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EarthBound

January 19th, 2010 | Posted by Michel McBride-Charpentier in Critical Compilation: - (8 Comments)

“You confront the Abstract Art and its cohorts.”

EarthBound
was released in North America on June 1st, 1995. In other words, it was mainly played in the mid-90s by young Generation-Y gamers approaching adolescence (Maybe acquired on Christmas ’95, or a birthday in ’96). As such, the game is difficult to create a Critical Compilation for. There’s a lack of writing about it, and what does exist is barely critical. 15 years later most of what is written about EarthBound comes from the same Gen Y, now adults. Their declarations of love often appear in forum threads, comments on blog posts, and other secondary channels. When longer posts or articles are attempted, they usually consist of highly personal anecdotes driven by a paradoxical appreciation for—and struggle against succumbing to—the almost overwhelming nostalgia.

In the past two years we’ve seen critical writing about games explode from bloggers searching for a deeper meaning in AAA and indie games alike. Games are torn apart piecemeal in search of something that might confirm the artistic potential of the medium and signify progress. If nothing else, I hope this somewhat unique take on a Critical Compilation can serve as a reminder that in many ways this potential has already been realized. The importance of EarthBound isn’t found in its contributions to the development of the medium, but to the development of actual human beings who played it during their formative years.

“Here is the map. All the info is there, except for the info that isn’t there.”

The essay Tim Rogers wrote on Mother 2 (the original, uncensored Japanese version of EarthBound) is perhaps the single most comprehensive examination of a video game that exists. I will refrain from attempting to incorporate all of his research and dozens of personal accounts and observations into this critical compilation and instead encourage you to read it for yourself. This critical compilation, in a way, could be considered a companion piece to his essay. “All the info is there,” but what follows is some of the info that isn’t.
“At times like this, kids like you should be playing Nintendo games.”

In EarthBound: One Boy’s Coming of Age, Tomm Guycot provides an anecdotal account of his first experience with the game, and how it single-handedly proved to him that games were capable of something inexplicable but undeniably powerful. The post is not a good introduction to the game mechanics or story; as he explains, in listening to someone go on about EarthBound, “You may not learn much about the content of the game itself, but you’ll probably walk away with a good idea of the feelings it evokes in that person.” A similarly personal account appearing on GayGamer.Net was written by Justin, who first played it in his early teens. Like Tomm, he also struggles with attempts to present the game to a larger audience. The language he uses to describe his relationship with the game might appear overly dramatic or incomprehensible to most, but there’s likely a small group of players who felt something similar. In the following lines EarthBound is personified, made as real in memory as a long-gone childhood friend:

The game wants to know you, because you’ve been a part of this story longer than anyone within its universe. The game wants to know you, because the story won’t end without you … . It will miss you, because it never really got to know you. It heard you, it felt your prayers, and it knew that with you the impossible was actually within reach.

Recognizing the difficulty of attempting to explain what makes the game special, Justin concludes “EarthBound requires an appreciation of nostalgia to operate at full force. This isn’t a prerequisite for play, and you may eventually grok it at length, but it is necessary so as to understand the depth available.”

In a post titled Gaming Made Me Also (part of a 2009 meme in which authors wrote about some of their formative videogame experiences), Nels Anderson indirectly reminds us that EarthBound did not exist in a vacuum, and he acknowledges that it impacted his life alongside—not to a greater extent than—several other titles. While the sensations of first playing the game remain with him as vivid memories for nostalgia to exaggerate, he feels the game holds up in retrospect by having ‘heart’: “It was sophisticated enough to be able to take itself less seriously at times without compromising its more resonant moments.”

A forum post by user Lestrade on Large Prime Numbers suggests that the game can, under certain circumstances, still be deeply meaningful for people playing it for the first time today. He did not play it as a child, but had acquired the necessary “appreciation of nostalgia” by growing up in a small village surrounded by nature, blue skies, lakes, and a healthy whiff of innocence—not unlike the opening territory in Onett.” He then echoes the nebulous sentiment of those who did play it at a young age, explaining that playing EarthBound has so far been a well-needed reminder for me. A reminder of what, I won’t bother going into, since it would be strictly personal, anecdotal, and probably of no interest to anyone.

