Tag Archives: Video Games

Ahistoricity

As I’ve said before, there are two reasons I picked up Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey; the first being that I got to control a ship again (seriously, after Black Flag gave me a pirate ship there was no going back). The other was that you could finally play as a woman for the whole game. It only took, what, eleven games to finally feature a female protagonist, albeit an optional one.

Anyway, naturally, I’m playing the game as Kassandra (instead of Blandy McWhiteGuy #38 that is Alexios), because I am here for badass women in my video games. It’s a lotta fun, but it’s also patently untrue. See, Kassandra’s a woman, and when it came to women, Ancient Greece wasn’t so great about it. Well, neither were most eras, really. Or right now. But that’s beside the point.

The Assassin’s Creed games are historical fiction, as played out through genetic memories in a fancy device called the Animus. Given that most all of the assassinating takes place in the past, whichever character the player inhabits must thus belong to the era and be fitting enough to be able to pass inconspicuously as needed. Naturally, the games want to focus on Big Cool Bits of History; unfortunately, due to a westernized view of history, Big Cool Bits tend to focus on that as seen by the West: the Crusades, the Renaissance, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Victorian Era, Ancient Egypt. They’re the eras and events we learnt about in our (westernized) history books and what we’ve learnt to associate as those Big Cool Bits. The Ming Dynasty, various Caliphates, and pre-colonial India are relegated to footnotes.

Because of this, the problem inherent to Assassin’s Creed is that most of (western) history isn’t great for women or people of color, thus necessitating that most of the game’s protagonists must be caucasian or white-passing. It was game number ten, Assassin’s Creed Origins, that introduced Bayek as the main character. He’s Egyptian, and, unlike a lot of depictions of Egyptians in popular culture, not white. Which is cool! And honestly, I’m keen to check out Origins sometime, to see how it is in comparison with Odyssey

Having Bayek be a person of color makes sense, because, well Egypt. It’d be far more strange to have him be some white dude. Were Ubisoft to ever make an Assassin’s Creed set in the Ming Dynasty or some other non-western historical period, the protagonist would probably have to be a person of color, because, hey, we’re finally telling stories that aren’t about white dudes. But history being history, if we wanted to give an accurate portrayal of the era and its culture, the protagonist would have to be male to be able to go about society doing things (like assassinating people).

Now, back to Odyssey, where I’m playing the entire game as Kassandra, a female character. Due to the game allowing you to pick between characters, gameplay and plot are essentially the same if you’re Alexios or Kassandra (since making things different would require more coding and work). There’s no difference in your ability to captain a ship, fight in a war, or sneak your way into a symposium based on whom you pick — or based on your gender. This means that Kassandra can do everything Alexios can; she can rub elbows with the Herodotus and Aristophanes all the same, she can be a respected and feared general, she can romance the exact same cast. In essence, Kassandra is equal.

Which is bullshit. Gender roles were established in classical Greek culture; you weren’t gonna have some woman running around as a mercenary fighting other mercenaries (some of which are women!). It’s plain unrealistic.

And so what? The game takes place two-and-a-half millennia ago, in an era that’s almost as much myth and legend as it is recorded history. Where’s the harm in taking some big liberties? Yeah, yeah; I get it, it’s ‘unrealistic’ to have a female mercenary roaming the Greek World and jumping around Big History Bits, but this is also a game where I merrily and repeatedly destabilize nation-states without plunging each society into ruin, so really, there’s a lot of ahistoricity going on there. 

But Josh, you say, that’s just gameplay mechanics built around the whole idea of reducing a nation’s power by killing its leader. And to that I say: So what? We’re okay with small breaks from realism for the sake of fun, why not for the sake of narrative? Video games, like so much of other fiction, has an overabundance of white dudes and needs a hefty splash of diversity. I am happy for Odyssey to take a break from reality and let me play as a female mercenary for the whole game. It’s cool, and, c’mon, we already know how history went; let’s have a little fun with it.

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Simming It Up

I really like The Sims. Always have, ever since I started playing the original game seventeen-odd years ago.

