that is best known for another augmented reality game called Ingress, which places players directly in the midst of a government conspiracy that they must uncover through cooperation with other nearby players in real-time.

At first, it seems like there isn’t much different about Pokémon GO than a regular Pokémon game. You’re still sharing monsters with one another, battling them, finding them out in the wild. The big selling point that Pokémon GO’s creators are pushing is that you’ll be able to find Pokémon in your immediate world, underneath a bridge or out in an open field. Now as far as I know, there’s no footage of the actual interface that Pokémon GO will use, so it’s difficult to make judgment calls about just what the app will offer to the world of gaming or the world of digital interactivity in general. But I would like to make a few initial observations on what augmented reality does for contemporary human cultures, and how it helps us realize desires we’ve always had but are quickly becoming aware of in the 21st century.

Terms like The Internet of Things (a digital climate in which entities are labeled with unique identifiers and constantly access and upload information to one another without requiring human-to-human and human-to-computer interaction, mediated by monitoring technologies like heart rate sensors and the like) and Fourth Platform Computing (which uses the aforementioned sensors to track and pool data from digital communities to create shared, evolving social networks and knowledge bases) are thrown around quite a bit in computing circles, but there are a few things crucial to understanding those frameworks that will define how we will stay interconnected, cultivate those connections, and become more aware of those eternal connections in the coming years.

The first of these is empowerment through embodiment. Let’s use Pokémon GO as an example. As I mentioned previously, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between playing Pokémon GO and regular old Pokémon. But what Pokémon GO does for users through augmented reality is place them directly in the role of the intrepid Pokémon hunter/trainer. Users no longer have to turn their Nintendo DS on and immerse themselves in a world clearly demarcated from his or her own to build their Pokémon collection. The chance event of finding a Pidgeot in a bush, or a Snorlax on a bridge is directly integrated with the perceived real world, a fixture in the daily flow of life. Pokémon GO users can then directly share the fruits of their conquest with others in their immediate vicinity, who they may or may not know personally. Of course, players don’t have to literally tussle with said pocket monsters in the dirt of their backyard. Nor is public sharing a new idea, either, especially not to Nintendo (who has used it on their handhelds for a while now). But it’s that immediacy, the potential for an unexpected catch on your way to work, that ups the level of embodiment as a Pokémon trainer for players. In short, making the act of hunting Pokémon a part of daily life naturalizes the virtual activity and blurs the boundaries between the two.

This leads us to another aspect of augmented reality that is incredibly important for us to understand as consumers of digital media that illuminates the blurred boundaries between humans and their artificial creations. Augmented reality apps like Pokémon GO allow players to partake in an evolving world not too far from their own, one that they can shape with their own hands, and one that they share with others who also possesses the vision to peer into this alternate reality space that runs concurrent with and affects what we normally perceive as reality. Games have always provided us with creative spaces for individual or community interpretation, but the closeness to the real world that an augmented reality app provides makes that geogenesis more tangible than ever before.

As for the subject of Pokémon itself? It’s a new form of nostalgia. Many of the people who will be playing Pokémon GO are likely those who grew up playing the game for the past ten years or so, and this app will be the evolution of their childhood memories that, like their owners, have grown up and adapted to a dynamic world with them. Never doubt the power of recursivity, for it allows us to gain new identities and become beholden to the identities of a group that shares our pasts. Which, to many, is security.

So perhaps we can see augmented reality as a new form of security. A digital sanctuary embedded in the everyday. Augmented reality doesn’t just spruce up our ordinary lives by peppering them with beloved cartoon companions. It directly involves us with the creation of new communities and worlds that previously lay just beyond our own. It provides us with the vision to peer beyond what we take for granted and to discover new realms, new dimensions. Metaphorically, it lets us discover these cartoon worlds. In reality, the cartoon worlds guide us to the realization that we, as humans, have always shared bonds across time and space with one another, and that we have the power to shape those webs of connections with our own subjective creativity. Augmented reality allows us to become our own shaman, traversing between and blending worlds with others in a grand act of generation. Operating in augmented space is a life-affirming act, as it forces us to acknowledge what we are and are not – our nostalgic pasts, and our non-Pokémon presents – through the power of representational play.

That is the source of embodiment in augmented reality. Security and power through alternate realities. And who said that video games were mere escapism?

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This does, of course, raise questions about how augmented reality could be abused somewhere down the line. Will it be possible to fabricate conspiracies and falsehoods that, through like a digital snake oil, will convince less-perceptive or desperate users of a secret knowledge that only they possess? Will technologies become advanced enough to distort reality even for the keenest of us? Real concerns, sure, but perhaps augmented reality will take on forms that we cannot even anticipate in the near future.

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More will become clear as Nintendo reveals just how Pokémon GO will work. I doubt crowds will gather outside Times Square to embark on weekly Mewtwo hunts, but grouping with strangers on the train through your phone to take the 151st ‘mon down will at least be an engaging activity as you pull into work.

And who knows. Maybe we really all will gather in multiplexes to defeat digitized monsters together in the near future, for the safety of our favorite digital worlds and of our own in the so-called ‘real’ present.

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Temporal Thaumaturgy: Pasts and Presents Enmeshed Through Retrogaming

Disclaimer: This article was originally an essay I wrote for a game design course at UC Santa Cruz this past Spring. I’m transcribing it here for future purposes, as the ideas it contains forms the bedrock for some of my current views on our relationships with technology and how we embody ourselves in and through those technologies in our rather chaotic world.

Also, posting this essay will let me see how far my writing skills have progressed a few years down the line.

There’s a word in here that I use a lot. That word is subjectivity. It’s a darling word for a lot of 21st century anthropologists, and it basically means someone’s identity plus all of their personal opinions, modes of thought, and interpretations of cultural elements that are mixed up in that identity and inform how that person shapes him or herself in response to various stimuli. Looking back on my writing from the past two years or so, it’s really quite an annoying word to see used so many times. But it’s the best word for describing nostalgic entities, in this case, so I’m just going to have to deal with it for now.

For the purposes of this essay, imagine ‘subjectivity’ to mean the spirit of an individual human being who played video games growing up as a child and still plays them to this day.

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If any phenomenon can be described as having established a permanent foothold in the video game development industry, it would be retrogaming. Retrogaming is a nebulous term for the constellation of video game genre or game-playing actions that involves games that either imitate the logics and stylistic conventions of games made before the turn of the 21st century,or that encompasses the act of playing games from past time periods themselves. One only need take a glance at digital game distribution marketplaces like the Steam Market to notice that many of these games reference early platformers or shoot-em-ups in their desgins. Many of these retro-styled games fall into the genre of the “metroidvania,” games which take inspiration from Nintendo’s Metroid series and Koji Igarashi’s Castlevania games, starting with Symphony of the Night. They are best defined as “‘side scrolling action-adventures with a [sic] obstacles in a continuous map that you can surmount only after finding the requisite items and backtracking'” (Nutt). What then, players might wonder, accounts for the metroidvania’s massive popularity,and why do they seem to be inextricably tied to retro-style thematic formats? The answers to this question may lie in the fact that both the metroidvania genre and retrogaming evoke what cultural theorist Katie King terms “pastpresents.” Pastpresents operate along multiple temporalities: “‘The past and the present cannot be purified from the other; they confront me with interruptions, obstacles, new/old forms of organization, bridges, shifts in direction, spinning dynamics'” (Haraway 292). Retrogaming and the exploration-heavy metroidvania genre − and the nostalgia that these entities produce − remind us that “the past, present, and future are all very much knotted into one another [… They are the] world-making processes of intra-action and agential realism” (292).

Retro-thematics and exploratory video gaming genres like the metroidvania, as a result, can be viewed as life-affirming forces; they draw upon past knowledges of gaming spaces and their rules and meld them with present knowledges to create new, bolstered subjectivities in their players. To analyze the mechanisms through which metroidvanias and retro games produce pastpresents, I will examine three metroidvania games: Super Metroid, Cave Story, and Axiom Verge.

