Final Fantasy VI Terra in Vector

My essay on Final Fantasy VI was posted today as a feature on the video game journal Kill Screen! This piece is about how the “magical girl” characterization of the two female protagonists of the game reflects debates concerning gender and bioethics in 1990s Japan.

Here’s a short except:

In Final Fantasy VI, magic—as both a narrative theme and an interactive element of gameplay—functions as a multivalent cipher for posthuman bioethics, while the culturally ascribed nonthreatening cuteness of femininity endows the destabilization of human identity with positive emotional connotations. The end result is that the world is saved, and humanity, in all its forms, can bravely continue on into an optimistic future.

You can read the full piece on Kill Screen.

The State of Play

Title: The State of Play
Editors: Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
Pages: 256

This guest review is written by John D. Moore (@johndmoore5 on Twitter).

The State of Play is a collection of sixteen diverse essays on a variety of topics related to contemporary video game culture written by game creators, journalists, and academics. The collection comes from Seven Stories Press, a company that has demonstrated a dedication to publishing interesting and new kinds of books about video games in the last few years, including anna anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters and The State of Play editors Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson’s own Minecraft. The essays consist of some previously published material as well as pieces original to or adapted for this volume. This is not a video game culture primer; while each essay does an adequate to great job of describing the particular corner of video game culture it explores, a basic familiarity with games and the popular discourse surrounding them is necessary to keep the reader from feeling disoriented.

The book is prefaced by a short introduction written by the editors that argues for its own necessity in the current climate of video game culture. The editors propose the term “post-escapism” for our present moment, pointing to a paradigm shift for independent game production and video game criticism symbolized by – if not initiated by – the miserable advent of Gamergate. As such, it explicitly announces its progressive stance against an oppositional conservative “side.” The majority of the essays have a definite progressive political slant, dealing primarily with race, gender, and sex. Not every piece is so politically conscious, such as level designer David Johnston’s rich account of his approach to designing CounterStrike maps and the tensions between level design and real-world architecture. Curiously, the introduction does not make reference to this or other pieces that fit this loose classification, and that lack of framing is disappointing. It does provide for their place obliquely by linking progressive politics to a progressive approach in writing about games as cultural objects that matter and are subject to the same scrutiny as other media.

There are as many approaches to writing as there are contributors in this volume. anna anthropy’s essay “Love, Twine, and the End of the World” is characteristically playful and borrows the format of a choose-your-own-adventure book, sometimes even inviting the reader-player to exit the book and take action elsewhere, advancing her cause for games as a powerful medium of self-expression. In “A Game I Had to Make,” Zoe Quinn writes of her experiences surrounding the development, release, and reception of her Depression Quest in an intimate and challenging second-person perspective, stylistically reminiscent of the text of her game. Cara Ellison and Brendon Keogh share a meandering correspondence about the meaning of violence and its dominance in contemporary video games, trying on frames like colonialism. History professor William Knoblauch offers a wide-reaching analysis of apocalyptic scenarios in games from the late Cold War to the present.

In one of the book’s finest pieces, Anita Sarkeesian and Katherine Cross describe their separate and varied stories of online harassment, putting them together to expose their common threads of misogyny that are, in turn, pervasive in mainstream video games and video game culture, dehumanizing and objectifying real women as non-player characters. Sarkeesian includes a harrowing sample of the threats she received. It is a vivid and accessible chapter that succeeds in succinctly delivering many of the main points of Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency project and I’d nominate it as required reading for anyone involved in video games.

With no thematic divisions, there is no clear structural logic to the book’s presentation, though some of the juxtapositions provide provocative or synergistic effects when read together. Evan Narcisse’s “The Natural: The Parameters of the Afro,” an exploration of black representation in games, pairs very neatly with Hussein Ibrahim’s “What It Feels Like to Play the Bad Guy,” about playing first-person shooters where the only in-game people who look like the author are presented as enemies and the representations of his culture are often ludicrously inaccurate. Together, these issues connect to the next essay by Quinn in a way that opens up broader questions about embodied experiences. Other essays, especially toward the end of the collection, seem arranged at random.

In these pages, it is unfortunately rare to see an acknowledgement of the specific regional discourse the writers are talking about, even as Japanese companies (which are admittedly multinational, with major global presences) are routinely referenced. An exception is in one of the standout pieces of the collection, in which merritt kopas examines the intersection of sex, games, consumerism, and culture, arguing that the intertwining of these themes in mainstream game productions is a reflection of our society’s misogynistic and problematic relationship to sex. While she acknowledges that her discussion might be applicable in some areas to other cultures, she emphasizes that her focus is on her own American context. This statement stands in contrast to the introduction, which identifies the mainstream game industry as historically preoccupied with the “young, white, Western male” from its genesis. That of course applies to what would generally be termed the Western video game market since the late 1980s, but it seems to dodge the problem of other major markets, or at the very least the Japanese market. Oli Wikander, a professor of Religious Studies, offers a strong exception, examining Western theology and Gnosticism in 1990s Japanese role-playing games. It’s an excellent piece, but its position at the back of the volume seems to speak to its outsider status.

