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Archiv der Kategorie ‘Various’

Playing together, winning together

Montag, 26. Mai, 2014

After discovering the works of director Nobuhiko Ōbayashi with his 1983 movie Toki o kakeru shōjo (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) on the video on demand service Wii no Ma: Cinema no Ma, I came to understand that his early 1980ies movies seem to be intrinsically linked with the rise of otaku culture, that has become so popular in the West, and one of their favorite media, the video game. Toki o kakeru shōjo released close to the Family Computer (Nintendo Entertainment System in the West), Nintendo’s first console, which is also the reason why this movie was the first to be chosen for relase on the above mentioned video on demand service.

Another one of Ōbayashi’s movies from two years earlier, Nerawareta Gakuen (School Under Fire, 1981), also contains at least two striking connections with Nintendo. Let’s take a look at this scene from the movie, in which the protagonist Yuka Mitamura helps her class mate Kōji Seki win a kendō tournament using psychokinesis, a power she believes to have received from god.

Nerawareta Gakuen: Tournament Scene

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Nippon Connection 2013 Special: Tough Moms

Sonntag, 15. September, 2013

Obviously, any work of literature (and I’m including other narrative media like comics, film and games here as well) conceived in Japan is best understood in the context of Japanese culture. This is true also for stories with fantasy settings, even if they seem to be based more on Western sources than on Japanese ones. The actions of the characters and their meaning, the plot progression and its meaning, they follow the logic of the culture shared by the author and its primary intended audience. That is not to say that a story doesn’t have an inner logic that can be understood on its own, even by readers outside the original culture. But the finer nuances and deeper implications might be hidden in cultural context that eludes readers not from that culture.

So the more exposure you get to that culture, either by personal experience or by way of more stories dealing with experiences of their authors, will provide you with useful insights, i.e. the puzzles to piece together the complete picture that is cultural context. The Japanese film festival Nippon Connection in Frankfurt with its wealth of original Japanese movies shown every year has frequently provided me with such insights and I want to talk about one film from this year’s selection that stood out, Tug of War! (Tsuna hiichatta!):

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For the Frog the Bell Tolls

Mittwoch, 24. April, 2013

Kaeru no tame ni kane wa naruI first heard about Kaeru no tame ni kane wa naru (For the Frog the Bell Tolls) during my stay in Kyoto in 2002. A female Japanese student named Minori I met at Kyoto University brought it up as a favorite game she had played when she was younger. This Gameboy classic from 1992 was never officially localized for the West and if it weren’t for the fan translation it would be still completely unknown to non Japanese gamers. The Gameboy Zelda game Link’s Awakening on the other hand, which reuses Kaeru’s engine, is widely appreciated over here as well.

Unfortunately my exposure to this game which forms the base for one of my favorite games ever (Link’s Awakening) remained limited to what I heard from Minori, who also recommended Yami no purple eye to me, since I told her I liked Chie SHINOHARA’s manga, and the Momojiri musume series of books by Osamu HASHIMOTO. I bought and read the latter two recommendations but Kaeru escaped me until very recently when it was re-released on the Japanese 3DS virtual console.

It is a short and easy but very entertaining take on the RPG genre, using the classic Ernest Hemingway novel For Whom the Bell Tolls as a loose base to tell its parody fairy-tale story. It may not be immediately apparent but despite the change in setting, game and novel really share a wealth of motifs and themes and reading and comparing the original novel with the game further enhances understanding and enjoyment of the game’s scenario written by Yoshio SAKAMOTO (known in the West for his work on Metroid and Wario).

Takarazuka adaptation of For Whom the Bell Tolls

Hemingway’s novel is set during the time of the Spanish civil war in the 1930ies and describes the three days Robert Jordan, an American dynamiter, spends with a band of Spanish guerillas preparing for an important attack on a bridge, which could turn the tides of war in favor of the partisans. The planned attack remains central throughout the novel but the outsider Jordan also sheds light on the country Spain and its people in his interaction with the other characters. For this the author draws upon his experiences as a journalist in Spain covering the civil war as it happened.

In the last chapter when the bombing of the bridge finally happens, one of the characters becomes impatient and says, „Is he building a bridge or blowing one?“ And this is exactly the point, for a non Spanish reader the novel becomes a window into Spanish culture as seen by Hemingway. It bridges cultures and ethnicities. Language becomes a bridge as well, a theme echoed in the Nintendo game where transforming into animals will also enable the player to speak the language of that animal.

The hero of the Nintendo game, a prince out of a European fairy-tale inspired fantasy and named by the player, also travels to a foreign land, to save a kidnapped princess or so he is lead to believe. His rival, Prince Richard, which our hero just never seems to be able to beat at fencing, turns the saving of the princess into yet another contest which in his opinion obviously only he can win. This rivalry is a central theme in Kaeru and one can easily get the impression that the game has nothing in common with Hemingway’s novel at all since this rivalry seems to have no counterpart in the similarly named Hemingway novel.

I will come back to this seeming disconnect between the two works later. Let’s just turn our attention to the more obvious references to Hemingway that also abound in the game. Jordan has to destroy a bridge and the whole narrative is a build up to this crucial event. The Gameboy hero, the Prince of Sable, on the other hand has to restore a bridge to even set foot into Mille-Feuille and travel to its first town, Alamode (wordplay on French à la mode meaning fashionable). The thief Jam tells the prince how to do this: the bridge is controlled by the Geronian invaders from Ecclere Shrine at the center of Mille-Feuille, which the invaders turned into their fortress.1 The player has to return to this temple several time to explore more and more of it. A similar design mechanic was later used in Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for the DS. The prince, who unlike Jam cannot swim, succeeds in finding the switch to close the draw bridge and makes his way to Alamode.

The bridge

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  1. The player has to return to this temple several time to explore more and more of it. A similar design mechanic was later used in Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for the DS. []

A Defense of Miyamoto

Montag, 11. März, 2013

Anita Sarkeesian just launched her Tropes vs. Women video series a few days ago with its first installment, „Damsel in Distress (Part 1).“ I’d like to thank her for her well argued and informative take on one of the most powerful tropes in video games established in this medium by Shigeru Miyamoto. Unfortunately, as Sarkeesian correctly points out, this age old trope works against female gamers‘ identities and against a balanced view on gender in general.

Nevertheless I feel that some perspective can be added to points raised by Sarkeesian in her video. She rightfully feels cheated of a female video game heroine which had great promise but was turned into the usual damsel after a suggestion of Miymoto to make the game Dinosaur Planet part of an older, established franchise, surely to increase its sales potential. Some more blatant stereotypical ideas presented in the eventual Star Fox Adventure game made by Rare and later in the video in TV ads for Zelda („Will you get the girl? Or play like one?“) are products of Western interpretation of Miyamoto’s damsel plot device and should not be attributed to Miyamoto directly.

Still, the video gives off the impression that Miyamoto is a bit of a villain who stands at the center of a problem that upholds sexist views in games and male gamers who play those games, and also denies female gamers a greater wealth of strong female characters to play as. Sarkeesian argues that in core Nintendo franchises and especially in the core series of Mario platformers the damsel depiction (being reduced to a helpless object) is maintained with little steps to change this trope.

It is true that in the Mario platformers, which aren’t very story heavy and rely on simple plots like the save the princess one, the only female playable character is there only because a non Mario game needed to be reskinned. It bears mentioning though that this original game already had a female character and was also made by Miyamoto, who doesn’t use the kidnapped princess plot here but instead kids are getting kidnapped (more concretely, sucked into a book). The older family members then follow them into the book to rescue the kids.

There is also the similarly big Mario RPG franchise in which Princess Peach frequently features as a playable character. In the Square developed (but Nintendo produced and published) Super Mario RPG for SNES, in true Final Fantasy fashion the kidnapped princess plot device is only a warm up to the true adventure. In Final Fantasy the opening credits only roled after the princess had already been saved and in Final Fantasy III Princess Sara is the only inhabitant of a castle town who escapes being turned to stone and helps the heroes to save her home and its populace. Playable female characters also abound in later Final Fantasy installments.

Consequently in Super Mario RPG, Peach joins the heroes gathered with Mario as playable character and even the villain Bowser fights among them. In later Nintendo developed Mario RPG games Peach again becomes a playable character, sneaking around in Bowser’s castle after again being kidnapped in Paper Mario for N64, and like in the only Mario Bros. platformer in which she starrs as a playable character, Super Mario Bros. 2, in the platform/RPG hybrid Super Paper Mario, she and Bowser again are among the four playable characters. Players even get to experience being hit on by a male nerd gamer, dating simulation game style.

It is true that the damsel plot device is still maintained today but there is a much greater awareness for the device and also ironic parody of it.

In one part of Sarkeesian’s video we see Peach and Zelda dressed in Mario and Link’s hero attires. They also are capable fighters in their female dresses in the fighting game series Smash Bros., which features an all star cast of Nintendo mascots. The fighting game genre, while having its fair share of sexist stereotypes also, did produce a great wealth of female playable characters so it’s no surprise that in Nintendo’s take on the genre, which is a huge franchise of its own, the damsels become capable fighters as well.

super-mario-mii5But in the recent 2D Mario installments, even though they feature 4 player modes with as many playable characters, Peach again is reduced to being a price, stolen like a cake which Mario wanted to eat. This is true but the game is extremly low on plot and the above mentioned opening scene is just hilarious and more of a self aware parody. What escaped Sarkeesian’s attention (in the first video at least) is the fact that in the latest Wii U sequel of New Super Mario Bros., we can play as our own Mii wearing Mario’s costume. So in this game players can become the main character, regardless of their Mii’s gender.

The Mii, one of Miyamoto’s most recent successful inventions, are meant to bring the players themselves into the games and have an adequate avatar also for their gender. As they now have started to wear costumes of the Nintendo mascot characters they should remind us of Japanese TV commercials in which the players playing the Mario and Zelda games suddenly have become Mario or Link themselves, wearing their costumes. With his games, Miyamoto makes us gamers heroes in his image. He also makes female gamers into damsels, which is what Sarkeesian rightfully criticizes.

