Final Fantasy VI: Relics of the Past

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?

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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.

He’s got some sort of pig power…

Before the age of the internet, it was much more difficult for a gamer to get information on what he or she wanted to play. Once a month you got your game magazine, more often if you read a couple. Other than that, you had your friends and their opinions. As we all eventually learn, sometimes your friends are wrong.

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NHL ’94: Abstraction and Simplicity in Video Gaming

Video games are about abstraction. The gamer takes a controller or keyboard and mouse and is suddenly put into the role of a superhero, soldier, or plumber downing mushrooms to grow big enough to take down a princess-stealing dinosaur. One can travel to distant galaxies or stick around at home, making life more comfortable for simulated humans with consumer products and love. There is a literal fourth wall—the screen between TV/Monitor—with a game on one side and a player on the other.

This is why controls are so important to a title. Good controls remove one more barrier between a player and the gaming world. Bad controls take a player out of a game, like seeing a boom shadow in a film. The illusion is shattered. Frustration replaces aspiration. It takes time to learn the controls of a game, of course, but if the design sensibility matches the learning curve, the transition becomes seamless.

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Tetris: How Little Falling Blocks Changed the World

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of Tetris. It influenced generations of puzzle games, sold millions of copies on multiple systems, crossed traditional gender boundaries (many of which still exist in gaming today), and continues to be one of the most popular titles of any generation of anywhere in the world. By almost any definition, it is THE video game of the 20th century.

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