D. Bethel dives into his history with the Mass Effect series and why he found a lot to enjoy in Mass Effect: Andromeda.
Imposter Syndrome is a natural psychological consequence caused by breaking free from personal norms. Trying something new can be scary. For those already beset with anxiety issues, the Imposter Syndrome converts us to flagellants, knowing simultaneously that these thoughts are bogus while also knowing they motivate us to push through the arbitrary and unconscious barriers we set for ourselves.
In graduate school, I had a bad case of Imposter Syndrome––one of many manifestations of my anxiety. The anxiety caused me to eat and drink a lot; it tickled my health in various ways; I lost a lot of sleep. I often woke up at one or two or three in the morning, spinning my impending failure through all possible scenarios or, if it was a good day, trying to harvest and codify all the ideas bouncing off each other like balls in a bingo spinner.
Eventually, I trained myself to just get out of bed. Go do something. Distract yourself. In the case of distraction, I learned that video games did that best.
Most of these nights happened after Nicole and I moved into our second Sacramento townhouse, away from the social thrum of midtown, which left us with mostly quiet nights; so, what sleep I could get would be uninterrupted and pleasant. On the anxiety nights, however, I crept downstairs, headphones already on and listening to podcasts––some video game commentary, some comedy interviews, some political debate, some history––and I’d fire up my Xbox 360 for hours of distraction, getting a good chunk of game in before the world even woke up. When I look back at these nights, the games that I see most in my memories are the Mass Effect series, specifically the two sequels.
Scanning planets captured perfectly the strange, silent calm of what we understand of outer space. Unlike humans…there’s nothing fragile about the cosmos. It simply is, existing slowly toward some end that is neither frightening nor threatening.
Since I was playing with the sound off (so as to consume quality audio entertainment), I rarely worked through story missions during these insomnious sessions. Instead, I searched for the mundane in the games’ side missions: fetch quests, collection runs, delivery missions. The most calming task I could do, and what I did most often, was planet scanning.
Whatever your thoughts may be about BioWare’s Mass Effect: Andromeda, there is no doubt that something happened during its development that lead to such a rocky debut, a series of choices so clouded in the public’s questions and shrouded in the mystery a company like EA’s BioWare can afford, the game was otherwise assumed to be relegated to the “well, that happened” category of games and we (as the gaming public) would be forced to move on.
This frankly bizarre secrecy around AAA game development shines a light on a major deficiency in the community––companies can bury “failed” games in mystery because they can get away with it. Though not focused on a failed game, a few years ago the BBC made a docudrama about the legal troubles of rockstar game studio, Rockstar Games, against which the developer filed suit, in a bit of irony. The development of Sony’s long-delayed The Last Guardian was mostly kept behind curtains, allowing the game to speak for itself when its time finally arrived, which had the aggregated conclusion of “it’s fine.” Though these are two of many examples, most of the community has accepted the idea that we will most likely never know how the choices were made, for better or for worse, and these companies will keep their business secreted away behind blast doors.
Luckily, some people are starting to catch on to the fact that “video game history” isn’t relegated to the eighties and nineties alone; it’s happening now. Right now. Mass Effect: Andromeda got a lot of dirt piled onto it. I enjoyed it for what it was and what it’s worth, but the tidal chart of nerd judgement is rather unforgiving. If something doesn’t meet a certain standard (a standard I believe is often rather arbitrary), that game, movie, comic, or tv show is dumped upon. There is no critical middle anymore in popular culture. And such a strong negative reception can taint a studio or franchise for a long while, a stain nobody can afford to live with. So, with things like Jason Schreier’s article coming so soon after Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s release, it can shed some much needed counterpoint onto the conversation.
To be clear, Schreier’s article isn’t an apology for the game. Instead, it’s investigative; he isn’t casting judgement, but instead acknowledging that something happened and the public reacted to it and he simply wanted to find out why:
[To] those who worked on it, Mass Effect: Andromeda felt unusually difficult. This was a game with ambitious goals but limited resources, and in some ways, it’s miraculous that BioWare shipped it at all.
This is an effort to chronicle recent history rather than simply cast it in one light or another, but to try and find out the whole story so historians have all the pieces with which to assemble hindsight instead of waiting for a day when only two or three members of the team are alive to tell the tale. This has actually been a trend I’ve seen recently and it warms my heart to see members of the games press turning a historical eye to the industry instead of being the first to give readers a hot take (not that hot takes and investigative pieces are mutually exclusive). Waypoint published a fantastic oral history of Halo, a genre of historical recording of which I’m growing fonder (more on that in a future episode). Waypoint also published a fascinating look at development documents for what would have been the sequel to the 2012 Square Enix-published Sleeping Dogs. I think the industry needs to be more self-aware, or else corporate red tape could actually contribute in the hindering of keeping this medium from becoming the art form it deserves to be.
Way back in Episode 58, Andrew and I discussed our (and listeners’) “gateways to geekdom,” accepting that the road to fandom is not necessarily––perhaps rarely––a straight path. A lot of us come to our passions through strange on-ramps or off-ramps from one fandom or medium to another. Popular culture has definitely done this with superheros and their stories with the rise of superhero cinema. It certainly wasn’t the comics industry who were making amazing books that the populace grabbed onto, but filmmakers who loved the comics and finally, finally, started making good movies based on those properties. Does that make cinematic universe enthusiasts any less of a fan than comic book readers? Ultimately, no. A fan of Iron Man is a fan of Iron Man is a fan of Iron Man.
