Pokemon Conquest Gets an F- in History

By Chalkey Horenstein, Editor In Chief

Like many American gamers, I picked up a copy of Pokémon Conquest largely because of the Pokémon part, having little to no knowledge about the other half of the crossover, Nobunaga’s Ambition. Nor did I know anything about the titular character, Oda Nobunaga, who pursued conquest and unification of Japan in the Sengoku period. In order to feel somewhat informed about what I had just played, I looked up a few basic facts — and was both relieved and disappointed to find that the game itself was just as misinformed about Japanese history (and Pokémon history) as I was.

Based on the names, Pokémon Conquest is designed to seem based on the Sengoku period of Japan. Without going into a full blown history lesson, it was a time of a lot of war; and while many did not give up their kingdoms as easily as those in Pokémon Conquest do, loyalties were built over said wars and other politics, and eventually this would lead to the unification of Japan. Oba Nobunaga, the series’ antagonist, is known in both actual history and in Pokémon Conquest as someone who is a driving force for a while. 

Nobunaga does not succeed in conquering and unifying Japan in either case, though in the actual history he died from betrayal at the hand of Akechi Mitsuhide. Toyotomi Hideyoshi later rose to take his place, actually unified Japan, and then died, with Tokugawa Ieyasu eventually ruling. In the game, however, there is no betrayal; the final battle has Ieyasu, Mitsuhide and Hideyoshi all loyal to Nobunaga, and Nobunaga doesn’t die. Additionally, the fact that Ieyasu started as a prisoner of the Oda clan is not referenced at all. From what I’ve played of the side episodes so far and read online, neither the betrayal nor the inheritance of the nation take place at all; the player’s decision to let each nation rule itself seems to stand in the end, before anyone in Nobunaga’s clan gets any chance at ruling. 

In addition to real history, the game sort of botches Pokémon continuity as well. Several easter eggs reference “the other regions” that have Pokémon carried around in spheres — which not only anachronistically contradicts the feudal system setting of this time period, but also the fact that the terminology of “nations” and “regions” is inconsistent. In the other games, Kanto, Johto, Sinnoh, Hoenn, and Unova are “regions,” while the whole of the world in which the games take place is the “nation.” Conversely, the Ransei region of Pokémon Conquest has seventeen nations within it. Additionally, if we are to believe this is based on the Sengoku period of Japan, then the main player and Nobunaga are striving to take over all of Japan, while it is commonly believed that each other pokemon game’s region is a part of Japan. Oh, and there’s also the extremely obvious “what the hell is Mewtwo doing here” moment, where you realize that not only is Mewtwo allegedly one of a kind, but that somehow some unknown person in-game also managed to acquire the technology to bring him here.

Then there’s the stupidly obvious anachronism stew, like the existence of blimps, top hats, glasses, power plants, security cameras, and automated cranes. But we’re not even going to bother there.

But at least the game is true to the Nobunaga’s Ambition series, right? It still has that going for it, right? Well, sort of. Nobunaga’s actually a playable character right off the bat in the other series, which directly contradicts his role as an antagonist of this game. Not only that, but Nobunaga’s Ambition is a more complex game, with other necessities besides conquering land; players have to please the peasants to prevent riots, and sustain the economy to keep the obtained lands fruitful.

The game isn’t entirely off, though. All of the names are references to real people, and many of the warlords look at least somewhat similar to their real-life counterparts. Nobunaga, Tokugawa, and Uesugi Kenshin have very similar facial structures, and some carry the same outfits and family crests as their real-life counterparts (though occasionally a poke-ball replaces a notable other image). Date Masamune is probably my favorite here, because he is portrayed as a teenager in Pokémon Conquest and, in real life, is a good thirty years younger than Nobunaga, which puts him at approximately the right age for consistency there. Not only that, but his hair swoops over his right eye, making it unseen — which I choose to believe is a nod to the fact that he lost his right eye in childhood. Oichi, Nobunaga’s sister (a plot twist totally spoiled if you do know the history) is probably the biggest exception, looking nothing alike in terms of hair color, eyes, or body shape. She’s also extraordinarly whiny compared to her strong-willed real-life counter part.