6But the symbolic, narrative meaning of the damsel plot device is also becoming more and more apparent with the new Mii franchise. In StreetPass Plaza, an app pre installed on 3DS handheld game devices, there is a mode called Find Mii in which your Mii, regardless of gender, is abducted and encaged like a princess damsel from a Mario or Zelda game. Other Mii characters which you collect by passing other 3DS owners on the street can rescue your kidnapped Mii self and find hats to wear for your Mii. Once the evil kidnapping boss is defeated twice there is even a hat that makes your Mii look like the villain.

Mii characters can turn into any Nintendo type of character, may they be heroes, damsels or villains. Each are creations of the game creators and each represents a part of them too. Sarkeesian comments that while she grew up playing Nintendo games which she loves, we also must view games critically when warranted. So villain Miyamoto (an image Sarkeesian draws up in her video) made hero Miyamoto come out in Sarkeesian to fight for the freedom of helpless damsel Miyamoto. We all have the features of villains, heroes and damsels. We all do bad things, we all do good things and we all feel helpless sometimes.

Sarkeesian is fighting the good fight and Miyamoto, even though he may appear a villain, is cheering for her to succeed. For a new generation of games with new plots and new heroes.

The Note: Author’s tool, author’s weapon

Donnerstag, 15. November, 2012

In a series of interviews from Cloud Message1 A promotion compilation book from late 2008 covering several then upcoming Square Enix titles with art, game screenshots, interviews and preview articles for these games., the interviewed creators were asked to give an item they frequently use for their work, one that would characterize their work. Final Fantasy scenario writer Kazushige NOJIMA chose a note book which he uses to write down ideas for his stories. Obviously it truly symbolizes the work of the author and from the title of his 2009 game Sakura Note we can tell how important the note is for NOJIMA as the canvas of the stories he writes. The note probably holds similar importance to most people involved in writing, may they write games, or more traditional word based media like novels or comics. Same is actually true for other artists working with the pen, like the artists of comics for example.

Editor TORISHIMA tells freelance writer HORII about the game programming contest at Enix.

Contest Winners

Games originally didn’t even need any writing so it is no surprise that some of the writing expertise used in games borrows from earlier media like comics. Yūji HORII, one of the few game writers broadly known by name in Japan and the inventor of Dragon Quest, started his career as a freelance writer for the manga anthology magazine Weekly Boys‘ Jump. He also was an aspiring programmer and when an ad for a game programming contest ran by Enix was placed in Jump, HORII entered with a tennis game and won one of the three awards. Another award winner, Kōichi NAKAMURA, was to become at first HORII’s rival and later his partner on later games published by Enix, among them Dragon Quest. Jump editor Kazuhiko TORISHIMA, who had told HORII about the contest at Enix, was coaching Akira TORIYAMA at the time, the author of the immensely popular Jump series Dragon Ball, and TORISHIMA suggested that TORIYAMA should do the character and monster designs for the new game Dragon Quest. So two of the key figures that contributed to Dragon Quest’s success were of Jump descent and it was Jump writing and Jump art that would define the series. In a way, Jump was the cradle were Dragon Quest was born.2 From the 1990 Making of Dragon Quest manga by artist Shōtarō ISHINOMORI and writer Hiroyuki TAKIZAWA.

Meeting Akira TORIYAMA

So games and comics aren’t that far divorced in their subject matter and style and I want to compare two works from recent years of these two fields in their treatment of the note as a symbolic item. The worlds in Jump stories are often completely original and fantastic, but when they are set in the real world something quite normal becomes attributed with magical powers or takes on a fantastic dimension. In Yūgi-Oh, trading cards not unlike the ones used by the young readers of Jump summon real magical creatures. Soccer players in manga may use trick shots not unlike the spectacular hissatsu waza (special moves) of fantastic martial artists. And Hikaru is trained in the game of Go by the ghost of his deceased grandfather.3 Hikaru no Go is a collaboration by writer Yumi HOTTA and artist Takeshi OBATA, who would later also draw Deathnote and Bakuman. (mehr …)

  1. A promotion compilation book from late 2008 covering several then upcoming Square Enix titles with art, game screenshots, interviews and preview articles for these games. []
  2. From the 1990 Making of Dragon Quest manga by artist Shōtarō ISHINOMORI and writer Hiroyuki TAKIZAWA. []
  3. Hikaru no Go is a collaboration by writer Yumi HOTTA and artist Takeshi OBATA, who would later also draw Deathnote and Bakuman. []

The Relevance of Choice in Computer Game Narratives

Freitag, 21. Januar, 2011

Interactivity, as the word activity implies, is what distinguishes games from passively received media. Non-linearity, which means giving players different choices in paths to follow, is what promises more freedom in comparison to linear narratives. Many approaches to other narrative media can be applied to games as well but both of these features of games have to be carefully considered when dealing with game stories. In regard to choice there are several aspects as to how it affects the nature of the story.

What kind of choices are present in computer games?

There’s action choices and dialog choices. Action choices might take the form of what part of the game world to interact with and what events to trigger by doing so. Or as part of an event there could be a multiple choice menu giving a set of action descriptions from which the player can choose one. This kind of action choice is almost identical to dialog choices, which can also be viewed as a special type of action, namely speaking. By means of microphone-based voice detection or certain words and phrases being mapped to button presses like other actions are, dialog choices have the potential to take the same form of free interaction (without menus) as more standardized actions but this potential is only beginning to be realized in adventure games like Hey you, Pikachu! (1998, 2000) or raising simulations like Wonder Project J (1994).

Are choices in computer games really free? Can the choice be escaped?

Of course the player can only make meaningful choices in regards to the narrative when the writer of this narrative has foreseen that the player might want to make this choice or planned to allow the player to make it. Thus the freedom is necessarily limited by what is feasible in including in the narrative without making production time and man power explode. It is further limited by what the game creator wants to allow to the player.

Also, if the player doesn’t want to choose they could just press the button to confirm whatever choice is preselected. Devil Survivor (2008) by Atlus is a rare case of a game that avoids this by not preselecting any option at all. The player has to press a direction button first before an option becomes selected and thus confirmable and the player can enter the ordered list from top or bottom, so the order doesn’t favor either one option by making it more quickly selectable than all others.

Initiating the predetermined1 Section added 22.01.2011

As mentioned above, apart from forced choices that take the form of menus where a selection has to be made to go back to the uninterrupted gameplay there’s also choices in free interaction screens, what parts of the game world to interact with and when. This can be treasures to be procured or information gained by talking to NPCs or observing certain parts of the world. In terms of dialog a considerable amount of in-game text is acquired this way, the player has to seek out the people who can tell them what they need to know about the setting of the narrative. Some of these interactions are necessary to progress in the game but many of them are optional and only enhance the gameplay experience. The player is in this way free to dictate pace and level of detail of the narrative to some degree.

In-game dialog is largely predetermined and little of it dynamically changing with players‘ choices. The options the player has are often reduced to who and when to talk to, but even here there is room to create better player involvement. In early games talking to a NPC would always result in the same text said over and over again. If the narrative progressed beyond a certain point dialog for this NPC might also change but at any one point in the game conversation would be severely limited. This is not a problem per se, in the same way as a reader of a novel is allowed to browse back to a previous page and reread dialog or a movie viewer to rewind and rewatch a scene, this makes sure the player can ask for crucial information again they might have missed the first time.

But by splitting long dialog parts into several smaller bits where the player has to repeatedly talk to a NPC to get all the information, sympathy and interest towards a certain NPC can be expressed, creating another layer of choice. In recent games most NPCs have several things to say and the player will get new dialog at least for three or so tries, the actual amount varying by game and character. To get all out of a NPC the player actively has to initiate conversation again and again, and although they can’t control what to say themselves2 Most of the time the protagonist is mute (see Playing the role: Defined characters versus blank slate avatars) in this kind of conversation, regardless of his status in other situations. the choice how often to initiate conversation is meaningful.

Prince of Persia (2009) is an example where this choice of when and how much to talk is utilized very effectively. There’s only one character to talk to but since she is always by the protagonist’s side dialog can be initiated almost anytime, by pressing a dedicated button and without interrupting the action game play. While dialog text is displayed and voice overs are heard the player can go on interacting with and advancing in the game world. Dialog depends on the surroundings, is informative in regards of the game world but also characterizes the two characters having the conversation. Both length of dialog bits and their amount is high, giving interested players lots to listen to but without forcing them to do so. It’s an unintrusive way of mixing text and action.

The opposite example would be when a NPC conversation is unexpectedly long, interrupting the game flow until it’s over. Sometimes this kind of NPC (like Maechen in Final Fantasy X) might warn the player that their tale is a long one and ask them if they really want to hear it. It might be so long that the NPC will ask the player midway through if they should go on with their tale. The choice is the same as in the above cases, is the player patient and interested enough to listen to everything. But the way the choice is accentuated is different. In the above cases the player actively has to keep the conversation going, in this case they have to actively decide to turn it down or stop it.

How is the narrative affected by these choices?

Some choices only flag minor events, changing small details in an otherwise fixed narrative. In this case the non-linearity, i. e. the branching paths, are short lived, keeping the overall plot manageable for the writer. Other choices more immediately and drastically affect story development, with longer chains of events only available depending on what choices the player makes. Structurally this distinction is purely based on quantity or length and amount of branching paths. But for the player to experience the non-linearity as freedom high amounts and longer deviations are preferable. They are also what makes the plot increasingly harder to manage in terms of consistency. Traditional narrative concepts as derived from other media and playful freedom are thus two opposing poles in governing what form the game narrative should take.

Giving the player moral choices

One of the first systematical approaches to shape and guide player choice dates back to even before computer games. Dungeons & Dragons, the first pen and paper role-playing game, used a two axis moral alignment system to define how the character the player creates should act when faced with moral choices in the narrative conceived by the group of game master (the main narrator) and role players (the narrators or actors of one individual character in the story). One axis reflected the notion of good and evil, the other of lawfully governed order or random chaos. D&D already acknowledged that the ideas of good and evil were dependent on the society in which the character lived and the second axis reflected concepts like duty/reliability opposed to whim/fancy. A lawfully evil character would maraud and abuse without fail, whereas a chaotically good character might save the damsel in distress only if he was in the mood for it.