But because I am the way I am, I gotta ask myself why do I like this game?

The premise of The Sims is wonderfully simple: it’s a simulation of life. You create and customize a Sim and then play God with their life, telling them to go to work, eat, fall in love, and so on. Part of the game’s challenge is a sort of resource management: how can you keep your Sim’s needs met so they can be happy. You don’t want them passing out or starving to death, do you?

But it’s quite easy to get into that rhythm, and the game’s sequels have streamlined the process in their iterations (I recall press around The Sims 3 touting that Sims would need less bathroom breaks). It’s really not that difficult to keep your Sims happy and for them to advance in their careers and all that. So the question there is: Now what?

That’s the real beauty of The Sims. You can do anything. In the first game, my focus was on bringing my couple to the top of their career, which was actually pretty tough at the time, given that it entailed keeping needs met and having a large number of friends (to the point that I’d create additional families only for them to befriend my main Sims and facilitate promotions). And building houses, that’s a lot of fun too. Expansion packs made for new (mis)adventures, like adding in pets and hotels, offered new ways for the Sims to do their things.

The Sims 2 added in aging and made child sims less useless, so creating a multigenerational family was a lot of fun. The Sims 3 let you explore the neighborhood in a big way, and now The Sims 4 has streamlined everything a lot, while really refining its mechanics. There’s so much to do.

The thing I really like about The Sims is the ability to construct narratives. But they don’t have to be ones that are explicitly written, rather they can exist all in my head. Right now I’m going for having a Sim outlive five spouses, which is delightfully morbid, but I figure in the process Raina Higginthorpe is gonna have a wonderful relationship with Armin Woghoni, a (not-quite-mad) scientist. Naturally, this has meant building an underground swimming pool and, below that, a secret lab. Oh, and expanding the modes suburban house up a couple floors and building a rocket on the roof. Because why not? And also I like building secret lairs and stuff. And this is The Sims, so I can do this!

Anyway, Raina and Armin have a daughter, Alana, who’s quite close with her father. When he dies in a mysterious case of Pushing The Big Red Button after going to space, she decides that, when she becomes an adult, she’s going to become an intergalactic space ranger, presumably to solve the mystery. None of this is in the text — seriously, it’s all in my head. Raina, meanwhile, is gonna remarry and continue her black widow streak, all while the family as a whole amasses more money and their house starts to look more and more like a castle.

I enjoy the silliness of it all, the process of making a story with very low commitment and all. It’s similar to why I enjoy playing tabletop RPGs, this ability to create a narrative about kinda random events. I suppose I can see this being unappealing if this sort of unstructured play isn’t really your jam when you play video games, but hey, I dig it, and it’s a fine way to spend this vacation.

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Guns.

Let’s talk about guns. Particularly the way we relate to them in fiction, particularly how I relate to them through the fiction I consume.

First, however, real life. I’ve handled guns before, fired shotguns and rifles with friends in the American South, and trained with an assault rifle on a range. I mention this to say that I’m very aware of what these weapons can do, I’ve felt the recoil and smelt the gunpowder, I’ve watched a machine gun obliterate a tree trunk. There’s little doubt in my mind of what these awesome and terrible machines can do.

I’ve been thinking about violence in video games for a long time. In light of certain recent events, I’ve been thinking about guns too, and the relationship I have with them — particularly the way I interact them with most: video games.

Guns are also a big part of many video games, especially the First-Person Shooter genre and its cousin, the Third-Person Shooter. By being, well, a shooter, they feature guns. Sometimes it can be simple, as in Halo where there’s a single assault rifle, pistol, shotgun, etc; or more complex like in Borderlands where there’s a whole cornucopia of different shotguns, rifles, and what have you. Different games treat their guns differently.

In the Uncharted series, guns play the same role they do in a pulpy action movie like Indiana Jones or Mission: Impossible. They add tension, what with offering Nathan Drake a good deal of peril as he and his allies galavant around the world. To get from A to B, Nate’s gotta fight his way past these mercenaries with a combination of stealth, fisticuffs, and gunplay. Of course, guns aren’t the only way for the player to interact with the world in these games, there’s also finding treasure, solving puzzles, and a lot of death-defying climbing. The tension here comes from a lot of places, and the gun-based violence is only one, admittedly big, facet of it.

