Video Game Heart Essays and criticisms about video games Tue, 12 Apr 2016 03:59:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Stardew Valley /daily/stardew-valley/ /daily/stardew-valley/#comments Mon, 21 Mar 2016 08:00:50 +0000 /?p=559 stardew valley 01

Your first task in Stardew Valley is not to hoe a field or plant a crop, but to open a letter. Although you will spend practically all of your time tending to life on a farm, the game begins inside the halls of the oppressive Joja Corporation. The camera pans to your character, beleaguered by life as a corporate drone, seated in one of many identical cubicles. You open a drawer and look at a letter given to you by your grandfather. He instructed you to open it when the burdens of modern life finally became too great. This is not a cutscene. You, the player, have to swing your mouse and click a button to read this letter. It is an important first step in a game about important first steps.

The letter contains the deed to your grandfather’s farm, located in Pelican Town somewhere in the titular valley. If Joja Corporation represents the meaningless grind of twenty-first century employment, your grandfather’s farm is a Fleet Foxian escape from that grind: a fantasy of life in concert with nature, where work is muscular and rewarding, where people find purpose in their work and a wholeness in their spirit. Stardew Valley is not subtle with its themes. There is no way to play this game without understanding its basic equation that corporate life equals bad and natural life equals good.

After a requisite tutorial, you’re left to manage your new estate however you want. Stardew Valley is a sort of simulation game. To sell a crop, you need to raise it from seed to harvest. But Stardew Valley is not a survival game. You don’t need to grow food to eat or make fires for warmth. Your day-to-day comfort is taken for granted; everything else is not. How do you find happiness and meaning? Do you make money, care for animals, explore the wilderness, find love, start a family? There are no traditional antagonists in this game, although Joja Corporation remains an ominous presence even in Pelican Town.

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Most players will find themselves in the rhythm of what the Super Nintendo game Harvest Moon introduced twenty years ago: wake up, water your plants, feed your animals, sell crops, and try to romance some handsome townsfolk. We might call Stardew Valley a clone of Harvest Moon, but “clone” seems too mercenary when Stardew Valley is so enamored of what Harvest Moon did in 1996. Rather, Stardew Valley blows out Harvest Moon’s formula, introducing features we expect in games today: character personalization, Minecraft-esque crafting, more areas to explore, and a greater diversity of people and relationships. (Players are free to romance both men and women.) You don’t have to water parsnips or shear sheep if you don’t want to. You can decide for yourself what to accomplish.

For my part, I enjoy that Stardew Valley includes more personalization. I can decorate my house, build my farm out, and pursue different relationships. I have little interest in exploring the depths of the crafting system or spending hours mining rare resources. When I first played Harvest Moon, I wanted to reach its limits: buy the most expensive upgrades to my farm and complete the long work of wooing a woman and having a baby. Weeks or months of in-game time could pass in a few real-world hours. Considering how popular Stardew Valley has been, no doubt many players are trying to discover its limits as well. But players like me also appreciate a game we can play for a few minutes, maybe only progressing one or two virtual days. I find satisfaction in finishing a few small tasks, going to festivals, and maybe finding some small surprise in Pelican Town. I’ll play Stardew Valley for the same reason I’ll read before going to bed: to reorient myself to the good things in life.

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Whatever goals you choose to pursue, none are met overnight. Crops take time to grow. Money takes time to raise. Relationships take time to form. Nearly every goal in the game requires daily work. Many video games are composed of discrete objectives, tasks that can be completed and forgotten in minutes or seconds. In Stardew Valley, you wander down long paths. Taking your first step means you move that much farther away from another path you might have taken. Buying potatoes means you can’t buy kale. Dancing with Harvey means you can’t dance with Leah. Time, in fact, is Stardew Valley’s only scarce resource. Days progress at a steady clip, and there are never quite enough minutes to do everything you want. The game world, at first vast, shrinks as you dedicate yourself to one goal instead of another.

Busy work occupies so much of our lives that, as we grow older, we often become skeptical of games that seem to offer nothing but. Stardew Valley is a game about the small tasks of life, of watering plants, going to the store, checking your mail, and opening letters. But there is a difference between arbitrary busy work and the work that make up the projects of our lives. Important work builds on itself, and busywork just passes time. Stardew Valley does not judge how you spend your days; what you consider trifling, I might consider fulfilling. The game only asks you to decide: where do you want to go, and how will you get there? What is important to you, and what do you do because the Joja Corporations of the world tell you to?

Grayson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @vghmag.

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Somewhere Between Here and Heaven /daily/somewhere-between-here-and-heaven/ /daily/somewhere-between-here-and-heaven/#comments Mon, 15 Feb 2016 08:00:51 +0000 /?p=539 silent hill 2 01

“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so, because it serenely disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.”
–Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies

James Sunderland, like most players guiding him throughout the events of Silent Hill 2, wavers between awe and terror the deeper he traverses into Silent Hill. His early dealings have been fraught with grotesque monstrosities across two grimy apartment blocks, a small appetizer for more bewildering encounters to come later. James only has a vague sense of why he’s in this foggy nightmare world, but he does seem to realize—even if he never speaks to us directly—that there lies something surreal, even dreamlike, beneath the things he’s witnessing. As James Sunderland advances deeper into the punitive realm of Silent Hill, the game teases at something hauntingly beautiful beneath the terrors that lie within.

There’s no denying the genuine horror of Silent Hill 2’s phenomenally lurid imagery of decaying bodies and bloodied environments, but it’s the game’s fleeting moments of dreamlike beauty that isolate the title apart from the generic trappings of macabre survival horror. Recognizing this dreamlike atmosphere makes sense in the context of Silent Hill 2; James’s lost spouse Mary sees the town in “restless dreams,” immediately marking the vague locale as oneiric while never distinguishing the setting as completely unreal.

What’s interesting about Silent Hill 2 is that these restless dreams have two distinct sides that oscillate throughout the game. The nightmarish imagery of monstrous, hypersexualized limbs and cavernous interiors reflects James’s uncontrolled id externalizing an ugly inner conflict of violent desire. This anxiety has only intensified following his spouse’s terminal illness, and what we see is filtered through James’s flawed perspective. But dreams aren’t only nightmares; they can also convey elements of beauty and strangeness. It’s this opposing force of the protagonist’s surreal journey that audiences often overlook, the lighter moments of beauty existing side by side with the nightmare spaces of Silent Hill.

One particularly beautiful stretch of game occurs in relative safety and with a heightened sense of wonder distinct from the scarier nightmares peppered throughout the game. This stretch of Silent Hill 2 consists of the bowling alley and Heaven’s Night scenes, and these locales contain the most normal moments of James’s retreat into restless dreams.

