Yoshi’s Woolly World & Mellow Mode

Yoshi's Woolly World Bowser Fight

I have fantastic news! An essay I wrote on accessibility and gaming has been published on FemHype, one of my favorite gaming websites. I argue that different people play games for different reasons and that the customization of difficulty settings both accommodates a diversity of players and broadens the potential of the game itself.

Here’s a short excerpt:

As video games continue to evolve into ever more gorgeous works of visually stunning storytelling, it’s only natural that they have begun to attract larger and more diverse audiences. These players will have different skill sets and expectations, and many of them may come to gaming with goals that have nothing to do with high scores or kill counts.

This is why I believe that built-in gameplay features such as the Mellow Mode in Yoshi’s Woolly World are important in making games accessible to people who fall outside of the narrow parameters that currently define many industry standards regarding who gamers are and what they want from the experience of gaming.

You can read the full article on FemHype.

Legends of Localization

Legends of Localization

Title: Legends of Localization, Book 1: The Legend of Zelda
Author: Clyde Mandelin
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Fangamer
Pages: 198

Clyde “Mato” Mandelin is a professional translator who is famous on the internet for two things: first, leading the team of fan translators who put together an English patch for Mother 3 (which was never given a commercial release outside of Japan), and second, his website Legends of Localization, on which he posts detailed essays about the changes made to video games as they are prepared for the North American market.

Legends of Localization, Book 1: The Legend of Zelda is an offshoot of this website and the first book in what seems slated to become an ongoing series. As its title suggests, it focuses on the original The Legend of Zelda game from 1986.

The book is divided into six main sections.

The first section, which lists the differences in the game music and sound effects between the Japanese and American versions of the game, is an odd place to start (seeing as how books don’t produce audio – yet!), but the descriptive comparisons are a good introduction to just how far (and deep into the game code) the process of localization can go.

The second chapter, which analyzes the text spoken by the old men and women (and lone Moblin) in the game, explains the linguistic justifications for the bad grammar of the English text. It also bravely attempts to puzzle out what the hints these characters offer the player are actually supposed to indicate.

The third section, which covers the game’s items, explores some interesting cultural differences, including why the “Bible” was called such and why it was changed to the “Book of Magic.”

The fourth section explains the origins of the names of common Zelda enemies, such as Moblins and Like Likes, which are based on Japanese wordplay.

The fifth section, which examines the game manual, is a blast of nostalgia for those of us who treasured the little booklets that came included with game cartridges. This section includes an amazing line-by-line comparison of the introductory story text in Japanese and the English translation (which was surprisingly well executed), as well as several cogent explanations for the mistranslations that litter the remainder of the text.

The final section, “Beyond the Game,” collects information on hardware, promotional materials, television commercials, strategy guides, and spin-off games, including the vastly different Japanese and American board games.

What I especially appreciate about Legends of Localization are its illustrations. In addition to a wealth of screenshots, the book contains high quality scans of various print media, as well as photographs of game consoles, cartridges, and other paraphernalia. All of the images are informatively and appropriately labeled, and many are accompanied by humorous captions. My favorite of these captions are the ones that propose outlandish theories, such as “Link is dead and everyone is directing him to the light.” Because of the book’s uncluttered layout, it’s fun to flip through the pages while letting the pictures and cute captions catch your attention.

Legends of Localization is brilliant, witty, and thoroughly entertaining. Mandelin is a hero of the international gaming community, and this paper-and-ink publication of his work is a treasure. Even if you couldn’t care less about the Zelda games, or video games in general, I still recommend Legends of Localization for its clever insights into both Japanese and American popular culture.

As the cave-dwelling shield merchant should have said (if his dialog had been translated properly), “This is a good value and definitely worth buying.” Don’t keep it a secret to everybody!

The publisher, Fangamer, has put out a number of other gaming books, including the Zelda-themed graphic novel Second Quest and a small guide to navigating The Legend of Zelda in Japanese. They’re good people, and everything they release is golden as the Triforce.

Linkle, the Female Gaze, and the Sailor Moon Paradox

Or, is Linkle’s character design sexist garbage?

My answer: NOT NECESSARILY.

Linkle is a female version of Link, the green-clad hero of The Legend of Zelda video game franchise. The character Linkle was formulated for possible inclusion in the 2014 Wii U title Hyrule Warriors, an action game in the Dynasty Warriors vein developed by Koei Tecmo in collaboration with Nintendo. In the Nintendo Direct video message broadcast on November 12, it was announced that Linkle would be a playable character in Hyrule Warriors Legends, a port of the game for the Nintendo 3DS.

The internet exploded, with some fans going wild with glee and other fans becoming consumed with righteous feminist anger.

Before anything, let’s look at the design itself.

