Monthly Archives: June 2019

Menu-Assisted Narrative

Mega Man Zero ends with Zero facing down a hoard of Pantheons, his saber ready and his will resolved to fight every last enemy that crosses his path. The music swells and he charges off into battle.

The sequel picks up a year later and the opening stage is you, as Zero, still fighting the fight. The implication is clear: Zero’s been at it for the entire year since the first installment. It offers a neat sense of continuity between the two games, and Zero constantly using his tired/low-health animation instead of his usual idle one definitely lends itself to the sense of weariness found in the scene.

But that’s not the best part.

Hit start and you’ll bring up the pause menu. Menus are perfunctory things in most games; maybe a game will dress it up like an in-universe tablet, but for the most part, they’re utilitarian places to change loadouts or access options. Mega Man Z2 uses the menu to communicate atmosphere: it features the exact same design as the one from Z1, this time with cracks and broken parts. Zero has been fighting for so long, the pause screen is falling apart.

After the level, when Zero gets repaired and is ready to go back out on missions, not only is his idle animation back to normal, but the menu is now redone and shiny — just as Zero is back and better than ever. 

In this game, the start menu helps tell the story. In the opening it displays the passage of time, then it shows that Zero is in perfect shape. It’s perfectly possible to go through the opening without once opening the menu and miss this bit of setting entirely. 

There are things we’ve come to just expect from video games. Call it ludonarrative dissonance, call it the necessities of mechanics, but we’re used to certain gamey things. Extra lives, pause menus, health meters, the list goes on. Sometimes, games can try and explain it, like the HUD in Assassin’s Creed being representative of the interface of the Animus as Desmond accesses Altair’s memories, but typically it doesn’t really matter. It’s when these mechanicy things are integrated into the narrative that things get really interesting. 

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII has its Digital Mind Wave system. At first, the DMW seems like a kitschy mechanic; slots roll throughout battles and if the right numbers or characters line up, player character Zack Fair gets a stat boost or, sometimes, executes a cool attack. As you progress through the game, people who Zack meets get added to the DMW, and attacks and boosts based on them with it. Alright, cool; the DMW is representative of Zack’s psyche, an interpretation backed up by the flashbacks you’ll see when the reels align on one character. 

But then comes the ending.

So, uh, spoilers for a game that came out twelve years ago as a sequel to a game that’s now 22 years old, but Zack dies. On the run from evil corporation Shinra’s army, Zack tries to fight them off but eventually succumbs, passing on his legacy to Cloud (and leading into the original Final Fantasy VII). You get to play Zack’s last stand, an unwinnable fight with a foregone conclusion. It’s tragic and sad, and probably the last place you’d want a slot machine rolling in the top left corner.

Or so you’d think.

As the fight goes on, and as Zack weakens, parts of the DMW break and one by one the characters he’s met along the way are removed from the DMW. This mechanic you’ve come to rely on slowly becomes less useful, and the characters you — and Zack — care about are being taken from you as you die. It’s a visceral experience: something you’ve come to take for granted is slipping away. You feel the loss happening.

Video games are such a wonderful, fascinating medium. There aren’t many ways to smoothly integrate this sort of storytelling into other forms. An aspect ratio change could communicate Zero’s shift in film or television, but it wouldn’t be quite as obviously subtle. Perhaps a book’s font slowly growing more indistinct and faded would be able to communicate the sort of fading that Crisis Core’s DMW does, but would that be too obvious, too gimmicky? Maybe the only way to know is to try, but in the meantime, man, I love that video games can do this. Menus and in-game mechanics aren’t the sort of things we usually think of as ways to tell a story, and yet, these two games did. It’s honestly a shame that they don’t get more credit, and that more games don’t play around with their medium as much as they could.

 

Postscript:
I didn’t mention any entry in Metal Gear Solid because, dude, Hideo Kojima’s on an entirely different level when it comes to the interplay between games’ ludic and narrative elements.

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Shoes

My favorite part of Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe might just be a tiny beat that happens part way through the movie. It’s hardly a big moment, just a bit of table setting that, for someone like me, holds all the more import.

There’s a party, and a couple kids are chasing each other. They run up the steps to the house and, without pausing to think, slip off their shoes before entering. The camera follows them as they run through the house and to the back door where they put their shoes back on and continue their chase outside. It’s a really small beat, and the whole shoes thing isn’t highlighted — there’s no cutaway to the kids’ feet or anything; the long shot just serves to establish the party in the suburbs.

Maybe you don’t quite get what I’m getting at.

