Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Tuesday, Apr 10, 2012
The idea of Japanese RPGs vs. Western RPGs seems like a false dichotomy. Rather, it’s just jRPGs vs. everything else.

Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than talking about jRPGs. What exactly does the term mean, and am I okay with that? The idea of Japanese RPGs vs. Western RPGs seems like a false dichotomy. Rather, it’s just jRPGs vs. everything else, perpetuating a style and audience that “others itself” from its sibling genres. What bothers me the most, though, is how relatively unchanged this genre of gaming is from 20 years ago. There have definitely been advances in technology and a greater breadth of writing, but just how much jRPGs currently rely on nostalgia to succeed isn’t a difficult argument to make.


jRPGs are an ode to the fans. They seem determined to recreate that special place for a very particular group of people at a certain time in video game history. Nostalgia doesn’t feel like living, however. It’s that familiar ghost of pleasant feelings without much thinking—nice to reminisce about—but a corpse to drag around if you cling to it. That’s how jRPGs feel to me now, a weight that I constantly rationalize carrying. I just feel too old for them now, grown past the usual tropes and mechanics. This is because jRPGs only earn such a title and standing by including a large amount of conventions from a niche of games, and if you mess with that formula too much, a game drops outside of the tastes of the fanbase.


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Tuesday, Mar 27, 2012
Dear Esther critiques games that use innumerable amounts of game mechanics to communicate experience. It achieves much with just one.

There seems to be a couple of conversations that just won’t die. At any given moment in the discussion on how we are to consider games, someone is choosing their position on whether the rules of the game matter or the narrative in a game, while another decides if a particular video game is even a game or not. While there is value in any critical thinking, it’s curious writers still feel they have something to add to conversations that always dissolve into some sort of nihilism.


We have smart pieces like Leigh Alexander’s “Tale Spin” that continue to tiptoe towards the edge away from these questions, taking sure but frustratingly small steps (“Opinion: Tale Spin”, Edge, 19 March 2012). In the essay, she moves past the allure of equating everything noble about games to their capability to tell stories, batting away shadows that still linger of the “but other mediums…” attitude.


Tagged as: dear esther
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Tuesday, Mar 13, 2012
Zia’s song from Bastion wasn’t meant to be a challenge to gaming juggernauts, but it will be on the lips of those leaving GDC this year.

Mmm Mmmm Mmm Mmmm MmMmmMmMm


Step by step, a world constructs itself, piece by piece, under his feet. A bourbon from the bottle voice reminisces about each tremble of the hammer, every breath of the bellows. Synesthetic is the only way that I can describe Bastion, but instead of stimulating the senses, it evokes memories that I’ve never had. The music is integral to the experience, like vibrating brushstrokes to the wonderful painting that is Bastion. When asked how he pulled off such an amazing score, Bastion’s composer Darren Korb cited pouring a lot of love and hard work into the music to match up to and exceed the quality of games with big budgets. In his talk at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) this year, Korb showed how a two person team provided all the beats, hisses, and narration of Bastion with little glamour. I sat in the back row with my pen bleeding through my notebook as I watched a process I could theoretically enact myself given enough passion and grit. In passing, he mentions how one of the vocal tracks of the game, Zia’s “Build that Wall,” is a cultural artifact of a country at war. It is strangely soothing despite describing an impending doom of a people locked up in their stronghold.


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Tuesday, Feb 28, 2012
What makes some of the games in the Final Fantasy series interesting is how much the women share narrative responsibility with other characters.

How gender informs design is a subject rarely discussed but holds a lot of value as we explore how to express gender topics in games. What exactly is a feminine narrative design? There isn’t a concrete answer, but we have the benefit of the Final Fantasy series to consider the question, including its games led by women characters. This isn’t to say that what we find there is definitively feminine storytelling, but rather how the series shifts in technique whenever women dominate the cast.


A curious trend exists of women-led Final Fantasy games being ensemble stories rather than their men-led siblings with their single-character focus. Mostly notably in Final Fantasy VI it becomes unclear who exactly matters most in the story, since Terra is most often seen as the head of the party.  However, Celes takes control for the last part of the game. Final Fantasy X-2, XIII, and XIII-2 all fall into ambiguity, in which the team is emphasized over the individual in terms of the game’s design. Contrast this to series favorites, like VII and VIII, which has male leads with no question as to who the story is about.


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Tuesday, Feb 14, 2012
No one is implying that the LGBT community turn into blood magicians and that the religious march out to cage and murder them, but this conflict still echoes the tensions felt in the lives of real people.

Dragon Age II is subversive on multiple levels, focusing on character relationships with fluid sexualities instead of the usual epic storylines. What most people miss upon a superficial playthrough is BioWare’s statement on contemporary social issues. Everyone can recognize the set-up: the Templars as the safeguard of tradition and society, while the Mages represent the oppressed and the often abused. It’s not a huge leap to compare this conflict between social (typically religious) conservatives and minorities like the LGBT community.


The game exaggerates the relationship, creating a situation that couldn’t happen in reality. Thus, the philosophical ideas that inform the conflict aren’t constrained by the factual details of our world. No one is implying that the LGBT community turn into blood magicians and that the religious march out to cage and murder them, but this conflict still echoes the tensions felt in the lives of real people. BioWare was successful in avoiding moralizing by not choosing a side, while providing enough interactions to allow the player to take a stance on their own. While it is easy to side with the Mages, especially when one thinks of them as social minorities, one cannot ignore how many of them do resort to blood magic and turn into demons.


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