Digital Frontiersmen

Many cultural theorists have reflected upon the tendency of American citizens to consider their individual rights in terms of a frontiersman identity – we can see this most prominently in the fascination with the Western genre. We seem to love the idea of being solely responsible for our own safety, reputation, success, and overall lifestyle, while being quick to reject anything that impinges upon our ability to retain control over these aspects of our lives.

I read an article this morning that asserted that in modern American life this frontiersman-like sense of identity is less pervasive than it used to be, citing all the usual suspects when it comes to social change: the internet, the economy, and the emergence of new types of international conflict. This is not a baseless claim, but I think it misses a larger point – the frontiersman identity is more than just something we derive from watching John Wayne movies and relishing our 2nd amendment rights. It is a core narrative that is practically part of our DNA as Americans.

The frontiersman ideal is intrinsically tied to viewing the past with rose-colored glasses. On an actual frontier, any chance to reflect upon the positive qualities of this state is stifled by more present concerns; such is the nature of total responsibility for one’s well-being. It is therefore only possible to idealize this state in retrospect, and these concerns inevitably fall by the wayside.

I bring this up because I think we’re currently seeing something similar happen in regards to internet regulation. The push to keep the internet unregulated is predicated on the notion that it once existed as a digital frontier – one free of government influence in which everyone had an equal chance to create any type of content without fear of penalty. The actual history of the internet tells a different story, but that is of little importance in regards to what people want from the internet today. For some, the goal now is to use various types of encryption and workarounds to bring this ideal to reality. Of course, it is almost certainly impossible to completely divorce the internet from government regulation and monitoring, and this presents an important question: which would be closer to the ideal? Modern digital escape attempts from the government’s watchful eye, or the early stages of web 1.0 as it actually existed?

And then perhaps the most important question of all: is either even ideal in the first place?

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Reflections on A Story About My Uncle

 

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I picked up A Story About My Uncle on a whim earlier this week, and have been enjoying it immensely. The gameplay premise is fairly simple: its a first-person platformer where you play as a man equipped with a suit that allows for extra high jumping and grappling with some kind of otherworldly plasma leash. It’s a seemingly original experience, and yet, while playing it I felt like I was experiencing something strangely familiar – like I had played this game in a clunkier, less natural form before.

Then it hit me: this game shares certain similarities with the surf maps that are popular in Counter Strike. Specifically, I remembered a server I used to play on in Counter Strike 1.6 in which you were allowed to use a grappling hook mod with the surf maps. Sure, it took some of the challenge away, but not all of it. In fact, it made it easier for me to enjoy the surf maps at that point, because I hadn’t quite gotten the hang of them yet.

I remember a conversation I had with a friend a few years back about the notion of “meta-modern gaming”. We were trying to figure out what that would entail, and we decided that it would deal with taking a preexisting game, and creating a new method of play within the parameters of the game that was completely unaligned with the original objectives of the game. The most readily available example at the time was Twitch Plays Pokemon, given that it took the original Pokemon game and made it challenging in ways that are almost the exact opposite of those experienced in normal gameplay. I feel that surf maps were a form of meta-modern gaming as well: they took Counter Strike, a military squad-based FPS, and turned it into a kind of high speed platformer.

I bring this up, because it has some interesting implications for how games influence each other in development. What is a meta-modernist reinvention of one game could be the precursor to that same idea being fleshed out as its own game. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the developers of A Story About My Uncle were fans of the surf maps, and wanted to make their own game based around a similar concept with their own unique narrative attached to it. I’m eager to see this approach applied more and more as game development and modding become more and more accessible.

Short Fiction in Gaming

I recently played The Static Speaks My Name and was taken by the ability of the developers to deliver such a powerful story that can be played from start to finish in 10 minutes. It made me think that video games have a great deal of untapped potential as a medium for short fiction. I would love to see an anthology of these short, 10-20 minute games, one that would accumulate to a length of about 10-12 hours.

