With the advent of such titles as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Gone Home, a debate has been sparked regarding what ought and ought not be categorised as a ‘video game’ in the first place. Some have dismissed these titles, and others like them, as mere ‘walking simulators’ undeserving of the label ‘video game’, for they offer little more than an imaginary stroll though an imaginary place, and do not much engage the motor functions of the player. I find this stance a little reductive, and ultimately something of a (minor) blight on the industry’s artistic growth.
Cinema is a young medium, scarcely past its first centennial and evolving even now into the realms of 48 frames per second, Dolby Atmos and IMAX 3D. It is also a medium that shares many traits with video gaming. Both sit at the crossroads of sight and sound, and it is the interplay of these facets that artists have manipulated for decades to evoke in audiences the full spectrum of human emotions, some of which might never have otherwise been felt. Of course, you are on Minus World, and this is not a piece about cinema, this is a piece about a component entirely lacking from it, an ingredient unique to video games and indeed one wholly present in even the most leisurely walking simulator: the element of interactivity.
My cause for concern with the stance that said walking simulators do not deserve the prestige of being categorised as video games is that, for many, the appeal of this very interactivity that defines video games is less in the opportunities afforded therein to run, jump and shoot in the shoes of a fictional character, but rather in the simple feel of those shoes and the possibilities of where the path underfoot may lead. Whether that path is littered with random encounters, audiologs or wooden boxes with question marks on is ultimately irrelevant. Titles like Grand Theft Auto V and Destiny showcase the medium’s capacity for blockbuster spectacle, and I’ve no intention of belittling the scope, scale or worth of these titles, indeed they’re titanic in terms of both ambition and success, but I find that far more unassuming titles are equally capable of delivering the very shivers that keep me playing games.
Below are detailed a scant few moments I’ve chosen to better illustrate that the equivocal nature of the definition of ‘video game’ means simply that fans of the medium are afforded even more opportunities to feel things. Absurd as it is, that the recent ‘feels’ meme has taken off as it has is indicative of a common desire for emotional resonance in video games, and the gamut of affective means at the medium’s disposal is surely one that ought to be celebrated rather than streamlined. These moments are at once unrelated to the sorts of characteristics one might associate knee-jerkedly with video gaming, and yet would not be possible through any other medium; moments that encapsulate both video games’ capacity to move us and the contrast between their varying means of doing so.
(Please be aware that many of the moments detailed are significantly spoilerific, and will massively harm your experiences of the games if you’ve yet to play them!)
Bravely Default – The Title Screen Shift
Bravely Default received plenty of (fair) flak for the narrative and structural decisions it made as its climax drew nearer (opting to intertwine the two such that players had to suffer alongside their avatars), but the brilliance of its most integral revelation is highlighted in a small alteration made to a place that many would assume safe from the misdirection suffered by its protagonists.
Plot-wise, the game’s ace in the hole was in its unsettling revelation that the party’s jovial accompanying mascot, Airy (a fairy), was actually a devious sleeper agent working in secret for the game’s colossal multiple-universe-threatening space demon final boss, and, from the get-go, had been manipulating your every action in an effort to revive her master from his slumber and bolster his strength such that he would become unstoppable. The game opts not to dump this twist on the player in one go as I just did, instead foreshadowing it with hints, that grow less and less subtle, that what the player is being made to do might not be for the good of mankind after all.
It might be worth noting that the game’s structure (forcing the player to repeat the same four dungeons several times over) was perhaps designed to instil in the player the same inkling of something being amiss as was likely being felt by the party itself as they were suddenly required to cycle mindlessly through a Groundhog Day-style scenario, repeating the same tiresome task at least a dozen times for no apparent reason.
The disquieting nature of this twist, that the story’s most insidious threat had been hiding in plain sight in the form of an unassuming, token fairy for close to 40 hours, was compounded in a metagame reference as sly as it was creepy. As you would expect, Bravely Default: Where the Fairy Flies‘s title menu is adorned with those exact words, but following the unveiling of Airy’s malevolent intentions, upon every subsequent visit to this screen the player will see the characters ‘Where the F F’ turn blood red and fade away altogether, leaving behind only enough to literally spell out the game’s Bioshock-esque ‘unreliable guide’ twist: Bravely Default: Airy Lies. In the same fashion that the protagonists never thought to question the motives of their chirpy companion, many gamers would never have thought that the game’s bizarre title might be home to a thinly veiled mega-spoiler.
