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Gaming Culture Video Game Playthroughs

Live A Live is Finally Releasing Globally

This year has been busy, just a constant stream of things to work on. One thing after another has meant that downtime and creativity have been sparse, used up meeting deadlines and keeping all of life’s plates spinning. The lack of free time and energy for this blog and other video projects (would love to do more let’s plays and streaming). I also realize we’re only 6 weeks into 2022 but it’s always annoying when you don’t have time to do the things you enjoy.

But I was roused from my stupor when the Nintendo Direct today contained a wild announcement; Live A Live is being released in the US for the first time! At least as a Remake, moving the older game to the new 2D-HD aesthetic. Live A Live has lived on in its original form through the dedicated work of fan translators and for people who want to experience that can access it online now. An official release is still a big deal and it seems like Square Enix is putting a lot behind the remake. Some background for this cult hit: Live A Live is a unique Super Famicom RPG from 1994 that was never released outside of Japan (I wrote a small bit about it in my 2021 wrap up). This game was directed by the legendary Takashi Tokita, who had directed Final Fantasy IV previous to Live A Live and would go on to create Chrono Trigger and Parasite Eve. Artists were brought in to create the seven scenarios and characters that would make up the game which included people like Gosho Aoyama (Detective Conan). It also has an amazing soundtrack composed by Yoko Shimomura who wrote songs for Street Fighter II and would compose Parasite Eve, Legend of Mana, Xenoblade Chronicles, and a small game named Kingdom Hearts. Just take a listen to this, the song that Toby Fox took the name for his famous track from (and is forever buried in my brain):

But what is the game? Instead of one long RPG story, you’ll play seven different scenarios that cover a variety of different fiction. There’s Western, Horror Science Fiction, and Kung Fu stories that all reference movies that rub alongside more gaming referential ones like a street fighter inspired scenario. Each scenario only runs about a few hours meaning they never overstay their welcome. They all share a similar, active time and grid based battle system. You’ll still select moves like other turn based RPGs, but each move has a different attack pattern and distance in which it can be executed. Some you’ll have to be directly next to the enemy while others you can attack along a diagonal path. Moves will also range in their execution time meaning you may have to wait a few seconds for your character to unleash an attack or a healing spell. What this means in battle is that you’re having to adjust characters’ positions so they can avoid enemy attacks, use their attack moves or have a buffer zone to charge up. Battles are also unique in that damage doesn’t carry over meaning that health resets once it’s finished. In practicality that means battles are a bit harder than other RPGs. Enemies can also hit really hard (even the low level ones) so you usually have to find a way to move into attack range and move out before taking damage.

Live a Live Apophisphio Fight

Even though they all share the battle system, each scenario’s gameplay is distinct and utilizes RPG mechanics to evoke their individual settings. The science fiction and western scenarios barely have battles and instead use the top down perspective to have you navigate and interact with the environment. The ninja scenario allows you to tackle the fortress you’re invading through lethal or nonlethal means and has branching paths for you to either sneak past or fight all the enemies. These scenarios twist RPG mechanics by deprioritizing stat growth (ie increased health and attack) and instead making navigating and interacting the environment the main part. You’ll still get traditional RPG missions (the other future science fiction story falls in this category) but the variety between the seven scenarios makes revisiting the classic structure refreshing. It’s like you’re playing AAA RPG maker games all together in one package. The game then wraps it all together with an 8th scenario that ties together all the other ones in a fantasy overworld filled with micro dungeons. Those dungeons also reference the genres from each section and experiments with them in a more traditional RPG/dungeon crawling way. There’s even a really cool final battle choice that I shouldn’t have spoiled in my 2021 wrap up but that I’m going to avoid spoiling here.

It’s a really special game and there’s a reason that people familiar with Live A Live were immediately activated by the announcement. I didn’t realize how much of an activation phrase it was for me and yet here we are. My only hesitation comes from the new remake portions. I’m not a huge fan of the 2D-HD aesthetic and I’m concerned how big story moments will be rendered. I’m also curious how they’ll change the gameplay as I’m assuming they’ll try and smooth out some of the rough edges in moving around the battlefield, which in my opinion added to the tougher pacing of the battles. The inclusion of voice acting is a neat wrinkle and hopefully they can stick the landing. That’s probably the purist in me talking and they’re not big enough red flags to make me avoid it. To be clear I will be buying this. I would even buy the legendary edition that’s only in Japan (I want that bag and physical game!). People just need to play this game and releasing it to a worldwide audience makes it even more accessible. The new price point is high but worth every goddam penny.

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Gaming Culture Video Game Playthroughs

We Need More Mechs

I feel lonely in Apex Legends. While the game is based around 3 person squads, the sprawling maps are desolate. The unoccupied expanse is part and parcel with the Battle Royale model, the wide open maps made for exploration and scavenging rather than busy firefights. It’s up to you and your squad members to parse the landscape for items, enemies and geography to set yourselves up in the optimum position to win. Apex Legends hits those marks and hits them well but I miss the more high intensity firefights of its predecessor. I liked getting lost in urban environments trying to find other player pilots amongst the population of automated soldiers. I liked quickly zig zagging between buildings and wall running to get the jump on enemies. Most of all, I liked when the giant mech games plummeted from the sky. My god what a sight that is. It’s hard to overstate how good Titanfall 2 looks and feels. Titans crashing to the earth literally do and the environment buckles and shakes accordingly. It feels destructive because it is, literally tons of metal hitting the ground after a free fall from orbit. They’re hulking monstrosities and you as the pilot are just an ant compared to it.

I’m not here to say Apex Legends isn’t amazing, but I crave another spin at the Titanfall formula. Apex is the best Battle Royale on the market for good reason. It carries over satisfying shooting mechanics into a wide open setting. The mobility is fast making covering large distances fun. Apex has a colorful cast of characters, taking cues from games like Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch (and is slightly less racist), all with unique abilities. It’s primarily played in squads of 3 allowing for a fun mix and match of said characters’ abilities. It takes place in the Titanfall universe (future techno capitalist) with maps in urban cities, factories and desert landscapes (with dinosaurs for good measure). And perhaps greatest of all it introduced to the world the “ping” system allowing players to easily point out things in the environment.

Titan battle

Apex is great but I’m finding that I’d rather be playing Titanfall. I’m not saying I want to play a team deathmatch shooter; there are plenty of active games that fall into that more traditional model. It’s the aesthetics of Titanfall that draw me in. Titanfall is more subdued than Apex; think less highlighter streaks and more dark and brown hues. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have color (I get it, mid aughts blockbusters really wore the association down), but the more subdued look fits with Titanfall. You’re in a futuristic battleground filled with unpolished pieces of machinery. Nothing is built to be sleek rather it’s built to be functional. The easiest reference point is the original Star Wars tech. Spaceships from civilians and the rebels look used and repaired over. They’ve built up dirt and grime but have been kept up internally to function. That’s what Titanfall’s guns and robotics look like, weapons that have to be repurposed after numerous battles.

