My Favorite Games! 8: King's Field II

I'm back! Someone got busy. It was me, I got busy. But, I'm back and ready to talk about a great game. The 8th on my favorite list. For my 9th and 10th favorite games, go here (9) and here (10). Go to the tenth favorite game to get a sense of what I mean by 'favorite'.

So my 8th favorite game of all time is King's Field II.

King's Field 2 came out in 1996 for the Playstation. I originally played it around 1998, when I was 12-13. At the time, I had had a Nintendo 64 and prior to that the Genesis / Sega-CD / 32X. My experience with the Sega-CD had changed my perspective on games...in a good way. That system gets a bad rap man. It wasn't all FMV games! Anyway, I played a ton of PC ports on that system and through that experience what I ended up wanting out of games changed a lot. I went from wanting immediate action and gratification to games with a lot of tone and atmosphere. Games like the last two games I highlighted in this series, one of them a Sega-CD game.

King's Field II, the precursor to the Souls games and created by the same developer, From Software, has atmosphere and tone for days. Granted, playing it now, that tone and atmosphere may not seem quite as heavy hitting but at the time it was a powerful experience for me. Everything just seemed so bleak and dark. Everyone is so bummed. Characters you meet will die throughout the game. Also there's like 15 NPCs in the whole game because everyone else is dead. The music, though not great, helps set that tone. So do the graphics. They are archaic and won't even all that great at the time but the art design is striking. It has the dark fantasy look that From would display in the Souls games.

Speaking of Souls games, most of the mechanics in those games are in full force here. There's a stamina gauge that is effected by attack and running. There's a magic system akin to Dark Souls 3. There's a concept of usable healing items akin to Demon's Souls. The game is fully nonlinear, like Dark Souls. King's Field 1, though a good game, felt more compact than King's Field 2. King's Field 1 took place on a grouping of islands. A grouping of incredibly complex islands, mind you, but the scope was still compressed down to those islands. King's Field 2 felt like a huge land mass. But it's smartly designed as well. You can go anywhere, theoretically, but there are places that are locked off until you have the requisite equipment to proceed. But, even with areas locked off, the player has 2-4 areas available to explore at any given time during the game. There's somewhat of a homogeneity to the look of the different areas in the game but the level design changes quite a lot adding new, unique, and often very difficult components to each dungeon, town, cave, castle, mine, etc.

When I first played this game, I kind of hated it. I loved the atmosphere and tone. I really wanted to like what I was doing. But I couldn't wrap my head around it. But I kept crashing against that rock, sort of like I did with Dark Souls (my first Souls-like game), and eventually it clicked and when it did all I wanted to do was play the game. It became an obsession like many a person's first Souls game that clicks becomes their obsession. Like those people as well this first Souls game that clicked for me, though it's actually a Field game, has become one of my favorite games after it had clicked. It became my 8th favorite game, in fact.

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My Favorite Games! 9: Metroid Prime

I'm back with another of my top 10 favorite games of all time. Again, just for clarity, these are my personal favorite games. Favorite does not necessarily mean best. Objectivity might play a role here, but a relatively minor one (such as is the nature of 'tastes' I guess, right?). These are the games I have found to have left the greatest impact on this hobby we all share. These left the greatest mark. And for a rundown of my history with games, I provided that with my last entry.

So, my number 9 most favorite of all the video games is Metroid Prime 1.

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In the Gamecube/Xbox/PS2 era I landed on the Gamecube and got a lot of fantastic games out of it. Paper Mario, Mario Sunshine, Wind Waker, Beyond Good and Evil, the Resident Evil games, Tales of Symphonia, Metroid Prime 2. But the one that really stood out for me was Metroid Prime 1.

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Ever since I was a kid, I was a sucker for tone and atmosphere in my entertainment. But tone and atmosphere is a hard thing to quantify. I love Batman because of the dark colors and the gothic setting. I love silent films because of the amazing set design and the tone set by pacing of the films, especially the horror films. I love The Road because the tone is so dreary and bleak that when humanity and hope do hit, even if it is minuscule, it carries that much more weight. In video games, I found that tone comes from the interplay between the graphical and aural presentation with pacing and world building. A game like Flashback sets a tone by having sparse music, allowing for exploration of the different levels, and implying a larger world without having to explain in explicit detail the nature of that world. It allows for a more memorable experience.

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Metroid Prime has tone and atmosphere for days. It's a beautiful game, technically and artistically, which is matched with really well crafted music. The music may not be imminently listenable outside the context of the game but within the game it plays perfectly with the art design and the settings. And those settings are amazing. There so much variety in this game, one level to the next and you can experience it all because the game itself, like the other Metroid games before it (Jason's note; this was my first Metroid game) the game encourages and at times demands exploration. By exploring you can see all of the details put into the world and all of the implied history. There's explicit history too, through the use of the scan visor, but I think the hints at a world beyond the confines of the game's world is more interesting.

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I haven't even touched on the gameplay, which works amazingly well when you consider what this game sets out to do. It is a first-person action adventure game with a focus on shooting, platforming, and exploration. In the game, you'll juggle multiple visors and weapon types while also platforming and fighting, at times, swarms of enemies. It's a big ask for a player's hands, in theory, and when you consider what the Gamecube controller looked like it's also seemingly inconceivable that it would work at all. But they make it work to such a large and successful degree that the movement and inventory management almost becomes second nature. The games that control the best are the ones that you control without thinking about what you're doing. It's as if your hands and the games controls are one. That's what it was like to play this game.

So the game had atmosphere, it had a memorable tone, it was paced well, it controlled really well, the presentation was top notch, it allowed for a ton of exploration, and was fantastic start to finish. All of these things lead it to being in my number 9 slot. Also the fact that I've beat it nearly 10 times because I like it so much.

So, as before, I want to end this entry with a video of the game. But, I thought it would be fun if we end with a video from Digital Foundry. An editor over at that site has been taking deep dives into the technical aspects of old games and did a feature on Metroid Prime. It's a cool video and goes into greater detail about the technical prowess of this game.

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My Favorite Games! 10: Dune

After making my 2016 GOTY List I re-acquired a taste for writing about games. That's one of my favorite things about games; discussing them. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of people around me to discuss games with. But, thank God Giant Bomb exists so I can share this stuff here. I thought it would be fun for me to write about my favorite games. By favorite, I mean the games I have the most fondness for. That doesn't necessarily mean the best games. It can, but not always. Case and point, my favorite game console is the Sega-CD. But, by no measure whatsoever is the Sega-CD the best console ever made. It's not even close, honestly. But most of my fondest video game memories are linked to that system, so I adore the thing as busted as it kind of was.

The other thing I think you all should know before I launch into my list is my history with games. I'm 30 as of this writing which would mean that presumably my first console should have been an 8-bit system. Well, we had an 8-bit system (a Sega Master System) but my first experience with games was with my Dad's old Colecovision.

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My Mom had bought my Dad an Odyssey before my older brother and I were born and he had been a fan of video games ever since. By the time I came around (or, well, became aware enough of my own existence and environment to experience video games) the Colecovision was the old console, having moved into my parents' bedroom and hooked up to their old, wood-grained, late-70's TV, and the Master System was, from time to time, hooked up to our main TV in the family room. So as a kid, the console that was readily accessible to me was the Colecovision and I played it all the time. I messed around a bit with the Master System but didn't really play any of those games in-depth until I got an attachment for my Sega Gamegear (no Gamegear games will be added to this list, by the way).

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The next console I had a ton of experience with was the Sega Genesis, then the Sega-CD, then the 32X (no 32X game will make the list either), then the N64, Gamecube, Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3, and now the PS4. I had messed around a bit with handhelds, but I was mostly a home console person. Same with arcades. I went to a few arcades from time to time, but the experience of being in the arcade was more meaningful to me than actually playing the games (though playing After Burner with the actual, moving arcade cabinet was an amazing experience). I was also late to PCs and all of my PCs, up to present day, have been under-powered. So my experience with PCs have been limited as well.

Alright, all the preamble out of the way. Lets get to the list!

10: Dune (Sega-CD)

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The perfect example of 'favorite' versus 'best'. Dune is a weird game. It was originally released on the PC in 1992 and was eventually ported to the Sega-CD and Amiga in 1993. It was loosely based on David Lynch's Dune movie, released in 1984. And by loosely I mean the only thing they have in common is that the game as the likeness of Kyle MacLachlan and they are both in the same universe with similar art designs.

