Monthly Archives: December 2017

The Ephemeral and The Sublime

Over the years, Hideo Kojima has, because of his Metal Gear Solid games, become one of my favorite video game designers. He’s also certifiably bonkers, mixing in discussions of American militarism-as-neo-colonialism in a game where you fight giant mechs alongside a mostly naked sniper who can’t speak because of a parasite that uses language to spread (and thus serves as a vehicle for Kojima to discuss how English becoming the global lingua franca is in turn another form of colonialism).

Point is, I’m always stoked to see what he’s making.

A new trailer for Death Stranding, his first post-MGS game, dropped last night. Like the handful of other trailers for the game that have come out, it’s weird and near indecipherable, with little information on what it’s like as a game. And at eight minutes long, it’s a pretty long trailer.

To the point where it’s less a trailer and more of a short film unto itself. It’s very self-contained, missing a lot of the “what comes next”-ness of trailers. While it does evoke a desire to figure out what’s going on, but that’s hardly the point.

There is little narrative in the traditional sense. Sure, we have a protagonist in Sam and a beginning, middle, and end; but it’s not about him doing something. Rather, the trailer presents a tableau of a scene, a moment for you to experience and are the better for having done so. The trailer presents the sublime, something quite beyond our comprehension but beautiful in its terror. It’s less about the catharsis and more about the process of watching Sam and his compatriots attempt to fend off these unseen creatures in a mysterious, physics bending world.

So in that sense it’s a lot like the movie Lady Bird.

Lady Bird is about a girl in her senior year of high school, her relationship with her mother, her relationship with herself, and that messy transition from seventeen to eighteen. It’s a tender story, told with a full heart and helpings of honesty. It’s reliant less on vying for that big, cinematic climax than it is on capturing a very particular moment in time for a very specific person.

And like the trailer for Death Stranding, it captures the ephemeral. Things happen, and then something else does. Lady Bird isn’t trying to say something bigger about the world, it’s just trying to tell its story (as Death Stranding’s trailer weaves its vision of terror). There’s no One Big Moment that defines protagonist Lady Bird’s life. Rather we see snapshots of a very specific person. Because of its honesty and specificity (Lady Bird’s idiosyncrasies are at once wholly unique and beautifully universal), we, as an audience, are allowed to experience a part of a life. One that, having seen, we are more for having done so.

It’s a fairly common anti-structure in indie-darling movies; you can see it done well in Drinking Buddies and Lost in Translation. Boyhood doesn’t know what it’s trying to capture besides “uh, time passes, I guess” and so fails to capture anything. Meanwhile Monsters sets its journey against an alien presence to heighten its exploration of loneliness and presentation of the sublime. Ken Liu’s short story “The Paper Menagerie” captures a difficult relationship. And it’s what Death Stranding’s trailer does so well.

I will campaign for narrative until the sky falls. But stories can be about moments too. The key is to make the audience feel something. As a reader/viewer/player I engage in fiction not because I want to sit idly by as something happens, but because I want to be taken on a journey. I want to feel something, sorrow or joy, something funny or something epic. Lady Bird didn’t need a Big Epic Conclusion to make me feel like a teenage girl. And Death Stranding doesn’t need flashy gameplay to present the sublime in a fracking video game trailer.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Crossing Animals

Fetch quests occupy a strange space in video games. They aren’t strictly great quests; you talk to an NPC, and then they have you get something for them, or bring something somewhere else. They’re usually uninspired and are a transparent effort to pad out the game’s length. Mass Effect: Andromeda mines hours upon hours of gameplay by having the player go to a different planet, talk to someone, and return (for a reward!). Point is, they ain’t great.

And yet, there’s Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp.

I downloaded the game to my phone cuz a lotta people were downloading it, knowing nothing about the Animal Crossing games except there are animals that crossed and something about decorating houses. I fired up the game and found myself put in charge of a campsite (which I can decorate!) and told to befriend visiting animals and invite them over to said campsite.

Simple enough.

Befriending these animals, however, is a matter of talking to them and… fetch quests. Jay wants two squids, Filbert wants an assortment of fruits, and Apollo has developed an affection for butterflies. If you bring their desired items to these animal crossers they in turn give you bells (money) and resources like wood and cotton you can then use to craft new furniture for tour campsite. This furniture, besides looking nice, is also used to lure invite animals to hang out at your campsite.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is all about fetch quests. Just going somewhere, getting something, and giving it to someone.

And yet, it is such calming fun.

Part of this is due to how gentle the game is. Pocket Camp doesn’t have you fighting monsters, you just shake fruit off trees or tap butterflies to catch them with your net. It’s easy enough to amass such a stock of items that more often than not, you’ll already have what your animal friend is looking for.

But there still a sense of accomplishment upon completing a task. The animal smiles and claps, thanking you profusely. It’s a bit of an overreaction, but you still did something. There’s the idea that you’re getting stuff done, and that getting said stuff done is appreciated by people, er- animals, who call you friend.

What really makes Pocket Camp work, though, is summed up in those darned cute animals. Pocket Camp’s simple mechanics are delivered with a very friendly theme. There’s no fighting monsters, but nor is there much in the way of any conflict whatsoever. You’re all just kinda get along. It’s utterly non-threatening, presenting a harmonious world where idyllic days are spent fishing and foraging and thinking about food.

And so it’s wonderfully calming. There’s no frenetic need to get stuff done, you can do stuff at your own pace and still have that sense of accomplishment. Like The Sims, you’re able to set your own goals within the parameters (do you want to upgrade your camper? Make a dope hangout? Stockpile a horde of Bells?) and go after them (though without the threat of starvation and/or setting yourself on fire). Again, Pocket Camp is a game to relax. Not blow off steam: just chill out.

I think it’s, in that way, a kinda important game. Sure, it’s not saying Something Bigger About The World, and it’s hardly a brain-bending puzzle game. It’s a game where you do stuff, simple fetch quests though they may be, and be rewarded and affirmed for it. Without deadlines or consequences, Pocket Camp feels very much like a safe space to escape to in the middle of the day. Proof that you can get something done and that Ketchup the duck is really happy you did.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized