10. Wherein the Writer Grapples With the Intangible

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Admittedly, I don’t know much of anything about music. Like technically speaking, I’m pretty ignorant. I love music, lots of different kinds of music-you know, like a human . But I can’t read it, I’ve never studied it for very long or very deeply, and my 2 year-old godson makes better music on his dad’s drum set than I do with the handful of guitar chords I know. What I do know is that music has been inextricably linked to powerful experiences in my memory. I know that it doesn’t take hearing more than a single note (for the sake of believability I’ll say two notes together, but it’s really one) for me to know when somebody in another room just changed the channel past Jurassic Park on TV (back when that used to happen, before they went and commoditized my whole childhood.) While many of these emotional ties are to real life experiences (“Lightning Crashes” by Live reminds me of camping in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens), a great number of them come from media (I once heard a jazz band drift into a cover of the X-Men cartoon theme song and I freaked out) and of those, a high percent are related to games. Thinking about it now, I should make a running playlist out of music from the Mega Man franchise because it always keeps my energy up. I’ve actually heard that music like it increases mental acuity and helps people focus but I’ve been unable to pin that down as having come from any legitimate research, as many sources I’ve read, like this one, go something like, “we all know that video game music is actually designed to keep you going and not distract you” but never corroborate that claim with anything more reliable than word of mouth and the presumed uniformity of our shared experience. While that sounds a little thin to me academically, I can’t deny identifying with the position. For any reader who has never played through say, Mega Man II, let me tell you- it’s really hard. I don’t think I’ve ever beaten it. More than that, I don’t think a coalition of my best and most trusted friends, gamers all, have ever beaten it- as children or adults. But we’ve played it, and played it for untold hours over a period of decades. The experience never changes and the levels are the same no matter what order you play them in, yet every time we take control of the unwieldily titular man-bot we are on the edge of our seats and laser-focused. How can this possibly be, that an experience that we’ve been sharing literally completely unaltered for about 25 years, still grips us as it did when we were small? The white-knuckled controller grip is the same, the full-body muscle tensing is the same, the creeping, deadly palm-sweating is the same. But why?  Why aren’t we bored? Sure it could be that we, seasoned veterans all, are hyper-conscious of the razor-thin margin of victory we can expect to achieve, and that one split second misstep, change in direction, hesitation, or miscalculated button pressure (collectively referred to as a “freak out” or not “having it”) is all it takes to turn a glorious triumph into a regrettable setback. But part of the reason we might care so much about the daunting victory conditions laid before us is the constantly surging, ever repeating 8-bit encouragement of the Mega Man score. Whether there is science behind this idea or my friends and I have an unnatural commitment to something we shouldn’t, the music from Mega Man always makes me feel like focusing up and moving fast, and this isn’t an isolated experience. The reality is that this is one of the lighter associations that exist between my memory and music in games.

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9. Wherein the writer’s world is rent in two