Above all, the one thing Pokémon Conquest keeps consistent with previous Nobunaga’s Ambition is its own reputation for historical accuracy and intrigue. Games by the development team Koei in general are known for about 30-40% accuracy; the facts aren’t always correct, but the games give enough names to make it easy to look things up later, once you’ve gotten hooked. And much like other crossover games, the game gives you just enough of a taste of things you haven’t seen/tried yet to make you curious. It almost seems like, in many cases, the point of a crossover game is never to get things perfect, but just to attract interest using things you already enjoy as a branching off. 

So don’t get me wrong — none of this is a strike against the game. Pokémon Conquest is a stupidly addicting game if you’re into strategy games, and it’s actually a little more strategic than the average Pokémon combat system, despite each Pokémon only getting one move. But if you’re hoping to culture yourself or gain any sort of appreciation for the past, look elsewhere. Or, better yet, play the game, and just double check when you think you’re learning something. I’m sure the developers would still pat themselves on the back if they at least got you to look up what was right or wrong about the characters.

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.

Max Payne’s Interpretation of Self

Editor’s Note: this article was written by guest writer Lauren Shuffleton. Lauren Shuffleton is a writer, community organizer, and aspiring urban planner. Her double major in English literature and American studies is an elaborate and expensive cover to convince people her heated opinions on video games, activism, computer hacking, and B-minus television are all academically-sound.

The first reaction I had upon seeing the Max Payne 3 promotional material: Oh, I must be confusing the Max Payne series with something else.

I wasn’t, it turned out, but you can hardly blame me for my uncertainty:

Immediately I was drawn to the franchise, if only because I wanted to figure out why the visuals for the third game seemed so different. Why did Max Payne, who had been a white noir character created by a Finnish development crew for the first two installments of the series, suddenly look like he was trying to be a wee bit Latino? Why had they opted for this newly renovated Payne in so many of the game’s promotional materials if they had such a well-branded character from prior installments? Can I take this as a sign that the racial interests of the game might be slightly more complex than certain other portions of the promotional material suggest?

What I learned during my exposure to Max Payne and Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne was that the franchise is interested in notions of the self. The first installment was the first game to use bullet-time, the drastic slowing down of action sequences as seen in The Matrix, which instantly became a defining characteristic of the game. Of course, bullet-time is designed to emphasize Max’s (and the gamer’s) experiences and abilities over others’, since the gamer is able to relish every bullet in a way the target presumably cannot. It also serves to isolate the protagonist from the characters around him, in a sense privileging his experiences over others’.

The plot rests on Max, a protagonist coping with horrific levels of grief and guilt related to the murder of his wife and child, on a journey through his own psychology and towards vengeance. Regardless of what you believe “actually” happened in the first game,* the lesson is that you can never really rely on yourself. You are not so much a solid piece of flesh and psychology as you are an ever-changing, chaotic force of will at the mercy of the world around you and your own limited perspective.

Max’s strategy in the game echoes this. He is never deliberate, but rather throws himself into whatever opportunity presents itself. Media messages, chance encounters, and his own background as a cop fuel, aid, and interfere with his efforts, but generally his main tactic is that he runs around the game world aggressively being himself, even as his understanding of himself and his perspective shift.

Of course, this self still has effects on the world around him in ways more interesting than the mere death count of the game. The essence of Max Payne is refracted throughout his world. The name of his love interest, Mona Sax, is a rather straightforward permutation of Max Payne. In the show Address Unknown,  which appears throughout the series, John Mirra (mirror) and the unnamed man in the show become a clear parallel for Max’s struggles. These are two more minor characters of Max-ness seeping into every part of the game, but one cannot ignore the dream sequences, either; the gamer must play through Max’s subconscious, a world created entirely by this Max-ness.

The American studies nerd within me was delighted when I began to realize that the third installment of Max Payne was an exploration of the same themes, but played out on a new level: that of national, racial, and socioeconomic identities rather than solely personal identity.

The easiest entry into this discussion, I think, is through the transformation Max Payne undergoes. In the beginning, Max is hired to work as a body guard to a rich family in Sao Palo. The job is pitched as a vacation from his usual police work, but also seems like a lifeline  Max is growing older, gaining weight, and drinking himself into a stupor regularly. The idea seems to be that working for rich people in a warm, exotic locale will be easy money after his career as a cop in the northeast.

The transformation in question occurs about halfway into the game. Max shaves off his hair, decides to stop drinking entirely, and heads into the slums to try to find an answer for the present mysteries.