Come Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, though, guns take something of an optional back seat. Yes, you can still shoot your way through things, but there’s a bigger emphasis on exploration and avoiding conflict altogether. The wonderful chapter “At Sea” is all about Nate and his brother treasure hunting in a small archipelago, with nary a gunfight in view.  The game has a more mature approach to violence, one that shows just how far the series has come in the nine years since its inception.

In between the third Uncharted and A Thief’s End was The Last Of Us, an entirely new game by developer Naughty Dog. In a strong departure from the pulpiness of Uncharted, The Last of Us is absolutely brutal in its violence. Enemies beg for their lives, the infected weep as they shuffle around. Killing is not fun, and when you do get a hold of guns — and their all too little ammo — the brutality of it all borders on horror. I suspect that A Thief’s End’s less cavalier attitude towards gunplay was influenced by Naughty Dog making The Last of Us, but that’s another thing altogether.

The Uncharted games feature a mix of real-world guns (like the FAL and AK-47) alongside fictional ones. They add a measure of ‘realism’ to the game, not terribly like how an action movie would use specific guns for specific situations — an American soldier would probably favor an American assault rifle, while that gun-for-hire might have one made by a foreign manufacturer. Metal Gear Solid realized this and peppered its world with real weapons, like the French FAMAS, German PSG1, and American FIM-92 Stinger. MGS is a far more serious military game than my prior examples, so it makes sense they’d wanna get super real with it and talk about the nitty-gritty of the guns. The later games expand on the assortment of weaponry, getting up into having dozens of different guns. But as they do, so too do they discourage you from wanton violence: using non-lethal methods of taking out enemies can net you a better score or provide you with more personnel for your base. Just because there are a whole bunch of guns there for you to use, doesn’t mean you have to actually run around shooting people. The Metal Gear Solid series is profoundly anti-war, in the sort of way only someone who grew up in post-WW2 Japan could create.

Which brings me to the Call of Duty games. A series of military FPS, the fourth game Modern Warfare brought them into contemporary warfare and, with it, the associated guns too. Though the original Modern Warfare did a lot of really cool things with its setting (hey, ever experienced a nuke going off while playing in first-person? It’s terrifying), the series got steadily more pulpy as it went on. That said, however, the game’s attitude towards its violence remained very rah-rah kill-the-bad-guys-yay! in ways that Uncharted and Metal Gear Solid never were. There’s a point where the games, and the marketing around them, started to become unsettling with how gung-ho they were about the variety of weaponry the games offered to be a soldier from a Western nation shooting up the third-world. I stopped following the series some time ago, its celebration of militarism and what went along with it becoming something I really didn’t like engaging in.

On the totally opposite side are the Borderlands games, wonderful shooters set in the distant future on the distant planet of Pandora. I’ve been playing a lot of Borderlands 2 with my brother lately, and the game’s such an utter delight. Part of the game’s appeal comes from its core loop: shoot enemies, get better guns, level up, repeat. Guns are procedurally generated, and in addition to the more traditional sort of weaponry, you can get an assault rifle that shoots rockets, shotguns that hurl balls of electricity, and a cursed submachine gun that screams when you fire it. It’s bonkers, and the guns are a big part of the game; it’s always exciting to find a new, unique gun and take it for a spin. But I think that unlike Call of Duty, Borderlands doesn’t fetishize guns. Sure, they’re cool, and a big focus of the game and marketing, but narratively they end up ancillary to the crazy characters and quests that populate the world. Maybe the fact that the guns are procedurally generated plays a part in it, but honestly, I’m willing to bet that it’s just the way the developers think. The guns are, ultimately, tools, and not the focus of the game — all this despite it being a First-Person Shooter.