The fewtimes we spoke with friend-of-the-site, Elijah Kaine, he mentioned his initial gateway into comicsdom––of which he has become thoroughly ensconced and well-read––was not comic books but the X-Men animated series, and this was probably the “in” for many X-Men or comic book fans. How many people started reading The Walking Dead because they watched the AMC tv show first? During my teenage years, my severe interest in Japanese feudal history and martial culture could be traced back to things like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Highlander. But they were gateways for me to walk through and soak up the world on the other side of the jamb.
Mike Diver’s article hints at something a bit more nuanced. He discusses the fact that he’s learning about DC’s characters by playing the fighting game that uses them. Sure, he’s also jumping online to mine wikis, but the fact is he’s actually getting a strong sense and knowledge of these comic book characters by playing a video game set in that world (but in its own continuity). In fact, it may be fair to say he’s becoming a fan:
Here I am, playing, and learning—and with superhero fiction such a staple of modern entertainment, it’s good to get deeper into its (to me, at least) weirder corners, via the accessible “in” of an easy-to-pick-up fighting game.
This intersectional literacy is probably the most common method of knowledge creation and meaning-making, more than traditional, antiquated, or teacher-centric educational models would lead us to believe. While my previous examples were my gateway to an interest in the topic, sometimes there are non-traditional texts––like video games, comic books, movies, tv shows, etc.––that actually gives the user information that would otherwise only be learned in that actual field. I wonder how many people learned legitimate history from playing games like Age of Empires, or gained a knowledge about different aspects of our world’s cultures from playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? How many learned about the intertwined influence of economics and politics by playing Crusader Kings or Civilization? How many people developed an interest in the hard sciences because they watched Star Trek? The answer to all of these questions is likely the same: many more than you would think.
In what may be a first for the website, a Week in Geek post will go up before its associated episode. When writing up responses to an exposition or convention, however, timeliness is key. For the second year in a row, I attended the Sacramento Indie Arcade Expo which is held in West Sacramento (a different city than Sacramento, believe it or not; in fact, it’s in a separate county). It’s still a small show but they are able to cram a lot of developers––40 in all, both video game and tabletop––into the two large rooms (and then some) dedicated to the event. A variety of game styles and platforms were on display; the most numerous were mobile/tablet games with a fair VR representation as well.
Though there were a lot of games, the few that really drew my attention are discussed below (games are listed in alphabetical order, not in order of judgement nor preference):
Described as an adventure game meets a music sequencer, what caught my attention was the visuals, which reminded me of a comfortable amalgam of Double Fine’s Psychonauts and a Tim Burton creation. The build I saw seemed very rough still, but its ambition was clear and impressive.
Ostensibly, the player character travels through this apparent open world collecting music samples that are inventoried. Once a set amount is collected, the player must arrange the samples in a way that pleases the gatekeeper/boss (I have forgotten who it was that judged you) in order to move forward.
I was told that there was also a kind of “free play” mode where you could arrange the samples in any way you wanted for an in-game, virtual audience. Though I don’t remember the details, the awareness and availability of the primary game mechanic for use as not only a narrative-progression tool but also for personal expression intrigues. I wonder if you’ll be allowed to mix down and export the sequences you arrange, which would definitively be a bringing together of the two disparate genres.
This was the first game I saw at the show and despite it being, I would guess, about 50-60% unfinished, it looked impressive. Like a lot of the games I stopped at, this game takes a retro, sprite-based platformer and tries to plug some interesting mechanics into what is possibly a tired format. Aesthetically, it looks like a cyberpunk Castlevania: Symphony of the Night with some very expressive animation for the player character.
The premise is that the character needs to ascend the Monolith, a tower whose authored rooms are procedurally arranged as the player progresses upwards.
What’s unique is how combat works, though once you become aware of Bellenger’s inspirations it makes a lot of sense even if initially not, perhaps, for a 2D platformer. The character is armed with a gun and a secondary weapon (more guns) and varieties of firearms drop from defeated enemies along the way. However, there is no “fire” button. Instead, the game works more like a twin-stick shooter like Enter the Gungeon or, if we’re relying on my frame of reference, Smash TV. But putting that mechanic into a 2D platformer is novel and seems to work quite well. The mechanics for shooting in this game feel tight, visceral, and fast and I want to say it may be due to its lack of a button-press to shoot. The shooting in Black Future ’88 is less about holding the right stick in the direction of the enemy and more about flicking the stick in the direction of the enemy. The player doesn’t really have time to plant and send out a barrage of ordnance; you have to keep moving much like you would in a bullethell game like Enter the Gungeon or, what it also brought to mind for me, something like Gradius or R-Type, which is another aspect of that genre the game integrates pretty well.
Like the space ship shooters I mentioned (“shmups” if you will), the enemies in Black Future ’88 send out less waves of bullets meant to kill you quickly and more slow-moving mazes whose walls can hurt you and through which you must find the opening (or, if left with no other choice, dash through). These come at you from all directions, so you must keep the character moving, sending out attacks when you can. With these different pieces coming together in a very functional manner, it created––even in its unfinished state––a frenetic and stylish experience.
Of the games I saw at the show, Frauki’s Adventure took me most by surprise. The Sacramento Indie Arcade Expo is still a fairly small event with the majority of developers spread through two large rooms––basically two large multipurpose rooms––where tables are crammed together leaving a fairly small avenue for passersby. When I first arrived, I snaked my way through both rooms before heading up to the blackbox theater to see who the next speaker was and as I walked through the first room, I passed by Frauki with nary but a glance. There was no signage nor patient person waiting beside it, eager to explain the game to a potential player. It was kind of just…there. It was set up spread between two small monitors, from beneath each wormed a knockoff USB Super Famicom controller. I have to say, the initial glance didn’t do much for me.