The size of Titanfall is a huge draw point as well. I’m referring to literally the size of your pilot within the map. Maps not only extend horizontally but vertically and the move set helps you play with traversing the levels of a building or skyscraper. You’re also just one soldier amongst dozens of respawning AI. You feel more like a part of a big battle as automated troops bash against each other. That gives a unique feeling of being small just another worker ant amongst the horde. Of course players are stronger than the AI counterparts, a specialized member of the squad. It makes the battles feel frenetic with lots of firefights and player abilities all popping off at once.

Speaking of feeling small: Titans. They’re both a glaring omission from Apex and the item that would completely ruin it. Titans don’t make sense in the more scrappy gameplay of Apex Legends but they absolutely make Titanfall work. They completely shift the flow of battle and are an incredibly imposing presence. They are multiple stories tall and tower over your perspective as a pilot. They’re hard to take down on foot; your best bet is to try and rodeo it by flinging your body onto the back of it (which feels amazing to do btw even when your chances of success are slim). Their massive weapons obliterate soldiers left and right and their hulking structures barely fit in between the architecture of the maps. Titan on Titan combat has a completely different flow. Their bulky structure limits maneuverability, forcing pilots to rely on strategically using jump nets to out flank enemies. The different Titan classes offer unique abilities based on weight class; hop in a light mech and you’ll have to balance dodging in and out of combat rather than a heavy mech that can sit and dole out damage. You have to adapt your strategy to edge out your enemy based on your Titan’s strengths and weaknesses versus the enemies.

Titan fall ready
When that Titan drops from the sky *chefs kiss*

It’s the interactions with your Titan that stick out in my mind. Getting the notification that your Titan is ready is so exciting. I will always opt for a Titanfall, picking the spot where your Titan will land, rather than opting to spawn in one. Picking the landing spot and seeing it careen down from the sky is incredible. As mentioned up top, Titans plummet fast and the free fall reverberates across your screen. Entering your mech is so stylish too. Depending on how your approach the Titan your pilot will enter into it differently. The Titan’s AI anticipates your move; walk up and it’ll bend down for you, jump high it’ll catch you and place you gently inside, slide and it’ll scoop you up. The animation for it is frankly very cool. Someone in a Discord recently called out the monitor desync as you enter the Titan, another perfect touch that really places you inside the mech. Little touches like that really make you feel like a pilot before you completely take control of it. It calls the artifice out to give you a sense of place.

Apex Legends shouldn’t be Titanfall but it’s hard to see the latter series continue with the success of the former. They’re two completely different flavors but one actually sold copies and has an active player base. I would love for a Titanfall 3 but also realize that there is not the same push for it from a business and audience sense. For now I’ll have to content myself with replaying Titanfall 2 with the small but dedicated player base that’s still there.

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2020 EOY Final Fantasy Gaming Culture MMO Video Game Playthroughs

2020 Games: Stories That Matched the Tumultuous Year

A lot of people point to the 2016 US presidential election as the moment when they were “radicalized,” the moment when they realized that the systems in place were fundamentally flawed and action needed to be taken against them. I definitely wasn’t unaffected. I was a couple years out from graduating college and the election proved I needed to start learning way more. It wasn’t until the literal wheels came off this year that everything coalesced. Video games were primed to be the perfect quarantine activity and served as my favorite hobby by far this year. The video games I played this year seemingly reflected 2020. They revolved around misuses of power, systems made to oppress and the hollow pursuit of justice in a broken world. It was a weird meld to suddenly see my own worldview reflected in the games I picked up. Part of that could be attributed to my new interest. The other could also be that I was finally paying attention.

My top 10 2020 games (plus 2 more Final Fantasy’s for good measure) held together a tumultuous year and expanded my brain in the process. The year in the industry was fucking broken in too many ways to count, a continued surfacing of industry wide problems with work, abuse, racism and government defense marketing. But these were bright spots amidst all that uncertainty. I’ve grown so much in playing and writing about many of these and can’t wait to continue doing so. I’m feeling sappy which to me feels like a coping mechanism for an upcoming year that will feel much the same. I’m taking solace in the fact that games haven’t lost their luster and how much joy they bring me:

Final Fantasy Corner

My favorite game of All Time?: Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy X Yuna

This game means so much to me and I am so glad it 100% holds up. Final Fantasy X marked a turning point for me and games as I realized that the medium could facilitate exciting stories. I’ve found it hard to beat this one, a ragtag crew fighting institutional oppression and reckoning with what it means to make large scale change. It has a great turn based system prioritizing using all of your party members to exploit enemies weaknesses. It’s like Rock Paper Scissors finding which character would effectively beat the enemy. I think a lot of people decry it’s old school approach to random battles, but the battle system works so smoothly that it never feels overbearing. I was immensely surprised by my change in mindset around Tidus and Wakka, two fan hated characters. I found Tidus’ mannerisms much more consistent in my play through this year. He was a star athlete back in Zanarkand so he knows how to effortlessly engage with people and that’s through relentless positivity. It also masks his deep trauma and emotional abuse from his father Jed which becomes pivotal to the climax of the plot. The game smartly ties the player’s victory with Tidus’ emotional growth. I see why people were annoyed with Wakka; he’s essentially the skeptic and devils advocate. In this case that role is flipped on its head as Wakka reckons with his history as a devout follower with the actions of the party that directly oppose that. I found his arc of squaring his spirituality and trauma with the reality of the world and the lies he’s been fed extremely compelling.

Final Fantasy X also holds a special place in my memory as it was the first time I’d played through a game exclusively with a friend. Every day after 7th grade we’d head back to his house to play the game and write new chapters in stories we were working on. There was so much freedom and creativity as we wrote stupid inside jokes into the stories of our comedy adventure novel. I was also being thoroughly wowed by my first JRPG and was so excited to work through it each day. We continued on this ritual eventually playing through Final Fantasy VII and Kingdom Hearts. It’s made me a lifelong fan of these series and RPGs. It’s also a time that I refer back to when I’m feeling creatively stifled and shut down. We were making stories for ourselves and having a blast doing it. And that’s my motivation for my hobbies (writing, podcasting) as a whole; do it because it makes you happy. I’m so happy that I was able to rekindle some of that feeling in 2020.

That Old/New MMO: Final Fantasy XIV A Realm Reborn (Patch 5.3)

Final Fantasy XIV
Dukes up Alphinaud!

I feel like I sounded pretty negative in my write up for a game I really enjoyed. I think it’s very easy to point out its shortcomings especially when this base game came out (A Realm Reborn that is) in 2013. The new 5.3 patch served as an improved on-ramp for new players like me, an admittedly Herculean task to help slim down and improve a decidedly large game now. I haven’t reached the point of calling this the “best Final Fantasy” as long time fans point to, but it has been an enjoyable ride through a more story driven MMO. In comparison to WOW, the story is better woven through the quests and includes a lot more cutscenes and indicators for the main path. I like this model more than WOWs even if it did take some of the momentum when there was back to back cutscenes (especially at the end/early patch story content). Raiding with other players was fun also, even if partying with more experienced players made it feel like they were just running me through it rather than strategizing to overcome difficult enemies. I am especially grateful it was all free; I’m still working through the game’s extensive free trial which includes its first expansion. So far, Heavensward has been an improvement over ARR and am excited to continue my Monk’s journey. 

