On the much hated and woefully overlooked Codec radio

On the much hated and woefully overlooked Codec Radio

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In a recent video on Persona 3, I talked about how the dating sim-slash-dungeon crawler uses its menus to overlay a certain optimism towards the glacial crisis that was—and still is—complicating the future of Japanese society. This aspect of Persona 3’s menus arises from an assumption I make, and I don’t think it’s too controversial an assumption, about menus existing in games as a mode of introspection.

What do I mean by this?

In an alternate universe I provided a couple of examples to give this interpretation more weight, one example of which was the codec menu in the Metal Gear Solid games. Unlike that marvellous alternate universe, however, time in our universe runs at a rate of one second per second, and to keep the video short and within its scope the example of Metal Gear Solid had to be cut. Instead, I’d like to expand the idea in this article, partly as a complimentary piece to the Persona 3 video, and partly to justify a shabby and safe assumption about videogames that as far as I can tell nobody has contested. Continue reading

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The Place Ordained for Suffering: Worldbuilding for loneliness

Final Fantasy XIII loneliness

This piece is community funded. If you like this article, please consider supporting my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.
Words and artwork by Stephen Beirne.

If memory serves, one of the reasons Final Fantasy XIII saw poor critical reception was because of the design shift in how it presented the fictional world—in this case, of Cocoon.

Previous Final Fantasies had towns and people, a huge attraction of the games, ‘towns and people’ meaning expanded areas of the environment representing the bustle of the everyday life of everyday characters. You could tell a lot by each area by contrasting one settlement against another. Wall Market in Midgar’s slums is dense, haphazard and cluttered with scrap and debris, while the expensive high street of militarized Junon is prim and staid, its shops lined like soldiers to receive the coastal wall.

By this you get a sense of each place. It earths you, relates to you, since what each place has to say about itself stands out in some way in the context of the plot and story structure. Wall Market is home, Junon is benignly hostile to victims of the classist society, Cosmo Canyon is the spiritual centre of humanity, Wutai is foreign to your expectations of normalcy but also foreign to Shin-Ra. Final Fantasy VII presents the world in a relatable way, fastening your conviction to preserve it from the antagonist’s overarching destruction.

To take that away in Final Fantasy XIII, oh it’s a shock. You lose so much of what constitutes the life of the world, the quiet moments of downtime that make it all worth fighting for. No longer can you kick off your shoes after hiking halfway across the country and take in the scenery. No option to book a room at the inn, visit shops and comparing prices, scour houses and alleyways for useful trinkets, plod the streets just to kick up the dirt.

Instead, for FFXIII, towns remain unvisited, their utility encompassed by menu surfing at savepoints—online shopping for your convenience, abstracted and sanitized, at the same time dehumanizing the experience. Dealing you with goods in turn for money, depriving you of the social space in exchange for the minutes it takes to wander from shop to shop, perhaps being forced to talk to somebody.

As it turns out, people quite enjoy socializing in a videogame, especially when it’s with a large number of two-bit NPCs over a very long period of time. Well, the whole towns and people thing is only dressing to put us in a certain frame of mind, after all. Nobody’s fooled by it, but it’s nice to see when we’re appeased like that, nice to be understood and charmed. This design is, in essence, recognition of our desire to be romanced by this gameworld, to maybe feel like we could belong in it, simultaneously consoling and empowering.

Against this, Cocoon feels empty and bleak. Lonely. To be denied of something we’ve come to expect from so many years of Final Fantasies, our love of which we have made no effort to conceal, is a downright shunning. No wonder fans were irate.

On the other hand, it is not a secret that these shrinking feelings were substantiated within FFXIII’s plot. Like most FFs since the late 90’s, the player takes the role of a small band of insurgents, although this time their plight exceeded precedent. What was needed to maintain narrative integrity, and what FFXIII delivered, was straying from conventional Final Fantasy world design.

For many fans of the series, it was mainly Final Fantasies VII through X, the games of their youth, which instructed their experience of what makes the heart of a Final Fantasy and cast their expectations to be sorely unmet by the series’ 2010 instalment. To contextualize the role of each game’s party of heroes within the gameworld, let’s recap on that history:

In Final Fantasy VII you are eco-terrorists/freedom fighters against the Shin-Ra Electric Power Company, a monolith basically governing the majority of humanity. Through appropriation and exploitation of its citizens, Shin-Ra’s capitalist nature has lead to economic dependency of the world, so nearly all of the towns you visit are in various stages of its thrall. People are largely aware of its parasitic nature and that their wellbeing is contingent on that of the Company, so regard Shin-Ra with either distain or the adoration of a Stockholm syndrome victim. The protagonist party, as a group of incognito eco-terrorists, see their role as perceived with gratitude or annoyance depending on the prosperity of a town by virtue of Shin-Ra’s current investment in it.