I will also apply two game design frameworks to elucidate the mechanisms that evoke pastpresents: Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek’s MDA (Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics) framework, and Ian Bogost’s Procedural Rhetoric framework. The MDA framework argues that gameplay experiences can be seen as a flow between Mechanics to Dynamics to Aesthetics (M > D > A). Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek define each term:

Mechanics describes the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation and algorithms.
Dynamics describes the run-time behavior of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each others’ outputs over time. Aesthetics describes the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when she interacts with the game system.” (Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek 2)

Procedural Rhetoric, meanwhile, is “the practice of authoring arguments through processes” such as a game’s “rules of behavior” or its “dynamic models” (Bogost 28-29). How players interpret a game’s rules is, of course, subjective. But typically, these rules can be employed in a way to open up doors for further thinking about social, psychological, or existential issues.

Super Metroid:

Released in 1994 on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Metroid is the third installment in Nintendo’s Metroid series. Though far from the first exploration-based platformer game, Super Metroid‘s spatial scope (two-dimensional rooms, each of which represent various environs, link together via doorways and passageways to form a colossal map) and its capacity for player interpretation set a standard that future exploration-based games would follow for years to come.

Super Metroid thrusts players into the role of Samus Aran, a female armor-clad bounty hunter in search of a parasitic lifeform called a Metroid that, if it fell into the wrong hands, could pose an unfathomable threat to other life forms in the galaxy. This is the extent of Super Metroid‘s narrative, which is outlined via text after the game’s introductory level. The majority of the game takes place on the planet Zebes, whose caverns and ancient ruins Samus explores in her search for the baby Metroid. After the game’s introductory sequence, Samus’ spaceship descends to Zebes’ surface, and the bounty hunter itself emerges from its interior. The player is immediately able to control Samus, and he or she finds that Samus’ arsenal is rather sparse: she is only able to fire a weak laser beam, run, and jump. Zebes’ sheer size is initially intimidating; its rooms never seem to end, and the player is given glimpses of items and passageways nestled in the environment that will upgrade Samus’ meager arsenal. Upgrades are often barred off from the player. These ‘teaser’ items suggest to the player that he or she will eventually reach these items, but only with specific upgrades found alter in the game. They plant visions of future achievement in the player’s mind, and observant players will make physical or mental notes of certain areas with inaccessible items that he or she will return to at a later time.

As the player explores Zebes’ corridors and defeats alien foes, he or she discovers unique tools. These tools range from upgrades to Samus’ arm cannon that allow her to fire more powerful laser beams, to grappling hooks that allow her to traverse long stretches of dangerous territory, to the ability to run at superhuman speeds or launch herself like a rocket through impenetrable blocks. The player also discovers new regions that are connected to each other via transition rooms, each of which possesses a discrete name: Brinstar, Tourian, Maridia, Norfair, etc. Players may return to these areas to use their newfound tools on old obstacles, such as when the player finds he or she is unable to reach a ledge with a missile on it in the Brinstar area, only to be able to reach it later when Samus acquires the Hi-Jump Boots in the Norfair region.

In one infamous puzzle, the player finds him or herself running through a transparent glass tube that bridges the Brinstar and Norfair regions. The area occupied by the glass tube itself is called Maridia, but there seems to be no clear way to access the waterlogged region. The player obtains an item called the Power Bomb later in the game, and he or she may recall the fragile-looking tube that sealed off the aquatic world. With no other areas to explore, the player may travel back to the tube and use a Power Bomb to break the glass, working off the pre-established knowledge that certain blocks in Super Metroid can be broken with Bombs and Power Bombs. Upon the Power Bomb’s detonation, the glass will shatter, and the Maridia region will literally burst into view for players to explore.

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The Maridia tube, before and after being shattered by a Power Bomb. (Source: http://theworldissquare.com/review-la-mulana/)

Super Metroid invites its players to experiment with learned knowledges about how its world works, and then asks them to test the game’s logics to obtain further upgrades that will aid them in their quest. This experimentation entails the rediscovery of familiar locations; players learn to view planet Zebes’ ruins through new perspectives to discover ancient secrets long buried by its previous inhabitants. One item in particular − the X-Ray Scope − allows players to scan environments for hidden blocks and upgrades. A literal new perspective on the game’s rules, if anything!

Obtaining upgrades empowers the player with new tools to reinterpret Zebes’ locales. Mobility tools like the Shinespark allow players to traverse previously-tedious rooms in one swoop, and the Ice Beam allows the player to use formerly-pesky enemies as platforms (or to simply turn them into sitting ducks). These upgrades, as well as the experimental logics that connect these items across the game space, make the desolate world of Zebes feel vibrant and fertile with creative potential, waiting to be tapped by a curious player. Super Metroid‘s labyrinths feel intertwined by reinterpreted logics as a result, connecting past and present knowledges via the acquisition of new gaming logics in a process similar to that recursive phenomenon called nostalgia.

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The player uses the X-Ray Scope item to scan the environment. The scope’s beam reveals a passageway that was previously hidden from the player’s vision underneath seemingly-solid blocks.
(Source: http://2-dimensions.com/2014/01/29/the-anatomy-of-super-metroid-9-hidden-depths/)

If we follow the MDA framework, we can condense Super Metroid‘s performative appeal into a simple process:

Mechanics: The player collects items that provide upgrades to his or her arsenal, which are either displayed in plain sight or are hidden away behind concealed passageways or within the environment itself. The player must use the tools he or she acquires from defeating bosses and exploring rooms to break the blocks and surpass the obstacles that prevent access to these upgrades.

Dynamics: When players obtain a new tool, they may revisit older rooms that previously held clues to obtaining upgrades. By calling upon memory, players can experiment with their newfound tools to access said upgrades or to move through previously-tedious rooms in quicker ways.

Aesthetics: Players see old environments and old hazards in a new light when their experimentation succeeds. Because even the game’s starting areas may hide upgrades that require tools found late in the game, Super Metroid‘s world feels woven together by new and old subjectivities. The act of re-exploring old areas and interacting them from new, empowered perspectives ties past and present knowledges together, and makes Super Metroid‘s world feel as if it were teeming with life.

Super Metroid may have played a significant role in laying the foundations for exploratory game genres, but other games (specifically, those in Konami’s Castlevania series) contributed other elements as well. However, it is beyond the scope of this essay to provide a detailed breakdown on the history of the metroidvania. I will instead examine two games that follow in Super Metroid’s stead to elicit feelings of pastpresent nostalgia.

Doukutsu Monogatari/Cave Story:

Cave Story is a freeware solo project made by Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya for the personal computer. Pixel developed Cave Story over the course of five years in his spare time, releasing the game in 2004. It is an homage to his favorite childhood games, which include the Metroid series. The fact that Pixel developed the game by himself is why Cave Story is often considered to be the catalyst that inspired the metroidvania trend within independent game development.

Similar to Super Metroid, the player is placed in Cave Story‘s world with little prior explanation and with little weaponry (in fact, the player is completely unarmed and must find the first gun in another part of the map). The player controls Quote, a mute amnesiac who initially appears to be a human boy but is later revealed to be a robot. As the player traverses Cave Story‘s locales, he or she will uncover fragments of a fairy tale-like plot involving robots, magic, and an ancient conflict between humans and the rabbit-like residents of the game’s Laputa-esque floating island setting called Mimigas.

Cave Story‘s regions are accessible via a teleporter in the game’s central hub. Within these regions, players obtain new weapons and piece together the floating island’s tragic past by speaking with various non-playable characters and interacting with background objects. While Cave Story encourages its players to explore each region’s nooks and crannies for character upgrades, it playfully reworks conventions of the exploratory platformer genre to produce new pastpresent knowledge.

Items that upgrade Quote’s vitality,ammo capacity,and weapon strength are often placed in hard-to-reach or hidden locations. Sometimes, like Super Metroid, these items can only be obtained after obtaining tools found later in the game. But Cave Story twists the kleptomaniacal tendencies bred by Super Metroid‘s exploration logics. Consider the following chain of events that occurs partway through the game’s story:

In the game’s third zone, the player may spot a door tucked away on a ledge that Quote cannot reach by jumping. Recalling enhancements like Super Metroid‘s Hi-Jump Boots, the player may believe that he or she will come across an item that improves Quote’s vertical mobility.And indeed they do. In the next room, the body of a friendly scientist named Professor Booster falls from the top of the screen. Interacting with the body causes the professor to give Quote a jetpack. If the player accepts the professor’s gift, Quote will receive the jetpack and Booster will die. The player can then access the room he or she saw in the previous room and receive an item called the Arms Brace that makes Quote lose less weapon experience when he gets hit. The jetpack also lets Quote easily traverse the next few rooms and the next boss fight.