The Actual Top 10 2020 Games List

Virtual Island Living: Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Early camp life

Just like seemingly everybody, I too embarked to a tropical island with Tom Nook and co. This version brought big changes to the Animal Crossing formula; a larger focus on crafting and shaping your surroundings than just participation in an existing village. I never dove in the same way others on the internet did (and I voiced my frustrations at being player 2) but it was amazing seeing the island creations that players made. I still had a great time at launch, working with Emily (my partner) to gather materials to expand our island and finding new neighbors to invite. One of these days I will spend an extended amount of time back on the island, but I need to get over my immense guilt of letting it sit there for multiple months.

Get me that new Spider-Man! Miles Morales

Miles Morales

An upgrade in almost every way to Insomniac’s 2018 Spider-Man game. The more concise campaign ends up benefiting the entire experience with a more pared down selection of side quests and activities to play through that never wore out their welcome. Not that Peter was a bad character, but highlighting Miles here provided an essential point of view to the Spider-Man mythos. Miles is excited and nerdy just like young Peter is but with a stronger sense of confidence and purpose. It helps that his group of close relationships are all fantastic and I would say one of my only gripes with the game is that we didn’t spend more time with them. Insomniac would be smart to make Miles have at least equal billing going forward with their eventual mainline sequel. Also the Bodega Cat costume is just fantastic.

Rage against the machine: Treachery in Beatdown City

Treachery in Beatdown City: Cop Pepper Spray

Have you been frustrated with the police and government this year? Did you want to punch nazis? Were you looking for any outlet to vent your rage? Well this is the game for you! A throwback to old school beat em ups with a turn based skill system thrown in then tops it with a healthy rage and skepticism at political systems. Your crew of three fighters (good news, no cis white men here!) works their way to City Hall getting caught up with other people’s petty bullshit or outright hostility toward their existence. It’s really funny too, perfect for a good laugh and the easily accessible screenshot button on the Switch. Tremendous way to channel frustrations in a way that’s aligned with the current hellscape.

Monster in the office: Control: AWE

Control AWE Dr. Hartman

I love Control. It’s mix of 90’s and X-Files era government skepticism and other worldly events played so well as you navigate through a literal bureaucratic nightmare. I played both expansions this year but had such a blast with AWE (“Alan Wake Expansion” cleverly retconning that game’s events as an in-universe “Altered World Event”). Remedy makes the nods in the base game to Alan Wake literal as this serves as a direct follow up to that game, with the titular character guiding Jesse from the liminal space where he’s trapped. Turns out there’s an entire annex of the “Oldest House” that’s been turned over to the monster form of Emil Hartman. Jesse can’t directly damage him adding a big sense of danger when you get trapped in puzzle rooms with Dr. Hartman, making you dodge between light sources to stay alive. You’ll also find plenty of company memos and documents chronicling the shuttering of the department and tapes adding the Bureau of Control’s on the events of Alan Wake. It’s the Control you know and love with all the dark office humor brought along.

Crushing capitalism & found community: Kentucky Route Zero 

Kentucky Route Zero Characters

I saw this long in production game referred to as the “next great American novel” and I couldn’t think of a more accurate description of Kentucky Route Zero’s atmosphere and goals. A surreal portrait of the American south KRZ highlights the literal cost of debt on worker’s bodies and the strength and fragility of community. The game is essentially a journey across the Kentucky landscape, but instead takes you through abstract highways (“the Zero”) and vast underground caves and rivers. You’ll meet a variety of characters and the point of view shifts between them to show how each of them struggle to find a place within the capitalist system. It’s a story both of the moment and eternally poignant, highlighting the crushing pressure of debt on people and communities.

Sysphous has nothing on me: Hades

Hades Orange Shade
Here’s to you my good shade!

Dying over and over again has never felt better than Hades. The controls are so goddam tight and as I was pushing myself against the difficult learning curve I never felt that the game was being unfair. I kept beating my head against the wall and made incremental progress with each run. Once I finally escaped it felt like the bandaid ripped off and it was an incredible feeling to understand all of the intricacies of the game with such detail. Supergiant’s immaculate writing makes even the runs where you make zero progress feel impactful. Talking with mythological figures (Achilles, Nyx, Hypnos and many more Greek legends) felt like checking in with friends. As you play more you become more familiar with them and each character has their own story path to complete. It’s incredible that a run based game has created something that makes you want to keep playing it that isn’t directly tied to empowering your character in combat.

If I could push back time: Star Renegades

Star Renegades

Another rogue-lite that feels really good to play but for completely different reasons. This run based RPG places you in a Terminator-like future where you bounce between planets to fight back the evil machine aliens. Each map consists of 3 days and each days consists of picking 3 places to explore. The turn based battle system is unique as it makes time a literal factor. The enemies actions are placed on a linear timeline at the start of each turn and your job is to strategize how to push their actions back and completely off the timeline using your characters’ individual moves. Once you’ve successfully pushed them off the timeline you’ll “break” the enemy (accompanied by a big sound effect and lettering) and they’ll be open to even more damage. The further you go the more complicated the fights become and it feels so good to string together a big combo with your characters. The runs themselves can be a little long but that didn’t stop me from sinking tons of hours into this overlooked gem.

Take a picture, the end will last longer: Umurangi Generation

Umurangi Generation Holo Dancer

The pitch for this game is simple; take a series of photos that fulfills a checklist of requirements on a discrete level. Some of these requests are pictures of graffiti, people, or random objects scattered throughout the level. There’s a timer to find them but it’s not important unless you want to complete the bonus objectives (gates access to new items). The biggest challenge then is finding your photo subjects and finding the best angle or lens in which to take the picture. Once you complete the checklist, a new level unlocks and you move on.

Train Cafe

This game is so much more than that. Umurangi (meaning “red sky” in Maori) uses environmental storytelling to show a world on the brink of collapse. The first relatively normal level, taking place on a building rooftop, suggests somethings up as there are little blue jellyfish scattered around (that you are penalized for taking photos of too). Eventually you find yourself in the middle of a war zone, dilapidated cities, and underground shopping centers that show how the world is succumbing to Kaiju attacks. This isn’t escapist sci-fi; you’ll see images of UN troops and their failure at addressing the conflict and memorials to the fallen. It’s really amazing how many world details you can glimpse through movies posters, newscasts and graffiti placed throughout the closed off levels. The Macro DLC (a must play) coalesces the main games ideas into a more aggressive tone. You’ll visit an arcade/club where the rich go to escape, an underground collective, and eventually a protest against the occupying UN forces. That last level is so evocative after the last year of BLM protests showing medical stations and collective action at work (you’re even penalized for taking photos of protestors). When it eventually goes wrong, it’s haunting and the way the final moments change the camera removes any passivity between lens and player that might have existed. It’s truly a game of this moment.

2020 Vision Poster

The soundtrack is just perfect. It traffics in lots of golden era house, jungle, electro and all kinds of dance music goodies. It matches the vibe of the game (Dreamcast era specifically) with a perfect specificity. It also just happens to cover my favorite genres of music ThorHighHeels hit this one out of the park.

