Video Gamers Hawai'i: Bringing Cause and Comraderie to the Gaming Community

When we think of technology, what often comes to mind is a type of invisible connectedness, an infinite web or abstract database of communications, texts, emails, and video. Gaming sessions are among these distant translucent connections, allowing hundreds of millions of people all over the world to compete and cooperate together. Instead of sharing a couch to play games with friends, we share servers. The gaming community continues to grow and evolve in part because of these instantaneous, distant interactions, but what happens to the old ways of playing, occupying the same physical space? As the gaming community at-large grows and connects on the interwebs, what of local gaming communities? Does the affordance of our technology negate the need for personal connection?

In Honolulu, Keith Limos is a man attempting to feed and revive that need for good ‘ole couch cooperative play (co-op) and split-screen competition, the days when we sat next to our friends for hours trading blows and jests. He founded the non-profit Video Gamers Hawaii in 2014 to bring the Hawai’i gaming community together via Facebook. At first, this was to find other people with which to play Bungie’s Destiny, and over time VGH began to display posts about new games coming out, different genres, and even movies. The vision of VGH changed to the point that Keith recognized a shift, that VGH was “like a Maxim magazine,” they “have a little bit of everything.”

“In the long term, we want to reach outside of Hawaii,” Keith told me. “IGN and Gamespot, if you read how they first started, they started off in a garage talking story about games, like us with Destiny. If anything, we want to end up like that. We’re like them, be invited to events, do stuff for their gaming community.” IGN and GameStop started in a garage. Now they're industry standards. VGH would like to follow a similar path towards recognition but for the purpose of community service and charity rather than profit.

A very cheery fellow, Keith Limos. Putting his heart out there for the gaming community.

With the online community growing in the following years, Keith and crew pushed for involvement through events of their own. In 2015, the Hawaii Video Gaming League, another non-profit gaming organization dedicated to bringing the community together with games like Street Fighter, invited VGH to participate in the Gamer’s Expo Hawaii where they set up a fighting game competition with Killer Instinct and Mortal Combat on four screens. The challenge, Keith discovered, was that he “didn’t realize how much of a core Street Fighter and Marvel vs Capcom had.” HVGL already supported these games at their events, and VGH wanted to bring different titles, but their popularity in the community proved to be less pervasive. Two people turned out to compete on Killer Instinct, for instance, while around six participated with Mortal Kombat. An additional challenge was that though there’s a great deal of vocal support in the community for these events, when it came to participation, there were no bodies:

“Sometimes we throw things out there, [they] want to do this or that, and they’re interested, and they don’t show up. Which is not cool in my opinion, we put down our time and money, [we need them] to show up and let us know they support us. They don’t show up. The thing about gamers...online gaming kinda killed the videogame gathering. Arcade scenes are dead now. In my opinion, playing in person is the best way to play with people...Online gaming, don’t get me wrong, I do it too, but if you can’t show up to an event ‘cause you don’t want to leave the house, that’s not cool.”

VGH persisted by diving into online streaming, broadcasting live gameplay for entertainment or to garner support for a cause. Keith streamed for Extra Life, a non-profit organization that unites gamers all over the world for 24-hour gaming marathons to generate funds for Children’s Medical Network Hospitals. He encountered the same participation problem he had with the live event. After streaming, the dollar amount raised was a big fat zero, so Keith donated his own money. “I think VGH started rising after that,” he told me, “we started talking about how we can change the scene.”

Then came the story that brought VGH to my attention. In 2017 VGH began a giveaway for the community members, now numbered close to 1700. The Nintendo NES mini was popular and expensive, with scalpers charging “5, 6, $700,” so VGH sold one at wholesale price--about $60--to a community member drawn at random. Another community member was inspired by this to donate their own NES Mini to VGH. Though everyone in the community was excited to get their hands on the rare device, VGH decided to donate it to Kapiolani Medical Center. They dropped it off, along with plenty of collectables like Funko pops, to incredulous hospital employees. “They were like, ‘oh my gosh, are you sure you want to give this to us?’ They knew how rare these were.” And this year, VGH is planning on doing it again, but involving the entire community via a toy and game drive.

VGH continues to grow, a grassroots effort to unite a community becoming an avenue to benefit larger communities around them in need. “Our future goal for VGH is to turn ourselves into a non-profit organization, try and get some sponsors to represent us.” Success builds over time; in March, VGH organized a benefit for Planned Parenthood with a 24-hour gaming gathering with multiple systems, and this time a good number of people showed. Lucas Nakao, Keith’s right-hand man who offered his home for the event space, commented that they might require a $5 donation because “people came and hung out, but didn’t necessarily donate. I’m providing the place, so if you’re coming, you should at least donate.” Again, the challenge of garnering commitment from the community is clear, so it’s my hope (along with theirs) that establishing a baseline that way helps their causes. Even with a lack of donations from many of their participants, they raised $180. The potential for more is evident, and they’re pushing to meet higher goals, both charitably and in membership.