Honestly, I wish I had a tidy and pretty answer to all this, especially after eleven hundred words. Yet I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface. I love how Destiny’s exotic weapons are treated like Excalibur and Andúril, only guns instead of swords. Portal has a gun but it shoots portals instead of bullets, really screwing with assumptions of the FPS genre. The guns in Horizon Zero Dawn are terrifying weapons in a world of bows, spears, and robot dinosaurs. It seems like just about every single video game has a different relationship with guns, just as every player probably has a different relationship with pulling the controller’s trigger. 

But I don’t believe that video games and their violence have much in relation to real-world violence — and neither does the science. Granted, something like Call of Duty is far more popular in the US than elsewhere, but that’s arguably more a reflection of the militarism that is part of American culture. I know that for me, a lot of these games are a great way to relieve stress; the catharsis of mowing down Psychos and Nomads in Borderlands 2 with my brother offers an odd sort of zen following a week of depressing news. Perhaps I’m good at compartmentalizing, in that I can easily differentiate between fantasy and reality, and am happy to dive into one to escape the other. My brother and I have killed each other hundreds of thousands of times in virtual deathmatches, but I’m sickened to my stomach by the idea of holding a real rifle against him. 

There’s a lot at play here, and the culture around guns certainly does involve video games (there’s a fascinating article on the Barret M82 rifle and how it’s placement in games has affected the real world), but it’s one that applies to other media too. At the end of it all, though, these games have given me experiences unrivaled. Uncharted took me on adventures, The Last of Us left me a sobbing wreck, Metal Gear Solid has given me eerie chills with its storytelling (even as I go on joyrides). I’ll always love playing Halo, Borderlands, or Army of Two with my brother, cracking jokes and drinking beers as we shoot bad guy after bad guy. They’re fun, a lot of fun, but I owe it to myself to interrogate why they’re fun and be aware of the relationship between fiction and reality.

Ultimately, though, when it comes to real life, video games don’t kill people. Guns do.

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Twenty-One Minutes

I’ve made no secret my anticipation for Death Stranding, the latest project from Hideo Kojima, the gaming industry’s undisputed resident auteur-genius-lunatic. This is the guy who brought us all the lunacy of the Metal Gear Solid series that somehow managed to merge questions of linguistic existentialism, mutually assured (nuclear) destruction, and giant robots into a cohesive narrative about the role of a soldier. I wanna see what this guy does.


The latest trailer focuses on the character Heartman, based on the likeness of Nicolas Winding Refn. Which, before we get any further, sidebar:


Refn is a writer-director, perhaps best known for the excellent movie Drive and more recently Too Old To Die Young. He’s not the sort of person you expect to provide the likeness for a video game character, but here we are.

Anyway.

Heartman. His whole deal is that every twenty-one minutes his heart stops and he dies, only to be resuscitated by an AED three minutes later. During those three minutes, he searches for his family on the “other side,” before coming back to life and resuming whatever it is he’s doing. Since most of life — aside from sleeping — can, as he puts it, fit into that twenty-one-minute window, things do go on.


Alright, let’s take a second and acknowledge how freaking silly this is. Who on earth is going to commit to a bit as ridiculous as a character who chronically dies? Someone walking around with an AED strapped to his chest and keeps coming back to life?


With that out of the way, let’s now acknowledge how ridiculously brilliant this is. Kojima is a man known for taking big ideas and running with them far past anyone with a modicum of self-awareness would think to. The latter half of Metal Gear Solid V is essentially a treatise on the connection between language and cultural identity as weaved into a narrative through a deadly virus that’s passed on through speech. Somehow, it works, and the notion of a lingua franca has never seemed quite so ominous.


In light of that, I really can’t wait to see what Kojima does with Heartman. Kojima is not a man to approach an idea like this half-heartedly or with his tongue in cheek. There’s no winking at the audience, no sheepish acknowledgment that the idea is patently ridiculous but, please, just go along with it. Nope. Heartman dies every twenty-one minutes and that’s that.


