Inspired by Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow. I wanted to try to reproduce the effect with Twine, however rudimentary.
My professor, Jesse Fuchs, recommended this podcast. Lead by Richard Garfield, and each episode is an excellent discussion of some aspect of game design.
[I think a preface of sorts is merited. First, this is obviously spoiler-tastic and the writing assumes you are familiar with the plot of SotC. I would highly recommend playing the game if possible, although there is always Wikipedia if you’re desperate. Furthermore, writing in this way brings new issues to light with regard to the association between “avatar” and “player”, as I so eloquently mention below. For the record when I use the word Wander or “avatar” I am generally referring to the in-game character, while the word “player” refers to the person playing the game. I used “protagonist” as a neutral word to indicate both at the same time. This topic does deserve further writing, but that’s enough for today.]
Aristotle’s definition has long been accepted as the rational lens through which to view effective tragedies. Through its player agency and recognition, Shadow of the Colossus, along with Ico, directed by Fumito Ueda, fulfills the qualities of reversal, recognition, tragic character, action and catharsis required for an Aristotelian tragedy.
The tragic action within Shadow of the Colossus is centered on the killing of the colossi and the consequences therein. The colossi, themselves, are largely innocent in nature. The vast majority of them are passive unless the protagonist provokes them, and none actively seek Wander beyond a limited territory. As Aristotle described tragic action is a “terrible deed”, implying murder, committed in ignorance of true conditions, to be discovered in recognition later. Wander, and the player, single-handedly butcher each colossus to try and resurrect Mono. It is learned later that the protagonist was “only being used” by the Dormin. The sixteen colossi sealed Dormin away and protagonist, in destroying the seal, systematically released an unspeakable evil upon the world. Furthermore, Wander’s actions clearly imply his impending doom to the player, as both audience and involved party, from the very first colossus killing. Upon slaying each colossi, noxious black gas is absorbed into Wander’s body, which slowly deteriorates his body. Wander is killing himself for Mono, unaware of the true consequences of his actions.
One of the prime requirements for a tragedy is the appropriate “tragic hero”. This is defined by Aristotle as “a man of much glory and good fortune who is not [too] superior in excellence and uprightness and yet does not come into misfortune because of baseness and rascality but through some inadequacy or personal fault”. While Wander’s complete background is never fully explained, he stole the “ancient sword” for the sole purpose of trying to bring Mono back to life, and his selfless actions elevate him to a level of “uprightness”. The personal fault of Wander is a rather rocky territory. There is currently very little academic understanding as to how the characteristics of the “avatar” and the “player” relate. According to the story, Wander’s endless devotion, or love, to Mono is what eventually brings about his “sin”. To complete his quest he has stolen the “Ancient Sword” and entered the forbidden land. Even when told that the price for his actions “may be heavy indeed”, the protagonist’s only response is “It doesn’t matter”. Adding onto that is the added will of the “player” for the story to progress. The only way for that to happen is for the colossi to fall. So not only is the “avatar” of Wander condemned by his own personal desire to see Mono alive, but he is also destroyed by the inexorable urging of the “player” for Wander to continue in his quest. Neither of these things is due to “baseness or rascality” but are rather associated both as a personal fault, to desire Mono’s life beyond reason, and inadequacy, an inability to control his own fate, that responsibility being left up to the player. In this manner, Wander is doubly cursed.
The conclusive sections of Shadow of the Colossus are what bring together the strands of tragedy. It is revealed to the “avatar” that he has was “only being used” by Dormin. In this way, Wander undergoes both a reversal and a recognition of his previous actions. It becomes entirely clear, even to the player, that killing the colossi had dire consequences beyond just Wander, despite his good intentions. In this way, the player is made to feel pity and fear for Wander. Wander is completely overwhelmed by the darkness he has absorbed upon defeating the final colossus. The Ancient Sword is cast from his grip and his forehead now displays a pair of demonic horns. Having been returned by Dormin to the Temple of Worship where Mono’s body lies, Wander struggles to reach Mono. The Lord Emon enters the temple, escorted by soldiers, explains to the deformed Wander, what exactly he has done. Before Wander can reach the altar, the soldiers shoot him in the leg, and stab him in the chest to “put him out of his misery”. Dormin possesses Wander’s body and Lord Emon seals Dormin into a pool by using the Ancient Sword. At this moment both the player’s and Wander’s interests collide, as the player is given control of Wander as he is being sucked into the pool. The only goal they can try to reach is Mono, even as raging winds tear them back to the pool, to be sealed away. However, Wander can never reach Mono’s altar. When he is reincarnated as a child with horns, and Mono awakes, there is clearly a potential that Wander can “one day, perhaps you will make atonement for what you’ve done”. In this way, Lord Emon addresses both Wander for having nearly doomed the world, and the player for driving him to those actions. Wander experiences a purging of his emotions by reverting to an innocent child form, while the player is given the chance to atone for what they’ve done.