VGH is a great example of a Honolulu community reaching out to unite for the benefit of others and to bring gamers into spaces where they can shake hands and recognize faces. Charity gaming marathons have become a successful avenue to promote causes and charities, with Extra Life raising over $30 million since its inception in 2008. If you’re interested in supporting the group, find them on facebook here, and check their event listings with weekly competitive game nights at Franky Fresh and  Osoyami Bar and Grill in Honolulu. Get out there, meet some gamers, and give back to the community!

 

Diversity: Transgender Representation in Mass Effect: Andromeda

Diversity is a tough nut to crack in videogames. This isn’t because developers and writers have the wrong tools, a nutcracker works as long as it’s a nutcracker. It’s because they use their tools—their creativity, inclusivity, empathy—in the wrong ways, like using a nutcracker as a hammer. It’s great to see the effort in many recent games to crack the shell that keeps representations of race, gender, and sexuality in stereotypical spaces, or excludes them at all, but it’s become clear that this step in the right direction is more of a tip-toe and certainly no leap. Simply slapping different colors on characters, including different sexual or gendered identities, or giving less hetero-normative roles to female characters (or male, for that matter) does not a diverse game make. To be truly diverse, the social constructs that limit or damage these identities and their experiences of understanding their own identity as such need to be explored and problematized.

One such developer recently learned this lesson and responded. Bioware’s recent, highly anticipated release of Mass Effect: Andromeda was met with an outcry from its transgender community due to a misrepresentation within the game. The series’ first transgender character, Hainly Abrams, explains in her introduction to the player that she is transgender and has fled the Milky Way galaxy in search of a space less inclined to discrimination. Hainly has fled an entire galaxy because of the discrimination she faced, particularly in that others continually used her pre-transition name, her dead-name, effectively refusing to recognize her true self. Then, without provocation, Hainly reveals this dead name to the player. With no qualms about it, after traveling light-years to escape the pain that name continued to cause in the hands of others, Hainly promptly places it in the player’s.

This representation is contradictory, lazy, and insensitive. As Bioware attempts to problematize an experience of transgendered people, they quickly trivialize it with a simple utterance, no explanation given. Game critic Laura Dale explains in her Polygon article how painful a dead-name can be for some transgendered people, as it brings up a period in their lives often characterized by inner pain. She comments that for a transgender character to express such extreme discomfort with their dead-name only to voluntarily reveal it exposes the developer’s surface-level knowledge of the issue. This is an example of diversity without depth, an inclusion of a marginalized identity without a truly meaningful exploration of the vehicles of marginalization that have plagued that identity.

So Bioware got called out on their good intentions and reacted, not by removing the character, or with a simple apology or platitude, but with an apology accompanied by an overhaul of the interactions players can have with that character. In a tweet yesterday, Bioware announced that it would change interactions with Hainly such that she will only reveal her dead-name to players that have earned her trust over the course of the game, as with most Mass Effect characters. This fix, which should be updated within the next two months, is a great way to follow up their error rather than avoid or duck it. It’s another step in the right direction, and their apology indicates their recognition that inclusion alone does not represent diversity:

It remains to be seen how meaningful an interaction this will be after the update, especially since I’m not convinced revealing Hainly’s dead-name at all does anything meaningful, but I’m excited about the change and Bioware’s willingness to grow. Creation is iterative, and though it would have been great for this misrepresentation to have never occurred in the first place (especially after Bioware’s fantastic inclusion of a transgender character in Dragon Age: Inquisition [2014]), it’s good to see the creator in question hold themselves responsible to their community-at-large.

Preamble - Death Stranding

Death Stranding is a new game by Hideo Kojima’s videogame development studio Kojima Productions, with creative contributions from writer, producer, and director Guillermo del Toro and starring actors such as Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelson. In this article I’ll be taking a look at the trailers revealed so far and attempt to extract some meaning from their surreal frames. Take a look:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ux_dI0sH5M8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMaxrryH0es

It’s easy to get lost in the videos, brimming as they are with vivid imagery but devoid of any contextualization; Kojima certainly holds no hands revealing Death Stranding. These videos depict a chilling world--the details of which we can piece together--but what interests me more is its subject matter. What exactly is Kojima playing with in his new project? His Metal Gear Solid series regularly emphasized themes such as patriotism, sacrifice, the tragedy of war for both soldiers and civilians, the physical, mental, spiritual, and bloody costs of freedom, the cultural and political influence of technology, and the manipulation and defense of ideals, all typically revolving around the United States and its persistently overt world presence. It doesn’t take much to see that he’s playing the same game (pun intended), but with an obviously more psychedelic, nightmarish vision. Guillermo del Toro’s imaginative influence is apparent, the stunning imagery reminiscent of his work on P.T. and his films on war such as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Since Guillermo has similar experience with these themes, I have high hopes with this partnership, and both trailers for Death Stranding have affirmed my confidence.

