Sexual Identity in Silent Hill

By Justin Tokarski, Video Games Section Editor

I love the horror genre. When done well, horror can connect with those primal fears that rest in the back of your mind, and there is a certain pleasure associated with being able to safely explore fear and the unknown. When done very well however, horror can function as the perfect bait-and-switch. Because horror focuses the reader, viewer, player, etc. so much on their own fear, thematic motifs and hidden meanings are often placed into works of horror and subtly taken in.  This brings me to Silent Hill, a game about the burdens of female sexual maturity, pregnancy, and rape.

(Because this analysis deals with the game as a whole, spoiler warnings are in effect. If you haven’t played Silent Hill, you should go do so right now anyway.)

If you are familiar with Silent Hill‘s plot, feel free to skip this refresher.  7 years before the events of Silent Hill, a woman named Dahlia Gillespie performed a ritual to impregnate her daughter Alessa with the god of Silent Hill’s cult by immolating her. Alessa survived because housing the god rendered her immortal, and was subsequently kept at Alchemilla Hospital under the care of Doctor Kaufmann and nurse Lisa Garland. Alessa split her soul in two in an attempt to stop the birth of the god in her, and the other half of her soul was reborn as a baby who was found and adopted by Harry Mason and his wife. Dahlia cast a spell to bring Cheryl back to Silent Hill, and the town was cut off from the world and filled with monsters by Alessa’s new found powers. As the game proper starts, Harry and Cheryl are driving to Silent Hill, but are in a car accident and Cheryl goes missing. He is helped along the way by a police officer named Cybil who is stuck in the town. Cybil becomes possessed by one of the town’s monsters and attacks him, but Harry saves her with a strange liquid he found in the hospital. Dahlia tricks Harry into helping her reconnect Alessa to Cheryl, but Doctor Kaufmann appears and uses a substance called Aglaophotis to force the god to be born prematurely by splashing Alessa with it. After Harry defeats the unfinished god, Alessa leaves Harry her soul in the form of a new baby and they escape Silent Hill.

Now we are ready to look at the implicit meaning of the game.  Let’s begin by looking at Alessa. At the time of the ritual which impregnated her with the cult’s god, she was 7 years old. She splits her soul, which results in the ‘birth’ of a new baby, Cheryl. When Cheryl comes back to the town, Alessa has aged 7 years and would be sexually matured enough to become naturally pregnant. She attempts to preserve her sexual immaturity by flooding the town with monsters and setting up symbols around the town to stop her mother from completing the ritual. Once reunited with the other half of her soul however, she becomes a creature known as the Incubator. The name is less than subtle, as an incubator is something which maintains the optimal conditions for the growth of biological matter. Typically this is done with cell cultures, tissue samples, and eggs, but the concept of an incubator can easily be extended to a pregnant woman. Within the game’s canonical ending however, Kaufmann appears and splashes Incubator with Aglaophotis, causing the god being incubated inside Alessa to emerge prematurely as the final boss Incubus. Given the role Alessa plays in the game, her transformation into an incubator, and the method of the emergence of Incubus, it seems that Aglaophotis causes Alessa to undergo a chemically induced abortion. As she dies, Alessa once more gives ‘birth’ to a baby which carries her soul. In Alessa, we see a girl who tries to fight off her impending sexual maturity out of fear of her pregnancy by rape, but who willingly gives birth twice as a way to regain the innocence she lost.

Dahlia likewise has a unique relationship with issues of pregnancy.  She gives birth naturally to her daughter Alessa, but during the events of the game we can assume she is post-menopausal given her appearance. Though biologically infertile, she vicariously engages in procreation by being the catalyst for her daughter’s impregnation. When Cheryl returns to Silent Hill, she is directly responsible for reuniting Cheryl and Alessa and bringing them both to full sexual maturity and fulfilling her daughter’s pregnancy.

While much of Cheryl’s experience with regards to her sexual maturity are mirrored in those of Alessa, her relationship with her father is note worthy. When Cheryl was 3, Harry’s wife died of an unmentioned illness. Because of the absence of a sexual partner, Harry too lacks the ability to procreate. Harry does have a subtle relationship with his adoptive daughter’s sexual maturing however. When he is tricked by Dahlia, Harry unwittingly brings about his daughter’s aging and impregnation through her merge with Alessa. This is further supported by the fact that, according to Silent Hill‘s director Keiichiro Toyama, Harry and Cheryl were originally going to be named Humbert and Dolores respectively. These refer to the characters in Vladmir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, wherein Humbert is the stepfather, and sexual partner, of the young Dolores. Like Humbert, Harry brings his non-biological daughter into sexual maturity.

Creator comments translated from the Book of Lost Memories.

When Cybil is possessed by one of the monsters in the town, the method of possession is very important. There is a creature which attaches itself to doctors and nurses in the hospital like a parasite and is able to control them. This is the creature which possesses Cybil. Though typically when ‘parasite’ is used, it is given a negative connotation,when taking the term neutrally it can apply quite aptly to the relationship between fetus and mother. Unlike many benign parasites, the social and biological realities of pregnancy have a great effect, to the point of the fetus exerting control over the mother. This possession by a parasite is also physically forced upon Cybil, and thus is another instance of rape, if this possession represents a pregnancy. Now, comparing Cybil’s possession to pregnancy might seem like a stretch if not for one very important fact. Harry saves Cybil by killing the parasite with Aglaophotis. There is no doubt that when Kaufmann uses Aglaophotis on Alessa, it functions as an abortion drug. If the use of Aglaophotis represents an abortion, then the death of Cybil’s parasite is also an abortion.

Having gone through all of the characters and events of the game, it seems fitting that we end at the beginning. Silent Hill opens with the quote “The fear of blood tends to create fear for the flesh”. This quote never appears within the game, nor is it ever referenced or explained. It may be viewed as just a general statement about blood and death that fits the mold of a horror game, but assuming that the game is about sexual maturity, it takes on a different and more defined tone. For most women, their first direct experience of their reproductive sexual identity comes from their first period. Culturally, menstruation has been viewed in many different ways, and fear or revulsion is not uncommon. Within some societies, women were sent away during their periods, and others viewed menstruation as unclean. Even within our own society, discussing periods are avoided and associated with overly emotional behaviour. “Fear of blood” could very well refer to the negative cultural and individual relationship with menstruation, and a subsequent vilifying of the female body and sexuality as the “fear of the flesh”.