Frauki’s Adventure is, like Black Future ’88, a 2D pixel sprite-based action-exploration platform game, again in the vein of something like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or Metroid. Unlike Black Future ’88, Frauki was bright and colorful and didn’t have the grimdark edge that a lot of other games had. Nor did it have any of the irony that other games who go for the more twee-cute aesthetic often have, either. Frauki’s Adventure is actually quite earnest.
So, I walked by.
Later, I walked through the rooms again to see what the crowds were like and if any games were open to poke at. The VR stations clogged up much of the traffic and I was left standing in front of Frauki and, on a whim and out of boredom, I pushed a button on the controller. In all honesty, I did so out of curiousity for what the quality of the gamepad was like; if it had been solid, I would consider buying one for my own uses (it was not very good quality). But when I pushed a button, Frauki jumped. It was a good jump. It had the right response off the button-press and, when she landed, her stylish bob danced at her jawline for a few frames. In animation, we call this “secondary animation” or animating a reaction (in the clothes, hair, anything loose on a person) to the primary movement of a character. Secondary animation is viewed mostly as the key to unlocking believability in your characters. It’s a subtle form of exaggeration that makes a figure feel more real because it’s interacting with gravity in way that a body mostly does. In video games––especially a lot of 8/16-bit sprite animated games––it’s rarely done. Symphony of the Night has some. When you make Alucard crouch, it takes a second for his cloak to hit the ground, for example. And in Frauki her hair simply bounced as she landed on the ground and it had my undivided attention.
It speaks overall to the careful attention the developer puts into the game. Admittedly, a lot of it still kind of looks unimpressive at first glance, but if you move around, the world breathes, metaphorically, and you kind of don’t care if anything doesn’t immediately match your aesthetic.
Mechanically, the developer said it was inspired by his two favorite games, Mega Man X and Dark Souls, so I assume punishment and/or extreme challenge is in order.
What stuck with me as I played it, aside from being surprised at how much it charmed me, was that it felt good to play. There were some performance issues––it’s an alpha after all––but I found it eminently and immediately playable and it became the game I was thinking most about after leaving the show, even though I know if I showed people screenshots or perhaps even video of the game, it may not be enough to persuade anybody. The game sells itself when it’s played. The earnestness, craft, and gameplay of Frauki’s Adventure hit an open chord in me, and I look forward to playing it again.
This game was at last year’s Indie Arcade Expo and although I somehow missed it, it is a high-gloss puzzle-platformer that is very much in line with a lot of the interesting puzzle-platformers released in the last five or six years. I’m not saying it’s not original, in fact I mean the opposite. It is exactly as creative and interesting as the rest, which puts it in good company. It’s incredibly stylistic, relying on storybook art direction than on the jagged edges of pixel art sprites. Its mechanics are simple––jumping, lever-pulling, some cursor work. It’s goal is simple: get The Rabbit and The Owl to their respective goals.
It’s a two-player cooperative game where one player controls The Rabbit––the white figure––and the other player controls The Owl––the black figure. The screen is broken up into light and dark avenues which criss-cross each other; the white Rabbit lives in the dark realm, the black Owl lives in the light realm and they can only travel within those realms, never crossing over (as far as I saw). The specific goals each one has to get to is often blocked by the intersection of the other character’s world, but those are moveable by way of pulling a lever. So, if the Rabbit is blocked by the bright wall of the Owl’s world, the Owl is most likely able to reach a lever that, when pulled will move it out of the way (usually for the Rabbit to reach her own lever to pull it and open a path for the Owl).
It’s this clever puzzle solving that reminds me of everything from Braid to Monument Valley to even LIMBO and this game fits right into that milieu.
Unearned Bounty was another game I judged or, more accurately, codified on first glance before trying to walk past it (again, blocked by traffic). It is a game with a very slick aesthetic: cartoony, bright, silly sounds and a slick user interface (UI). It seemed like a mobile game; it had the low-poly/high-style look to that seemed like it could easily be a mobile game aimed at micro-transactions and fun but unchallenging gameplay. As with other games this year, I ended up being quite wrong.
Instead of being a on-the-toilet game, it’s actually best described as an arena shooter, a related but distant cousin to something like Nintendo’s Splatoon, but instead of being team-based––though that can very well happen––it’s a free-for-all timed shootfest where the player is trying to accumulate as much booty as possible. Instead of being first-person with a gun sticking out the bottom of the screen or a third-person run/cover/gun shooter, you’re a pirate ship on the high seas trying to blow up other pirate ships. What the developer wants––and I could see it happening––is with so many ships on the board (I forget the player count), and for the fact that the game tags the ship currently in first place (which, if you take it out, you get a bigger bounty), players will form temporary alliances and break them and backstab and do all the things pirates do in order to end as the richest scallywag.
What intrigues about this choice is that it automatically modifies traditional third-person shooting tactics because your main weapons shoot sideways, so your direction and physical alignment is key and so incredibly different from most (all?) shooters out there. Secondly, because you’re a sailboat on the water, movement is much slower (though not boring) than most people are used to. Controlling the movement––slowing players down––I found increased the tension and excitement of the gameplay rather than stifling it. With accumulated money, the player can upgrade the ship to do more damage and, I assume, protect from it, but it’s mostly a game about hunting down other ships and laying your cannons into them.