Within the imagery is the unmistakable suggestion of the simulacrum of war; a new form of conflict  paired with the ideal, a normative insanity. The simulacrum is a term coined by Jean Baudrillard that indicates a  change in the meaning of an object or concept through its own replication, and reduces or eradicates the importance of the original or authentic it’s based on. The war we see in Death Stranding is a simulacrum of the war we are familiar with because of the use of dead puppets, and this war has become normal, expected, even revered. A bright rainbow in a clear blue sky almost frames the chaos below, giving everything else a dreamlike idyllic quality; there’s nothing wrong here. We get a sense of valorization from the lighting, the colors, even the framing of the tank, planes, and soldiers, like a nationalistic promo to buy war bonds, join the fight, or remember those that have sacrificed for their country. Something is horribly wrong, though; massive destruction surrounds the scene, and the grotesque haunts every image, instilling the idyllic with twisted lunacy.

Historical references are warped and mutated in Death Stranding. World War II U.S. military technology and dress refers to a hallowed past: the old tank,  propeller planes, M9 rifles, the skeletal soldier’s helmets and clothing. These icons nestled under that brilliant rainbow suggests an idealized patriotic identity corrupted by something raw and terrifying. The soldier has become a type of copy that renders an original unnecessary, a fighting machine from the corpse of American history and patriotism. These ghosts of those that once traveled a sea away to fight Nazism now represent a new kind of patriotic identity that overrides the authentic American hero. The American soldier, molested by undeath, is horrendously manipulated, the strings of these puppets’ umbilical cords linked to puppeteers: the grotesque tank and Mads Mikkelson, the modern soldier with night vision goggles and the iconic M4. The monstrous and bizarre surrounds and heralds these cursed icons while the modern soldier basks in cathartic power, begging to be challenged.

Whatever the events of Death Stranding, we know the U.S. is center stage; if all the above imagery wasn’t enough, the U.S.-shaped pin on Del Toro’s lapel further proposes the international juggernaut. The spiderwebs etched upon the pin incriminate the red, white, and blue in the world’s current state; the program that spawned these webs of umbilical cords hails from the states. So does Del Toro represent this organization, and if so, what has gone wrong?

In a world consumed by death, destruction, and historical simulacra, the fetus remains, a treasure as the ideal of self, the sense of self, a replication of the self outside of oneself. This is the uncorrupted self that we cherish and protect amidst war and corruption, the authentic among simulacra, the self-conscious amid the cloned and commanded. Incomparably valuable, it also exists as a weapon. This is why Reedus’ and Del Toro’s characters cling to their fetal copies so tightly; the fetus is the power to resist and be. Certainly, these two resist; their broken handcuffs and resolve suggest so. Reedus’ lack of umbilical and loss of the fetus makes him special in some way; perhaps he is freed from the system as a whole, a wrench in the works, or he is broken, and in his state of disrepair is something unique and sought after. The dismembered doll with an identical “scar” on its abdomen and Mikkelson’s reaction upon seeing it suggests Reedus’ character’s importance lies in this absence of connection.

The fetus is an apt symbol in Death Stranding as it becomes an increasingly politically and scientifically charged object in the U.S.; the debate surrounding abortion continues, stem cell research remains promising but contested, and the fetus may become a tool for growing organs to save lives. Already symbolic of life, possibility, and the soul, the fetus’ appearance and centrality in Death Stranding is pivotal to its theme, and I'm excited to experience what it connotes and how it might figure into the actual gameplay.

I don’t know what’s going on in Death Stranding, or what its gameplay will be like. I do know that I’m fascinated, and I’m looking forward to an experience that warrants thought, dissection, and perhaps a bit of bravery. I'm confident that Kojima will create yet another masterpiece full of sharp gameplay and ripe with thoughtful content, and I'm overjoyed and practically obsessed with its vivid and darkly surreal atmosphere. 

A New Evil Look: Resident Evil VII Teaser Demo

Resident Evil has been known in the last decade as an action-horror series that emphasizes fast and frenetic, over-the-top action, and generous, bombastic arsenals. These releases have been met with mixed reviews, with many fans and critics calling for a return to the series’ original form with more atmosphere, more subdued, paced combat, and more emphasis on exploration and puzzle-solving. If the new teaser demo for Resident Evil VII is any indicator, the series is heading back to its roots.

