I played hours and hours and even more hours of the original Starcraft multi-player before I played a minute of the single-player campaign. I’d just moved out to San Jose, California to start Cryptic Studios, and I was living in my friend Mike’s apartment. He and his co-workers had a regular, after work Starcraft session at least once a week, and Mike was kind enough to let me tag along. This was in 2000, and while online play might have existed, we were all about the LAN party. Their company had plenty of high-end computers and a very robust network, more than enough to handle the eight to 12 people who gathered to play those evenings.
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Abbie Heppe’s review of Metroid: Other M over at G4‘s web site provoked a bit of debate a few weeks ago. It’s an interesting review that goes well beyond a discussion of game mechanics by considering the significance of the presentation of Metroid series protagonist, Samus Aran, within the context of the newest game’s plotline. Much of the discussion surrounding the review concerned Heppe’s focus on the infantilized version of Other M‘s Samus: “Other M expects you to accept her as a submissive, child-like and self-doubting little girl that cannot possibly wield the amount of power she possesses unless directed to by a man” (“Metroid: Other M for Wii”, G4, 27 August 2010).
Heppe offers a number of interesting examples of this phenomenon throughout the review, to which commenters to the thread responded in various ways. Some agreed with Heppe’s criticism of the game. Some merely found it refreshing that a game reviewer would consider such issues at all. Some dismissed the criticism given that Other M is “just a game” and, thus, unworthy of gender analysis. Still others noted that the presentation of women as submissive and child-like is simply indicative of developer Team Ninja’s standard approach to female presentation (after all, these are the folks responsible for titles like the voyeuristic Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball) and that Nintendo’s choice to place development of this newest iteration of the Metroid series in their hands would, of course, necessarily lead to this kind of representation.
I am, likewise, unsurprised that Team Ninja would present Samus in such a way. Their “aesthetic” and “themes” are pretty obvious. However, what did surprise me is the sense that many players had that Samus is a female figure in gaming that has previously been presented in a non-sexualized way. Even Heppe herself says as much about the bounty hunter when she calls Samus, “the most iconic (and nonsexualized) female characters in gaming history”.
Bernard Tschumi’s Architecture and Disjunction is a collection of his essays on post-structuralism. Overall, they engage with the idea of applying Derrida’s theories about how people interact with meaning in art to architecture and space. If you need a basic rundown on some ways that architecture and video games relate to one another, you can check out my column on the subject. This is a bit more complicated and explores how interaction creates or destroys meaning in a virtual space. I’ve done my best to make this accessible to someone with no background (or interest) in these fields, but it only works for so long.
The first thing that you need to know is that anytime you see the word “post” next to a term for an artistic movement, it means that they’re talking about the artistic reaction to that movement. So, structuralism is a movement that roughly started with Kenzo Tange in 1960 when he was designing the new Tokyo Bay. It was an abandoning of functionalism, or the idea of making a building super-efficient, and instead organizing it around how people engage with one another. Video game design is extremely structuralist in this sense, all spaces are built around playtesting and studying how people respond to them. Changes are made to change the space to fit a designer’s vision for what people should be doing in that area. Post-structuralism, as a branch of post-modernism, is the idea that the meaning of a place comes from events and spaces relationships to other parts of a whole. Meaning is not controlled by any one specific design, person, or action but rather by all of these things working together. Keep in mind that post-modernism in architecture is not the same thing as post-modernism in the arts. To an artist, it means a critical practice. To an architect, it is a visual aesthetic (17).
I can’t think of a single element in Ys Seven that I haven’t seen reiterated ad nauseum in a dozen of other games in the last ten years—a period in which by any measure the game would still be classified as outdated. We can go back and forth on the merits of game structuralism, the merits of innovation versus convention. Surely, for fans of traditional JRPGs (and I’d count myself among them), the appeal of the familiar is itself a large selling point. But like any creature that’s evolved in relative isolation for one too many generations, there’s a specificity to Ys Seven‘s design the function of which I just cannot understand.
Namely, it is the way that it integrates its silent protagonist.
Most gamers today probably don’t remember that for a while in the 1980s the best-selling, most critically acclaimed computer games didn’t have any graphics at all. They were text adventures and were some of the most innovative and challenging forms of entertainment ever conceived. Historian and documentary filmmaker Jason Scott has spent the last four years interviewing the men and women who created these games. The result is Get Lamp, a fascinating documentary about the history of these games—from the original Adventure, through the rise and fall of Infocom, and up to today’s interactive fiction scene.
Jason Scott is the curator of TextFiles.com and is also the man behind BBS: The Documentary, a look at the computer bulletin board systems that pre-date mass usage of the internet. He’s a regular speaker at hacker and technology conferences and his cat has well over a million followers on Twitter. Really.