Monsters in Silent Hill games represent the psychological trauma that the characters have gone through.  The themes of pregnancy and rape which flow through Silent Hill similarly represent the kinds of trauma and responses to it that having sexual maturity thrust on one by pregnancy and/or rape can produce.  Like other great works of horror, Silent Hill doesn’t pose questions or give answers, but merely presents itself and lets us, the players, safely explore it’s dark alleyways.

Ethical Relativism in Indigo Prophecy

By Justin Tokarski, Video Games Section Editor

Game developer Quantic Dreams is best known for their 2010 game Heavy Rain.  The game stirred some controversy among game critics and players for its unique gameplay, with some calling it a step forward in immersive gameplay and others decrying it as an interactive movie.  Personally, I side with the former camp.  Heavy Rain is a game where, to a degree, your choices are ambiguous in their consequences.  For example, there is a section of gameplay where you take care of your child after school.  You can either follow the schedule of homework, dinner etc. or you can let your kid watch tv.  This isn’t done in a Mass Effect way either, where one choice decides the whole scenario, but rather you actually have to perform all of the actions (making dinner, turning off the tv, etc.).  While this entire scene has no bearing on the games plot and could have easily been skipped, it sets an important precedent.  You, as the player, get to construct this character and the rest of the game will be played with the knowledge that you are controlling a responsible parent or a spoiling father, even though it has no in game effects on gameplay.

I could make him do his homework, but Adventure Time is on.

 Now, those familiar with Quantic Dreams’ previous game Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit outside of the U.S.) will recognize that many of the gameplay conventions in Heavy Rain began with Indigo Prophecy, however there is one major difference between them which completely changes the tone of the game.  In Heavy Rain, the player to a large degree constructs the motivations of their avatars, and so there is a necessary ambiguity in their diegetic motivations.  Indigo Prophecy presents the player with avatars who already have motivations which are not only at odds with each other, but sometimes with the player as well.  Because of this, the player must confront not only the difficulties of navigating these ethical dilemmas, but the possibility that there is no way to adequately decide between them.

Firstly, let me address the issue of ethical relativism.  Relativism is a much maligned term because of the implication that it is essentially a free ticket to do whatever you want.  There are no morals or ethics because everything is relative, so there is no real good or bad and people can do whatever they want with impunity.  Relativism is not quite so simple.  It is not that ethics do not exist, but that the truth or justification of them is not absolute and often such claims must be done within a specific framework.  Now, relativism is a term which has countless meanings for different philosophers and to address all of them here would be impossible, so I will be using the rather simple formulation given above.

How is it then that Indigo Prophecy forces the player to confront issues of ethical relativism?  It does this primarily in two ways.  Firstly, character motivations in the game are often at odds.  Control throughout the game shifts between Lucas Kane, an unintentional murderer, Carla Valenti and Tyler Miles, detectives investigating the murder, and Marcus Kane, Lucas’ brother and a priest.  Clearly, for some of these characters, their goals are very different, but that doesn’t meant hat ethically they must be at odds.  While a rather simplistic ethical formulation, let’s assume that Lucas and Carl believe that murder should be punished.  Lucas doesn’t believe that he was the cause of the murder, and thus it is ethical for him not to be punished.  Carla believes that he is the murderer, an thus should be punished.  The characters knowledge of events puts their motivations and goals at odds, but not necessarily their ethical beliefs.

Not something the police would approve of.

I won’t go into the plot to deeply, but the characters ethical beliefs are of course much more complex.  The characters have a Mental Health meter which, when dropped to far into the negative, will result in a game over.  Working towards goals which do not align with the characters ethical beliefs will negatively affect Mental Health, though it may benefit other characters.  The player, in taking control of these characters, must decide whether characters actions will oppose their ethical goals or not.  Marcus and Tyler both hold familial responsibilities above civil and professional considerations, while Carla and Lucas place justice and individual responsibility above legal obligations.  Marcus wants to please his girlfriend, sometimes at the expense of his time devoted to police work.  As such, when playing as Tyler, fulfilling his goals will be at odds with Carla, and working with Carla will have negative effects on his well being.  Marcus’ concern for his brother’s well being trumps his religious duties to help others, and so he does not assist the police in their investigation when he has the opportunity.  Carla’s determination and devotion to her work and delivering justice has a negative effect on the Mental Health of all other main characters at various points in the game when they either are forced to work towards her ethical goals, or are pushed into external and/or internal conflict due to her antagonism.

Secondly, while it may seem trivial to point out that, in making Tyler perform badly during an investigation to benefit Lucas, the player is aligning themselves with Lucas, it is a bit deeper than that.  The player is not only forced into taking on antagonistic roles and, as such, confronting the incompatibility of these characters’ ethical goals, but the player forces a meta-ethic of sorts onto the game.  If the player plays the game in an attempt to fulfill every objective and complete all goals, then the characters will all be equally working against each other and no ethical system is privileged.  The ethic forced on the game then is one of complete ethical relativism, where the only way to judge one’s actions ethically is through a specific framework.  All of the characters in the world act to the best of their abilities to achieve the goals in line with their particular ethical norms, and none are privileged because the player contributes the same amount of effort into completing, and thus tacitly endorses, each one equally.  If the player works against some characters by sabotaging them while in control, and thus attempts to privilege one system over the other, they also work against themselves.  Choosing one specific ethical framework undermines the meta-ethic of fulfilling the goals of the game.  This also does not remove the fact that, even when attempting to sabotage some characters, antagonistic actions will still have to be performed by the player to avoid a game over.

But, I might have to play as him again in ten minutes!

Indigo Prophecy is a good example of how games can address important themes and ideas through gameplay rather than plot.  The positioning of the player forces them to address questions of relativistic normative ethics without directly confronting them in the narrative.  Most importantly, in doing this through gameplay, Indigo Prophecy does not make value judgements, but merely invites the player to explore it themselves.