Resident Evil VII: Beginning Hour exhibits many gameplay changes that deviate from recent offerings. Most obviously, the game is played from a first-person perspective, something completely new to the series. Players control an unknown man who awakens in a desolate house, tasked simply with finding out how to escape. The first-person perspective—a first for the series--helps make the experience chilling, as the eerie lighting and the creaks, moans, and bumps of the home constantly conjure evil just off-screen. Drawers and other vessels in the home can be opened with the press of a button, revealing disgusting and creepy details. Players collect items like an electrical fuse, bolt cutters, and a revealing tape that open areas of the house, reveal important plot information, or pose more questions. For instance, players can discover that the narrative still takes place in the Resident Evil universe, evident from an item in the home that incriminates Umbrella Corp, though where they are in the current timeline-or in the world—is unclear. There’s no combat to be had, but it has been confirmed that the final product will have combat in some form. The lack of combat enhances the demo’s intensity, similar to the terrifying yet terrific atmospheric horror games Amnesia: Dark Descent and SOMA.

The end result is a demo that plays just like Hideo Kojima’s teaser for Silent Hills, titled P.T., albeit far less unsettling. In fact, the demo is more reminiscent of the characteristic chilling and tense Silent Hill atmosphere and puzzle aesthetic than even of the first Resident Evil. With the seeming demise of the former series, I find it refreshing and exciting that the latter is diving into the void left by its competitor.

As this is a teaser, there’s no telling what the final product will actually play like, but as of now I’m hopeful. Capcom might be taking a chance with some fans, but the more paced and thoughtful gameplay may just elevate Resident Evil out of the suplex-a-zombie rut that it’s found itself in lately. Let’s keep our eyes, and minds, open.

Simulation as Storytelling

I’ve been wracking my brain recently over the issue of storytelling in videogames; namely, that videogames aren’t narratives in the traditional sense and actually supersede narrative form through mediated interactivity and a temporal experience. As Patrick Crogan suggests in his article “Gametime: History, Narrative, and Temporality in Combat Flight Simulator 2," this mediated interactivity and temporal experience “can best be understood as a transformed narrative operation,” or a narrative that operates within the rules of a videogame to become something else entirely.[i] Though videogames have often sought to merge media and--particularly in its early history--looked to filmic design for inspiration, the last decade has seen some insight and new approaches to storytelling through the videogame medium. Many games have approached storytelling with what now has become typical and quite dated—a switch between interactive and noninteractive states, such as between active gameplay and cut-scenes or cinematics. This “temporal oscillation,” as Lev Manovich calls it in his book The Language of New Media[ii] is the very indication of a separation between narrative and gameplay. The gameplay stops, control is taken from the player, and a narrative chunk ensues. When that narrative chunk ends, control is returned to the player, and gameplay resumes; in essence, the narrative chunk needn’t be there for gameplay to exist as it was. The narrative is delivered separately from gameplay, acting in a supplementary and secondary role. The supplementation of narrative in a videogame like this does not exist “as surplus,” but is exterior in its existence. It replaces the identity of the game itself to produce something new; the contexts the videogame’s story introduces are not irrelevant to the game itself. It does not exist separately as the game is experienced. Nonetheless, there is a very obvious split when it is delivered as temporal oscillation.

Looking at videogame storytelling in the same way that we might look at drama, film, or text is misleading as the medium itself is so different from those forms. Videogames are naturally interactive and, of course, are games based on play and their own set of rules. In order to experience a videogame one has to learn to operate within its rules and thereby master the functions that allow agency and control in the gameworld. This leads to a transformed narrative operation. We cannot approach videogames as narratives, but must see them as a new media and more than just a conglomeration of different devices. I completely agree with Manovich when he said that the literary and traditional narrative is “too restrictive” for new media,[iii] and with Crogan who suggests that videogames are a new form, a “mutated temporalization” in which story/narrative functions on the same plane as gameplay.

Developers have addressed the issue of narrative and temporal oscillation in several ways in an attempt to make stories more immersive and merged within the gameplay itself. A game like Electronic Arts’s Dead Space ignored Manovich’s temporal oscillation since the game doesn’t switch between interactive and noninteractive segments of gameplay. Control is always in the player’s hands as protagonist Isaac. All noninteractive elements are within the controllable—or diegetic—gamespace, such as Isaac’s heads up display (HUD) or as other characters onscreen. Though these particular elements may not be interacted with as they are (the HUD can be changed at will, completely ignoring the visualization of transmissions, but the transmission itself cannot be reconstituted—a player may not change the script, facial expressions, or camera angles in the transmissions) it is up to the player if they wish to stop and watch, continue on, or fool around in the environment as the transmissions commence.