Surprising meta fiction:  Final Fantasy VII Remake

Final Fantasy VII Remake Push Up Contest

I thought I knew what this game was, but boy was I wrong. The lead up to this shot several warning flares; the remake would be split into multiple games, first focusing only on Midgar and replaced with real time combat rather than turn based. I didn’t trust that a compelling story could be made out of just the beginning of the game and I’ve been burned by Square combat (hello FFXV). Not only did they completely nail those last two parts but they effectively built out the world and added a meta layer over the whole game. Remake becomes a commentary on remaking games and devolves into KH levels of abstraction where you literally fight alternate timelines made manifest. That last part has proven divisive, but the final fights and ending effectively adds another mystery layer on the future of these remakes. It feels like they’ve blown off the doors of the story and I honestly have no idea what to expect for the future installments.

Final Fantasy VII Remake Combat

That wasn’t even my favorite part with real time combat that actually makes good use of pausing to input commands. Square has been trying to do this since 2001 (!!!) and never has it felt this good. Even on normal difficulty the game is punishing and requires you to switch between all the members of your party to take down enemies. The long fights never feel sluggish and winning fights is incredibly rewarding. The expanded scope of Midgar is more uneven with boring puzzle and side quest design. The character moments are a huge high point especially the extended role of Jesse. Formerly relegated to minor Avalanche member, here she gets an entire story arc and her grounded nature and flirtations with Cloud are charming. I guess my only detraction is they never added a “Part 1” or any sort of signifier to this game? If there was backlash to the misleading title it seems to have gotten drowned out. This is probably the game I thought about the most this year and it would’ve been my GOTY if not for:

Paradise Killer

"Perfect 25 Is Coming" Poster

I love mysteries and detective fiction and when games can pull that off it’s an absolute delight. I initially thought this game was more along the lines of a visual novel (something closer to Phoenix Wright) but was blown away when I picked up the real thing. Here is a detective game where you actually do the fucking work, exploring an open world looking for clues to solve your mystery. You’ll uncover more mysteries the more digging you do and it’s up to you when you want to bring your evidence back to the judge for the inevitable trial. All of the characters are pitch perfect for a murder mystery meaning there’s some sort of dirt on everyone on the island (even Crimson Acid but she’s more mask off than everyone else on the island so there’s less evil machinations going on and more “I’m going to get mine” vibes). I loved interacting with the characters and nothing was more exciting than suddenly hitting on a nerve that completely changed the tone of a conversation. I was a real goddam detective figuring out who murdered the syndicate. 

Paradise Island Full Map

Did I mention that this all takes place in an artificial world? That’s built to resurrect alien gods that gave people power? And that this is the 24th time they’ve tried to create the ideal “paradise?” And that you and the other cast of characters are all immortal? The setting and character names are all outlandish (in the best way possible) which makes exploring every nook and cranny of the island exciting. Finding out details of the lives of regular people, the background architecture and logistics of Paradise and the conflicting ideologies of its rulers all prop up the games excellent exploration of power. That the system is rotten doesn’t come as a shock but exploring how certain people benefit from it was always intriguing. Which leads to Paradise Killer’s amazing end trial, less of a send off checklist of solving the murder and getting the “true” ending. Instead you’re tasked with doling out “justice;” you hold the power to condemn people. One person may not have been directly involved but do their actions still warrant a guilty verdict? Does someone’s intention matter? Do any of them deserve to go free for their compliance with the world’s events or is this entire trial a sham? The open ended nature of the trial means that you decide what actually matters, whether that’s handing out guilty verdicts or letting people go free. It was a refreshing end to a genre that’s usually closed off with the inevitable reveal of the murderer. I absolutely loved my time with Paradise Killer.

Lydia Day Break
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Gaming Culture

Ode to the GameCube

I was lucky enough to get a GameCube for Christmas in 2002. Santa had left it for me next to the fireplace and under my stocking. I was so excited for two reasons: one, it meant that the rules governing video game consoles had begun to dissolve and two I was finally caught up to my friends. The GameCube was a world of possibility gleaned through gaming magazines and trips to other peoples’ houses. The incredible jump in 3D from the N64 era felt like the future, even though I know it wasn’t as “powerful” as its generational counterparts. I had the new thing and it was glorious. It was also 5am and no one had heard me get up. I had a small tv in my room with aux hookups since I had been sick with a cold the entire last week. I lugged the GameCube box upstairs with a copy of SSX Tricky and played until my parents could stop me. I didn’t care that I didn’t have a memory card; I couldn’t wait to replay this all again. 

Metroid Prime

I remember the GameCube getting thrashed at the time. We hadn’t reached the Nintendo Wii era so the iteration was a relatively straightforward one. The “console wars” were in full effect (and still ongoing) as fans drew hard lines between Nintendo, Sony and new challenger Microsoft. It didn’t boast the “next generation graphics” like the PS2 and Xbox, there was no online play and the exclusive games didn’t match the popular genres. First person shooters were the new thing as everyone pitted all games against Halo. It was the only console at the time without a second joystick, instead having an odd and smaller “C stick” for occasional inputs, making porting games to it odd and shooters relatively out of the question. Games press and fans bent over backwards to try and create parity where there wasn’t any. Metroid Prime was somehow heralded as a rival to the Halo series despite having no similarities. Players also didn’t take to the Nintendo first party games on the GameCube, sans a few notable exceptions. Mario Sunshine is still seen as the black sheep of the 3D series despite many many efforts to reclaim it. The GameCube just didn’t sell as well leading many to forecast the doom of Nintendo.

GameCube Paris Hilton
PS2 Could Never

The GameCube and Nintendo were always in a separate lane. It wasn’t trying to beat anybody else in some sort of arms race merely trying to carve out their own niche to test out new ideas with 3D. That makes the GameCube a weird thing to look back; I would never say that anyone should have prioritized it over the PS2 (that library is an all time great). The GameCube is such an interesting oddity though, an experiment packaged as a modern home console. It’s a failed experiment on the whole and they learned that they needed to have a unique feature if they wanted to distance themselves from other consoles. The console itself had fucking style though; it was still riding the neon wave from the 90s and came in a small square package. It had a goddam handle, making it easy to cart around to friends houses and play. The GameCube also introduced wireless controllers with the peerless Wavebird. Making a controller connect over radio frequencies is archaic compared to modern controllers but there’s still something so cool about setting the input and the controller to the same channel. 

The system was really about facilitating couch multiplayer. It had killer multiplayer games too. There is a reason that the Smash community is still hung up on Melee; it brought a gigantic roster of characters and maps and sped up the fighting by about 20x. Throws were out and hit timing was in turning a fairly rigid platform fighter into its own genre. Mario Kart double dash let you choose two characters for your cart and switch between them. You could pick different types of carts and character combinations to meet your racing style and the game has some of the best courses in the series (DK Mountain anyone?) GameCube also had the best Mario sports game: Mario Strikers. The Mario soccer game is a goddam blast taking FIFA into the Mario world. You picked a character to lead your team (Mario & friends) and played alongside koopa and toad teammates in super fast paced matches. It’s the most dramatic of all the sports games too with powered up shots and slow down for all the intense moments.