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It starts when James meets Maria, the uncanny double of his wife Mary. We don’t know what his wife looks like, so we blindly take James’s word that Maria looks exactly like her, except that her “hair and clothes are different.” Since the entire game is filtered through his unreliable, anxiety-driven perspective, our experience of Silent Hill is rendered suspect. Thus all interactions with her are fraught with an eerie quality, like we’re talking to a phantom that may not exist outside James’s head. He feels the need to reconstruct and project his desires onto Maria like the protagonist of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which casts his interactions with Maria as a kind of lucid dream where he has control over circumstances that may not be real at all.

Maria tags along with James for no substantial reason, and so she serves like a ghost that constantly haunts him, half swallowed in the fog. Maria has a vaguely threatening aura because she’s so unknowable, and her simultaneous familiarity and strangeness to James renders her uncanny. This is the immediate context for the bowling alley and Heaven’s Night sequence; James has already encountered the monstrous dangers of the town and has partnered with a mysterious, potentially dangerous character.

Silent Hill 2’s constant sense of danger is what makes the bowling alley and Heaven’s Night sequence noteworthy because it frustrates our expectations of fear in favor of dreamlike beauty. Maria waits outside Pete’s Bowl-O-Rama, leaving you alone as you enter a shadowy, decaying lobby left completely wrecked and desolate. You anticipate the darkened horror that lies just beyond the tiny radius illuminated by your flashlight, but instead of gruesome monsters, the familiar voice of fellow wanderer Eddie greets you from afar. “Did ya find the lady you’re looking for?”

It’s a moment that should catch us off guard because how could Eddie have known of James’s entrance from another room within the bowling alley? James doesn’t even respond, and the interaction comes off like a hallucination. In lieu of immediate dangers here, Silent Hill 2 presents us with mundane mystery bordering on the magical. The bowling alley is a safe area completely devoid of monsters, and the music that plays during this segment cements this area as a moment of rest. In contrast to the harsh, industrial drone that characterizes most of Akira Yamaoka’s soundtrack, the music here is relaxed and serene, with a moody bassline and sense of airy lightness.

Entering the main area where the bowling lanes are, Eddie acknowledges you a second time, never mentioning the initial inquiry. The scene feels slightly off-kilter because instead of a violent clash with nightmarish monsters in a decaying building, you encounter the surreal sight of plain old Eddie in the dark, sitting and eating pizza. Pete’s Bowl-O-Rama exists as a place of peace in an otherwise grisly town, where both characters and players can recover from the hellish maze of foggy streets just beyond the walls. It’s also a dream space where spooky, subtly unreal incidents happen and expectations of horror are upturned.

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Silent Hill 2 maintains this tranquil dream state when James rejoins Maria outside and through a back alley. Your way blocked, the only option forward is to cut through a building via an unmarked backdoor. The map identifies this building as “Heaven’s Night,” a cryptically named location with unclear prospects. Especially in a world like Silent Hill, entering a strange building in a dark back alley isn’t advisable, but Maria picks the lock anyway. After the welcome safety of the bowling alley, horrific enemies should be expected again.

Yet it’s not horror you encounter inside but the serene feeling of a pleasant dream once more. The back room of Heaven’s Night has all the markings of danger—poor lighting, dishevelment, grimy walls, and a camera angle that points opposite of what’s in front of you—but Silent Hill 2 presents a moment of anticlimax. Ethereal music plays, and like the bowling alley, Heaven’s Night proves to be another safe passageway devoid of monsters to fight.

Situated in between the initial shock of the apartment complex setpiece and arguably the most difficult portion of the game, Brookhaven Hospital, the Heaven’s Night area lives up to its name. The main room is an intact bar and strip club awash in warm red and pink neon lights, providing rare bright colors in Silent Hill’s foggy atmosphere and muted earth tones. This could be a location out of a David Lynch movie, and in fact, the bar reminds me of the one in Blue Velvet. Once again, Silent Hill 2 swaps gruesome horrors for the tranquil beauty found in untouched spaces, and Heaven’s Night carries a Lynchian, dreamlike quality because of this distinctness from other locations in Silent Hill. In the supplemental prequel short game “Born from a Wish” where you play as Maria, she wakes up in Heaven’s Night, thus further tying the place to dreams.

It makes sense for James that this safe, nighttime haven amidst horrors is a distinctly sexual place. After confronting the violence of his externalized inner demons in the form of monsters like Pyramid Head, he retreats back to the psychic safe zone of the strip club, suggesting an ongoing, unconscious need to satiate libidinal tensions. Silent Hill yields to James’s sexual desires only to frustrate it with characters like Maria, the sexualized doppelganger of his wife, and also with sexualized monsters like the nurses of Brookhaven Hospital. In juxtaposing the monsters outside with the safety inside Heaven’s Night, the game implies that horror and beauty often coexist. The epigraph by Rilke tells us that every angel is terrible; who else is Maria if not the angel of Heaven’s Night?

What I find significant in these spaces of Silent Hill 2 is how the game toys with our expectations of terror and thus differentiates the experience of survival horror as something that can also be quite beautiful. Silent Hill 2 suggests that the genre need not always be terrifying to be memorable, and the surreal logic of dreams can inspire wonder as much as it creates disquiet. Survival horror’s constant sense of danger and frequent scares actually accentuate the subtle beauty in the bowling alley and Heaven’s Night locales because the unexpected solitude is a stark contrast that should stand out against the rest of the game. I often return to Silent Hill 2 more than any other survival horror because it offers more than just horror, and because it appreciates how dreams can just as easily slip from nightmare to reverie in the same breath. It’s the “restless dreams” encapsulated in one short stretch of the game, desperate to overcome the nightmare and also lulled back into the arms of sleep.

Miguel Penabella is a freelancer and comparative literature academic who worships at the temple of cinema but occasionally bears libations to video games. He is an editor at Haywire Magazine, and his written offerings can be found on Kill Screen, PopMatters, Unwinnable, and elsewhere, all of which are archived on his blog, Invalid Memory.

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Developers in Locomotion /daily/developers-in-locomotion/ /daily/developers-in-locomotion/#comments Mon, 01 Feb 2016 08:00:06 +0000 /?p=519 train jam 01

We’re boarding the train at Chicago’s Union Station. It’s February. Snowing. A dozen of us wait for sleeper car assignments here on the platform. We chat about our homes. I’ve already met game developers from the UK, Australia, California, and Chicago. Conversation is light; under the surface, we’re all champing at the bit.