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The game itself is a hybrid of sorts. It's a story based first-person adventure game mixed with a resource management strategy game. I'll try to be as brief with the breakdown of this game as I can be. The player character is Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) who is charged with convincing the Fremen, the natives of the planet Dune, to work with them to harvest spice, a resource only found on Dune that is the be all end all thingamajig that is the solution to every possible thing in the Dune universe. As I'm sure most of you know, he's actually 'the one' that has been prophesied to free the Fremen from oppression and essentially slavery to the Galactic Empire that desires spice so f'ing much. So Paul joins forces with the Fremen to fight the Empire and their lackeys, House Harkonnen (who just so happen to be the sworn enemies of House Atreides). The story isn't necessarily the strong point of the game or the movie, honestly. Though, the game is very well written considering the nature of the story and especially considering the era and console it was released on.

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The main gameplay comes from the resource management. Essentially, the player needs to manage the Fremen troops as they mine for spice, fight the Harkonnen, and foster plant life through horticulture. The game has an in-game day, night cycle and that concept plays a key role in the flow of the game. For example, House Atreides is on Dune through a contract with the Emperor who demands shipments of spice on a nearly weekly basis. So the player needs to make sure that the Fremen are mining enough spice to meet that quota. To allow for faster spice mining, you'll need to provide them with harvesters (machines that mine spice at a faster rate) which can be bought, but only with spice. Harvesters draw the attention of sandworms, which can destroy the harvesters, kill your troops, and halt spice mining production. So you'll need to buy ornithopters, which are essentially helicopters, with, you guessed it, spice. Spice is also a limited resource and so the player will need to move troops from location to location as the spice well, so to speak, dries up from area to area. New areas need to be prospected before they are mined, which takes time. Moving troops around takes time. The military will need new weapons, which can be bought with, say it together now, spice. The military is effected by their moral, which is impacted by how often you contact them to see how they are doing, how well they perform, and how much plant life is being grown. Plant life production causes all the spice in a location to be destroyed, however. And if you fail to meet the quota of the Emperor to many times in a row, you lose the game. If you take to long to take out House Harkonnen you'll end up running out of spice to send to the Emperor, and you'll lose. If you attack Harkonnen's too quickly they'll beat all your military troops and take them as slaves effectively taking away your ability to beat the game.

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Sounds kind of complicated, huh?

I played this game originally when I was around 8-9 years old. It was the first game I had played that had had so many systems in place, was so complicated, and did so little to guide the player along. You were left on your own after they tutorial-ized the various systems. It was a struggle for me, but also a ton of fun figuring it all out. Over the course of about a year I had wrapped my head around all the systems and finally beat the game and I felt awesome. Really awesome. Like how I feel now when I beat hard sections in Souls games. I had earned that ending. That was what made the experience so memorable for me. Now, I can go back and blast through the game but that first experience was something else. I think it was a mix of the nature of the game being such a different experience for a home console game (or at least the home console games I had experienced) and the age at which I had played it. I was used to pretty linear, straightforward experiences. Platformers and action games. Games where you , more or less, ran to the right and hit the right button at the right time. Great games, mind you, but this experience for me was so different. This was an intellectual experience. For a 8-9 year old kid, that type of experience can be really meaningful. Match that with a great presentation and this was one of the most memorable gaming experiences I have ever had.

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Obligatory GOTY List: 2016 Version (Free Update Coming Soon)

2016 was a weird year, huh? But at least the games were good! And so here's a list of ten of my favorite of the good games, but a few other lists for good measure.

These Games Continue to be Fantastic

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This year I replayed Dear Esther after it's re-release on the PS4 and it continues to be a game I love but also have a hard time recommending. So I'm a recovering alcoholic and certain movies, books, and TV shows really hit a nerve for me that wouldn't have, I imagine, had I not developed that addiction. The movie Shame for example. Though it's about sex addiction, it covers the nature of addiction so well that it unnerved me. I loved the movie and yet never, ever want to see it again. I hadn't had that experience with a game until Dear Esther. I can't say for certain that that was the developer's intention, but my interpretation of the story is from the perspective of an addict. I won't spoil it though honestly I don't know if I could because the game's narrative is just open enough that there can be multiple interpretations. Which I love in all forms of media. So, you see, this game is like a game made specifically for my sensibilities. But, like the movie Shame, I don't know if I could recommend it to most people. But I know I love it.

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No analysis needed for Race the Sun or 140. They are just a ton of fun.

I Probably Would Have Liked These If...

I bought Superhot thinking that my 10-ish year old laptop could probably play it. I mean it could play Dark Souls 2, so why not Superhot? Well, it couldn't. Which is a huge bummer because it looks awesome.

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Both Dishonored 2 and Final Fantasy 15 look like games I would love. Especially Dishonred 2 because I adored the first game. But, you know, sometimes money is tight and purchasing games get pushed to the back burner. And, well, that's what happened here. Maybe they'll make a different list next year.