In computer games both this alignment system and the idea of moral choice were adapted, many recent Western games like Fable stress the freedom to play an either good or evil character, however in many cases little affecting the core narrative. This is actually true of older Japanese examples like Shin Megami Tensei as well which uses an law-chaos moral alignment axis. But when moral choice is given to the player another question arises. Are these choices judged, meaning that the game encourages one choice over the other, maybe even penalizing the opposite one?

An example for a judged moral choice

In Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993) for Gameboy instead of using a menu to select what to buy in the local shop players can pick up goods and carry them to the cashier to select them for purchase. If the player tries to carry it straight to the door and leave without paying the shop owner will scold them and disallow leaving. But the shop owner randomly looks the other way creating the opportunity to leave without paying. The creator actively leaves room for the player to decide to steal and also does this by utilizing standardized actions like item pick up and walking, making it feel much more intuitive and player initiated than a menu option which more explicitly alarms the player to both possibility and importance of the choice. In fact this is a brilliant inclusion of moral choice in game play.

It is also heavily judgmental, since on return to the shop the player will be killed by the shop owner (which in terms of the game’s rules is less gruesome than it sounds because the player has unlimited lives) and branded Thief which substitutes the name they inputted at the beginning. The player will then be reminded by every non-player character (or NPC for short) addressing him by his (now changed) name of his action and also denied the perfect play-through and its ending available to players who beat the game without dying. The choice is thus an example for a small scale alteration of the narrative affecting only some details, although sticking out by being so over the top.

And although it is judgmental the fact that this option is even there in a game appealing to all age groups including children is a refreshing taste of Eden’s apple in the most effective way this kind of experience can be created in games. Stealing is also an action that’s hard to escape consensus on its moral status, no matter what society. Although the penalty considered appropriate will vary. In the case of the Zelda Gameboy title the penalty happens to be the most drastic one imaginable.

The moral dilemma

In Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (1995) for Super Famicom the player has to make choices in a war situation, fighting for the freedom of his ethnic group. When the populace of a village enslaved by the leading ethnic group is freed but unwilling to go to battle to fight for their ethnicity’s cause, the leader of the army the player’s character is a member of commands him to kill all villagers and blame the other side, as to better persuade other civilians to make the “right” choice in the future, the right one being the one favored by the leaders of their army.

Depending on if the player carries out this order or opposes it they choose one of two very long branching paths, heavily affecting two out of four chapters in the game narrative. The law path, where the player followed this order, determines both next chapters, the chaos path initiated by opposing the order allows for another branching changing the alignment to neutral. While common moral notions would seem to judge the law path as evil and the chaos one as good the dialog reflects that utilitarian and political interpretations, in other words adult considerations, justify this path. The chaotic player on the other hand, while having a clear conscious, is considered childish and unable to join the grown ups in their ability to make the “right” decisions.

Again, the choice and its consequences are extreme, but the empowering sense of freedom is also very evident for exactly this reason, affirming or shaking the moral ideas the player might have had before.

Playing the role: Defined characters versus blank slate avatars

Most choices in games are not really moral ones though and some are even considered right or wrong in a non-moral sense.3 Fußnotenauszug: In Computer Games have Words, Too: Dialogue Conventions in Final Fantasy VII Greg M. Smith assesses game text by comparing it to previous text narrative media, where he naturally has to deal with the opposing poles of linear narrative and playful freedom mentioned above. Unfortunately he misses many peculiarities of the new narrative medium, too quickly applying concepts that don’t quite fit... In Final Fantasy VI (1994) a girl named Terra was controlled by an evil empire to carry out their orders using her magical talent. Freed from the slave crown controlling her she is helped by a group of people who are members of the Returners and oppose the evil empire. Terra is characterized as scared and feeling guilty over using her magic for evil. When she and her new found friends reach the base of the Returners they ask for her help in fighting the evil empire. The player is given the choice to either answer their request or politely turn it down.

This seems like one of the many non-choices present in games where only one will really advance the game plot and the player has to come back to it to make the “correct” choice this time. But in fact this choice can only be made once, and by the game’s evaluation turning down the request is even the better option, rewarding the player with some extra items to procure from Returner members trying to still convince her and new dialog by each of them expressing their understanding for her reluctance to join their fight. In fact, by interpreting Terra’s motives correctly the player can make a decision that better fits with her character as established by previous events.4 Fußnotenauszug: So instead of making a moral decision (if it were a moral one then joining the Returners should always beat remaining passive) the player has to stay consistent with the story, another aspect Smith correctly identifies when dealing with FFVI’s sequel but incorrectly applies. He writes: Often it offers two separate possible responses, only one of which is truly enticing or plausible. When giv... She does join them afterwards anyway, and the players taking the more obvious but misleading choice miss a part of the narrative that actually makes sense in the context of the story.

There’s really two approaches to role playing, either acting the role given to the player or the player being able to define their role themselves. The latter approach is hampered by the difficulty in granting the player enough freedom to really do this. The easiest way to somehow pull it off is to characterize the player character as little as possible and not involve him in the details of the story too much, leaving the actual characterization to the player’s imagination. In most cases such a player character will have no dialog at all and is referred to as a mute hero for that reason. Player freedom is pushed out of the scope of game play and into their imagination in this case, similar to linear narratives, like reader imposed characteristics on a character in a book for example.

Even if the hero is not mute, this type is very different from a strongly defined character like Terra, where the player has to act her role. Cloud in Final Fantasy VII (1997) is a mixture of defined and mute character and by giving him frequent dialog choices the player can bring some of their own personality to the narrative.

Relationships between characters

Most decisions in Final Fantasy VII lead up to a dating event and they involve distribution of information (being openly sincere or holding back information), trying to impress or alienate others, in general how to interact with fellow party members. This raises or lowers sympathy for Cloud in these fellow party members and determines who he will go out on a date with later.5 See Fergusson, FF7 ‚date‘ mechanics, 1999~2009. In other games like the Star Ocean series (first game released in 1996) it might affect how well the characters interact in battle and allow for useful actions triggered by strong emotional reactions based on deep relationships.  Or simply open up or block paths to certain events, the most extreme being who to marry and have a child with, which will become the next player character, something first tried out in Phantasy Star III (1990). As opposed to the above example with Terra all options are equally valid since the rude choices fit his previous characterization but deviating from his rudeness can always be interpreted as affection for a certain character or more generally speaking growing into a more caring individual, thus allowing for player controlled character development inside the boundary of the fixed broader narrative which after the dating event cannot really be altered anymore, only parts of it missed.

This again is an example of small scale freedom by giving a high amount of very short branching paths. The earlier Shin Megami Tensei and Star Ocean games also follow this pattern of letting the player shape minor details, which add up to one big event with multiple versions, but instead of midway through the game as in FFVII’s dating event this event is the final one, the ending. SMT uses it to show how the player’s alignment changes the world he helped rebuild, Star Ocean shows how character relationships end up depending on the player’s behavior during the game.6 See Welch, Ending/Relationships FAQ, and Feral, Star Ocean 2nd Story ending compendium, both 1999.

Bad or premature endings

One way of giving the player freedom without convoluting the narrative are dead ends. The player can frequently make decisions but one is clearly wrong, resulting in an undesirable ending. The player then has to go back to before this decision and take the “correct” path this time to go on with the canonical narrative. Not all of these premature endings are disappointing or straight out bad, in Chrono Trigger the game can be beat early at any time in the narrative, with the resulting ending focusing on the events the player was experiencing right before they beat the game, often hinting at the events that would have followed if they hadn’t prematurely ended the game.7 See Pringle, Chrono Trigger Endings, 2007~2009

Also, inside of the big narrative there are many little narratives dealing with a specific character. If that character is allowed to die by the rules of the game, their part of the narrative will also end prematurely and all of their personal story will be missed in the rest of the game. This is only the case for certain characters in most games8 Cid and Shadow in FFVI being prime examples. Shadow can be saved if the player decides to wait for their ally in face of great danger, Cid can be saved by feeding him with healthy fish when he’s lying on his sick bed. If the player fails to take these chances they will die, complete with dramatic scenes reflecting their loss. but in many strategy RPGs like the above mentioned Tactics Ogre any character but the one representing the player can die without ending the game as a whole.9 Fußnotenauszug: The Fire Emblem series, which started this genre of strategy RPGs, is also the one most representative of this mortal game characters concept. In Fire Emblem: Genealogy of Holy-War the series also incorporated the opposite concept of lovers having children. Like in the above mentioned Phantasy Star III (1990) and after it also in Dragon Quest V (1992) characters in this FE game could fall in love ...

Dynamically shaping the narrative

Little choices adding up later are the most frequent type and there’s also fake-choices that don’t affect anything and only draw the player’s attention to their own behavior but the most powerful ones are still those that have immediate and lasting consequences, like the ones in the above mentioned Tactics Ogre. This game relies heavily on explicit menu choices that are less frequent in number and less intuitive than free input actions which the player doesn’t even notice they are choices at first, but TO manages to also include little choices into the equation by basing alignment and sympathy towards the player character also on battle performance. Basically each time a character is killed or saved from death this adds up and affects the ending,10 See the section dealing with the chaos frame in TO at the end of this article over at http://luct.tacticsogre.com/. as in some other games mentioned above. But even though these are small scale details because of the subject matter (death) and the increasing difficulty having to fight without a potentially valuable ally they have a more lasting effect than other small scale choices, because they are more strongly interwoven into game play, linking it more strongly to the narrative. Player triggered dialog by choice of party members gets a lot of variation out of the seemingly formalized game play.

A good balance of small scale and large scale choices, appropriate usage of obvious menu options and naturally played out action events and a complex statistical evaluation of alignment and relationships between characters, as well as linking game play and player strength to events in the narrative, with each one of these techniques utilized further layers of free narration are brought to the game. When skillfully applied and combined they can even enhance the narrative rather than hinder its natural development.