We’ve come from all corners for the second annual Train Jam, a special game jam that occurs entirely on a train from Chicago to San Francisco. Game jams are intense, time-limited hackathons that call on writers, artists, musicians, and coders to create something new and playable from scratch. Most jams have no material reward, only a sense of accomplishment and a chance for feedback.

I have a two-person cabin to myself after my roommate, Arun, discovers his ticket only covers a seat in coach. He’s one of a cabal of students from Rochester Institute of Technology en route to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco the following week.

Arun and his RIT friends end up recruiting me. I meet Ben and Bryan, a pair of affable, bearded, bespectacled programmers. The three of them have pooled their ideas and settled on a sort of slot-car racing game. You drive a train on a randomly-generated curving track, going as fast as possible to get to the next checkpoint without flying off the rails, and you need to throw track switches to keep your train away from hazards. It sounds straightforward and doable in the 48 hours we have left.

We scribble designs on note cards in a cramped diner-style booth in the lower level of the lounge car. A few feet away, Mark the effervescent shopkeep vends candy, chips, and drinks provided by one of the event’s sponsors, Unity3D. Mark tallies the treats on a scrap of cardboard. This is our initial design meeting.

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Arun describes his vision for the branching track subsystem. Ben’s excited about the music, which will keep pace with the train’s speed and switch tracks when the player—wink, wink—switches tracks. Bryan accepts art and menu design with some trepidation; he thinks of himself as a programmer. I volunteer to work on the in-game HUD and record sound effects because I’ve been spending a lot of time in both areas for my own radio DJ game.

Ben pitches an idea for the code that controls train speed. Instead of tracking the speed of the train moving on the screen, let’s make the train move at a fixed speed and bend time to make it look like it speeds up and slows down. To be clear: this is a terrible idea for a real game. So many things in games depend on clock time; animations, controls, even sound effects. But hey, this is a game jam, so what’s a little technical debt? It’ll keep Arun’s work on animating the train cleanly separated from Ben’s input code, which means less coordination and fewer headaches making their code work together. “Fuck it, ship it” is never truer than during a jam.

From that point on, we’re semi-autonomous. We head up to the observation deck of the lounge car, settle into some plush chairs facing the windows, and tap at our laptops until the sun’s well below the horizon on the first day.

The sleeper cabins are very small, about the size of a closet. They have just enough room to seat two people across from each other with a sliding door on one side and a window on the other. When the bunks are folded out, they fill the cabin and only the lower bunkmate has a view outside.

PA announcements are suspended overnight as a courtesy to sleepy passengers. I wake in the morning before they resume. The sleep was pleasant once I tamed the thermostat to keep me from freezing or burning. I peer out the window to see where we are, but I don’t recognize the bare landscape. I head to the train’s shower, which works like the faucets: press a button, get about 30 seconds of water. It works well enough. I can see daylight through the drain. I think I’m leaving a trail of suds on the rail ties below.

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I share meals in the dining car with jammers and other passengers, which is how I meet Jim. Jim’s an older gent who sits with two other developers and me for dinner one night. That dinner might be the best dinner of my life. Jim tells us he’s an air marshal who’s sick of flying all over the world, so he takes trains when he’s not on duty. He’s had a long career in foreign intelligence and regales us with stories of his times in Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Turkey many decades ago. He describes recruiting locals who would radio in when they saw caravans along the Caspian Sea—which, at the time, was usually poppies headed out of Afghanistan—so they could be intercepted. He recalls learning Arabic from a Kurdish princess such that the generals in Afghanistan were put off by his accent and he transferred to an area with more Kurds instead. I spend close to two hours listening at the table before excusing myself. Another hour later the other two devs are still there, still chatting with Jim, several more half-bottles of wine emptied on the table. I don’t know how many of Jim’s stories are true, but he tells them so well that it doesn’t matter.

We make steady progress on our game, though our labor divisions are imperfect. It’s hard to make sure nobody runs out of things to do when you have more than two people on a team and the time frame is so compressed. I’m doing some de facto project manager stuff, but Arun’s load is too heavy and Ben’s is too light.

It’s also a challenge to write code without easy access to the Internet. There are a handful of cellular-powered wifi access points onboard for the jam but they’re unreliable. I can tether my phone to my PC for Internet access, but of course my phone usually has little or no data signal. Pre-downloading documentation and code before the event helps, but you can’t know exactly what you’ll need. Luckily there are plenty of knowledgeable people to turn to if you get stuck on something.

Partway through the second day, I leave my laptop to wander around the train and take a look at other works-in-progress. One developer, Lisa, is making a concentration game that challenges you to keep your gaze focused on something mundane while distractions appear at the margins. It uses special eye-tracking hardware to judge the player. A couple of high-profile indies, Rami and Adriaan, are working on a stylish game about inspecting improbably-engineered train bridges and guessing whether a train would succeed or hilariously fail to cross them.

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We’re in Colorado for hours and hours. There’s fresh snowfall and the mountains are really pretty. So are the dusty areas in the plains, Utah, and Nevada. Plenty of landscapes I might’ve seen in photos or movies but never before in person.

There is never enough time in a game jam. We’ve entered California and we still don’t really have the core gameplay working. Arun’s code is generating bits of track and then stitching them together, but the stitching isn’t working properly. Track segments won’t line up, or the train warps across the map inexplicably. Ben swoops in again to help get the track working or cut features until we have something playable. I work on composing sound effects from recordings I made around the train the night before, layering toilet flushes into explosions, cropping sliding doors into menu transitions.

In the last hour we decide to scrap track-switching because the branches were too hard to manage. We give up on integrating Bryan’s art for hazards and stations, and we never do get the game to detect when you go too fast through a curve. We don’t have checkpoints. I barely have time to add sound effects. Our final product is a nice menu system with credits and a volume control and 30 seconds of controlling a train’s speed around a generated track with no penalties or win state. When the timer runs dry, your train explodes and you go back to the menu.

There’s no meeting room on the train that holds a hundred audience members, so we form a line into the belly of a coach car to pitch our games over the intercom. Then we spread out across the coach and observatory cars to play each other’s games. The mood is light but weary.

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There are some real gems in the mix. I sit down at the keyboard for Monologue, trying to type out a villain’s wordy speech, but I keep taking too long and the track-bound hero breaks free before the approaching train can finish him off. Typing difficulty spikes when you’re sitting in a room that shakes and sways side-to-side. I move over to play Crazy Cart Chaos, a competitive four-player game, against the team who built it. It’s about collecting passengers and delivering them to your station on a Pac-Man-esque grid of train tracks. I’m terrible at this one; the developers are really skilled at stealing my passengers before I can bring them home.