After fighting said boss, Quote drowns in a body of water. Quote’s companion who joined

the boss fight, a female robot named Curly,will sacrifice herself by giving Quote her air tank, allowing him to survive while she dies.

However, the player may later find – by refusing to help Booster, or by browsing online discussion forums or wikis – that it is possible to save both the professor and Curly by choosing to ignore the Booster’s body and skipping the jetpack. Doing so will prevent the player from immediately obtaining the Arms Brace in the previous room and will make navigating the next few rooms more difficult, but will allow the player to perform the following actions:

− Save Professor Booster
− Acquire a more powerful jetpack later on
− Acquire the game’s most powerful gun
− Save Curly by examining a shining sparkle on the floor of the boss room to obtain a tow

rope, which can be used to drag Curly to safety after the fight (the tow rope occupies the same inventory slot as the jetpack)

− Access the game’s final dungeon, which triggers the game’s most satisfying ending upon completion.

Cave Story asks its players to reconsider their urges to explore the game’s environment. Does the player want to abandon the possibility of a happy ending by obtaining an item that will provide an immediate benefit? Does the player wish to exercise patience and ignore a potentially-moral decision so that he or she may obtain a better item from that character later? What choices will make an impact on the story at a later point?

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The player spies a secret passageway (marked by the gray block with the star pattern) that cannot be reached by normal jumping. The Booster (jetpack) item will allow Quote to make the jump, but acquiring the Booster at this point in the game means locking more powerful items later on. Interestingly enough, the player can ‘damage boost’ off the purple enemy as it jumps at a precise moment, using the momentum from taking damage to reach the ledge as the enemy rises up in the air. Considering the enemy’s proximity to the ledge, perhaps Pixel intended players to draw upon their knowledge of how platformer physics work to reach the ledge? Other games, like Plok, also make use of this reinterpreted platformer knowledge. (Source: Author)

This cluster of player choices draws from those found in role-playing games (players may recall, for instance, certain treasure chests in Final Fantasy VI that contain weak healing items in the first half of the game. If left alone, these same chests will contain far more powerful elixirs when the player revisits them in the game’s second half). Cave Story cultivates temporal strength by bending exploration logics and blending them with those found in other video game genres. Its story, for example, is revealed through dialogue boxes containing text, which are often accompanied by Yes or No dialogue trees that produce different effects in the game world. At other times, Quote must perform fetch quests for certain characters to progress the story, exploring the environment for items to give to NPCs in exchange for other items. Along with the potentially game-changing decisions Cave Story asks of its players, the player is encouraged to examine objects in the environment in a revelatory progression that resembles the traditional storytelling elements often found in traditional RPGs. A bed of wilted red flowers found early in the game, for example, offer no explanation as to their significance and leave the player questioning how they will play into the story later. Mimiga characters express fear over the flowers, but never explain their significance. At a later point in the game, the purpose of the red flowers is revealed: they are a mutagen that transform the Mimiga into fearsome brutes, a state that cannot be reversed. The Mimiga used them to protect their homeland from encroaching humans in an earlier war, but now the (apparent) antagonist wishes to mutate the remaining Mimiga and use them to terrorize the Earth below.This revelation strikes at the player’s emotional cords when, moments later, the apparent antagonists transform an innocent Mimiga into a frenzied version of herself, whom Quote must kill to progress.

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Quote is presented with the option to flee the floating island. Choosing “Yes” triggers the game’s most negative ending. Choosing “No” allows the player to continue Quote’s journey.
(Source: http://smg.photobucket.com/user/professorscissors/media/LPCS/CaveStory590.png.html)

Cave Story‘s combat mechanics evoke the dynamics and aesthetics of video game genres outside of the metroidvania. While Quote’s guns fire projectiles that resemble those found in games like the Metroid, Blaster Master, and Contra series, they can “level up” into more powerful versions of themselves when the player collects “experience” triangles. These weapons can also “level down” when Quote is damaged by an enemy. This leveling mechanic hearkens back to arcade shoot-em-up games like the Gradius series, which feature collectible power-ups that can enhance the player’s firepower, as well as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, in which players can level up their characters by defeating monsters. Unlike much of Super Metroid‘s combat, which usually pits Samus against an enemy or two at a time, Cave Story‘s fights often involve Quote blasting apart hordes of enemies in a chaotic frenzy of lasers and floating item pickups, again resembling combat found in shoot-em-up games.

Cave Story‘s visuals and audio, meanwhile, occupy another pocket in the pastpresent dimensional space Pixel wishes to evoke through his game. The game’s environments and characters all take on a low-fidelity, pixelated appearance that evokes the 8-bit and 16-bit platformer games of both Pixel’s and his 2004 audience’s youth. Yet these blocky visuals are smoothly animated; Quote’s jumps float and hang in the air, and while each character often only possesses a few frames of animation, each one moves through Cave Story‘s environments with a a weight and fluidity that can only be described as palpable. The game’s sounds are likewise robust. A heavy object or enemy falling to the ground makes a resounding, bassy thud, and the enemy itself often flattens for several frames before popping back up again in a squish-and-stretch animation sequence that makes the enemy feel full of life. Characters and enemies themselves often take on disarming, vacant-eyed appearances reminiscent of chibi or super deformed visual styles, yet are embroiled in life-or-death situations. The game’s soundtrack employs a whimsical, yet sometimes melancholy tone, evoking a longing for a long-forgotten past buried somewhere within the floating island’s labyrinths. And when players press the down key to explore Cave Story‘s environments, Quote visibly turns his head towards the background while a question mark appears above his head. This minor detail implies a degree of both the character and the player’s lateral integration into the game world, an aesthetic unexplored by many other games in the metroidvania genre.

The end result is a rich gaming experience that draws upon a multitude of gaming genres from the player’s (presumed, in 2004) past. Cave Story is a mixture of conventions spanning multiple games, reinterpreted through the lens of animation techniques more advanced than those of the games Pixel references. Mechanics associated with the RPG genre elicit new dynamic modes of exploring and re-exploring familiar environments, and hectic combat combined with more linear playing spaces eases some of the exploratory burden shouldered by players in Metroid games. Both of these dynamics lead to new exploratory aesthetics, encouraging the player to experiment with navigating dialogue branches across multiple playthroughs. Moreover, Pixel invites his players to reconsider their perceived exploratory logics while they play in his world. He encourages players to experiment with their decisions over multiple playthroughs, gaining new perspectives on Quote’s journey each time. It is as if the video game genre that Pixel evokes have grown up with the player over time, and have become more complex alongside their players. This linking of pastpresent subjectivities lies at the heart of nostalgic gaming, and it likely accounts for why many speak fondly of Cave Story to this day.

Axiom Verge:
Like Cave Story, Axiom Verge is a solo project, released in 2015 by developer Thomas Happ. Also an homage to older sidescroller run-and-gun games like the Metroid and Contra series, Axiom Verge‘s dystopian world adopts a more traditional approach to reworking metroidvania convention. Its visual and audio elements hearken back to the platforming genre’s first-generation days; the game’s sprites and visceral organic environments resemble those found in games like Natsume’s Abadox while working with a wide gradient of color palettes to produce richly-textured landscapes, and its music and sound effects reference chiptune pieces with more robust sounds layered over them for additional depth, as if the memories of one’s own digital youth have become more complex and more organically-bound to one’s own being over time.

The player controls a lone scientist named Trace, who has been transported to a world named Sudra, which is composed of overgrown viscera blended with ancient steel and stone ruins. The player controls Trace’s movement and defeats grotesque aliens to obtain new items, revisits old areas to find additional upgrades, and traverses Sudra’s caverns to uncover what happened to its previous inhabitants and who he really is in the grand scheme of things. Axiom Verge superficially adheres so closely to the traditional Metroid formula, in fact, that its inclusion in this essay might seem redundant. That would be the case if it not for Happ’s clever reconfiguration of the pastpresents that nostalgic games like metroidvanias evoke.