I think the visual transformation serves two different purposes. First, it represents the giving up of certain aesthetic aspects of the self. Max casts aside his “Max Payne Look.” Whereas his battle plan in the first and second games was based on simply running around doing his own thing until things worked out, I think he anticipates that Sao Palo demands that he become someone else before following the same battle plan. Part of this is out of disillusionment with what it means to be Max at this point  mainly, drunk and disappointing  and part of it is, I think, believing that he needs to be “more Brazilian” in order for his usual battle plan to work. You can tell by his classic sarcastic commentary on his actions that the original strategies are still in play, just with an entirely new look. He is making the same bad decisions he ever made — “I’ve had better ideas, but then, I’ve had worse ones. Like accepting this job in the first place,” he says at one point — but with what he deems a more fitting look.

The transformation is also, however, an attempt to move away from his American white-ness. This is tightly interwoven with the previous purpose, but I think it’s important to pull out separately. Max is clearly trying to be less white and less American. He enters the favela saying, “So I guess I was finally about to go and experience the other side of Sao Paolo first-hand, the bit people try to ignore, the unpleasant memory they try to obliterate with cocktails and helicopters and parties and lines of blow like rich fools the world over.” Instead of being a tourist, he tries to blend in, head into the slums, and stare the social structures in the face. Ironically enough, his tactic for doing this is by wearing the most blatant sign of an American tourist  the god-awful Hawaiian shirt, evidently the closest thing he could manage.

This transformation is ultimately a prerequisite for Max, something he needs to do to engage in the mystery of the plot at levels beyond the shards of the truth that have affected him. Suddenly, he is walking around the slums diagnosing class-related oppression and mapping out systems of injustice, even as he continues on his trajectory, killing everyone he meets.

The emphasis the game maintains on linguistic and cultural barriers is heightened after the transformation. It seems that everyone refers to Max as a gringo as soon as he makes the attempt at losing his white self  they clearly see through his efforts, which are cosmetic at best  and seem to be drawn to rooting out his artifice immediately.

Although the transformation is limited in its effect for how Max and the Brazilians interact with each other, it does wonders for Max’s abilities to understand the problems. He recognizes the full complexity of the situation when he starts spending time in the slums. One beautiful moment in the game, I think, is when the paramilitary shows up unexpectedly. Suddenly, Max is shooting at everything, and any semblance of justice or reason dissipates. Instead, the gamer is left feeling trapped, forced to shoot every moving object even as Max lays on the guilt. “They were shipping them out by the dozen,” he observes, as he tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together, realizing that the gangs of Sao Paolo might not be the only bad guys. “But,” he concedes, “who was I to cast judgment on proper police procedure and justifiable use of force?” This is the classic self-deprecation, consistently questioning tone Max uses throughout the series, but here something is different.

In seeking a conclusion, I look to the role that the Brazilian language plays in the game after the transformation. It has always been a weakness for Max in the game, but here it takes on a certain prominence. In one scene, Max essentially declares that he’s not as dumb as he seems despite not knowing the language, the subtext being that he’s smart enough to know what’s right and wrong in Brazil, even if he can’t understand what people are saying. This, to me, seems like a very American thing to say in this situation, an argument for absolutist morals over local understanding. Towards the last moments of the game, as he reflects on his experiences as a hired guard, he continues the identification with his motherland: “Say what you want about Americans, but we understand capitalism. You buy yourself a product and you get what you pay for.”

A turn happens in the game, however, in the next lines: “And these chumps had paid for some angry gringo without the sensibilities to know right from wrong. Here I was about to execute this poor bastard like some dime-store angel of death and I realized: they were correct. I wouldn’t know right from wrong if one was helping the poor and the other was bangin’ my sister.”

He has recognized that he was always more of a random outsider than he was any sort of moral authority — he is not a Brazilian, and therefore has no claim to righteousness here.

“What was I really doing walking in there with my bad haircut and ridiculous shirt?” he asks at an earlier point in the game. “Was I there to make something right? Or was I using a messed up situation to indulge myself, grasping at some desperate delusion of control?” The Max Payne games are a testament that, as he answers ,“Maybe the two went hand-in-hand more than I cared to admit.” But by framing the third installment in a plot so focused on race, class, and national identity, Max Payne 3 elevates its notions of the psychological self — as a constantly-evolving blob at the crux of a horrendous past, a complex and unknowable present, and a desire for a moral future   into notions of the social, political, and national self. 