The book would have benefited from more careful editing on both macro and micro scales. There are a few more instances of awkward grammar and spelling mistakes than I’m accustomed to seeing. In addition, only a handful of the pieces cite their sources, which is disappointing. Predictably, those who cite are among the small handful of academics in the collection.

On a related note, my biggest complaint about the book is its lack of contextualization. At least three essays were originally written for their authors’ blogs, and I think it would strengthen the book to contextualize these articles as such. Short introductions preface each piece, but they mainly serve to specify the topic of the essay. This book was published in 2015, so it is mildly confusing when Ian Bogost’s piece on the fantastic stupidity of Flappy Bird and video games at large, originally posted at The Atlantic, refers to “last summer” but means the summer of 2013. The nature of blogging tends to produce writing that is very reactive to its moment and the broader online ecosystem of blogging. These repurposed bog posts are all fine pieces by themselves, but their transition between media calls for some more compensation than the book provides. Another example would be Dan Golding’s fine specimen of rhetoric “The End of Gamers,” originally a 2014 Tumblr post, in which Golding opts to not delve into the events commonly credited for spearheading Gamergate, deeming it not worthy of consideration. Given the priorities of his post, this makes sense on Tumblr. The nature of a print anthology, however, would almost certainly benefits from a stronger historicization either in the text or in footnotes, especially if it aspires to continued relevance.

While the collection’s lack of an absolute unifying coherence is arguably a weakness, it is simultaneously a strength. The diversity of content allows for a wide range of examples of different ways people are approaching video games. The collection and availability of the pieces that were originally published online in a physical book has great value, preserving them from the vicissitudes of ephemeral news cycles. To give an example, in researching this review I discovered that Shanahan’s essay has disappeared from its original home on the Internet. While it remains available elsewhere online for the time being, it would be a shame if it were ever lost to the Internet’s ever-growing cemetery of failed servers and expired domains.

The book’s inclusion of essays on so many varied subjects from so many different angles inspires an excitement concerning the existence of new possibilities and fresh approaches that even this wide-reaching collection cannot accommodate. The collection’s title, The State of Play, suggests a sort of crystallization of all the current discourse surrounding games. I would love to see something like this turn into a series, chronicling these conversations as they continue to evolve in coming years.

The State of Play is strongly recommended for any reader with an interest in the current culture of video games and how we talk about them. Each individual essay could provide, at minimum, a jumping-off point for a spirited discussion on a major topic in contemporary video game culture. Indeed, I can imagine this volume providing the backbone for a unit in a college course. To that end, it’s worth noting that Seven Stories Press offers (free examination copies of its titles to professors.

* * * * *

John D. Moore is an M.A. student in the Department of East Asian Languages & Literatures at the University of Oregon researching Japanese anime in general and Mobile Suit Gundam in particular. He is also a filmmaker and hobbyist developer of several dozen freeware video games, including Caverns of Khron and ExpandoScape.

You Died

Title: You Died: The Dark Souls Companion
Authors: Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth
Illustrators: Paul Canavan and Angus Dick
Publication Year: 2016
Publisher: BackPage
Pages: 333

This guest review is written by Ryan Nock.

I came to You Died: The Dark Souls Companion as a casual fan of the Japanese video game series Dark Souls (and its sister Bloodborne), and I was expecting the text to explore the craft, the development, and the secrets of the games. It’s not quite that book, though, and devotes its attention to the game’s fandom rather than its creation.

The Souls series is infamous for its difficulty, and you’ll see the words “YOU DIED” flash on the screen dozens of times as you learn how to play. The most casual encounters with enemies can kill your character repeatedly until you get into the groove and learn the dangers of the world and the attack patterns of the undead and other monsters that roam it. While you’re connected online, other players can scrawl notes from a limited set of available words to offer hints, and you can call on help from other players, but they cannot speak to you. Moreover, those same players can “invade” your game and try to kill you.

While yes, this is challenging, it has created an interesting sense of community, as players all struggling at the same time to survive the game and solve its mysteries. That community, which expanded from the video game to the internet and even into the real world, is the focus of You Died.