Not long after, the conductor tells us we’re about to pull into the Emeryville station near our final destination. We scramble to gather our things, leave the train, pose for a big group photo, then scatter in the wind to buses and cabs and light rail. I’m sure most of the crowd is attending GDC over the next week, but I’m on a plane back home tomorrow.

It’s an abrupt ending. Our project feels incomplete though we’ve agreed to put our pencils down. I’ve only seen a tiny fraction of the new games produced. And now it feels like I’m walking out of the theater at intermission. Not that I’d trade the experience, mind you, but maybe next year will be different.

Tim is a hobbyist game developer, serial game jammer, and founding member of the RunJumpDev organization in Lexington, Kentucky. He’s currently working on Disc Jockey Jockey, an audio game that puts you in the signal chain between radio DJs and their broadcast audiences, managing microphones. Tim will be riding the rails again for Train Jam 2016 and attending GDC to exhibit Disc Jockey Jockey.

For more information on Train Jam and some of the games mentioned here, check out these sites:
Train Jam
Train Jam 2015 entries
Next Track (Tim’s entry)
Crazy Cart Chaos

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Emily Is Away /daily/emily-is-away/ /daily/emily-is-away/#comments Mon, 11 Jan 2016 08:00:04 +0000 /?p=510 emily is away 1

Online communication follows its own particular rules, as anybody knows who has ever composed a tweet or sent an instant message. We must be casual but not too casual. Capitalizing our sentences can feel stuffy. Finishing every sentence with a period can feel aloof. A studious use of commas signals that we’re trying too hard. In general, messages should be stripped to their essentials but no further, lest we descend into inscrutable sarcasm. The differences between these three messages are monumental, as anybody knows who has ever received the third:


Emily Is Away, a game by Kyle Seeley, captures these dynamics in an interactive story that simulates AOL Instant Messenger conversations circa 2002. The interface and sound effects are spot-on; the main menu apes the Windows XP login screen, and the audio sounds as if it was ripped from old AIM installations. The game follows a branching choose-your-own-adventure path, and messages are “typed” by hitting any key on the keyboard. This pretend-typing is jarring at first, but ultimately lends a satisfying tactile component to the simulation. The game does not attempt to recreate old chat programs—it’s rendered in a chunky, obviously fake pixel style—but it perfectly matches the hazy images of memory. Throw some Postal Service on in the background and Emily Is Away might as well be a time machine.

Cynics will whiff the ominous odor of nostalgia in a project like this. Gamers, perhaps more than fans of any other medium, are sold the products of their youth over and over again, and Emily Is Away targets a specific demographic: college students around 2002 to 2006. But Emily Is Away, despite letting users select Blink-182 and Mean Girls chat icons, does not want merely to recall pop culture. Instant messaging is the dominant medium today, but the kids on AIM were some of the first to navigate its intricacies.

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Emily Is Away begins by asking for your real name and screen name, and you can enter anything you want (an increasingly rare option in real social networks). The player character is never identified as a specific person, gender, or sexuality, although I and others I know get the impression of a straight man. The story is divided into chapters based on years, each chapter containing a conversation between the player and “emerly35.”

Early conversations focus on teenage posturing, on which parties you’re going to and which bands you like. As the years pass, conversations turn to college life, future careers, and high school memories. These conversations, although brief, peek into an intense relationship between two friends grappling with romantic feelings, as well as the widening distance between them as they grow into different people.

Most of the relationship happens off-screen. Important moments are described in allusive language, the details left to the player’s imagination. You may not be able to connect every dot, but a picture emerges nonetheless. We all understand, in one way or another, how growing up challenges old relationships. Seeley writes with a perfect ear for how people communicate online. Messages peppered with just the right amount of lols and exclamation points mean the conversation is going well; messages that grow suddenly short and proper portend a serious talk.

One message appears on screen more than any other: “emerly35 is typing….” The typing notification, one of the most important aspects of online communication, is fraught with anxiety. Why is this person taking so long? Why did they stop? What did they delete? Emily Is Away understands that online communication lacks the give-and-take of spoken words but is not quite a turn-based exchange. There is great meaning in when you reply and when you let the other person know you’re replying. The player character will also type and delete messages, revising sentences in both obvious and subtle ways. As players, we’re allowed to witness these revisions, and we’re left to wonder what emerly35 thinks of our typing notifications.

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Emily Is Away feels like a document to me. Yes, it’s fiction, but if in twenty years someone asked me what AOL Instant Messenger was like, I’d point them here. It is certainly more faithful to my experience than the clumsy portrayals of chatting and texting in movies and TV shows, with close-ups of computer screens or absurd pop-ups. These conversations can find their proper rhythm in a video game, a rhythm that has never fit well in other media.

Some have written that people today are too “connected,” that there is something wrong—or at least different—in a culture where people can’t go five minutes without checking their phones. Emily Is Away traces a different sort of story. Just because someone is on your contact list doesn’t mean you can talk to them. Just because someone appears present doesn’t mean they are. Think of all the people on your various friends lists you haven’t spoken to in years, those you remember every now and then when they drift past in the flotsam of your Facebook feed: the coworkers, the childhood friends, the exes. The slow fading of a relationship is made all the more sad by the seeming possibility of connection, of the image of someone online but away.

Grayson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @vghmag.

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Be Wary of Happiness /daily/be-wary-of-happiness/ /daily/be-wary-of-happiness/#comments Mon, 09 Nov 2015 08:00:35 +0000 /?p=499 be wary 01

The message was scrawled on the ground at the entrance to the Undead Burg, left by another player making their way through the unforgiving world of Dark Souls: “Be wary of happiness.”

It’s a warning not to be complacent. As with any Souls game, no victory is permanent and each tough enemy slain is a stepping stone to something even tougher. Behind every mountain you climb, there’s a bigger mountain waiting. Over time you realize that the true reward of Dark Souls is in the pleasure of the struggle.

But when I saw the message, all I could think of was Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, which I had just quit playing. In contrast to Dark Souls’ organic sense of striving, FFXIV‘s MMORPG mechanics felt more like running a treadmill, following a breadcrumb trail of incremental rewards. Ultimately, I was happier playing Dark Souls. I hardly suspected that a week later, I’d be back in Eorzea—the fictional world of FFXIV—and on my way into a spell of compulsive gaming that would nearly cost me my job.