Most Disappointing Game

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It's the game everyone loves to hate! I don't hate this game and, in fact, at the beginning of my experience with this game I liked it quite a lot. Like seemingly everyone else, I was pretty excited at the concept of this game. But when I heard it was a survival game my excitement went down considerably. I had never played a survival game to be fair but everything I knew and had seen of the survival genre made me think I would hate it. But, I bought it because the concept seemed so intriguing and I really, really wanted to know what was at the center of the galaxy. Again, at the beginning, it was kind of neat. Building up your ship, exploring planets, seeing the boundaries of the game's systems. It was all very interesting. Then the game hits a flow. An extremely formulaic flow. An extremely, completely unchanging, mind numbingly formulaic flow. Every now and again I have the thought "why am I spending so much time with games when there is no real, tangible carrot at the end of the stick?" but usually fight against that thought with "this is my leisure time and leisure time doesn't need to produce a concrete end product", "the experience itself is worth the time investment", etc. etc. But there was nothing I could come up with that could fight that thought when I played this game. After about 10-15 hours of doing the exact same thing with what seemed like no end in sight, I looked up the ending of the game to satiate my curiosity of what was actually at the center of the galaxy. I won't spoil it, but I don't think it's hyperbole for me to say that it might be the worst ending to a game that I've ever seen. I would have rather had seen a black background with white text saying 'congratulations'. They wouldn't have even needed to spell 'congratulations' correctly. If you felt, like I did, that the game's flow amounted to a never ending Sisyphean torture wait till you see the ending. It paints the entire game as a Sisyphean torture. Actually that's what they should have called it; Sisyphean torture.

The Number 11 Game

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This game looks awesome, I love the puzzle design, I really appreciate the sound design as it makes the whole experience really peaceful. It's just a nice experience. Until the puzzles start to get really hard and the part of my brain that wants to 100% everything gets really frustrated. I really like this game, but the spike in difficulty for me personally kind of soured the whole experience. That, and the obnoxious and pretentious quotes and videos. I don't really like using the word 'pretentious' because it feels like a word often used to stifle art that is non-standard. But I can't think of another word that better fits my response to those little narrative bits. Still a great game though and immensely creative.

Game of the Year: 2016

10: Ratchet and Clank

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9: Abzu

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8: Rise of the Tomb Raider (PS4)

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7: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

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6: Uncharted 4

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5: Hitman

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4: Dark Souls 3

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3: That Dragon, Cancer

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2 Stardew Valley

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1: Doom

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Before I bought Doom I had heard it described as the Mad Max: Fury Road of video games and I can't think of a better comparison. Fury Road had a story with good characters and a satisfying arc with a fitting conclusion. But the action and style always came first. Doom has a story, a dumb-fun story but a story nonetheless, with memorable characters (they even make Doom guy memorable). But all that stuff is beside the point. It's just fun. You feel awesome playing this game. It looks awesome, the music is awesome, the mechanics are awesome, and it's all just fucking awesome. It's pure, simple fun through and through. If I ever want to feel awesome and tap into my lizard brain for some mindless action this is going to be my go-to game. I mentioned that while playing No Man's Sky the thought "why am I doing this?" crept into my mind and that, at times, that happens with other games? That never, ever, remotely came close to entering my mind while playing this game. I was too busy circle strafing and shooting the crap out of everything.

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GOTY 2016, WIP

1) Doom

2) Stardew Valley

3) That Dragon, Cancer

4) Dark Souls 3

5) Hitman

6) Uncharted 4

7) Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

8) Rise of the Tomb Raider

9) Abzu

10) Ratchet and Clank

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Learning Through Video Games: The Talos Principle and the Garden of Eden (Spoilers)

So I played through the Talos Principle last year and loved it. In part because of the puzzles but also the tone and atmosphere was so engaging. But what stuck with me after finishing it was the story. I grew up in a Protestant Christian family and for my whole childhood attended a non-denomination church. Obviously as a kid your perspective on the world is skewed. What I was taught by my family and at my church created my reality and I assumed everyone else's reality was just the same. I remember when I first went to school and being surprised when people would say that they weren't Christians. Because, at that time, everyone I knew was Christian. I couldn't even conceptualize what that meant. Then my teens happened and they hit me like a brick wall. I hated everyone and everything and the church was just another group to rebel against. I remember being mad when I went to church and they tried to talk to us about the value of Christian music. "They were just trying to make me like them!" In actuality, they had good intentions. They wanted kids to hear as many positive messages as possible to lift their spirits because teenage life is rough and the best way they knew how to do it was to get us to listen to what they considered to be positive music we might like. But it didn't matter because I was an angsty teenager and everyone else sucked!