  1. Section added 22.01.2011 []
  2. Most of the time the protagonist is mute (see Playing the role: Defined characters versus blank slate avatars) in this kind of conversation, regardless of his status in other situations. []
  3. In Computer Games have Words, Too: Dialogue Conventions in Final Fantasy VII Greg M. Smith assesses game text by comparing it to previous text narrative media, where he naturally has to deal with the opposing poles of linear narrative and playful freedom mentioned above. Unfortunately he misses many peculiarities of the new narrative medium, too quickly applying concepts that don’t quite fit his subject. The points he raises on character moral alignment hold true when he discusses the characters other than the protagonist because they match the conventions he is used to from film, but when he discusses the multiple choice options he doesn’t seem to notice that the examples he gives aren’t actually moral choices, which are in fact mostly absent from the game he discusses. He writes:

    One significant way that this moral evaluation differs between games and film is that we occasionally have options to choose conversational responses in Final Fantasy VII. By choosing to deny vehemently a romantic attraction to Tifa (the „no way“ response), we take a different kind of ownership of the character’s moral stance. If we are allied with a film character who then does an action we morally disapprove of, we can more easily detach ourselves from this allegiance. After all, the character has made the choice, not us. But when we choose for Cloud to behave gallantly or badly, we are complicit in a more complicated involvement. Final Fantasy VII does not allow totally free choice in these „interactive“ dialogue situations.

    If the player has romantic feelings for Tifa they want to reflect in their choices or decide to either admit or deny something for their player character isn’t a moral decision in any way. There can’t be moral consensus on what individual to have feelings for. So it escapes the notion of morality altogether. Regarding decisions on how to make Cloud behave, again this is etiquette rather than morals and the significance of these choices lies in shaping relationships, more on which I write in section Relationships between characters. []

  4. So instead of making a moral decision (if it were a moral one then joining the Returners should always beat remaining passive) the player has to stay consistent with the story, another aspect Smith correctly identifies when dealing with FFVI’s sequel but incorrectly applies. He writes:

    Often it offers two separate possible responses, only one of which is truly enticing or plausible. When given the choice of making sweet feminine Aeris a flower seller or the town drunk, only one choice maintains any kind of narrative consistency.

    In fact, the choice being present (though inconsequential) hints at Cloud’s memory being fuzzy, foreshadowing a majot plot detail, Cloud being amnesiac and impersonating his dead friend without even being aware of it. The player doesn’t notice it yet but whatever they choose it will end up being consistent with the narrative.

    Smith also talks about non-choices that make the player drop out of the narrative, but ironically in this case to stay consistent they have to make the decision that is easily mistaken for a non-choice or drop out. The examples of drop outs Smith gives are from a different game but also in fact viable choices. He writes:

    Frequently we are given a choice between doing something that advances the plot or doing nothing („No thanks,“ „I don’t care“), providing the appearance of choice while allowing the game to continue its story arc. To make such a „non-choice“ is to drop outside the game.

    Again, Smith seems to be too quick to assume that a bias formed in encountering previous games will apply in his examples as well. Although he previously acknowledges how protagonist Cloud is characterized in the game, being a non-caring mercenary, he dismisses these choices as drop outs even though they allow the player to act the role staying true to previous characterization. This is where the notion of consistency, which he misused earlier, actually applies. The „non-drop out“ choices would be the player trying to change Cloud’s previously established characteristics, a process that will be advanced by the plot even if the player doesn’t take these earlier chances to advance it. He goes on stating this about decision making in games:

    Final Fantasy VII loads the dice to induce us to make the right choice. We inhabit the characters‘ behavior more fully partly because we choose that behavior, even when that choice is rigged. One of the many ideas implicit in the concept of „interactivity“ is this more complex notion of moral judgment that is no longer as externalizable as it is in film.

    I very much agree with Smith stating that judgment isn’t as externalizable anymore as it is in film, but as I pointed out above not all or even most of this judgment is of the moral kind. Instead the notion of the „right“ decision refers to consistency, if the player is supposed to act out a defined character, or to what the player feels to be the right choice in developing their player character, if they have the opportunity to shape the character.

    Also the choices aren’t rigged as they do affect the narrative or illuminate details of it, a fact Smith ignores completely. []

  5. See Fergusson, FF7 ‚date‘ mechanics, 1999~2009. []
  6. See Welch, Ending/Relationships FAQ, and Feral, Star Ocean 2nd Story ending compendium, both 1999. []
  7. See Pringle, Chrono Trigger Endings, 2007~2009 []
  8. Cid and Shadow in FFVI being prime examples. Shadow can be saved if the player decides to wait for their ally in face of great danger, Cid can be saved by feeding him with healthy fish when he’s lying on his sick bed. If the player fails to take these chances they will die, complete with dramatic scenes reflecting their loss. []
  9. The Fire Emblem series, which started this genre of strategy RPGs, is also the one most representative of this mortal game characters concept. In Fire Emblem: Genealogy of Holy-War the series also incorporated the opposite concept of lovers having children. Like in the above mentioned Phantasy Star III (1990) and after it also in Dragon Quest V (1992) characters in this FE game could fall in love and have children, only this time it wasn’t limited to just the main character anymore. []
  10. See the section dealing with the chaos frame in TO at the end of this article over at http://luct.tacticsogre.com/. []

The Legend of Zelda: How the Passive Princess grew into a Participating Partner

Freitag, 7. Januar, 2011

Fantasy describes all things not real so in actuality there really isn’t a video game that couldn’t aptly be called fantasy but most often we associate medieval settings mixed with magical abilities and creatures with this term, the Dungeon & Dragons kind of fantasy. Even before the first video games were invented these new story telling party rules (called role playing games or RPGs for short) established both a new kind of game as well as a new motivation for playing: story telling. Adaptations of these pen and paper RPGs to the video game medium constitute the most popular kind of fantasy games but they’ve been known to have entries to almost every genre.

Zelda 1 (1986)

Zelda 1 (1986)

Around the time fantasy RPGs became popular on Nintendo’s console Famicom (or NES as it is called outside Japan) Nintendo developed their own take on the medieval sword wielding hero called The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Fantasy. The story was a straight port of the Mario myth into the new setting, a male placeholder fighting a villain to free a damsel in distress. The Zelda from the title was another princess to be only seen after the hero conquers a number of levels (or dungeons as they are called in fantasy games). Yet the Mario games always had their hero’s name in their title whereas in The Legend of Zelda it’s the kidnapped woman who represents the series in name, even in those sequels in which she isn’t even part of the game’s narrative.

Zelda 2 (1987)

Zelda 2 (1987)

The only Zelda game that has the hero Link’s name in it was the first sequel, The Adventure of Link, which is also the black sheep in the series, an excellent game in its own right but not sharing most of the typical Zelda play mechanics to which the series returned for all further sequels. In this second Zelda game the player gets to see the princess from the very beginning but like Sleeping Beauty she fell into an eternal slumber remaining passive until Link seals away the evil left behind by his archenemy Ganon. In the previous game Link defeated Ganon but Ganon’s followers threaten to revive their lord by means of a blood sacrifice of his slayer Link. Link has to fight a phantom version of himself to make the seal complete, a metaphor hinting at the threat of Ganon’s revival referring to the possibility of Link becoming the next villain.

It must be noted that even at his oldest each Link of each Zelda game is a youth at most, Zelda always around the same age as the hero and Ganondorf, Ganon’s human form, always a grown up. His monstrous form Ganon, a horned boar, which in some installments is the only one to make a showing is always considerably larger than Link, keeping with the small versus big, child versus grown up antagonism.

Zelda 3 (1991)

Zelda 3 (1991)

The next The Legend of Zelda didn’t arrive until Nintendo moved on to their second generation of game hardware, the Super Famicom. It was called the Triforce of the Gods1 For the localized version Nintendo of America came up with a pun to sneak Link’s name into the title, calling it A Link to the Past (A Link to the Past outside Japan) and remakes the original Zelda vision on a grander scale, also introducing more complex interaction with both non-player characters (NPCs) in towns as you commonly find them in RPGs and the inanimate surroundings which stressed its action play mechanics. The player controlled hero gets to meet an awake and talking Zelda right at the beginning of the game, before her eventual final kidnapping, but she keeps on informing him telepathically about the state of the game world and his play objectives. She still is a woman who needs to be rescued but she already provides the hero with the wisdom he needs to take the actions necessary to beat the game. For the first time she is a partner instead of just a prize to look forward to.

Zelda 4 (1993)

Zelda 4 (1993)

The Legend for Zelda on Gameboy, Nintendo’s low tech but cheap and children friendly handheld, marked the first entry into the series to paradoxically not actually have Zelda in the game but there were more to follow. It’s more experimental both in gameplay and narrative than the usual Zelda games but still remains true to the core mechanics introduced in Zelda 1 and 3. In the Dream Island2 Yume wo miru shima can both mean The Dreaming Island or The Dreamt About Island, NoA avoided this ambiguity by coining the rather clever title Link’s Awakening. (Link’s Awakening outside Japan) the usual hero-villain roles are put upside down, since the island Link is trapped on is just a dream, to escape he must end the dream and effectively destroy the island. The demons on the other hand, who usually seek to destroy (or at least conquer) the world, try to stop Link from doing what would usually be their job.3 AYASHIGE Shōtarō discusses this role reversal aspect of the game’s story in detail on his site GAMIAN (Japanese). Like Zelda, Ganon is absent from the game world and Link is the only original Zelda character to make a showing.

But even Link isn’t really called Link, unless the player chooses this name. As opposed to the Mario games, where even in their RPG variety his name is always fixed, in Zelda the player could freely choose the hero’s name from the very first game. And whereas the usual Zelda cast is missing from the “story as coma” island, many of the characters of the Mario universe including Mario himself are parodied in some of Zelda 4’s NPCs. Instead of a kidnapped princess Zelda the female lead Marin, who is the the daughter of the Mario look-a-like Tarin, helps Link both with her knowledge of the island and her singing voice which awakens a walrus obstructing Link’s path. This forecloses the song Link plays at the end of the game to wake the wind fish and in effect himself from the dream he’s trapped in.