Mario Strikers
Mario has never looked more angry

The GameCube also had an eclectic assortment of single player games. The Animal Crossing and Pikmin series both debuted in North America on the GameCube. I still remember how exciting it was to move into town the first time and meet my animal neighbors. It also got two Metroid Prime games both which are amazing adaptations of the 2D series. They both had amazing environments and rewarded exploration with lots of hidden power ups and items. The system was an RPG desert in comparison to the PS2 but still locked down action RPG cult classics in Tales of Symphonia. There was also Baten Kaitos, the epic length deck builder that people are still shouting from the rooftops about (god bless them). Just to round off the library, there were PS1 remakes of Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid (the latter with ridiculous new cutscenes). It also even had the very first 3D Fire Emblem, Path of Radiance. 

While it definitely has some all time classics, this period of Nintendo is marked by plenty of weird experimentation. Star Fox was removed entirely from his Arwing and landed in a third person platformer. The game resembles Donkey Kong 64 in its barren and connected overworld and obtuse puzzle elements. It was a sharp left turn that the series still hasn’t recovered from. Nintendo tried to make ground warfare happen with Battalion Wars, an on the ground version of top down strategy series Advanced Wars. It’s like Battlefield right where the options are limited and the shooting feels loose.

GameCube GBA Link Cable
The incredible highs and lows of the GBA link cable

Nintendo also got peripheral happy with the GameCube microphone, Donkey Kong drums, and GBA link cables. The link cables in hindsight seem like Nintendo’s first foray into what would become the WiiU. You would plug your GBA into the cable allowing the game to move HUD elements and inventory management to the second screen. A great idea in theory until you realized that only multiplayer games utilized it. Gathering up friends with both enough cables and GBAs to play Four Swords and Crystal Chronicles was a nightmare. I eventually coerced a group of my friends to gather the required items, but our play sessions were always marked by someone losing batteries. There was always some perverse thrill in getting it to work. It felt like we’d worked together to build some sort of complex vehicle until the back wheel suddenly popped off. 

I’m left with the enduring feeling that the GameCube deserved more than what it got. There’s not really a cohesive vision behind it the way Nintendo did with the subsequent consoles. It’s certainly not the best at anything but it stuck its neck out way more when it came to game design. It’s sure haphazard and semi rudderless, but there’s a lot of charm to it’s strange failings. It’s a console that wasn’t interested in being what other consoles were at the time and also had to bend over backwards to make third party games compatible. It feels like Nintendo has also backed away from pulling in and updating any of these games for modern consoles. It’s thought of as a big misstep which is a shame because it had a ton of good.

Categories
Gaming Culture

I Missed Out on the GBA

New console fever has struck gaming twitter. The excitement of pre orders for the new consoles have people fervently trying to secure one through any number of online retailers. It’s been a mess but an enjoyable one to watch if you’re not part of the frenzy. I simply have no need for a next gen console; I have a good computer and I don’t need one for my job. Until the dust settles on the next gen systems, my PS4, Switch, and PC will be just fine. Out of my two current systems, the only one I bought in the launch window was the Switch. It felt like a safe bet because the tech was new and exciting, I didn’t have to rely on it for any streaming or online stuff, and I like Mario. The new console generation has me thinking back to the big hardware misses I’ve made in the past. I really really whiffed it and I missed out on probably the greatest console generation ever.

My first console was a Game Boy Pocket. My house was very strict when it came to video games and TV but somehow the Game Boy was given a pass. I’m not exactly sure what my parent’s reasoning was given that I wasn’t allowed to own a TV console and a Game Boy would be seemingly harder to supervise my playtime over. Nevertheless I was smitten. I played Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins and Pokemon Red across many days and hours, replaying levels and fighting the Elite 4 over and over. We also took tons of road trips when I was young so it was the perfect way to pass the time (somehow this didn’t trigger my car sickness the way reading did). Eventually I was able to upgrade to a Game Boy Color and I added games like Pokemon Silver and Zelda Oracle of Ages to that aforementioned rotating game list. Needless to say but I was pretty content even if I did continually bug my parents about getting a “real” console.

When the Game Boy Advance came along, I was puzzled. I was only about 9 (at most 10) by the time my friends started getting the GBA. I had never encountered a new console cycle before, were they expecting me to get an entirely new system? I had everything I needed in this turquoise Color, why would I upgrade? I decided that I didn’t need a GBA and had no intent to purchase (ask my parents for) a new one in the future. This decision baffles me and it won’t be the last time I did this growing up (for some reason I decided that I didn’t need an iPod for multiple years). This wasn’t one made of constraints; I grew up very well off, the kind of wealthy where you refer to yourselves as “middle class” yet have plenty of money for vacations. I had no fear of this setting my family back. There is also the possibility that I simply didn’t want to have to create an entirely new sales pitch to my parents (my parents were frugal and didn’t value or want more video games in the house), but my memory says that that wasn’t the case. I also grew up as a socially awkward and anxious kid, surely I would have at least some inkling of trying to keep up with the social trends to fit in. This would leave me completely behind and outside the conversation and I would miss out on playing games with my friends. Even with those factors, I stuck to my strange decision making guns.

Gameboy Advance SP
Look at that beautiful piece of hardware

Now in hindsight, this was a huge mistake. The GBA has one of the best and largest video game libraries ever. I completely missed out on third generation Pokemon, Advanced Wars, Fire Emblem, Golden Sun, and the Sonic Advance games (I was/am a huge Sonic fan). My regret was pretty instantaneous as I would go over to my friends houses and see all the awesome GBA games they had. What really hurt was the arrival of the Game Boy Advance SP. That system is still one of my favorites design wise, a perfectly sized handheld that folded and the first version to have a backlit screen. My god is that thing beautiful. I felt serious FOMO; here I was stuck with my Game Boy Color and a dim Worm Light.

I never relented though; for some reason I was incredibly dedicated to staying with my decision. When I look back on it, I think I just wasn’t ready to put aside the memories I had with my Game Boy Color. All of that would seemingly go away if I upgraded; even if it was backwards compatible I doubt I would have played those games. The familiarity would disappear and I would have to learn new systems and worlds with no guarantee that I would like them. There’s also something to be said for the therapeutic effects that the repetition had on me. As someone with anxiety, repeating levels and replaying games brought me comfort. I could revisit levels I like, play through them and receive the same level of satisfaction each time. It was reliable in a way that was not guaranteed with something new.

Gameboy Color
My beautiful Game Boy Color in all of it’s glory

I’ve gone back and played some GBA games over the years, but I’ll never be a part of the conversation the way others who had owned a GBA are. That’s ok though, I don’t have to be in with everything. As new consoles approach, I don’t feel that same protectiveness. I’m not going to buy one right away because I don’t see a need for it, not out of some protection for my PS4. It’s a healthy mindset to have; these are very expensive toys that are being launched in the middle of a pandemic. There are much more important things to purchase or worry about. It’s a little sad though that I don’t feel as threatened by a new generation. I don’t think that’s an indictment of the system but rather pointing to my own shift in mindset. It’s not as precious and something that was formerly indispensable has become the opposite. I probably won’t love a system the way I did about my Game Boy Color. The Game Boy Advance on the other hand, will always be my white whale.

