Kingdom Hearts: or, Why Bill Watterson Was Wrong

Bill Watterson is akin to a cartooning god for many people of my generation. His comic strip, Calvin & Hobbes, is justifiably considered one of the greatest achievements in his medium. It had wit, a deft touch of whimsy, and social commentary that still rings true to this day. It also mechanically changed how a Sunday comic strip could be drawn/displayed. The hermit-like artist, through his comic strip, sparked the imaginations of a generation of kids while indirectly making himself an anchor for Generation Y’s youth.

He was also wrong about a lot of things. Comic books can be stupid, but that doesn’t mean he’s not hypocritical for disparaging an entire medium (which is more a less a brother to his own) by blaming the content for the delivery mechanism. It’s also naive to want one’s art to reach as broad an audience as possible while remaining anonymous. This is no knock against his creation, of course, but rather a reminder to my fellows that Watterson was a man rather than a prophet

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Why We Write

We are the video game generation and these are our stories.

We are not the book nerds that came of age in the 1960s, who feasted on Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land, and the newly discoverd Lord of the Rings. We have read those books. We love those books. But they are not the stories that shaped us.

We are not the movie nerds that came of age in the 1980s, who packed the cinemas to see Raiders, and Blade Runner, and Back to the Future, and The Empire Strikes Back. We have seen those movies. We love those movies. But they are not the stories that shaped us.

We are the game nerds. Super Mario Bros. 3 was my Return of the Jedi. Metal Gear Solid was my Die Hard. Final Fantasy was my Lord of the Rings. I read those games. I love those games. They are the stories that shaped me.

A video game is the best story medium that there is. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the receiver of the story is injected directly into the narrative. You are the hero of these stories. Rather than watch Frodo climb Mount Doom, YOU must scale Death Mountain. YOU must kill the Warlock Lord. YOU must be a bad enough dude to save the President.

The avatars live or die by your intervention. When you pick up a controller, unlike when you open a book or sit down in the theater, the ending has not yet been written. More likely than not, the hero of the story will meet an untimely demise, and it will be your fault. Isn’t it all the more satisfying when it is your own victory, not just the character’s? I think about the tension that flowed out of my body, my hair fell flat and blood rushed into my thigh and my white-knuckled grip on my pistol slackened, the first time I shot Wild Dog in the original TIME CRISIS. No movie gun fight has ever invested me as much as circling that rooftop fountain with Mr. Shades&Duster, trading shots.

The other reason video games are the superior story medium is the dual narrative of player experience and story experience that all video games have. Each game has its story. Save the princess. Kill the aliens. Stop the mad scientist. Each game has scripted events and/or cutscenes to advance this narrative. It may be totally linear, it may be choose-your-own-adventure, it may be sandbox, but there are a fixed number of paths the story can take. That’s story experience.

Story experience is great, but it’s not what makes games a unique artistic medium. That’s player experience. Ever pull off a crazy stunt or outrun a fleet of cop cars in a Grand Theft Auto game? Ever experience a really intense mission in Counterstrike, where you were the last living person on your team and you singlehandedly eliminated a dozen opponents? Ever overcome seemingly insurmountable odds in a real-time strategy game, either through guile or sheer determination? Ever gotten lost in World of Warcraft? That’s player experience. It’s the stories we tell our friends at school or work the next day, the crazy thing you did in the game that only you have done in the game. It’s as much a narrative as story experience, but player narratives are unique to the individual players. I am reminded of my playthrough of VVVVVV, when I spent ninety minutes on a bus from New York to Boston struggling to get the last secret token, fighting and slogging to train my muscle memory to input the correct commands to pass the gauntlet. It was exhausting, but when I had achieved victory, I had not just the story, but a cherished memory of a personal experience that straddled the virtual and the real world. These memories of play experience are certainly nostalgia fuel, but they, along with story experience, like the best films, novels, television, theater, and poetry, are worthy of literary analysis.

When I write fiction, I draw upon the great literary moments in games. I don’t think about the Red Baron, I think about Star Wolf. I don’t think about the Phantom of the Opera, I think about the octopus at the opera. I don’t think about John Carter and King Arthur and Captain Aubrey. I think about Mario and Link and Colonel Blair. I’ve never understood why people shy away from literary criticism of games. Every game tells a story. Even Pac-Man, simple though it may seem, is a metaphor about the human condition. You run frantically through a rat maze, gobbling up as much meaningless crap as you can. All the while a ghost is chasing you.