Music has played a crucial role in all Zelda games from the very beginning, Link uses instruments (most of the time a kind of flute) to magically warp from one place to another or cast other kinds of spell-like effects. But in this game it also becomes pivotal in the game’s plot which surely takes its inspiration from Nintendo’s modern day SF-RPG Mother (1989) for the earlier Famicom, in which music even becomes a weapon to defeat the final boss. Another notable innovation in Zelda 4 is helping out the NPCs by trading items with them, to advance in the story and to get a powerful bonus weapon if you complete this partially optional side quest. The Zelda games try to provide a kind of moral guidance and 4 even gives the player the choice to make Link steal from the shop owner, only to harshly penalize him if they return to the shop later.

Zelda 5 (1998)

Zelda 5 (1998)

The next Zelda game for the N64 is another title reinventing the original game, this time in 3D. For Mario, which first made the switch to this new way of creating game environments, the change was very drastic and the difference in gameplay quite radical. But with Zelda the new technology enabled Nintendo’s game designers headed by MIYAMOTO Shigeru to finally make the Zelda game they always envisioned. AONUMA Eiji joins the Zelda team around this time and will become the developer representing 3D-generation Zelda together with MIYAMOTO. Apart from the more realistic environments and the new ways to interact with them, The Ocarina of Time also allows the player to play the notes on the flute themselves. Instead of just triggering preprogrammed melodies they have to learn them note by note and input them in sequence to create magical effects.4 Fußnotenauszug: Music games have become one of the major genres in video game culture, utilizing all kinds of new interaction interfaces like instrument shaped controllers, dance mats and karaoke style microphones. This trend started in Japanese arcades with Konami’s music games like Guitar Freaks (1999) or Dance Dance Revolution (1998), before it was taken up by Western developers like Activision who late...

The more detailed graphics also raise the issue of Link’s age and appearance: in earlier pixel art representation he could be rather young or close to adulthood, it wasn’t very clear from the presentation and thus not much of a consideration to the player. But in 3D the age is quite evident and the developers had a very interesting idea to make him both a child and an almost adult youth. In Zelda 3 Link could travel in between a light and dark version of Hyrule by means of portals and a mirror. In Zelda 5 he can travel between past and future, the past being his carefree childhood and the future his early adulthood under Ganondorf’s reign.

Zelda also sets a new record of time spent in freedom, escaping Ganon until the very end and actively helping Link, disguised as a kind of male ninja knight called Sheik. Even the player doesn’t learn this before Ganondorf does and promptly captures her. To acquire complete domination of the fantasy world Hyrule, Ganondorf needs all three Triforces, each representing a virtue of the three main protagonists. Link has the Triforce of courage, Zelda the one of wisdom and Ganondorf himself the one of power. He kidnaps Zelda as a bait for Link to get all three. When Link finally confronts him and defeats his human form, he and Zelda have to flee from the castle which Ganondorf occupied. Zelda is much more active in this game, staying independent even during Ganondorf’s reign in Link’s adult world, helping Link with much more than her wisdom, but in the end she doesn’t participate in the last battle, even when Ganondorf comes back as the hellish beast Ganon.

Zelda 6 (2000)

Zelda 6 (2000)

The N64 sequel Majora’s Mask again takes Link to a world outside Hyrule, without Zelda and Ganondorf. He becomes a mask merchant, transforming into different characters and even making spiritual clones of his different guises to occupy spots that serve as step switches to open passages. In previous games Link could only activate those switches himself or put inanimate objects on them as weights to keep the switches triggered. Now the line separating inanimate and animate objects becomes blurred, although in actuality all things appearing in video games, including the characters, are really just objects given life by computer generated animation. Zelda 6 reflects this fact in aspects of the play mechanics like this one.

With Zelda missing, Link’s fairy cursor and tool tip provider introduced in Zelda 5 becomes the female lead so to speak, providing him with the wisdom and knowledge to perform the actions necessary to advance in the game. In Zelda 5 she was called Navi, like a navigator, in 6 her successor is called Tatl, who is more cheeky and less reliable than Navi. One could even go as far to call her a bit ill-spirited but she also has more character for that reason.

Ico (2001)

Ico (2001)

The next Zelda game isn’t really a Nintendo game. On Playstation 2 UEDA Fumito created his own interpretation of the Zelda myth, which really is the European medieval setting as Japanese fantasy that constitutes so many fantasy game narratives. His Zelda is called Yorda, a clever allusion to Zelda’s name. When written in Japanese syllable writing both names are made up of three characters; Zelda reads ゼルダ (ze ru da) and Yorda reads ヨルダ(yo ru da). Except for the first character the names are identical. The one character differing starts with a Z in the original name. The last letter of the alphabet and a rather rarely used one at that. UEDA’s Yorda has the initial Y which is the second to last letter and even rarer than Z. Yorda takes the Zelda myth back to its base, to the European medieval influences which is the origin of all fantasy literature.

The hero is called Ico, marking him as an iconic character rather than a real person. Like Link he is everybody, an avatar for the player in the truest sense of the word. Ico is born with horns and banished from his village at a young age. The village’s clerics lead him to the witch’s castle where he’ll be locked up. They open their way with a huge sword, a phallic key to a large room full of stone coffins and imprison Ico in one of them. Like in Zelda 5, where pulling the master sword makes Link an adult man, the phallic sword is a symbol of male adulthood, used to inseminate the castle’s womb with Ico.

When he pushes against his tomb, making it fall out of the wall where it is shelved with many more coffins, he is reborn as the child trapped in the witch’s castle. To get out of the castle he has to rescue Yorda from a cage in which she is kept like a bird. They can only progress through the castle together; Yorda needs to be protected from the shadows, who like Ico were imprisoned in the castle’s womb but mean Yorda ill, unable to escape from the witch’s castle themselves. Ico needs Yorda to pass the inanimate stone statue authorities, who will only make way if a female authority is holding the boy hero’s hand. She is his phallus5 Her authority as princess being her phallus or symbol of power. in the grown up world and he her phallus knight in the hero fantasy.6 I had read Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari shortly before I played Ico in 2003, also reading up on Freud in the process, making the phallic imagery all the more obvious even during my playthrough.

But Ico also has to leave Yorda alone many times to go to places she can’t, calling her to follow him or running back to her when she’s in danger. Yorda is as passive as princesses get, yet she is along for the ride for almost the whole playtime. The player gets his prize early, but since Yorda can’t do anything herself she is reduced to being a burden. Fighting is not a big part of the game but Yorda’s presence will always lure the shadows to her and Ico frequently has to drive them away with a stick before the shadows drag her inside the black hole appearing in the castle’s floors, taking her with them back to where they came from. The shadows‘ birth remains incomplete and they don’t want Yorda to escape either.

The annoying and repetitive fights interrupt the exploring and puzzle solving which are also an important part of Zelda play mechanics but Ico puts the focus almost completely on these. In Zelda battle and exploration are pretty evenly balanced, whereas in Ico there’s only one boss battle. When the witch prevents his and Yorda’s escape and takes Yorda away from him he has to find a new phallus. With the huge sword the men from his village used to open the tomb he can make the obstacle statues move himself and can take on the witch to claim Yorda and his right to leave the castle. He loses both of his horns, the first one when he fails to escape with Yorda and falls down a bridge, the second during the battle with the witch. Ico’s developers traveled Europe and visited authentic local castles to research their setting and maybe they found out about losing one’s horns being a metaphor for coming of age, based on the German idiom, which goes back to the middle ages.

Zelda 7 (2002)

Zelda 7 (2002)

As The Legend of Zelda influenced UEDA his game also made an impression on the following Zelda sequels. The development of involving Zelda more in both narrative and action is continued in Baton of the Wind (Wind Waker outside Japan) on Gamecube, which starts Zelda’s celshading subseries. Instead of the hyperrealistic aesthetics of Ico, which tries to hide its nature as a game as best as possible, striving for maturity in style, Zelda 7 aims to look like an interactive cartoon. The boy becoming the hero of the newest legend of Zelda is first shown as a normal kid, wearing normal clothes and doing normal, non-heroic things. As an initiation into adulthood he, like all boys his age, is given the green tunic the legendary hero is said to have worn, before Hyrule was swallowed by the sea, leaving only a few islands.

He will soon have to live up to this legacy as his little sister is kidnapped by a large bird who was looking for Tetra, who is princess Zelda turned pirate. Since it’s partially Tetra’s fault she helps Link to rescue his sister, making her a valuable ally from the beginning. In her pirate role she’s emancipated completely from the etiquette of a princess and with her ship she also first enables Link to leave his island and travel the world. She still gets kidnapped eventually, she does regain her memory of being a princess, but she also joins Link in the final fight versus Ganondorf. To defeat Ganondorf, traditionally a combination of master sword and light arrows has to be utilized, usually both by the hero. In Zelda 7 Tetra equips the bow to hit Ganondorf when Link creates the necessary opening by distracting him with sword attacks.

Defeating Ganondorf doesn’t restore Hyrule though. The king of Hyrule, turned boat with a lion head, has accompanied Link on his journey from island to island, guiding him like the fairies in previous 3D-Zeldas. He explains to his princess and her boy protector that it wasn’t just Ganondorf’s fault that Hyrule was lost. It cannot and should not be restored, instead they should find their own Hyrule somewhere in the world. The game thus ends with Tetra and Link starting on a new journey to find their future.

Shadow of the Colossus (2005)

Shadow of the Colossus (2005)

The next Zelda on Gamecube and Wii, Twilight Princess returned to the more realistic designs of the N64-installments and was inevitably compared to Ico’s sequel Wander and the Colossi (Shadow of the Colossus outside Japan). Wander tries to revive the corpse of an adult woman fighting huge stone statues, reinterpreting the setting of Ico, where the male hero was accompanied by an alive, but psychologically empty7 Fußnotenauszug: This emptyness is reflected in a comment by the witch who says Yorda is a mere empty vessel now. It also expresses itself in her passiveness and in the fact that she isn’t characterized in dialogue. Ico and Yorda each have their own language and can’t understand what the other says. There are subtitles for the made up foreign language voice overs but only the lines spoken by Ico (and ... woman who allowed him to peacefully pass the authority statues. In the sequel Wander’s anger of a woman’s death makes him take on much fiercer versions of these authorities and he defeats all of them, reviving the woman and becoming a baby again himself, taken care of by the woman. Wander’s actions are reactionary, reverting him to a new born. The woman either dead, or alive and a mother figure.