I was 19 when I tried my first MMORPG. Final Fantasy XI had just come out in the U.S., and I was hooked instantly. I joined a static party with friends from a Final Fantasy message board, staying up late every night for marathon play sessions. The longest I can remember was eighteen hours straight, killing crabs and damselflies in the Valkurm Dunes.

At the time, I was living with my parents while attending community college. As I played the game, I became irritable, withdrawn, and intensely depressed, frequently skipping classes. I went on antidepressants, then quit them because they made me feel listless and unbearably foggy. I knew the game was affecting me badly, but found it difficult to make the decision to quit. As long as I can remember, I’ve had an addictive personality. I grew up with, among other things, a serious impulse control problem around food, and a strong bent towards escaping into fictional worlds. MMORPGs and I were always going to be a bad match.

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When I returned to FFXIV after a week with Dark Souls, it was because my friends had sent me screenshots of their characters having fun on a virtual beach, in brand new outfits from a seasonal event that began just after I quit. I felt like I was missing out on something major, some key piece of fun in my life. Why not reward myself, I thought? I’m 30 now, and I’ve learned a lot more about responsibility and impulse control than when I was 19. Sure, I had quit FFXIV the first time because I felt myself becoming compulsive about it, a red flag I’ve learned to heed over the years. But this time was different, I told myself. I’d grown up a lot in the last 11 years. I could handle it.

And at first, I could. But it wasn’t long before the game was playing into the worst of my obsessive and addictive tendencies. I thought about it constantly; I would read FFXIV wikis all day at work, making long, nested to-do lists for my character and elaborate diagrams of my skill rotations for battles. The friends I played with were also coworkers, and we conducted endless email chains in which we discussed the game, its world, our strategies and even the finer political and emotional resonances of the game’s well-developed story. It had become my world. And I was maintaining a kind of functional auto-pilot in life and at work, or so I thought.

Staying up late to play, I was getting less and less sleep. This came to a head one day at the office, when I’d only slept a couple of hours but decided to power through it. Halfway through the day, I had prepared an order for a big client, sent it out, and was preparing to take my lunch break so I could catch a nap. Before I could, the phone rang; it was the client. In my exhaustion something had escaped my notice, and I’d made a critical error on the order. I immediately began doing damage control and managed to smooth things over as much as possible, but the implications were clear in my mind: If the client decided to take their business elsewhere over this, I would lose my job.

I still played Final Fantasy XIV when I got home that night. Only this time I was noticing soberly that I had the same hopeless, foggy feeling as the year I spent on antidepressants—and I wasn’t on any medication.

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We tend not to think of video games as habit-forming in the same way that drugs, alcohol, and junk food can be. For many people, moderation with games is easy, something they take for granted. But for people who deal with compulsion, depression, and other mental health issues, MMORPGs can be dangerously seductive. They tap into our desire to escape and reward us with an alternate life where we’re heroes, in worlds that seem far more coherent and beautiful than our own. When a game presents a synthetic sense of meaning, an alternative to having to find meaning in real life, it can become dangerous, even dissociative.

Our big client didn’t leave, and I didn’t lose my job. But I continued to play FFXIV, and continued to make serious errors. I was mentally checked out. Eventually it was made clear to me that any more errors would result in a black mark on my record, a prelude to getting fired. At that point, I knew I’d overstayed my welcome in Eorzea.

Slowly, I scaled back the amount I played and, after a few weeks, quit the game. And when I finally dislodged myself from the fantasy, I couldn’t believe how relieved I was. My mind was beyond exhausted from running on the MMORPG treadmill. I was no closer to being happy, because as much as Eorzea filled me with a simulated sense of reward, it wasn’t real happiness. How could it be, if I had to mortgage my own life against it?

I’m still at my job. I have slowly begun to recover the focus and attention to detail that made me good at it in the first place. It was tough to return to the real world, to its grind and stress. It meant facing up to the depression and struggle for meaning that I’d been trying to avoid. But if there’s anything Dark Souls has taught me, it’s that happiness is not about being given everything you want. Happiness is about struggling, growing, and evolving. Happiness is savoring the view from the summit before climbing the next mountain. After quitting FFXIV, I’m looking forward to spending some time away from video games on the other things I love in life—friends, family, writing, nature, plans for the future. When I come back, it’ll be Dark Souls that I load up. Ornstein and Smough are waiting, and I’m terrified. It’s the best feeling I’ve had in a while.

Dara lives, works, and writes in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter at @palakchaval or on Letterboxd.

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PataNoir /daily/patanoir/ /daily/patanoir/#comments Mon, 26 Oct 2015 08:00:02 +0000 /?p=488 patanoir 1

On the surface, PataNoir appears to be a simple text adventure about a time-worn trope: the hard-boiled detective who receives an unexpected case. But as soon as the game starts, we realize that not all is well with our sleuth protagonist. Detective Douglas Reilly has stopped taking his medication—he works better without it—and reality itself is now warping in unexpected ways.

“Pataphor” is a term coined by the writer Pablo Lopez as an extension of Ubu Roi author Alfred Jarry’s literary flight-of-fancy ‘Pataphysics, which loosely suggests an empirical reality to imaginary phenomena. A pataphor is a metaphor whose imagery splits off from the reality of the text and forms its own reality. PataNoir begins with a quote from Lopez defining this central idea—but also gives his alternative definition of “That which occurs when a lizard’s tail has grown so long it breaks off and grows a new lizard.”

Because in the world of PataNoir, Douglas Reilly’s reality is constantly shifting in line with his poetic imagination. The tired desk lamp in his office reminds him of an elderly knight battling the darkness. A moment later Reilly is having a conversation with the knight, who tirelessly assures him he will continue fighting. In his Smith & Wesson revolver, he sees a trusty servant; when he looks again, there is an actual servant there to help him with puzzles and sticky situations—Mr. Wesson, at your service.

patanoir 2The trick to PataNoir is understanding how Reilly’s “pataphysical” reality can interact with his actual reality. In an early puzzle, Reilly is met by an unexpected client: the taciturn butler of a wealthy baron whose daughter has vanished. The butler has been interviewing several detectives, but has been unimpressed by all of them, and Reilly is no exception. Needing to warm up the prospective client, Reilly examines the cigarette butt in the ashtray on his desk, which is glowing like an ember at a campsite. He then picks up the figurative ember—not the cigarette—and applies it to the butler. Now, the butler’s face is warm like an ember. Suddenly he’s become very friendly, talking to Reilly like an old pal and readily offering him the case.