Categories
Gaming Culture Video Game Playthroughs

AI Somnium Files: Sci-Fi & Gendered Humor

This year I’ve allowed myself to enjoy anime again. After growing up on a strict diet of Shonen manga and anime through middle school and high school, I had started to find certain sexist tropes grate at me. The sensually drawn female characters with unrealistic figures became offputting to me. During 2009-2010, there was the beginning of the pushback against the male gaze (even though that wasn’t a term yet) especially in video games. Characters like Lara Croft were redesigned and booth babes were phased out at shows like E3. I had only begun to think critically so I didn’t have the toolset to diagnose exactly why this was bad. I knew it was dehumanizing to women, but I hadn’t figured out that it’s the lens on women that was the issue. Characters can be sexy and powerful but I was still figuring out how to differentiate. Complicating my understanding was the male lens especially when used to prop up comedy. I really hated when comedy relied on characters being perverted as it usually came at the expense of a female character. Jokes about stealing panties and spying on women pushed me away from shows I loved. I appreciated Dragonball Z had levity but when it centered around Master Roshi trying to get Bulmas panties, I immediately wanted to turn it off. Video games weren’t exactly safe either; I loved playing Persona 4 at this time but I had a hard time stomaching your male party members passes at the female party members (looking at you Yosuke and Teddie). 

Persona 4
Kanji discovering sexuality

Obviously, this isn’t just a common occurrence in anime and Japanese media. I turned a blind eye to a lot of the major studio comedies that I grew up with and past “sex” comedies that are really just excuses for men to treat women badly and still end up with them. Discrimination against women is a global occurrence especially back home. I’ve worked to refine my critical lens towards anime and found so much more enjoyment coming back to it. Faye is an absolute badass in Cowboy Bebop and she does all while sporting booty shorts. I can still enjoy the adventures of Naruto even if I wish Sakura could be written with more independence. There’s still bad out there (I will never read Sword Art Online and I won’t be going back to Persona 4 for a litany of other reasons) but that doesn’t mean the entire industry is a trash fire. Learning where my personal threshold is and better understanding how to hold both positive and negative opinions of media has been a blessing. I’ve come a long way from that younger man who didn’t understand feminism and appropriate jokes so it sucks to play something that feels stuck in my past. There’s a regret stewed in there and I can’t help but feel negative towards something that seemingly revels in that type of gendered humor. While I would write this off in the past as “cringey” I can now identify that feeling as sexist, or at least immature at best.

AI Somnium Files Characters

AI: Somnium Files rides a really tough line. On the one hand, you have a pulpy mystery filled with unique characters that holds just enough secrets on all of them to keep you engaged and guessing motivations. On the other, you have incessant sex jokes about leering older men. The game’s tone is goofy for one; it’s very much a comedic game outside of the gore and crime scenes. As a visual novel, you’ll be clicking around backdrops during the scenes where you are questioning or interacting with a character to move the plot forward. Interacting with the environment will result in conversations between characters, an inner dialogue between your characters Date and his linked AI Aiba, or an inner monologue. There’s plenty of sight gags that don’t revolve around women and lots of bits around characters misidentifying objects in the environment, for example looking at a chair and thinking “jellyfish.” 

AI Somnium Files Date Joke
Exhibit A

More often than not though, there’s a woman or a depiction of a woman that has to be called attention to. The problem is with Date as a character; he’s overly self serious, like how you’d expect a grizzled police detective to be, but the game also wants to poke fun at him. He rarely knows all the answers and is never really seen as a true authority figure when he visits places. Those details can be funny, but the game really likes to drive home that Date is always fucking horny. There’s lots of environmental gags that drive this in. At one of the locations you visit, Matsushita Diner, there are beer ads on the walls that trigger Date to drool over. Visiting the Lemniscate modeling industry, there’s an attractive receptionist that you can interact with. At first Date only ogles the receptionist from afar remarking on how big her breast size is. The more you click, eventually Date only sees two boobs behind the desk. I promise you that description is funnier than wasting your time clicking over and over. The kicker to her character is that she’s exactly the vapid arc type that you’d think the game would paint her as, so therefore she’s not really a person?

AI Somnium Files Panties

Date is constantly chastised by Aiba for being horny, especially when interacting with characters (this is made all the more complicated by Aiba presenting as female). There’s a weird joke about Date using X-ray vision to examine a hostesses literal bone structure that had my eyes rolling just as hard as Aiba’s. That’s where the game tries to tell you it’s in on the joke too. Aiba is supposed to be the mouthpiece for the player; don’t you also think Date’s pathetic for his one track mind? It’s made much more complicated and problematic when Date is a 35 year old examining an 18 year old waitress.

Most of this can be skippable as it’s not necessarily required for you to interact with everything in the environment to progress. There’s still plenty of this type of humor though interceded between characters. Date will sometimes comment on his boss’ appearance, named “Boss.” Don’t worry though, Boss is also very horny which leads to a really cringey and gross workplace sexual harassment joke. This is much harder to stomach after years of Me Too and all of the recent video game industry harassment outages

In most conversations, other characters pick up the slack. The character Iris, who has a career as an internet idle, draws tons of attention from the other male characters. All of these men are adults (the youngest being Ota who’s 24) while she’s 18 finishing up high school. This could be seen as a sly commentary in the idle industry in Japan, except it never digs into how Iris really feels about all of the unwanted attention. We get the idea that she is very good at brushing men off but we never hear from her about how the industry affects her. Instead we get jokes where a 40 year old accidentally motor boats his friend instead of Iris, a holdover from the time when gay panic jokes were in vogue.

AI Iris Boob Joke
Anything to cop a feel I suppose

There’s the problem really; women are not real characters they are platforms to ogle at and spin riffs on male horniness. There’s many instances of men talking about women’s body types which we definitely do not need more of. And the game doesn’t really hold them accountable; it’s all rendered harmless. It’s position on make obsessiveness is “aren’t they all just scamps?” It’s dated bro culture at best.

While horniness is reserved for cisgendered women, body jokes are directed at trans women. The game’s lone example is Mama who runs the bar Marble. She’s overall a great character and there’s a warmth in her conversations with Date as they are old friends. The game is really trying to shine a positive light on LGBTQ people; there’s even an appendix entry which basically reads “we love all gender and sexual identities” which is hokey but well meaning. Unfortunately, Mama is a target for a lot of fat phobic jokes. Anytime you interact with the fridge behind Mama, Date always “confuses” it for Mama or makes some reference to them being sisters. It’s hacky at best and really undercuts a great character.

AI Somnium Files Date Porno Mag

The comedy really brings down an otherwise fun game. It really takes me out of the game when I’m trying to solve a story beat but then am greeted with a joke about boobs every other second. It’s aggressive and sophomoric in a way that could be handled better. I found myself comparing it a lot to the Phoenix Wright games and how much better it handles its humor. There, jokes about chasing women are largely relegated to Larry and he only infrequently appears across the games so you aren’t constantly barraged with the same type of joke. There are female characters that are meant to read as beautiful and sexy, but aren’t being reduced down to “boobs” by the main characters. While the Phoenix Wright games are no paragon of feminism, they at least regard women beyond their attractiveness to men.