Zelda 8 (2006)

Zelda 8 (2006)

Link riding his steed Epona in Twilight Princess reminded a lot of people of Wander riding on his horse Agro, as did some of the architecture, but in actuality UEDA was inspired by Nintendo in the first place, Epona making her first appearance in Zelda 5 for N64. The Twilight Princess is also an original character, serving as a second female lead even eclipsing Zelda, very active and powerful, she is the newest walking in-game tutorial accompanying Link, following the fairies Navi and Tatl and the lion head king boat of previous 3D-Zeldas. And she is even deeper as a character than her predecessors. Gameplaywise she doesn’t act as a supporting partner as Tetra did in Zelda 7 but this concept of cooperative single player is further developed in the celshading sequels of Zelda 7 on Nintendo DS.

Zelda 9 (2007)

Zelda 9 (2007)

The Phantom Hourglass continues where Wind Waker left off, Tetra and Link are on their journey to find their new home. The game isn’t about them finding it though, Tetra gets turned to stone right at the beginning taking her completely out of the action for most of the game. Instead Link again has to save the princess. But this time with completely new controls. The pen is mightier than the sword, as they say and in Phantom Hourglass the touchpen is your sword. In story heavy games the player spends a lot of time reading but writing was hard to incorporate into gameplay before the DS. You still only scribble a few notes on the map, mark spots and draw symbols, but this Zelda takes the first step into new gameplay fields that more actively involve the player in the game world, having them interact in new ways and broadening the definition of what games can be.

Zelda 10 (2009)

Zelda 10 (2009)

The stone statues as authorities are reinterpreted in Phantom Hourglass as phantom guardians who Link has to sneak around in stealth gameplay, another Zelda play mechanic developed since Zelda 3.8 Fußnotenauszug: The knight enemies in Zelda 3 didn’t just move around randomly (like most previous enemies) or outright hunt Link but walked along certain paths. If Link entered their field of vision they would start hunting and attacking him. The general idea must have been inspired by Konami’s Metal Gear (1987) for MSX which put more emphasis on avoiding enemies instead of just fighting every one o... He cannot defeat the phantoms until the very end when he acquires a sword strong enough, if they spot him it will usually end in him getting caught and having to start the floor over. In the sequel and third toon Zelda, Whistle of the Earth (Spirit Tracks outside Japan), Zelda is turned non-corporal spirit and can take over the body9 This is reminiscent of Glory of Heracles IV (1994) which also had protagonists robbed of their bodies who only could physically participate in the game world by taking over other people’s bodies. of a weakened phantom to become a mighty ally for Link. The player then controls both their avatar Link and his partner Zelda turned phantom knight, who they can direct along paths they draw, making her interact with the objects and enemies on her way. This makes for some of the most intuitive and deep multiple player character gameplay available today.10 Drawing paths for objects like Link’s boomerang which they followed was utilized in Phantom Hourglass already but Winning Eleven Play Maker 2008 by Konami on Wii first applied this method on multiple player characters, in this case a soccer team. Spirit Tracks was released after this soccer game but the general idea was already introduced in its prequel.

The Hyrule Tetra and Link must have discovered after Phantom Hourglass is the most modern yet, with magical steam trains substituting the boats from the two predecessors. Traveling the sea was much cause for criticism in Wind Waker, since it took too much time and there wasn’t enough to do to keep the player occupied. In Phantom Hourglass traveling is sped up by the touch controlled path drawing, and the game gives the player more things to interact with and take care off until they reach their destination. In Spirit Tracks the paths the player can draw for the train can of course only follow the tracks that are already there but since the enemy trains also run on the same tracks the player constantly has to plan ahead when to change their course. This is made easier by the fact that the player can change track switches at any time and go other ways than what they drew, the drawn path being simply a preselection of switches that can still spontaneously be altered.

One cannot deny the almost religious character of the Zelda series‘ mythology. The spirit tracks provided by divine creation, they’re predetermined paths chosen by very high authorities, putting the player on rails and allowing them only little choice of their own. But this choice still makes all the difference in performance, how much Link travels, where he travels, what he does on his way, it’s completely up to the player. They can rush through the narrative or look for side quests, take the short cuts or go for lazy strolls, follow the rules or only obey them as not to anger their passengers, when they transport one.

Having a fantasy setting with modern elements like these must have seemed ridiculous to many purists but Spirit Tracks tries to give kids an alternative fantasy to the sword wielding ones. It’s a bit of a running gag in the game that instead of a kenshi (swordsman) Link becomes a kikanshi (locomotive driver). Although the words sound similar in Japanese, one must seem decidedly cooler than the other to most players. By turning trains into a divine institution it’s as if the shin in the Japanese bullet train shinkansen, which actually just means new (train line), is associated with the word god11 For another example of this homophone based wordplay see my article on Megami Tensei., which is also pronounced shin. Suddenly modern technology is elevated to the same mythical level as the idea of the swordsman, which almost only exists in fantasy anymore. This fantasy isn’t losing sight of reality though; at the end Zelda asks Link what he wants to become after their adventure is over and the player is free to choose either kenshi or kikanshi.

Spirit Tracks is also the story of Princess Zelda losing her body to a demonic chancellor who utilizes her divine powers to summon a fiend that would consume all of Hyrule. When she gets her body back at the end she again equips herself with the bow and light arrows and joins Link in his battle with the last boss, as she did in the first toon Zelda. But this time the player can freely position her and make her shoot at the unprotected backside of the fiend Link has to distract with his sword blows. Wind Waker used scripted action choreographies triggered by good timed sword blows, which was very visually appealing but less interactive than previous Zelda battles. Spirit Tracks manages to make this already great battle even more interesting by allowing the player to control both Zelda and Link at the same time and making the battle fully interactive.

  1. For the localized version Nintendo of America came up with a pun to sneak Link’s name into the title, calling it A Link to the Past []
  2. Yume wo miru shima can both mean The Dreaming Island or The Dreamt About Island, NoA avoided this ambiguity by coining the rather clever title Link’s Awakening. []
  3. AYASHIGE Shōtarō discusses this role reversal aspect of the game’s story in detail on his site GAMIAN (Japanese). []
  4. Music games have become one of the major genres in video game culture, utilizing all kinds of new interaction interfaces like instrument shaped controllers, dance mats and karaoke style microphones. This trend started in Japanese arcades with Konami’s music games like Guitar Freaks (1999) or Dance Dance Revolution (1998), before it was taken up by Western developers like Activision who later created Guitar Hero (2005) or SCEE (Sony Europe) who popularized home karaoke with SingStar (2004).

    But even before these elaborate musical controllers games like Ocarina of Time tried to create a similar experience with tradtional controllers. It might have been influenced by NanaOn-sha’s dedicated music game Parappa the Rapper (1996) for Playstation. But a more obvious influence would be the Glory of Heracles series for Famicom and Super Famicom by Data East, which featured harp playing courses and concerts as part of its role-paying gameplay. As with Zelda 5’s ocarina the harp was played by pressing certain buttons on the controller. []

  5. Her authority as princess being her phallus or symbol of power. []
  6. I had read Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari shortly before I played Ico in 2003, also reading up on Freud in the process, making the phallic imagery all the more obvious even during my playthrough. []
  7. This emptyness is reflected in a comment by the witch who says Yorda is a mere empty vessel now. It also expresses itself in her passiveness and in the fact that she isn’t characterized in dialogue.

    Ico and Yorda each have their own language and can’t understand what the other says. There are subtitles for the made up foreign language voice overs but only the lines spoken by Ico (and the witch) are decipherable to the player, Yorda’s lines use also made up foreign symbols.

    Upon beating the game the player is given the choice to start it from the beginning, with altered puzzles. This is reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda’s second playthrough which also had a new overworld and dungeon-levels. In Ico’s case this second playthrough had decipherable subtitles for Yorda as well so the language gap between Ico and Yorda, which the first playthrough conveyed to the player by keeping the meaning of Yorda’s words secret, is closed.

    Female author MIYABE Miyuki was inspired to write a novel adaptation of the game in which she told the story in great detail from Yorda’s perspective, including the events that lead up to the castle becoming empty and her getting encaged. In this way MIYABE creates psychological depth for the female lead character that the male developed game lacked. []

  8. The knight enemies in Zelda 3 didn’t just move around randomly (like most previous enemies) or outright hunt Link but walked along certain paths. If Link entered their field of vision they would start hunting and attacking him. The general idea must have been inspired by Konami’s Metal Gear (1987) for MSX which put more emphasis on avoiding enemies instead of just fighting every one of them.

    The stealth gameplay became more defined in Zelda 5 where failing to avoid guards in certain areas would result in Link getting thrown out of the area and be forced to start over. In these areas Link cannot advance by fighting. The same kind of gameplay is also found in Glory of Heracles III (1992) for Super Famicom, which seems to have inspired both the ocarina playing (see the above footnote about music games) and stealth elements in Zelda 5. []

  9. This is reminiscent of Glory of Heracles IV (1994) which also had protagonists robbed of their bodies who only could physically participate in the game world by taking over other people’s bodies. []
  10. Drawing paths for objects like Link’s boomerang which they followed was utilized in Phantom Hourglass already but Winning Eleven Play Maker 2008 by Konami on Wii first applied this method on multiple player characters, in this case a soccer team. Spirit Tracks was released after this soccer game but the general idea was already introduced in its prequel. []
  11. For another example of this homophone based wordplay see my article on Megami Tensei. []

Vampires in Pop Culture: The Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice

Donnerstag, 30. Dezember, 2010

Foreword

I first wrote this analysis of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles in March 2004 for a seminar on literary theories but the original intent to write it was born during my earlier stay in Kyoto the year before. During that exchange year I started to understand a lot about the themes present in popular literature and it was also when I wrote my original interpretation of Final Fantasy X which I later reworked for publication on this site (German).