The developer mentioned games like League of Legendsnot necessarily as inspiration but for the type of crowd he was going for––online competitive multiplayer fanatics. I immediately thought of Assassin’s Creed IIIandAssassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, remembering how enjoyable (and similar to this) their ship combat was. They were likely the best parts of both of those games, so it’s nice to see people recognizing that and doing something with it. I do wonder if the game will find its intended audience, though; I’m guessing it’ll skew a bit younger because, with the cartoony aesthetics and sense of humor, I think the young and pre-teen crowd are going to find consistent solace in ships helmed by the likes of “Captain Toots” and “Captain Hornswaggle,” but I hope it finds who it’s aimed at because it’s a game with a lot of strategic possibility if only because of its complete uniqueness in a sea (apologies) of shooters.
This year’s Arcade Expo yielded a more satisfying experience for me than last year. I went this year having seen the speakers list beforehand and intended to basically sit in the blackbox theater the entire day watching people talk intelligently about games (the speakers’ talks have been archived in audio form by the International Game Developers Association of Sacramento). Instead, I found myself on the floor talking intelligently about games with people whose hands were in the mud, making clay. The point being that it wasn’t that I was particularly surprised by the games I wrote about above; it’s more that I allowed myself to realize that––to an obvious extent––the true discourse of independent games cannot be summarized by sitting in a rather comfortable folding chair in a black box theater, watching people sweat under a bright spotlight; it’s down in the multipurpose rooms where asses accidentally get pushed into the faces of people sitting in front of monitors, where people swinging wildly wearing VR headsets cold cock the PC tower that’s running the game, where you have to lean in to hear the soft-spoken developer who has been slowly crafting his small game on the weekends for the last year and a half tell you, “No, it’s not a whole lot like Zelda, actually.” It’s into this mud that I, as a player and intellectually curious critic, hope to wade a bit deeper next year.
Week In Geek: Metal Gear Solid by Ashly & Anthony Burch
Part of my goal as an academic-slash-nerdy-stuff enthusiast is to be a person that helps build the bridge between those two tentpoles that, as time moves forward, seem to be pushed further apart. In truth, criticism evolved as a genre from the world of popular culture. Without going too deep into the history of literary criticism, what academics view as critical writing––examining texts through specific lenses and discussing the positive and negative results of such investigations––was birthed by popular thinkers arguing back and forth in newspapers, mostly people like Samuel Johnson and Matthew Arnold yelling at other people. What criticism brings to its readers––and why it should be much more present in popular culture––is new ways to look at familiar things. You can agree with them or disagree, that’s fine; in critical discourse, if you disagree, you respond with your own critical analysis.
Criticism operates on the assumption that there is no one right way to read a text, so for people who have concrete definitions they’ve crafted or inherited about what a specific movie means or what a certain writer of a comic book is trying to say and they don’t want to budge because they know they’re right, then the critical investigation can’t move forward because a conversation can’t be had.
This is what is happening in the world of video game criticism right now, especially with the entire fracas that formed around Anita Sarkeesian’s videos and GamerGate’s reaction to them (among other sundry instances). Could Sarkeesian maybe have had more tact or been less forward in her presentation of her analysis? Sure. Because of that, did she deserve the response she got? Absolutely not. She was engaging in a critical discussion to not necessarily change the games we love but to bring these readings of the medium to the table for developers and players to use them as they will.
In their book for Boss Fight Books, Metal Gear Solid, the Burch siblings do an admirable job bringing critical investigation to a popular audience. As I mentioned in Episode 117 – Five Minutes to Funny, their approach was unorthodox for me who is more used to “classical” critical prose––i.e., very academic, argumentative, essayistic format––but it actually worked quite well. In more traditional co-written criticism (or most collaboratively written works, for that matter), no effort is made to distinguish between the contributions of each writer. In Metal Gear Solid (their book), the chapters are divided into sections with headings of either “Ashly” or “Anthony” to let the reader know who is speaking. This is ultimately effective for a few reasons. First, there is a slight difference in age between the two and the difference is enough to be notable; specifically, their initial comprehension of the game and what it was trying to do provides interesting juxtapositions. Second, and more importantly, the gender difference yielded very different reactions to the game and how it impacted their lives overall both in their youths and as adults, which would be lost or depersonalized if they had to neutralize the more dialectical (not a transcribed dialogue) format.
With that in mind, their book brings a lot of interesting aspects of the game to light that should be discussed, but usually aren’t. The standout for me is the excellent analysis of characters and their arcs––and the missed opportunities therein (their section on Otacon is outstanding)––which balances the “it’s complex stuff for the time” and “it’s really not as progressive as it appears to be” arguments fairly. This balance is a source of the schism in the greater video game culture; too many people don’t realize that you can criticize a game and still love it, which is exactly what the Burches do. They point out issues within Metal Gear Solid that, in a modern environment, can seem backwards and sometimes unforgivable. Snake, to a teenager or child (as Anthony and Ashly were, respectively, when they first played the game), is an uncompromising badass; however, upon reflection, it is clear he is a bully and sadist, especially to women. Meryl is presented as a tough woman who is every bit a soldier as the men on Shadow Moses Island, but with the way the camera, Snake, and the gameplay treat her, she is woefully underserved by the game that otherwise wants to present her as a progressive take on female characters in video games. A lot of this comes down to the apparent conflict within the series creator, Hideo Kojima, himself. I’ll quote here what I read aloud in the episode:
There 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 (21-22).