“(I can sense … that … you have a controller … in your … hands … .)”

EarthBound seems designed to encourage its players to empathize with Ness, without necessarily inviting us to fully inhabit his character. The game breaks the fourth wall several times, but only so as to expand the stage so it can include us. As Jason Love writes in a comment on Emily Short’s blog, the player is given the role of “an uninvolved NPC, or God, or the incorporeal force of narrative inevitability, depending on how you’d like to interpret it.” In a comment on his blog, Darius Kazemi links EarthBound‘s self-awareness of being a game to hypermediacy, a concept first developed by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin which suggests that “experience of the medium is itself an experience of the real.” The breaking of the fourth wall, in effect, does not harm our immersion, but enhances it.

Posting on the Something Awful forums, OzFactor makes an argument that the varying difficulty of the game is used to subtly convey meaning about Ness’s state of mind. Since a registration fee is required to view his posts, I have provided a slightly abridged version here:

These areas are hard because they’re supposed to be. Each one is a conscious plot decision; the department store and Moonside are so hard because Ness and Jeff are scared with their friend missing. They had just conquered so much in Threed, only to be separated once again. Twoson/Peaceful Rest/Happy Happy Village is actually the very best example in the game. Ness is leaving home for the first time and his courage is wavering. Luckily, he finds it again in a new friend. In Threed, the two come upon a town that not even Paula’s optimism can brighten up. It’s looking pretty bad until another friend arrives. After you get Poo, the next couple places are a breeze, like the Fourside sewer, Dalaam, and Scaraba. You even pretty much blast through the legendary Kraken, because now as a full team you are some pretty brave kids. Deep Darkness, however, is a pretty scary place, and the Stonehenge base is really the first full assault you have against the forces of Gigyas. They should both be putting the kids to the test. It’s pretty easy to understand why Magicant is so hard: Ness has to fight his demons, and he has to face them all alone. And in the end, the four are all alone, so completely removed from the world they know.

Were these actually conscious plot/design decisions as OzFactor claims? Some might say it doesn’t matter, and that every interpretation is valid as long as it doesn’t contradict the reality of the work. Another example: EarthBound was programmed in such a way that the randomly generated enemies reset when off screen, which allows you to walk away from an area with enemies you know are too tough and then approach again hoping for a more manageable group. This is something I personally always do in Peaceful Rest Valley, where Ness’ “courage is wavering.” The brainwashed dogs and old ladies and hippies have suddenly been replaced with robots and UFOs and trees that explode into flames when they die. It’s hard. It recently occurred to me that my little maneuvers used to exploit a “bug” reflected the hesitation Ness must feel. A few steps forward, run away, gather courage, approach again, and yes, it turns out the enemies weren’t so bad after all. We can both go on.

Matthew Gallant considers Ness’s family in-depth in Long Distance Love. He claims that “by wrapping your interactions with them in gameplay mechanics,” they are able to take on an importance to the player that mimics Ness’ reliance on them as a son. Matthew goes on to suggest that throughout the game “storytelling minimalism” is used expertly to manipulate us into relating with Ness, the most obvious example of this being the parents appearing as “‘empty vessels’ that are ready to be filled by the player’s imagination and expectations.”

“I’ll talk about my adventure, and you can tell me about all of your mistakes.”

As Darius notesEarthBound is particularly unusual in that is has a playable dénouement. Tim Rogers explores this in more detail, examining several specific instances of unique opportunities, NPC conversations and even sound effects that can only be discovered after defeating Giygas.