A small quirk to this alteration was lost in the game’s journey West; in Japan the subtitle was Flying Fairy, and the only letters that needed removing to expose the truth were FF. The degree to which this was an intentional reference to Square Enix’s flagship franchise, one to which Bravely Default owes a great deal, remains unknown, but the precision of this reference was surely dampened a little by the alteration made to the Western release’s subtitle.
Its European release date having only recently been announced, speculation runs rampant as to what secrets may lie in the sequel’s subtitle: End Layer. Whatever that title has in store though, this eerily inventive use of the as-standard video game main menu was an inspired touch and one only this medium could sport.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater – The Trigger Pull
Many perceived Metal Gear Solid 3 as something of a return to (relatively) grounded form after the post-modern hijinks of Sons of Liberty, jettisoning many of the dangling plot threads from that title in order to tell a standalone Cold War spy story. Though Snake Eater wore its cinematic influences on its sleeve (perhaps most transparently in its Bondian opening titles), the title introduced a smorgasbord of mechanics in order to ensure that there was as much for players to do as see. With the original Metal Gear Solid having been described by some as the greatest movie they ever played, and 2008’s Metal Gear Solid 4 labelled by the same as the greatest game they ever watched, Snake Eater walked a more delicate line between film and game. Though its cutscenes were often lengthy, the new gameplay systems and innovative boss showdowns that came as part and parcel of a franchise-first jungle environment kept all comers satisfied.
Surprising then that the defining moment of a game that was essentially a playable spy movie should be a disarmingly quiet invitation for the player to simply pull that trigger one more time.
To render a rainforest a leaf, Snake Eater dumps rookie operative Snake into a dense Russian jungle and tasks him with hunting down and killing his former mentor, The Boss, after her abrupt defection to the Soviet Union. The ambiguous intensity of Snake’s relationship with The Boss lies at the heart of Snake Eater’s narrative and, with 3 being a prequel, the consequences of its denouement lay the foundation for the entire franchise. Much of this relationship (and most things under the Sun) is detailed through frequent, and frequently long, cutscenes.
Idiosyncratically entertaining though they may be, MGS’s infamous cutscenes will likely have had even the most ardent MGS fan twiddling their thumbs as they waited patiently to dive back into action as Snake. And yet, having one such cutscene transition with enormous subtlety into an interactive segment was Kojima’s master stroke.
Finally having subdued mission target/mother figure/boss/final boss, The Boss, after an intense struggle, a cutscene begins. Prone and defeated, The Boss offers her dying words and quietly waits for Snake to pull the trigger and fulfill his mission. The camera hovers as static as the two combatants, all is still but for the grass blowing in the wind. Except, somewhere between those dying words and that integral gunshot, the cutscene ends. Whereas until now the reappearance of the HUD signified that it was again time for the player to go about their business infiltrating bases and outsmarting sentries, its absence renders the transition from cutscene to gameplay so smooth that by the time the player realises their input (pressing the ‘shoot’ button) is required, Snake will likely have been silently staring down the barrel of his gun for a minute or two at his broken mentor. Snake’s reticence made inadvertently apparent, a pensive scene is made all the more so by the player’s delayed realisation that the mission has yet to be completed, and the task of dispatching The Boss falls to them, not Snake. In 2006, this was likely the most gravity a video game had ever attributed to the pressing of a single button.
The significance of this moment lies in its quietly stripping away so much of the player’s agency that this abrupt and involuntary relinquishing of choice echoes that of Snake’s own hands-tied ordeal. When eased back into the game, the player cannot access the pause menu, crouch, change weapon or adjust the camera. There’s only one way out of this scenario, and we’ve no longer the ludicrousy of tranquilizer darts, poisonous mushrooms or crocodile hats to distance ourselves from its brutality.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – The Metal Detector
I’ll preface this chill by asserting that I love films, and watch a great deal of them. That said, I maintain that no movie moment has ever inspired in me an epiphanic realisation quite like the metal detector in Phoenix Wright. I’ve leapt, laughed and wailed at films but never has a film led me to slowly place both hands on top of my head in stunned silence and awe at the deftness of its storytelling like the moment Shu Takumi’s writing ushered me down a one-way street to justice at the close of the Turnabout Goodbyes case.
The Phoenix Wright titles belong to a genre of video games that would, by the standards of those who lambast as walking simulators the games I named at the top of this piece, sit even further outside the definition of the term. If walking simulators do little but emulate the experience of moving from one place to another, with additional interactivity coming in the form of an occasional desk to search or bin to scrutinise, then visual novels are about as video gamey as the act of dragging the lastest trendy trendy pop song from iTunes to your iPod. Visual novels rarely extend the luxury of moving, let alone from one place to another. Instead they present a story told chiefly through pictures and text, and kindly request that the player enable the telling of this story by making decisions for the characters when the narrative presents a fork in the road forward .