Part of accepting Metal Gear Solid as an artistic entry is to accept that, yes, it is thematically earnest and powerful and its characters are remarkably well-rounded, but for every two steps forward it––as a game and as a series––takes at least one step back. But that is also the nature of art. If any thing was perfect, there would be nothing to talk about.
Another fascinating aspect the book investigates is how Kojima openly and freely manipulates the relationship between the player and Solid Snake, arguing that Kojima willingly draws Snake and the player together at times and forcibly separates them at other times for a purposeful, emotional, and narrative purpose. It opened up a through-line for critical investigation into games as power fantasies, so that the conversation doesn’t just stop at “video games are power fantasies.” The Burches delve into how Kojima uses that fact to both make the player feel powerful (like most games do) and also use that trope to make the player feel detached, weak, and helpless. If anything, for both the criticism and the praise, the book showed me the art that goes into game design and how mindful Kojima is with his games despite his own severely problematic flaws as a creative.
For all the good that this book does at managing the intersection between criticism and popular culture, it is clear they have the events of GamerGate on their minds, which is smart considering that a co-author is female and, by the virtue of that simple fact, she, her brother, and the book are automatically painted with targets. Their apology takes the form of the concluding chapter, titled “The End?”, in which Ashly takes the lead with a passioned defense that, I would argue, comes dangerously close to diminishing the very poignant and important arguments she and her brother make in the book to that point:
So, Anthony and I shit on Metal Gear Solid for about half of this book. If you’re a fan of MGS1, you might be kind of pissed. But despite the amount of acid we spit at the game and its various baffling choices, despite the inordinately long cutscenes, the convoluted plot, and the awkward dialogue, we do love this game (159).
This is problematic because 1. they surely don’t “shit on Metal Gear Solid” at all. They critically engage with it and because they are able to do that with detailed and thorough arguments it 2. proves, beyond any reasonable doubt, that they love the game. In that instant, this concluding chapter felt a bit reductive and unnecessary. What’s impressive is that despite being couched in a chapter-long ass-covering thesis, Ashly does an admirable job teaching not only what criticism is, but why it’s important for the industry as well as for fans:
[W]hen we hear a complaint…about a game we love, we have to stop that little seed of defensiveness from spilling over into anger. We have to recognize that a critic’s concern doesn’t say anything about us, and it doesn’t make us wrong for liking the game. We’re all on the same team, and we’re all just trying to make this medium the best it can be. For everyone (161-2).
This chapter was an eye-opening moment for me as a reader, gamer, and wannabe critic, perhaps because I audibly scoffed when I read this chapter, saying something akin to, “You didn’t have to do this, catering to those people.” The D. Bethel that said that was Professor Bethel, the academic, the person whose workplace and occupation don’t have to apologize––among colleagues at least––for challenging arguments. In fact, they are expected.
However, in the pop culture nerd world that Podcast Co-Host, Comicker, and Website Curator (and straight white male) D. Bethel operates, you have to do this, especially if you’re a woman or minority. And while it’s atrocious and insulting that anybody would have to write this chapter, it shows why this book is successful at building that bridge I longingly want to help construct.
I want more good, challenging gaming criticism. I want to buy books of it. And though some exist and continue to get published, such a desire may be self-defeating in the end. If we’re looking to bridge that gap between pop and academic cultures, it won’t be through book stores. Instead, it is happening online in the form of podcasts and videos and, occasionally, articles. However, if we’re looking to make this a two-way connection, from the halls of academia to reddit and back again, in order to legitimize games as critical texts in the eyes of PhDs, books should be made as well as journals and panels at conferences. The Burches’ Metal Gear Solid definitely offers the academic handshake toward the people who love and care and talk about video games on the internet with confident airs and cries for legitimacy. I just hope pop culture is willing to accept and return it.
I recently mentioned that I had been watching Geek & Sundry’s Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana. Besides being a very well produced “watch people play RPGs” show, it’s also a very good illustration of the Fantasy AGE role-playing game system. What I find really impressive about that the Fantasy AGE RPG did not exist until Titansgrave. As I mentioned in the podcast, the game was based heavily on the Dragon AGE RPG published by Green Ronin Publishing, which was (of course) based on the very popular video game by Bioware. I did not spend a lot of time talking about what Fantasy AGE brings to the table during the podcast. Instead, I thought I would take a moment and do that here.
Although there have always been other rule sets distinct from Dungeons & Dragons, including those of Palladium Books and Steve Jackson’s GURPS, it is safe to say that various versions of D&D have always dominated the market. This began to change in 2001, and the proliferation of RPG systems has become sort of a defining aspect of this era of tabletop role-playing. The creation of the “Open Game License” created the widely accepted notion that it was okay for third parties to develop content for existing RPG systems. Some companies even started flirting with the idea of developing their own derivative rule systems for gaming. The alledged “fall of D&D” with the release of D&D Fourth Edition and the resulting “Edition Wars” opened the door even farther. Suddenly, companies like Paizo, Goodman Games, and Green Ronin were able to penetrate the market and find their own space.