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I recently played through a game called Far Cry 4 on the PS3 with my brother. He and I would take turns completing missions and generally visiting carnage on the fictional kind of India-like nation of Kyrat. From early on, we’d run through enemy camps firing exploding arrows from the back of an elephant, lobbing grenades at armed convoys, and releasing caged tigers to exact vengeance on their captors. Our avatar became synonymous with Old Testament-style destruction. Flames and chaos followed his every mountain climb, ATV ride, and wing suit glide. He instantaneously learned how to operate a flame thrower, aim a throwing knife, and fly a hang glider. We would add our own elements of challenge to the game (which would we worried was becoming too easy) by eliminating conventional machine guns and shotguns from our inventory and instead relying on a simple bow, a cowboy six shooter, a sniper rifle and explosives.  Our reign of terror was largely unmitigated. It was a lot of fun. At a few points our rampage would overlap with the game’s scripted story, and we would experience these cut scenes in which one of the other characters (two leaders of a violent revolution to free their homeland from an insane despot) would tell us about the cause, and send us out to accomplish something.Their army was usually standing around, or getting into skirmishes in the woods. When something important was happening, they called us up and said we needed to do it. Our avatar, who until the game’s first scene was an unassuming civilian, had become the blunt instrument of the revolution. As there was no other option, and because fighting bad guys for the cause was just as good as fighting bad guys for the hell of it, we went along and completed the missions, saving the day for the rebels or striking down some dangerous enemy or taking a vital strategic point. As the game went on, our interactions with our comrades became more divisive, and soon each of the two characters were advocating against the agenda of the other. They told us we must choose between them. We didn’t always love the choices, but to go with the flow we decided to select the course of action we felt was closest to what we thought we would do. Then they told us we had to choose between blowing up an ancient temple and destroying a culture, or defending the temple and giving a teenage girl over to a life of forced religious service as the symbol of a goddess (whatever that means, and it sounds kind of sexual and creepy). We looked at each other and said, “Excuse me, rebels, but fuck you. I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. I’ve just blown up half this country. What if I don’t like either of those options? Why would I ever take orders from the likes of you, a bossy peasant?” I paraphrased a bit, but the point remains. These narrative directions beg the question- why would anyone with this talent for sheer destruction, who is so nigh-unkillable, ever go along with some half baked plan if he doesn’t want to? Why doesn’t the unhinged killing machine that is my avatar EVER seem to be calling the shots? This doesn’t make sense, especially in the context of how I’ve been playing this game. It’s disorienting, and it pushes against the player’s immersion in the otherwise beautiful and arresting reality of the game world. It wrecks the illusion, and calls the validity of the whole experience into question. It make you feel like, maybe this game is junk, because it hasn’t accounted for this vast chasm of what it’s asking me to do and what seems reasonable for me to expect in this moment.

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8. Wherein the Writer Gets Fictionalized

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As per Andre’s recommendation I dug into Walter Ong a bit recently, specifically “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction,” and I found a lot of the ideas he expresses there really apply to games. Most immediately- what other form of expression fictionalizes its audience, or forces them into a role, more than video games? None. Not opera, not poetry, not graffiti. Maybe performance art, but that varies and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t usually follow you home. A game (to some degree, usually) forces its audience into a role that the player then stays with for hours, days, sometimes months or longer. The player returns again and again to a table set for someone other than themselves— sometimes someone similar to themselves to some degree but always other— and the only way they can eat is to assume another (sometimes obscured) identity. And that’s supposed to be part of the fun. A big part in fact. Some games do this in different ways and a lot of styles of games do this to different degrees. It’s often but not always games designed to be more digestible to children and families that do the most to cast the player (please read: audience, reader) in a prescribed role. When the intro cinematic opens up on almost any Mario game lately, the player is greeted with a brief tale of what darkness has most recently rolled across the idyllic Mushroom Kingdom, and what nefarious deed the villain (usually but not ALWAYS Bowser) has committed that drives the heroes to struggle against him (I think it’s always a him) across dozens of levels and finally banish him from the land or whatever. Another recent Nintendo game called Hyrule Warriors collects a bunch of characters from the Legend of Zelda franchise and sticks them into a story along the same lines as the outline I just… outlined. This game adds the really pleasant voice of a lady narrator who updates the player on what’s happening in the story between playable missions, and I think that’s key as we (read: I) talk about fictionalizing the audience. This lady, whose voice I have to say is really well suited to telling stories, not only tells the player what events have come to pass since the last battle, but also how the characters feel. One of them must put her mission on hold, even though it is desperately important, because she has come upon a village beset by monsters. Another, we are told, is worried about her charge, the princess who has gone missing, and is crossing time and space to find her. And then, when the narration ends and the next mission begins, the player picks up control of those very characters. In this way, the game, or its way of communicating its story to the player, has cast the player in the role of the self sacrificing hero who cannot ignore a plea for help, or the devoted companion who will stop at nothing to rescue her friend. These stances are not negotiable. There is no option to not free the village or rescue the princess. These are gameplay mechanics that are a slightly different topic but also serve to irrevocably cast the player into a role through which she will digest whatever narrative or experience the game has to offer. Hyrule Warriors, from which these examples are taken, was released for the WiiU, successor to the Wii, both of which have long been held to be the family-friendly option in the gaming console market. It is worth repeating that these types of games are generally considered to be more child-friendly, which could be a function of their direct audience-role-casting narrative. These games offer sweeping tableaus and detailed maps and intricate mythologies and backstories that are made available to the player from the outset. These elements serve to further flesh out the game world and serve the function of immersing the player more deeply in that world, thereby deepening her commitment to the role she’s asked to play. Continue reading