Journey and Skyrim: When an Unrelenting Force Meets a Call for Help

Journey and Skyrim.  Two wildly different games, and yet even in their varied gameplay, plot, and tone, they both share a unique focus.  Both games place a philosophy of language and power as central to their games, and while analyzing either one would be interesting, seeing what motivates these fundamental differences sheds light not only on the implications these different philosophies hold but on the way in which such philosophies may be necessitated by game design choices.
The music for the Elder Scrolls games is iconic. Though perhaps not as well known as The Legend of Zelda‘s Overworld theme, or the Super Mario Bros.‘ World 1-1 theme, the Elder Scrolls‘ theme song is a fantastic and memorable piece of music by any standard. Now, it may be odd to talk about one theme, since each Elder Scrolls game has a unique variation on the basic tune, but they all have that same melody in common. Why am I bringing up the music of the Elder Scrolls games? Because for every Elder Scrolls game before Skyrim, the theme song set the tone for the game, especially in trailers or opening cutscenes. Skyrim, though, is different.
When Skyrim was announced, the hero’s cry is what set the tone for the game. Everyone was excited by that shout. It was defiant and powerful. Once Skyrim came out, though, it became clear that it wasn’t just a marketing ploy, but something integral to the game. Not only is the cry, known as the Dragon Shout, a primary game element, but it is the driving force of the plot. Just to get those who haven’t played the game up to speed, in Skyrim, you take on the role of the Dragonborn, a mortal born with the soul of a Dragon. As a result, you have the ability to speak the language of Dragons and wield it as a weapon. You are the first Dragonborn since the Septim bloodline, the royal family of the empire, was ended. Though I am primarily concerned with gameplay here, it is important to understand the history behind the Dragonborn because Skyrim functions as a retcon for all of the Elder Scrolls mythology. If the Septim bloodline were all Dragonborn, then they would all be able to speak the Dragon language.
In a single player desert, no one can hear you speak,

Skyrim shares this focus on language as a gameplay mechanic with Journey, the latest game from thatgamecompany. I looked at Journey in my last article, specifically as to whether it can even be considered a game. (For the ease of this article, I’ll refer to it as a game, though understanding the distinction between games and non-games can help explain the differences between Skyrim and Journey.) Journey is exactly what its name implies, a journey. You play as a cloaked figure traveling across a desert towards a mountain. There is no explicit plot, no combat, and no deaths. It is possible to meet other players along your travels, but it is randomly chosen who you will be paired up with, you cannot speak to the other player directly, and you need not even work together except in an indirect fashion. But, why compare these two very different games?  Both Journey and Skyrim are about what language does and the power it has, and both take these positions because the player’s avatar and their actions essentially require those functions.

In Skyrim, language has two major dimensions of power. The most obvious form of this power is in the Dragon Shouts. The most well known, Fus Ro Dah or Unrelenting Force, is essentially a force push. Players can easily launch people and bears, and even stagger dragons. With the Dragon Shouts, the Dragonborn can breath fire, freeze enemies, slow down time, speed up their blades, distract enemies for ambushes, breach enemy armor, and do many other things uncharacteristic for yelling to do. The Dragon Shout is aggressive, oppressive, a literal battle cry. Language forms a physical barrier between the speaker and listener and places those with language on a higher level of power than those without it. However, it is not only in this respect that the Dragon tongue is powerful. I mentioned that the Septim bloodline were all Dragonborn as well. It stands to reason that they too could speak the Dragon language, a language which no one else could speak (or at least could speak with the same level of fluency). The symbolic difference of power as royalty is also a linguistic difference of power. The Septims and the Dragonborn are separated from all others by a knowledge gap, one which is primarily oppressive. The fact that the language cannot be spoken by others both closes off any knowledge written or spoken in Dragon tongue, but allows them to hide their own speech. This may seem to be a strange way to conceive of power, but it is an issue of accessibility of information. By withholding (though not necessarily maliciously, or even intentionally) not only forms of written knowledge, but their own communications with each other, the Dragonborns are placed on a higher level of power than others.

The power of the Dragon Language.
Journey has fewer button inputs than a whole Dragon Shout in Skyrim. For those unfamiliar with Skyrim, that is fewer than three buttons. In Journey, you can jump/glide and say your name. Now, there is no explicit indication that the one word your character can speak is their name, but there are some things which suggest it. When you press the button that calls out, a symbol appears over your head. In multiplayer, each player has a different symbol, and thus a different word. One of the most important functions your word serves is to collect tags and cloth (which may also have words written on them) and bring them into you, through your scarf, to extend your glide length. You bring other words into yourself, but whereas they disappear, your word remains unchanged. If the word of the player is unique and unchanging, then it is an identity, a name. And the name in Journey calls together other words as tags, shows other players that you are there, and asks for a path in the wild. Now, I know that sounds rather poetic, but it probably should. It is difficult to phrase cooperation as action because action is a very individual thing, but half the actions in Journey are cooperative. You do not physically force the tags to join you or move things for you; you can only call to them. You can show other players that you are there, but you can’t make them help you. The only physical effect players can have on one another is to transfer flight to each other through their names. Visibly, the most the player does is make things glow. Words don’t physically move things. In Journey, language does not have an oppressive power or a physical power. Language has power in that it is shared. Cooperation is physical power, but shared language is a form of communicative power that makes cooperation possible. One’s name is unique, but through language it is shared. It is an identity, and a request for help.
Sharing your name.
Thematically and in gameplay, Journey and Skyrim present very different philosophies of power and language. If this were a discussion of one game or another, then that would be enough of an analysis, but we’re looking at both. Why is it that Skyrim has such a different view of language? The Dragonborn is special. There needs to be something which places the Dragonborn above everyone else. In past games, prophesy was what placed the character above others, but here it must be something which connects the player to dragons but is still a mortal. As primarily an action with no defined race, skills, or name, knowledge is what can separate the player from others. But, being special by action, that knowledge must be action. Language makes the player special and powerful on their own. Pitted against most of the inhabitants (including animals and dragons), the power must be something oppressive and combative. But Journey presents the player as unique only in their identity, not in specialness or action. Without unique action and without enemies, power comes through cooperation and thus language comes through cooperation.