The Stunts of Fantasy AGE
After watching the entire season of Titansgrave, what I took away from the Fantasy AGE system was that it brought something new and different to the table. What I really liked was the stunt system. Using similar mechanics as the Dragon AGE RPG, it inserts opportunities for the spectacular into every die roll. D&D players are familiar with the idea of “critical successes,” in which the player rolls a 20 on the 20-sided die which results in a novel effect. Fantasy AGE kind of captures that feeling with “stunts,” in which any time doubles are rolled (out of three dice), the player gets “stunt points” to spend on cool things. When you consider that nearly 45% of all rolls of three six sided dice contain at least two matching dice, this means that the prospect of using stunt points can happen with some regularity. Suddenly, it starts to feel like your player characters can do awesome stuff like you see on the cover of every RPG rulebook. That’s a neat feeling that nearly every combat-heavy tabletop RPG has tried to address for years.
The Characters of Fantasy AGE
How the players build their characters is always a fundamental part of any tabletop role-playing game. In part due to its basis on the originalDragon Age: Origins, Fantasy AGE take a slightly different approach to characters and classes than your typical tabletop RPG. Although it is a class-based system, it draws that spectrum down to only three: Warrior, Rogue, and Mage. However, these basic classes get differentiated by abilities, specializations, and other options. For those who watched Titansgrave, it’s worth mentioning that Aankia and Kiliel were both rogues, but that isn’t immediately apparent to the viewer. As somebody who has sat at a table of Dungeons & Dragons and felt like the two fighters at the table were only distinguishable on the basis of the players, it’s nice to see a system that tries to create mechanical distinctions between different characters.
One thing I’ve seen when poking around Fantasy AGE-themed webpages is the ease with which players are adding their own content to the character system. New types of magic, new specializations, and other character options add further depth to the game. I’ve even see one online game master adapt the original Dragon Age RPG system into a Star Wars game. It appears that the relatively straightforward specialization system allows people to throw together a new variant that further expands the depth of field.
The Flexibility of Fantasy AGE
One of my greatest weaknesses as a tabletop RPG player is that I am never content with existing settings as provided. More often than not, I decide that the setting is too restrictive or somehow doesn’t meet my interests. Generally, this means I’ve always been attracted to “generic” role-playing game systems. Of course, as I get older, I learn to disregard things that I don’t like, but I still retain a soft spot for games designed to give you serious freedom of setting. And Fantasy AGE does that.
If it’s not clear, the Fantasy AGE presented in the rulebook is a generic fantasy setting. Sword and sorcery stuff, mostly. Titansgrave, on the other hand, is different. It’s that weird “sci-fi meets fantasy” Thundarr the Barbarian thing. Beyond that, the Fantasy AGE rulebook provides guidance on black powder weapons, providing the mechanical underpinnings of an Age of Sail game. At the end of the day, the game provides some basic rules for interaction, battle, and other gameplay and then lets the player’s imagination do the driving.
Bringing Something New to the Genre
I haven’t played Fantasy AGE yet, so everything I’m saying should probably be taken with a grain of salt. But, having played a lot of different tabletop RPG systems, I really like that this one brought something new to the table. It comes across as very free-form, allowing players to do what they want to do, while still providing something with a little bit of weight. Character options are wide and flexible while still giving players interesting development choices to make. Stunts give players a way to do cool and interesting things besides just “roll to hit.” I’m excited to try throwing the game into my normal rotation of tabletop RPG systems.
First of all, Dan is correct. This movie rests a lot on nostalgia for prior Terminator movies. More accurately, this movie rests a lot on nostalgia for the first two: the 1984 film, The Terminator, and the 1991 film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The first fifteen or twenty minutes of the movie almost feel like a reboot of the original, with post-apocalyptic soldier, Kyle Reese, being ordered by revolutionary leader, John Connor, to step into the time travel device in order to stop a vicious killing machine from destroying the past. Not much later, we get to see the recreation of a popular moment of cinematic history: the Terminator beats up some weird ’80s punks to get some clothing.
From there, of course, the movie starts to go sideways. An older Arnold Termin-egger, along with an unidentified sniper, work together to stop the younger-looking killing machine. Soon after, Kyle Reese encounters a strange police officer who is revealed to be a T-1000 made of liquid metal (but not in the guise of Robert Patrick). It’s crazy, it’s out of control, and the movie lets us know that despite starting like the original The Terminator, this will be anything but. Soon enough, we have heroes Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor time travelling FORWARD to 2017, which should be after Judgment Day but is not. Instead, the nefarious villains of Cyberdyne Systems are about to realize some sort of stupid mega-app called “Genisys,” which promises to be the bomb.com, but will probably end up just being the bomb.
A few reviews I read expressed concern over the convoluted time travel timelines of this movie, and given that the producers intended to make a trilogy of films, the confusion is probably legitimate. But, as a sort of sequel to the first two Terminator films, I found this movie to be an interesting companion piece and contrast to the previous second sequel, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. The following analysis may contain spoilers, so be warned.
The original film The Terminator left the audience with the interesting idea that the whole story could only happen because it happened. The entire thing is a causal loop: Kyle Reese is sent back in time by John Connor to protect Sarah Connor, and in the process becomes John Connor’s father (explaining why John sent him back in the first place). Terminator 2: Judgment Day doubled down on the causal loop, further explaining that Cyberdyne Systems developed the requisite technology for Skynet and the Terminator from the remnants of the Terminator left behind in the first film. So, the audience realizes that this whole world and its future exist because of the fact that they exist.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day tries to change the narrative. After we learn what’s going on and who the real bad guys are, Sarah Connor convinces everybody that the best solution is to prevent Cyberdyne from ever being created. The takeaway theme from the movie is, “There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.” By destroying all remnants of the Terminators and Cyberdyne Systems, Sarah and John Connor are able to avert the future apocalypse. Of course, this creates a bit of a paradox-sandwich as we have an established past that involves a future that no longer happens. But, let’s not worry about paradox sandwiches just yet.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines took a hard left on this theme, changing it into “No fate but what we delay for ten or so years despite our best efforts.” Watching that movie back in 2003, I was exceedingly disappointed on the turn that it took, although it made sense given that the producers were more interested in making post-apocalyptic, dark future Terminator movies. That’s also where we got Terminator: Salvation, which I am certain that I watched but I disliked with such intensity that I forgot everything about it.