PataNoir creator Simon Christiansen makes great use of this gameplay device. As Reilly, we are constantly diving into other realities, never quite sure how deep they will go. What’s surprising is how well these metaphorical excursions fit with the tone of the game’s primary reality. Following a lead to a slummy apartment, Reilly finds a kitchen table strewn with empty liquor bottles, like the minarets of a desert city. As he explores the figurative city and observes its inhabitants, we’re struck by the contrast between the airy desert and the claustrophobic apartment, the piety of the city’s people (whom you do interact with!) and the hedonism and squalor of the man we’re following.

By using pataphors to breathe new life into noir tropes, Christiansen gives us a fresh look at classic detective fiction. And PataNoir isn’t just using its central hook for inventive puzzle-solving; it also makes for great interactive fiction that requires the player to use poetic creativity instead of the more straightforward logic of many puzzle-based games. Gaming frequently relies on quick reflexes or logic-based problem-solving to create challenges for the player; it’s a real pleasure to play something that instead tests our powers of symbolic thinking and creative association. Douglas Reilly may work fine with his medication, like many detectives before him—but I definitely prefer him without.

Dara lives, works, and writes in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter at @palakchaval or on Letterboxd.

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Super Mario Maker /daily/super-mario-maker/ /daily/super-mario-maker/#comments Mon, 12 Oct 2015 08:00:09 +0000 /?p=473 mario maker 1

The level creator is a siren song for many gamers. You don’t need to have any skill in level design or an aptitude for the creation tools, but you can waste hours placing enemies, scrolling through tile sets, and moving blocks left and right then back again until they’re arranged just so. Level creators ask the question, “What does the game of your dreams look like?” Now, 30 years after the original NES game, we have our answers: thousands of Super Mario Bros. players have spent millions of hours making Mario levels that look like total shit. Mario games are defined by their exacting quality and polish. Super Mario Maker is not a game about making Mario levels.

Bad design isn’t always always without value. On the contrary, Mario Maker is an amazing tool. Much like listening to someone describe their dreams, the Mario Maker experience is a fragmented mess, a spectrum ranging from incoherently bizarre to mind-numbingly banal. It’s easy to focus on the latter. I’ve played levels that were clearly the first attempt of a 10-year-old who didn’t appear to have much enthusiasm to begin with. I’ve played levels designed to be as hard as possible without being remotely fair—slogs of unpredictable traps and random deaths. I’ve played levels built around obvious, tiresome gimmicks. Many levels are simply broken, with obstacles much harder or easier than they should be, shortcuts that shouldn’t work, and elaborate contraptions that don’t function as intended.

The breadth of terrible levels, as well as the depths of quality to which they sink, has inspired at least one Washington Post article flagellating the game for “quickly collapsing into a scratch sheet of horrible ideas and levels you’ll regret having played. It’s a tool for the mass production of cultural refuse, single-use distractions that fail to replicate the spirit of the original.” Try and imagine how bad some of these levels must be to inspire these feelings. How pointless, how senselessly cruel must a level be to be “intensely dispiriting?” This writer isn’t wrong; a lot of levels are inarguably awful. But to focus on this awfulness misses the point.

Mario Maker is not a toolset to make Mario levels any more than Pictionary is a game about creating fine art. Mario Maker enables players to express themselves in a medium previously unavailable, with all the good and bad that entails. Nintendo has gone to great lengths to ensure that levels follow some fundamental rules. Mario progresses left to right, levels are built with tiles the size of a standard brick, goombas can be stomped, shells can be kicked—the basic grammar of Mario games remains unchanged. Beyond that, players can do whatever they want.

The end result is a parade of levels that, while mostly terrible by Nintendo standards, allows people to take “running and jumping” to all its expressive highs and lows. Many creators work within the framework of other Mario games, either emulating or subverting those conventions. Other creators try to simulate other genres entirely, making levels that resemble Metroid-style exploration games or bullet-hell schmups. Some levels are sophisticated setups to an end-of-level punchline; others are crude gags. I’ve played multiple levels celebrating the 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros.’ release. Many levels are obviously designed by young children, products of the inscrutable logic of the prepubescent. I’ve seen one level called “My dad made this” and another called “I wish my son enjoyed Mario.” I played one level titled “Enjoy,” a brief level with no challenges or other features except the word “LIFE’S TOO SHORT” spelled in coins.

mario maker 2

The level that has left the deepest impression on me is a nasty creation called “Torture Bowsers 2.” In Torture Bowsers 2, three Bowsers are suspended in cages above Mario. Next to the Bowsers are three spiny helmets, one of Mario Maker’s new features. When Mario equips a spiny helmet, he’s able to damage enemies above him. The Bowsers, rendered harmless, are too big to escape, but a small hole allows Mario to stick his head in. The goal of this level is therefore to poke the Bowsers until they die or, I guess, until you get bored. There are no other obstacles or objectives, only a goalpost that ends the level.

As a work of level design, Torture Bowsers 2 is a little (if I can use the word) sophisticated. The shape and position of the level elements imply an objective without blatantly leading the player. The level is pruned to its bare necessities, no longer than it needs to be, with no extraneous decoration. And the nearby goalpost means you can beat the level at any time, whether you want to see it to “completion” (killing all three Bowsers?) or whether you want to quit the moment you grow tired of slowly murdering giant turtles.

But as a Mario level, Torture Bowsers 2 is garbage. It’s ugly and puerile and unfun. The title implies a Torture Bowsers 1, which could only be worse. It is exactly the kind of “cultural refuse” described above. But what Nintendo understands, and what cynics don’t, is that people express themselves in many ways, and for all the beautiful expression there is also ugliness and anger and all of the negative things in life. Humans do not normally spend their days crafting flawless works of art. We share our thoughts and feelings as they tumble out, and Mario Maker would be a poor creative tool if it tried to corral player expression into a prescriptive formula. It is exciting to consider that, at any point, I can explore levels that are, yes, sometimes mean and ugly, but also far more singular and personal than anything Nintendo will ever make.

For me, the fun and challenge of Mario Maker is creating levels that feel something like “real” Mario levels, even though that’s impossible. My levels don’t feel quite like something Nintendo would make, their shapes bending towards my own particular tastes. Mario Maker encourages this: the course creator encourages unprecedented combinations of enemies and abilities. Where Nintendo would put one goomba, the average Mario Maker creator will place five giant winged goombas that explode into fireworks. Making conventional levels requires a light touch and deliberate restraint, easier said than done when Mario Maker offers so many toys to play with. Inevitably, I succumb to the impulse to make something bigger, meaner, funnier, or otherwise stranger than Nintendo would. I’m eager to share it and see if anybody out there reacts to my weird little level. Like the coins say, life’s too short.

