My naturally cautious nature made me apprehensive about BioShock 2. The original BioShock, while not without its flaws, was instantly hailed as a monumental triumph. It dealt with serious moral and philosophical themes, commenting on the nature of freedom in both society and video game design. Rapture’s beautiful, yet decrepit environment told the story of what happens when self interest goes unchecked. The surroundings were more than pretty set pieces: shadowy corridors, flammable oil, and flooded rooms could be exploited by using various battle techniques to one’s advantage. It felt like (and to a certain extent still feels like) my ideal game. It was a complete experience that I didn’t want subsequently altered by the unknown consequences of a sequel. My adventure through Rapture was personal, and I felt ownership over it and its subsequent legacy.
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A couple of years ago, I picked up a copy of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. At the time I was in an MFA program and had to do a lot of reading, but I was allowed to choose the books myself as long as they were of a certain level of quality. I spent a couple days going through the entire 1001 book catalog, skimming and sometimes reading all of the small, three to five paragraph analyses of each book. I came up with a list of about 75 novels that really sounded exciting to me and had generally great results. I read things that I’d never heard of and learned the basics about a whole lot of books that I’ll probably never read. Now that I’m blogging about video games all the time, this seemed like the perfect companion piece for me. What other classic games besides Final Fantasy VII (I know!) have I never played? Let’s find out.
As it turns out, most of them. Like the 1001 Books book, 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die is arranged chronologically by release date, which I think is absolutley the right choice. It lets the book serve as a fascinating history of the industry, showing how games have developed and improved over the last four decades. At 39, I’ve been playing games for pretty much the entire period covered in the book, and I was surprised how many of those early games that I’d played. In the end, though, I only played 468 out of the 1001 on display here. The kind of scary thing was that (unlike with the books) I’d mostly heard of all these games, even if I’d never played them. Flipping through them is a wondrous trip down memory lane, and as the book proceeds, so too does the vividness of the memories. Part of that is because so many of the 1001 potential reminiscences aren’t really that old at all.
This discussion of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West contains major plot spoilers.
Quite a number of games in recent years have dealt with the curious exchange that occurs in gaming between player freedom and the submission to authority required by following a game’s rules. The most obvious example, of course, is Bioshock with its evident concern with considering how a player blindly submits to the will of the game in order to advance in it. The infamous “Would you kindly?” twist suggests that player freedom is frequently an illusion in a game, as submission to and trust in the direction given by the game is taken for granted by the player who all too quickly assumes that the game’s “direction” exists to merely help the player learn the ropes, but it doesn’t decide for us along the way what is the right and wrong path.
A similarly unsettling revelation of just how authoritarian “the computer” is in directing the player can be found in Portal, in which that voice that we essentially take for granted, the voice of the tutorial, eventually morphs into the antagonist of the game. While initially GlaDOS is that familiar teacher who explains how to play the game to the player, the series of test chambers that seem to serve as a tutorial for learning how to solve puzzles through the use of a portal gun soon become deadly traps set by a sadistic AI. The irony of Portal is that this intimate antagonism between the player and the programming of the game is really not unfamiliar at all. Portal, both figuratively and literally, exposes what is behind the scenes in most video game experiences, a voice that first wants to support us by teaching us the ropes but then just as quickly wants to stymie our efforts to succeed in completing the game by attempting to “kill” us.
I have written before about the strange intimacy that the player has with GlaDOS, an intimacy that is promoted through the authoritarian and submissive relationship that they share (”An Intimate Moment With the Computer”, PopMatters, 31 March 2010). However, Alexander Ocias’s Loved takes the metaphor a few steps further by creating a game solely predicated on submitting to or defying the authority of a bodiless “tutor” and allowing this exchange to become a metaphor for being “loved.” In the universe of Loved, love becomes a concept that is based on power relationships. The more that the player submits, the more that the game grows easier to deal with. However, the exchange for this form of “care” is to give up one’s own will to that of the AI.
There is a wonderful xkcd strip where one of Randall Munroe’s famous stick figures (in an effort to console his friend) compares a bad break-up to a video game: “Remember when Aeris died in FFVII? It was sad. But you had to keep playing.”
“Actually,” the friend counters, “I downloaded a mod to add her back to my party.”
Any player of a certain age can recount at least one friend who’s done this, as well as untold other acquaintances that were convinced there was some secret quest or hidden boss that would undo Aeris’s death. Even today, more than 13 years after the game’s release, there are players who keep the faith that there is some way to reverse fate and authorial intent to bring Aeris back. As Munroe’s comic jokes, there are some unsettling implications once we factor the “bargaining” stage of grief into digital media.
This week, the Moving Pixels podcast crew trains their eyes on the direct sequel to Assassin’s Creed II. This time the series returns to the story of the Italian Renaissance era assassin, Ezio.
However, this time Ezio has made a few new friends. So, among other aspects of the game, we discuss the “brotherhood” that this new Assassin’s Creed has embraced in both its story and multiplayer options.