Author’s Notes:
* Personally, I opt for a reading wherein Max actually kills his wife after stumbling in on her trying to kill the baby. It’s not a theory supported consistently beyond the game’s entries into Max’s subconscious, but it is the one I appreciate the most.
**Easter Egg bonus: If you beat Max Payne 3, you get to play the game with skins from Max Paynes 1 and 2. Yep, you get to play the game about consolidating past and present versions of the self as if you were versions of your past self playing in the present.a

What? Pokemon And Digimon Are Evolving! Or, Why Both Series Have Become More Linear

By Chalkey Horenstein, Editor-in-Chief

When I was a small child, it was a forbidden subject to compare Pokémon and Digimon; the hardcore fans of either (though Pokémon fans more notably) would get riled up and call one a rip-off of the other, engaging in date-wars that tried to allege which game came first. Playgrounds were a hot mess of misinformed kids arguing over something that could’ve been solved in two clicks of Wikipedia, had it existed and had we been old enough to think of using it. But one of the more undeniable and fascinating links between the two series, as far as their games are concerned, is not the character design and monster-human partnership similarities, but rather the evolution from exploratory to linear gaming style — both game series have traces of open-world games in their roots, with more linear games in the end.

Normally, you defeat Team Rocket in the Game Corner
to get the Silph Scope to identify this ghost and battle it.
But using a store-bought pokedoll,
which ends any non-trainer battle instantly,
accomplishes the same thing.
Pokémon Red and Blue allowed the player to battle the gyms in a seemingly linear fashion, but with replays and knowing where to go next (or just bumbling that direction stubbornly), the player could very easily do certain badges out of order, go to certain areas before the logical progression, or skip areas altogether. A few examples: the Thunder Badge isn’t necessary for some time given that it only grants access to Fly, the Marsh Badge is skippable up until you need it to get to the Earth Badge, and the Rocket Game Corner’s Silph Scope isn’t necessary at all thanks to Poké Dolls, allowing you to bypass an entire wave of Team Rocket. Should the player desire, the world could be explored in multiple orders.

Digimon World, the first PlayStation game to exist for the franchise, follows suit. The game takes place on the circular File Island, which you can explore in either direction, with no real requirement to get to the next area other than figuring out how to get there. The side opposite to the starting location, File City, can be accessible from either direction, such that you create a full circle. The only thing really limiting you is how strong your partner is, but most of the areas adjacent to the city in either direction are approximately the same difficulty, with Freezeland and Factorial Town (the farthest from the main city) being of the more challenging areas. The plot of the game is that various Digimon are losing their memory and leaving the city, becoming more hostile in the wild and uncultured land, and it is up to you to recruit city dwellers and create a peaceful area with the necessary amenities to function as a city (examples include a restaurant, item shop, hospital, bank, and farm), while figuring out what is brainwashing the various natives. The recruiting can be done in any order as well, and you don’t need to recruit everyone in the game to open access to Infinity Mountain, the area with the final boss. This game, much more so than Red and Blue, can be completed in just about any order you desire.

Starting at the circular part of the map,
the entire right side of Unova is inacessible
until post-game, making the main game
very straightforward.
By comparison, both games have far more linear areas now. The most recent editions of the Pokémon series, Black and White versions, follow an exclusively one-direction path along the left side of the Unova region — and games before it, like Heart Gold and Soul Silver or Diamond and Pearl, forcibly give you items like HMs and tell you where to go with them. Prior to that, Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald of the third generation forcibly gave HMs, but proper use required backtracking and more exploration than just exploring the next place on the same path like in Black and White  which marks this linear pattern as a gradual progression in the series. With each passing game, more imagination is lost with the loss of ambiguity of the directions. Similarly, Digimon World Dawn and Dusk versions also become more linear, with the worlds being unlocked in a set order and leveling conforming to traditional methods (grinding) rather than the time-limited manual training of stats in Digimon World. Additionally, the need to feed your partner or let it sleep is gone, and the way to obtain certain Digimon is explicitly stated in-game. Both the newer Pokémon games and the newer Digimon games have a clear start-to-finish path, and ultimately only one way to go about it, with the only customization being in your party itself. 