When I first experienced this it absolutely blew me away. I had experienced other games that attempted to make all nondiegetic elements (like menus) diegetic, but I had never seen it done with such fluidity. In Dead Space, if a menu is opened, it hovers in front of Isaac like a floating virtual window, and the player may spin the third-person camera around to see the menu in reverse from in front of Isaac. This goes the same for every transmission Isaac receives from other characters. I was astounded, and the fact that control and point of view is never relinquished by the player in the manner of temporal oscillation was groundbreaking to me. The gameplay and narrative come together as one stream of temporality. This tactic allows players to completely inhabit the world during their session, maximizing immersion in the visual and cognitive sense.

Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us still uses temporal oscillation with cinematic switches to deliver important plot points, but a great deal of character development takes place while players are in control. Lots of discussion happens while players traverse the landscape, and even while sneaking up on enemies or fighting them in the open. The banter between Ellie, Joel, and other characters in these sequences feels natural and fills the otherwise empty space. Not only that, but it creates a continuum between cut-scenes and gameplay that was otherwise absent. The dangers of the world feel more “real” in the sense that the characters themselves feel more human, so players care more about them. I felt closer to the characters because of those light touches, and the experience as a story rather than just an algorithm to master made my actions feel significant. Cut-scenes feel less like a reward for completing a section of gameplay and more like a continuation of it.

My point with this academic interlude is that games have changed a great deal in just the last decade, and there are improving examples of games that merge storytelling and gameplay into a very cohesive, natural, and effective experience. This is the very strength of videogames as a medium; they provide experiences that we participate directly in, and therefore become a part of. We enter a simulation of a fictional space that we then inhabit. It is my hope that videogames continue evolving as a medium to provide more and more meaningful experiences.


[i] Crogan, Patrick. “Gametime: History, Narrative, and Temporality in Combat Flight Simulator 2.” In The Videogame Theory Reader. Edited by Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron. New York: Routledge, 2003.  Pg 275

[ii] Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001. Pg 210-211

[iii] Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Combridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001. Pg.264

The Post-Apocalyptic Western

Have you ever noticed that a lot of post-apocalyptic themed films, videogames, books, and other entertainment media splice American Western elements in? Not only that, but have you noticed that these splices make a lot of thematic sense? The mix of Western-style clothing, weaponry, and storytelling with the desperation, desolation, and rebirth of society in the Post-Apocalypse is a prevailing trope in post-apocalyptic fiction, particularly in videogames, and for good reason.

It’s really quite simple: the contexts of the wild-west and the post-apocalypse have a great deal in common. The post-apocalypse reintroduces the frontier to society, except instead of the lawless, undeveloped, untamed frontier of the Wild West, we find the frontier of the post-apocalyptic or nuclear wasteland. Equally anarchic, the wasteland is a frontier reborn from the familiar, redefining cities as undiscovered ruins, highways as untamed, littered paths, and power as violence. Emptiness in landscape and the necessity of the threat and execution of violence to keep order (or to obtain power) are particularly central to this crossover. Bandits occupy both spaces equally, and the environment as well as the creatures that inhabit it are an equal threat. Neat huh?

He could be shooting lawbreakers in the old-west or scavenging post-apocalyptic raiders or muties, they'd all make sense.

He could be shooting lawbreakers in the old-west or scavenging post-apocalyptic raiders or muties, they'd all make sense.

Films like Mad Max and books like The Road and A Boy and his Dog illustrate similarities in how their (wild-western and post-apocalyptic) stories are told, in the clothes characters wear, and in the actions of those characters. A grey area of morality is often highlighted as everyone looks out for themselves and everyone does what they must to survive in the hostile environment. The greater good is often challenged by the characters’ desires, and whether actions are taken to benefit all or just the protagonist’s will (sometimes both), violence is always a culmination or solution.

Lets check out some games that suggest this trend:

Futuristic Lone Ranger, right? This guy's even called a Ranger in-game.

Futuristic Lone Ranger, right? This guy's even called a Ranger in-game.

Fallout: New Vegas (Bethesda)

Just look at the cover above. There's a figure in a duster carrying a revolver. The game already lets you know it has some heavy Western influences. Talk about a merger, even the locale (regardless of its post-nuclear status) just rings wild-west. A prison break and a countryside overrun by escaped inmates directly opposed to the law? Check. A town taken over by outlaws and in desperate need of a new sheriff, a perceived as penultimate authority by its ability to use violence? Check.  A local populace that would rather keep to their own way of keeping law—through threat of violence—than surrender autonomy to a foreign power (think local ranchers and towns against corporate interests like railroads and monopolies)? Check again! Heck, even the character you create and grow can be customized to be more effective with wild-west themed weapons like hatchets, dynamite, revolvers, and lever-action shotguns and rifles! Add in the ability to make “evil” and “good” choices in a world of grey—everything you do affects someone—and the wild-west is incarnate within the nuclear fallout. Cowboy hats and leather trenchcoats are included.