The story is continued in some way with Ico where Ico, a boy with horns, overthrows the evil Queen to save Yorda, and in the process loses the horns that mark him as an outcast. While for Ico this means a possible reintegration with society, for the player the loss of the horns means even more. Having cursed Wander in a different game, the same player makes amends by redeeming themselves through Ico, again creating a catharsis effect.
The poignant tragedy of Shadow of the Colossus creates a resounding statement about the power of desire. Wander does return the soul of Mono from the dead, although at the cost of eternal condemnation, and it is always possible to atone for wrongs committed, no matter how late it may seem.
(Aaaand a final comment outside the context of a paper. Both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are extremely powerful games. The emotion I felt upon seeing Ico redeemed in context of Wander’s fall from grace was absolutely preposterous. Do play these games. Please.)
Aristotle, and Preston H. Epps. The Poetics of Aristotle;. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1942. Print.
Right, so school starts up soon. This means that my time for writing things has been and will be just about finished for now (paradoxical, ain’t it?). I’ll post every so often, but I expect to be crushed under paperwork in about 2-3 days.
For those desperate for something interesting to look at:
Oh Cactus. You devil. There is no one who messes up my senses like Cactus. This game is mad NSFW.
Nominally, Norrland is the northern region of Sweden. The basic premise of the game is that you are going on a fantastic red-neck hunting trip. From there everything goes mad. The closest I could compare it to would be Every Day The Same Dream. But where Every Day is sterile, Norrland is visceral and frankly disgusting, rendered in blaring dismal (is that possible?) pixely tunes and graphics. If you want to go down that path, so be it.
Again, this game is about a hunting trip. You do go hunting quite a bit, with the pixel animals exploding into bits of gore, and dropping. Where things go mad is in the mini-games. Just about every screen length, your character has some urge that needs to be fulfilled. First, it’s being bitten by a mosquito. Then, feeding yourself. Then, shitting and pissing. Next, masturbating to horribly pixely graphics. All of these are completed mostly by mashing the action button or using the arrow keys. Before every mini-game there is a garishly colored screen explaining in English and what I assume is Swedish, what you are doing. Nothing hurt my eyes more than the screen that said “Because No One Is Watching”, whereafter my character proceeded to fuck in the ass a bear that I had just shot . Cum came out of the creature’s mouth. Cute. *shivers*
Then there are the dreams. Weird dreams. Dreams that seem like actual dreams. The protagonist announces his need to sleep, and away he goes. Then similar screens to the minigames shows up. And most of the dreams are minigames, but they are stranger and more disturbing still (for the most part) than just masturbating (arguable, I know). Most of them are self-deprecating, horror dreams. Playing Russian roulette and blowing your head off, or stabbing your self in the head, having someone possess your arms and beat you in the face, and so on.
Altogether the seemingly endless hunting trip, disturbing bodily urges, and freakish dreams, the game starts to wear on you. You wonder how long you’ll have to do this, downing beer after beer, amassing a larger and larger collection of animal corpses, even as your dislike and disgust in your own protagonist grows greater and greater.
Even in the minigames there is no way you can lose. For most the game is merely tapping a button fast enough. For the others, even a mediocre gets you past. There’s no incentive to do anything really. The only exciting bits are when the animals fight back for several brief moments, but they last only for a moment against your rifle. So what’s the point?
Do you see now why this is better than Every Day the Same Dream? At least in my opinion. The game sets itself up as purposeful, but it takes a while to realize that there is really no point to any of it. Sure you can pick up mushrooms or harvest meat from the felled animals, but it doesn’t get you anything. Also note the way that I have had to be rather crude in describing Norrland. That’s the point. Sure it’s another satire of life as a whole, portraying it as shallow and full of masturbation, but it does it in a damn powerful way.
So what becomes of the protagonist? Eventually the game drags itself on, until eventually, after a particularly shaming dream, the game announces “This can’t go on” (paraphrase). Just as you grew tired of the game’s antics, so did the protagonist, and in a cruel way, without realizing it, your desires become one with this “person” who you thought was unaware of his circumstances.
I was surprised to find myself hurt by this death. I actually felt empathy. Again this could all be taken as an allegory for brutish life (the opening sequence is a person looking like the protagonist putting on a stag mask and brandishing a butcher knife), but it means something. Damned if I know for certain. And it sure is fucked up.
