7/14/06

An Analytical Discussion of the Industry, Culture, Progress and Nature of Video Games.

July 14th, 2006

Game Am Cry, Part II 

For an explanation of why I'm starting of in medias res, which is Latin for, "Oooh, look at me, I know Latin and I'm all fancy, la la!", please click here. Also, while I discussed emotional investment in characters in that article, please look here for Stev's insightful discussion of a different kind of investment into video game characters. As a player of RPGs more than anything else, it is something I understood almost instinctively. Now . . .

Two of the first times I had any kind of emotional moment with games were both on the SNES. Final Fantasy III (or
FFVI in other places), a favorite among the lovers of old school, involves a scene on an immense floating continent which has ripped itself from the earth due to the evil machinations of the cackling Kefka. After you've beaten the big boss of this very tough area (Atma Weapon? My memory of grinding through the area is fuzzy) you are given the choice of leaving Shadow (the ninja with the large Doberman sidekick) on the island while you hop on the airship and jet. The first time I played through the game I rather carelessly jetted (as I'm sure quite a few other players with a similar lack of attentiveness did) thinking that because Shadow was a main character, (with hints at a backstory and everything) the game would prevent me from leaving him behind. So it was with some shock that I saw my party hop and jet. And that was it. He was gone completely from the rest of the game. That, combined with the fact the world had not just changed but had been almost completely destroyed gave me pause. This was meaningful, this was important, this more than just a plot point. This changed the whole game.

A similar willingness to (at least temporarily) kill off a main character occurred in
Chrono Trigger, another beloved oldie, when our intrepid hero is not just killed when he encounters Lavos the world blower-upper McGuffin thing, but is completely annihilated to the point where there is nothing left. The return of Crono was almost guaranteed, but beyond plot mechanics, the other characters took some significant time to mourn their late, disintegrated friend, and had to jump through some significant hoops to bring him back. Character sprites from this era usually displayed their emotions in full hysteric mode, jumping up and down and mugging huge facial expressions, but the despair of the post-Crono-atomizing scene, along with the genuine conflict emerging from the pasts of the various characters (Lucca's mother was a parapalegic! That's real pain!) made a game whose overall emotional content left a significant impression.

Sitting on the opposite pole of emotion, festering with decay and missing some limbs, is
Resident Evil. There is much to deride in the series' first outing, from the funky controls to the now legendary voice acting (my favorite: "Jill, don't OPEN that DOOR.") but the game was scary. And not just in the "BOO!" way. I mean, anybody can make a "BOO!" scary game, just have things suddenly jump in through windows or out from closets with a lot of angry noise and the player is very startled. BOO! But horror, or at least good horror, taps into a deeper sense of fear, and this is what we get in that first dreaded hallway, as we notice a figure leaning over another, and the slick smacking sounds of voracious eating, then the cutscene: The inhuman figure consuming the human one slowly realizing he was not alone, and turning his dessicated head to face you. Although the immediate aftermath of that moment was a low-polygon zombie awkwardly shambling towards you, the moment itself was great, and, upon my initial viewing, almost made me shit my pants. This was ugly existential dread. Things were bad, very bad, and things were not going to be alright. Making a "BOO!" moment is easy, making it last long enough to induce the compulsion to turn off the game, turn on all the lights in the house and keep your baseball bat handy just in case is a more lasting accomplishment.

Finally, two last bits from the
Zeldas on the N64: Scripted musical cues in games always seem kind of unnatural to me. In Halo for example, the big drums-and-choir numbers were supposed to tell you that, yes, something big was coming up so you'd better get moving, but I would often get a little lost or turned around in the game and so while the soundtrack vamped grandiosely and repeatedly, I would be checking and rechecking my exits to find the path I'd carelessly missed. The cues are often too epic, too heavy to fit simple "moving to a different part of the level" scenes. In Ocarina of Time, however, there is one that fits perfectly. Link, fully equipped and penetrating deep into Gannondorf's castle ascends one final (and huuuuuuge) staircase to the strains of the epic strings of a climaxing orchestra, and when I got to this point for the first time I actually felt pumped, like a Gladiator heading out into the Coliseum's bloodstained sands, or at least like the geek version of that. Secondly, I'd just like to note that the revelation at the end of Majora's Mask that the reason that this whole freaking adventure took place was because the Skull Kid was lonely, in my opinion, had a real resonance. Maybe I was just a lonely kid, but it was a familiar feeling. Japanese video game plots tend to be pretty twisted, silly, and at times nearly insane, but more often than not they are based on the simplest, most basic (and therefore most relatable and understandable) motivations, such as loneliness, and the need to make friends. All of these are the moments that, in a young adulthood filled with an epic volume of video game playing, got to me in a different way.

I know the absence of the death of
Aerith Gainsborough will be conspicuous to some, but I found that famous scene, as well as the game's scripted final battle, as well as the overall plot (of this one and a lot of the rest of the Final Fantasy series) to be so overwrought so as to suggest that the story was less written than engineered by Frank Gehry. The fact that the FF:VII that I experienced this on was the primary one with the blocky, children's toy like polygons didn't help. Besides, this is a rather personal list, and the above moments are the ones that have stuck with me. I'm sure any other gamer reading this list has scenes in his or her own memory that endure and remain in the same way, and not for reason of high score or great game play, but because of feeling. In video gaming, the way things are now, that's pretty rare.