Put him in a Western, you wouldn't know the difference.

Put him in a Western, you wouldn't know the difference.

Rage (id Software)

                A less direct reference, Rage tips its proverbial cowboy hat to the wild-west in the form of artistic design and basic themes. One of the main establishments has a sheriff in garb that, though certainly ad-hoc as post-apocalyptic dress goes, is more akin to the wild-west than science fiction. The mayor wears a top-hat and a blazer. Bandits claim territory and terrorize anyone and everyone. Wild creatures will eat you (mutants replace mountain lions). One of the weapons you receive is a revolver rather than a modern or science-fiction pistol. A bow and arrow? How about a crossbow! Okay, that’s a stretch, but Rage feels pretty Western, anyway.

The dramatic lighting suggests a "shootout at sundown" theme. Pretty Western, right?

The dramatic lighting suggests a "shootout at sundown" theme. Pretty Western, right?

Wasteland and Wasteland 2

Here we have another post-apocalyptic setting in Las Vegas. The original Wasteland’s protagonists were Desert Rangers and conducted themselves quite like a posse of sheriffs. The title “Desert Ranger” itself alludes to the wild-west tropes of the desert and the ranger: a lone gunman with a chip on his/her shoulder attuned to the wild landscape. The sequel is practically a retelling of the same story, in the same setting.

A story of love, loss, and vengeance. Cue the whistling melody.

A story of love, loss, and vengeance. Cue the whistling melody.

The Last of Us

This title feels like a western in many senses, particularly those I've already covered, but the soundtrack itself—minimalistic, focused on spacious percussion, synth drones, and acoustic guitar—helps give the game a very western feel to it. Check out a previous post for the review of the soundtrack.

Are there any other examples that you can come up with?

Violence and the Post-Apocalypse in Videogames

Videogames have come under negative scrutiny over the years for many reasons, one of which is their violent content. Growing up, I remember friends commenting on how “cool” the severing of a head with sword or smattering of meat in an intense explosion was, but does the application of violence have deeper purpose or meaning in videogames? As an example and jumping-off point, I’d like to start with post-apocalyptic themed games. How does the depiction of violence help construct post-apocalyptic worlds? These contexts typically feature humankind on the brink of existence, recovering from devastation in an ad-hoc, piecemeal society with little rule, law, or safety. In this article, I outline several instances in which the vivid depiction of violence not only helps to complete the post-apocalyptic worlds it takes place in, but actually enriches them as well.

The Last of Us

I find it fitting to begin with one of the more recent and successful forays into the post-apocalypse, and also one of my favorite games, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. The compelling story of Joel and Ellie’s dangerous trek across the United States is heartfelt, riveting, and terrifying, but also extremely violent. Naughty Dog animates vividly detailed and gruesome deaths—from Joel’s slamming of heads into desks to the Clicker’s neck-chomping—delivered shockingly and without restraint.  What importance does this violence have in the world and narrative of The Last of Us?

Violence in The Last of Us is necessary to tell the compelling story it does because the absolute barbarity acts as a signifier for the desperation of mankind in a post-apocalypse. The violence is a part of the social breakdown of society, the absolute reduction of what we are, stripped of all security, comforts, and societal structures. In the post-apocalypse, survival is all that remains, and violence acts as a narrative tool to enhance our awareness of this condition. Even in the protected zones, violence is inescapable as martial law strips us of privacy and for the sake of security, and even revolution threatens us with violence. Without this violence, we lose the vivid depravity that the breakdown of society is all about. This is something we also see in Borderlands and Fallout as well.

Borderlands

Violence in Gearbox’s Borderlands and Borderlands 2 is more a tool for humor than anything else. The over-the-top death animations mix with the now-iconic comic-book-like art-style to deliver a post-apocalypse that plays more off of old tropes tracing back to Mad Max to deliver nostalgia, action, and hilarity than to thoughtfully comment on the human condition. The cartoonish death animations of bandits burning up until only their masks remain, doing a jerky dance due to electric shock, or simply exploding into pulp is delivered in a way that it is not meant to be taken seriously. The violence here references that of many post-apocalyptic films and fiction, which can be equally in your face but shocking in its realism, but pushes it beyond the drama of struggle and survival. In this way, the violence of Borderlands places it in a pre-existing lineage and pays homage to those that came before it while simultaneously establishing its own style and humor.