HW Legends Linkle in Famitsu

The design element that stands out the most is the exposed flesh between Linkle’s boots and her black shorts. In anime-speak, this design element is known as zettai ryōiki, or “absolute territory.” I don’t want to get into the history and context of this expression here, but basically, the bit of naked skin between the top of a female character’s leggings and the bottom of her skirt is the area where all the moé feels are.

If you’re a queer lady or a straight dude, you’ll probably understand this already, but I want to make the sexualized appeal of this design element absolutely clear. The zettai ryōiki suggests the coveted thigh gap (the desire for which transcends culture) even if the character is wearing a skirt or tunic. The insides of a woman’s upper thighs are soft and smooth and heavenly; and, although this area of the body is generally hidden, the zettai ryōiki exposes it to the viewer, who can run their eyes (and imagined hands) up the curves of the character’s legs and into the promised land between them.

So, is Linkle’s design sexualized?

OH MY GOODNESS YES.

In addition, feminist critics have decried how Linkle seems subordinate to the male Link and merely tacked onto a spinoff of a spinoff game in order to reinforce the idea that the star of the really important games will always be male. These are the sort of comments that have been going around:

“Are we really this satisfied with crumbs, people? Is the bar that low?”
I Love Linkle. But Linkle Is Not Enough.
(by Maddy Meyers, via The Mary Sue)

“The message was clear: Shut the fuck up and be happy with what little you get.”
The Legend of F. Scott: A Response to the Response to the Response to Linkle
(by Carolyn Petit, via Tumblr)

Regardless, a number of female artists and Zelda fans have been celebrating Linkle’s inclusion as a playable character in Hyrule Warriors Legends with enthusiastic joy. What’s going on here?

I’m going to argue that this is the female gaze at work.

The dreaded “male gaze” as classically formulated casts men as subjects. This means male characters have agency and interiority, and female characters are just there to serve the needs of the male characters and male viewers. In contrast, the female gaze treats female characters as subjects, even in media intentionally (or unintentionally) designed to cater to a male audience.

Part of the female gaze lies in objectifying male characters, which is not unproblematic but perfectly natural – and one might even say that it’s borderline radical in its resistance against mainstream configurations of gender. Many female-identified gamers have crushes on Link, who embodies an attractive “soft” masculinity and respects and cares for the women in his many lives. In addition, many gamers of all genders have not-so-secret crushes on the villainous Ganondorf, whose design in Ocarina of Time features its own zettai ryōiki.

That being said, the main function of the female gaze is to perceive female characters as self-defined subjects and not merely as sexualized objects of male desire. This brings me to something I call “the Sailor Moon paradox.”

When Sailor Moon first aired in the 1990s, feminist media critics hated it, saying that its appeal revolved entirely around the oversexualized bodies of teenage girls. This is not wrong, as Sailor Moon had and still has legions of older straight male fans who create and consume porn based on the characters.

Nevertheless, girls from elementary school to college loved both the anime and manga versions of Sailor Moon, which became a foundational geek girl text all over the world, from Japan to Indonesia to Russia to France to Brazil to the United States. Why?

The 1980s and early 1990s were a period of transition out of the conservative cultural backlash against sexual liberalism. “Good girls” didn’t show skin, and influential feminists encouraged women to deny their sexuality in the name of fighting the patriarchy. If you were female and didn’t want to be a social miscreant, you had two choices: be pretty but hide yourself from the male gaze, or put on a suit and become a de facto man yourself.

Sailor Moon rode the cusp of third wave feminism, which held that young women didn’t have to choose between being feminine and being respected; this is where the slogan “girl power” comes from. What Sailor Moon exemplified was the idea that you could present as girly and still be treated seriously. In other words, young women (and plenty of young gay men) read Sailor Moon with a subjectifying female gaze, seeing the Sailor Scouts as powerful role models of female agency and homosocial friendship even despite the fact that they all wore tiny little skirts into battle.

I obviously can’t speak for everyone, but I still feel comfortable making the generalization that, when girls and young women saw those skirts, they weren’t thinking about phallocentric economies of desire in which the exposed flesh of youthful females is privileged in the fantasies of straight men. Instead, they saw the freedom and vivacious energy represented by unapologetic girliness that refused to acknowledge that the male gaze was even a thing they needed to be worried about.

This paradox, in which a character can seem to cater to the male gaze and still be an empowering icon to non-male people, applies to Linkle as well.

Although the international gaming industry is ever so slowly becoming more inclusive, lady gamers have been wandering in a desert largely devoid of positive female representation for a long time. In order to keep ourselves spiritually hydrated, we apply our female gaze to everything we encounter, thus allowing ourselves to find pleasure even in video game titles and franchises with overt elements of misogyny.

But let’s be honest – female-friendly undertones are no match for female-friendly overtones.