Axiom Verge’s environments take on a biopunk aesthetic: flesh, veins, and other assorted guts intertwine themselves with inorganic structures, while enemies explode into showers of pixelated blood when they die. Glitched graphics, meanwhile, sprawl over portions of these environments in patches, emitting volatile crackles and pops. As Trace uncovers more of Sudra’s past through the planet’s artificial intelligences and through various written notes tucked away in Sudra’s halls, the player pieces together a pastpresent narrative: a Sudra scientist once discovered that multiple dimensions exist in the universe, tied together along one ley line that connects these various worlds through an anomaly called The Breach. The Breach manifests as glitched space, and is said to be the result of the universe patching up its loose ends as the gateways to other worlds are opened. Opening the Breach threatened Sudra’s stability,and eventually lead to its demise. The scientist who discovered The Breach was ostracized by Earth’s scientific community, but using his newfound nether powers, he mutated the planet’s inhabitants and environments into the present monstrosities. That scientist, as it turns out, was Trace himself in another timeline. It is now his duty to discover the greater implications of The Breach’s existence − as well as his own role in shaping the pathways that link past to present in the known universe.

Early on in Axiom Verge, Trace acquires a tool called the Axiom Address. This upgrade allows Trace to literally reshape the environment by bathing enemies and tiles in a beam that alters the affected object’s properties. Fearsome enemies may become immobile, nearly-harmless blocks of corrupted graphics, and passages that previously blocked Trace’s progress open up new avenues for exploring Sudra’s environments. Though not a sandbox game, Axiom Verge gives players the illusion of being able to break and reshape its own rules, as well as those of the metroidvania genre in general. Pulsating flesh becomes mutable, exposed as a mirage that hides an underlying, universal logic packed with creative potential; a forbidding landscape bends to the player’s will and gives him or her new new ways of understanding the world that threatens to engulf Trace within the capillaries of time.

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Trace encounters a portion of The Breach which is found early in the game. Though impassable then, Trace can now use an Address Bomb (Axiom Verge’s analogue to Super Metroid’s Power Bomb) found much later in the game to clear the Breach area. The player is free to explore the room beyond, and enemies within the room are transformed into glitched graphics and behave in different ways than their un-glitched counterparts. (Source: Author)

Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek’s MDA framework cannot fully account for the generation of pastpresent aesthetics through a game’s visual or stylistic elements. For this reason, Bogost’s model of procedural rhetoric is more appropriate to tackle Axiom Verge‘s imbrication of past and present subjectivities. Axiom Verge allows its players to distort its seemingly-familiar Metroid-style world. These actions imply that the physical, organic world is malleable, one of infinite possibilities, and that players hold the tools necessary to expose, rework, and meld together its underlying logics.

Axiom Verge thus subverts the mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics established by earlier metroidvania titles through its rhetorical elements. The mechanic of changing blocks and into new forms may seem like a passing thought in a game like Super Metroid, where tiles are explicitly marked with symbols resembling missiles and bombs to indicate that they can be broken by these weapons. But in Axiom Verge‘s world, the Axiom Address becomes a new form of bodily empowerment in that it literally allows the player to reinterpret the environment into an immediately-useful form (use, in this case, meaning defeating enemies or acquiring upgrades; a dynamic arises in which players are encouraged to experiment with the Axiom Address’ numerous and often-surprising effects on different enemy types and environmental objects). The resulting aesthetic is one of rediscovery, both of the metroidvania genre’s conventional logics and of the player’s own past in playing Metroid and similar games. The Axiom Address abides by a notion discussed by Anthropologist Dr. Donna Haraway in her book When Species Meet: “technologies are not mediations [… but are rather] organs” that engender an “‘infolding of the flesh'” (Haraway 249). New forms of embodiment created by inhabiting new subjectivities are “ongoing, dynamic, situated, and historical” (294) and reveal that “things [human concepts of past and present selves] are material, specific, non-self-identical, and semiotically active” as well as “compound” (250). When Trace adds new tools and upgrades to his organic arm gun, we are reminded that we constantly seek “combinations of other things to magnify power [… and] to engage the world” through “diverse agents of interpretation” (250).

Altering the seemingly-rigid boundaries of flesh and bone through glitch space in Axiom Verge reminds us that humans possess the capacity to dispel our perceived gap between our past and present selves. Past and present – pastpresent – is an organic state of being, constantly open to reinterpretation by new subjectivities that span time and space. Retrogaming becomes a space of undefined, potential possibility, one where we can revisit our past knowledges, bring them into the present, and affirm ourselves as evolving beings.

This point is perhaps no clearer than when a player respawns from death in Axiom Verge. Trace emerges from a mechanical egg that supposedly restructures his base elements from scratch to form new beings. Unlike Super Metroid, the player retains the upgrades or portions of the map that he or she uncovered in the previous life. With newfound knowledge, Trace continues onward with his quest of self-discovery.

By examining retro-styled games within the MDA and Procedural Rhetoric frameworks, we discover that the forces that produce feelings of nostalgia intertwine themselves with the stylistic themes and gameplay mechanics of retro-styled games, especially those of the so-dubbed metroidvania genre. Metroidvanias allow their players to uncover and reinterpret portions of the game world by linking regions visited earlier in the game to tools and gameplay mechanics found later on. As a result, these games produce linked temporalities between the player’s knowledge in the past and in the present moment. Despite their often-derelict appearances, metroidvania worlds often feel vibrant and ever-evolving as new perspectives emerge from their derelict landscapes. The playing of a retro-styled game calls upon these same forces to fuse a player’s past knowledge of exploration video games with new perspectives on certain genre, and this coming together of past and present selves becomes a life-affirming act.

However, gameplay experiences in both the past and the present are highly subjective. One player’s cherished childhood memories of exploring Zebes’ dusty caverns or sprinting through Dracula’s massive castles may differ drastically from another player who saw exploring these worlds as tedious or intimidating. Yet another player might ignore the exploration aspects altogether and play these games for the fastest times possible, or that player may memorize each item’s location so that they can grab every upgrade and beat the game in the shortest time possible. Still other players may attempt to find glitches and bugs in these worlds that allow them to access items and areas in a different order than the developers had intended (the “missile on the ledge” mentioned in the Super Metroid section, for example, can be acquired earlier than intended through precise use of the wall jump technique). For this reason, I contend the MDA framework’s suggestion that “games are more like artifacts than media” (Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek 2). The notion that “the content of a game is its behavior – not the media that streams out of it towards the player” is rather shortsighted when we realize that video games are not static conduits through which players channel their knowledge of video game spaces. They are more akin to organs, whose interpretive boundaries are constantly reshaped and reworked over space and time, almost like an octopus that alters its color and form as it cruises the sea floor in search of prey (2).

This essay offers to open some additional doors with regards to future game design. What kinds of pastpresent subjectivities can new games draw upon to construct different nostalgic experiences in their players, or implant new ones that players hadn’t felt before? Why do two-dimensional platformers and exploration games like ‘metroidvanias’ hold so much purchase in retrogaming, and why have developers not taken heed of other respected structural formulas like those offered by games like Secret of Mana, Equinox, or Actraiser? How might these nostalgic pastpresents visit by geographical region, based on the games to which general audiences were exposed? In this light, video games may seem to be “‘the richest allegorical vehicle’ for describing the ‘system’ we presently live in” (Saldívar 155) because they allow us to stitch together knowledges and subjectivities across time and space in a postmodern age – where our own personal selfhoods feel dispersed over the mediating technologies within which we are entangled (i.e., the Internet). But they make us question to what extent we ‘need’ nostalgia to  feel connected to others and to ourselves, and what kinds of storytelling conventions might emerge from the fusion of our hazy pasts and presents.

Works Cited
1. Nutt, Christian. “The Undying Allure of the Metroidvania.” Gamasutra. N.p., 13 Feb. 2015. Web.
2. Haraway,Donna Jeanne. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2008. Print.
3. Hunicke, Robin, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubeck. “Game-Based Approach for Network Routing Applications.” Game Theory Applications in Network Design (2014): 205-43. Web.
4. Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2007. Print.
5. Saldívar, José David. Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies. Berkeley: U of California, 1997. Print.

A lesson in dissection, of the messy and emergent kind

cranky

We all like to be Cranky sometimes.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here. 

Now that I have a small window of free time, and since that small window is rapidly closing as we speak, I might as well give some voice to some core ideas I’ve been experimenting with for the past three months or so. New conduits through which I can channel my thoughts – in this case, the role of the puppet in video game play and the formation of communities around games – help me shape and reshape how I view the media I play, and I welcome these opportunities with open arms. Even if they take the form of nebulous video game reviews that straddle the boundary between reasoned complaint and response baiting directed at angry fans.