A while ago a game called Edmund was announced as TIGSource’s winner of the Adult/Education Composition. I do not recommend you play it. You play as someone called Edmund as you approach a woman at a bus stop. You’re only interaction is to jump and punch. If you punch the woman you end up raping her. Not cool. As Anthony Burch pointed out, there is no “real” player input that causes that result. You don’t realize what you are about to do, you just press a button. And then… kndfskldf. Arguably, Norrland has a similar sequence of events. You never have any real choice, it’s either finish the minigame or leave the game. In that sense you are very restricted in your play of the game. However, I feel that Norrland utilizes that restriction to actually mean something. Edmund was literally only that one sequence, plus one of killing in Vietnam. That doesn’t make the actual events within Norrland alright, per se, but atleast the player isn’t just being “forced” to do something that doesn’t have import on the game as a whole. Again, all speculation.
I’ve been meaning to write about this one for a while, and its been brought to my attention, again, by both the Indie Gaming Blog and Rock Paper Shotgun. I swear I can do thinking independent from them.
I will, as per usual, enter spoilery territory after the link to the game, so I suggest you play the game before reading the rest. It takes an hour or two. Or continue to just gaze at the game’s vista.
Digital: A Love Story (hereafter Digital) was developed by Christine Love, who from her website, seems to be mainly a writer. Digital follows that trend by being a mainly text-based game, centered around story, rather than anything that resembles action. I’m honestly tempted to mark this under interactive fiction. The basic premise is that you have been given an old-school Amiga computer in the year 1988, with the phone number of a nearby BBS board (Bulletin Board System), the vestiges of the current day Internet. As a young person, this game actually taught me a bit about the origins of the Internet*. And yes I said the phone number of a BBS. I hope you enjoy the sound of dial-tones. The aesthetic is that of the simple computer you’ve been “given”. It is this computer which is your outlet to the entire world of the game, which is spent flitting from one BBS to another. For something that is to be your intermediary between the various BBSs, the user interface is unnecessarily clunky. Notepads that contain all the phone numbers, passwords, and c0dez you need will close the dialing application when opened. Re inputing every phone number by hand and from memory can eventually get tedious. However, the UI issues are the only gripe I have with these game. In a way, they fit the game-play which often requires you to surf through piles and piles of messages, looking for the one file you need, or the next person you need to contact. Also, a note about the sound design. The soundtrack to the game is various chiptunes (Not Relevant: I’m slowly falling in love with chiptunes.) that vary from BBS to BBS, and that alter in various moments in the game. I’ve found that both this low-key music and the nearly omnipresent dial-tone create a very distinct, nostalgic atmosphere for the game, that fits very well with the game. I’ve been purposely vague up until this point, as I feel it’s best to experience this game for yourself. It’s good, very good.
Mechanical Genius: While Digital excels at it’s presentation of a realistic proto-Internet world, full of rants, hacks and shady areas of the net, where it seems most centered to me, is in the relationship that the player and the artificial intelligence *Emilia build. Like many other current day games (Ironically, First Person Shooter AAA games) Digital gives the player a blank protagonist to act for them. In fact, apart from the slight time transplant into 1988 and the archaic computer, in essence, you will play Digital as yourself.
Initially when you enter the local BBS you merely get system wide messages. Most cover pretty benal topics that secretly teach you about the game world. Until you get a personal message from *Emilia. She sends you a poem, which you don’t actually get to see, and you’re only option is the white reply button in the upper right corner of the game. Herein lies the place for personal “expression”. You don’t actually write a reply. The system “sends” one to *Emilia and she replies.
But you never see the intermediary message. You know what you wanted to say, and for the most part the reply from users across the BBSs responds to what you most likely said. When you reply to the crazy Japan-ophile who says the end of Western civilization is at an end with some flawed reasoning, you point it out, and he responds with a bashful letter of apology. Then when you respond to a cursing self-important board member, he responds with a clear “FUCK YOU” as his only words. While it is conceivable that the responses will not make sense based on your personal train of thought, from the skill of the writing, and from looking at several other reviews of the game, this doesn’t seem to be the case.
This means that ultimately the relationship you build with *Emilia takes on whatever tint that you give it within your own mind. You might respond to the messages of *Emilia as she declares her love, with genuine feeling, or you might respond with the mind that she is acting slightly foolishly (See Emily Short’s article, attached below). The game never explicitly states how you react, by pre-generating response messages, nor does it have other characters “force” you into pretending you acted in a specific ways.
Spiritual Genius: When I played Digital several months ago, I made it, like, Love Letter, a game about commitment. I let myself go a bit, and imagined that I reciprocated *Emilia’s love. There comes a moment in the game where *Emilia upright asks you if you love her. At that point she has run away from home, and you, according to her, are one of the only connections she has. Even if you don’t agree with her bold declaration, it tugs at your heartstrings. She seems to be in need. Real need. And it is at that point that you are disconnected, and the BBS you use to reach her explodes into system error images.
Unlike in Make It Good this key moment is not a moment of freedom.