Even though Linkle’s design inarguably contains traces of male-gaze moé bait, the fact remains that she is a playable character who isn’t sidelined but is being given the attention she deserves. We asked for a female version of Link, and we got her!

Sure, Linkle isn’t perfect, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that Nintendo is allowing the Zelda franchise to take baby steps, as in Tri Force Heroes, in which Link is allowed to dress and present his gender however he wants. Tsunderin of the feminist media blog Lady Geek Girl explains the progressive nature of this gameplay element as follows:

When crafting these outfits, Link changes into them immediately and one of the customers in the boutique comments on them. Every time, she has something nice to say about Link’s chosen outfit; she always mentions how cute he looks and that he’s very stylish. While this is a simple thing that can be taken as a throw-away, I do think it’s important. How often do people, especially kids, get to see in media someone being complimented for wearing something that may not be stereotypically for their gender? Without it being a joke?

In my own essay The Legends of Zelda, I argue that Zelda fans have been applying a female gaze to the franchise for years, and that the engagement of these fans is finally starting to be acknowledged by the gaming industry:

I could give endless examples of how media production companies in North America, Europe, and Japan have responded to fan demands for more female representation in video games, but I’d like to emphasize that the active and creative fans who thrive in social mediascapes do have voices that are heard not just by their peers but also by the senior producers whose positions they will one day inherit.

If you find Linkle’s character design to be kind of gross, I hear you, and I understand. I can get totally behind the frustration and anger surrounding Nintendo’s apparent refusal to be more overtly inclusive, but I still think it’s okay for feminist gamers to celebrate small victories.

I’d like to think Linkle is another step in the right direction. Her female subjectivity will hopefully inspire a female gaze in younger players who are just starting to acquire the tools that will help them undermine the dominant male gaze. More female representation is always welcome, especially in the world of video games.

Just as Sailor Moon once exploded into an important period of cultural transition, so too is Linkle, who is boldly carving out room for girliness in a high-profile gaming franchise on a ridiculously successful handheld console known for its popularity with girls and young women.

I have been waiting for a female Link my entire life, and now that she’s here I adore her.

Linkle by Aatmaja Pandya

The above illustration is by Aatmaja Pandya on Tumblr.

Metal Gear Solid

Metal Gear Solid

Title: Metal Gear Solid
Authors: Ashly Burch and Anthony Burch
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Boss Fight Books
Pages: 178

I don’t often talk about Metal Gear Solid.

It’s like how I might feel about a middle-school crush – my emotions concerning the games were once so intense that now I’m almost embarrassed by the object of my affection. There were so many cool things going on in the series, but it’s difficult to look back as an adult and not notice its glaring flaws.

Still, it’s impossible to deny the influence of the Metal Gear Solid series (and of its controversial director, Kojima Hideo), so I’ve always been on the lookout for someone to proselytize the games and remind me why I once loved them.

That is exactly what Metal Gear Solid, the latest title from micropublisher Boss Fight Books, manages to do. As Anthony Burch explains in the opening chapter:

Ash and I are, to put it bluntly, going to shit on Metal Gear Solid. We’ll talk about flaws in its story. We’ll talk about how it’s sexist and regressive. We’ll talk about how, despite its reputation, it’s actually a pretty bad stealth game. Today, MGS1 represents many things we either disagree with, find irritating, or actively fight against in our jobs as critics and creators.

But: Metal Gear Solid was the perfect game to Ash and me as kids. We love it with the part of our hearts protected by Kevlar nostalgia. In the chapters to come, we’re going to try to remember that love and we hope you’ll do the same.

Anthony Burch is one half of the brother-sister team that has co-authored Metal Gear Solid. Burch writes both for and about video games, and he also runs one of my favorite sites on Tumblr, No Wrong Way To Play, which documents creative and unusual gaming challenges and objectives meant to surprise players into seeing classic and popular games in a different light. He trades off sections with Ashly “Ash” Burch, a writer, speaker, voice actress, and online personality. The siblings respond to and play off each other both in the main text and in their footnotes to each other’s writing, and reading through Metal Gear Solid feels like being a fly on the wall during a conversation between two fun and intelligent people who obviously have a great deal of respect for each other.

(What I’m trying to say here is that the joint authorial voice of this book is really cool. I want to see more of this in nonfiction writing, please.)

Anthony and Ash don’t waste any time breaking down what the Metal Gear Solid games are and how they work. Or, as the case may be, don’t work. Their comments are consistently apt and cleverly stated. To give an example from one of Anthony’s sections:

The are two Hideo Kojimas.

One Kojima injects every Metal Gear Solid game with earnest if overbearing discussions of nuclear disarmament, the morality of genetic experimentation, the nature of warfare, and the difference between patriotism and terrorism.

The other Kojima lets you call Rose in Metal Gear Solid 4 and shake your SIXAXIS controller to make her boobs jiggle.