Gamers like big worlds to explore, right? So why did games with big open worlds like this change to more straightforward games?

Compare: Emerald interrupts your quest to give
you HM03 and tell you where to use it,
while in Red and Blue you find it with little to no guidance. 

Largely, it has to do with the evolution of the gamer, and the evolution of a game designer’s ability to sense what a gamer wants. For reference, let’s change gears and briefly consider Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a 1970s psychologist known for his work on “flow.” Put simply, he observed a person’s ability to do a given task, and found that participants needed to feel they were growing in skill with a proportionate rate to an expected increase of difficulty in order to maintain motivation. In other words, if the participant’s skill increased faster than the difficulty, the person would grow bored, but if the difficulty increased faster than the participant’s skill, the person would grow anxious — both of which discourage continuing.

While Csikszentmihalyi’s research is sort of dated, the timeless principle above applies directly to video games  and game designers, much like the gamers themselves, respond to feedback from the games and adapt. They look at what sells well, and what doesn’t, and move forward from there; heck, Digimon World‘s instruction manuals even came with surveys asking what players liked/didn’t like about the game — and based on the progression of the games, it seemed like the majority of the people preferred games like the newer ones, despite the few token hardcore fans that preferred the challenge of Digimon World

Above: the introduction tutorial to Digimon World
being extremely unhelpful.
Compared to more recent games, Digimon World and Pokémon Red and Blue both offer seemingly insufficient feedback. It’s easy to look at choice moments in either game and think, “How was I supposed to know that was there? How was I supposed to figure that out?” Examples include knowing where the Silph Scope was in Red and Blue, or knowing how to get partners strong enough to beat most bosses in Digimon World. In both games, you had to sort of rely on talking to everyone,  exhausting all options, and then going back to areas you couldn’t beat before and seeing what you could apply that you didn’t have or know beforehand.

In the newer games, there’s an instant feedback. You beat an area, and they congratulate you and tell you where to go next. You have a certain path of progress you can log by checking your status in either game, and you have a vague idea of how close you are to the end at almost any time.

And if sales are based on human response, it makes perfect sense that humans sided with Csikszentmihalyi’s findings and molded the later games. Players want to feel like they’re accomplishing something — that their time in this virtual place met some sort of goal. Digimon World had progress through watching the town grow and develop (which also made it easier to get other city dwellers farther away), though the initial lack of tutorials makes the game irritating to beginners. Pokémon Red and Blue also sort of assume players will figure things out — and while newer gamers can feel patronized by the plethora of tutorials, most players would rather feel like the game was disappointingly easy rather than impossible to beat and a waste of money.

Not only that, but the demographic of gamers is changing. Younger players are growing up in a more casual gaming environment, which discourages longer games, and older players are constrained for time in ways they weren’t in childhood — both of which lend itself to the game having to adapt to the player just as much as the other way around. 

This is not to say that open-world, hardcore games don’t exist; Digimon even has a fairly successful MMORPG still garnering users after several years. Players evolve, but it’s tough to say any kind of gamer or game has truly gone extinct yet. And even though the games (and, to a large extent, the shows) are changing, at the end of the day they’re still the characters we love, battling in the way we love. On more unfiltered days, I attribute some of the great lessons I learned in youth to either Digimon or Pokémon  — courage, friendship, reliability and kindness among others from Digimon, and competitive drive and love of traveling from Pokémon — so it’s only fair that the games get to grow up from us, just as we do from them. 

Sound off question: What trends in video games do you see evolving into other trends? Is this a positive or negative change? Tell us your thoughts in the comments! 

Panel Report: Psychology of Gamer Overs, Take Two

Editor’s note: this article is part of a series of posts that covers the discussion panels The Analytical Couch Potato hosted during Connecticon 2012. For those who couldn’t make it, the staff decided to summarize some of the panels and provide pictures of the staff presenting. Those who want to see the full album of Connecticon pictures can see it on Facebook here. Thanks to everyone who made it out there to see us.

The basic goal of this panel was to challenge the audience with this question: why is it that a game can make you fail over and over, yet still want to try again, while slight discouragement from the real world can make you want to give up? Using sources like Jane McGonigal and Jesper Juul, I talked about the basic psychology behind game overs and loss in video games, focusing much on how games were, in many shades, more positive than real life scenarios. Since this was one of two panels that was covered already at Revoluticon, I’ll skip some of the finer details to avoid being redundant.