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Emotional Investment at 12 o'clock High

On my flight to San Diego this weekend I had the same fantasy I always have when I take flight: If - through some amazingly complex set of circumstances - I was asked to fly this plane, I COULD, gosh darn it. Sure, I’ve only had one flying lesson in my life. And it was in a two-seater Cessna. But the hundreds of flight-hours I have racked up in MS Flight Simulator, not to mention 1942 Pacific Air War, B-17 Flying Fortress, Falcon 3.0, Red Baron I & II, and Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe have got to count for something… right?

Yes, it’s true. Before computer gaming got cost prohibitive and I jumped ship to consoles come college, I was a hardcore PC gamer. Shelling out $50 for a meg of RAM? Check. Force-feedback joystick? Check. A handmade, cardboard tunnel to slip over the monitor and my head to block out peripheral vision in order to make a more direct, more “extreme” experience complete with built-in speakers? Embarrassingly, check.

During this time I was heavily interested in flight simulators. MS Flight Simulator, which is notoriously intimidating due to its
OCD-like attention to detail and a control system more akin to high-end video-editing, was enjoyable even to my mid-teen self. My favorite by far, however, was Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe. This Lucasarts game featured a more arcadey flight control system (example: dropping a drop tank added no discernible improvement in maneuverability) and the opportunity to pilot both American and German fighter aircraft, particularly the darlings of the History Channel, the ME 163 and 262.

 Of course, flying sortie after sortie could get tedious. How many ball bearing plants or marshalling yards can you bomb before you want something more substantial? The mission structure for the game did what it could, largely doling out promotions and medals for high scores and progressing the Allied army across the map based on past successes. In these days when the local BBS was king and the internet was still a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye, online multiplayer were two words rarely spoken (ever play Doom over a 9600 baud modem? Yeesh.). It was during these days, however, that I had the most engaging video game experience of my life. When the game, and my actions, had an emotional impact. When I embodied not a character with blue hair and a tragic childhood, but myself, with my own thoughts and feelings, placed in an extraordinary world that was not pre-planned, but emerged organically out of my successes and failures. It was one part flight sim, one part role-playing-game, and one part creative writing, but all parts awesome.

Did you miss that feature in SWOTL? Well, you had to be a member of
Prodigy, and you had to be a member of AIM (not AIM, and not AIM). AIM was a club composed of like-minded flight-sim enthusiasts. Interested parties picked one game in which they “enlisted” and became part of a “squadron.” There was a squadron for SWOTL pilots, as well as for Falcon 3.0, Aces over Europe, and just about any flight-sim that had the stones to offer a “limited ammunition” option. Everyone in the squadron played the same game, at the same difficulty level, and entered the squadron at the level of 2nd lieutenant with a chest empty of medals. 

Following the military structure, the “squadron” was headed by a higher-ranking CO and XO. The squadrons were integrated into a larger “military” that frequently engaged in large, politically-charged, regional wars. These wars, as well as the events leading up to them, were created by high-ranking members through our best Tom Clancy writing sessions: Assassination plots led to declarations of war. Oil disputes led to invasions. Age-old tribal tensions led to sneak attacks. I think Canada might have invaded once or twice for control of the Great Lakes.

Individual squadrons reacted with our own attempts at prose, usually set in squadron bars where we discussed “life on the home front,” including girl problems, sports, and imaginary base life. We penned ourselves falling for imaginary British townies and wooing nurses, painting nose-art and raiding foot-lockers. 

Of course, war called for the flying of missions. These missions were done within our game of choice. We annihilated aircraft. Sunk ships. Bombed buildings. And we recorded everything. At the end of our mission, we regaled our squadron-mates with a narrative recounting of our exploits. Close calls could be embellished. Lost wingmen could be mourned. Person achievements gained promotions and medals. If our squadron had a good week, the writers of the larger war would mention our efforts. We downed an ace! Took out a high-ranking officer! Crippled the enemy shipping! A bad week? We lost a key bridge! Ground troops were gassed! Michigan’s UP was overrun by the starting line-up of the Montreal Canadiens! Their larger works fueled our own works within our squadron, some dealing with the guilt associated with causing “collateral damage” or waxing philosophical about the necessity of war. Other times, we wrote about how freaking awesome it was to down ten FW 190s!

Instead of mindlessly flying missions, tracking our own score for our own enjoyment, mastering the controls and the play of the game for our own sake, the AIM boards on Prodigy gave gamers like myself an opportunity to be something bigger than ourselves. Not the scripted dungeons of WoW or the frag-fests of Unreal Tournament or SOCOM, but a world that was living and breathing. A world where drinking in the officers club was just as likely to end in a bar fight as a chess match. A world we wrote ourselves, either with our own words or the mastery of our game. A world where we were emotionally invested in our lives because we created them ourselves instead of having game developers write them for us.

How’d it end?
 
My engine failed and I bailed out over water. 

My squadron-mates wrote my eulogy.