One Kojima is interested in genetic and memetic legacies, and predicted the rise of social media and information overload before Twitter.

The other Kojima helped design a sniper whose breasts are so large and exposed that she caused a controversy before the game in which she appears even had a release date.

These are all things that are true, but the authors don’t simply throw them at the reader without further analysis. Instead, they take these shortcomings and try to make sense of them. In the case of the above dichotomy between serious themes and ridiculous fanservice, Anthony points out that there are many such dualities implicit in the game. Although the player’s avatars in the games are supposed to be master soldiers, the players are just players, prone to making mistakes and dying. This in turn points to a paradox regarding the player-protagonist’s agency vis-à-vis the agency of the player, a constant negotiation that becomes increasingly complicated as the Metal Gear Solid series progresses.

Unlike the earlier titles released by Boss Fight Books, which include EarthBound, Chrono Trigger, and Super Mario Bros. 2, Metal Gear Solid does not delve deeply into the personal histories of its authors, who do not chronicle a playthrough of any of the titles in the series. Instead, the book focuses on key elements of game design and how these elements reflect the narratives and characterization patterns of the games, as well as how they affect the player.

Anthony dominates the first half of the book, which is largely focused on gameplay; but, when the discussion shifts to story and character development, Ash becomes the more impassioned and articulate of the two voices. She begins dropping truth bombs that are both spot-on and beautifully stated, and I wanted to applaud after every one of her sections in the latter half of the book. Unfortunately, the radiance she cast was often blighted by the shadow of her co-author, who for whatever reason had trouble reading the atmosphere.

Meryl’s characterization is problematic because her entire purpose is to act as an objective for the male hero to achieve, Ash will say. In response, Anthony will say that the interesting thing about Meryl’s characterization is how it acts as an objective for the male hero, and therefore it has a purpose. I wish Ocelot could have been a point-of-view character, because his perspective as a someone capable of feeling deep yet complicated emotions shows just how damaged and unrealistic Snake is, Ash will say. In response, Anthony will say that Ocelot has too many feelings, which is why the obviously emotionally balanced Snake gets to the hero. Sexism in the stories of games is a problem, Ash will say. In response, Anthony will say that sexism is an opportunity for interesting gameplay.

As I continued reading, I became increasingly frustrated with Anthony. I resisted this at first, because up until that point I had been in complete agreement with every word he put on the page. What this the same person that I quoted earlier in this review? How could someone who had made such a compelling argument for the ludic effectiveness of Snake’s vulnerability be working so hard to justify sexist game design? This was the moment when I snapped:

ASH: No exaggeration – time actually slows down so that Snake and the player can take a good, long look at Meryl’s sweet, blocky butt. But don’t worry, it’s not like it’s in there just so that dudes can gawk at her hind quarters. It’s actually a game mechanic! That’s right. In a cinematic stealth game about the horrors of nuclear warfare, you are required to stare at a woman’s ass to advance the plot.

ANTHONY: This scene is objectifying. It’s sexist. It undermines the game’s attempts to characterize Meryl as a smart, tough, self-possessed woman. It’s also, infuriatingly, one of the many interesting gameplay twists in the series. Where many of the game’s one-off challenges ask the player to disregard all of the stealth mechanics on which the game is based, the Butt Mission encourages the player to gain a deeper understanding of enemy patrols, vision cones, and proximity.

He then continues to talk about how great the “Butt Mission” is for another few paragraphs. I wanted to reach out across time and space and tell him to PLEASE SHUT UP. Somehow the rote acknowledgment that sexism is bad made this exchange even more maddening to me.

If you’re wondering how a less face-palm inducing version of this conversation might have proceeded, let me provide you with a model:

FEMALE CRITIC: The objectification of this female character, when combined with the way that all of these games develop all of their female characters in relation to members of their overwhelmingly male casts, made me hate women and myself as a younger gamer and contribute to a toxic culture of gender relations among older gamers. Both the objectification and the consistently sexist characterizations of the women in the series are ridiculous. I have developed this theme over the past dozen pages, and now I will offer a particularly egregious example to illustrate my many cogent points.

MALE CRITIC: You know, I previously thought your example was one of the more interesting gameplay twists in the series, but now that you’ve put it into a larger context I can appreciate how totally messed up it is. Since sexism is gross and stupid and I’m super interested in gameplay, let us brainstorm several alternative game mechanics that aren’t sexist and might be of immense practical interest to the current and future game developers reading this book!

If the male half of this conversation couldn’t be redirected to something more interesting and useful, perhaps it would have been better to omit it altogether. According to the book’s colophon, the editors at Boss Fight Books are all male, which is something a shame, because I have no trouble imagining a female editor rolling her eyes and crossing out Anthony’s five-paragraph justifications of sexism with a red sharpie without thinking twice.

