About Matt

Matt London is a writer who has no fewer than three escape plans should the zombies take Manhattan.

Metal Gear Read: An Analysis of the Metal Gear Franchise

Part 1: Analysis

A serpent falls from the sky, and where he lands, the story begins. So it is with Metal Gear, the first in a long line of tactical espionage action games by famed Japanese designer Hideo Kojima. Much has been made of the Metal Gear franchise, from its innovative gameplay, to its verbosity, to its affection for 1980s action movies, but there has never been a true literary analysis of the games and their ties to the greatest epic poems in any language.

Until now.

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Ico: The Language of Love and the Language of Dreams

The first time I fell in love, I remember having a lot of dreams. Some were the tame fantasies of boyhood, but for the most part, they were fairy tale inspired epics, a twist on the narratives of classic fairy tales, with us standing in for the leading players. Disney had done a good job on me, I guess. But falling in love is very much like a fantasy quest. There is a call to adventure, when you first meet your beloved, there is a pursuit, and complications, and then victory and jubilation (or defeat and self-improvement and reflection).

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The Tale of Tetris

Remember how I said that I wanted to write about video game stories? It may not seem like Tetris is the kind of game that I would gravitate towards, seeing as how there isn’t much of an arc to the stories of S-shape, I-shape, and L-shape. But sometimes the most compelling story isn’t the one in the game itself. It’s in the creation of the game, and the player’s experience of playing the game. Today I’d like to talk about two dreamers, who hoped big, got beaten down, but rose up, and eventually triumphed. The first is Alexey Pajitnov, the creator of Tetris, and the other is me.

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Shadowgate, Nintendo Adventure Books, and Reading the Game

“The last thing that you remember is standing before the wizard Lakmir as he waved his hands.”

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Gun.Smoke and the Western Canon

This is an article about discovery. Or rather, it’s about how you can set out to study something, and end up on a totally different path. Writing is a lot like scientific research that way. Often, a side effect of some experiment becomes more important than what you set out to study. In my case, I was totally pumped to talk to you about Gun.Smoke. It’s a classic scroll shooter from Capcom (are you sensing a theme here)? In the game, you are a lone bounty hunter who sets out to eliminate the Wingates, a gang of ruthless outlaws, and save the town of Hicksville. The game’s title and premise may bring to mind memories of the classic radio serial and television series of the same name. The television series ran for twenty seasons, and is often lauded as one of the greatest television shows of all time. As usual, in preparation for this article, I did some reasearch on the show. That’s when things got weird.

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Hal Bailman and the Living Space Base

I’m fresh back from my brother’s wedding, so I’ve been thinking a lot this week about some of the games that we played together when we were small. Indeed, a lot of my early video game meories are tied to my big bro, and although each of these really could deserve their own pixelthèque post, I’ll run down a few of them here. Brian had a friend who “borrowed” DuckTales for the NES and took two years to return it. It was worth the wait, but I must have bugged my brother weekly about why he wouldn’t get my game back (it was his game). There were the times when he would scream at me for cheating at Duck Hunt by sticking the tip of my light gun against the television screen, and then moments later order me to bang my fists on the back buttons of the Power Pad while he ran the races in World Class Track Meet. I remember sitting on the family futon in the living room of our old old old house when he came running in with the box containing our first toaster loading Nintendo Entertainment System, and started this whole mess. Thinking about some of the dates here, and doing the math, it’s probably one of my earliest memories. He says he remembers me forcing him to beat every dungeon in my save game of The Legend of Zelda in order to keep up with his save game, but I can neither confirm nor deny this happening. I remember sitting on the floor of his bedroom for two hours holding down the right arrow on the D-Pad so that he could have super jump all the way through Mega Man 3. And I remember the babysitter who brought over Super Mario Bros. 3, and let us both play, and the anticipation and the wonder being greater than anything I had experienced at that point. There are others, but maybe none so fond as when we used to stay up late in the bed we shared and go through the Nintendo Power Final Fantasy strategy guide and plan out every weapon we’d buy, every spell we’d learn, and where we would grind. Thanks for those memories, GaGa.

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Beat ‘Em Up

You don’t see too many arcades anymore. Most are flagging dinosaurs, nostalgia fuel, or on fire. These days, the best arcades are made of cardboard. But there was a time when arcades were the place to go if you wanted to get your gamer on. They were the land of giants, sleek and sexy arenas where women wore evening dresses and men took their martinis shaken, not stirred.

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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.

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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