But because there’s no winking, it means that Death Stranding will be totally free to explore just the toll this has on Heartman. He can’t really accomplish much of significance in the periods he’s alive, so the question becomes if the time he spends dead is what really matters, as that’s when he can look for his family. In light of that, are those twenty-one minutes just him waiting to die? How then does he spend his time?


The trailer features Heartman’s room, a small studio stocked with books and a variety of media. Knowing how short each instance of his life is, though, how does that affect the diversions Heartman seeks out? There is some irony of this being presented in a Hideo Kojima game, a man who made a reputation out of cutscenes longer than Heartman’s lifespan, but perhaps Heartman then serves as a vehicle for Kojima to meditate on the transience of life. Writing a character who experiences life in such a different way forces Kojima to look at things differently. 


Ultimately, that’s all part of the way Kojima approaches stories. Nuclear-wielding mechs and nanomachines are vehicles to really get into the nitty-gritty of thematic questions. Heartman, then, is the home for questions of existentialism, as filtered through an idea somehow simultaneously so ridiculous and brilliant. It’s simply wonderful, and just another reason why I really can’t wait to get to play Death Stranding later this year.

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Zero Two

When I got my Game Boy Advance SP many years ago as a wee tween I was very excited about some of the games I could play. Obviously, there was Pokémon Ruby because, c’mon, you gotta catch ‘em all. Then there were the new slew of Mega Man games, like the Battle Network series, an RPG where you bounced between Lan in the real world and Mega Man in the digital, fighting viruses and the such in an adorably nascent look at cyberwarfare. More importantly, however, there was the Mega Man Zero series, a sequel of sorts to the Mega Man X games set a hundred years after and starring an amnesiac Zero, the deuteragonist of the original X games.

Zero was very much the Han Solo to X’s Luke Skywalker in the X games, the cooler secondary character (and sometimes villain, so maybe less Han). He became a playable character in X4 and offered a different gamestyle; eschewing X’s buster for his Z-Saber, requiring an even more agile approach. Anyway, in light of that, a series with him as the lead was naturally exciting to my younger self. 

After ranting writing about the games a couple weeks ago, I decided to replay them because, c’mon, they’re great games. So I bought myself a headphones adapter for the very same Game Boy Advance SP as a couple paragraphs ago. Sidebar: why the headphones? The Mega Man games have an excellent soundtrack and the Zero series is arguably the best of the best. They were mainstays for essay writing in college and are still great writing music, so of course I want to be able to re-experience those tunes while playing on the subway. If I’m gonna replay these games, I’m gonna do it right. 

And man, are they fun, in ways I don’t think I really appreciated sixteen-odd years ago. In stark contrast to a certain more recent iteration, the controls of the Z games are razor-sharp, the level design punishing but fair. When I die, I know it’s because I mistimed a jump or misread an enemy’s attack. The games are hard: you don’t have a lot of health and some enemies dish out a good chunk of damage. Compounding it all is the games’ grading system: after every mission, you’re assigned a rank and score, with points negated for taking too much damage, using a continue, or failing a part of the mission — amongst others. Wanna use a cyber-elf to increase your health or make your saber stronger? Cool, but good luck getting an S-Rank with that. You don’t need to clear a mission with a high rank, but it creates a fun incentive to be better at the game.

So I finished the original Mega Man Zero last week and started on the sequel recently. It’s a marked improvement over the first, far more refined and sleek looking. The first’s aesthetic was very worn, everything from the start menu to the character portraits are much more crisp in Z2. Game systems have been tweaked and refined; the stage select looks more like a ‘normal’ Mega Man game’s and unlockable forms that change Zero’s stats are added to switch up gameplay a little. Furthermore, learnable skills are now rewards for clearing a stage with a rank of A or S.

Where sometimes a big change is a great part of a new iteration of a game or what-have-you is excellent, Z2 is one of those that builds on what came before. Sure, the sprites are mostly the same and the core gameplay is essentially identical, but the effort is put instead into refining what already works.

