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Balthier and Trembling

by Zen

Posted on Wednesday, March 16, 2016
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Once upon a time there was a man who as a child had heard the beautiful story about the gods' chosen hero, who was reborn in the power of his destiny to write his chapter of an eternal history.  When the child became older he regarded the same story with a newfound wariness, for life had informed and keenly honed the pious simplicity of the child.  In time such tales, told as they are again and again, were noteworthy more for their human omissions than their divine testaments.  In time he would deliver his answer.
Two great nations go to war.  The battleground, a small kingdom in between, is obliterated in a single explosion that asserts Arcadia's dominance over the entire globe.  This death and destruction set the tone for an era of bloodshed and fear.
The new Ivalice holds no place for the name Dalmasca; her new Dynast-King's time is nigh.  Happy the world whose hero arrives at all, to prevent these terrors.
Her gaze fixed on duty, her thirst for power and vengeance left unchecked, the deposed queen sees only the path to glory.  Filled with holy purpose, stones of power in hand and treaty signed in enemies' blood, the gods' will is fulfilled and a dynasty of sacred order and Roman peace is secured.  What hours of darkest night will these new shards bring?
Sword in hand, Dalmasca's enemies are laid to rest.  Sword in hand, she makes an enemy of all.  Happy the world whose hero gives not her heart to a stone.
When is a quest worth abandoning?  At what point do virtue and justice yield to some hope for dignity, for the peace that history denied a ruined homeland?  What price will the children of Dalmasca pay to see the machinations of empires repaid?
Revolution, resistance, insurgence--these words all splinter, shattered and bloody, at the breast of the uncompromising folly of conviction.  Happy the world whose hero must face the exhaustion her cause has brought the devoted.

The knight's path is arduous but firm, watching over his charge with no concern for his self.  Even a brother's hate and a kingdom's disgrace can be no burden to him as he shields his queen from any harm or interference.  Vulnerable and weak, a desperate regent is not, alone, enough to stand against the tide of history, and a pawn for others' designs she shall ever be.
In the end, the knight's duty is to both sides of a conflict, that it may not be won but rather dissolved.  Happy the world whose hero receives such protection and whose counterpart receives it double.
Memoirs are filled with the posturing of nations.  History's needs are those of borders and titles, of opposing nation-states and conflicting ideals.  This dialectic holds no meaning for the meager, for those desperate lives clinging to its lowtowns, its alleys of muted sighs.
History's orphans seldom offer counsel to its masters, and thus do their numbers swell.  Happy the world whose hero knows the lot of its weakest.
The ground beneath thrones has had its fill of tyrants' blood; their seats are too easily filled by their like for true peace to last.  The trick is to find that rare, solicitous leader who is both poised and willing to replace power with care.
Once again the survivors of war are claimed by the last remaining aggressors.  Once again force begets force, and all the virtues of youth meet their end at the peace table.  Happy the world whose hero has such enemies as these.
Thus and in many like ways we see how the thread of history must be informed by the pain of individuals.
Final Fantasy XII is a story of overcoming empire, overcoming gods, but most of all overcoming pain and loss.  Each of its characters, even those we see as frivolous and offensive, is essential to its precarious outcome.  For it is one thing to cheer on righteous violence and another to burn one's ambitious resolve at the altar of compassion.  Duty to country, to friends, to allies, to history, each is insufficient on its own.  The true leader feels pulled by all of these, but finds a way to be consumed by none and thereby satisfy all.

On the surface it is a story we have seen too much of: the hero's journey, the chosen one leading a righteous rebellion against an evil and powerful empire.  These tales mostly play out the same, but this time the tired resolution is overcome.  This time, the whole picture is considered and a world of individuals cries out against it.  FFXII simultaneously honors and undermines a legacy of storytelling and thematic expression that is said to encompass human history.  It is an unprecedented and brave step forward for fantasy of all kinds, a therapeutic salve for the trauma of the hero's journey.

Ten years ago today this game blasted all expectations, misgivings, and cynicism out of the water.  Ten years ago today Yasumi Matsuno not only revolutionized the Final Fantasy series, but upended a legacy of lazy storytelling and miserable ideology whose origins are ancient beyond belief.