The authors, Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth, are both game journalists who had early access to games in the Souls series and were early popularizers of them in the West. Through this book (which doesn’t have a table of contents), they recount the history of how the precursor game Demon’s Souls came to the West through imports and fan translations, how its popularity led to the enthusiastic reception of the eventual release of Dark Souls, and how the fanbase proselytized the game firmly into the sphere of gaming pop culture icons.

Today, myriad YouTube channels highlight hidden bits of lore and showcase the skills of expert players, and the authors document some of the most famous examples of each. They seem to be trying to craft a sort of historical record of the game community, with whole chapters devoted to the time a Twitch stream crowd-sourced playing Dark Souls, or how one YouTube celeb got in hot water for collating insights into the gameworld’s mysteries without providing proper attribution to the messageboard community where that information was first posted.

Unfortunately, You Died is not adequately comprehensive as a reference, and as a documentary piece it doesn’t remain engaging all the way through. The presentation is a tad dry and perhaps a bit overlong; and, for a book about a video game, it’s a shame the only art is a series of black-and-white line drawings. I wonder if I, as a casual fan, am not the target audience. The authors assume the reader has beaten Dark Souls, and every once in a while I found passages of the book rather self-congratulatory, like the twelve pages detailing how one author got a 100% completion achievement. Rather than a unified book with a coherent through-line that builds to a satisfying conclusion, You Died is better read as a series of articles, which makes sense considering the pedigrees of the authors.

Still, there’s plenty to like. Entertaining vignettes recall how a couple bonded through co-op play, and how trickster players subvert the “invasion” mechanic to goof around and give rewards to would-be enemies who play along with their shenanigans. The chapters I found most interesting were the ones about the actual craft of the games – a biography of and excerpted interview with the series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki, recollections of the translators who localized the games and the British voice actors who gave gravitas to a mournful story about a world where nothing can truly die, and musings of other game designers on what lessons they’ve learned from the Souls series.

One early and appealing chapter quotes from a long email chain that bounced back and forth among game reviewers who got advance copies of Dark Souls before it was released in the West. The reader is invited to witness their shared amusement and frustration as they work through the game, share tips with each other, and brag about their successes.

For my taste, there’s a bit too much on the community around the game – a still-active community one can easily learn about with some web searches – and not enough behind-the-scenes information. Dark Souls has a setting you have to dig your teeth into in order to really appreciate the game’s plot. Today, it’s easy for someone new to the franchise to hit up a wiki and have all the secrets revealed, and I wish this book had cared more about the unrolling of revelations in the games – the lovely “aha!” moments that cause pieces of the puzzle to fit together.

Also, the focus is almost wholly on Westerners, with scant attention paid to the fans in Japan or the other designers – artists, programmers, composers – who are all Japanese. What inspired these developers to create a setting so firmly rooted in a medieval and Renaissance European aesthetic? All the authors offer the reader is a few paragraphs on Miyazaki’s interest in Western fantasy, and I lament that the topic was not explored in more detail.

By chance, shortly before reading You Died, I finished another book about a pop culture phenomenon with a large community centered on unraveling mysteries. In 1979, the British artist Kit Williams buried a bejeweled golden rabbit and published Masquerade, an illustrated, riddle-filled book that served as a treasure map. In 1982 the rabbit was found, and in 1983 Bamber Gascoigne (a name which will be familiar to players of Bloodborne) released Quest for the Golden Hare. The book served as both a thriller, deftly portraying a cast of characters trying to locate the rabbit, and as an oral history of William’s creation of the puzzle and of the phenomenon of Masqueraders around the world trying to crack the code he’d crafted. Perhaps unfairly, I ended up comparing the two books, and I found Quest for the Golden Hare more compellingly written, though this could be a result of different journalistic styles separated by thirty years – or because I’m not exceptionally engrossed in the Souls franchise.

You Died certainly has its moments, and as a celebration of a fandom it has the potential to inspire appreciation within the community of people who love the game. Its content could have been tightened and condensed, however, and I think it would have been improved by a stronger focus on its Japanese origins rather than just its reception in the West.

You Died: The Dark Souls Companion is available on Kindle and in print.

. . .

Ryan Nock is a writer and tabletop game designer at EN Publishing and product line director of ZEITGEIST: The Gears of Revolution and War of the Burning Sky, two adventure series for Dungeons & Dragons and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

A Tale of Two Rulers Zelda Portrait by Lorraine Schleter

I published my third piece on FemHype, which remains one of my favorite gaming websites. This essay is about A Tale of Two Rulers, a Legend of Zelda fan comic that views the themes of the games through the lens of intersectional feminism. The comic features gorgeous art and an engaging story, and it’s one of my favorite things to ever appear on the internet. Please check it out!