In both of these games, language is integral and powerful, but it is the position of the player and their actions which define what language does, not the other way around.

thatgamecompany and Anti-Games

Alexander Galloway in his book Gaming: Essays on an Algorithmic Culture, talks about the possibility of countergaming. He uses countergaming in a similar manner to countercinema, where the medium is in a sense turned back uponitself. Without going too far into his notion of countergaming, the concept does rest on a number of formal differences between it and conventional gaming. All of these differences in some way attempt to in some way break the representation of what goes on in the game and present what actually goes on instead. The formal differences are the presentation of things such as game code without graphical representation, experimental narratives, embracing and foregrounding of glitches and unexpected code behavior, invented (non-Newtonian) physics, non-correspondence between player inputs and gaming outputs, and alternative modes of gameplay. Many of these counter games eschew gameplay completely, but there are some which still have some remnants of gameplay and follow some of the formal structure of a traditional game. Is there some way of distinguishing between something which is a radical departure from a game, an something which ceases to be a game; a gamic equivalent of modernist art versus dadaist anti-art? I would argue that there is, and that in factanti-games need not be bizarre mods, but can very closely resemble traditional games in all but one area. Namely, in the anti-game, a player cannot lose.

Doom (1993) – God Mode Active

Once again, I will be referring to my definition of the loss condition. I will briefly state the loss condition as a summary, but will not be going in depth. The loss condition is a condition of gameplaywhich, when achieved, results in the player being put into the state of loss. The state of loss is a player state where, through the player’s direct actions and not environmental restriction, actions which would, all things held constant, be allowed are unavailable. This certainly is a very contentious definition, but it is one that Iwill be assuming.

So, what does this mean or the concept of the anti-game? The most extreme departure from traditional modes of gameplay is, I would argue, a removal of the loss condition. Without a loss condition, the motivation and meaning behind all game actions change. Psychological motivations behind player actions would of course be different, but at a more fundamental level gamic actions move from antagonistic to cooperative. What I mean by this is that player’s are no longer playing against, but are playing with. Histhen becomes not a game, but an interactive media experience more akin to a film than Call of Duty.

I realize that much of the previous paragraph is rather vague, so letme ground it in a real example of something which is mistakenly categorized as a countergame or anti-game, namely Heavy Rain. Heavy Rain has been called an interactive story and a cinematic experience, but it had also been charged with not being a videogame. However, the hallmarks of a traditional or conventional game are all present. The game has (rather good) graphical representation of code, a traditional (if a bit confusing) narrative, avoidance of glitches and unexpected behaviors, recognizable physics, direct correspondence between player inputs and gaming outputs, and traditional modes of gameplay that are merely used indifferent contexts than usual. The important thing for this analysis however is that there are loss conditions. It is possible to fail challenges, have entire scenarios made unavailable, and even die. For this reason, Heavy Rain not only still qualifies as a game, but would not even fall into the category of being a countergame.

Heavy Rain (2010)

I bring up Heavy Rainnot just to provide a real example of a game which does not fall into the category of anti-game, but also because I wanted to have something positive to counterbalance the rather controversial and, some would say, negative stance I am taking throughout the rest of the article. I’m claiming that the critically acclaimed games Flower and Journey by thatgamecompany are not in fact games. This is because Flower and Journey have no loss conditions. At no point in these games is there a non-environmental restriction on player actions. There are setbacks in these games. In Flower it is possible to be electrocuted and lose some petals, but this loss has no effect on the actions the player can take. Even though the player is temporarily stunned by the electrocution, it does not meet the requirement of having actions made unavailable if all things are held constant. Similarly, in Journey it is possible to miss jumps and even be hit by enemies (if they caneven be called that), but these do not meet the definitional requirements of having something be a loss condition. Without loss, these games have interaction and progress without challenge. These are the same elements that can be found in other non-game mediums. Books require the physical turning of pages and active reading along withthe plot. If one doesn’t turn pages, or reads all of the pages out oforder, one is not in fact reading the book. Films require active watching along with the plot of the film. Closing one’s eyes or fast forwarding and rewinding at random does not allow the viewer to watch the film. Flower and Journey, like films and books, are interactive narratives, but without loss conditionsthey cannot be called games.

Flower (2009) – Being electrocuted by live wires.

Now, being an anti-gameshould not be seen as something negative, like some kind of jab or insult. I think that these two are beautiful and that the theme of words as action and power in Journey is fantastic. More broadly, I think that anti-games important for defining the limits of what games are in the way that anti-art pushes at the bounds of what we define as art. The fact remains though that Flower and Journey are not in fact games, but that need not be a bad thing. Galloway expresses a desire for us to embrace countergaming. While I do not believe that games need to justify themselves as art, there is a sense of artistic maturity in a medium which explores the boundaries of its own methods and expressions. I think that weshould embrace counter games, and especially anti-games for what the can do for us and for games in general. However, I think it is misguided to try and make anti-games something they are not, namely traditional games. For anti-games to really have the kind of power they can within the gaming community we need to accept that not all “games” are games and recognize where the difference lies.

Tetris and Communism: How to Bring Down a Wall

Editor’s Note: This article was part of a series of April Fools themed articles released on April 1st, 2012. As such, the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the author, the ACP staff, or anyone with basic logic skills. Enjoy, but try not to take them too seriously!

On June 6th, 1984, Soviet scientist Alexey Pajitnov’s game Tetris was released. Less than eight years later on December 26th, 1991, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. Coincidence? Perhaps. But let us take a closer look at Tetris and what it has to say about Soviet Communism.

Let’s first examine what exactly is the goal of Tetris. Blocks fall from the sky and slowly build up. If the blocks are arranged well, then they will disappear and all present blocks will fall one level. If the blocks are constructed badly, they will build up and eventually reach the top of the screen, ending the game. The game keeps time to gauge how long the player has been playing the present game. As the player progresses, their score rises based on blocks destroyed and time passed. So, of these basic components which make up the game, let us ask again: What is the goal of Tetris? Is it to get a high score? No, as the score is, at best, a psychologically motivating force and, at worst, a graphically represented algorithm insignificant to gameplay. Is it the timer? Once again, it is either psychologically motivating or just an insignificant graphical feature. Time will move during gameplay, whether the game keeps track of this or puts up a visual representation of passed time. So, what then is the goal of Tetris?

To make impossible shapes?

Without going too much into what makes loss (here is a more in depth analysis of loss for reference), we can safely say that there is one way to lose at Tetris; namely, having the blocks reach the top of the screen. To have the blocks reach the top of the screen, however, requires that the player have made systematic construction errors, the kind that would doom any structure which was built with that particular wall. And so the game presents the player with a problem; namely, that properly constructing the wall destroys it, and improperly constructing it allows it to stand, but also leads to failure. I think the comparison here is quite blatant, but I’ll elaborate.