Go play Final Fantasy XII, and if you have the means to play the International Zodiac Job System version then definitely do that.  It is my favorite game, by my favorite writer of games, and its quality will surprise the doubtful and the faithful alike.
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The Other of All Game Protagonists

by Zen

Posted on Monday, December 7, 2015
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Two games came out on the NES with the same design goals, but with different inspirations.  Both games were open-world action games that emphasized the hero's gradual mastery over an environment, but while The Legend of Zelda attempted to capture the spirit of adventure of a young child playing in the woods Metroid was inspired by the solitude and anxiety of the film Alien.  Understandably, this led to two very different protagonists.  Zelda's Link as the chosen hero, guided by destiny to rescue his princess, is a trope that even as a child I couldn't stomach.  His rise to victory is pre-ordained, a series of formalities the game, like its world, is obligated to bestow.  Metroid's Samus shows up similarly under-equipped, and similarly unlocks the secrets of her environment to gain the power to achieve her goal, but the game inherited Alien's emphasis on its heroine's personal struggle.  Even after awkward world-building was forced into the series Samus retained her potency, her desperate strength.

Metroid 2's only indication
that Samus is a woman

It is mercifully mundane nowadays to note that Samus, like Ripley who inspired her, is a woman.  At the time it was something we talked about at recess.  "But the manual calls Samus 'he'!" Those of us who knew the code for her second quest (of course we couldn't beat the game ourselves), where the armor came off and her hair came down, knew the translators had just made the same assumption we had.  Seeing this made me think, probably for the first time, about where these assumptions came from.  But in the end Samus acted as a glorified peep show, rewarding the player with a flash of skin for completing the game quickly.  The positive impact of this representation was overwhelmed by objectification.

A few years ago I read a story about a man whose daughter loved playing Zelda games but wasn't interested in playing as another boy saving a girl.  He hacked the game script for Wind Waker so that it was a story about a young girl saving her brother, and it ended up working perfectly.  This is a really sweet story, one that highlights many of the imperfections to which "typical gamers" have the luxury of blindness.  There was a time I'd have sworn that gamers would cling to this anecdote as being indicative of video games' universal applicability, that the girl's desire to play Zelda at all meant vindication that games were more than mere focus-grouped novelty and had genuine cultural value, for everyone.  I now know better.

The backlash, in a smirking equivocation that has become all too familiar, came in the form of a version of Metroid hacked so that Samus is a man.  Neither hack was a high-profile event, but the audacity of this absurd rebuttal presages GamerGate's core tenet: that even one heroine is too many.  That young girls should stay out of the treehouse.

How powerups are acquired in Other M
This juvenile tantrum presaged something else: Nintendo itself rescinded Samus's heroic status, releasing a new Metroid game whose only purpose was to retroactively excise all agency, power, and courage from its once ground-breaking protagonist.  This game, Metroid: Other M, is the most aggressively sexist game I have ever played, made all the moreso by its determination to undo the barely-progressive "mistakes" of its forebears.  Its purpose was to reassure us that Samus, while she may have done cool stuff once, is ultimately nothing but a pretty vessel for male will, delirious with her desire to procreate.  Her newfound weakness illuminated a path of unconscionable derogation.

At the center of the most important moment in gamer culture right now is a series of videos made by Anita Sarkeesian on the representation of women in games.  A lot of nerds have responded with threatening vitriol, and while no video she could possibly have ever posted to YouTube justifies death and rape threats, I was somehow still surprised by how calm and careful her videos are. All she does is follow a trope from its origins in other media through the history of video games and then point out that, while these are mostly very good games that she can enjoy despite their problematic elements, those elements are still troubling enough to warrant attention and discussion.  It's the product of someone who clearly has a great love of the art form and wants to see it rise above its shortcomings.

For any element of the gaming community to react badly to this is confusing on many levels.  First are the obvious ones: I don't like to think about how people in our society could ever be this morally bankrupt, and that anyone could watch this video series and not only find fault with it but feel the need to make a "rebuttal" that attempts to invalidate rather than engage her points takes an uncomfortable degree of dishonesty and intellectual laziness.  What keeps me wondering, though, is how wrong I was about gamers' priorities: I have always known gamers to be so obsessed with the art form that they see as "theirs" that they want it to be all things to all people.  It isn't just that they like games, it's that games are the best.  It's that a higher class of people like games, smarter people who see the value in something the rest of the world doesn't understand.  There's a smug pretense about it all, and I always found this overcompensating myopia to be constitutive for gamer culture at large.