The article I’m referring to is Michael Thomson of Forbes Magazine’s review of Dark Souls II, which has propelled itself through the Internet grapevine thanks to its inflammatory title “Is Dark Souls II The Worst Game Ever Made?” Of course not, we say to ourselves. One only need to look at the throne of shovelware garbage atop which the NES sits, for example, to remind ourselves that there are definitely worse things out there than the latest installment in a notoriously-difficult series that is also known for rewarding careful manipulation of in-game rules to achieve success and personal gratification (most of the time). But I’m not here to refute Mr. Thomson’s opinion of a video game. After wading through his mire of figurative puffery, one schlorping step at a time, I’m here to discuss two misconceptions in his argument, two that I feel must be examined not just within the context of his review but as relevant to what it means to play a game itself. I’ll pick out chunks and display them below so you don’t have to go hunting them down, mostly because I want to save the reader the time and effort of having to dissect his muddled prose. Then I’ll expand upon their general conceits.

Part I: Puppetry

Let’s first take a look at Thomson’s experiences with the drudgery of learning the game:

The first time I played the game it took me 90 hours to finish, and the last time I ran through it took me around three hours, having learned every hidden trick and obscure mathematical relation it hid beneath its combat puppetry against horned demons and scorpion pyromancers with pornografied breasts.

[…]

There is no intuitive logic to these rules as they are broken down across a constantly shifting chart of variables. They cannot be intuited or thought through without empirical labor, switching back and forth between menus, equipping and unequipping weapons, moving points around, committing materials toward upgrading one piece of equipment while only guessing as to whether the time, currency, and scarce alloys used to strengthen it are being wasted on something suboptimal. And even once all these variously opaque systems have been uncovered, scored into one’s unconscious memory somewhere between instinct and avarice, they suddenly stop working as they had hours earlier. The rule undoes itself as soon as you’ve learned it.

[…]

It’s the worst and least ethical form of play, taking the naturally constrained single encounters of Chess or Go into the heart of an infinity spiral rotating out from the center of a box of microprocessors built out of a grand network of exploitive labor practices around the world, creating a transfixing hallucination sublimely disassociated from the networks of labor required to produce it.

[…]

It was only play when we were being punished for failing to precisely comply with an invisible set of rules communicated through a rosetta of numbers, glyphs, and fragmented fictions. There’s nothing produced, nothing furthered, nothing questioned, nothing intimated–there are only commands, and the community they call into being, each wrestling with the system’s inflexibility in the most personal way possible.

Here, Thomson explicates the basic relationship between player and game content. When learning a game, players maneuver the hallways of game rules and mechanics. They experiment with the engine physics and calculate the interactions between sets of numerical values, which form the basis of taking damage from a monster, dealing damage to an opponent, how the coordinates of a “hitbox” interact with those of a “hurtbox” to trigger a reaction within the game’s code that manifests on-screen as ‘taking damage,’ etc. They might also explore the ways in which certain dialogue paths are chosen, or they might equip certain articles of equipment to achieve maximum efficiency in beating the game. Likewise, they may do so to simply derive maximum personal enjoyment from seeing their character dressed in pretty clothes. Thomson labels these relationships an “infinity spiral,” and though I won’t touch upon the second half of that third paragraph due to it reeking of emotional bait, I do wish to discuss the notion of puppetry in the game world. 

Thomson seems to have an issue with the “empirical process” of experimenting with the “invisible” rules set forth by a game’s developer. In turn, he seems to have a problem with video games in general. He argues that the act of digital puppetry – of controlling a self-defined character in the gamespace through physical controller – acts as a kind of facade, a folly that conceals meaningless code. Yet folly is in the very nature of puppetry. Puppetry is nothing more than the interaction with physical (or virtual) rules to instill a symbolic figure, whether it be a physical puppet or an on-screen avatar, with personal meanings, associations, and symbols as a kind of muse through which the player can situate themselves within the world of the story being told. In turn, the player is able to reflect on the symbols he or she attaches to that avatar and confront their own desires, their own methods of solving problems, and other ways in which they deal with day to day living on a cultural level. 

When you play a game, you willingly submit yourself to illusion, representation, rich cultural symbols and antecedents that stand in for reality and conceal the handiwork of stick, string, and code beneath the puppeteer’s medium. This is the inherent entertainment of puppetry: allowing yourself to be deceived by a lack of “intuitive logic” so that you may recognize and rethink the symbols contained wherein. The collection of data that makes up a game is pointless, after all, until the player applies his own meanings to it. Giving life to the puppet world takes place through kinesthetic interaction with controller which, in turn, elicits reactions within the game code, the results of which are displayed on-screen. So I am unsure how Dark Souls II is any different from every single other video game in that regard. 

What determines a game’s quality, rather, is how it conceals that folly. Does it refute it by creating a photorealistic world filled with rich lore and structure (Thomson’s strongest point is that he cannot situate himself within the game world of Dark Souls II because its backstory is apparently incoherent)? Does it evoke associations with our childhood by presenting an intentionally-crude artstyle like the claymation of Doug TenNaple’s The Neverhood or like the recent trend of independently-produced video games that adopt 8-bit aesthetics? What contexts are being created out of those symbols by the players? After all, the player must give his creations love and life in order to fully enjoy the gameplay experience, and it is when a game fails to encourage the player to do so through how it presents the game world and its rules that it truly fails. Which brings me to my next point:

Part II: Community

Thomson complains that “One is never safe [in DS2], and one can never trust the particular splinter of skill one’s mastered, always conscious of how many other possible splinters there are left to study.” As a response to these fractal splinters, players form communities to share their own experiences and methods for circumventing or solving these “splinters” of player progression.

The game’s vagaries were so successful in triggering a masochistic cycle of obsession that a large community of players formed around it, sharing secrets and walk-throughs of advance copies imported from Japan, helping one another with the labor of unwrapping the game’s opaque systems. What did the “poise” category do, for instance? What was the difference between a counter hit and a critical hit? What does it mean when a weapon says it has “B” scaling with Dexterity? Why does the rate of bonuses derived from scaling suddenly seem to stop after a certain threshold?

[…]

On the contrary, it would be worse, horrible, stupid, mendacious complexity, maximally toxic in its newness, each torturously undiscovered secret and statistical twist energizing the swarm of play workers eager to find friendship and community in demonstrating their worth with game achievement and documentation.

[…]

Dark Souls II encourages a kind of amazed storytelling about how it was one managed to survive. The game is so large and hostile to the player’s presence every moment feels like a precursor to some cruel twist or miraculous delivery from unexpected doom that could merit retelling. Victories and discovery only become meaningful to an audience who knows how much work must be put into them, and so these player tales are implicitly clouded by the unspoken murk of failure and defeat. This structure of play is ideally matched with a culture of emotionally and socially isolated individuals—still primarily men—who rush toward non-intimate prompts for social exchange, creating the impression of a community without requiring any reciprocal vulnerability nor emotional obligation.

“Maximally toxic in its newness” aside, we see here that Thomson dislikes the idea of communities forming around games. He sees discussion groups as a form of self-posturing, a way to display badges of pride for having conquered a coalescence of script and code that manifest as something players label as “hard.” They are a way for players to enact personal dramas where they can receive much-needed sympathy from others and are, as Thomson seems to suggest, a gross and selfish way of bonding with other fellow humans through tales of suffering and strife.

This view of gaming communities is maximally ignorant. It debases the generative aspects of forming community. Because Thomson’s argument grounds itself in portraying players as “play workers eager to find friendship and community in demonstrating their worth with game achievement and documentation,” it in turn suggests that the formation of community in itself is a gross and selfish act. Gaming communities are instead arenas for self-situation in relation to the imposed puppet world of the video game. Sharing tips and tricks among fellow puppeteers, so to speak is a mutual form of interaction in which one player says to another “We speak the same language, how do you interpret this part of the game?” By mutually sharing one’s personal examination of how to manipulate the in-game puppetry, players form group identity that helps define themselves as members of sharing the past (in the frozen state of the game world) brought into the present (between other players). As such, it allows players to track their own personal growth in learning how to play a game, or how to perform the puppetry of the game in a way unique to themselves by using self-found exploits in the game code. When a player sees the fruits of their efforts manifest as approval or recognition from others, he or she feels gratified. Likewise, when a player is insulted or criticized for using a sub-optimal method for beating the game, the player may strive to find a better method, learn another’s method, attempt to prove why his or her method is viable, and so on.