The sophomoric humor brings me right back to the qualities that pushed me away from anime. There’s no equity between the two binary genders on display; men who ogle and trick women and women who are naive or play dumb to the advances. It doesn’t mean that the women can’t be strong but we don’t get any meaningful pushback on the men. It’s very much a “boys being boys” sort of mentality that I can’t stomach anymore. I just can’t find the enjoyment in men ogling women and women pretending to be naive. It’s an avenue for comedy that actively pushes me away.

Categories
Gaming Culture Star Fox

What My Hatred of Slippy Taught Me About Toxic Masculinity

I owe Slippy Toad a giant apology. Star Fox’s companion has been ragged on by everyone in the 20ish years since Star Fox 64. People have had no problem absolutely bashing on Slippy with little to no vocal support for him. I am complicit in this hate and I’m here to tell you I was wrong. Not only am I here to tell you that Slippy is in fact good, he’s also the most important member of the whole team.

Star Fox 64 is one of my favorite games of all time and I replay it at least a couple of times a year. Through all of those playthroughs, I have hated Slippy. Something about him just rubbed me the wrong way. I never wanted to hear his communications and wrongly attributed that I had to save him way more than the other teammates. I even resented Slippy; as the tech person on my team he is responsible for scanning bosses and letting me know their health bar. If Slippy’s knocked out, you fly in blind. I would hate Slippy for getting in trouble but even more pissed with Slippy out of commission. It was a no win situation for Mr. Toad.

Star Fox 64 Opening

Why feel angry at Slippy? As with most of the internet, my reasons were simply “annoying.” What qualities specifically?  A higher pitched voice for one thing. That’s an awful reason to hate my helpful friend; sounding more effeminate is not a crime and is definitely misogynistic of me to call that a negative. His voice isn’t even piercing, he’s literally just voiced by a woman. Slippy also embraces what popular culture would deem as “feminine” qualities. He’s much more vulnerable, meaning that he voices more fear in tough situations but much more excitement and praise in positive ones. Slippy wears his heart on his sleeve and is much more open than the rest of the team. By comparison, Peppy is more reserved and even keel (the father figure) and Falco is moody and aloof. Out of everybody, Slippy will be the first to hop in and shout with excitement and lavish praise. 

Slippy can handle the heat

So why is this a bad thing? Well popular culture tells us boys that we shouldn’t embody Slippy’s qualities. Be the leader and courageous like Fox, wise and sagely like Peppy, or cool and detached like Falco. Slippy on the other hand represents all the things we’re meant to squash. Don’t show excitement or fear, being vulnerable will only weigh you down. In other words don’t be feminine the men need to get this done. It’s no wonder we look down on him from a boy club perspective when reviews cited him as an “annoying, croaking pest.” And while many would have you believe that Slippy is incapable of getting out of a situation by himself, don’t forget how often exhibits a and b also get in trouble. I have to think that our supposed collective hatred of Slippy is born out of the misogynistic perspective that vulnerability is weak.

Enough about the internet’s hatred for him though; I want to talk him up. Remember how I mentioned that he’s the most important member of the team? He is responsible for displaying the health meter of bosses for every single level. This is vitally important! Pepper will offer tutorial advice (“Do a barrel roll” being forever immortalized) which is helpful only in the first few levels. Falco allows you to take different paths and routes, but these can be few and far between. Slippy meanwhile is helpful on every single level! As the resident tech person, he’s also responsible for different vehicles. He made the submarine and the land master possible! Did I mention he’s also a capable fighter pilot? Clearly Slippy is pulling more than his fair share of weight on the team. What does he get for this? Absolutely roasted

Slippy Star Fox Quote
Watch it!

Slippy deserves your respect. Writing him off for an effeminate voice and perceived lack of coolness doesn’t cut it. He is no less a hero just because he reacts to big scary things happening on missions. Slippy is absolutely busting his butt on every single mission and behind the scenes. I’ve turned a corner on my irrational hatred of this space toad and you can too.

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Gaming Culture

My mode of play in XCOM 2 mirrored my mental health journey

My squad is working on extracting a VIP, an important scientist that was working with Advent. My ranger has them knocked out and slung over his shoulder. My team is pretty beat up; we’d taken quite a few shots earlier on in the mission. We’d been dropped into an urban environment, a crowded business park where the VIP worked. With the scientist secured, our top priority is getting the hell out. Only problem is fighting our way through the rest of the Advent forces standing between us and the extraction point. My team has all ducked behind the only makeshift cover around; architectural pillars and cars. A pack of Mutons is slightly out of range from our fire. I try to navigate my grenadier around to a better vantage point which turns out to be the worst possible move; I’ve just activated another unit of enemies with a mech and Advent shieldbearer. I spend the rest of my turn moving my other 4 units into better positions and firing out the new squad. My shots all miss by a mile. The mech moves first and launches a barrage of missiles. They immediately set off a chain reaction of explosions from the nearby cars killing 2 of my units and leaving 2 others exposed. The mutons move forward and fire on my ranger with the VIP; a critical hit takes them down. A few moves later and my entire team is gone.

XCOM2 Rooftop

Now I could roll back to an early save and redo some of my missteps. Problem is I’m playing on Iron Man mode which means I’m locked into my one save and thus my previous actions. I don’t play these games on Iron Man as some sort of difficulty modifier though that’s what it is intended for. I also don’t buy into the way veterans talk about it as the one true way to play the game. Play the way you want to play! I truly only play on Iron Man mode because I desperately need reigning in. My brain is truly broken in a way that if there is a better path forward, then I have to try over and over to achieve it no matter how long it takes. With multiple saves, taking damage and missing high percentage shots become unacceptable. I need Iron Man mode to keep me from trying to min max myself. I also need it to help me learn.

For those unfamiliar, XCOM 2 is a turn-based strategy game where you manage a squad of soldiers to execute procedurally generated missions. These missions can consist of escorting an NPC, extracting civilians, or just killing all of the enemies in a given area. Each squad member can take two actions per turn, whether that’s movement, special abilities, or shooting at a given enemy. There’s no undo button; once you perform an action you are locked in. The game is relatively unforgiving too and you can end up being really railroaded. For example, shooting at an enemy costs you an action and has a probability attached to it that you’ll even hit them. This probability is based on environmental factors (behind cover, at a higher elevation) and enemy abilities. As veterans of the series know, high probability shots don’t necessarily mean you’re going to hit. This is where that inflexibility comes in; you could miss an 80% shot and that soldier’s turn is now over. On the regular settings, you could simply load up an old save and try the shot again (also known as save scumming). If you’re playing on Iron Man mode, you are not allowed to have multiple saves and the game save after each action. This obviously makes the game more difficult and because of this people treat it as a benchmark in which to suss out the “true gamers.” 