I’m dwelling on the unpleasant gendered aspects of Metal Gear Solid not just because they grated so harshly on my nerves but also because they extend over roughly 2/5 of the text. This conversation about the intersections between gender, story, and gameplay is important and fascinating, and the Metal Gear Solid series is an ideal framework for such a discussion. It’s a shame it was handled so poorly, especially since the rest of the book is so brilliant and engaging.

There are a few other missed opportunities in Metal Gear Solid. Attempts to explain Kojima’s bizarre fourth wall breaking antics fall flat (although the jokes the authors make at the director’s expense are much more successful), and there was very little acknowledgment that the games weren’t made by an American developer for an audience of Americans. Regardless, Metal Gear Solid contains some of the most insightful and entertaining writing on gaming and game design that I’ve read in the past several years.

If you’ve never played any of the games in the Metal Gear Solid franchise, I would still recommend this book, which references many of the big topics and debates in the gaming community, rendering them accessible even to non-gamers.

You can purchase a digital copy of Metal Gear Solid on the Boss Fight Books website (or on Amazon), and you can read an excerpt on Kotaku.

Second Quest

Second Quest

Title: Second Quest
Artist: David Hellman
Author: Tevis Thompson
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Fangamer
Pages: 120

Second Quest is a beautifully drawn comic that reimagines the Zelda mythos and explores just how bizarre it is that the Hylians consider themselves to be “the chosen people” who need to be “protected” from other races. What was Ganon really trying to do? Did Zelda really need to be rescued? Why is Link valorized for running around with a sword and smashing everything he encounters? What sort of cultural legacy does this create, and who suffers when outsiders are removed from historical narratives?

Of course, The Legend of Zelda is a keystone franchise of the global game industry, and licensing it is not cheap or easy, so all of the serial numbers have been filed off in David Hellman and Tevis Thompson’s interpretation. What this means is that Second Quest is accessible to non-gamers and people largely unfamiliar with the series, and it’s of special interest to readers interested in how Japanese stories have influenced people around the world to begin their own conversations.

Second Quest Page 13

Second Quest is about a young woman named Azalea who lives on an island that floats high above the clouds. The island is sparsely populated and immense, and vast ruins are buried just underneath its surface. Azalea is fascinated by this uncharted territory, especially since she has the mystical ability to perceive the past history of the objects she touches. The story begins when Azalea is struck by an especially forceful vision of a young woman fleeing from a unseen pursuer when she picks up a broken key deep underground.

Unfortunately, Azalea’s interactions with underground artifacts trigger an earthquake, an event that is especially frightening to people living on a floating island. The tremors lead to mass panic, and it is decreed that a cleansing ritual must be performed. This ritual involves the re-enactment of a great battle against the evil “pig thief” who, envious of the sky island people’s prosperity, had captured the human vessel of their goddess. Azalea, whom the island’s religious leader has designated as the newest member of an order of secluded women who silently pray for the prosperity of the island and its inhabitants, must play the role of the sacrificial princess in this ritual before she retires from the world to become a symbolic reminder of the past and future glory of people other than herself.

Second Quest Page 56

David Hellman’s line work is both intricate and forceful, but what I especially appreciated was the artist’s color palette. The majority of Second Quest is warm and dark, with the twilit purples of the first half giving way to the angry reds of the second half. These colors emphasize the enclosed and suffocating nature of the floating island and its society, and the sky, when we see it, is a frightening orange or black. When the sky suddenly turns blue during the enactment of the purification ritual, presumably to emphasize the characterization of the island’s people as being “on the side of light,” the effect is disquieting. The appearance of teal and green at the very end of the book is breathtakingly dramatic, as the major theme of the story – a quest for freedom from the past – explodes onto the page through a series of textless spreads.

Second Quest was promoted and published through a Kickstarter campaign, the seed for which was planted by an essay written by Tevis Thompson about how the Zelda series has been declining in quality since the early games. While the first Zelda games forced the player to explore a boundless world, the more recent games are nothing more than an extended linear obstacle course. Tevis writes:

Players are constantly reminded that they’re shackled to a mechanistic land. There is no illusion of freedom because the gears that keep the player and Hyrule in lockstep are eminently legible. You read the landscape all too easily; you know what it’s asking of you. One of the greatest offenders occurred early on with A Link to the Past: most bomb-able walls became visible. What had been a potential site of mystery in the original Legend of Zelda (every rockface) became just another job for your trusty keyring. Insert here. Go on about your business.

Personally, I don’t think the Zelda series is broken. Even in Skyward Sword, which can indeed be frustratingly linear, there is more than ample room for exploration. My own favorite thing to do in Skyward Sword is bug catching, an activity that encourages the player to explore the world of the game both thoroughly and nonviolently while closely observing the game’s lush scenery and the behavioral patterns of the creatures that move unobtrusively within it. There are any number of different ways to play the Zelda games; and, if the huge body of Zelda fanfic is any indication, there are any number of different ways to read the games as well.