But as I got older I relaxed a bit and spent less time getting mad at other people and more time trying to figure out what I actually believed. I had still called myself a Christian but didn't know why. I went back to church and thought the messages were positive but I still couldn't put my finger on why I identified with the religion. I think part of the problem was that the Biblical stories I was raised with were told in very black and white terms. When we were taught about Noah's Ark, we focused on the fun stuff. How crazy would it be to have all those animals on that boat? How big would that boat have to be? Wouldn't it have been neat to see it in person! We didn't focus on the genocide angle. We didn't discuss the intentions of God to bring forth that incredible flood. We just took it as it was and moved on.

That's where the Talos Principle comes in.

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The Talos Principle is a retelling of the Garden of Eden. Basically. In it you solve puzzles in a picturesque world to further a narrative. The narrative being 'solve puzzles so that you might be given the opportunity to solve more puzzles.' The only catch is that you can't climb a tower. You are tempted by a computer program to fight against the design of this world and do something different. In the end, you are given a choice; climb the tower or exit through two large double doors that had been closed up to that point. If you enter the doors the character dies as a faithful servant to the God of that world and the program, the Garden of Eden, continues on for the next character. If you climb the tower, the program is destroyed and the character exits out into the real world.

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What it brought up in me was this idea that I would have loathed living in the Garden of Eden. Yes, it was picturesque. Yes, it was perfect. But I wouldn't have had complete freedom of choice. Christianity, at least, has struggled with the problem of pre-destined fate and freedom of choice for a long time. St. Augustine philosophized the nature of free will a long, long, long time ago. I was taught as a child that God hadn't wanted us to be automatons. We weren't to blindly follow. Rather, we were to use our 'free will' to decide for ourselves, with our heart, soul, and mind, if we were to be Christians. But the conflict is in that I was also taught that the Garden of Eden was perfect and we as a species had messed up when we had fallen prey to temptation. Had we only not done so we wouldn't have ever suffered. But how can we both have freedom of choice but also glorify a reality where choice was limited?

Truth be told, I had cleared up my own personal issues with religion before playing this game and I'm not going to share that. Mostly because it isn't germane to this blog. What is is that this game would have the capacity to bring up this line of thinking in me. That it would even flirt with these concepts is an amazing feat. And it shows the odd ways in which games can teach you more than just better hand/eye coordination.

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Learning Through Video Ganes: That Dragon, Cancer and Grief

The last time I wrote about lessons in games I had discussed the lessons I had learned about gender norms and sexuality through my time playing Phantasy Star 1 and 4 as a child. Today, I'd like to talk about a new lesson I've learned, just this night, from a newer game. 'That Dragon, Cancer' is about a Mother and Father's reaction to their son's diagnosis of cancer. The story focuses on struggling through treatment, confusion regarding faith and the internal struggle and the resulting relational problems of the two parents who are responding to the disease very differently. Throughout playing the game, I spent the majority of the time thinking about a recent death that I had experienced. Through playing that game I re-grieved that person's death and found a new way to heal.

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I'm not very practiced in grieving. I've performed mental health therapy that focuses on grief for clients and families. But when it's your own grief it's a very different experience. Like the parents in the game, I had gone through a lot of emotions when the person died. Numbing, anger, frustration, existential crisis, sadness, and so on. You name an emotion and I probably felt it. But the logical part of my brain was fighting all these emotions trying to calm them all down. Which led to an internal tornado inside my mind that had me confused and emotionally and cognitively wrecked for months and months after that person had died. As time passed, I had thought that I had appropriately grieved that person's death because my mind had calmed. The emotions had passed and logic was back in place. I was me again. But it was a false front. What I had done was forgotten the pain, not resolved it. 'That Dragon, Cancer' had brought it back up again but it brought with it a lesson. I can't speak to the intentions of the parents of the game but I can infer through my own experience. This game felt like a way to resolve parents' grief. To come to terms with thoughts they had had but may not have liked, to recognize emotions that they may like to never expereince again, and to find meaning in the pain of seeing their son fade away. I realized that I hadn't done any of these things with the person who I had lost. I hadn't learned any lessons. I didn't know all the emotions I felt and thoughts I had had. I had calmed and that was good enough for me. But that was just a lie to make myself not face difficult realities that that person's death had brought to the fore.

