by Vanessa Tottle
Guess who’s running Wednesday Collective this week! Gabe just had his birthday. He’s 31, which is ancient. Please everybody, wish him well while you still can. He wanted time off to climb into his final repose and breathe one last breath in a futile attempt to blow out an incredibly high number of candles, so I demanded to take over the rest of the week. I can’t destroy the whole thing in a few days, can I? Maybe, maybe not, but I can try.
ARTICLE OF THE WEEK
Gabe asked me to write a second opinion for Under the Skin. It’s all about how I want to see Scarlett Johansson play Hannibal Lecter one day. “Can you still hear them, Jesse Eisenberg? Can you hear the silence of the lambs?” He ended his first opinion by saying Under the Skin does something no other movie has – it tricks you into trying to inhabit the perspective of a sexual predator. I think he’s right.
But to video games, someone else’s perspective is the starting point. In video games, you have agency over character actions; in movies, you don’t. To progress in video games, you have to follow instructions. A few developers have been brave enough to give us some pretty nasty instructions, seeing how far we’re willing to go past our own moral boundaries. Sometimes you get a choice in the narrative – good path or bad – but sometimes the only moral path is to turn off your rig.
When I fly overseas, there’s nothing I love better than to spend the entire flight playing The Walking Dead or Papers, Please, or something else mega-depressing. If the plane crashes on my way there, I’ll be playing selfishly, divesting myself of the last of my American-dream pursuing greed and self-interest. If the plane crashes on the way back, I’ll be selflessly sacrificing my own needs for those around me, girding myself with as much selflessness as I can for my L.A. transfer.
I used to have panic attacks and need a sick bag. I grew up having agency taken away from me, and there’s nothing worse for that than flying 30,000 feet over the Pacific in a tin can for 12 hours. Just ask William Shatner. But when I’m deciding the fate of Clem or the immigrants of Arstotzka or, if it’s really bad, zoning on Civilization 5 or Endless Space for the entire trip, I’m the most powerful person on the plane. While you’re watching the in-flight, I’m saving nations, building wonders, and expanding colonies into space.
So Gabe’s big “look what this movie just did” is where many video games start by forcing you into another person’s perspective. Suck it, movies! (I’m kidding. I really don’t want to take away from the power and grace of Under the Skin. It’s an incredible work of art.) But today we’re here for video games, and no other form of art gives us the kind of agency they do.
And when it comes to writing about games, Cara Ellison is the future. Observe her recurring S.EXE column at Rock Paper Shotgun: Her latest article is on the game “Striptease,” which tricks you into the perspective of a sexual predator. (Before anyone starts yelling about how it’s going to turn young’uns into perverts, please observe that after Silence of the Lambs, teenagers didn’t start eating their mailman’s liver. Besides, the game is intended for adults.) “Striptease” is an indie game that forces players to confront some uncomfortable realities about gender dynamics through dissociating puzzle-based gameplay, a forcefully goal-oriented rewards system, and art design that suggests at the behind-the-scenes results of your actions.
“Cancer, the Video Game”
This was my favorite article from last year. The game That Dragon, Cancer seems to ask: if video games are about agency, what happens when that agency is taken away from you in the ways that matter most? It’s a question I’ll have to begin facing as my aunt and uncle get older and their health begins to fail, as the people who once showed me the world can be a place of kindness and who taught me I could have agency in my own life begin to lose the agency in theirs. It’s already started; they seem like worn versions of their younger selves, bright and energetic yet with the edges frayed.
If poetry, movies, and books can investigate how we face death emotionally, what will the one art form that gives us true agency have to teach? I fear I’ll be graceless and incompetent when facing the deaths of my loved ones; but maybe there’s something out there where I can practice, learn, and gird myself for it the same way I save the world in order to gird myself to land in L.A.
Gamers with Disabilities
The most overlooked benefit of video games is how they give agency to people who lack it. If running all over Hyrule or Ferelden or Tamriel feels empowering to you, imagine how it feels to someone who can’t use their arms or legs. It’s why I play games on planes. I might not have control over whether the plane crashes or not, but I can still lead the Iroquois to be the first empire to reach the information age, or maybe just save a family from aliens if it’s a shorter flight.
Edwin’s brother Euan has down syndrome. He struggles with fine motor control and will never be able to do some of the things that able-bodied Edwin will. But anytime they like, the two can throw down in an evenly matched fight, Euan can rescue Edwin from a horde of zombies, or they can heroically jump through time to save the world. How awesome is it that a young man with down syndrome can heroically save the world? I don’t see Hollywood making that movie, but every day, in homes across our humble, little planet, men and women who are depressed, or face severe disabilities, or cope with trauma, or maybe just had a really, really shitty day get to strap in, save the world, and make a difference.
I know it puts a little pep in my step when I land. You want to knock my name off a study I put months into? I wouldn’t have taken this crap ten minutes ago when I was upgrading my armor to prepare for battle. You have a ten thousand dollar suit, a corner table, and you only order top shelf? Big deal. I just saved the universe. If Commander Shepard wouldn’t fall for that laundry list, why should I? What else you got?
Euan may have down syndrome, but it doesn’t mean he’s any different from the rest of us. Everyone lacks agency in some way. Play hero enough and you may learn to act the part.
The Evolution of Final Fantasy
It might not be the most respected franchise anymore, but Final Fantasy is one of the longest running in video games. There was an era that lasted several games in which it told emotionally complex stories and could do no wrong. Many games (and movies and books) struggle to do that just the one time. The Artifice recounts the history of Final Fantasy and analyzes the evolution of the series’ storytelling practices.
The Evolution of BioShock
Gabe told me about this article: the games industry is still very young. This talks about the crazy path Irrational Games took in developing BioShock. The company itself ran as if they learned management straight out of The Office, firing employees on their first day for practical jokes and overhauling the entire development because of a single focus group. It’s fascinating because it took the newer employees who thought video games could be something more, the company could work in a different way, and the game could make a tougher social statement to pull the career developers out of a design that would have been redundant to everything else coming out at the time. Instead, they came up with something that changed the industry.
And finally a short movie, because there need to be more rad movies about astronauts accidentally destroying entire cultures now that Futurama is off the air.