Last summer, however, there was a small backlash of fannish frustration over Aonuma Eiji’s denial that the Link character in the upcoming WiiU Zelda game might be female, a possibility that had been met with surprising enthusiasm. Furthermore, Aonuma stated that the gender of the Link character is inconsequential; instead, the important thing is that the player is able to identify with the character. The implication of this statement, of course, is that it’s easier for gamers to identify with a male player-protagonist than with a female player-protagonist. Let us never forget that the normative identity is “male,” after all. Men are subjects, so it makes sense for the player to control a male character, while women are objects, so it makes sense for them to act as McGuffins that enable the plot.

It’s important to the critique implicit in Second Quest that its protagonist is female. This is not simple fanboy pandering but rather a conscientious effort on the part of the creators to tell the “legend of Zelda” from the perspective of someone who is forced into a role that doesn’t suit her. When the reader first encounters Azalea, she is actively exploring the secret and hidden places of her world. We later learn, however, that women are not allowed entry into the knight academy that trains the elite police force that seems to govern the floating island. She’s not allowed to question authority or to develop her talents, even despite her obvious leadership qualities and intelligence. Azalea thus allows us to see the story of so many video games, a story frustratingly repeated time and again, from the perspective of someone excluded from shaping this story in any way. Azalea sees things that we usually aren’t shown, and what she sees is troubling and thought-provoking.

Second Quest is absolutely brilliant. If you’re a gamer, get this book. If you’re a comics person, get this book. If you’re into the darker side of religion and folklore, get this book. If you’re into feminism, gender politics, and the deconstruction of gendered tropes, then by all means, get this book. Second Quest is a beautifully published and a true pleasure to read and share with friends. I’ve been waiting for this book to come out for a long time, and I’m thrilled that it turned out to be so fantastic and inspiring.

For more information, be sure to check out:
http://www.secondquestcomic.com/

Second Quest Page 24

Hyrule Historia

Hyrule Historia

Title: The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia
Japanese Title: ハイラル・ヒストリア: ゼルダの伝説 大全
(Hairaru hisutoria: Zeruda no densetsu taizen)
Japanese Editors: Aonuma Eiji (青沼 英二), Shioya Masahiko (塩谷 雅彦)
English Editors: Mike Richardson, Patrick Thorpe, et al.
Translators: Michael Gombos, et al.
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: Dark Horse
Pages: 280

Hyrule Historia is divided into four parts. The first part, titled “The Legend Begins: The World of Skyward Sword,” is a collection of artwork and design sketches from the 2011 Wii game Skyward Sword. The second part, “The History of Hyrule: A Chronology,” runs through the plot of every game in the Legend of Zelda series and demonstrates how they are all connected. The third part, “Creative Footprints: Documenting 25 Years of Artwork,” is a collection of art and design sketches from the entire series with a strong emphasis on Twilight Princess. The fourth part is a 34-page manga (of which ten pages are in gorgeous color) about the mythology of Skyward Sword by Akira Himekawa, a two-person team that has drawn the official manga adaptations of many games in the Legend of Zelda series.

The “History of Hyrule” section, which is about seventy pages long, gives the book its name. When the series timeline from this section was released and translated into English, there was a bit of a kerfluffle in certain circles of video game fandom that had gradually been building their own theories and didn’t appreciate the retroactive continuity implied by the official version. That being said, the timeline laid out by Hyrule Historia makes sense (inasmuch as anything involving time travel makes sense) and should be interesting to a fan of the series. The main bulk of the section, however, consists of condensed versions of the plot of each Legend of Zelda game. These plots are more or less what appears in the game manuals with very little extra or “never before revealed” information thrown in for flavor. Unfortunately, the basic “Link must collect items in order to earn the right to wield a special sword so that he can save Zelda after she is imprisoned by an evil entity” story begins to grow stale as it’s continually repeated across two dozen three-to-four-page increments.

The main draw of Hyrule Historia is its artwork. In the first part of the book, which is filled with artistic development materials for Skyward Sword, the reader can witness the incredible attention to detail and world building that went into the game. These images are accompanied by myriad creator notes, which are often surprisingly humorous. Thankfully, unlike the Japanese original, in which many of these notes were handwritten in tiny characters, the typeface used to convey the creator notes in translation is large enough to read easily.