That hard left is what I think makes Terminator: Genisys stand out from the other films and makes it feel more like a proper sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day. By the end of the movie, we find out that the personification of Skynet has essentially manipulated time in order to re-sequence the timeline to its own benefit. Instead of the “it’s going to happen eventually” narrative of T3, we have Skynet actively taking a role in manipulating time to its benefit. I guess you could say that Skynet has adopted the “No fate but what we make for ourselves” philosophy for itself. Oh, and Skynet is played by Matt Smith.
And that’s the thing that I really like about this new Terminator movie. T3 took the “take the story into your own hands” narrative of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and stole the agency and control of it. It said that no matter what you do, the terrible thing is going to happen. Terminator: Genisys did something different. It still acknowledged that the terrors of the future are a threat, but that it’s because they are actively working against you. It acknowledged that the “take the story into your own hands” narrative was just as much a thing that the villain could do as the heroes. It’s an interesting twist on the story. Somehow, that difference was important to me and I think is what makes Genisys a better “third movie” than Terminator 3:Rise of the Machines.
D. Bethel looks at the first volume of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira manga and finds in its pages much more than a commentary on nuclear war.
Akira, as an anime and manga series, is arguably better known for being a groundbreaking work than for the story it tells (variable as that may be, depending on the medium). From presentation to content to technology and themes, Akira has earned a place in the cultural discourse of not only Japan but the rest of the world as well.
As I mentioned on the podcast, I have come to Katsuhiro Otomo‘s manga after having seen the anime, which I’m sure is the course most westerners took since the movie was such a significant event, especially in the nerd world. Now three volumes into the story, I have already seen a significant diversion in narrative between the manga and anime, to the point that the movie feels less like an adaptation and like a new story using the same players. This difference intrigues me to the point that I found myself down the hole of an academic database search for any criticism about Akira.
Not surprisingly, the discourse around both the anime and manga nearly unanimously focuses around its use of imagery related to nuclear weapons and Japan’s historical tie to them. While not wrong nor an insignificant approach to the work, I feel that using a small lens on such a large work misses out on a lot of fantastic critical angles. Also, when conversations around Akira happen in person (with friends or fellow fans) and the group wants to take it to serious territory, it seems the only road to travel is the one that leads to nuclear warfare and its relation to Japanese history as well.
One of the most crucial tenets of literary analysis and critique is that texts don’t have a single meaning or purpose. Moreover, meaning can change over time because the needs of the cultures that consume literature change as well, and texts that don’t maintain some sort of relevance, I would argue, fall away. It’s sad, perhaps, and some hold onto, teach, and love texts only for their historical relevance. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s the relevant applicability of texts that makes them still feel important and impactful to an audience and culture, which is a much stronger response than just reverence for it. Part of the fun of literary analysis comes from devising a thesis and seeing if any sustaining evidence rests inside the text. When it comes to Akira, it seems that only one thesis is pursued, if not allowed, and everyone takes part in the Easter egg hunt. Like any other text, analysis should be less like an Easter egg hunt and more like a scavenger hunt, but everyone has their own goal and their own list and all hunts are happening in the same place.
Perhaps because I had always heard the nuclear conversation around Akira, and drew the same conclusion on my first viewing––it was probably the first movie that really presented the allegory to me before ever seeing things like Godzilla or more art house fare like Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams––it wasn’t on my mind when I cracked open the first volume of the manga so many years later. I had no desire to find more evidence about Otomo’s commentary on post-nuclear Japan because, perhaps, I was sure it was there, dripping off of every line. In a sense, that hunt was over because, in a finite work, all the eggs had been found.
It put me in a wonderful space when approaching a text: free of expectations.
What I came away from volume 1 pondering––and what drives me through subsequent volumes––is a theme I should have expected but didn’t think would be so fully developed. Before going into it, let me just present a single image that, I think, summarizes what Akira is about to me on this read-through:
What sticks out in this story from the beginning (from the first page, though you don’t know it yet) is that its characters are teenagers. These youths have grown up in a post-apocalyptic world as the book starts with what looks like a nuclear event detonating in the heart of “the metropolitan area of Japan,“ which ignited World War III. The story picks up nearly forty years later. Those who were in the war are middle-aged and the teenagers have never known a country without a big hole in the middle of it. World War III isn’t even a part of their memory; it’s just another chapter in their education (if they pay attention).
Though it’s not a Mad Max desert-scape––Neo-Tokyo has familiar sky-scrapers and cool future technology as well as the expected slums and people doing their best to make their way––its society is in just as much turmoil. It’s just beneath the surface and bubbling to the top through these kids.
In a post-nuclear and post-World War society, Neo-Tokyo exists in the static created by a paranoid and strictly regulated government and a generation that has no living memory of what created that paranoia in the first place.