I had rented the movie adaption of Queen of the Damned despite the bad reviews and it turned out every bit as bad as its reputation but I nevertheless wanted to form my own opinion on it so I watched it anyway. It was still very much worth watching because when I thought about what was missing from the movie I really began to understand the actual depth of the original novel. The way Akasha is defeated, instinct ripping off ratio’s head, discovering this symbolism was the real starting point for this analysis.

The paper originally was titled „A Lacanian Approach to The Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice“ and was supposed to be an application of Lacan’s theories to an actual piece of literature. I had read up a bit on C. G. Jung for my FFX analysis and wasn’t really much of a fan of Freud. But although Lacan is Freudian I found some common ideas with Jung in his text which gave me further grounds to showcase the psychoanalytical approach already evident in Rice’s book. Basically I’m just spelling out what is said in the quotations already, using Lacan’s lingo.

This version is more strongly modified than my later Ghost Dog analysis and I didn’t stop at implementing the corrections by my lecturer Andrea Lutz but also tried to explore the meta-novel aspects of the Vampire Chronicles, as suggested by her. I added a short summary of Lacan’s ideas as well which took some rereading of his text “The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious”. This is also why this article took so long to be ready for publication on this site, with Ghost Dog I could basically copy and paste the paper I had handed in years ago only making minor corrections.

I also want to note that in one of the seminars I took following writing this paper I had the pleasure to meet four different students named Claudia all taking the same seminar. Claudia is by no means a rare name but this still was a curious coincidence considering the role of the character of the same name from Rice’s novel.

Riddel in the Forest

Riddel in the Forest

While Rice has given up on her vampire novels, thanks to Buffy the Vampire Slayer by Joss Whedon and the more recent Twilight by Stephenie Meyer vampires continue to be a mainstay in popular culture and they have a similar importance in Japanese comics and games as well, which of course is my focus on this site. In fact there is a shōjo manga by HAGIO Moto with a similar constellation of two male vampires raising a girl in one of its episodes. The Poe Family (Pō no ichizoku) by HAGIO predates Interview with the Vampire by a few years but Rice’s original short story was still some years earlier than the episode with the vampires‘ adoptive daughter in HAGIO’s manga.1 Serialization of The Poe Family started in March 1972 and ended in June 1976. The episode Rideru: Mori no naka was published in April 1975. Rice started work on her novel Interview with the Vampire in 1973 and it was published in 1976. It would be far-fetched to assume that they influenced each other given the temporal and language barriers but maybe they share a common influence that made them both write about male vampire couples raising a girl.

It’s interesting to note that in the Japanese variant of this story it’s the male vampires that are condemned to stay children forever and watch their adopted daughter grow older and older. In Rice’s story the adopted daughter is also turned vampire and thus denied her coming of age which her male parents had already passed when they quit the life of the living.

Today’s vampire literature still shows strong traces of Rice’s and HAGIO’s earlier works which is why I decided to juxtapose my analysis with some clips from Buffy and other recent vampire stories for this republication. They’re not directly related to each other but there are common underlying themes, some of which also contributed to this analysis. I was watching the end of Buffy season 6 specifically during my stay in Kyoto.

(mehr …)

  1. Serialization of The Poe Family started in March 1972 and ended in June 1976. The episode Rideru: Mori no naka was published in April 1975. Rice started work on her novel Interview with the Vampire in 1973 and it was published in 1976. []

Tradition and Progress – Games Turning Electronics

Mittwoch, 20. Oktober, 2010

The first video games were created in the West, the first game consoles to receive brand recognition were Western – even though Atari borrowed its name from a term out of the Japanese strategy game Go and the then market leader kind of already sounded Japanese even before the Japanese really conquered the market. But game arcades soon were dominated by Taito’s Space Invaders, Namco’s Pac-Man, Konami’s Gradius and Nintendo’s Donkey Kong. Conversions of these games made a name for themselves also on the American home game consoles. And starting with the Nintendo Entertainment System for the longest time the Japanese were the only ones to successfully launch consoles anymore. It’s save to say that the Japanese game makers had a firm grip on the video game market since the early beginnings.

Nintendo Hanafuda cards

It’s Nintendo who give this successful but young video game culture a much longer tradition. Nintendo’s origin leads all the way back to the late 19th century when they started their toy making business during the Meiji era, following the Meiji restauration in 1968, the first event to mark the end of isolation and a run to modernize and Westernize the country. In a way this age was the prequel to the much more radical changes advanced during the American occupation after WWII, modernizing the country in a Western image much more completely than before. What had been pragmatical adoptions of certain Western ways, as to not fall behind their Western competitors who made their markets (and colonies) right before Japan’s doorsteps in East Asia, had to become much less compromised after WWII.

Last Blade 2 Opening A

For better or worse, Japan is what it is now largely because of its relationship with America. The black ships of American captain Perry forced the shogunate to open the country’s harbors to the Western ships on their way to East Asia. The shogunate giving in to this forced opening of the country provided their political opponents with the sign of weakness they needed to launch their campaign to end the shogunate’s reign. This lead to the bakumatsu, the apocalypse of the old Japan under the shogun’s rule and to the Meiji restauration, the tennō being restored as the first man in the state. Actually the xenophobic propaganda that spurned the fight against the shogunate which was denounced to be friends with the barbarians after Perry’s visit was soon forgotten after the shogunate was actually defeated. Instead the architects of the Meiji restauration opened up the country even further, did away with a lot of old structures replacing them with modern ones modeled after Western examples, banned privileges of the samurai elite and made bushidō, the samurai’s code of conduct the ethical foundation of every citizen, most of whom this code had never applied to before.

Asian morals and Western technology, this became the slogan for early modern Japan. This includes the worship of the tennō as a divine deity, one of the things the Americans abolished after WWII since they feared its potential to mobilize the Japanese people for warfare. Basically they tried to also establish the Western value systems which hadn’t been incorporated into modern Japan before, banning certain Japanese ones like bushidō and ada uchi revenge stories. Of course you cannot easily change a whole country’s culture and the Japanese losing their religion by the tennō announcing on radio that he in fact is a human being and not a god must have had a long lasting impact on the country. The now pacifist Japan is proving itself in international economic competition and the regained confidence allows Japan to find its identity torn between Asian roots and American influence.

Video games, like cars or other technology the Japanese are known for their quality in the world, is one such field which allows the Japanese to reevaluate their cultural identity and it is one where the clash of tradition and progress is particularly pronounced. Japanese mythology and folklore, theatrical and narrative tradition, these provide the base for Japanese games as much as Western movies and technology. It makes sense that a lot of the cultural struggle and the feelings toward the changes in the country’s social and political order are expressed in Japanese game plots. Which are also closely linked to comics, another Western genre to gain mass appeal in Japan merging with the country’s own manga tradition.

Rurōni Kenshin

Rurōni Kenshin (Kenshin the Wanderer) by WATSUKI Nobuhiro is one example of a manga that uses the bakumatsu and the following Meiji era as a setting to address issues that arise from Westernization. Taking the process back to its beginnings Rurōni Kenshin tells the story of HIMURA Kenshin, formerly known as Battōsai, the hitokiri helping to bring about the end of the shogunate. Hitokiri means one who cuts people (with a sword), an executioner of sorts. The verb kiru (cut), which is often uttered as a threat, sounds almost like the English word kill. Which is also what it really means in this case. This word having the same pronounciation and meaning in both Japanese and English fuses the cultures represented by their respective languages by means of a violent concept. Which incidentally also characterizes the events leading to this fusion of cultures.

HIMURA is a weaker version of Battōsai born from feelings of guilt. Battōsai assassinated key figures of the old government like an executioner, sanctioned by a higher cause. He still thinks that this was necessary but the fact remains this new better world was built on bloodshed. So he restricts the power of his sword techniques by using a reversed blade hitting his enemies with the blunt side of the sword. He now only fights to help the helpless and vowed to never kill again, which reflects the newfound pacifistic identity of the Japanese.

Last Blade 2

Many popular works dealing with the bakumatsu favor the other side fighting for the shogunate. Expecially the shinsen-gumi, the elite samurai of the shogunate, often become the heroes of these stories. Obviously there’s some desire to go back to the old Japan before it had been changed by Western ways. The trauma of the atom bomb which is rightly perceived to be the final result of the Japanese attempt to keep up with their Western competitors which made them become maybe even worse than the ones they perceived as a threat can cause a wish to go back to this old age of innocence, when Japan was isolated but peaceful under shogunate reign. But WATSUKI embraces the new Japan in his take on this popular setting, defends the Meiji restaurators even though they started a traumatic and violent process of modernization. The manga portrays many viewpoints on the new Japan in fantastic battle scenes, literally reflecting the clash in opinion in likewise action choreographies. The effect of these many showdowns is cathartic and helps the characters to come to terms with their own little histories.

Omura in Last Samurai

At the end of each chapter WATSUKI also comments on his models for the characters in his comic. He jokingly notes that his editors keep telling him not to do this as they don’t want to tell the readers this kind of inside information, which might take away the magic of the story. But these columns are in fact very insightful. Of course WATSUKI bases some of his characters on historic sources, for example he acknowledges ŌKUBŌ, one of the oligarchic rulers of Meiji Japan who fell victim to an assassination by people disappointed with the new age, to have been a very competent politician. ŌKUBŌ’s role in Rurōni Kenshin is to become the target of revenge of the shogunate loyals, who pay the hitokiri back in kind by assassinating one of his leaders. ŌKUBŌ is also the model for an antipathetic politician named Omura in the Hollywood movie Last Samurai acting as an enemy of the noble samurai class, which exactly mirrors the sentiments of many Japanese bakumatsu themed stories to which Rurōni Kenshin serves as a counter example.

Two commented hanafuda matches.

