There’s a scene fairly early on in the 2011 animated film, Chico & Rita, in which the main characters embrace each other in the early morning after a night of making love. It is not a sexy scene, at least not in the traditional sense of Hollywood sex. There’s no conquering, no victory. When Rita embraces Chico from behind as he plays the piano, both are naked and vulnerable. It is a scene of true intimacy, made even more powerful by the fact that this is an animated movie: such things should not appear in “children’s media.” It is a shock because it is a moment that most human beings experience at some point in their lives reflected in an abstract way. Shocking, no?
Let’s be frank: bad games abound in this industry. It wouldn’t be imprudent to say that most titles that come out are poor creations meant solely to win a buck and not advance games as an art form or a mode of entertainment. The mountains of mini-game collections for the Wii, the endless hack-n-slash ripoffs that come out for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, and even the computer titles that–even though some are decent–are shipped broken, requiring patches to fix. There’s a lot of bad stuff out there, and for the casual gamer, it can be quite daunting.
This shouldn’t get anyone down down. Having an art form buried underneath a pile of schlock is the hallmark of Hollywood, the music industry, and television. It means that the mainstream has finally discovered video games as a means of telling a story, for better or worse. Which means, indirectly, bigger budgets, bigger stakes, and more advanced titles, which translates into more scrutiny and better storytelling.
Most people remember Phalanx for its cover: an old man playing a banjo next to his dog while a spaceship flies by in the night sky overhead. What the banjo player and his hound had to do with a fairly typical space shooter has left laymen and scholars alike arguing for the past fourteen years. The hypothesis that most people work under: it was a clever ad campaign to get people talking about an otherwise unremarkable game. We’re still talking about it almost a decade and a half later, aren’t we?
Innocence has been explored as a concept in video games since storytelling methods became advanced enough to utilize themes. This is not just limited to the ability of youth overcoming evil (Ristar, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, etc.), but the destructive force created by the loss of innocence. Secret of Mana, Panzer Dragoon, Astal, and dozens of other titles have shown that capable hands can use the medium to express the power and sadness inherent in the transition from childhood to adolescence.
Ico takes this to another level entirely. Not simply content to utilize age-old motifs and themes (burgeoning sexuality as seen in the character of Yorda, the dark magic inherent in child sacrifice), it plays on the themes of simplicity with regards to gaming itself. This is a game simple enough for a child to play, to understand, to interact with… but one that does not reveal its darkness in full until the gamer has already become enmeshed in the story and mechanics.
Warning: This essay contains a few spoilers.
What is the nature of power? Is it the ability to destroy? The ability to create? The ability to choose? The ability to protect? The ability to lead? Is it ultimate freedom, or is it by its very nature a contract with society?
Jade Empire, Bioware’s 2003 Action-RPG for the Xbox, asks these questions as the player fights his/her way through a 50-hour odyssey of magic, martial arts, and mystery. Utilizing an East Asian aesthetic (principally derived from Chinese mythology and Wuxia) in an action-packed, modern tale of fantasy (from a Western perspective), it forges a modern synthesis that meditates on the nature of achievement in life.
Double Dragon is a lot of things. It’s an 80’s style beat-um-up. It’s one of the earliest examples of two-player co-op. It’s the most successful game ever released by the Taito Corporation. It’s a reason sibling-on-sibling violence increased in 1987, due to the ability to beat your own co-player (this may be a joke; maybe).
What it is not is a single title. This is not in reference to the sequels, but the original game itself. Originally an arcade title, DD has since been translated onto no less than twenty consoles and operating systems. Almost every single one of them—by the very nature of the platform’s limitations—looked and played much differently. The NES even changes the main antagonist and gets rid of the co-op. How can this possibly be considered the same game as the arcade version?
Playing Final Fantasy VI some eighteen years after it was released is akin to reading Don Quixote in English: you can tell both that it’s a masterpiece and that something is missing in the context. The rapid development of video game tech hasn’t tarnished any of FFVI’s shining narrative, of course. It is still a tale of horror, wonder, wit, and hope. Yet even as I played through it for the first time—ever—I could see that I was going to have to dig deep to really get at the importance of the title. Something was speaking to me, I just didn’t know what.
What was it that kept me away from it for all these years? Why buy it now (aside from the fact that it is going for eight bucks on the Wii Store)? Why am I so enraged by its random battles yet so drawn to the game? Is it just the narrative or is it something more?
Kirby’s Dream Land is not a difficult game. It’s not supposed to be. It is a basic platformer that uses the Game Boy’s limited output to its best abilities to teach the basics to gamers unfamiliar with gaming, handheld or otherwise. Your one weapon: the ability to suck up enemies and blow them back out. You must use two buttons, a d-pad, and reflexes to cross a surrealistic trip to save food from an anthropomorphic penguin king. It’s silly, but it’s fun.
Licensed games have been a bit sketchy since time immemorial. These are titles that are directly licensed from popular franchises, typically rushed to production, and (seemingly) used for no other purpose than to deprive unwary gamers (or gift-buyers) of their money. No need to bring up examples; any gamer aware of the breadth of the medium’s history understands this.
The typical licensed game takes something that is close to a fan’s heart and neuters it. Replace a fun story with bored storytelling. Take a narrative suited to its medium and cram it onto a disc. Spend more on advertising than on the game itself. It’s enough to give any fan an allergic reaction to anything near a licensed title. The bottom-line (and deadline) usually trump loving care, as they so often do even with non-licensed games, except that when a non-licensed game flops there are no uber-fans to leap to the forums, their keyboards of fury ablaze with righteous indignation.
People were decrying the influence of video games on popular culture way before Mortal Kombat came onto the scene. Arcades were time-(and money-)wasters. Tetris rotted your brain. Portable gaming systems destroyed kids’ patience (or tried that of their parents, really). If you’re a gamer who grew up in the ’80s, you know what I’m talking about.
These were just the typical portents of the doom of civilization through technology that proved to be almost entirely without base, and most people knew it. How dangerous could dumping block after block on top of one another really be? Were Mario Mario and his brother, Luigi Mario, really that much worse than the A-Team? Hadn’t people heard the same kind of arguments about film, television, and rock n’ roll? Despite a couple busts, video games got more and more popular every year with little-to-no outside intervention regarding their content.
… that is, until 1992, when a gamer could finally rip the still-beating heart out of an opponent’s chest. At that point, everything changed.