Games are poetry. That’s why I write, to appreciate the adventures they took me on when I was small. In many ways, I think what Steele and Jesse have tried to do with pixelthèque is appreciate the adventure, the player experience – that pillar of game narrative. I’m excited to share my own analysis, memories, and appreciation of this aspect of the gamer’s narrative.

Nice Shooting Captain

The most succinct description of Captain Skyhawk is probably that it was for people who thought Marble Madness would have been better if only you were flying a jet from Top Gun.

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Dragon’s Lair: A Place in History

One of the most interesting aspects of art is how it can serve as commentary “after the fact.” That is, it can speak for itself at the time and then gain additional meaning as the context of its place in history becomes fixed. Casablanca is a great film not just because it had a great script, but because it is a film about Nazis produced and released before the climax of World War II. It’s easy for us to look back and see how Rick and Ilsa will probably survive the conflict, but imagine the true anxiety that audiences must have felt on their behalf with VE Day still over two years away. The film, like so many others in so many other contexts, survives because it has resisted any possible attempt to pigeonhole it. Its meaning changes every year and for everyone who watches it.

The same can be said for Dragon’s Lair. Though Dirk the Daring’s quest to rescue Daphne from the clutches of the dragon, Singe, seems rather quaint compared to the hundred-hour epics of today, it is impossible to overstate its importance to the growth of its medium. One could write a book on all of its pros and cons, but I’ll stick with just three for now…

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Biomes and the Blue Bomber

There is no question that Mega Man is one of the most iconic characters in the history of video games, deserving of a place in the highest echelon, alongside Mario, Link, and Sonic the NoLongerRelevant. His quiet and heroic demeanor, slick blue suit, and awesome weapon acquisition method all contribute to his status as the very best.

The structure of Mega Man games pretty much remains unchanged from the first installment – Mega Man fights his way through a series of stages in any order, defeating Robot Masters and taking their powers, then battles the evil Dr. Wily across multi-level final dungeon (WITH AWESOME MUSIC), and saving the day. It’s a comforting and familiar formula, like Pringles “potato chips;” they all look the same, taste the same, and when you finish one, you immediately want another.

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Trapped in space warped by someone

I was the oldest kid in my family growing up. There was me, my brother, and my two step-brothers around frequently, along with a plethora of step-cousins that I saw far more often than any of my extended blood relations. Being the oldest of the kids that were around, I occasionally found myself annoyed when I was playing a game and one of the little cousins interfered.

This is a problem that pretty much everyone who has played video games in the presence of children has experienced. You want to sit down and get a game in, but your friend’s six-year-old brother or whatever wants to play. There is maybe some crying and complaining to parents and an order to let the kid play. You are resentful as you hand the controller over, so you go and stew on it, then you grow up to cynically complain about it on the internet.

*ahem* Pardon me, I digress.

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Asteroids: Shooting Meteors and Contemplating Life

Gaming is flush with titles that are impossible to beat. I don’t mean so-hard-that-they-appear-impossible, or games with glitches that prevent anyone from seeing an endscreen (if there ever was one). I mean games that are ACTUALLY impossible to beat: they are/were designed so that nobody could truly defeat them.

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Let the carnage begin!

I have written extensively about music in my life, although for the most part it has been about what I listened to after I began to grow up. Most people have a point where they start to make choices for themselves as far as what art they want to consume. For me, that time was right around age 12, and I did it harder than a lot of people do. I sort of unilaterally decided that my parents’ music sucked and started making choices for myself. The first music I bought for myself? Pearl Jam’s Ten. On cassette.

Sometimes I feel kind of old.

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Way of the Samurai: Beyond Good and Evil (Not the game)

Every game is about choice, but some games are more about choice than others. BioWare, among other developers, has built their reputation on allowing gamers to (somewhat) choose the path to follow throughout their titles. Other games, even as simple as the most basic of edutational titles, put the gamer in the driver’s seat. It’s the principal difference between video games and other methods of narrative: technology allows for interactivity in narrative.

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