Fallout

                The overt, highly detailed explosive body parts of the Fallout series may seem over-the-top, but in the particular context of the game’s fiction, it’s a perfect fit and supports a very unified expression of the post-apocalypse. Fallout is a world where mature themes of xenophobia, sexual slavery, cannibalism, anarchy, destruction, rebirth, violence, death, and survival are central. What’s more, the game presents these themes in a world that would be downright depressing if not for its Golden Era influenced cultural icons in the form of radio music, advertisement artwork, and weapon and character design. Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas featured radio channels containing jazz show-tunes and country westerns from the 1940s and 1950s, as well as futuristic robots and weapon design indicative of the science fiction at the time. Billboard advertisements were in the time-period’s style, depicting bold lettering and happy faces highlighting the characterized idealization of baby boomer and American Golden Era lifestyle expectations amidst the fear of nuclear war and Anti-Americanism. The juxtaposition of a futuristic radioactive wasteland and its violence to this culture of idealization and renewed consumerism makes for a pervasive sense of irony that has become characteristic of the Fallout titles. The absurd violence of blowing off the body parts of human and non-human foes mirrors the absurdity of the referenced political, economic, and cultural climate: idealized, isolated, and fearful. The violence in Fallout may seem overdone, but it helps create the thoughtful irony of a well-crafted world and narrative.

In titles such as these, violence contributes primarily to the believability of the post-apocalypse, and it does so in a vein of pre-existing literature, film, and fiction that has constantly highlighted the barbarity of a world redefined through destruction, rebirth, and the simultaneous fragility and strength of the human spirit. Videogames, however, allow us to journey through these worlds ourselves, inhabiting them with our own thoughts and actions. It is in this way that the experience becomes more meaningful, and the element, threat, and execution of violence contributes to the meaning we may find in these worlds.

Opinion - Retire These Gaming Trends

It’s sad, but we all grow up at some point. That means a lot of our time goes into our professions, our families, and just surviving. Some activities we loved, even as passions, get less attention as we grow. Videogames are one of those passions of mine that I can’t seem to let go entirely, but that I honestly don’t have much time for anymore. So when I do play games, I want to know I’m playing ones that engage me, thrill me, give me a sense of accomplishment, and are, most importantly, fun. I’ve incorporated videogames into my research as a graduate student and plan to continue on that path, so I've had more time than others, but still my game time needs to be directed at experiences that are truly worth the many hours they require. So as I’ve grown, I’ve found some gaming trends that as a child I could handle, but as an adult I'd love to throw out the window.

Grinding

I played a great deal of Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) as a kid. Final Fantasy was a staple and constant in my life. I was always extremely excited about an upcoming release, and completely disappeared into a new title once it was in my hands. I would do everything and anything within a title, beating every boss no matter how much extra effort I had to put in, including grinding for experience. My recent purchase of Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD reminded me of how much grinding might be necessary to accomplish some endgame or secret material, and as an adult, the aspect of repetition in my game is an absolute turn-off. Grinding for experience adds no substance to my game or my experience of it, and I’m quick to put one down once I realize the material I want to experience requires it.

Grinding…for rare stuff!

Related to the last section is a different type of grinding peeve: grinding to find something particular one needs. Sometimes it can be in the hunt for a rare creature (like in Final Fantasy X’s creature hunting) or for specific items. Resonance of Fate by Tri-Ace was a peculiar title I picked up years ago with a very unique combat system I grew to love. All the elements of the system were introduced right from the beginning of the game, so I could immediately get to mastering all of it. Unfortunately, the game requires that players find items called hexes to unlock new areas on maps. Neutral hexes were easy enough to get a hold of, but colored hexes were only dropped by certain enemies in certain areas, and only some of the time. Most of the later areas in the game require an exorbitant amount of said hexes, and as much as I had fun until that point, it was this hex-hunting that stopped me. When I was younger, I wouldn’t have batted an eye at such a feat, but these days I just feel like I’m wasting my extra time and feel somewhat cheated when the repetition is required to get to even core material. There’s something great about finding rare loot, but if there’s not some other form of access other than repetition, I’d like to at least have the freedom to choose if that’s something I care about.

Bad Mini-Games

Mini-games can be fun distractions, like Rage’s card game, but they can sometimes be awfully droll when they are required to receive certain bonuses or make progress, especially when the nature of the mini-game detracts from what is actually fun in the title. Again I’ll use Final Fantasy X HD as an example. In order to get each characters’ ultimate weapons one must complete mini-games, some of which take a great deal of time. Lulu, the black-mage type character who arguably has the capacity to do the most damage, cannot unlock the potential of her celestial weapon unless the player can dodge lightning bolts consecutively 250 times in a particular area. No saving, no leaving, it must all be done at once. Players must stand their character still in the particular area and tap the X button when the screen flashes, and repeatedly tapping X doesn’t work. It’s repetitive, and worse, has absolutely nothing to do with or has no bearing on the focal gameplay: combat. Hers is definitely the most difficult and requires the most patience, but all the other characters require players to champion mini-games (blitzball, butterfly catching, cactuar hide-and-seek, etc.).