What I found really interesting about doing this panel a second time was that a different audience made for a completely different kind of feeling to the panel. Many more people at Connecticon were eager to participate and throw in their two cents, so the variety of game overs and games discussed greatly increased. Among others, our panel this time discussedDonkey Kong Country Returns,Conker’s Bad Fur Day,Spider-Man, Assassin’s Creed,Tales of Symphonia, andThe Legend of Zelda: Four Swords.

Much more time was focused on McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, and discussing the way that, compared to real life, video games are more forgiving. Pattern recognition games, combined with McGonigal’s Fun Failure theory, make video game losses less discouraging; we take the loss itself less seriously, and receive more constructive feedback to know where to improve later. With the pattern recognition of games, we always know just what made us lose; we didn’t jump far enough, we didn’t know an enemy was there, that sort of thing. Each time we play, we think, “This time will be better. I know something I didn’t know before.” But with real life losses, like trying and failing to get a job, we don’t always receive the same feedback — an employer has no obligation to write a letter saying, “Thanks for applying. Your resume looked great, but you could have won us over with more experience in so-and-so,” or, “We appreciated your qualifications, but your interview was a little abrasive.”

As we continued to make real life examples applying the comparison of game losses and why they were more forgiving (see the other panel report for more detail), we started to hit a wall that the Revoluticon kids didn’t really find — the mood in the room started to get a little dark. A little depressing. Hoping to not end on that note, I reminded the audience that McGonigal did not write her book comparing real life to video games to depress us. Her approach in that book was to take what made video games more appealing and utilize it in real life. Amongst harsh critics that say we spend too much time playing video games and that games should be eradicated, McGonigal was one of the first to say that this wasn’t a problem, it was a solution we haven’t noticed yet.

With this in mind, we started taking the comparisons we made and attempted to problem-solve a bit, thinking of ways we could make our own lives a little less hectic. Responses were slow at first, but people started jumping in eventually. Constructive criticism was a big thing — nobody wants to fail and not know why, because that makes most people feel like loss is out of their control.

Doing this panel at two cons instead of one was a pleasure; it reminded me that not every crowd will react to information the same way, just like not every gamer will love a game for the same reasons. What we can bring out of games, much like what we can bring out of life, is different for everyone — which I think is pretty cool.

Was there something we missed about the panel that you wanted to add? Tell us in the comments!

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.

Dancing Mad: How a Video Game Character Came to be the Standard by Which I Measure All Villains

Editor’s note: This article was written by Sara Goodwin, a guest writer. Sara hails from Bedford, Indiana, and is one of the co-creators of With A Grain of Salt, and independent t-shirt design company. Look for her at InConJunction in Indianapolis from July 6-8, Isakucon in Fort Wayne from July 13-15, and Aoi Uma Con in Louisville, KT, from September 14-16.

Kefka, in his original form.
When I was in high school, my younger brother showed me a video game he had just gotten into. It was called Final Fantasy 6 (or 3, depending on whether you go by the Japanese number or the American release number.) We were both raised on video games, from Blasto! on the Texas Instruments PC to Mario, Tetris, Zelda, etc. on the original Nintendo. We got a Super Nintendo when it came out, and it was on the Super Nintendo that I fell in love with the Final Fantasy series. There were so many things to like about it, from interesting characters to fabulous soundtracks and interactive story lines… but the thing that did it for me, the reason I stayed and watched as my brother played FFIII, was the villain. As I watched the plot of the game unfold, I found myself looking forward to the sound of Kefka’s laugh and the corresponding, “Bwa-ha-ha” that appeared on the screen. Little did I know that I was witnessing the beginning of a swift upgrade from peon to god; his actions escalate from mischievous and annoying to nihilistic and unstable, and this transition is reflected through his actions and his theme song.

At the beginning of the game, you are led to believe that the Emperor Gestahl is the big bad. What happens is practically Whedon-worthy as far as twisty, out-of-the-blue left field plotting that you should have seen but never saw coming is concerned. General Kefka, who has been an unstable, ever-present peon of the Emperor with an annoying laugh, poisons the village of Doma, kills General Leo, one of his own co-workers, and then turns around and kills the Emperor! What the Esper is going on around here, anyway? Did Leo, who we were so sure was going to end up joining our party, just get leaf-on-the-winded Joss Whedon-style? Yes, yes he did. The Emperor really should have known better – crushing up Espers and infusing their power into Magitek armor really can’t be good for a human, and as the first Magitek knight, Kefka was pretty much treated as a lab rat.