Hyrule Historia Skyward Sword Townscapes

The artwork on display for the other games in the Legend of Zelda series in the “Creative Footprints” section is also quite interesting. There are all sorts of designs for the main characters, secondary characters, enemies, weapons, and items. There are also rough drafts of dungeon maps, enemy treasure drop charts, and other developmental materials, such as different drafts of promotional concept art. Some of this artwork shows exactly how enemy wings, tails, and teeth work, with suggestions for how different designs accommodate different movements. There are fewer written notes in this section than in the first section on Skyward Sword, but there is still enough text to draw the reader into the image details. I particularly enjoyed the architecture and island sketches from The Wind Waker, as well as the full designs of the stained glass patterns that appear in the game’s building interiors. I also enjoyed getting a sense of the evolution of the Link character in each Legend of Zelda game, as different designs show him as younger or older, or more or less serious, or wearing entirely different sets of clothing and equipment.

Hyrule Historia Spirit Tracks Link Designs

You can’t really see this in the scans I made, but the image quality in Hyrule Historia is impeccable; the book is something that you need to hold in your hands in order to fully appreciate. The emphasis of Hyrule Historia is obviously on Skyward Sword, but all of the Legend of Zelda games get multiple pages of attention. A great deal of the book’s text feels like it’s selling the series, especially in the “History of Hyrule” section, and it can sometimes be a chore to read. Still, artists and art appreciators will love the incredible array of sharp and colorful images, and the physical book itself is sturdy enough to handle all manner of wear and tear that may occur over the course of reference use. Dark Horse did an excellent job with this gorgeous book. If you’ve been on the fence about buying a copy, Hyrule Historia is absolutely worth your time and money.

The Art of Video Games

The Art of Video Games

Title: The Art of Video Games from Pac-Man to Mass Effect
Authors: Chris Melissinos and Patrick O’Rourke
Year Published: 2012
Publisher: Welcome Books
Pages: 215

I am going to be critical of this book.

I actually really like The Art of Video Games; and, even though I wasn’t able to attend the exhibition, I think the curators who organized it are superheroes. There need to be more books and more exhibitions like this. Plenty of people have written about how fantastic the book is, and I especially enjoyed Becky Chambers’s review on The Mary Sue. Since she did such a great job of explaining what the book is and why it is great, I’m going to focus on the structure and organization of the book and why I think these elements are flawed.

In short, I don’t think the video games featured in this book should be collectively considered as canonical or representative of the entirety of the beauty and artistry of video games.

It is my personal opinion (and I am willing to be corrected if I am wrong) that there is a huge gap between the video-game-related knowledge of people who play video games and the video-game-related knowledge of people who don’t play video games. People who play video games will generally have spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours engaging with video games, reading about video games, and discussing video games with other gamers in person and online. They will generally be fairly well informed about their areas of video game expertise and have strong opinions about the games they have played. Even gamers who don’t have the skill set to play certain games are assisted by online walkthroughs and “Let’s Play” videos on Youtube, and most gamers generally read or watch reviews of more games than they have actually played. This applies not only to “hardcore” gamers, but also to “casual” gamers who spend an hour or two every week fooling around with games on their tablets or smartphones. To gamers, people like Katie Couric and Lauren Simonetti, who make broad generalizations about video games without ever having played them, are being highly intellectually irresponsible – it’s like saying Shakespeare is all about killing and violence without having read more than the top paragraph of the Wikipedia page on Macbeth.

To non-gamers who want to know more about video games, a book like The Art of Video Games may seem like a great source of information and a reliable guide. Make no mistake, this beautifully published book, which features dozens of titles and developer interviews, is a great place to start, and the institutional weight of the Smithsonian lends an undeniable air of credibility to the endeavor. Nevertheless, this catalog is far from complete, and it reflects the biases of the exhibition’s curators.

What I would like to argue is that, although the selection of titles featured in The Art of Video Games is obviously not random, the video games featured in the book don’t collectively form any sort of artistic canon and should not be treated as such.

To begin with, the organization and selection criteria of the games considered for inclusion have resulted in several peculiar idiosyncrasies. The book is organized in two ways: first, by gaming generation and console; and second, by four arbitrarily demarcated genres of video games (target, adventure, action, and tactics). What this means is that video game consoles with relatively limited libraries (such as the Sega Dreamcast) are given equal representation with video game consoles with enormous libraries (such as the Sony PlayStation). Also, even though the four genres are so nebulous as to be almost completely meaningless, the curators did their best to ensure equal representation between genres. What this means is that successful and popular games will be excluded in order to include niche games that fit neatly into one of the four genres.

In order to get an idea of how this organization limits the games that appear in The Art of Video Games, consider the book’s section on the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. The Super Nintendo sold 49 million units, while the Sega Genesis sold 29 million units across its eight different releases. Although the two systems had comparable libraries in terms of number of available titles, the Super Nintendo had far more bestsellers in terms of millions of units worldwide than the Genesis. (I am not making these numbers up, by the way.) Still, in The Art of Video Games, both the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis are represented by four games each.