Without giving too much away about the plot, The Static Speaks My Name would work wonderfully as a single installment in a anthology of video games that deal heavily with themes of insanity and suicide. This opens up the possibility for a video game equivalent of thematically unified short fiction anthologies, such as Borges’ Labyrinths, or John Barth’s Lost In The Funhouse.  Games like The Static Speaks My Name and The Stanley Parable are a great start, and I hope that they are but a hint of what is to come.

How Kirby’s Dreamland 2 Taught Me To Play Video Games

My first gaming device was an original Game Boy and I initially had  two games: Tetris and Metroid 2. I enjoyed Tetris as much as anyone does, but I didn’t quite understand Metroid 2. I didn’t have enough experience with problem solving in games to navigate Metroid’s complex, nonlinear world. In my years with the Game Boy I played a lot of games that I found to be well-suited for my low skill-level, but the one I remember more fondly than any other is Kirby’s Dream Land 2.

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I was captivated by Kirby’s Dream Land 2 from the moment I saw the box art. I had already played and enjoyed the first Kirby’s Dream Land, but when I saw that Kirby was being joined by three animal friends this time around, I was overjoyed. At the time I really wanted a pet hamster, so the fact that Kirby was riding one on the cover was an instant selling point. Luckily the game’s credentials went beyond this, as the inclusion of a hamster is not typically a good basis to judge a game upon.

There are plenty of games that have a similarly soft and cute aesthetic that is perfect for captivating children who are new to video games, but Kirby’s Dream Land 2 went beyond this to offer me the unique opportunity to learn some of the navigation and puzzle-solving strategies inherent to gaming,  without throwing me to the center of them. I was once intimidated by games like Metroid 2 and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but Kirby’s Dream Land 2 allowed me to experiment with the strategies I would need to use reflexively in these more difficult games later in life.

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There are several reasons I chose to focus on Kirby’s Dream Land 2 rather than its predecessor: it has a save system that shows a completion percentage for each file, the game’s worlds are explored in three different stages that can be revisited upon completion, and most importantly, it contains secrets that can be viewed during casual gameplay that require re-visitation of previous stages and certain copy ability/animal combinations to be acquired. Each of the copy abilities that Kirby can gain from swallowing enemies (ice, cutter, spark, parasol, etc.) are altered depending on which of the three animals Kirby is paired with at any given time.

I’ll give an example. When I was playing through the three initial stages that comprise the first world, I came upon a room with one of the game’s many secret Rainbow Drops. Unfortunately I was unable to access it with my current copy ability/animal combination (Ric the hamster with fire). I was disappointed by this, and knew that there must be some way that I could break through the overhead barrier to the Rainbow Drop, but I persisted. When I got to the next world, still riding Ric the hamster, I swallowed a parasol enemy. Here I noticed that this causes Ric to balance a parasol on his head with Kirby spinning on top – resulting in an upward attack. I had a moment of realization in which I wondered if this attack would allow me access to the Rainbow Drop I had been unable to reach earlier. Soon thereafter I was hit by an enemy, causing me to die and restart the level. I had lost Ric, as well as my copy ability. Now I knew that if I were to acquire the Rainbow Drop, I would need to go through the following process:

 

  1. Acquire Ric
  2. Acquire the parasol copy ability
  3. Reach the Rainbow Drop in this state

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This may seem trivial to the experienced gamer, but it is processes such as this that allowed me to approach games like Metroid and Castlevania later in life; it gave me the confidence to move past unattainable power-ups under the assumption that I would be able to reach them later. This advancement in gaming skills becomes even more rewarding in these games because the power-ups aren’t temporary like they are in Kirby. I cite Metroid and Castlevania as examples because they have a similar style of 2D exploration, but the skills needed to play almost every game I have owned over the years can be traced back to Kirby. Even now, as I am making my way through Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I feel that I am applying those same navigation and problem solving skills that I started building during my time with Kirby’s Dream Land 2.