Grayson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @vghmag. In the spirit of Mario Maker, here are some of his own levels. Enjoy!

mario maker - ghost ghastle Ghost Ghastle: 372E-0000-0096-F9E2

mario maker - piggyboo rides Piggyboo Rides: 2534-0000-0077-B289

mario maker - bridge out Bridge Out: E2C7-0000-0057-FD60

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Rocket League /daily/rocket-league/ /daily/rocket-league/#comments Mon, 10 Aug 2015 08:00:10 +0000 /?p=464 rocket league 1

Rocket League surprised me, and it shouldn’t have. Today, “e-sports” are unique to the medium; MOBAs and RTSes and shooters have little connection to traditional competitive events. But e-sports used to be literally that: video game versions of real-world sports, usually with modifications that would be impossible in real life. Arch Rivals, an NES “basketbrawl” game, allows players to punch each other in the face. Mario Tennis asks what happens if you give a tennis racket to a gorilla. And the premise of Rocket League would have been entirely expected inside a 90s arcade: What if you played soccer with cars?

This idea arrives fully formed. You do not need to sell “soccer with cars.” You do not need to bloat it with features. Rocket League takes place in a giant arena, with a giant soccer ball, and two teams of cars that control with turf-hugging precision. The game could be literally called Soccer With Cars and I am sure it would be just as successful. Whether Rocket League is fun for more than a few minutes, it will be fun for at least a few minutes. And Rocket League is fun for much longer.

Rocket League’s beauty—and this game is beautiful—does not come from scoring or passing. The soccer ball is oversized and feather-light, bouncing off cars like a half-inflated balloon, and most interactions between car and ball are clumsy scrambles. Scoring a goal in Rocket League is satisfying in the same way that shoving the last bite of a collapsing burrito into your mouth is satisfying: delicious, but not elegant.

This clumsiness is surely the point. Cars are controlled with four buttons: accelerate, reverse, jump (tapping again to double-jump), and “boost,” what most games call turbo. This turbo button gives it away: no game with turbo aspires to be a delicate exchange of carefully considered plays. Hold turbo while jumping and—for a brief, barely-controllable moment—your car can fly.

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The game’s beauty comes from the driving. Even though there is no racetrack, Rocket League is above all else a driving game. The cars are quick and responsive, turning on dimes, sliding seamlessly between ground and wall and sometimes ceiling. The first time I played the game, I thought, “this feels good.” The soccer field is big enough to pick up a lot of speed; go fast enough and the game rewards you with a sonic boom crack, the audio equivalent of a fist-bump.

These moments of high speed exist between the scrambles, saves, and scores. Both teams fan out, circle the ball, position themselves, and prepare to press turbo. In these moments Rocket League possesses a physical grace, four or six or eight rocket cars moving in sync, some speeding across the field, others gliding through the air, others moving to attack or defend. Don’t get me wrong: this is a fast game, but these moments seem to hang in space to be appreciated, lasting much longer than they really do.

As soon as this picture coheres, it shatters. Cars collide. Your teammate misses her pass. Someone explodes. You overshoot your approach and wind up spinning in midair. The ball takes an unexpected bounce and fumbles past the goal. Within a few minutes, the cars are back on the ground, each a clattering part assembling itself back into that elegant sum.

Video game competitions resist the casual spectator. StarCraft requires some knowledge of the game to appreciate the rapid fire hotkeys and mouse clicks. Visually, Hearthstone is just the clicking and dragging of cards. I am still not entirely sure how Dota works. But Rocket League takes after physical sports, those with a simple goal and simple rules. I do not need to peruse a Rocket League wiki to understand the skill involved in a last-second save or a goal made from across the field. I don’t need to review patch notes to understand why four cars floating through the air, each poised to knock the ball into or away from a net, is an exciting event. There is an obvious skill and art to these moments if, somewhere between the frantic chases and head-on collisions, you find the time to look.

Grayson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @vghmag.

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Second Son’s Fantasy of Power /daily/second-sons-fantasy-of-power/ /daily/second-sons-fantasy-of-power/#comments Mon, 27 Jul 2015 08:00:00 +0000 /?p=451 second son 1

Infamous: Second Son is a power fantasy. More than that, it desperately wants you to know it’s a power fantasy. The story centers on X-Men-ish “Conduits,” heroes and villains with mysterious elemental powers. Second Son tries to wring the usual drama from this premise—you know, demonized by the public, living in secrecy—but the player is nonetheless granted a suite of supernatural powers and an urban playground to master. Indeed, while some X-Men have powers that are both blessing and curse, being a Conduit seems to have no drawback besides being an object of fear. In typical video game fashion, you can either play as a good guy or as a bad guy. Hero/villain, paragon/renegade, good/evil—you are empowered to save innocents or crush them beneath you.

Let’s acknowledge that video games are often power fantasies. Let’s also acknowledge that this isn’t always a bad thing. Second Son, not content with the usual fire and water, offers unusual sources of “power.” Conduits control elements like smoke, neon, and “video.” Although each element offers different flavors of missiles and melee weapons, these elements also unlock an exciting variety of abilities. Smoke lets you travel through urban ductwork. Video lets you turn invisible and sneak past enemies. Neon lets you run up walls, leaving behind a mile-long “look at me!” trail of electricity. Second Son considers that power comes from many sources and manifests in many ways, and not only in ways that enable you to do violence. The neon power would be remarkable enough for its manifest color; I can’t think of another action game that unapologetically embraces pink.

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And as the X-Men explore what happens when oppressed people receive unprecedented powers, so does Second Son. The protagonist, Delsin, is a member of a fictional Native American tribe at the margins of Pacific Northwest society. One of the first friendly Conduits he meets is Fetch, a young woman and recovering drug addict. (Fetch also stars in the game’s DLC episode, First Light.) The game’s antagonist, Augustine, is a cruel, jackbooted anti-terrorist leader and a plain allegory for Western military powers. The power structures in Second Son mirror our own world, and the writers take great relish in granting powers of resistance to Delsin and his friends.

While Second Son does not aspire to much beyond a video game riff on comic book mutants, it is at least a fun, colorful riff and a welcome break from the grim-faced bald men that star in so many video games, including the previous two Infamous games. But as a power fantasy Second Son exemplifies what makes these stories, especially in video games, so frustrating. It is so concerned with being a fantasy, so afraid of jeopardizing the fantasy for even one second, that players are not allowed to explore the fantasy for themselves.