7. Wherein the Writer Learns to Bake

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I have a cousin that I looked up to growing up. It was from he and his brother that I inherited a lot of hand-me-downs. Hockey equipment, clothes, toys, and on the best of days, video games. I played video games a lot growing up, in a lot of different settings, and the happiest of these was when I was sharing the experience with my cousins, who were until a certain age my best and closest friends. My cousin Mike, to whom I referred at the top there, is a few year older than me, so naturally to me more or less everything he ever did was cool. Fortunately for both of us it ended up that we had and have a lot of shared interests, one of which has always been video games. A year ago, maybe two, Mike told me about something he saw on the internet, and it gave him an idea. He had found some plans for building an old arcade-style game cabinet, but much more importantly, he had learned about a technology that would allow us to use this machine to play any and every game we had ever enjoyed from our earliest memories up through the turn of the millennium. Logistical concerns aside, I was on board.

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6. Wherein the Writer saves the game

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One game designer interviewed for Tom Bissel’s collection of essays Extra Lives said of his work that he felt like he was writing his legacy in water. I though that was a remarkably poetic image and was impressed, but I also understood what was at the root of his concern. Video games, even popular titles and series, have a history of riotously nonstandard formats and radical changes in the span of only a few short years. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) for example, was a machine that was the original home of many of the most memorable and popular game franchises in history. (It’s true that Mario got his start- kind of– in arcade games. We’re ignoring that asterisk here for simplicity’s sake.) These foundational games, these landmarks of the form and sometimes originators of genres existed only on plastic cartridges that could be read only by the port fitted in the NES. For most of the world, that means the only way to access these games- their visual design, music, gameplay mechanics, narratives, etc.- was and still is to dust off an NES, plug it in, dig up an old Ninja Gaiden cartridge, and say a brief prayer that your ancient console still remembers your touch well enough that it will work for you. By the way, that’s another thing. The NES (and the Sega Genesis, Super Nintend0, N64, etc.) were and are NOTORIOUSLY finicky. Even when they were not yet obsolete an in fact relatively new (within a period of five years let’s say) a bizarre, technical/superstitious ritual had to be observed to ensure both your system and the game you wanted to play would work when you wanted them to. The exact amount of pressure plugging in the wires, the exact amount of force inserting the game cartridge, the correct direction and number of times to blow on the electrical connectors to ward off interfering dust and malevolent spirits. This was an exercise from which no gamer was excluded in the era of cartridge gaming. So it was to the almost comically, certainly unreliable arms of these divinely capricious consoles that game designers offered their Mona Lisas, the best work they could do expressing the height of the technology available to them. And sometimes all they had to show for their diligence was a staticky green screen, until some toddler came along and spit on their masterpiece enough to get it to work.

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5. Wherein the Writer Seriously Falters

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It’s been a tough few months. Experiencing very real and non-video game death, again, as well as a selection of the special snags, mires and quandaries that a person’s ongoing life can bring has kept my heart and mind far away from the individual tasks and broader thought that compose the larger pursuit of my Master’s thesis. In keeping with those feelings, a somewhat frustrated and dissatisfied essay follows.

 

I’m feeling like this isn’t something I want to do anymore. Like in the grand scheme, it seems like a lot of what we’re doing here is just bullshitting each other. Like we in this field, and possibly we in most or all of academia. Theoretically bullshitting each other- which I think is probably worse. An M.A. in Speculative, Hypothetical Bullshit Studies for me please, and I’ll jump in the workforce as a… Comp adjunct? And just keep the ball rolling. Maybe if I get lucky I’ll land a gig as a consultant or creative director, another pair of titles that don’t really, definitively mean anything. But I’ll make enough money in those positions to be able to afford to have some kids to whom I can teach the value of compromise.

