I’ve been thinking about dancing in video games and not in the Dance Central, “you are the dancer” sense. I’m talking about games where dancing is far from (at least as far as I can tell) the central interest of the game. I’m talking about the Destiny beta, a weird place where you are the universe’s savior and also its interstellar b-boy. Dancing is seemingly a light hearted and minor action in the game, but it is an important illustration of how difficult it is to maintain a game’s thematic tone.
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Warning: This article contains spoilers for all episodes of The Wolf Among Us.
Speaking in his own defense at his murder trial during one The Wolf Among Us’s final scenes, the Crooked Man, the kingpin of a Fabletown mob of sorts, questions the perspectives of the jurors/townsfolk: “You all act like I’m some kind of tyrant. When your government abandoned you, left you poor and helpless, sniveling on the street corners, I was there to look out for you.” He wants those he most exploited to respect him as a savior, a hero of the people.
This dynamic, between the sufferers (in this case the Fabletown citizens themselves) and the institutions of power, runs through the entire five-episode arc of The Wolf Among Us. Victimhood is a recurring theme throughout the game, consistently used to undermine Bigby’s efforts to solve a murder case far more complex than he first imagined. Issues of culpability and guilt abound, and the game offers no easy answers to the persistent dilemma. The game does, however, send a clear message about focusing on the victim above all else.
As an insufferable coastal faux-intellectual, I am pretty much obligated to listen to This American Life. Each week, the show picks a theme (such as “A Call for Help” or “I Was So High”) and presents a few stories on the theme. It’s nice nice way to learn a few things about politics, science, and culture while also wrapping my voyeurism in the guise of journalism. It’s a good way to hear dramatic or embarrassing stories without feeling like I’m prying. I recently caught an old episode that helped me realize that my interest in certain types of video games stems from the same place.
Mario Kart sticks out amongst other established Nintendo series. Like Mario, Zelda, or Metroid, certain constants have persisted over the years. Cartoonish characters, drifting, and wacky items have all become its distinguishing characteristics. But it’s the last example, the items, that best illustrate Mario Kart’s unique qualities.
They represent a chance, unexpected upsets, and straight up dumb luck that doesn’t exist in the clockwork levels of Super Mario (there will always be a goomba on the ground traveling from right to left on World 1-1). Zelda’s steady accumulation of items build out a consistent internal logic that governs that game’s world. For example, torches can be lit, the boomerang can spread fire, and therefore the boomerang can be used to spread a flame to multiple torches. Metroid is similar. Ongoing success is determined by the tools you find, which are discovered through testing your existing skills. In all these games, failure is the result of a lack of knowledge or execution: you either haven’t learned how to succeed or you screw up the implementation.
I used to hate American football. From a viewer’s perspective, especially one who grew up watching soccer, it doesn’t make any sense. Not only is there a glut of obscure rules and strange plays (The onside kick? What’s that all about?), the sport is also extremely slow paced. Half the team sits down while the other half takes its turn defending or moving the ball up the field in short individual bursts. In fact, a Wall Street Journal study estimated that the average time the ball is in play during a given football match is a mere eleven minutes. What a bore.
Then, several years ago, I started playing fantasy football. For those unfamiliar with the game, it’s that thing all of your coworkers talk about during the football season, even the ones who never go to a game. Each participant in your average fantasy football league drafts individual players from the entire NFL and fits them into specific slots on their team. These teams then face off each week, earning points based on the performance of real life players. If, say, Tony Romo throws four touchdowns, your team might come out big. If, on the other hand, Romo gets sacked and fumbles the ball, he could actually earn negative points for your team that week.