Peer-to-peer discussion plays a pivotal role in constructing competitive gaming communities. Speedrunners play the same game and perform the same actions thousands of times over and over, day in and day out. Rote repetition is central to why Thomson sees Dark Souls II as “the worst game”; to him, Dark Souls II seems to be an endless slog through worlds lacking textual roughage. But once again, a game’s quality lies in how it conceals, subverts, or transforms repetition into a meaningful activity. Speedrunners are constantly seeking out new interpretations of how to perform their on-screen puppetry by discovering new techniques used to cut down on the time taken to beat a game. Doing so often requires a player to spend countless hours performing those same actions in each play session, or may prompt them to dig even further into the game by using programs to view how many hits it takes to defeat a boss, how a certain glitch works, how big a bosses’ attack is, etc. Fighting game players use the same on-screen avatars in every match on the same stage or selection of stages over the course of ten years or more, yet they do not grow bored of the game because the dynamic of multiple players performing acts of ‘meaningless’ puppetry takes on new and emergent forms with each playsession. 

When these methods of puppetry are shared with fellow players, it lends that game texture. The game gains a new set of symbols associated with its being; it becomes more active, bustling, and alive. Like how a good novel or film carries with it the numerous interpretations given to it by the literary or cinema community over the years, good games carry with them the strategies, exploits, notable players, and more that give them a rich presence in the minds of players. In essence, the games adopt a face. They might even be said to become living, though abstract, beings in the minds of players, if we are to take Latourian metaphysics into account. Such a transformative process is leagues beyond a simple commiseration between hovels of masochistic, pathetic human beings, as Thomson states. It is a confluence of individual meanings through shared victories and deafeats as players search for ways to place themselves within the world of the game that gives it body.

This is not to say that video games are purely textual, for that is an outdated notion that hearkens back to the primordial soup of video game analysis. But both texts and video games operate under similar rules, and we can draw very basic parallels between the two.

If anything, Mr. Thomson’s article can be seen as a case study in the traps that arise when studying video games, where a reviewer may search for “psychoanalytic backdrops” in a game’s characters where there is none, and thus may become disappointed with a game. Whether Thomson intended for his article to be satirical or not is up to the reader, because I frankly don’t care. It’s not relevant to how we can draw the most positive meanings out of his prolix behemoth. 

Or maybe I do care, just a little bit. But not enough to fall for whatever traps he has set up in that mélange for unwary readers.

Remember that my article here is not intended to review Dark Souls II, nor is it intended to prove why Mr. Thomson’s opinions might be ‘wrong.’ I have not played the game myself yet, and likely won’t any time soon due to a combination of busy schedule and potato-powered computer. Rather, I am contending a few kernels of cynical misinformation embedded within this morass of clever prose and misdirection which bears an appropriately-simplistic title. I feel that these kernels of misinformation must be exposed, scrutinized, squelched, and ultimately be hung in front of the proverbial city gates if we as game players are to ever see video games as more than just playthings, as just bodies containing text without performative or self-situating significance. In its simplest form, my brief and admittedly-reductive analysis of a pool of nothing is intended to warn readers of the pitfalls of Thomson’s argument (if there is one beyond “this is a bad game”) and how they diminish the role of the video game in how we form relationships with the technologies we produce and experience in day-to-day life.

The Problem with Ports

ImageThe player’s hapless tank/metal slug in the clutches of Metal Slug 3’s final boss, Rootmars.

Earlier today, a friend linked me this page:

http://store.steampowered.com/app/250180

As it turns out, Metal Slug 3 is finally coming to Steam (it had been in the registry since last year, so it wasn’t a complete surprise). Those who grew up in the last 10-30 years might fondly remember the Metal Slug series a prime quarter muncher, inhabiting bowling alleys, family pizza joints, arcades, Mexican neighborhood laundromats, and countless other locales even to this day. It’s one of the most – if not THE most – well-known Neo Geo titles behind Puzzle Bobble/Bust-a-Move, and to not have at least seen it once while growing up in the United States would raise a few eyebrows among anyone who spent any amount of times wasting weekly allowances on those darn video games. Metal Slug 3 is often regarded as the best (and sometimes the hardest, which is an accomplishment considering how unforgiving the games are) in the series, so its re-re-re-release to the PC audience should come as a pleasant reminder of days gone by.

Except that the PC audience already has other ways of playing the game.

One bit of tech that PCs have over consoles is access to emulators. By booting up the ROM image of a specific game on a program that emulates the desired console or platform, a user can play it for free. Other users hack ROMs to alter the base game to fit their own desires or to find out more about the underlying game mechanics, known as, well, ROM hacking. MAME, which emulates arcade games ranging from the CPSes to Neo Geo games and just about anything else, is widely considered to be the best in its field. This means emulating closest to the original framerates of the games they play. For people new to emulation, “obtaining” ROMs lies in a very muddy legal territory, so you’re on your own for that. Keep in mind that I’m not decrying emulation, it’s just necessary to be knowledgable about the gray areas of doing so.

With that aside, a quick look at that Steam store page states that both SNK and a company called DotEmu are developing it. I hadn’t heard of DotEmu until today, but looking at their official website and their Wikipedia page shows that they are a French porting company mostly known for their phone games.

Digging a bit deeper, DotEmu also ported a collection of the Raiden series of SHMUPs (shoot-em-ups, like Galaga) to the PC. It can be found here at GOG. A quote in the comments section caught my eye:

“When PC gamers have the option of playing these games for free via MAME, the developer really needed to go the extra mile to make this an attractive purchase.”

Something dawned on me. This is the biggest issue with arcade game ports that have been cropping up recently, with Iron Galaxy’s ports of games like Street Fighter 3: third Strike, Vampire Savior, and DnD: Shadow Over Mystara among them. MAME is already an excellent emulator; what can SNK and these porting companies offer to outdo a free (and highly suspect) service that replicates gaming experiences more accurately than anything else out there? Therefore, game developers need to be able to offer better services than what emulators already offer. These include

• Better netcode. Playing by yourself is alright, but killing and dying to hordes of aliens with a friend is even better. You don’t want shaky connection to mess with that. MAME does have online capabilities, but including online play right out of the proverbial box would be a lot more intuitive for the average player.

• A better UI. For some reason, a lot of recent ports have worse interfaces. Capcom’s recent JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure PS3/XBOX360 port comes to mind. It’s also a sloppy port in general that’s not even accurate to the original game mechanics, but that’s another topic entirely.

• Scripting capabilities.

And probably many more features I can’t think of at the moment. For now, these could serve as  very basic guidelines for future PC porting projects. To me, it’s something for big companies to keep in mind when attempting to reach out to a new audience. Sure, you might rope in a few nostalgics who are unaware of emulation. But emulation is no underground service, and anyone who has access to the Internet has access to it. To reel in the rest, developers must think of how they can offer a better (and it doesn’t have to be a much bigger) product to catch the eye of the emulation scene.

The Mysterious Online Men

It’s the dawn of a new year, the crossing of a threshold into increasingly-complex interconnected states of being that we like to call the Internet. And to christen the new year, I suppose I’ll write a little piece on that very subject, because I haven’t done that in a while. Actually I’ve had those bits and pieces of unrefined material floating about and just now am bothering to refine them. So here goes.

A couple weeks back I read a well-written article by writer and poet Margaret Atwood on the then-recent links between NSA snooping and MMOs like Second Life and World of Warcraft.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/21/opinio…ef=opinion

Though Atwood’s style may come off as self-important at times, she nonetheless makes a sound – and chilling – conclusion. Her point is relevant to patterns cropping up in the media more and more frequently: the merging of physical and virtual consciousnesses to create a new, synthetic identity over which we (or we would like to) have complete control. It’s a classic cyberpunk theme coming to fruition, and that’s no doubt recognized by plenty of writers, theorists, scholars, and paranoids alike. Her Poe analogy was also apt. I don’t know, I just really liked it.

I chuckled a little about how she keeps using NPCs as hypothetical guises for NSA spies. Nothing wrong with that, especially since it sounds less  than trying to spoof the name of a theoretical player, and as a writer who specializes in this field she knows that. 80% of her readers probably don’t even know what an NPC is, anyway.