Soviet Communism had a number of issues, to say the least, but one of which was how to balance successes without proportional rewards. For example, as the Soviet Union’s issues grew and the economy began collapsing, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced his progressive and somewhat non-Communist programs of glasnost and perestroika. The attempts to build a better wall became the beginning of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Specifically, they lead to unrest among the people who saw a better wall without Communism, as well as a failed coup which doesn’t really have a good counterpart in Tetris. On a much smaller level, the fact that Alexey did not have the rights to his own creation lead to the rights being taken and used by a number of Capitalist companies. The badly built wall of personal ownership led to him losing his property rights.

A badly built wall falling down.

So, now that I have clearly proven that Tetris was a subversive political commentary on the future of Soviet Communism, what political statement does it make on the relationship between Western Capitalism and Soviet Communism? Capitalism is based primarily on competition for limited resources which, in modern society, are represented symbolically by physical and virtual money. The representations of virtual money are very much akin to the scores in video games. Whereas Soviet Communism cannot sustain itself by constantly building pointless walls, Capitalism can, if there is an incentive in the form of points which drives the practice. On another level, the representation of Western Capitalism in the form of the score continually grows stronger as Soviet Communism essentially runs itself down through pointless construction (i.e. the arms race) at the expense of making dooming construction errors (both physically and in economic and political policy).

I am a huge proponent for not only the artistic appreciation of games, but also of a recognition of the social and political power that games can wield. The fact that Alexey Pajitnov was able to accomplish such an effective form of political criticism of Soviet Communism while living under its oppressive control is a true testament to the power of video games and Alexey’s genius.

Interview With Greg Kasavin

Editor’s note: The following interview is with Greg Kasavin, writer and designer for Bastion. Be warned, as the interview contains spoilers.

Justin: Today, I’m here with Greg Kasavin. Did I say that correctly?

Greg: Yeah, that’s right.

Justin: Great. People mispronounce my last name in very odd ways, so I always feel bad when I mispronounce other people’s names.

Greg: How do you say it?

Justin: My last name is pronounced Tokarski.

Greg: Okay. That’s what I would have thought.

Justin: Yeah, pretty Polish. Well, as I said, I’m here with Greg Kasavin, who was involved with the writing and design for the videogame Bastion. One of the things I was most interested in was where the story of Bastion got started. A lot of authors have a specific place they start from. One of my favorite books actually, “The Sound and the Fury,” Faulkner said it started with the image of a girl standing on a tree branch looking in a window who never was never even a narrator of the story. So, did Bastion start anywhere specifically, or was it an idea that developed over time?

Greg: Yeah, it’s funny. I’ve been trying to retrace some of the steps there. The game itself started with a really simple idea actually, which was this idea of an action RPG where you built the world around you, and that was it. We didn’t even know what exactly that meant, and that was kind of the point; kind of a rich idea open to evolution during the course of development. I think the stuff that we felt from the beginning, we did know up from that we wanted it to have some sort of story that could hopefully be meaningful to people that purveyed the experience on some level, but that wouldn’t interrupt the play experience either, and that’s what eventually led to our use of narration as basically a storytelling technique.
As for where the substance of it came from, I do think it was inspired by that idea of building the world around you. I think that was originally Amir’s idea, our studio director. Where that got me thinking about the story was what sort of … if you are building the world, what are you doing? Either you are building it from scratch, or you are rebuilding it. It can only be one of two thing. So, it wasn’t long after that I got pretty attached to this sort of rebuilding, which is a pretty universal story. History is filled with situations where there is some sort of terrible event, but the human spirit prevails anyway, and people rebuild, and everything somehow seems to turn out okay … until the next thing happens. So, that type of story seemed really interesting, and this idea of rebuilding after a loss of some sort was cool, and it lead to the thematic core of what the story was gonna be about. From there, a lot of the events of the world … a lot of the details happened during the course of development, but the high level story happened really early on; the story of a few survivors in this kind of fantasy frontier world. The theme and the tone of it were things that were important early on, even before we had a lot of the details. I gave you a lot about the theme, but the tone was inspired partly by the author Cormac McCarthy who has written “All The pretty Horses,” “The Road” and “No Country For Old Men.” Some of his novels have a very Western feel to them, but even the ones that aren’t set in that kind of time period or location have this Southern Gothic feel … this minimal dialogue that’s dripping with meaning and these rich sceneries. So, we liked that kind of tone applied to a fantasy game because we hadn’t seen any game attempt to do that and it seemed exciting to us. So that’s where it originated. He story existed in draft form even before we had the narration there, and we realized that narration was … that there was always gonna be this mysterious old man character in this place called the Bastion that you’re gonna restore; and the ending of the game was there. I had the ideas for that very early on, and I think we realized that very closely to what the original intention was. The narration technique turned out to be ideal for the kind of story we wanted to tell anyway.

Justin: A lot of world building games I’ve noticed usually take that rote of destruction and rebuilding. Though, it seems in RTS games the more building from scratch probably lends itself a little better gameplay wise. But a lot of these games I’ve played where you do start with this destroyed world you’re rebuilding, specifically I’m thinking of Dark Cloud 2 and I’m replaying Legend of Mana, the building seems to take play outside the flow of the game; in Dark Cloud 2 building the cities and in Legend of Mana actually placing the areas on the world. But in Bastion, it’s a lot more dynamic; you’re running along and the world is rebuilding itself that way. Did you go with that for the same reason you went with the fluid narration? So that the world building didn’t get in the way of the gameplay, but you still got the sense of rebuilding?

Greg: That technique was one of the first design ideas on the project. And it was partly there just to solve the problem of “How do we orient the player in the world without having to force them use a map like in a lot of other game, and without using a blatant arrow or something to point the way?” So, it actually started from there in a sort of … from a place that existed outside of any fictional conceit or anything like that. It just seemed like a cool idea from a design perspective. That in turn informed the fiction and I think helped us to nail down that kind of central theme of the world. But, we wanted it to be a very “pick up and play” game. We wanted to eliminate any kind of interruption from the experience, and make the game feel very streamlined but not at the expense of anything. We wanted to cut a lot of the fat that we felt were on some of the RPGs we’ve played and enjoyed over the years. We love RPGs, and we wanted to distill that experience down to the most important choices. And, in the case of the passive world building as you run around, it not only helps to direct the player through the world but it also tied back to the central theme. It was an interesting looking technique that got people thinking immediately when the saw it because they wanted to know what was going on. Why am I able to do this and what’s really happening here? That was a really cool response.

