Do Some Games Exist in the Future?

Most video games celebrate the state of the present. However, the JRPG, with its arduous focus on the task at hand, reveals that that is rarely the goal or even pleasurable in the moment, but bearable only because of the knowledge that once it ends, the player will be rewarded with more story.

Final Fantasy XIII

Publisher: Square Enix
Rated: T
Players: 1
Price: $29.99
Platforms: Playstation 3, Xbox 360
Developer: Square Enix
Release date: 2010-03-09

Video games celebrate the state of the present. They're always centered on the immediate action the player can take: where and how he moves and what result this brings. Games do not cue us to their pasts easily or frequently. Maybe the blank space will tell the player where he's already moved in a Pac-Man maze or maybe finding a broken crate where a health pack should be reminds him that he's already been past this area in Tomb Raider, but there is very little sense of an archived human history in these spaces. If nothing else, the past is hard if not impossible to access, seeing as the state of play resides in conflict with the immutable record.

Some games do indeed play with time, like Metal Gear Solid 3's unconventional game overs when you create a time paradox or many of Braid's platforming mechanics. But for the most part, video games are experienced in the present tense. Yet, I would argue, there are some games that strongly privilege the future state over the player's current action, and these are usually the games that we find most difficult to talk about in conventional ludological terms.

I'm speaking, of course, of the Japanese role-playing genre.

These days we largely criticize the JRPG for being overly linear to the point of non-interactivity. For every Etrian Odyssey there seems to be two or three Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts titles that exist only in their cutscenes, favoring cinematic close-ups and convoluted character development over player agency and that seem to make ludic progression as arbitrary an obstacle course of menus and resource management as possible. Looked at from a conventional design standpoint, these games seem absolutely backwards by modern standards, possibly even "anti-player" in their approach. So why is it they still attract consumers, some of whom consider the JRPG their main or only genre?

It'd be quick and easy to just dismiss these players as underexposed casuals, but if that were so, why do they so frequently identify as part of the gaming subculture and move progressively from title to title, rather than sticking with what they know a la Bejeweled fanatics? Arguably, there is a transferable skill developed during the play of a JRPG comparable to that built up by first-person shooter fans. Instead of a mechanical skill, however, it's a time-sense skill.

A simpler way of looking at it would be to suggest that JRPGs teach their players to accept delayed gratification on a consistent basis. While many games in other genres are modeled on some practice of breadcrumbing the player in the direction of a goal, those breadcrumbs are usually themselves treated as mini-rewards. A snippet of dialogue between characters, for example, or a discovered document. A game like Final Fantasy XIII, on the other hand, is pure sweat and hard labor during the play sections, often in the repetitious battles that bracket cutscenes. All that arduous focus on the task at hand is rarely the goal or even pleasurable in the moment, but bearable only because of the knowledge that once it ends, the player will be rewarded with more story.

This is what I mean by a game existing in the future. It is certainly played in the present tense, but the gameplay itself is heavily biased in the direction of what will or could happen -- that is, the near future. Even the cutscenes, as they're playing, involve a tension oriented toward future possibilities. They end on ambiguity or sometimes deliberate cliffhangers that propel the player through the next arduous and thankless batch of play in anticipation of the next bit of story, which should urge him toward the next scene, and so on and so forth until the credits roll.

The most ironic part is, if one looks to Deleuze, we begin to see something like in game cinematics as resembling film as a recorded past. There is something objective and archival about cutscenes, which makes it no large surprise that a lot of modern JRPGs take on a "database" quality, allowing players to revisit past cutscenes from some sort of menu. The Valkyria Chronicles games take this to a diagetic extreme by presenting all events as being recorded in a book accessed by the player. But one can only revisit these cinematics, not the major battles which unlocked them. Those can only be played once.

This dual time sense, of orienting the player toward the future in order to engage what is ultimately a prescribed and unalterable past, is part of what distinguishes JRPG play from other genres in the long term. This isn't to say that most story-oriented games don't do this to some degree, but Japanese role-playing console games unquestionably do it the most consistently -- to the extent that there's a sharp division between the ambient, highly plastic time in which ergodic play occurs and when it segues into an archival, cinematic mode.

Without assigning any evaluative statements to the genre, positive or negative, we can still look to JRPGs as expressing a time emphasis that is different than that of rival genres. While many games place some degree of emphasis on an inferred future, only JRPGs seem to go as far as to subordinate the present tense in order to favor it.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.