But WATSUKI also models his characters after other manga protagonists and after video game characters. He especially draws upon characters from the Samurai Spirits (known as Samurai Shodown overseas) series by SNK. Who must have felt flattered and blatantly returned the favor by ripping off the character designs of Rurōni Kenshin in their own Last Blade series. The story and characters aren’t exactly the same as in the manga but they take up similar issues and also deal with the impact of history on the individual. But SNK don’t just take the trauma of identity loss back to its point of origin, they also take the medium video games itself back to its roots. In a special mode of the Dreamcast version of Last Blade 2 instead of fighting your opponents with weapons you can battle them by having matches of Hanafuda, the card game video game power house Nintendo made following the events Last Blade portrays.

SNK made their very own set of hanafuda cards for Last Blade 2.

Before their ventures into electronic games the flagship franchises of Nintendo always had been card games drawing on the lyrical traditions of Japan, like the poetry reading Hyakunin isshu (A hundred poets‘  poems) game or the more widely known Hanafuda games with suites based on the Japanese months and the plants, animals and other attractions one might see at any one time of the year. They have preserved Japanese traditions in the wake of this process of modernization but they also embraced change and turned it into a profit. Nintendo and video games have shaped national identity and represent Japan to the world. They have created their very own pop culture shared by East and West and Nintendo achieved this by being innovators, mixing and balancing old versus new.

Brawl Revisited

Montag, 4. Oktober, 2010

One of the first articles to generate traffic to my old site was the one I wrote about Smash Bros. Brawl’s adventure mode, The Subspace Emissary. Not right away, but a few months later in June, when the game came out in Europe. I’m not a big fan of the Smash Bros. interpretation of the fighting genre and the only reason I got the game was this adventure mode with a story written by Playstation era Final Fantasy’s writer NOJIMA Kazushige. Nintendo’s president IWATA Satoru always wanted a Nintendo RPG franchise to rival the success of Final Fantasy and giving NOJIMA, who like IWATA comes from the northern Japanese Island Hokkaidō, a shot at writing a Nintendo game storyline might have hinted at the company’s later challenges towards the RPG genre like Monolithsoft’s Xenoblade (first announced as Monado in the US) and Final Fantasy inventor Sakaguchi’s The Last Story. I ended up being disappointed with Brawl, mainly because of a stylistic decision to refrain from using any dialogue at all in the game. Dialogue seemed like crucial element in telling a complex narrative and I dismissed The Subspace Emissary for the lack of speech.

But actually the concept of a story completely without spoken dialogue is quite ingenious. Of course practically all the Nintendo heroes follow the school of the mute hero to allow the player to project their own thoughts into the story. And NOJIMA also started as a writer of Dragon Quest type RPGs and interpreted the mute hero in very interesting ways in his early works. So trying out this concept was probably the most interesting thing he could have done to adapt the Nintendo universe and its characters and he also had the necessary experience to pull it off. I just didn’t see it during my play through. Rewatching the story sequences again later opened my eyes to many things I had missed before, making me want to write another article on the game.

By waiving dialogue the game doesn’t just become the equivalent of a silent movie; in fact all the games before the advent of voice overs were silent. Like silent movies they used text to relay the spoken dialogue. But a lot more of it because the game medium had better ways of putting text onto the screen than the silent movies, which usually interrupted the moving picture with a black screen to show the dialogue. Games completely without any text aren’t that uncommon either, they just usually don’t try to tell a story then.

The Subspace Emissary doesn’t just omit voice overs, like most Nintendo games still do for the most part, but also text boxes. Actually certain in game moves are accompanied by short bits of speech in recent Nintendo games, compromising the mute hero concept, but in text box dialogues Mario still skips his part of the dialogue as to not impose his (absent) personality on the player. Since all the characters in Brawl are like Mario in this regard, since they are all mute heroes, even including the playable villains, the narrative has to do without text altogether. This is in fact very rare not just in games but also in the silent movie genre.

Actions speak louder than words, as they say, and actions are also the thing that is easier to convey into interactive form since actions can be linked to button presses or other input from the player much easier than words. Generating speech interactively would be almost as much of a pain as having it interpreted by the game software. Simply speaking we’re still a long way off from that kind of interaction. So by only showing action in the non-interactive movie sequences they become more like the interactive parts. They’re still automatic but not that different from some scripted game parts which come very close to movie like action where the player does everything themselves apart from talking. But being narrative scenes what the player can actually do is still predetermined by the game. This fact becomes even more apparent when the on screen presentation is restricted to action only. Playing a story means giving up almost all freedom. You become a pawn on the board which constitutes the game, an action figure so to speak.

The Ancient Minister delivers the subspace bomb

That was also the original setting of Smash Bros., action figures coming alive to battle each other. And this is also where the story of The Subspace Emissary starts, with Mario and Kirby having a sporting competition in a huge stadium. Until the Ancient Minister and his minions show up and wreck havok with their subspace bombs. The whole world is threatened by these bombs and all its inhabitants have to face some sort of crisis. The narrative switches between different places in the Nintendo universe to show its heroes and villains battle in midst of the huge detonations of the bombs of the Ancient Minister’s army.

Donkey and Diddy Kong vs. Bowser

Donkey and Diddy Kong protect the jungle yet untainted by civilization from the devilish Koopa King Bowser, who has come to this foreign place to exploit its natural resources. They get help from the futuristic pilots of the Star Fox games and later team up with another coupling of future and past: The main driver of the racing game F-Zero, Captain Falcon, and the alien captain Olimar and his army of plant soldiers called Pikmin. Olimar actually is a bit similar to Bowser as he also harvests a foreign natural resource but unlike Bowser he treats the Pikmins with respect and feels compassion for their frequent deaths. They are very fragile and even during Captain Falcon’s “cool” entrance a few dozen of them die in the process. In a way it is a black humored commentary on the rise of technology at the cost of nature.

Lucas

The frightened boy Lucas is encouraged by his strong friends Ness and Pokémon Trainer. Lucas has an actual name, whereas Ness is a reference to the family of consoles his games were released for and Pokémon Trainer is just the generic hero of Nintendo’s most successful franchise on Game Boy and later handhelds. It’s as if an actual boy got help from a legendary game console and game series to do the things he didn’t have the courage to do by himself.

Marth faces the bomb

Marth, who is just one of many medieval knights in the Nintendo universe to make an appearance in the game, tries to protect his fortress from the blast of one of the subspace bombs. Mario and Link protect their respective encaged princesses. Donkey Kong protects the jungle. Getting a glimpse of the world wide destruction Pit, the angel living in an ancient Greek inspired fantasy heaven, receives a bow from the goddess Palutena to join the heroes protecting all of the world.

Samus and Pikachu find the Power Suit

The modern woman Samus Aran is empowered by technology and rivals every other Nintendo hero in strength. The princesses, told to stay put by macho hero Snake after being rescued from their cages, seem to comply with this order at first, but dressing up in her male guise as Sheik, Zelda and the dressed as usual Peach go out to fight alongside their male companions. The Ice Climbers, a team of a man and woman of equal abilities join the larger growing band of heroes.

The evil Wario

Meanwhile the villains of the Nintendo universe go around the world shooting the iconic heroes with a beam cannon that instantly turns them back into action figures and collect them like trophies. They also corrupt the icons turned statue to make them battle for evil. But even the villains take their orders from Master Hand, the boss of the bosses since the first Smash Bros. crossover game. Who turns out to be nothing but a puppet of the real boss Taboo who is pulling his strings. Taboo’s name implies that he symbolizes something which is not to be openly talked about and his weapons are the subspace bombs, marked with an X, equally omitting their real name.

So far we have identified the following themes:

  • battle as a fair sporting event,
  • video games as encouragement for timid boys,
  • conservative tendencies to protect something (usually a place or a woman),
  • clash of primal nature and high technology,
  • modern women fighting alongside men,
  • battle as destructive war associated with a final boss that is a taboo,
  • technology providing a weapon that can annihilate the whole world.

Detonation

The last one is especially important to the narrative as a whole. The huge detonation of the subspace bomb provided by the army of the Ancient Minister starts off the story and gives the heroes a reason to fight. The horror of these bombs is linked to their enormous devastative power but also to the self sacrificing robots who bring them to their destinations. They don’t mind blowing up together with the bombs, effectively treating themselves as weapons, as things rather than sentient beings. You could argue that they as robots are indeed just things but you would be wrong.

The Ancient Minister has doubts

Even the heroes and the Ancient Minister feel compassion for the poor robots and try to stop them from blindly acting out their destructive order. The Ancient Minister’s name implies a long heritage, whereas Mario and the other heroes have a much more modest tradition. But in the end they both oppose the destruction and the act of self sacrifice. After working with the Nintendo villains for most of the story the Ancient Minister resists the war campaign spurred by his allies and for the first time attempts to stop the robot soldiers. This turns out to be futile but the Ancient Minister after being set ablaze is revealed to not be a mythical entity but a robot like the members of the army he commands.

Taboo

In the end all the heroes and villains have to unite to battle the real enemy, Taboo, who controlled even the supposed controller, Master Hand. A taboo is something to be kept silent, like the heroes who can only act. To overcome this taboo they have to confront the truth of war to bring back the places trapped1 The world robbed from most of its locations and the heroes restoring the world to its complete existence was also the concept of earlier games, most prominently Dragon Quest VII in 2000. In that game you had to travel the past to find the lost locations and learn their story before they disappeared. in the subspace2 The subspace is called akū (亜空) in Japanese. The second character of this made up term means sky, heaven or space. The first character can also mean Asia but here it refers to the concept of subsequence, of resulting from something else that is its base/origin. of the virtual reality of the game.

  1. The world robbed from most of its locations and the heroes restoring the world to its complete existence was also the concept of earlier games, most prominently Dragon Quest VII in 2000. In that game you had to travel the past to find the lost locations and learn their story before they disappeared. []
  2. The subspace is called akū (亜空) in Japanese. The second character of this made up term means sky, heaven or space. The first character can also mean Asia but here it refers to the concept of subsequence, of resulting from something else that is its base/origin. []