Justin: It was definitely a really neat opening, to wake up and start walking and suddenly the floor is just coming up beneath you. I thought that was a really fun way to open the game. Now, you gave me a lot to work with in that question, so I apologize if I jump around a little bit. You mentioned that there was an influence coming from that Southern Gothic style, even those that did not take place in the actual West. Did any of that go into the character designs? I wasn’t sure if it was intentional or not, but with The Kid and Rucks to a degree, it seemed they had this Western feel; the way the scarf was wrapped and Rucks was dressed. Is that what you were going with the art design for them?

Greg: Yeah, absolutely. It’s meant to be a trait of the world and the characters. Rucks kinda looks like an old Southern gentleman on some level. It’s not meant to be that direct, because it is a fantasy world, but we did wanted it to have touchstones back to the real world, and that was one of the post-colonial America feels we were interested in. It tied into some of the themes I this frontier world, so it informed how the narrator speaks and how some of the characters dress. You see some guys in cowboy hats, and some of the weapons are rifles and pistols and other things that wouldn’t look out of place in a Western. Obviously there are some things that are very different from genre conventions as well.

Justin: Especially in the second section of the game in the Wilds that definitely comes through, and to a degree the earlier sections too, even though it’s much more stone work. I think there is still that sense in some of those earlier levels. But in the last third of the game when you start getting into the Tazal Terminals area, the tone definitely switches. And the Ura themselves also look very different; the way Zulf and Zia are dressed, and also when you fight them as enemies. What was the inspiration for that very different look for them?

Greg: The main thing there is we are trying to immediately convey a cultural difference in an appearance through attire without relying on stereotypes. There are a bunch of different things going on with the factions in the game, but you can tell that both Rucks and The Kid have a darker complexion and pale white hair. It’s sort of ambiguous as to whether that is everybody, or just those two characters. Zulf and Zia have very pale complexions and dark hair. They appear very exotic from a Western perspective. They have a kind of Eastern appearance, but it’s not clear if it’s far Eastern or not. It’s supposed to be a hodgepodge of references but still be consistent among them. Like, Zulf is dressed in robe-like clothing as opposed to a gentleman’s jacket or something like that. That’s mainly what we were trying to convey; that these groups of people were different in their tradition and superficial appearance. The back story delves deeper from there.

Justin: Of the four main characters you actually encounter, The Kid, Rucks, Zulf, and Zia, I really enjoyed all of them but which was the first one to develop story wise?

Greg: You know, it’s gonna have to be…that’s tough. They all sort of happened at the same time, because it was thinking about the story I was interested in telling I wondered ‘who are gonna be essential participants for this story?’ They started out as the archetypal characters. The protagonist, the narrator wise man, the antagonist, and the “girl”. So, I think the archetypes for them happened at the same time, but actually it was definitely rucks in fact who was developed the most the fastest. In a lot of ways, he is the main character of the story because he is the one talking the entire time and the story is given from his point of view. I suppose the irony of that is his is the one back story that is never revealed in the game, though it informs everything. It informs the way he talks throughout the game. It was really important to us to make him a character and not just a narrator. It certainly made the writing easier on some level, because I could think about why he would say a certain thing. I could think of him as having an agenda for what he is saying. I had to answer the question ‘why is he telling the story and what is he all about?’ But, the character back stories all happened pretty close together. I initially never intended to include them in the game at all, and then we realized we could put them in in a convenient way in the Who Knows Where sequences, and I think that turned out quite nicely. Originally though, those back stories were only there to inform the rest of the writing.

Justin: I really did enjoy those Who Knows Where sequences; mostly after I got the Brushers Pike and the Calamity Cannon. T made going through the last two a little bit easier. I guess one of the reasons I was wondering if one of them took shape before the others is partially because of those sequences, but also because you had so few characters to work with it seems that it could be the story of any of the four. The Kid doesn’t talk, but you learn about his history, and of course you are playing as him, so it could be the story of The Kid as Bastion. But, just as easily it could be Rucks. You said it was a little bit easier to write for him. I’m guessing it was probably a little bit easier after deciding he would be telling this as a story for Zia, because then it gives a little more justification for what he says.

Greg: Yes. And once again, that idea was super important to me early on, even though the detail of him telling the story to Zia is relatively subtle. Some players don’t necessarily pick up on that. It’s not necessarily an essential point in the story, to me it was an extremely important detail because it made the whole thing make sense. Why is the story being told and to whom? It also seemed like a cool detail for those who were paying attention. But, all four of the characters, the story couldn’t exist without them. They were the cornerstones of the story.

Justin: I remember, I think it was just one sentence during the loading screen between two different areas, that he was telling the story to her. I thought “Oh, okay. It makes sense now”. One thing I really d enjoy about the game, moreso once I got to the end, that there was this running theme of changing the past, or having the future be very malleable. To m it seems it came through not just in the story, but through the gameplay; the level up system, where you can go back and switch upgrades at any time and the difficulty system, which I though was a really clever way to set up a difficulty system. Was that something that came out while you guys were working on the game? That it came out as a theme that was going to lead to the difficulty system being set up this way, or was it something that sprung up naturally over the course of development?

Greg: I think it was a little of each. From a design standpoint, we wanted to make a game that was easy to pick up and play and that rewarded experimentation on the players part instead of locking the player into a character build or punish a player for picking the wrong skill. Those are some of the things we wanted to solve for from a design perspective. But through the story we did have this theme of basically…and, I don’t like to vocalize it because I don’t mean to oversimplify it…but it boiled down to overcoming regret, and an exploration of that idea. We definitely wanted that to come across both in the story and the play experience, because ideally the story is there to support the experience and the gameplay isn’t there in service of the story. It’s the other way around. We wanted people to have that feeling of freedom and a sense that they understood the consequences and could change them, but still tie it back to the story theme whenever it didn’t interfere with what we wanted the play experience to be. I think the narrative choices at the end are the biggest expression of that. After giving you a bunch of gameplay choices in the end, the gameplay choices at the end of the game are purely expressive and have to do with how you as a player feel about the world at that point in the game.