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney puts players in the shoes of the eponymous defence attorney and zigzags between two sorts of gameplay (yeah that’s right); investigation and courtroom. During the investigation segments, players chat to eccentric characters in a variety of unusual locales, procedurally collecting clues and hints as to how exactly a particular crime was committed. During the courtroom segments, the player uses these clues (collected in the Court Record as evidence) to expose contradictions in witness testimonies until the truth has been laid bare and the defendant deemed ‘Not Guilty’. The thrill of these titles comes in the lightbulb-above-head moments wherein the player figures out when and where each piece of evidence ought to be presented in court.
Though all Ace Attorney titles are essentially highlight reels of such instances, it was the eureka moment of realising how to undo the monstrous prosecutor Von Karma using a forgotten metal detector in the first game’s final case (though an extra case was added for the DS/international release) that left me sockless.
Anybody familiar with the website ‘TVTropes.com’ may also be familiar with the trope ‘Chekhov’s Gun’, named after the weapon of Star Trek’s Ensign Chekhov. The trope refers to an apparently useless item being introduced into a story before being left unused and unmentioned for a long while, only to be dramatically utilised at a climactic moment to impact the narrative in a big way much later on. A ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ would be a ‘Deus Ex Machina’ were it not introduced long before its necessity.
Though every piece of evidence in the Ace Attorney titles is something of a Chekhov’s Gun, it was the second coming of the metal detector that knocked me back and made apparent to me the dramatic potential of video games that ask not for precision shell-launching or the mastery of tomahawk trajectories, but merely a willingness in the player to nudge a great story forward when needed.
The (many) twists in Phoenix Wright differ from those that might be found in courtroom films as they require a very particular sort of input from the player. Writer Shu Takumi does not present the twist by default to anybody patient enough to read through his reams of dialogue, instead when it comes time for something remarkable to happen, he lays the pieces in place and forces the player to assemble the twist for themselves. These inputs may sound like an obnoxious conceit that hinders Takumi’s storytelling more than it helps, but the impact of an objection wrings far truer when it’s come from a piece of evidence handpicked by the player themselves. Trawling through the Court Record in order to find the fastest route to that precious Not Guilty verdict, acting boldly on a wild hunch that a piece of evidence not spoken of for hours of playtime might just be the crux of a brand new perspective and then having that hunch rewarded with a cacophony of gasps, meltdowns and gavel pounding is an experience that cannot be mirrored by any film, and yet all Phoenix Wright asks is that you pay attention to its endearingly doolally proceedings and act accordingly. The gameplay amounts to choosing options from a list, and yet the attention that these decisions demand, and the fanfare with which they are often rewarded mean that the brand of interactivity offered by Phoenix Wright (and many decent visual novels) is as enthralling as the tightest hairpin turn from a more traditional racing game.
Takumi’s genius is in having us both play the role of a character whose charm is such that we want him to succeed, and setting him against a nemesis so spectacularly wicked that we can’t help but leap at the prospect of toppling his dastardly schemes.
I will not detail the specifics of the metal detector’s utilisation, because while Snake Eater’s ending is already common knowledge among those likely to have read this far, and there is more to appreciate in Bravely Default than its key twist, Phoenix Wright’s writing is its everything and I’d sooner anybody reading this find out for themselves exactly how that rusty old thing comes to turn that rollercoaster court case on its head.
Don’t Worry About It
Recent controversies surrounding the exhibition of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (a divide exists between theatres projecting the film in classic 70mm celluloid and those opting for the contemporary and convenient digital showings) help to illustrate the turbulence borne of any medium’s capacity for growth jostling against the roots that define it. Similarly, why should we even bother to determine the borders by which to confine video games? To define a medium is to limit it, and no good can come of narrowing down the means by which an artist can comfortably utilise a medium to invite hearts to race or skin to crawl. I’ll not say that to interact with something is to render it a video game, for a tap is evidently not a video game, but I will say that for all the good that interactivity affords games, there is far more to them than it alone. What matters is less the degree of interactivity a video game possesses, and more the manner in which this interactivity is used to conjure thoughts and feelings. No one set of stimuli ought to be put on a pedestal as the correct set, for no one stimulus is guaranteed to trigger a response in everyone. Instead it is better to simply be grateful for the myriad experiences on offer, and dive into them free of so absurd a concern as how best to label the pleasures ahead.