I moved to the US when I was fourteen. There was a lot of little culture shocks, from tax not being included in the sticker price to the fact that I had to drive to get anywhere in the suburbs. A big one was that Americans wore their shoes inside the house. As someone who grew up in Singapore, I was very used to removing my shoes before going into a house. Why would I want to track the outside world into someone’s home? That’d be barbaric.

I got over it, and these days usually ask when I visit someone if it’s shoes on or off (my apartment is firmly shoes off, if you were wondering). Wikipedia has an interesting rundown on the practice of removing shoes inside, surveying the custom in several countries. It’s not common in the US but, as the article notes, “…removing of shoes is common among certain immigrant communities.” Which, I suppose, explains me and mine. But I’ve digressed.

There’s a beat in Always Be My Maybe where a pair of kids, unprompted and without a word, pause their playing to take their shoes off when entering a house, and put them back on when they exit. It’s such a small detail, but one that is absolutely rife with verisimilitude and meaning. It’s something you’d expect to see in an Easy Asian household like the one depicted in the film. Given that the film’s three writers are all of Easy Asian descent and the director herself a child of Iranian immigrants, it’s not surprising that the detail made it in.

And it’s treated as normal to boot. I know this seems like such a small beat to obsess over, but it’s a really big deal for. In all the American media of consumed over the years, nowhere have I seen this tiny but important facet of my life portrayed on screen. And certainly not as casually and matter-of-factly as here. In that moment I felt seen, I felt like this part of me and my life was important and valid. That the habit of taking my shoes off inside wasn’t unusual.

I yearn for stories by different people, I yearn to hear about other experiences and takes on life. I also want to see my own experiences presented in media; I want to see myself represented. Always Be My Maybe may not be the best movie in Netflix’s stable of romcom revivals (that title belongs entirely to Set It Up and if you disagree you are wrong) but it gets a special little place in my heart for how it portrays its Asian American protagonists without making the whole movie about the ‘Asian American experience.’ Sasha and Marcus are presented as fairly normal people, they aren’t ‘foreign’ or ‘exotic,’ they’re just them.

In a few ways, Always Be My Maybe seems not unlike To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before in that both films feature leads who are people of color without the plot being about how they’re minorities. At the end of the day, I want to see little parts of my life portrayed as being, well, normal and not some bizarre thing done by the Other. Movies like Always Be My Maybe and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before do that. And now I want more.

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Bad Taste

I really like Iron Man 2. This is not a popular opinion; the movie is usually listed near the bottom of MCU movie rankings, especially when held up against its predecessor.

But I really like it all the same. I suppose there’s no accounting for bad taste.

Perhaps there’s some explanation for my deep affection for this much-maligned movie when the context with which I first saw the film is taken into account. The summer of 2010 saw my heart acting up with the symptoms of something potentially dire, but without any clear cause. This period of uncertainty was less than fun, to put it mildly, so a movie where the protagonist was dealing with his own chest-related issues struck a very personal cord. I’m fully aware of the film’s flaws, but my opinions of Iron Man 2 will forever be tied up with the circumstances when I first saw it.

I go on and on on this blog about how art is a two-way street, about how the viewer/reader/player affects the work almost as much as the creator. What one brings to the table inherently changes the final effect of the piece. My own medical issues, for example, have had drastic effects on my opinion of Iron Man 2.

In light of that, it’s hard to really provide a framework with which to declare a movie the best. Something I love may not work for you, and vice versa. I found Never Let Me Go to be profoundly moving, but I’m sure there’s someone out there who’d call it melodramatic schlock, just as there are people who loved 50/50 while I found it somewhat hollow. I still love (500) Days Of Summer, but what I like about has changed as I’ve gotten older (and hopefully wiser).

Take the ending to The Last of Us. Without getting too much into it (because even six years on, talking about the ending still feels taboo), Joel has decided that there’s something that Ellie shouldn’t do and he’s going to do whatever it takes to ensure no harm befalls the teenage girl who’s become like a daughter to him. It’s a rampage, against a faction we’d been led to believe were heroic, culminating in the player – as Joel – shooting an unarmed man. Naturally, its response has proven it divisive. In the ensuing discussion, however, it became clear that players who had children of their own were more likely to sympathize with Joel’s choice than non-parents. The player’s own personal life informs their response to the narrative.

So is it a bad ending? I certainly read some criticisms of it, just as I read praises. While I’d say that it is empirically good, I do have to wonder if describing something empirically is even possible. There’s little doubt that it’s well-crafted and, I’d say, well-earned. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it; and it doesn’t matter how good it is, if you don’t like it you don’t like it.