In Final Fantasy VIII you are mercenaries from Balamb Garden, a private military company, commissioned and soon embedded in an international conflict with Galbadia Garden, a rival PMC. The short version is the nation of Galbadia is being manipulated by a sorceress who wants to rule over all of time, but to the majority of people in the world, the front is that Galbadia Garden’s escalating aggression and its nation’s worrying political direction are matters of public concern. In light of this, Balamb Garden is seen as the counter-force, as well as an underdog compared to the Galbadian superpower, so many people act kindly towards you, if a little detached from the severity of the global situation.

In Final Fantasy IX, you present as a charming band of thieves but in truth are an impromptu task force ordered by the regent of Lindblum to interfere with neighbouring kingdom Alexandria’s plans for domination. Amid your party is the beloved Alexandrian princess, Garnet, while main character Zidane has social in-roads in the majority of the known continent’s cities and towns, so you are generally well received wherever you go. Alexandria’s military might and cruelty leads to shock in all who witness it; although Alexandrian forces end up occupying Lindblum, their horror and frustration sides the average citizen with you. By the time Garnet steps up to rule her kingdom, the mastermind behind the whole war cows Alexandria, making it a peer of what remains of its neighbours.

Final Fantasy X is less pertinent since your party members are publically stationed as heroes and celebrities. Unlike the other games, the antagonizing force here does not complicate the social space for the party or offer any condition of class warfare. It’s a cosmic danger, not a social one: you don’t need to worry about getting dobbed in by anyone. Every single person you meet is on your side in your quest.

In Final Fantasy XIII, your situation is more extreme than the former three. Again, there is a militarizing superpower waging war on a peaceable land—Gran Pulse and Cocoon, respectively. In this case, however, Pulse attacks Cocoon by converting the latter’s citizens into weapons to use against it. Cocoon is seen as the defender in this ongoing war, while Pulse is enormously threatening, mysterious in purpose and agency, subversive, corrupting.

The characters you play—Lightning, Hope, Sazh, et al—are zapped at the very beginning and imbued with this purpose. Suddenly they find themselves labelled as public enemies, outcast by their own society. So, hounded by Cocoon police forces, your party of fugitives is channelled ever forwards, perpetually unable to stop and rest or to blend into a crowd, given how their faces have been plastered on every TV in every city.

Unlike Shin-Ra, Galbadia and Alexandria, however, Cocoon is not the dominant military power in this war. It is very much the underdog, or at least it’s presented as the underdog—you have no ground to view it otherwise given how your lense into the world is that of a group of Cocoon-born and bred individuals. In this context, your party of heroes are the unwitting instigators of aggression, and Cocoon’s reaction reads as justified self-defense. So deep in enemy lines, Lightning and company find very few allies so very few social opportunities to chat with your average bloke on the street. A condition spared Cloud’s, Squall’s and Zidane’s quests.

Looking inward to the emotional state of your party finds they have little to be charmed about. They have been made into soldiers in a war to destroy everything they’ve ever known. Their own world has turned against them. They are betrayed and shunned, victims of social ostracization, objectified in a conflict between deities. The narrative of loneliness and detachment coming from the unavailability of people and towns is appropriate design given how it complements the experiences of your protagonists.

In this light, the further complaint that the game only opens up after leaving Cocoon and arriving on Gran Pulse is an additional boon.

Final Fantasy XIII worldbuilding for loneliness

The same design reappears in a similar form in Mass Effect 3, where again it was targeted as a common point against the game. Long accustomed to Shepard’s bopping across the galaxy to visit cities and get acquainted with their inhabitants, fans were annoyed by the reduction of available cities to the one option, the Citadel, which the plot has narratively switched to become the hub of sentient resistance and sanctuary against the warring Reapers.

Locations around the rest of the galaxy are instead dedicated to furthering the story through engaging in terrestrial battle against the reapers and communing with diplomats to wrangle support for the war effort, the latter of which largely depicted though cutscenes, meaning the player hasn’t the ludonarrative option to enjoy the areas as downtime and cannot return afterwards.