Here’s a short excerpt from my essay:

A Tale of Two Rulers is deeply intertwined with the broader discussions of representation in video games that are currently occurring in lady-centric fandom communities. As these fans pose critical questions concerning their continued marginalization in mainstream gaming cultures, they also produce compelling reconfigurations of sexist narratives and tropes, transforming the games they love into stories that celebrate positive representations of diversity.

You can read the full article on FemHype.

Strangers

Title: Strangers
Japanese Title: 偉人たちとの夏 (Ijintachi to no natsu)
Author: Yamada Taichi (山田 太一)
Translator: Wayne P. Lammers
Publication Year: 2003 (America); 1987 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 203

A 48-year-old television script writer named Harada is having a tough time of it. Having divorced his wife, he now lives by himself in a small apartment in a mostly empty building. A drama series he was supposed to work on has been canceled, and a friend and colleague has announced his intentions to pursue Harada’s ex-wife. After Harada’s friend informs him that they can no longer work together, he wanders in a haze until one day he decides to return to the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo where he grew up. On a whim he enters a rakugo performance, where he catches sight of a man who looks just like his late father. When the man goes out for a cigarette, Harada follows him and ends up being invited to the man’s home, where a woman who looks exactly like his late mother is waiting for them.

Around the same time, Harada has a strange encounter with a woman in her thirties whom he has nodded to a few times in the lobby of his building. Late one evening she shows up at his apartment with a bottle of champagne, remarking on how it’s eerie that the two of them are the only humans in the building. Because he’s still reeling from the emotional impact of his friend’s pronouncement regarding his wife, Harada tells her that he’s busy. When he calls her a week later, however, she gladly comes over. She makes romantic overtures and says she’ll sleep with him on the condition that he promises not to look at a mysterious wound on her chest. Is she just shy, or is something more sinister going on?

Harada’s ghost parents are charming and hospitable, so he continues visiting them. Harada’s father, a sushi chef, exhibits the charming gruffness and bluster of a stereotypical tradesman from the Shitamachi “old Tokyo” area in east Tokyo, and his mother is a sweet and gentle woman who loves her husband and son despite their flaws and amuses herself by playing old-fashioned games with hanafuda cards. Unlike Harada’s barren neighborhood in Shinjuku, Asakusa is full of warmth, and returning to his parents feels like stepping back into an idealized past in the postwar era.

Harada feels more alive than he has in years, but the people around him keep remarking on how terrible he looks. His new girlfriend seems especially concerned, and the intensity of her emotions is almost frightening. What does she want from him? What do his deceased parents want from him? Will he live long enough to find out?

Although Strangers plays with an interesting set of themes, the novel feels somewhat shallow. Harada is introspective but never arrives at any striking realizations about himself, and he’s too self-absorbed to make any serious attempts to understand the behavior of the people around him. Unfortunately, this Harada’s position as the point-of-view character renders the other characters as nothing more than stereotypes. Why do Harada’s parents return to the world of the living to see him? Because all parents love their children, of course. Why does Harada’s ex-wife pick fights with him? Because all women are crazy, of course. Why doesn’t Harada’s college-age son want to talk to him? Because all young people are ungrateful and temperamental, of course.

To me, Harada came off as an embodiment of male entitlement, and the books ends with his preconceptions justified and his place in the world reaffirmed. His seeming inability to change himself as the world changes around him is presented in a romantic light, as are the noble struggles of middle aged dudes everywhere. I didn’t find this story particularly engaging, but perhaps I’m simply not the intended audience.

Strangers is neither grisly nor subversive enough to inspire chills, but as a ghost story it offers an interesting theory on how different parts of Tokyo are haunted.

Horses Horses

Title: Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure
Japanese Title: 馬たちよ、それでも光は無垢で
(Umatachi yo, sore demo hikari wa muku de)
Author: Furukawa Hideo (古川 日出男)
Translator: Doug Slaymaker
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Pages: 147

Furukawa Hideo, born in 1966 in Fukushima prefecture, is a prolific author who has won numerous awards for his work, which ranges from mystery to sci-fi to literary fiction. Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure is a memoir that defies genre as it responds to the March 2011 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown.

Horses is the story of a road trip that the author makes to Fukushima almost immediately after the disasters. Furukawa lives in Tokyo, and he was in Kyoto when the earthquake hit. He describes himself watching the news on the television in his hotel room, unable to process what he was seeing but unable to look away. “That’s when that period of steady gazing began,” he admits (19). Furukawa describes his continuing shock as living in “spirited-away time,” as if “the dates of the calendar disappeared” (6).