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I'm not a game developer. Not really much of an artist either. But I can write my thoughts down. So I wrote a letter to that person who had died. Like the parents of the boy in “That Dragon, Cancer” I had decided to come to terms with the good, bad and ugly that comes from death. Like that game, the person who died was only half the story. Death has a way of making a person look at themselves and their life in a way that we rarely do. It leads to some harsh lessons and difficult realities. Lessons and realities that I had ignored but that these parents had not. So I faced them as well as I could. I'm not going to share my letter here because I'm not as brave as these parents. But I will say that I learned a valuable lesson from 'That Dragon, Cancer' that I wasn't expecting. I really respect these parents and I hope that they've found some peace after releasing the game. But I also want to thank them for helping me find peace.

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Learning Through Video Ganes

A few years ago I wrote a blog about playing Temple Run with my nephew. What I noticed from playing that game with him was how quickly he learned from his experience watching me play the game. At first, he didn't realize that he could tilt the phone to move the character and so was confused when I moved the phone to the left and right. I explained the reasoning and how it allowed me to progress farther. As soon as he got the phone back for his run it had clicked and through tilting the screen he had made a new high score. He then became an information sponge asking me about all the different games that were on his Mom's phone. This learning happens everywhere for my nephew. It happens when we play catch or when we play board games. It happens when he and I clean up after a meal or talk to other people in the family. It's amazing how much and how quickly kids learn. But what isn't always discussed is how kids might learn from video games. Not just educational video games or games that teach hand-eye coordination and general problem solving skills. But games that teach kids to experience new perspectives or question their own beliefs. I think of games like 'That Dragon, Cancer', 'Life is Strange', 'Gone Home' and other non-traditional games are starting to fill this gap. But for me, I've actually experienced that type of learning from a game franchise that, at face value, doesn't look like the type of series that would concern itself with such themes. The series that I'm referring to is Phantasy Star, specifically the first and fourth entry in the series.

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For those that haven't played the Phantasy Star games, they were JRPGs set in a fictional solar system with a mix of a sci-fi aesthetic with medieval weaponry. You know how Final Fantasy 7 mixed swords with technology? Phantasy Star did that in the 80s. The first entry came out on the Sega Master System and stared Alis, a female character out to avenge the death of her older brother. It was such a good game and Alis was a really cool character. I played this game when I was around 4-5 years old and had a blast. The dungeons were engaging, levels were fun to grind (I hadn't reach the point in my life where I was tired of grinding in JRPGs yet), and it looked amazing. But think about what this game was doing and when. It was 1987 and Phantasy Star was an exclusive JRPG for the Master System, aiming at the JRPG kings of the time Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, developed and published by Sega staring a female character acting out a stereotpically male role; the avenger. She wasn't avenging a sister or her parents but her older brother, the person one would think would be the avenger in this story. She didn't fulfill the role female characters in JRPGs often do either. She wasn't a cleric or a wizard. She was a warrior who fought with a sword. She was the one saving the characters who would become allies. She was the person who would lead the charge against the final boss and be the hero. That's an odd thing in video games and film even now. Think about 1987. The era of Commando, Die Hard, and Rambo. The era where games were still consider the medium of boys living out power fantasies. It was a weird game but in the best way possible and Sega had really taken a chance making it.

Phantasy Star and I had a bit of a disconnect until Phantasy Star 4. PS 2 was neat but way too hard for young me. Probably too hard for old me. I never bought PS 3 eventhough it sounded neat. But I did buy PS 4 because it was critically acclaimed. Rightfully so, it turns out, because it was fantastic. The story was engaging, the graphics were great, it wasn't too grindy (this was when I started to tire of JRPG grinding), and the music! Man alive that music was great. But relating to the topic at hand, it stared a female character named, appropriately enough, Alys. She was a hunter in the game's fiction (basically mercenary) and was training a younger hunter, a young man named Chaz (yes, that name sucks.) Alys is designed to be a gruff and determined person who is world weary but very loyal to her companions. She's respected and feared by the those that know her as she is thought to be, for lack of a better word, a bad ass. About 1/3-1/2 into the game the player fights a version of the final boss and loses. In a cutscene, that boss attacks Chaz who looks to be killed by the attack. Alys pushes him out of the way taking the hit herself. She dies from the injuries and Chaz becomes the new lead character. Again, this series took what is the usual role of women in JRPGs, and fiction in general, and twisted it. Alys was the bad ass, not Chaz. A woman was the leader and mentor, not an older male character. A female character sacrificed herself to save the male character. The female character was the one respected by the other characters of the world. The female character was the one that struck fear into others. Eventhough Chaz would become the lead of the story he never carried that same presnce that Alys had. Again, Phantasy Star had taken what one would think would be normal conventions for JRPGs, and games in general, and spun it.