I’m really looking forward to replaying Z3. Beyond being one of my two favorite Mega Man games (X5 is the other), it’s where things really reach their peak. The EX Skills and Forms from Z2 are carried over and a few other customization options are thrown in alongside some real fun stages and boss battles. As much as I enjoy playing new games, there’s something real fun about booting up an old one where I still have the stages half-remembered and appreciating it all over again.

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Aegean Aexploration

Somehow, I’ve managed to clock in upwards of ninety hours in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey since I started playing it a couple months ago. I’m nowhere near done with the story; heck, I’m not even too sure I’m that far into it. This isn’t so much a case of my having lost the thread as it is a merry exploration of Ancient Greece and all the fun it entails. 

The lengthy playtime is especially impressive when one takes into account the fact that I’d just about given up on the series after Black Flag back in 2014. It wasn’t that the games were bad; I really liked the whole running around history, rubbing shoulders with important people, and stabbing bad guys (sometimes sneakily). Plus, there was this whole super-advanced ancient civilization and modern-day conspiracy narrative weaved into it. There’s a lot to like.

My complaints stemmed more from the games’ lack of polish. Revelations, the third game in the Ezio Trilogy that started in II and was the precursor to III (their numbering system is almost as bad as Kingdom Hearts), saw the action move from Renaissance Italy to Constantinople, but gameplay remained frustratingly samish and the narrative a stopgap. As awesome as it was running around the Grand Bazaar (and the fun context it would provide to my own trip to Istanbul a few years later), I didn’t really care too much about Ezio’s adventures and honestly couldn’t tell you the story now if I tried. Black Flag focused on pirates, which was really cool, but suffered from a similarly disjointed narrative hampered by how much fun sailing the open seas in a pirate ship was. I know Kenway had some adventure or other to be on, but there were ships to sink out here!

I missed the next few Assassin’s Creed games, feeling that my goodwill to the games was tied to being able to captain a ship. Odyssey appeared on my radar due to its RPG elements, ability to romance other characters, and finally finally featuring a female protagonist, albeit an optional one (but why would you want to play as Bland Dude #38 when you can choose Kassandra?). 

And I get a ship again, so there’s that too.

Oh, and it was on sale on Amazon.

Somehow, I’ve since clocked two entire workweeks exploring Greece, and I’m still not tired.

Why? I’m not terribly attached to this franchise, so why am I so invested?

I’m not so sure it’s the story. I get it in broad strokes, and I am onboard with Kassandra’s hunt for the cultists who ruined her life, though I could do with the fun of a little more detective work. Kassandra has a winning personality, owing much to Mellisanthi Mahut’s performance; she’s wry and, based on the choices I’ve made, not someone who cares about your sob-story so much as the drachmae. It’s pretty fun playing a character who’s above all the squabbling in the local city-state and just wants to get paid.

More than anything else, though, I think I’m just enchanted by the world the makers created. Sailing the Aegean and finding new islands somehow doesn’t get old (and I’m putting off exploring some places because I want some places left to uncover). There’s a cave with cultists, here’s the home of a Spartan leader I’m going to assassinate, I’m going to fight against the Athenians alongside the Spartans to conquer Malis (and get a share of the spoils). How sneakily can I infiltrate this fort?

In many ways, it reminds me of Breath of The Wild; it might not be quite as gorgeously lush as Hyrule, but, dude, I get a pirate ship. I loved Assassin’s Creed II for the catharsis it offered after a long day at work, and Odyssey is much the same. Here’s a world I can quite happily get lost in and find my own sort of fun for hours on end. Seems like there’s always something more to do.

I recently made port in the island of Keos and, upon finding a viewpoint to take in the island, couldn’t help but be delightfully enchanted by the place. I know it’s probably not all that different from the other islands in the archipelago, but there’s a part of me that can’t help but surrender to the wonder, to that little spark of glee at uncovering a new island and joy of adventure. Perhaps that’s why I’m really falling in love with Odyssey: the game lets me chart my own path, figure out my own path, and really explore this new world. There’s a new fort or cave behind every turn, and I feel like I did twenty years ago popping Pokémon Yellow into my GameBoy Color and uncovering its secrets. 

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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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