Justin: I know I just keep going on about how ‘I like this’ and ‘I like that’, but I really liked having the ability to carry him back or leave him there. Of course the player wouldn’t have known that at the time, but it becomes a decision to keep fighting the Ura or just walk by. Also, I thought it was really nice that you didn’t do what some other games do where they have an achievement for doing it both ways, because I think it cheapens the choice a little bit. Personally, I would still be able to enjoy both the endings, but I think not making it ‘oh, now I have to go back and play it this way’ makes it a bit more compelling.

Greg: We definitely wanted the players to make those choices the way they thought felt should. And though we have two achievements for finishing the game, one of them was hidden, so we tried to trick people into thinking there was just going to be one ending and not force there hand from that achievement perspective. Yeah, I totally agree. Experientially we wanted people to just make that choice based on what they felt, not what they they would get out of it.

Justin: This is one thing I’ve discussed with a few friends of mine, who have played the game…When it comes to the new game plus, I like it in games like this where it is almost impossible to get all the upgrades in one run through. In fact, I haven’t gone back and checked but I’m fairly certain that with the items you need to upgrade the weapons, you can’t do it in one run. Of course the New Game + is a nice feature to have, but it seemed like it could go the route of ‘if you return the world to before The Calamity, the New Game + was actually you catching up to The Calamity inevitably happening again’. Is that something that was I your mind when you guys decided on a New Game + feature?

Greg: That was a story idea as part of the original story absolutely. In fact, one of the original thoughts about the story was that you would have to play through the game twice to get the option to do something different. The game turned out to be quite a bit longer than…at the point where we had the full scope of the game did we think that was a good idea anymore. We didn’t want people to feel forced to play through New Game + basically. But, yeah, the narrative motivation for it was always intended, and it was the reason we were always interested in the feature from the get go. And of course yo could choose the endings out of sequence. I think the introduction of New Game + can be a bit more satisfying if you choose one ending over the other, but since we open up the possibility of time continuity the idea of linear time ceases to have meaning anyway; so, I think the endings work in any order. Sometimes people ask what is the canonical ending, but in a certain way they aren’t mutually exclusive.

Justin: I actually had known there was a New Game + feature before had beaten the game, so I intentionally went with the Restore the world and the Escape order, because I thought it worked a little bit better that way. But, like you said, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. This is just getting to a little more of a personal question, but I know you started doing work in videogame journalism and were working at Gamespot for a while. Had you always been interested in segueing into more the design area of videogames and their creation, or is hat something that came up a little bit later after you had been working in the journalism aspect for a while?

Greg: That’s actually something I wanted to do since I was a little kid, since about 8n years old. What happened is I eventually fell in love in the media side of things, dabbling with that straight out of highschool. Suddenly it had been ten or twelve years and the thought occurred to me ‘if I don’t at least try game development sometime soon, I might miss the boat altogether’. It was one of those things I would rather try and fail than never try. So, it’s been about five years now, almost to the day, since I left6 Gamespot. It’s been kind of a wild ride. It was something that was a long time coming for me, but it’s not like I worked it…I’d love to think that I could plan on something that far ahead, but it’s not like I was working at Gamespot, biding my time until I could get into development. It did end up happening relatively spontaneously when it did happen.

Justin: I had a question about the, I guess you could call them pets. The little squirt and the bird and them. I really enjoyed it when I found out I could get them. I haven’t tried it, but I would guess you could not get some of the pets, at least the bird since you have to go out of your way to find the egg. I know that they do help out when the Ura attack the Bastion, but the squirt and bird didn’t seem to be able to do much. Does that kind of play into the theme of regret? That you weren’t just trying to restore the world through the machine, but also by bringing the native animals and the religion in the bull back into the world through the Bastion?

Greg: There’s a few things going on with them. They were something we tried at some point. It might have started as a bug, where a squirt appeared in town unintentionally, and we though ‘hey, that’s kind of cool. There’s something to that’. So, it started kind of spontaneously, and we like what it was implying. We added a few of the little pets, and all of them are optional. You could miss one hundred percent of them. And, narratively it was somewhat controversial on the team whether we should put them in the situation where they could die. We figured some people, even though they don’t do that much, would get attached to them; and that’s absolutely what happened. But, narratively, it was important to me that that could happen. During the game, you are massacring droves of these things,
and then the Ura come in and do to you what you have been doing the entire time, it ties back to some of the thematic stuff. All of this stuff is perfectly fine until it happens to you basically. In one of the endings yo basically have the option to basically revert what happens, and whether you care about those pets, it may sway the final decision you made. So, we have them fight in that battle, but it’s not there to balance the battle or anything. It’s meant to be really hard. But we liked the image of these little guys fighting for you and give their lives for you if that’s what it took.

Justin: That was admittedly a really tough battle. The first time it happened, I didn’t know what was going on and I just got railroaded. But, I actually had that experience of being very sad when I found out how many of them didn’t make it. The second time I played through the game, I did my best to keep all of them alive, but I couldn’t keep the squirt alive.

Greg: It’s definitely possible. Some people have saved them all. And there are some more hack-y ways you can avoid them coming to harm.

Justin: I’m sure there are. I tried to strong-arm it, but right near the end, it didn’t make it. Story-wise, the kind of themes that go into this game, colonization, with the Caelondians being foreign and the more religious native people being pushed out of the way by these people coming in and colonizing the area; clearly it’s not a new theme, but was there any sort of current events that influenced this? Specifically, I’m thinking of the fact that the Ura were not only very religious, but live more in a less technologically advanced cave area. Was the story a reaction of some kind to events going on internationally, or are parallels between these coincidental?