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I think that game developers who are looking to target children can learn a lot from a game like Kirby’s Dream Land 2. Many games that are marketed toward younger players are built to captivate the player but do nothing to advance their developing play skills that will serve them throughout their gaming career. Because Kirby games were able to do this for me, I continued to play them long after I had surpassed their level of difficulty, because I knew that there would still be challenges on the periphery of the relatively easy core gameplay.

Hotline Miami’s Argument For Games As Art

Those who argue against the idea that video games are a viable form of art will often cite the problem of ludonarrative dissonance – that is, inconsistencies in the relationship between the fixed narrative of a game and the narrative that is developed by the player through their choices in gameplay. One of the major issues with this discrepancy is that the player will often become disconnected from the fixed narrative as they focus in on individual challenges within the game. When fully engrossed in say, an attempt to get past a single mission in Halo, the player will likely forget about the larger story at hand (at least briefly) if they have been stuck in the same fifteen minutes of gameplay for two hours. Many game developers are well aware of this problem, and see it as part of an ongoing struggle to forge a deeper connection between the games they create and the people who play them.

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Hotline Miami has a unique approach to ludonarrative dissonance, in that it dismisses the idea that disagreement between fixed narrative and ludonarrative is problematic in the first place. Many have said that the thematic focus of Hotline Miami is primarily a critique of video game violence. I don’t think this is necessarily wrong, but I do think that this reading misses a larger point; Hotline Miami makes an argument for appreciation of video games outside of standard conventions relating to narrative and thematic content, suggesting that neither of these things ultimately draw players in as much as gameplay, aesthetic, and atmosphere.

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I’m not going to say that Hotline Miami isn’t about video game violence. It is, but not in the same way that Grand Theft Auto V, or any other notoriously violent game is. These games show the player shockingly violent scenarios that are often justified by the game’s developers and critics as some sort of inward-looking experience on the part of the player to determine how much violence they can endure in a video game (e.g. the infamous torture scene in GTA V). The primary purpose of the violence is to elicit a raw emotional reaction. Hotline Miami, on the other hand, directly asks the player “do you like hurting other people?” within its cut-scenes, but hardly offers any storyline more concrete than this and other brief bits of vague dialogue. The game does require the player to kill countless hostile enemies in order to progress through each stage, but it also offers several opportunities to kill people who are isolated and do not fight back, which proves to be among the most dull experiences to be had within the game. The suggestion here is that no, the player does not like killing people – at least not for the sake of killing.

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So what does the player enjoy? In Hotline Miami, I think that the player enjoys fast-paced strategic gameplay, bright neon colors, and a stimulating soundtrack – all of which are delivered immaculately. There is admittedly an unprecedented amount of blood and violence, but these are byproducts of what the player really enjoys – the engrossing, stimulating moment-to-moment gameplay that keeps them on the edge of their seat. And this is where narrative dissonance comes in: it is not a problem in Hotline Miami, because the player is not required to follow any sort of plot in order to enjoy the game to the fullest extent. Even if a player decides to rigorously commit these events to memory, they won’t gain a greater understanding than a player who doesn’t prioritize story in their gaming experience. Instead, the narrative is only enjoyed by the player to the extent that it contributes to the unique aesthetic and atmosphere of the game – inescapable elements that they would be drawn in by regardless of how interested they are in a game’s storytelling. One can’t complain about ludonarrative dissonance in Hotline Miami because there was never meant to be any cohesion between the fixed narrative and ludonarrative to begin with. This is further reinforced by the game’s ending, in which the player confronts characters who are stand-ins for the game’s developers. Hotline Miami puts the mechanics of the developer-player relationship flat out on the table, and is not jaded or displeased with them but instead proud; proud that it can provide such a unique and captivating experience through a medium that is regarded as being artistically limited. There are many games that make an argument for their own artistic merit, but Hotline Miami makes an argument for the merit of the medium as a whole.

Video Games, And The Trail of Media Crumbs Behind Them