Everything about that final boss fight is twisted, from RPG battle conventions to the grotesque background imagery and taunts. Under “Reader Feedback” for the Retronauts EarthBound article, Nick Fagerlund contributes his thoughts on this battle and recalls that “most astonishingly, it reverses the single most basic power dynamic in an RPG: Instead of the NPCs existing to support a small group of mighty heroes, the heroes’ only ultimate value is to serve as a focal point for the hopes and beliefs of the NPCs.”

In The Hidden Themes of the End of the EarthBound, someone writing under the name Scary Womanizing Pig Mask attempts to shed some light on the nature of Giygas and what exactly is going on in the final battle. He provides a compelling theory that “Giygas has the mindset of an infant almost. He’s not fully aware of what is going on, only that something is attacking him, and his survival instinct[s] kick in. He can’t be held accountable for what he’s doing, and in essence you’ve just killed something primal and instinctive that isn’t even self-aware.”

After these anecdotes and interpretations, I can think of no better note to end on than the following observation by Tim Rogers: “Mother 2′s voodoo curse is that it reflects something back at you if you put enough into it. It’s the only video game I’ve ever known to change people.”

Rachael Webster / PixelVixen707, Part 2

September 3rd, 2009 | Posted by Michel McBride-Charpentier in Spotlight: - (3 Comments)

PV1Like the Hollywood of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the PixelVixen707 blog is a place where the fictional and real co-exist. Rachael Webster is a native of the Domestic City; she is a character who might have once been the teenage indie-game-hipster Emily’s roommate and has now somehow found her way into the real world. Games have unchallenged cultural value in her world and she naturally takes it for granted in her writing. Her blog posts never suggest a desire to see the medium mature or become something it’s not already. When Duncan Fyfe writes “We can do better” he exhibits optimism for the future of games that a lot of us share. In contrast, Rachael Webster writes in her critique of Fracture “I thought our standards were higher.” It’s a subtle difference which I don’t think is a fluke of language. Fracture is disappointing to her because it fails to meet certain standard expectations, not because it failed to exceed them. She never blames bad games for not fulfilling the potential of this medium just as no one blames Transformers 3 for holding back film.

In the world of PixelVixen707 games are ubiquitous. I don’t mean a console in every living room, but rather games of all types permeating every aspect of daily life – the kind of stuff Jane McGonigal often goes on about. Her friend thinks she’s too shy to meet developers and network at GDC, so Rachael develops a game of sorts that will entice people to seek her out. She later makes a bet with her dad that involves searching for an old arcade machine – the first video game she ever played. She turns to her readers for help solving the mystery, at one point asking us to play actual arcade games and submit our high-scores. These are, of course, alternate reality games. Rachael is a fictional character from an alternate reality, so what else could they be? But if she was a real person, if everything she wrote about the coin-op was true, would it not still be a game?

Everyone agrees that Rachael was running an ARG at GDC, but how is what she did any different from the IdleThumbs newspaper? For a few days those guys lived in an alternate reality where they roleplayed newsboys and print journalists and where game criticism, not just Halo 3 launch day mania, can appear on the front page of a newspaper. For several weeks the person (or persons) behind Rachael Webster was roleplaying a journalist in a temporary reality where nobody thought twice about Tim Schafer and Planescape: Torment retrospectives appearing alongside reviews of Blueberry Garden and inFamous on a website that describes its subject matter as “Beautiful naked punk rock, goth and emo girls with tattoos and piercings.” Just two months after Duncan Fyfe finished his Domestic City series of short fiction that had games appearing everywhere and anywhere, we saw Rachael Webster making it a reality with her Suicide Girls columns.

I believe the reason she started blogging was to make us consider the role of identity and games in our lives. I don’t think it was a marketing gimmick. I read the entire PixelVixen707 blog archives and never once saw a link to an upcoming book or product of any sort. I think, in a way, she was preparing us for the next decade. It will be a decade where identity is even more blurred and associated with social web representation than it is today, and those of us who don’t embrace alternate/augmented reality games will end up being left in the dust by a younger generation that experiences the outside world through projections and mobile phone screens in ways we’re only beginning to imagine. I never did submit an arcade score to Rachael and now I’m left wondering why. Rachael and her games offered a glimpse of a future we’re all going to be part of whether we like it or not, and I wasn’t an active participant. I think this is the kind of introspection she wanted to inspire, and is what will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten whether she panned or praised Fracture.