As a kid, I didn't learn that men and women were equals through my time with Phantasy Star. Rather, I learned that via my parents. At face value, my parents' marriage looks stereotypically middle class American. My Dad works as a construction worker for a large, industrial contruction company. My Mom stopped working when my older brother was born to be a stay at home wife. It was a mutual decision between my Mom and Dad. My Mom would have kept working, and there were times when it was considered when money was tight, but didn't because they both felt that our family as a whole would be better off if she stayed home and luckily my Dad had a really good and persistent job. My Mom and Dad have a real division of labor where each know their value to each other and the family. Neither is subservient to the other. Rather they're a team and take care of each other and our family as a unit. That's what they believe and that's what they taught my brother and I. Inherent in that is that men and women are equal. So when I played the first Phantasy Star it wasn't weird to me that Alis was the lead, that she was avenging her brother, and that she would be the hero.

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Then school happened. I went to great schools and they did wonderful work with the kids. They always had the best of intentions but accidentally, through those intentions, segragated 'boys' and 'girls' from one another. I remember as a child in elementary school being shown the 'boy' toys by my teacher when we had breaks from school work. There were action figures, sports gear, and the like. Across from us were the girls with their 'girl' toys. They had Barby, easy bake ovens, and so on. It was like our classroom was split between the pink-'girly' side and the black and blue colored 'boy' side. The school just wanted us to have fun and figured those toys would represent our interests. But they had indirectly programed into our developing minds a distinction between 'girl' things and 'boy' things and ultimately 'girl' roles as opposed to 'boy' roles. Boys play catch. Girls bake. Boys play with Batman toys. Girls play with Barbies. I had played through Phantasy Star 1 before kindergarten started. By the time Phantasy Star 4 had come out there had been this seed planted in my head; boys and girls fill different roles. My parents' marriage was still the same but school and peer groups are powerful forces and they had wiggled there way into my subconscious. Suddenly it became really weird to me that Alys was the hero as in my brain boys had become the stereotyped 'hero'. I was a blank slate when I first played Phantasy Star 1. By the time I got to Phantasy Star 4 only a few years later my slate had been carved and gender norms were well engraved.

Phantasy Star 4 was weird for me initially when I first started because, again, Alys was the lead. But more so because Chaz was such a clown. He was young and brash making mistakes, acting foolishly, and all around not being the male lead my brain thought he should be. That person I was imagining was in turned embodied by Alys. It lead to this odd cognitive dissonance for me. It was like part of my mind knew that men and women were equal but then another, loud and very obnoxious part of me was hung up on gender norms. But Alys soon became my favorite character and gender norms fell to the side. When Alys died it realy hit me because I wasn't expecting it. I was expecting her to be the hero of that story because she so clearly fit that bill. When she wasn't and when she died as she did that admiration of her as a character had turned into hero worship in my then 7 year old brain. She was hero not because she had beat the bad guy, as the Alis in the first Phantasy Star had done. Rather, she was a hero beause she was willing to sacrifice herself to save her friend and student, a male character who respected her as much as I had as a young male player.

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Games can be a lot of things. They can be fun and they can be challenging. They can teach you hand-eye coordination and problem solving skills. But I think it is often overlooked at what games can teach players about themselves and their society. Though Phantasy Star was made by Japanese developers, oddly enough, their creation taught me how to look at my own American culture in a different way. It was in small part to be sure. I treat everyone equally, regardless of gender, in large part because of my parents and their lessons along with my interactions with men and women as I aged. But even if Phantasy Star's role in my view of gender was minor it shouldn't be overlooked. In fact, I spent God knows how many words writing about it right here which means it was memorable enough to me that I felt it necessary to share that experience. I think that says a lot. So when I look at games like Gone Home, Life is Strange, Dear Esther and so on I hope that they can become games that teach young players about new experiences and help them question what they think is normal as Phantasy Star had for me.

