During a discussion a few months back between Ken Levine and Guillermo Del Toro on Irrational Game’s endlessly fascinating podcast, Del Toro mentioned a significant question that he asks during the design process for his upcoming game inSANE: “What would the asshole do?” Del Toro, a filmmaker by trade, approaches game design very much aware of potential narrative troubles caused by “inventive” players—to use a more tasteful term. As Del Toro explains, “When we finish something that looks really neat and clean and we’ve packed it up, I go ‘Okay. We say they go from A to B to C and they exit through the doors. What if I’m the asshole? I sabotage that.” While maybe a bit paranoid, this alternative perception of players as a hostile force illuminates the value of looking at games as homeostatic systems in which players are primarily external and chaotic forces.
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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.
Survival-horror games often cast players in the role of a protector—of a sort. It’s an added responsibility that adds tension to the experience. How can we protect another when we can barely protect ourselves? Silent Hill 2 tasked us with protecting Maria, then toyed with us as it forced us to fail over and over again. Silent Hill 4: The Room tasked us with escorting our battered neighbor through past levels. Resident Evil 2 showed us Claire protecting Shelly, and while that was more story than mechanics, it still cast the playable character as a protector and that status fueled much of Claire’s motivation.
AMY takes this trope further, casting both parties, woman and child, Lana and Amy, as both protector and victim. The resulting co-dependence forms the backbone of the game and makes AMY one of the most interesting horror games to come out in a long time.
The title of David Sheff’s 1993 book, Game Over, probably made a lot of sense at the time, considering Nintendo’s enviable position during the era of the book’s original publishing. Sheff’s sprawling account of the early video game industry uses Nintendo’s rise to power as a central narrative to tell the story of a young medium flexing new found muscle. Its subtitle, How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children, is best considered as a little bit of publisher mandated mustard; nothing in the book is as alarmist or trite as those sentiments. Nintendo’s success wasn’t due to sneak attacks or black magic. It was thanks to talented artists, ingenious marketing, and shrewd business decisions.
In the early 1990s, it seemed like the “game” to control the industry was over and Nintendo had won. Nintendo dominated the medium and looked poised to so indefinitely. Today, with the luxury of hindsight, Game Over takes on a different meaning; the early 1990s ended up being the beginning of the end of Nintendo’s singular dominance over the video game space. Ironically, many of the factors behind the company’s early success led to its subsequent troubles.
I’ve spent 68 hours in Isaac’s basement. It’s a horrible place full of blood, vomit, and excrement. But I keep going back. I don’t why.
Okay, I do know why.
It’s a game about me.