Two questions arose within me while reading this article and I haven’t seen these addressed in much detail anywhere, if at all:

  1. If anything, did the NSA spies actually recover information regarding threatening activities or malicious groups? If their haul came up dry, they’re not looking hard enough (obviously). There’s plenty, perhaps even more, shady activity going on in older games since they’re largely forgotten by the majority of mainstream video game players. They’re homes to the most dedicated players, those who have likely been there since the beginning. Because comparatively less people are going to bumble around in their virtual homes, Doom servers and the like make for useful arenas for promoting someone’s music pirating service, or something worse. I actually saw exactly that just a few months ago; a friend of mine from GGPO was playing on a Doom server and the owner of this organization was advertising his cause (as well as playing any song you requested on demand into the mic). Now that’s not to justify the actions of the NSA, nor to restrict shady activity to those darker, dustier corners of the web. And who knows, maybe there are plenty of spies snooping around those places too. But sometimes, answers aren’t in plain sight after all.
  2. I want to know how many spies played elves. No, really. I’m curious about whether spies were able to choose their avatars, or if they were assigned specific avatars. Then I want to know if they were specifically assigned certain classes and races to achieve certain ends. Were many unassuming Humans and Dwarves/Orcs and Forsaken? Did many use female elves to wheedle information out of players (a ploy worthy of detective fiction)? “Sanders, you’re playing a Gnome. And don’t give me any of that whining, this is your job, and if you want to make a living I’d suggest shutting up and playing your Gnome.” I mostly just find this interesting from a standpoint of how people choose to represent themselves in virtual fantasy spaces, and government agents should be no exception.

After a quick search, it seems that the NSA’s efforts were unfruitful. Which lends credence to my first point.
Also, Orcs haven’t been loathesome since Warcraft 2! That’s the main reason why I like Warcraft Orcs. They’re not barbaric when compared to the “nobler” races, they just have a different worldview. But that’s a topic for another conversation.

Re-enchantment in Capcom’s “Darkstalkers”

The early to mid-1990s were an era of experimentation in the genre of fighting games. As the popularity of successive iterations of Street Fighter 2 and its rival King of Fighters series gained steam in arcades across the world, various companies sought to emulate their success, churning out games with quirkier gimmicks and aesthetics in an effort to outdo the last with progenitors Capcom and SNK at the forefront. Despite these attempts, relatively few remain in the hearts of both those who grew up in this tumult and those who are new to the genre. Capcom’s Darkstalkers (Vampire in Japan) series holds a spot as one of the most cherished entries.

Arcade games are typically unsuitable mediums through which to tell a complex story due to the ‘play-and-leave’ nature of their environments. They rely on their highly-stylized characters to both draw players to the arcade cabinet and to ingrain the brand of the company who made them into the player’s memory. To stand out among rivals attempting to replicate the street fighting aesthetic of its most popular game, Capcom provided reinterpretations of familiar mythological, monster movie, and fairy tale motifs that contradicted their source materials in Vampire. Lei-Lei the Jiang Shi (Chinese Vampire) subverts cultural taboos regarding death by presenting an undead character in an acceptable, humanized form. Sasquatch the yeti occupies an organized social/tribal structure and is presented as goofy and jovial, contrary to common depictions of savage woodland ape-men. Aulbath the shapeshifting merman is the elegant former ruler of a lost kingdom with a taste for the refined rather than a mindless swamp monster who preys on women. Jedah is portrayed as a death reaper or antichrist figure who dons chic mid-90s Japanese punk attire and is more of a misguided idealist than an embodiment of evil.

Darkstalkers3HsienKoDarkstalkers3SasquatchDarkstalkers3Rikuo Jedah

Lei-Lei/Hsien-Ko, Sasquatch, Rikuo/Aulbath/Fish, Jedah. Art by Capcom designer Akiman (c.1996-1997).

Standing tall above most of the game’s cast and even enjoying popularity in unrelated spinoff games is B.B. Hood (or Bulleta in Japan), who is ironically the only human in the cast. She, like the rest of her peers, is a contradiction of motifs; in this case, a seemingly-sweet little girl who wields an arsenal of heavy weaponry stashed in her picnic basket. This combination’s appeal to adolescent males likely playing the game is obvious. It also contrasts with most scholarly approaches to interpreting the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, especially that of Bruno Bettelheim in his popular book The Uses of Enchantment. To Bettelheim, the tale is a ‘mirror’ of the prepubescent soul, wherein the child learns to overcome Oedipal tensions with his or her mother and mature.

BBH, meanwhile, uses deception to accomplish her own selfish ends – making money – which is shown through the character’s graphical animations and her dialogue. She represents an evolution of Bettelheim’s Little Red Riding Hood in that she has grown beyond the Oedipal throes of the flower picking girl and has learned to manipulate the boundaries of Bettelheim’s ambiguity, proving the mutability of fairy tale ‘mirrors’ in the process.

In the famous Grimms Brothers’ final version of the tale, Little Red Riding Hood is besought by her mother to deliver cakes to her sick grandmother. On her journey, she encounters a wolf who tricks the callow girl into giving her the location of her grandmother, who is eaten by the wolf as LRRH loses track of time picking flowers. When she finally does arrive at her grandmother’s house, LRRH is seduced by and subsequently eaten by the wolf. She is later freed by a nearby huntsman, and the three indirectly kill the wolf by filling its stomach with stones that make the wolf drown when it goes for a swim. A second episode details a much wiser LRRH who has learned the wiles of wolves and instead defeats a second wolf that attempts the same plot with the help of her grandmother. Bettelheim, in 1973, views the Grimms tale as chronicling an immature youth’s overcoming “ambivalence about whether to live by the pleasure principle or the reality principle” (Bettelheim 171). The girl in the tale learns to resolve conflicts with her mother by initially rebelling against her commands, then being symbolically reborn from father figures who eat/rescue her (the wolf and the huntsman respectively) and fulfilling an infantile Oedipal complex by coming to terms with her mother’s directives. After her incident, LRRH no longer strays from a path of duty (mature responsibilities of family obligation) to indulge in pleasure (appreciating nature). Thus, the tale acts as a spiritual mirror for children, a “symbolic [rendering] of crucial life experiences” (181) through which to negotiate and affirm these issues. Because the child’s negotiation occurs through symbol rather than overt didactic morals, they “[discover] new aspects of these tales, and this gives him the conviction that he has indeed matured in understanding […] something he partially creates for himself” (169) as they grow up. Bettelheim considers this possibility for emergent readings of the tale, but he limits his approach to one stage of self-discovery: the Oedipal. He either fails to consider the potential for reinterpretation through other creative media as having to adhere to strict guidelines set by the original tale or chooses to ignore it, instead displaying his disdain for more literal versions of LRRH.

BBH offers release from Bettelheim’s strictures through discursive features like 2D sprite animation and text. The little background behind her story is simple: BBH is a contract killer for humans who hunts demons. But unlike her hunter colleagues, she not only rebels against, but toys with Bettelheim’s notions by employing a naive exterior as a mask for her true motives.

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Faces of a murderer. Official art, concept portrait, introduction portrait, win portrait, more concept art (click image to enlarge). Unlike the rest of the cast, Bulleta curiously changed very little from conception to release. Art by Akiman (c.1996-1997). Concept art from Darkstalkers Graphic File.

In her official art by former Capcom designer Akiman, BBH gives no signs of malice and instead appears to be a carefree, innocent girl. Her match intro portrait and her win portrait both carry this same theme, in contrast with the rest of the cast’s stern or combative portraits.

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Animations for introduction, crouch, jump, time over, forward walk, and idle.

Her forward walk verges on oblivious, as she prances forward with both eyes closed and uttering a lilting “la la la.” Her backwards dash represents immaturity by facing away from the opponent, or obligation, and clutching her face in her hands with a cry of fear (not pictured). Several of her animations convey the pursuit of the pleasure principle that Bettelheim claims to represent a pre-maturity phase. BBH’s idle animation shows her smiling and standing stolidly, awkward and insecure, while butterflies flitter about her. Her crouch animation, if the player holds the down direction long enough, has BBH inspect a flower popping out of the ground while she exclaims in surprise. Her jump causes her skirt to lift in the air, which she attempts to keep down with her hands while she expresses embarrassment and could be read as a depiction of retaining sexual pre-maturity by keeping her modesty covered.

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Animations for Smile and Missile, crouching hard kick, jumping hard kick, standing hard punch, ES pursuit, and Cool Hunting.