Teenagers in Akira are nihilistic and quick-tempered and angry. (I can already hear you saying, “Oh, so you mean a normal teenager?” I get it.) But––to connect it with the more traditional reading of this book––in a post-nuclear and post-World War society (and for Japan, this has now happened twice by the events within the book), Neo-Tokyo exists in the static created by a paranoid and strictly regulated government and a generation that has no living memory of what created that paranoia in the first place.
This is tempered in the way adults and youths interact. Most of the time it’s polemical adults exploding in hyperbole (or sometimes physical violence) without any respect to or awareness of the kids’ intelligence. This is probably unintentional on the part of the adults; they’re stuck in the tautology of thinking the kids don’t understand because they weren’t there, so they can’t understand, so they must be told––but they won’t understand! The kids, in turn, are frustrated because despite the fact that they live in a world they are bound to inherit, the shadow of the explosion and the war looms over everything in their culture. Because the adults are so tetchy and repressed (because that is how they keep the world from falling apart again), the kids never really learned how “to articulate any meaningful relation between themselves” and the world they live in (Lamarre 138). It reminds me a bit of Victorian manners in their treatment of children––the whole “seen but not heard” ethos that leads to severe problems down the line.
Such treatment and behavior, of course, doesn’t pacify the youth; in fact, it weaponizes them, which is literally what Akira is about in terms of plot. But even in terms of plot, it is the teenagers in the story that activate every movement forward; they are the only ones that have any narrative agency. All the adults do (so far from what I’ve seen) is stand and watch the kids disassemble what structure adult society has been trying to hold together and yell at them as they do so. The titular Akira (and a few others like him) is a mere boy who can do city-wide destruction by just being. It’s almost as if the momentous destruction previous generations had to build and fall victim to has become a natural, unconscious part of the new generation (albeit Akira and his crew have been subjected to horrific experiments). It’s a powerful statement on youth culture striving to not only survive but learn in a society that goes through the motions of trying to educate and instruct, but is actively pursuing the opposite.
I think this divide is perfectly illustrated in a scene from the beginning of volume three. Because stuff happened, the city is placed under a “Code Seven Alert” which enacts a complete lockdown of all residents with severe punishments for those who break the edict. Military/police hybrids patrol the streets along with military-grade machinery––automated robots called “Caretakers.” Only two types of civilians interact with the military/police in these scenes––adults looting and children playing. But it’s the latter that is most interesting:
Previously, we saw the Caretaker robots “pacifying” the adult looters by gunning them all down with ordnance so powerful it annihilated not only the looters but also the storefront they were stopped at. In the scene with the children, they relay the fact that they know these things mean business, but they play anyway. They only leave because they don’t want to deal with the soldiers/police, probably because in this Code Seven environment, they might end up on the wrong end of sanctioned lethal force. They don’t leave because they are scared; that much is clear on the faces of the children on the last panel of page 26. Running from the military/police is part of the fun they’re having. If they were scared, they wouldn’t yell the derogatory insults as they left (panel 1 of page 27).
Just as the adults are using the tools they have at their disposal to create a sewn-up, paranoid, and violent society to keep it safe, so are the kids using the tools at their disposal to have a childhood in spite of it. Climbing all over a death robot while playing with friends isn’t dangerous––it is to the adults who see them doing it. To the kids, that’s normal. In that sense, it reminds of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome where the ways the residents of Bartertown repurpose “old world” items into new things differ vastly from how the Child Tribe repurposes items; they are doing the same thing but what they do with them is disparate from the other. The way the world is defined for both parties is extremely and intrinsically different.
So, yes, the devastation of World War II strongly grips this book, but such discussion exists on a macro, holistic scale. It diminishes the struggle these kids are going through. They don’t want to have that conversation because it’s been the only conversation that’s ever been had throughout their entire lives, which is a handy metaphor for the discussion around Akira itself.
Lamarre, Thomas. “Born of Trauma: Akira and Capitalist Modes of Destruction.” positions: east asia cultures critiques, 2008, vol. 16, p. 131-156.
Bolton, Christopher. “From Ground Zero to Degree Zero: Akira from Origin to Oblivion.” Mechademia, 2014, vol. 9, p. 295-315.
Nelson, Lindsay. “Embracing the Demon: The Monstrous Child in Japanese Literature and Cinema: 1946-2008.” Diss. University of Southern California, 2012. Web.
D. Bethel jokes that I’m evangelical about Wild Arms 3. It’s not an unfair conclusion to draw. Like we discussed in the podcast, the Wild Arms series is sort of weird. The original was pretty much a fantasy-esque RPG with a little bit of a western look and feel. One of the characters had firearms as a “special power” and another guy looked like he was wearing a duster. It was alright and laid down some of the peculiar tropes that would come later, but I wouldn’t really call it groundbreaking or definitive. My love is for the third entry in the series: Wild Arms 3.
Wild Arms 3 is a peculiarity in the vast history of Japanese RPGs because it feels like the design team was trying to do something different than practically every other JRPG that had come before. I always joke that the page for the game on the website TV Tropes.org sums up a lot of the weirdness:
Wild ARMs 3 gives one the impression that its creators were told to make a JRPG, but had never played a JRPG before. Far from making it a bad game, this means that they approached the genre from a new direction and did a lot to shake up old cliches[.]
Perhaps, given the history of the console role-playing game since the release of Wild Arms 3, what we were witnessing was the JRPG market starting to adapt to the changing player base. Like Dan said, most developers and players have acknowledged that the JRPGs of today have departed heavily from their roots, for better or worse.