XCOM2 Viper

I only play on Iron Man mode, but it’s not meant to test myself or to create more gatekeeping online. If I have the option for multiple saves, I can’t not try to perfect a run. In recent years, I began a personal journey to stop using avoidance as a primary coping strategy. I’ve used avoidance all of my life to avoid anything difficult whether that’s hard conversations, lessons, or turbulent relationships. I’ve had to work hard (and am still working) at trying to face things head on rather than trying to punt whatever the difficult situation is to a future date. Avoidance is also a really easy way to deflect blame. When you aren’t actively facing anything, everything is difficult. You look for ways around things, look for ways to avoid actually dealing with people or situations and try and cheat your way to some semblance of a resolution.

So how does that relate to save scumming? Well it’s really easy to deflect responsibility for a bad run or actually learn what the game is trying to teach you when you wont listen. “If I have the ability to roll back, this time the probability will be in my favor.” There was no deeper lesson being interpreted (my positionings are bad here, I should take more careful movements) but more of a feeling that the game rolled the dice against me. That mindset makes it really easy to make a game feel absolutely unfair. It sucks the enjoyment out of the game, that feeling of accomplishment where your knowledge allows you to overcome the mission obstacles. It also makes the game fairly exhausting, retooling saves over and over.

XCOM2 Brute

After an exhausting 10 hours on the regular mode, I made the choice to start a new run with Iron Man mode. I found myself having a good time, right up until I had a complete mission failure where I lost all 5 of my soldiers. I had to turn off the game in anger; I felt so drained and defeated. I decided to continue on that save after some time off. I found myself in a hole, but not an impossible one to dig out of. I hadn’t realized this before; while the game is punishing there is a possibility to keep going after a failed mission. I realized I had never actually faced failure in XCOM until now. I had skirted around it, never actually seeing what that failure state is like. My run wasn’t over, I still had plenty of opportunity to bounce back. It weirdly resonated with my own personal journey; difficult situations or failure didn’t mean the world was over. It might not always end positively, but it’s better than avoiding things and internalizing regret. If I felt exhausted from trying to pace things over in XCOM, then of course I’d feel the same way in real life.

I don’t want to disparage people playing with multiple saves; you can learn valuable information from failing and retrying. My brain wouldn’t allow me too, preventing me from actually taking in the hard lessons the game dishes out. I’m not saying XCOM flipped a switch and all of a sudden I stopped avoidance, but it reinforced a valuable lesson and coincided with the personal growth journey that I am still on.

Categories
Final Fantasy Gaming Culture

Final Fantasy VII Remake Expands & Dives Deeper into the Original’s Politics

Final Fantasy VII has always been political. The original incorporated themes of environmentalism, classicism, and capitalistic greed into its fantasy adventure story. The Shinra power company embodies all of these, literally sucking the living planet dry for its own gains. Midgar is literally divided; the rich and company workers on top and the poor out of sight (even from the sun) on the bottom. Also, the protagonists are literally eco terrorists.

Final Fantasy VII Remake, with its more narrow focus on Midgar, takes the opportunity to dig into things a little deeper. You get a more ground level view of the citizens of Midgar’s slums and the impact yours and Shinra’s actions have on them. While Midgar is very technologically advanced, the slums do not benefit from it.  Instead they live in the rubble and abandoned projects meant for the topside citizens. According to Shinra, Mako energy (harvested from the earth) is the necessary evil. People supposedly need this energy to survive even if it comes at a cost to the planet. Avalanche pushes back against this, fighting Shinra to stop Mako harvesting and the power imbalance in their city. This ideology is inherent in the original text, but the Remakes additions in Chapter 16 crystallize the original game’s message.

Spoiler warning for chapter 16


Shinra HQ Tour

Starting chapter 16, you’ve infiltrated Shinra HQ to rescue a captured Aerith. At this point we’ve seen just how evil Shinra can be. Their characterization is not subtle. They willingly dropped a plate to crush the Sector 7 slums literally destroying a town and countless lives. We watch as they twist public perception through their news station, publicly blaming Avalanche and their foreign rival Wutai for the plate. The game also takes the time to focus on the Shinra execs; they know the costs and the damage they’re doing and pursue it anyway. There are no shades of gray.

Aerith is held on one of the top levels of Shinra HQ. You get the choice to take either the stairs or the elevator. Players of the original might know that the common strategy is to take the stairs; the Remake however rewards elevator riders with an important additional cutscene. As you ride it up, the protagonists cross paths with multiple common Shinra workers. These are ordinary office workers, staying late to finish up one project or another, not evil soldiers. Tifa expresses some of her hesitancy about the mission; these are ordinary people, who are dissimilar to the mustache twirling villains of the exec board. Barret responds very cogently; that these people are compromised and complicit with the actions of the company.

Barret Elevator Ride

A good man who serves a great evil is not without sin. He must recognize and accept his complicity. He must open his eyes to the truth – that his corporate masters are profiting from the planet’s pain

I’ve seen this scene being talked about a lot and for good reason. Barret’s response perfectly encapsulates one of the original’s themes; rampant capitalism affects everyone. These ordinary workers are in fact aiding Shinra’s actions whether directly or indirectly. Someone had to write the code for the plate to drop; whether they knew that’s what it was used for is irrelevant. The individuals balancing the books and making sales keep the money flowing to fund their campaigns. The news station believes they are reporting news, but they are reinforcing Shinra’s ideology to the masses. Many I assume believe they are keeping the city together; Shinra is the infrastructure of Midgar after all. But the fact that at best Shinra is making people suffer beneath the plate, they are complicit in reinforcing the current system. You can make direct ties to real-world events; I doubt the person that created the heat map system Amazon is using though they would use it to monitor unionization efforts.

You then work your way through Shinra’s interactive museum detailing the company’s and planet’s history. The game cleverly uses this opportunity as part lore dump and part thematic exploration. The planet’s original inhabitants were people known as the Ancients, a society that was able to live harmoniously and communicate directly with the planet. The Ancients, Shinra explains, were the first to use Mako energy. Shinra is the next evolution, using Mako like the Ancients to better lives and lead Midgar to the “promised land.”

Shinra HQ President

Since we’ve seen just how far Shinra will go to further their goals, we know that this message is false. They have only made a small fraction of lives more comfortable leaving the slums to fend for themselves and be sacrificed. They also forcibly extract Mako, bending the planet’s energy to their will. This scene is rightly intended to provoke anger both in the protagonists and the player. “Look at how this awful company messages their greed;” the cutscenes even look like a BP oil commercial. Large corporations and rich citizens throughout our globe are harming the planet every day, whether that’s through electronics manufacturing or through oil fracking empires. These pursuits aren’t meant to make the world better but rather to make them richer and people more comfortable (at least those of us that can afford it). It’s a good reminder in this time of quarantine and talks of reduced carbon emissions. The halt of corporate manufacturing and infrastructure are what’s causing the greatest environmental, not people not driving to work.

It’s so funny that people still talk about how games aren’t political; all of the themes that Remake expands upon were present in the original game that was released in 1997. There’s a lot more in the game than good vs evil and it’s themes are more present than ever. It seems that the themes of capitalistic greed and environmentalism are unfortunately evergreen.