Her quality of writing was top notch. None of this meta stuff would have worked if nobody wanted to read her blog in the first place. Her critiques were sharp and witty, incorporating references to pop culture and other mediums that were notable for the simple fact they didn’t seem forced. For example, in “Left 4 Dead is PUNK AS FUCK” she compares Left 4 Dead to a moshpit, some of its players to hardcore punks, its campaign structure to a film, and then includes a throwaway joke mentioning how the Obama election failed to reform XBL racism. And why not? As far as Rachael’s concerned you can write about politics and racism and film and the punk scene in a post about a video game without making it an awkward 6,000 word essay dissecting what it all means for the future development of the medium.

One of my favourite lines is from her fourth post, a review of God of War: Chains of Olympus. In her short plot summary of the game she writes: “There's also a titan, Atlas, who you can chain to the bottom of the world with a few well-timed button clicks.” There’s no jadedness, judgement, or excited claim to a new sighting of ludonarrative dissonance; just a deadpan statement that succinctly illustrates the game’s ridiculous marriage of narrative and mechanics.

We’re going to see more writers like Rachael in the next few years. I don’t mean invented personas, but rather writers with a style that can only come honestly and comfortably from someone who grew up in a world where games have the kind of cultural relevance and ubiquity that makes constant justification unnecessary. I have a 12 year old cousin who is more hyped than I am for Beatles: Rock Band and is always asking me for iPod Touch game recommendations. She’s not an outlier, she’s one of an entire generation of girls that are growing up with Facebook, games, iPods. I don’t know if my cousin will want to write about games, either as a hobby or professionally, but I think it’s inevitable that that is something many of her peers will pursue. Nothing Rachael did or wrote will seem extraordinary next to the output of this new generation, but the sneak-peek she provided us with has been fascinating.

Okami

June 26th, 2009 | Posted by Michel McBride-Charpentier in Critical Compilation: - (9 Comments)

“Oh, our Merciful Mother, Okami Amaterasu…”

In early 2006 Clover Studio released Okami for the Playstation 2 in Japan. Several months later it crossed the oceans to Western audiences in North America and Europe, and eventually found new-found life when re-released for the Wii in 2008. Okami, meaning both ‘Great God’ and ‘Wolf’, was immediately recognized and appreciated by Western critics for its distinct Sumi-e and Ukiyo-e visual style and unique take on the Zelda genre of action-adventure. I believe it can be safely assumed that most people who have played the game — who have seen it in motion — have shared Michael Abbot’s impassioned response:

All I know is that when I look at this game – its flowing streams of watercolor flowers; its ink-and-wash brushstrokes; its Zen-inspired landscapes; its radiant creatures and dancing demons – all rendered through textured filters of canvas, parchment, and wood – I am awestruck by its fluid elegance and beauty.

In a reply to a reader comment, Michael goes on to suggest that the visual language of Okami is not merely cosmetic, but an important aesthetic that “communicates meaning to the player”.

In an especially discerning post titled Three Artists in Okami, the pseudonymous Iroquois Pliskin separates Okami into three layers and assigns an artist to each. The artist of the narrative is Issun, the tiny character who accompanies Amaterasu and records her deeds through paintings. The artist of the game is the player, who uses the designed mechanics to literally paint solutions and create a ludological work of experiential art through play. The third artist is Clover Studio, those who designed the game in such a way so as to communicate “a set of values (traditional piety and reverence for nature) by having the player act out the illustrious deeds set out in the designer’s plan.” He contrasts this last benevolent relationship between player and designer with the more “sinister” ones that exist in games such as Portal, BioShock, and Metal Gear Solid 2. Whereas Okami’s design celebrates the player, these other games have been criticised for sometimes being condascending and insulting (The most famous example of the latter appearing in Clint Hocking’s critique of BioShock).

Matthew of Magical Wasteland briefly reminds us about the excellent game score, which is “…at once sweepingly grand and surprisingly intimate, blending the traditional and contemporary, it draws upon a tremendous range of sources and associations over the course of the player’s journey.” Indeed, the music is such an integral part of the experience that many pages in the Okami Official Complete Works art book are annotated with specific tracks from the Official Sound Track that the reader is meant to listen to concurrently.

“…a bridge of hope across the skies…”

The defining element of Okami’s gameplay — what immediately separates it from Zelda — is the brushstroke interaction. Yu-Chung Chean of Game Design Reviews calls this a quasi-mode, a game mode where “the whole process of going into the drawing mode, doing the brushwork and finishing it by letting go the R1 button feels like one action.” Zelda, in contrast, requires that the player potentially break immersion by leaving the game world to navigate several menus to choose the sought-after item or action.

In his critique on Popmatters, L.B. Jeffries uses the brush technique in one of his many examples of how Okami successfully exploits the interactive nature of videogames to provide a narrative experience simply not possible in purely passive media: “The moment where you must help Susano by inking in the sword slashes for him also explore a relationship that would otherwise not work: having the audience actively enjoy redeeming a fallen hero.”

The brushstroke interactions are used to overcome the numerous environmental puzzles, but players will find themselves using it often in combat with the various demons that wander Okami’s Nippon. Dan Bruno of the blog Cruise Elroy wonders why he found the combat to be downplayed, and speculates that it was largely due to the fact that the brushstroke attack mechanics were “a greater test of my memory and problem-solving than of my reflexes.” As time is paused during the brushstroke quasi-mode, the pressure to react quickly is not as emphasized as in other action-adventure games. He also suggests that the ability to easily avoid combat, and the rarity of combat-heavy dungeons, successfully “reflects Okami‘s thematic focus on life and rejuvenation.”

“…and now will I rejuvenate this dying world by growing against the cold snow.”

On Malvasia Bianca, David Carlton writes that the ongoing rejuvenation process that makes up the majority of Okami, or more specifically the fact that this rejuvenation allows the player to gain experience and level up, is “A very humane way to design a game.” Dan Bruno agrees, and confirms the effectiveness of the design when he tell us “I look forward to reviving Guardian Saplings not just so that I can progress through the story, but so that I have a new area to explore and nurture.”

In Nature and Nurture: Okami and Practicing Shintoism, Mike Leader points out that the extent to which the player restores the natural world of Nippon is entirely optional, but encouraged as a logical extension of the narrative. In a brilliant example of ludonarrative consonance, Mike explains that ”the player, encouraged or manipulated into these objectives for completion’s sake or otherwise, actively participates in the worship of nature.”

Attempting to draw from Okami lessons that are applicable in the real world, Michal Wisniowski of Mentisworks suggests that the game “equates the prosperity of humans with the prosperity of the natural environment” and that by “granting the player powers of nature, Okami shows us that natural forces are strong enough to effect change in the world.”

The cutscene that appears when feeding wild animals was the source of some contention as to its thematic value. Dan Bruno agrees with a reader comment that criticizes the cutscene for being the only rejuvenation action other than the epic “uncursing” of an area that takes the player out of the game world. The New Gamer’s Glenn Turner, however, argues that the importance of this feeding scene is being underappreciated: “It’s a small moment, but it serves as a reminder as to Amaterasu’s benevolent nature, as well as reminding the player of the peaceful world that Amaterasu is fighting for.” He then notes that ”there’s no other moment: not even in the game’s loading screens: when you’re unable to do anything but sit and contemplate.”

“… the sweet aroma of blossoming flowers  … wherever your travels may take you.”