The controversy over Anita Sarkeesian, as well as GamerGate, highlight the shameful truth: that these gamers are more interested in abusing women than they are in video games.  Rather than wanting to see games eliminate those qualities that lead to justified derision, rather than shepherding a fledgling art form into true cultural relevance, they lash out at anyone who suggests they overcome their deep and protected bigotry.

Of anyone who still thinks this is an example of "boys will be boys", or of a vocal minority, I ask simply to consider the example of Samus Aran.  An already-problematic character, she nevertheless blazed a trail of representation that, if supported, could effect real change in how young boys are taught to think about women.  I have already written about the power this art form can have over the way that we care; to not only shout down any attempt to listen to women about how our art affects them but to find whatever meager sprig can grow in the wasteland of mainstream representation and pull it up by the roots represents a degree of hatred and willful oppression that nobody can afford to ignore.
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Preparing to Die

by Zen

Posted on Saturday, April 12, 2014
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So I last wrote about the problems that go with using zombies as the object of violence in a video game.  I was hyperbolic and self-righteous, but there's nothing in there I would want to take back, short of pointing you to some of the more recent research into the Kitty Genovese case that shows I maybe should not have used it as an example.  All the same, I'd like to talk now about one of very few games that actually does something interesting with zombies and undeath: Dark Souls.

The undead of Dark Souls are essentially ordinary people, but afflicted with a curse that gradually eats away at their memories of home and self.  The game is set in and around an asylum where the undead are sent in hopes of preventing the curse's spread.  Their ultimate fate is a violent madness, such that other undead serve as the game's foes as well as merchants and allies.  By far the most important thing about undeath in Dark Souls, however, is that it represents a real-world affliction that the game gives genuinely sweet and sincere perspective on: dementia.

There are two storylines in the first Dark Souls that I'd like to highlight.  Anyone who plans on playing the game should probably stop reading, since I'm going to spoil the ways one's interactions with these characters unfold.  While these aren't story spoilers in the usual sense, they're a part of why Dark Souls is a brilliant and challenging game and I recommend letting the game reveal itself to you naturally.

The first character on the list is Big Hat Logan, a ravenous scholar who has ditched his apprentice and keeps getting himself captured:
Initial meeting:
  Mm, you seem quite lucid! A rare thing in these times.
  I am Logan. I'm a bit cooped up, as you can see.
  I have a bright idea. Suppose you set me free?
  I'm old and empty-handed, but i could repay you with my knowledge, and sorcery.
  This place is melting my mind. The inactivity is repressive!

In the Duke's Archives, after rescuing him:
  A great pool of knowledge, the fruits of superior wisdom and an unquenchable desire for truth.
  Some would say Seath had an unsound fixation …But his work is a beautiful, invaluable resource.
  All progress demands sacrifice.
  And I certainly bear no antipathy for that wonderful scaleless beast.

After defeating the area boss in the Duke's Archives:
  Oh, there you are, it has been a while.
  Or were you just here?
  This fascinating place defeats my sense of time…

Then later:

Later still:
  …Who are you…
  …Stay clear…stay clear of my work…
  …Curses upon you!
  …How dare you disturb me!

After this you find his clothes in a heap, and if you search carefully you'll find him in another area of the archives running around naked.  He attacks you on sight, wild and paranoid.  The player has witnessed Logan's decline from celebrated intellectual to babbling fool, and there is no "good path" to take with Logan to prevent this fate.  It's a sad perspective on the fragility of intellect, where we witness perhaps the heaviest fall from greatness in the game.

But for me the most poignant story in Dark Souls will always be that of Siegmeyer of Catarina and his daughter, Sieglinde.  It's always been a heartbreaker, but when I sat down to write about it I realized it was even sadder and far more real than I had thought.  Siegmeyer is an undead adventurer.  He's friendly and good-natured, but not really up to the task of scurrying around Lordran getting into scrapes.  Time and again the player helps him out of a bind, and eventually comes across his daughter.  She's not undead, but she's come to Lordran to track him down and make sure he spends his remaining time comfortably instead of being a burden on others and getting into trouble.