Yet thinly veiled beneath her actions are symbols of both masculinity and maturity. Many of her attacks involve BBH using missiles, land mines, knives, and an uzi to attack her opponent, and these attacks are often accompanied by voice samples much gruffer in tone than her usual flighty voice. In opposition to her backwards dash, her forward dash shows BBH holding her gun while charging forward menacingly (not pictured). One of her super moves calls two oversized gun-toting huntsmen to blast the opponent out of the air, perhaps indicating that the paternal figures she once relied on to achieve sexual maturity now respond to her beck and call – and that now she holds the power of the hunter. Her most memorable win animation depicts a mysterious suited man giving BBH payment for fulfilling her contract and bowing, while BBH herself puffs on a cigar and expresses dissatisfaction at her payment with the line, “Koredake? Siketeru./Is this all? Small.” (“Gate to Darkness”; not pictured).  Whenever she is knocked onto the ground or receives damage, her otherwise-sweet demeanor morphs into a crazed, snaggletoothed face.

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Splash art. Click the left image for animation.

Other portrayals of her in both the game’s splash art and in official art expand on these facial expressions, making her appear savage.
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Animations for Beautiful Memory, Stumble and Blade, Apple for You (click image for animation), Sentimental Typhoon (click image for animation), normal throw, Shyness and Strike, Tell Me Why, Surprise and Hop, Cheer and Fire, being shocked. Note how Surprise and Hop depicts BBH indulging in the pleasure principle (distracted by nature; in this case, a mole). Also note how she “fills” her opponent with rocks before throwing them in the puddle in Beautiful Memory. A clever nod to the Grimms tale.

Most noteworthy are the rest of the character’s moves, which blur the boundaries between naiveté and malice. When pitted against her rival John Talbain the Werewolf, BBH displays a special winpose in which she rises from reading a book on the ground to glaring menacingly at her opponent. This is accompanied by the soundbyte “Dousite, sonnani okuti ga ookii no?/Why do you have the big mouth?” (“Gate to Darkness”), mirroring LRRH’s inquiry in the Grimms tale but with a change of tone partway through the dialogue to indicate that she possesses the insight to see through traps. BBH’s other normal attacks mask harmful actions with those of innocence, such as a kick performed while sneezing or an overhead stab with knives that looks like accidental tripping. A grab super move involves her handing the confused opponent a delicious apple, which explodes as BBH ducks out of the way. Another grab begins as a childish ring-around-the-posy style dance that turns into a violent twister, sending the opponent skyward and crashing back down to the ground. One bizarre super move embodies a conquering of Bettelheim’s mother conflict in all of five seconds. BBH lunges towards the opponent as a portrait of her (presumably) dead grandmother appears above her, begins to cry a shower of tears, then “fills” her opponent with stones before tossing the opponent into the resulting pool as she grins menacingly and wipes her hands clean. The accompanying soundbyte – which roughly translates to “Grandma… [sobbing] Ha! You’re dead!” (“Gate to Darkness”) – represents not a reconciliation with the mother figure, but that the girl does not require the mother’s guidance to conquer her Oedipal desires and defeat the wolf to mature. BBH’s picnic basket represents an agent of nourishment in the traditional variants of LRRH, yet here it is weaponized. Various moves involve her whacking the opponent with the basket, while the sprite that is shown when she is shocked reveals a collection of guns and explosives stowed in it. A bottle of wine intended to nurse Grandma back to health instead finds use as a flamethrower in BBH’s hands. Even the names of her attacks reinforce the duality between projected naivety and underlying malevolence, with names like “Shyness and Strike” and “Happy and Missile” (see below):

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Movelists from the All About Vampire Savior series of tournament records and esoterics. Sources at the bottom of the images; images themselves pulled from http://darkstalkers.wordpress.com/ (click to enlarge)

An unusual super move from the character Demitri (a vampire) involves him briefly transforming his target – into a female equivalent if male, or into a more feminized version of themselves if already female – before sucking their blood for a hefty chunk of damage and transforming the opponent back into their former selves. In a double-crossing of character, BBH is transformed into a sexualized version of herself, akin to a waitress or more popular media depictions of the LRRH character as vixen. She is also one of the few characters who resists Demitri’s violation of identity, visibly flailing her arms in an attempt to escape. This sequence alone holds special symbolic meaning in regards to BBH, as it brings the question of framing to light; transformed into the normative image of LRRH, she attempts to resist that change to assert her individuality and maturity:

03Demitri’s Midnight Bliss. “Come on, baby…”

Her ending also differs from that of the other characters’ in its art direction. Whereas the rest stay true to the game’s [whatever] aesthetic, BBH’s takes on the appearance of a twisted children’s book, telling a short story of a murderous human girl on the loose in the game’s demon world and foreshadowing the fate of an unfortunate family of monsters whose front gate is occupied by BBH (below):

Delving into BBH’s similar depictions in other Capcom games is possible, but even a cursory glance over her original Vampire Savior appearance is enough to indicate that BBH no longer wallows in Bettelheim’s premature ambiguity. BBH has mastered ambiguity. Moreover, she has become ambiguity, dancing a thin line between whimsy and chaos to defeat her opponents. She is an avatar of not only sexual maturity, but of warped maturity, an embodiment of succeeding Bettelheim’s Oedipal trials and twisting it into something even more grotesque. She has been “reborn,” but not according to the didactic strictures of the fairy tale and instead having chosen to manipulate those lessons to fulfill the pleasure principle.

The question arises, then, of the character’s appeal to modern audiences. I believe that BBH as a character stands out to adolescent and post-adolescent minds playing the game because she has ‘grown up’ with her audience, who no longer needs sexual guidance in the tale of an undeveloped girl. I am not disputing Bettelheim’s notion of a ‘spiritual mirror’ for its readers (though certainly not its only function), nor the notion that it is a pliable medium whose reflection changes with its audience. I stress that despite these claims, Bettelheim restricts himself to just one version of this mirror, one locked in the child’s pre-pubescent phase. As the child matures, they discover that contradictions and complexities abound in their surroundings, and thus, BBH is an affirmation of the ambiguity that dominates the post-childhood world. She rebels against the rigid norms set forth by the Grimms and Mother Goose classics, reshapes them, and presents them in a new light, much to the delight of an audience searching for new and refreshing perspectives on the development of sexuality and of individuality.

This brief study examines the character from a purely literary perspective. It also opens the study of the character to using the theories of video game analysis. Bridging the gap between the realms of the literary and the virtual is the notion that in a video game, the player applies his or her own notions of self to the game world through the medium of controller/monitor/scripted code, which is then acted out in the game world as a distinct expression of self. To my knowledge, this has not been applied directly to competitive gaming. The way a player controls his character, for example, could represent how they channel aggression or reflect certain philosophies on approaching competition. We can use BBH as a gateway. Though I will not go into detail here on the specifics, this character’s tools allow both a measured and aggressive style of play, true to the character’s dual personality. Below is a well-known match starring one of Vampire Savior’s most renowned players, Sako, who wields BBH like a knife:

How his usage of the character reflects his philosophies of competition, expands on the character’s functions as a mirror, or other underlying factors would require another study. But we can deduce that even in the most bare bones narratives, video game characters are not exempt from the scrutiny of psychological analysis. I hope to see this subject expanded upon as the growing arena of video game studies takes shape.

Addendum – This is certainly not the first time Little Red Riding Hood has wielded a gun in popular media. Roald Dahl wrote on the same subject in his Revolting Rhymes (1982):

The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.
A few weeks later, in the wood,
I came across Miss Riding Hood.
But what a change! No cloak of red,
No silly hood upon her head.
She said, “Hello, and do please note
My lovely furry wolfskin coat.”

http://ace.home.xs4all.nl/Literaria/Txt-Dahl.html

And, evident here, neither is Bulleta the originator of the gun toting, motif bending Riding Hood.

References

  1. Bettelheim , Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment. 1976. Print.
  2. Darkstalkers Graphic File. I don’t have the book with me at the moment, so no proper citation for the time being.
  3. http://emu.flashwing.net/picture0423/vsavj/index.htm (sprite rips)
  4. “This is the Darkstalkers say while fighting in Vampire Saviour.. [sic]The Gate to Darkness. N.p., n. d. (unofficial translations) http://www.yuzuriha.sakura.ne.jp/~akikan/honyaku.html
  5. http://darkstalkers.wordpress.com/
    (move names)