How much of this did I need to do? Too much. Was it fun? Not at all.

How much of this did I need to do? Too much. Was it fun? Not at all.

Some focus more on combat than others, but I find it odd that a game that was superb most of the way through would then distract players from the key element that made the game so fun. It saddens me on a personal level, because there are some awesome challenges in the HD version that I’ve never tackled, but as an adult, whenever I sit down to do some chocobo-balloon-catch-racer or blitzball, I get bored very quick, and feel like my time could be better spent. If unlocking things like this were more related to the core gameplay (like other hidden bosses, maybe?), I’d be more inclined to get to it.

A Lack of Challenge

Repetition can be unfulfilling, but so can a great system that has no challenge. The aforementioned title Resonance of Fate is a clear example of this; the game is pretty darn challenging when one begins it, but about halfway through it becomes a cakewalk. The combat system I had grown to love and had mastered ended up feeling bland without any surmountable challenges, and the repetition of hex-collecting only exacerbated the feeling of being finished with the game. To this day I’ve never finished the title, and I only rarely never finish a game I’ve picked up, but the repetition and downward slope of challenges sent my attention to the direction of other games.

 

Many games of late have avoided these awful trends. The Mass Effect series was a very focused experience, and each title improved on the silly resource-gathering gimmick so as to improve the core experience. The Souls series has resoundingly brought back challenge in action-role playing games with centralized, technical gameplay, and other developers and publishers are taking notice. Gearbox’s Borderlands never seems to get old for me because the gameplay is so focused on the action, skills progression, and the astounding loot system. As an adult, I lean towards core experiences that have a great deal to offer in quality, rather than in quantity of things that can be done. I just don’t seem to enjoy some of these trends I used to have no problem with.

What are some game elements you used to cruise through that now you pull your hair out from boredom? What are some trends you’ve come to love?

Preamble - No Man's Sky

I’m really excited for this. I have the kind of excitement that six-year-olds get when they discover they’re going to Disneyland, or that dogs get when you ask them if they “want to go for a ride.” Yes, you know exactly what I’m talking about—I’m ready to wig-out in preemptive ecstasy. This is because a game is coming out. That’s right, a damn videogame. One that, without having played it, has already blown my mind. Here’s to hoping the actual experience is great.

No Man’s Sky is a space-exploration game made by indie studio Hello Games for Playstation 4 and Microsoft Windows. The reason this title has me so jazzed is that Hello Games programmed algorithms to procedurally generate an entire universe of over 18 quintillion planets, all with their own flora and fauna. That’s easy to say, but let’s really think about that. Let it sink in. Hello Games, a small indie studio, created an entire universe, one so big and varied that they themselves have hardly seen much of what they created, of what the game created. In this way, players will actually be unearthing planets and their life-forms, seeing things no one else has ever seen, within a digital medium packaged and sold to the public. People in living rooms and sitting at desks get to become virtual explorers, complete with the ability to name planets, territories, and lifeforms. Players are actual virtual discoverers here. That almost makes anything else in the game irrelevant. (Lets revisit this point in-depth in a future article)

Players have a goal of course. Something about reaching the center of the universe. They’ll have to mine precious resources, craft supplies, buy and upgrade spaceships, space suits, and their handy-dandy multitool to survive and thrive. Hazardous planets and conditions must be avoided or intelligently weathered. Pirates will prey on players and AI civilizations. Or players can become the plunderers themselves, as long as they evade the Sentinels, the universe-wide robotic police. There’s definitely a bunch of stuff to do, tidbits of deliciousness, but none of that is as exciting, unique, or invigorating as the whole damn enchilada.

I’m putting my adventurer’s hat on tomorrow, because I’m excited to see what a few carefully programmed algorithms can do. Learning to navigate, harvest, craft, trade, fight, and survive is all very exciting, but I’ve done all that before. Most who've played videogames have. What gamers haven’t done is discover things no one has seen, because it was created by the game itself. This is a simulation of standard-bearing by epic proportions. This isn’t about adrenaline, ultra-violence, cathartic storytelling, masochistic challenge, or tactical gymnastics; this is about the natural need to explore and stake a claim. Stay tuned, because the implications, of which I’ll be diving into soon, are vast like the universe of No Man’s Sky.