He is shaken from his torpor by the voice of a character from a novel he is in the process of writing, The Holy Family (Seikazoku). This character, who is from the Tōhoku region, tells the author to go there and see it for himself. Furukawa therefore gets in a car with two or three other people who are identified only by letters (as in, “Young S was driving”) and heads north from Tokyo, all the while commenting on the seemingly normal state of traffic, gas stations, and convenience stores. When he arrives at the affected area, however, nothing is normal. As Furukawa explains it…

We were overwhelmed by the sense of how powerful it was. The scene spread out before us, everything wiped clean away. There are no words for it. We didn’t just feel it, we were pummeled by it. I am ashamed to admit it – I want to spit at myself in disgust – but I was looking at the scene as if it were a great spectacle. I thought of air raids. And atomic-bomb sites. It hit me like a smack to the side of the head: it’s just like a city in wartime. I couldn’t help it. I exploded: “This scale, it spreads too far.” (41-42)

Although the disasters are never far from Furukawa’s mind, descriptions of its aftermath don’t form a particularly large portion of his narrative. Instead, he is concerned with his identity as a writer and his responsibility in chronicling what has happened. Throughout the book, Furukawa seems almost narcissistic in the way he dwells on the process of writing, as well as the invitations he receives to discuss it. This is not unique to Furukawa, of course; very rarely are artists’ statements anything other than validations of the artist’s ego. It’s what these meditations evolve into halfway through Horses that makes the book so interesting. Specifically, Furukawa tries to pick apart the various strands of meaning tangled up in the knot of Japanese identity, repeatedly returning to the question of how to approach Japanese history and myth. For example, he ponders…

How does one sing praises to this national land? Especially now, given that there is a second sun in the nuclear core? A meltdown that has taken its name from Fukushima. Can a name be given to this particular sun deity? (65)

Furukawa goes on to discuss how the vaunted warrior class, and specifically the great unifiers of the sixteenth century, were brutal and pitiless murderers. “Our history is nothing more than a history of killing people,” he concludes (78). When he writes about Japanese history in The Holy Family, then, Furukawa is writing “for the horses.” If the history of humans is a history of killing people, then the history of horses is a history of being killed in human wars. Just like the animals around the Fukushima reactor, the lives of horses are affected by events that are only tangentially related to them. Although the author never makes this parallel clear, he suggests that there isn’t a great deal of difference between the “otherness” of domestic animals and the “otherness” of the people who fall outside the political center of Japan.

Furukawa’s memoir is not challenging in the traditional sense of being difficult to understand, but reading it can be frustrating at times, as the author follows his train of thought without stopping for a full 140 pages. His style is not quite stream-of-consciousness, but he makes no attempt to order his thoughts or to impose structure to any sort of argument he might be making. Therefore, as a response to the disasters, Horses feels less like a polemic and more organic and sincere. The author ends his narrative on a somewhat surreal note, but Doug Slaymaker’s concise “Translator’s Afterword” neatly ties together the disconnected themes of the work, and I would recommend that the reader glance over it before embarking on the main text.

Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure is a trenchant and often surprising work of literary ecocriticism. Furukawa transforms both the immediate disasters in Fukushima and the broader historical currents that flow around them into deeply personal experiences, resisting large narratives as he argues for the validity of individual stories. Doug Slaymaker’s smooth and well-considered translation gives the text, in all its complexity, a compelling sense of forward momentum. Furukawa’s memoir is just as engaging as it is important, and it will be of immense interest to anyone concerned with how views regarding the relationship between human beings and the natural environment have shifted during the twenty-first century.

Koroks from The Wind Waker

I recently published another essay on FemHype, one of my favorite gaming websites. This one is about how Shinto, as an influence on video game creators, is complicated, nuanced, and mixed with other elements of Japanese cultural history. I demonstrate that Shinto is somewhat nebulous as a creative influence, and I argue that grassroots movements and an international interest in the themes and tropes of high fantasy are equally influential in the development of Japanese games in the 1980s.

Here’s a short excerpt:

What are “the teachings of Shintoism,” exactly? And what do they have to do with Japanese video games? I’d like to demonstrate that Shinto—as a broad amalgamation of local folk religions in Japan—is not particularly well-defined as a cultural influence on video games. Moreover, Shinto is only one of the contributing factors in Japanese attitudes regarding the environment.

Although it would certainly be interesting and productive to identify the specifically Shinto elements in The Legend of Zelda series, I think it also makes sense to place the games within the context of ecological conservation movements in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, it’s worthwhile to consider the more universal elements of international fantasy storytelling that appealed to people in the nascent console gaming industry.

You can read the full article on FemHype.