Greg: It’s certainly not intended to be allegorical. In fact, it’s very overtly not meant to be allegorical. But it’s meant to deal in themes that are universal and I think themes like that can always be applied to current events. I actually looked more to history and historical conflicts between neighboring nations as more of that inspiration rather than current events. Looking back more at Biblical times, and Babylon, and ancient Rome. Much like the story itself suggests, history has a way of repeating itself when it comes to some of those types of conflicts between neighboring nations or between colonial or imperialistic nations. There are just countless examples like that. But, no, the game was not meant to be a commentary on anything that’s happening right now. It’s very much meant to have the opposite effect. Part of our desire to make an original world is to play up the fact that games can have a really potent transportive quality to take you away from your worldly concerns; just take you to some amazing, far away place with it’s own interesting problems. That’s more what we wanted out of it, but again, we wanted the world of the game to feel like it…we wanted people to be able to relate to what was going on in the world on some fundamental level. So, hopefully that’s what you sensed from it.

Justin: A lot of those themes, especially those regarding colonization and battles between native and non-native peoples, pretty much stretch back to time immemorial. I liked that the characterization of the Ura, because you only had two that you dealt with as main characters, you got a really good sense of how varied they are. Being enemies, of course it’s easy to blanket ‘these are the enemies’, whereas with Zia you see this romanticizing the conflict through the folk song she sings It’s very peaceful, but it’s very clearly a war folk song. You see her desire to go back to the Tazal Terminals, and you see the opposite in Zulf trying to move to Caelondia to bridge that gap and move the Ura forward. It was nice that the Ura were characterized by having just these two you could focus on. It felt much less like they were just cannon fonder, and yo feel bad for them by the time you get to the end of the game.

Greg: That’s what I was hoping for. It’s a matter of perspective. This story happens to be told from the perspective from one off the two sides, but there is some version of the Bastion’s story where Zulf is the hero. That was very important to me, having a story where there is no real evil. Whatever evil happened, it happened in the past, and now it’s just a lot of intense antagonism brought about by people with profoundly different perspectives on what needs to be done. But from their respective perspectives, they are doing the right thing, and are battling whatever the evil force is. But you as a player see the bigger picture, that it’s a really bad situation where no one is in the right and a lot of people are having to get there hands dirty.

Justin: Well, Bastion is a very full game, and I could probably go on with questions for quite a while, but I know you are kinda busy. I can hear in the background…I come from a family of five kids, so I know the sound of someone needing attention. I really did appreciate the chance to sit down with you. Thanks for the interview.

Greg: Yeah, no problem. Take care.

Holidays and Videogames

Holidays and videogames have an interesting relationship. It is not often the case that a videogame explicitly connected to a holiday, and even less often does the holiday relate to the gameplay. This is most likely because videogames, by virtue of the medium, cannot engage with holidays the same way other mediums can.

For example, let’s look at the classic Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life. This film was previously looked at by our very own Jonah here on the ACP. Now, I don’t want to beat a dead horse, so I’ll just point out that, as Jonah said, one of the things that makes It’s a Wonderful Life so great is that is doesn’t need to be watched at Christmas. Christmas serves as a setting more than a reason for the film, however there is certainly something added to it by setting it at Christmas. Much the same can be said for other classics such as A Christmas Carol (or A Muppet Christmas Carol if you prefer tiny Tim as a little frog), A Christmas Story, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (both also written about on the ACP here and here). These are films whose messages aren’t necessarily based on Christmas, but are strengthened by the relationship with Christmas. These are stories of redemption, family, community, love, etc. If Christmas were taken out of the equation, they would still be great films.

Olive the Other Reindeer (1999)

Some films are explicitly about Christmas and really don’t work when taken out of that context. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Olive the Other Reindeer fall into this category. Separated from Christmas, they don’t stand on their own. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is a different category.

Christmas music is much more about tradition. This makes a lot of sense as even the most complex musical pieces can be broken down into a relatively simple kind of content. Because Christmas does not have an official key or tempo, to be a Christmas piece or song means that there is either explicit reference to Christmas or it draws on musical Christmas traditions and songs. An example of the former would be Feliz Navidad, a song which inescapable around the holidays, and an example of the latter would be Trans-Siberian orchestra’s Carol of the Bells, also quite inescapable during the holidays.

Books actually work quite similar to movies with regards to Christmas. They may either rely entirely on being related to Christmas, or simply have their main theme strengthened by being related to Christmas.

Unlike these other mediums however, in videogames content must serve gameplay to be a coherent work. Bayonetta is a game that revels in excess, but it works because the combat system is itself concerned with excess for example. Even games which have seemingly arbitrary gameplay choices when compared with the story and theme can still find ways to integrate themes with gameplay. Final Fantasy VII is a game with drive and purpose. You always have your goal in front of you, and the details of the turn based combat mirror this. The acquisition of limit breaks and leveling of materia also follow a straight forward path towards a clear goal. Final Fantasy VIII, while also turn based, has a combat system which involves finding weapon recipes, limit break manuals, drawing magic, and other much more round about mechanics. Likewise, it is a very round about game. The story feels directionless at times, as do the characters. This is not a bad thing, but merely is an example of gameplay finding a correlate in theme and story. The problem with holidays, and Christmas in particular, is that there really is no gameplay correlate.
Often what one finds is holiday easter eggs in games. Setting a clock to Halloween or Christmas may result in graphical changes, such as Christmas hats on the ninja turtles in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Gamecube, or Halloween decorations in Animal Crossing. Even in explicitly holiday themed games, there seems to be little reason for the games to be holiday themed. There does in fact exist a commercially sold game where the premise is Santa goes bowling with elves as pins. Gameplay wise, there is no relation to Christmas, and in fact the game feels more like a holiday skin was put over it in an effort to distinguish it from similar games. The issue is that holidays are not themselves a theme. Christmas often entails family, generosity, love, etc. but these are general themes, which Christmas is not.

So, it may be impossible to have a videogame that would be a true Christmas game, in the same way that Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is a Christmas movie, but it may be possible to have a videogame which is strengthened by being set at Christmas, even if it is just a visual change, in the same way that It’s a Wonderful Life is. For my money (or not money, since the game was free), I’d go with Christmas NiGHTS. The game NiGHTS Into Dreams was a beautiful game for the Sega Saturn which may have the most enjoyable flight controls in any game I’ve ever played. The creators released a version of the game with Christmas themed music, levels, and character designs. Being a game that fully embraces the wonderful feeling of flying in one’s dreams and is about discovering the most positive virtues like generosity and love, the Christmas theme fits right in at home. When it comes to videogames, that may be the best we can hope for.