As I said, there’s no accounting for bad taste.

I think we’re too hard on people who like stuff that’s not considered good, that there are too many pleasures we consider guilty. I’m sure we’ve all stories in one form or another that seem childish or shallow now, but once upon a time meant the world to you. I will forever have a soft spot for Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky” and John Betjemen’s “False Security” since they were among my introduction to poetry, and two I took a real shine to years and years ago. Henry V is my favorite Shakespeare play, not because of the St. Crispin’s Day Speech or really any merit of itself, but because it was the first of his plays that I really dig into sixteen-odd years ago. Pretentious as it is, I want to say that Ulysses by James Joyce is my favorite book, not out of an adoration for obtuse literature, but from the delight of classes spent examining the book and finding meaning and, with all of that, falling in love with the work. I’m sure had I read it under other circumstances I would have dismissed it as being overwrought nonsense.

Secondhand Lions has a middling score on Rotten Tomatoes, but I absolutely love the movie all the same. I know that Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel is far from a really great game, but it’s an absolute delight to play on the weekend with your brother and a couple beers. I don’t care what you think, Toto’s “Africa” is an absolutely stellar piece of music.

Maybe I’m too hard on people. I think Batman v Superman is an absolute mess, but y’know what, if you like it, good for you. We can talk until the sky falls about what’s a good piece of art and what’s not, but I think we’re kinda missing the forest for the trees. So long as the story made you feel something and isn’t hurting anyone else, where’s the harm in liking it? I enjoy watching bad movies, I love playing excellent games, and I’ll gladly go to bat for Iron Man 2.

After all, there really is no accounting for bad taste.

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Obsolescence

I have a floppy disk lying around somewhere with stuff on it I must have written when I was around eight or ten years old. I don’t know exactly what’s on it and I’m not sure where it is at any given moment; it’s one of those things that I’ll happen on occasion and think to myself “hey, I should get the files off of this some time.”

Of course, there is the whole issue of finding a floppy disk reader. My laptop doesn’t even have a CD drive anymore and what once seemed so standard a feature on computers has become quite rare. I’m sure that with a measure of effort I could find somewhere that would transfer the files for me, but that would require forethought (and actually knowing where that disk is).

I’m kinda sure modern software still supports opening Word docs saved in a format twenty years old, but if it doesn’t there’s yet another hurdle. Tech has moved on enough as to make some stuff inaccessible.

Take Flash games and videos, for instance, the hallmark of my adolescence. As the internet develops, it’s shied away from the format to the point that some browsers no longer support it. In light of that, some websites have shut down (pour one out for YTMND) and with it has gone years of content, unlikely to be seen again. Granted, some of these do live on as recorded videos and what not, but it’s not quite the same. You can still watch Harry Potter Puppet Pals on YouTube, but you can’t click on a certain frame during Trouble at Hogwarts to watch a hidden short about Ron bothering some butterflies. Sure, there’s a recording of it on YouTube too, but that little hint of interactivity, that secret easter egg that you could find and tell your friends about, isn’t there. Should Flash fall further into disuse (with a planned end slated for 2020), it’ll only be a matter of time until you need an older machine to watch an older video.

But what about when that old content is no longer there? Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game is a wonderful game: an old school side-scrolling beat-’em-up based on the eponymous movie, its pixel art graphics and local four-player support made it a staple of my PS3 library. Then the game’s license with publisher Ubisoft expired and the game was removed from the PSN Store and Xbox Live Arcade and it could no longer be bought or downloaded. Just like that, it’s gone. I might have it on my PS3, but it’s not something I could recommend to a friend to get, nor can I grab any DLC I might have missed. Barring a rerelease of some sort, anyone in the future looking to have the game, well, can’t. So if someone’s trying to create an archive of side-scrolling beat-’em-ups or games based on movies based on a comic inspired by games, they’re out of luck.

This sort of digital obsolescence is an actual concern of digital archivists. Consider any game designed for the Vectrex, a console I adore if only for how idiosyncratic it is. The game Minestorm, a knock-off of Asteroids designed explicitly for it, mayn’t have much that sets it apart from its ‘inspiration.’ The Vectrex, however, allows for vector graphics that create a particularly brilliant display of the game (which is actually just like the arcade cabinet of Asteroids). You can emulate the game and console all you want, but that particular experience is gone lest you can get your hands on a vector display.  How do you preserve something when you lack the hardware to do so?

I mentioned last week that I’d always have the old stuff to go back to, but sometimes that’s sadly not true. Ms. Pac-Man just isn’t the same without that arcade stick, and Asteroids without the vector graphics is a lesser game. Maybe the lesson here is to be present and enjoy stuff when you can.