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Introversion: Strength in Silence

I'm an introverted man who works as a mental health therapist for an outpatient clinic. Which, I've now come to realize having worked in this field for a while, is not uncommon. But what is actually uncommon is a person in the field identifying as an introvert. For two hours each week I go to a meeting where I, and ten other therapist, meet to do consultation and for us to deal with general office logistics. The second hour is when we do our consultation meaning we spend time discussing clients seeking advice for solving problems we're having in therapy. A common feature in therapy, no matter the therapy, is the role relationships play on the lives of clients. But there is a prevailing view, at least in my small circle, of what is 'normal' and 'abnormal' regarding how we relate to each other and how we try to recharge and recuperate. I can't tell you how many times I've heard 'isolative' to explain a person who prefers to spend large aounts of time alone recovering after a lot of social activity. Or how many times I've heard video games, film and books demonized as too lonely an activity and that such clients who spend 'too much time' with these activities need to 'break out of their shell' and interact with others. In short, in these meetings seem to equate healthy mental health with being outgoing and disordered with time spent alone. Introversion thus is sickly and extroversion is healthy.

So, spurred on by a book I just read called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking and by my own self-reflection having now performed therapy for many years, I finally said something to the group. But before that, I guess I should first describe what I mean by an introvert versus extrovert. First, introvert is not the same as 'anxious' and/or shy and 'extrovert' is not the same as 'sociable'. Shyness and social anxiety are significant problems based in fear and socialization is based on finding connections to others. Both of these traits can be just as present in an introverted person as in an extroverted person. The definitions for the two aren't totally well sorted, even to this day, but more or less an introverted person is one who is re-energized by alone time while an extroverted person is re-energized by activity and stimulation. An introverted person can do well at a party, for example, but may become overwhelmed if a) the party is too large, b) the party is too loud and intense, c) they are at the party too long, d) etc. etc. etc. Essentially an introverted may derive pleasure socialization but can become exhausted by it and repairs by spending time alone. The introverted person would need alone time to regroup and recenter themselves. It's there personal break so that they can once again become engaged with activity and socialization. Whereas an extroverted person will find the stimulation refreshing and the alone time dull and tedious. Both can be equally as social. Both can be equally as entertaining, exciting and fulfilled. It's just that both require different outlets to re-energize. It's believed that these two traits lie on a continuoum and that it is rare when a person is fully one or the other. I'm more introverted, for example, but I am just as re-energized when I go to concerts as I am when I relax at home alone with a video game or book.

The thing for me is that, as an introvert, I've cultivated a career, a personality, a sense of humor, friendships, leadership skills and so on and so forth. Through introversion I've become happy. It took a while for me to realize it, as the hardest person it seems for a therapist to figure out is the self, but once I came to terms with recognizing who I am, what I am and what my strengths and weaknesses are so much began to make sense. And with that knowledge came ownership, confidence and reconciliation. Through introversion I'm more aware of my emotions, I'm more attune to the emotions of those around me, I can better comment on absurd situations for a laugh, I can better manage people and find helpful solutions to big problems. I don't fret, I don't break under pressure and I always find a way around a problem. Not because I'm a great therapist or supervisor. I'm an introvert.

Which makes it so unfortunate that in American culture, in particular (as I can't truly speak to other cultures), extroversion has been deemed 'normal' and introverts are deemed 'outcasts'. There are exceptions, obviously, but they seem to prove the rule. How many times have you heard 'quiet' used with a negative connotation? 'Quiet' just seems like a politically correct way to say 'strange' and 'different'. Where as 'outgoing' is almost synonymous with 'fun' and 'interesting'. Which brings me back to my meeting. So I stood up for us introverts in my own very introverted sort of way. I quietly pointed out the flawed logic of assuming that one behavior, like spending time alone, automatically equates to a mental health diagnosis, like Major Depressive Disorder. I then used myself as an example explaining how I recharge a lot of activity by spending time alone re-centering myself before I re-engage with friends and family and do not meet criteria for any mental health diagnosis at this time.

You could have heard a pin drop. It was awesome.

Hopefully, what I had said opened up a new perspective to those therapists and reaffirmed the feelings of the therapists that chose to stay quiet and agree with me in their silence. I'm writing this wall of text not to brag (though that moment was pretty cool) but rather to offer solace to those that are quiet like me. Too often I see clients who feel that they are somehow broken because they were told they were 'odd', 'too quiet', 'too shy', 'boring' or any other derogatory term to describe a person who I would characterize as 'thoughtful', 'calm', 'controlled' and 'pensive'. There's nothing wrong with being quiet. Introspection is not a symptom. Introversion is not a disorder.

Now all my introverts slowly nod your heads in silent agreement.

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