Next, the world is thrown into apocalypse mode, hardcore. Your band is dissolved as the world gets pummeled like it’s Loki and Kefka is the Hulk. When your party awakens, it is not later that day or week it’s a year later! That’s right. Kefka knocked you into next year. In the time you have been out of it, you would expect a villain who has killed his master to take over the master’s duties, to rule and conquer. Wrong again. Kefka built himself a tower out of rubble and he’s up there, sitting on it. He made a trash pile and claimed it by way of his own ass. Mine! Kefka was now so powerful that he was driven to madness and could no longer find pleasure even in dominion. The only true solution left to him in his Magitek-addled psyche was utter annihilation. There is a sort of sadness to Kefka at this point – as a player, when you come across the man who broke the world, you have certain expectations  that he will have crowned himself ruler, created enormous statues of himself, or any number of villainous cliches. Instead, he is a lonely, misshapen god so disillusioned with existence that immortality is a burden I kind of wanted better for him.

Throughout the game, as Kefka’s character evolves, so does the instrumentation of his theme song. When Kefka is first introduced as a character, his theme music is played to comic effect. His theme song is given an almost carnival-esque feel as his mad-clown laugh rings out. It is interesting music, but it is played in a way that suggests that Kefka is just crazy, not the REAL villain. As Kefka’s villain cred skyrockets, his music reflects this change in status. His theme never loses the tinge of madness — that is part of what makes Kefka unique — but it does take itself progressively more seriously as the game progresses. The Emperor Gestahl has his own suitably ominous theme, very reminiscent of Emperor Palpatine’s chorus of droning male voices in Star Wars. Like Palpatine, Gestahl is overthrown (literally, off of the edge of a Floating Continent) by his former apprentice, a man whose corruption he has personally overseen over a period of years via mystical forces. Both Vader and Kefka were changed both physically and mentally by the use of “magic” — Gestahl used Esper magic, while Palpatine used the Dark Side of the Force.

Near the end of the game, your party goes to defeat Kefka atop his mountain of rubble. The song “Dancing Mad,” another more ominous variation of Kefka’s theme song with synthesized choral chants, plays during this part of the game — and it is this piece that reflects the true state of Kefka’s character and psyche. He does not have any desire to be an emperor, to take over the job of the man he kicked off of the edge of the Floating Continent. As the title of the song implies, by this point in the game he has slipped from his goal to take over, feeling a sense of pointlessness: “”Why do people insist on creating things that will inevitably be destroyed? Why do people cling to life, knowing that they must someday die? …Knowing that none of it will have meant anything once they do?” Instead, he plans to destroy everything, up to and including the essence of life itself. He has looked upon the nature of the world, found it lacking, and wants it gone. Completely. And he’s going to do it himself, without the aid of minions. Minions just screw everything up. Kefka would know. He used to be one.

Kefka rejects the other game characters’ protests that even in the ruined world there are still things worth caring about. Oddly, this was one of the selling points of this villain for me, even when I was a teenager. Maybe it was the music or the length of time we had to get to know the villain and follow the stages of his rise to godhood. I started to understand him. I understood why, given all of the things that had happened to Kefka during his life, he would come to the conclusions he did. And, I understood why, given the level of power he had achieved, he would choose to end it all. This is a villain who has the madness of The Joker, the intelligence of Moriarty, the commitment to annihilation of Sauron (including giving up his original form), and the petty anger issues of Lord Voldemort. Kefka won. He ended the world. And then he had a year to sit on a pile of his “winnings” and think. “Dancing Mad” combines Kefka’s original theme in a much more orchestral form with pipe organ music that sounds like evil church. It is manic and then it plummets into dirge territory. Just like Kefka himself. Just as John Williams used “The Imperial March” in various ways to make his point about Darth Vader’s fragmented soul, Nobuo Uematsu uses “Dancing Mad” to embody the complex nature of Kefka, whose power was throttled only by his own madness.

Comments sound-off: what is a video game villain you sympathize with? What makes him or her relatable?