The single most iconic game of the Sega Genesis is Sonic the Hedgehog, which almost single-handedly rescued the Genesis from complete obscurity. Because there can only be one “action” game included, however, Sonic the Hedgehog is missing from the catalog, as it has been supplanted in the action category by Gunstar Heroes, which is just as excellent a game as Sonic (and Sonic II) but far less well known or influential. The strict genre categories thus limit effective representation of the strengths of the system and the unique characteristics of its game library.

Meanwhile, on the Super Nintendo side of the 16-bit section, the games featured are Super Mario World, A Link to the Past, Star Fox, and… SimCity? In their introduction to the section, the curators directly refer to all of the glorious role-playing games that sprang up like mushrooms in the console’s library, but the game they selected to represent the glory of the golden age of the RPG is a port of a simulation game that was released for personal computers. The organization schemata simply do not allow for the type of flexibility that would allow for both A Link to the Past and one of the role-playing games for which the system is so well known.

In 2011, the curators launched a website with 240 preselected games, which were divided into the aforementioned four genre categories. The website placed an open call to the online public to vote on which games would be included in the exhibit. According to Chris Melissinos, the chief curator of the exhibit, more than four million votes were tallied, and thus the eighty games featured in the exhibition and the catalog were selected.

Although this information may make it seem as if the games were selected by popular vote, what people were allowed to vote on was in fact severely limited by the curator’s decisions. According to the criteria established by the curators, voters had to choose only one game from each genre, and there was no option to switch a certain game between genres or to suggest a game that wasn’t listed on the form. Such voting mechanics effectively established a rigid quota system, which shut out evergreen gaming mainstays such as the Final Fantasy franchise.

Another major limitation of the selection of games in The Art of Video Games is that it does not include games from handheld consoles. There is thus no Pokémon, which is the second most profitable video game franchise in the world (after Mario). None of the amazing work that Nintendo did with the phenomenally successful Nintendo DS system (as exhibited in games such as Phantom Hourglass and Bowser’s Inside Story) is mentioned, nor are the bestselling social games popular on the PlayStation Portable, such as the many titles of the Monster Hunter franchise. Smartphone and tablet games such as the groundbreaking Angry Birds series are also notably absent.

Another obvious limitation on the exhibition is took place in early 2012, which is already more than a year ago. Thus, the catalog includes BioShock but not BioShock Infinite, and Flower but not Journey.

Furthermore, there are no sports games, no fighting games, no lifestyle or party games (like Wii Fit or Guitar Hero), and no MMORPGs. It’s almost as if these sorts of games don’t fall into the category of “art” that the curators are trying to promote. On the other side of the spectrum, the catalog also excludes the more experimental and artsy games released for direct download on platforms like the Xbox Live Arcade, such as Limbo and Fez and Braid. Steam and its vast library of indie games are also not mentioned.

Finally, fan favorite games that never officially made it to the United States, such as Mother 3 and Terranigma, are completely ignored. Shūkan Famitsū magazine (probably the most respected video game periodical in Japan) ran a survey in 2006 polling Japanese gamers on their favorite games; and, to no one’s surprise, the list is dominated by Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. No Dragon Quest titles appear in The Art of Video Games, however; and Final Fantasy X, which is at the top of the Famitsū list and extremely well received worldwide, is absent as well. The “visual novel” games that are popular in Japan (and popular abroad when they are imported and localized, such as in the case of 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors) are also ignored.

In fact, the entire project feels very centered on the United States. Of the fifteen creator interviews included in The Art of Video Games, none are with anyone working primarily in Japan or with a Japanese company. It’s almost as if Japanese people had nothing to do with video games at all. Of course the institution hosting the exhibition is the Smithsonian American Art Museum, but many (if not most) of the video games featured in the catalog are Japanese in origin, and Japanese industry professionals such as Kojima Hideo were invited to participate in the events surrounding the exhibition. The Art of Video Games therefore does a great job of demonstrating that Japanese video games are very popular with American gamers, but it doesn’t explain how or why this is.

As I wrote earlier, I admire and appreciate The Art of Video Games. It’s beautifully published, the gorgeous layout and page design make flipping through the book feel like an adventure, and the text is informative and concise.

Still, I hope I’ve given a convincing argument for why I think the collection of games featured in The Art of Video Games should not be considered canonical or representative of the relative merits of any single title included or not included. Moreover, the games represented are not necessarily the most innovative and influential video games to have ever been released. I believe that the inflexible organization and arbitrary genre-based selection criteria play an important role in what games made the cut for this exhibition and its catalog. As with any sort of “anthology” of this type, the selection of titles included has a great deal to do with the personal experiences and life histories of its compilers. I have to hand it to the curators: they did a fantastic job. My criticism of the book they’ve put together is not a result of any failure on their part, but rather indicative of the extraordinary development of video games as a medium of artistic expression.