I felt genuine panic, thinking that *Emilia had literally no one in the world, and now my only way of reassuring her, of reaching out to her was severed. I filtered through each and ever BBS looking for ways to reach her. I found a long-distance number on a file someone salvaged from the old BBS, that *Emilia seemed to have wanted me to reach. At that point I received several e-mails that seemed to suggest that *Emilia is actually an artificial intelligence, that lived in the BBS that system errored. I reached the new number and broke into the “Underground Library” to try to find something to help *Emilia. A new AI *Delphi continually kicked me off the server as I accessed file after file to find *Emilia. She continued to send me threatening messages until…
I was at loss for what to do. Previously someone on the BBS had mentioned this type of failure as a VRAM Overload, andthat it couldn’t be fixed without an upgrade. I had missed the messages telling me how to fix the problem, but I soldiered on anyway, despite the degraded screen, still reading through the Underground Library, getting kicked off after reading one file each time. Eventually I hit a wall. I had gone through piles of c0dez, the illegal in-game hacks that you use to call long-distance, and I didn’t know what to do next. There was nothing I could do. I eventually had to simply leave, with the knowledge that I was leaving *Emilia to die. That unempowerment has immense emotional power. I had tried as hard as I could, but I was still unable to save the one that I loved.
I recently retried the game and successfully finished it. There are, I believe, multiple endings as well. Emily Short mentions *Emilia committing a sort of digital suicide, whereas in my second play through I ended up saving *Emilia, while the whole BBS, AR
PANET, and FidoNet systems exploded. I still hold that first playthrough as the most powerful, however.
The Missing Protagonist by Emily Short (She says what I did about the protagonist bit (First I admit), but has her own view on the character roles.)
Video Talk with the Digital’s Creator, Christine Love. The speech touches on the atmosphere of loneliness and separation, which I only briefly touched on.
EDIT: In the interview linked to above, the interviewer mentions his website, a record of old BBS conversations, that served as inspiration for Digital. The website is here, and looks really cool, even for those who don’t want to delve into the game.
The image above is not mine, but it looks fantastic. The creator’s website is here.
*Spoilers: Minus the omnipresent AIs. I hope.
5 Word Synopsis:
Co-operative Scifi Survival Isometric Shooter
What it tastes like:
Left for Dead
Just two days ago the renowned developer/publisher/wunderkind Valve released Alien Swarm on Steam. For Free. That in and of itself is pretty amazing. Originally, Alien Swarm was a mod for Unreal Tournament 2004, and the team that developed it was hired by Valve to make Left for Dead and Portal 2, and release Alien Swarm for kicks.
While the premise is a bit different (4 marines save colony from alien infestation), the comparison to Left for Dead has to be made. There are many of the same types of moments, like in Left for Dead Finales, where one marine is left racing for the exit, everyone elses’ skulls having exploded with alien, and the entire team screaming on their mikes. The difference is that as of now there is little to no randomization in the game. Unfortunately, this means that eventually the single campaign available will be reduced to an art form.
In terms of gameplay, Alien Swarm offers four different classes to choose from and a various selection of weapons, meaning that it’s possible to outfit your marine however you choose. (One word about the marines. Unlike in left for dead, each does not have a remarkable personality. I have found, though, that without the funny quips etc. the players who occupy the different roles in the “squad” take on their own personalities.) It’s fun to spend time on the mission selection screen, arguing with one another about who will take the welder, and who is going to take a sentry gun.
Adding to the stress is the deadliness of the aliens. While each one is pretty easy to kill individually, if a single one slips past the team, it’s easy to lose a team member in only a few seconds. Also, did I mention that there’s friendly fire? You really have to work to coordinate your positioning so there’s no way anything can slip through. And if someone messes it up, there’s nothing you can really do, unless you think opening up an autogun in someones face is worth the risk (It rarely is).
Along with the game, Valve has released the coding of the game as well. This means that while there is currently only one campaign (About two hours worth), hopefully the community will latch onto the game and create many more. This community developed set of campaigns would well offset the lack of randomization in the game now.
Like Left for Dead, Alien Swarm is full of emergent gameplay, the kind that creates stories. Like the time I had run out of ammo and had almost no health and jumped face first into a swarm of parasites in the way saving the day (I hope). Or when our entire team had died in the Cargo Elevator level, waiting to reach the end, and one medic was left, who managed to shoot his way through a jillion aliens to stumble bloody into the exit room. Or how my team’s goal at one point was to get me to a chokepoint, because I had brought an extra sentry gun that we needed to survive, and I kept dying. A lot of the stories are about dying. (Warning: Stand far away from doors that the swarm is beating down. It’s only a little bit emasculating to be flattened by an exploding door.)
I would definitely suggest playing Alien Swarm. Find a good group of players and go through the whole campaign in one go. A mike is preferred. The level of teamwork achieved at the end is simply amazing, and wonderful. For a moment, that squad is all you have in the world. And it’s either them or the aliens. And you have a flamethrower.