My therapist has not so subtly reminded me that because I’ve grown accustomed to finding success with limited effort, I have a tendency to get really down and despondent, and sometimes even bail on stuff when I’m not getting it right away. Tell that to my ex-girlfriends, am I right? (I feel like that’s a joke for a persona other than mine.) I’ve sunk too much time and energy and put too much of myself into this pursuit to really think about walking away from it now. And I feel that there is value in obtaining and having a Master’s degree. So I will not be torpedoing this operation. Though I really could I’m not going to bail. Instead, I’m going to rally. Unfortunately, I’m coming to feel that this work that I am committed to finishing is not going to be the transformative, insightful, life-altering, culminating piece of my formal education that I had hoped it would be. I wanted this to be a thing that I made with my heart, that came from somewhere good inside me, that used the good parts of my head and my heart to create something that was both good and mine and that I could be proud of and feel confident in. Now I’m feeling like it’s just going to be something I write with my hands, using only the little get-out-of-trouble-quick part of my brain, and it will be adequate, and it might even be good, but when it’s done I won’t care about it (I might not even care about it while I’m working on it) and it won’t help me understand myself or what I want any better, and it won’t help me enjoy my life or appreciate it all, and it won’t open any doors or lead me in new, challenging, fulfilling directions that I can feel good about. It might get me some kind of job, so that will be ok. But it’s not not depressing. I really wanted to write about games because I have so loved gaming and certain games and game worlds and experiences. But so far I haven’t loved writing this way. It’s felt like a task, not a labor of love.

I’ve been told before that I have talent as a writer, although my feelings about the act of writing are ambivalent. I think I enjoy it, I enjoy being good at it, but I don’t always enjoy doing it. Working on my thesis lately has felt like the kind of writing I don’t enjoy: laborious and stressful and obligatory and not growing organically in a way that I’m excited about.

 

What followed after were my thoughts on switching the focus of my thesis to a piece on the performative nature of social media, identifying that behavior’s roots in traditional human interactions and explicating the uniqueness of it’s iteration on the internet, as well as juxtaposing my own social media presence with the psychological and emotional truth of my actual lived experience. It sounds like a great idea to me, but I don’t think I’m going to do it. I’m feeling a little better about my games project and the overall state of things since I first wrote this post a week or two ago. By no means do I feel solid and confident, but I at least entertain the possibility that my work could come out as something really positive.

4. Wherein the Writer Hears His Jam

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Did you hear that?  Listen to it. I’ll wait.

OK, now? OK. That music, for me- it’s hard to explain. It’s just a piece of music, probably simple as far as classical compositions go. I don’t know, I’m not a music person. I’m talking about my relationship with this piece of music, but not JUST this piece of music, and I mean that on levels. No, its not just this piece of music, its the emotional life that this music has tied into in stages over years. But more literally I mean it isn’t even literally this piece of music. It’s a whole collection of music that sound like this. Variations on these themes, rendered at every stage of complexity- from 8-bit sound files to a single guitar, so a full symphony orchestra accompanied by a choir. All forms of this piece of music thrill me, and it’s not because “it’s such a good song.” How could it be? It’s not even a song. Listening to this admittedly subdued iteration of this theme music brings out in me a feeling of importance, or urgency. I want to get up and do something. I want to run. In every version no matter how simple, this music feels like the beginning of an adventure. It’s tied to being called to adventure, to action. It reminds me of a quiet room and free time, and a dark screen, and then it’s like a wormhole into another dimension, an explosion, a tornado into technicolor. In a medium where we can’t smell anything, the sound, this music is our most immediate sensory companion. And it runs right into us like its being injected into our veins and it feel like it’s flowing so fast. Like flying. Like you’re a different person. In an instant suspended disbelief becomes full immersion, and its not so unbelievable that you can be the hero you want to be. Just like that, you’re in the world, you’re taking up the quest. And the music, as the first part of your experience, is your portal to that, and it stays with you for the whole experience. Exploring the world, meeting important characters, fighting the battles, beating the game, the music is part of the fabric of it all, and weaves it all together. And it doesn’t matter how simple or complex it is, the point is that it’s incredibly evocative. Hearing even a chord, a note, at any time can pull a player out of their lived and into a memory of a moment they may have lived a dozen times. It has the ability to take you from sitting on the subway to saving a princess and a world in an instant, because somebody’s phone rang. The feeling is, it’s time to go. Get up, it’s time to be who you are now. For reference for the uninitiated, the above symphonic arrangement, the passion and power that begot it and exists within it, comes from the below. Valuable, for contrast.