The characters of Second Son remind you, with an exhausting frequency, just how awesome being a Conduit is, just how amazing these powers are, just how epic it would be to fly across Seattle or transform into a being of light. I mean this literally. Delsin will exclaim “Awesome!” when he levels a city block with a barrage of energy. Delsin’s brother Reggie will say “Cool!” when Delsin teleports between rooftops. Characters remark with glee on events that they should feel horrible about, twitching between the modes of a “real” character and a player surrogate. Again, I mean this literally:

DELSIN: Wait until you see what I’ve got! I’ve got angels and missiles…
REGGIE: Sounds dangerous and stupid…and I guess a little bit cool.

Consider how exciting these abilities are on their face. Second Son is an open-world action game. You massacare enemy goons by the dozens. You summon angels from the sky. You blast down helicopters with energy missiles. It seems unthinkable that the player needs to be reminded of the appeal. But not only do the writers think you need to be reminded, they think you’ll forget entirely without the game’s constant reassurance.

second son 3

And perhaps they’re right. For everything exciting about Second Son, it’s still “just” an open-world action game. It is far from the first game allowing players to leap across buildings or shoot missiles at bad guys. And it is, ultimately, a game where every sequence of button presses, every super-powered attack, leads to a handful of goons crumpled on the ground. The dust settles and not much has changed besides the elimination of enemies who barely qualified as threats to begin with.

Second Son finds itself in a tough spot: it’s a perfectly good action game, but it can’t rely on the player reacting appropriately. The game’s characters have to shoulder that burden. They don’t speak directly to the player, but express feelings that the player is obviously supposed to share. Nobody winks at the screen, but characters act in ways that only make sense if they understand they’re in their own Truman Show. It is an oblique form of pandering, just as one might indulge a toddler hiding behind a curtain: “I can’t see anybody in this room—if only someone were here to eat this plate of delicious cookies!”

Perhaps the game’s most flagrant pandering comes in the shape of Eugene, a nebbish Conduit who hides in a video game world of his own creation. He is a bullied nerd, a teenager hidden beneath a frumpy hoodie, who exacts revenge when he unlocks the power to summon MMORPG creatures into the real world. He is a power fantasy within a power fantasy, as if to provide yet another model for how the player ought to feel.

So much of Second Son says to me: don’t worry, we know you’re out there. We’re here to serve you. Delsin will, Nathan Drake style, narrate his feelings so I’m never confused about what I’m supposed to feel or think, maybe surprised but never upset or disappointed or, god forbid, unhappy. Second Son is a fantasy that doesn’t trust I’ll appreciate it, in a sandbox it doesn’t trust me to play in. The game stars characters it’s afraid to explore, with dialogue designed for my comfort rather than entertainment. It’s a power fantasy that strips me of power, and as such it’s no fantasy at all.

Grayson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @vghmag.

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Sony’s Rich Pageant /daily/sonys-rich-pageant/ /daily/sonys-rich-pageant/#comments Tue, 16 Jun 2015 05:01:46 +0000 /?p=440 ff7 midgar

Pageantry doesn’t have the best reputation. It’s easy to think of it as low art, a kind of kitsch, from beauty contests to pro wrestling. It can seem especially gauche in gaming, where keynotes and conferences are forged from pure marketing fluff in order to coax us into salivating about products that aren’t even out yet.

We live in a marketing-rich culture. We’re offered teaser tweets for teaser posters for teaser trailers for actual trailers for upcoming films (looking at you, Sam Mendes’ SPECTRE). One of our biggest shared mythologies is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which every unit of story acts as a shimmering advertisement for the others. The hype train is real; it’s now part of the excitement of participating in mythology and media.

That’s why I found myself watching Sony’s E3 pageant—sorry, conference—with such rapt attention. It takes real stones, and no small amount of showmanship, to walk up to an audience—in this case, a worldwide audience of millions—and declare that not one, not two, but three of their Elder Gods are not dead, but in fact coming back to life on a PlayStation near them. I mean, of course, The Last Guardian, Shenmue 3, and the biggest surprise of the night, a true current-gen remake of Final Fantasy VII.

The bombshell of Final Fantasy VII is key to what made Sony’s show so powerful. This is a critical piece of childhood mythology for millions of people. It’s what ignited in many of us that fire that said gaming was a serious pursuit, a place where magic could happen and wild stories could be told. Console gaming was always off-limits in my house, and I can’t quite explain to you the early charge of being a teenager and having a friend sneak his PlayStation over to show me a game starring a spiky-haired hero with a giant sword, with a level of graphical atmosphere unlike anything I’d seen before. That feeling is hard to put into words, but I can tell you with certainty that it came roaring back to life during Sony’s event tonight.

good morning crono

Low art and high art have never been accurate distinctions. Things we think of as low art often have much stronger communities built up around them because the mythologies are so essential to those who participate in them. Like a lot of people, I grew up scoffing at pro wrestling, but that was before I learned how deeply meaningful, visceral, and fun it can be for those who participate in it. I’ve always been a devoted fan of The Mountain Goats, but when their most recent album, the wrestling-themed Beat the Champ, came out, I got a sympathetic peek inside what made that medium so powerful for lead singer/songwriter John Darnielle. In “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” he recounts memories of watching wrestling as a kid while living under the thumb of his abusive stepfather: “I need justice in my life/Here it comes/Look high, it’s my last hope/Chavo Guerrero, coming off the top rope.”

Final Fantasy VII came along at a similarly tender age in my life, when I was still struggling with my own childhood. It offered me a dark world where hope nonetheless persisted, and although I don’t game as much now as I did then, it still gives me head-to-toe chills to suddenly be back in the living, breathing world of Midgar. Only this time in even more blistering detail and scope. I’m the sort of person who chafes at the cynicism of marketing, the endless sausage-making of AAA gaming. But this conference reached a part of me that existed before that—a kid who just knew there were killer worlds in my television waiting to be explored.

As an adult, I’ve come to regard gaming as a place where “low art” and “high art” have the potential to commingle, or even be dissolved. But I also see the realities of economics reducing gaming’s limitless canvas to endlessly repetitive products, and sometimes that can feel like a withering march into mediocrity. Even this level of excitement over a remake of a nearly two-decade-old game seems, in and of itself, like an indictment of the current state of affairs.

That’s exactly why sometimes it takes a little pageantry to remind us why we fell in love in the first place. To give us a light show, make us forget the man behind the curtain, and remind us that myth and magic can sometimes be real. I held myself above that for a long time, but tonight I gave up that affected resistance. It feels so good to come back to the fold.

Dara lives, works, and writes in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter at @palakchaval or on Letterboxd.

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