There is no time in my functional memory that does not include at least a passing knowledge of the existence of the ninja, so I can’t say for sure when I became aware of them. (Most likely it occurred during a way-too-young viewing of the 1980s Michael Dudikoff classic American Ninja series.) As with more or less every preadolescent with such inclinations, I became enamored with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the latter part of the decade, and as previously noted, one of my first games was Ninja Gaiden.
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.
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.
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?
SMB: Those three letters are enough to make a gamer recall some of the greatest and (occasionally) some of the hardest times of their lives. Everyone who’s played SMB can think back with a sense of triumph to their successes, and more specifically, to their failures. Sometimes the memories might have more to do with what went wrong, sure, but there is definitely a point at which that success, that victory, is achieved. When that happens, it all becomes worthwhile.
And so it is with SMB: Super Meat Boy.
Oh, you thought I was talking about that other one?
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.
Ico is something else. Ico is about remembering what it’s like to figure things out for yourself.
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).
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.