Sieglinde is just as sweet and kind-hearted as her father, but when the player eventually comes across their reunion it's the aftermath of his inevitable decline: he has gone hollow, and it was up to her to put him down:

My father…all Hollow now…has been subdued. He will cause no more trouble.
It's finally over…I will return to Catarina.
You assisted us both greatly. I can hardly return the favour.
Oh, father…dear father…

Rather than leave him to his fate in the Undead Asylum, Sieglinde sought to look after her father herself.  When the time came for him, it was left to her to pull the plug.  This is the scene that rewards the player for helping Siegmeyer through all of his difficult troubles, and it's representative of the tone of Dark Souls in general.

Dark Souls 2 made a tiny change that drives these themes even further.  Instead of being called "Humanity", the item that returns the player to full human status is called a "Human Effigy".  Upon creating a new character, the player is not prompted to decide the character's appearance or background until Strowen the firekeeper bestows one of these, saying it is a doll made in the image of a famous adventurer.  She then says it is the player's image, and this is when appearance and background are decided.  The doll is in fact completely vague in appearance, but the act of trying to make it out as one's self allows one to recall one's own self by trying to project it on the effigy.  Instead of a magic soul item, it's a definite focus for "getting it together" and recovering one's sense of self.

A few years ago my father was diagnosed with vascular dementia.  It's been a long and gradual decline, full of worry and crisis and hard decisions.  The worst thing about it is that whatever hard decisions you make, and however correctly you make them, the result is the same.  The best you can sometimes hope for is to make him comfortable for a very slightly slower decline.  Most players won't even realize it, but Dark Souls forces these kinds of decisions.  At the end of the game it's up to you whether to prolong a misguided and exploitative source of warmth and life for a little bit longer or plunge the world into an age of darkness.  Fans still can't agree much on which is the "good ending", because there isn't one.

Ultimately, Dark Souls is far kinder to the player than it is to its characters and world.  Advertisements for Dark Souls 2 proclaim that it's not about death, but life and learning.  This is an optimistic spin, but not untrue.  As with all stories that dwell on themes of the inevitability of death, Dark Souls teaches us to hold on to what we love and make the most of our time.  It also brazenly confronts the fact that not all of us live out our days as ourselves, and sometimes we lose those things we cherish before our time really comes.

The undead aren't always cannon fodder, hellspawn, or an apocalyptic plague; sometimes they're our parents.
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by Zen

Posted on Tuesday, February 19, 2013
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Villains in video games are a troubling thing.  I don’t even mean villain characters like Sephiroth and Kefka, or anime conventions about saving the world from a malevolent ham.  Now that we’ve actually developed the medium to a point that moral questions become relevant, the question for all video game violence is: “Just whom, exactly, are we supposed to have fun killing?” Video games are generally violent and almost always supposed to be fun, and while most negative reactions to this violence are ill-considered and reactionary, I don’t think it’s responsible to neglect the issue entirely.  The fact is that we have found solutions to the problem of video game violence that are in many ways more socially dangerous than the problem itself.

It doesn't get any easier than this.
Nazis, for example, are the ideal antagonists: they’re never the underdogs, they’re maximally white, they fought to build a fascist empire that committed one of the most appalling genocides in human history, and they lost the war.  It is a convenient moral loophole that a fighting force existed who were so ideologically repugnant that any act committed against them could be considered, at worst, justice.  Over and over again the victory pornograph played for us, until Nazis became cartoonish impossibilities.  Instead of a terrible lesson about unchecked nationalism, instead of an illustration of the tendency toward racial scapegoats in the face of poverty, we have Snidely Whiplash and his Silly Accent Brigade.

After too much of this we risk feeling sorry for them.  So once the buzz of moral superiority wears off and the crass repetition is impossible to ignore, whom do we kill?  Monsters and aliens were always fair game, of course, but those can still be conceived as having rights and morals.  Self-defense takes some writing to make plausible, too, and you always risk the audience identifying with the people he or she is slaughtering.  This is where horror films supplied the next step, and it is my position that despite its grounding in kitsch and classic horror the zombie is as morally problematic as any human antagonist, and probably more so.

There are thousands of games that are just this.
It’s not just that Zombies are a lazy device, or that there is only a small number of stories you can tell that include them.  The problem is that zombies are such a forced black-and-white morality, the nuclear option of unsympathetic antagonists, that people who are specifically into them as a genre are probably sociopathic.  Nothing about them is particularly interesting, so the only exceptional characteristic they have is that you can laugh and smile as you shoot them or blow them up.  Or set fire to them.  Anybody who is, as a rule, a fan of anything with zombies in it is probably just a fan of setting people on fire.  The very thing that made Zombies terrifying in early horror (their lack of moral agency) has made them a flashpoint for contemporary disaffected blood lust.