The ludological and geographical divisions between town, overworld, and dungeon — so common in action-adventure games of this sort — still exist in Okami, but, as David Carlton points out, the boundaries between the three have never been more loosely defined. Rather than each type of area serving a very specific and unswerving purpose, the “towns and overworld interpenetrate, overworlds are destinations rather than simply areas to traverse on your way from town to town or dungeon, and the extremes of dungeons are muted.”

L.B. Jeffries points to these blurred boundaries as the reason he could not continue playing the game for more than 15 hours (about the halfway mark). Without any solid idea of when new brush powers were going to be granted, or the precise number and location of the dungeons, he found that “the flow just keeps going and going without me having any real way to stagger my engagement.” This kind of sustained flow was ultimately draining for him, and perhaps one of the contributing reasons that numerous other players never finished the game.

“Were I to have my powers once again, these rivers of heaven would soon overflow with stars.”

Player comments concerning game length seem to be unanimous, in that they expected Okami to end around the 12-15 hour mark after the defeat of the first boss, and that it would have been a better game for it. What they were actually met with was the introduction of another demon-god and brand new areas to explore. Yu-Chung Chen summarizes his experience plodding through the game:  ”Instead of being able to estimate the amount of challenges to come and eagerly expecting the actual ending, I was thinking: let’s see how many of those chapters there are.” The narrative build-up to a final confrontation was never fully realized, as it was never entirely clear to players when the game was going to end.

Michal Wisniowski offers a potential narrative explanation for this repetition in a post titled Okami: Thoughts on Karma. Drawing on his understanding of Buddhist Karma, he explains that Amaterasu’s “actions, and those of other characters, during the first encounter with the opposing forces of the game remained in part unresolved. By the laws of karma those events began to repeat themselves, yet with greater intensity.”

The excessive length of the game is due, in no small part, to the large portion of time the players spends smashing pots and collecting items. Glenn Turner, in his post Okami: Gorging on Excess, takes the game to task for relying on the genre staple of item collection in a way that seems to contradict the natural themes of Okami: ”The collecting of these treasures and artifacts exist in-game for no thematic purpose in the game other than to line your wallet”. Ink pots, yen, and even Amaterasu’s weapons are called out as being unecessary. He ends, however, by recognizing that the repetitive tasks that do support the narrative — blooming withered trees, feeding animals, collecting art for the bestiary scroll — are what makes the game such a rich experience. In regards to these good elements of excess, Glenn writes, ”Okami is loaded, almost bloated, with these sort of extravagances and often is better for it, weaving in character nuances and making the world feel more fleshed out and alive.”

“The mortals tend to forget that which they cannot see…”

I’ll end this critical compilation with a quote by Kamiya Hideki, (Creative) Director and Writer at Clover Studio, from his message to us that appears in Okami Official Complete Works:

Within the many comments that I have made all over the place, I have always stated that “I love games.” But I don’t mean it like “I love any game.” The games that I am referring to when I say “I love games,” are the games that moved me, that stayed with me even unto this day, those excellent games that I appreciate and respect. As a game designer, I can see a “light” in my predecessors. Every game comes in a different package, but those with an almost holy light that shines with an irrepressible brilliance are the ones that will go down in history as epics.

Example Post 2: Critics are necessary for your art

April 11th, 2009 | Posted by Michel McBride-Charpentier in Uncategorized - (3 Comments)

Khoi Vin has written an excellent post calling for more criticism within the field of graphic design. The entire piece is surprisingly relevant to the current state of video game criticism:

Like it or not, you can't have a serious discourse about an art form until you have people whose sole involvement in that art form is criticism. You need, in effect, an independent press. Actually, to be clear, what you need is an economic model that can support a corps of passionate, clear-thinking individuals who are dedicated to vigilantly watching over the progression of the medium. Recent troubles aside, this is why art, film and architecture have achieved such great heights in our society: those art forms are economically robust enough to support a vibrant critical class.

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