Or maybe it’s to get your files off the damn floppy disk.

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They Changed it And That’s Okay

The band Barcelona enthralled me with their first album, Absolutes, with its soaring melancholic piano-driven sound paired with some soulful songwriting. It was a shock to the system when their sophomore album, Not Quite Yours, instead featured a more rhythm-focused sound and the piano relegated to support in many songs. Their third, Basic Man, sounds even less alt-rock; it’s an album full of mellow synthy grooves. Each of their albums sounds wildly different, which is a bit of a bummer if you’re looking for, say, a follow-up to Absolutes.

I once heard it said that if you wished a band sounded more like their older albums, then you should go listen to their older albums. I was resistant to that idea at first; part of why I get into any musical artist is because I like what I’ve heard; why can’t they keep to what works? Over time, though, I’ve come to appreciate this sort of sonic shifting. Five Score and Seven Years Ago is a radically different album from Relient K’s prior Mmhmm, but it was instrumental in the band’s growth that brought them to Forget and Not Slow Down, their best album. Change, as it happens, is a necessity for an act to evolve. Run River North has dispensed with the violins that helped make their debut album so singular, but their DNA is still all over their latest Monsters Calling Home, Vol. 1 and there’s little doubt their music is still outstanding. Plus, moving away from the violins has led to new renditions of old songs performed live on tour that are at once wholly unlike from and utterly recognizable as the studio recorded songs.

Consider this ethos in the context of video games. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is a fantastic game that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves improves on which is ultimately perfected in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Fundamentally, all three games are very similar to each other, though there are naturally the differences that come with any sequel. Consider this not unlike U2’s Boy, October, and War; three albums that feature very similar sounds. If you liked War you will probably also really like Boy; if you liked Among Thieves, then A Thief’s End will be right up your alley.

But then some game series like to really shake things up. Though Metal Gear Solid 2 features much of the same features of Metal Gear Solid, the sequel exchanges Solid Snake for Raiden, already a marked difference. Where the first game is something of a power trip, the second is not at all shy about critiquing that power fantasy. Mechanically, it is the next step from the original, but the game makes you question it all and so the game feels quite different. MGS 3 takes away the industrial settings of the prior games and throws you in the Soviet jungle. Gone too is your Soliton Radar: it’s the Cold War and you have to rely on a rudimentary sonar and your wiles to stay hidden. The fourth game upends the weapon system; no longer do you rummage guns from the battlefield; now you can order them through a mobile store. Also, you’re playing as an old man who gets episodes of PTSD if he kills too many people.

All of these variations make some pretty major changes to how you play the game. The focus on camouflage in the third game forces the player to adopt a slower pace throughout the game: without your soliton you really need to keep an eye on where enemy soldiers are rather than hiding in a box and checking your minimap. The new weapon system in 4 gives you more options for engagements: I used a silenced sniper rifle to carve a stealthy, deadly path behind enemy lines.

The next game, Peace Walker, has bite-size missions befitting its publishing on Sony’s portable PSP. Choosing limited loadouts for each mission is a different flavor of strategizing from what’s come before; maybe this mission you’ll shoot your way through, maybe on this one you’ll be sneaky. I was very hesitant about Metal Gear Solid V and its open-world. Up to now, the MGS games have been very linear experiences — all the better to weave its crazy stories. An open world would change all that, right? Turned out that yes, it was wildly different, but it was also a ridiculous amount of fun applying the game’s stealth mechanics to a different setting. It felt like a totally different game, and yet unquestioningly Metal Gear, like how U2’s War, Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby are all very different albums, yet still the same band. Sure, I was disappointed that I didn’t get to play as Solid Snake anymore after the first Metal Gear Solid (Old Snake in 4 is very different); but I can go back to MGS1 for that if I want that, just as I can always put on “Like A Song” if I need a change of pace after listening to Joshua Tree.

What defines an artistic work, be it a game series or musical artist, is an intriguing question. There are some cases where wildly different projects aren’t really seen as an issue (think directors, actors, writers), but others where it is a big deal (Revenge of the Sith, A New Hope, and The Last Jedi are very different Star Wars movies and some folk ain’t happy about that). While more of the same isn’t often a bad thing — I love how Uncharted 4 perfected the series, there’s always something exciting about seeing a work redefine itself, as in Metal Gear Solid V, The Last Jedi, or Run River’s North latest EP.

And besides, if I have a hankering for the older stuff, it’s all still there if I want it.

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