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