It’s like that scene at the beginning of Bad Boys II (yeah, we’re doing this) where the heroes are performing a drug bust, but there’s no reason for the audience to care that these people are doing drugs.  They’re having a party in the woods, and happen to be popping some pills.  Is this gunfight going to be a thrill ride?  What if someone in the audience has ever done a drug and it wasn’t a big deal?  Well, what if we also make them members of the Ku Klux Klan?  Problem solved, fire away!

A 2000 Penny Arcade strip that almost makes a point.
It’s a mostly unspoken rule these days that it’s okay to hate anybody who is a member of any form of the Nazi party, or the KKK, or is a pedophile.  That’s probably fine, since those are some spectacularly terrible things.  It should not be okay, ever, to delight in their being the victims of indiscriminate violence.  And here is where the problem has turned itself around.  We needed a scapegoat, an easy target that wouldn’t make us uneasy.  But now that very desire has revealed itself as reprehensible.  In this way Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty are no different: one has virtual innocent victims and one has virtual victims that are sanctioned by the community, but both revel in the violent act itself.

The common theme is one of dehumanization, and it’s a serious problem.  The fantasy of video games, the escape from reality they provide, is that nobody in them is a real human being.  Once a person becomes accustomed to looking at people this way, the danger is developing a solipsistic lack of concern for one’s fellows.  I would like to make, or at least see made, a game that explicitly reinforces this tendency.  Thus made concrete, we will have the opportunity to confront it.

In this game the player will commit no violence, witness no shocking images, and be exposed to absolutely no sexual content of any kind (in fact, this lack of agency and exposure is the goal itself).  The game is set in a nondescript New York apartment, which should be fully interactive.  There is a television with compelling dramas playing, a newspaper, Monopoly, and other everyday distractions.  The player can make coffee, order pizza, call a friend, etc.  The only remarkable thing about the setting is that outside, in an alley, Kitty Genovese is being murdered.  If the player tries to interfere, call the police, or even look outside then he or she loses the game.

Kitty Genovese
This is not a murder simulator (per se - it is, arguably, a second-person murder simulator), and it won’t train anybody to become violent, yet it is perhaps the most base and monstrous game imaginable.  What it will train is a lack of concern for other human beings.  It is the worst kind of role play, explicitly encouraging the player to not help anyone, ever.  To this end, care must be taken in ensuring that the player is never ignoring the game itself, but instead focused exclusively on the task of ignoring the atrocities that occur within the game (for example, if the player is idle the game will automatically start toward the window or the phone, forcing the player's hand).

Jack Thompson once proposed that no video game developer would dare make a game about killing video game developers, since they would be training their own murderers.  Thompson assumed that video games so perfectly aped human experience that a player would find himself confused about what was real and what was the game.  Whatever apprehensions one has about games and technology, it's flatly evident that no such confusion exists.  I want to emphasize that the game I propose here is very different, because even though the murder in the game is a mere simulation of a real-life event, the player's active ignorance of it is real.  Part of the threat, too, is that once a person sees, face-to-face, the victim of a savage beating who is in danger of being murdered, involvement is inevitable.

The real murder of Kitty Genovese, as told and retold in college classrooms of every discipline in the humanities, was made possible because everyone who could have helped her was able to ignore the sounds and suggestions of her fate that reached them.  While these indicators are more urgent and real than anything we encounter in a video game, they nevertheless can be desensitized even where an encounter with the murder itself can not.

Ultimately, whether the target of your simulated violence is a simulated Nazi or a simulated game developer or a simulated woman in an alley, we have to have our debate about violence in games in a way that ties into the things about them that aren't fantasy, aren't simulated.  We have to wonder why we want to pretend the things that we pretend.  Video games aren't going to train us to do anything other than the things we're already inclined to do, but they can have a more powerful effect on our ideas about race and sex than any film or book ever has.  They can also have an effect on our ideas about humanity itself, and threats to the way that we care are considerable indeed.  I don't think we're going to prevent any real-life violence by preventing simulated violence, but we can maybe hope to exert some control over our apathy, and that's a start.
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