Cruising through space now means hopping from one skirmish to another, one story-beat to another, with little to fill time in between. You can still approach planets and scan them for ore and optional key items, but you can’t land on them to sink your feet in or kick around some dust, like we enjoyed doing before. On the most part they become less like places and more like objects in space, abstracted notions of planets with an accompanying information card, that sometimes reward you with goodies for pressing buttons at them from orbit.

The universe feels emptier for it.

Coinciding with this thinning of outer space, the inner space of the Citadel has changed, too. As Shepard, the player can walk around various sectors of the complex, its shops and nightclub and refugee camp, as well as check up on party members during their shore leave. Unlike Final Fantasy XIII, you do get one city to spend some downtime.

But other than the few specific supporting cast members, you don’t have much of an opportunity to talk to the Citadel’s inhabitants. On the most part, the ambient chatter of the city is filled by autonomous dialogue between groups of two or three NPCs, each having their own discussion on how the war has affected their lives. As Shepard approaches within earshot, their voices chime into their respective string of conversation to serve as the life of the Citadel while providing some ancillary worldbuilding about some social or cultural affair.

Let the record show that much of this dialogue is actually quite interesting and endears you to these bit characters and their placement within the world. A couple of examples stand out: there’s the citadel guard befriending a newly orphaned teenage refugee, still waiting for her parents to reach port. And there’s the elderly lady with Alzheimer’s frequently mistaking an embassy clerk for the girlfriend of her missing son. Significant in my mind is the Asari trooper suffering from survivor’s guilt, regaling her Reaper encounter to her therapist.

Aside from eavesdropping, you can interact with many of these characters only once, by sharing with them some item or information crucial to their topic of conversation (a soldier’s dogtags, an irreplacable religious artefact, etc.) that concludes their dialogue cycle. In the case of the traumatised Asari soldier, you can use Shepard’s status as a Spectre to officially entitle her to a firearm, since she keeps asking her therapist for access to a gun just for the comfort of having it. Allowing her one results in her suicide.

Although Shepard has this route inwards to connect with people, the manner by which it plays out comes across slightly jarring. Rather than seeming like a ‘true’ quest as in these sort of RPGs, the kind of yolk where you go somewhere to complete the objective before returning to your quest-giver, retrieval of the key item or information typically occurs accidentally in the general course of Shepard’s space exploits, by scanning around planet clusters or examining points of interest in the field, and in both cases clicking ‘ok’ at whatever you find. The items themselves appear as nothing more than information cards, flat and hollow, literally stock images for whatever they represent. Perhaps they mean the world to some NPC but to the player-as-Shepard they’re hollow knickknacks.

This links in with the way the game presents your relation to the NPC population of the Citadel, again contrasted against fan expectations built from the previous games.

Eavesdropping being the majority of your interaction with characters in an area, Shepard cannot communicate with characters except to present them with the profits of her self-imposed errand. Other than that you can’t even communicate with people, you can only witness them communicating with one another. All throughout these conversations, the camera remains fixed to its normal in-game position, as opposed to the excited camera work of cutscenes and conversations of greater comparative importance, giving a slight aura of aesthetic distance and disinterest to Shepard’s exchanges with the people of the Citadel.

Note that the sudden departure from dialogue as a mechanical interaction, shifting instead to autonomous NPC conversations, and the framing of this via unperturbed cinematography is the exact same dialogue/relation design as the few Cocoon civilians you pass by while on the lam in Final Fantasy XIII, minus the perfunctory sidequests.

It’s a removal from the lives of these people, from the entirety of sentient life in the galaxy, appropriate to Shepard’s spiritual isolation as ‘humanity’s savior’, as everyone keeps telling her. We can see the rising stress of this role over the course of the story as she becomes more and more detached from those around her, more conscious of perceptions of herself as an icon, a military asset, and not as a person.

At the same time, Shepard is being edged towards the centre of the worlds of those with whom she has her most intimate relationships. You can talk to your crewmates, gratefully, but they themselves seldom talk to one another other of their own accord, so the Normandy never quite feels like a team, unlike Mass Effect 2. It creates a sense of discord where everyone seems to be putting on a brave face and acting normal only for your sake, to avoid troubling you and risk agitating Humanity’s Last Hope. Though you may be surrounded by support for the mission and boundless well-wishing, realising your companions are compartmentalized and isolated on the Normandy, that their camaraderie is a facade, breathes into you a grave air of loneliness, which binds perfect with Shepard’s narrative arc.

Although these aspects of Final Fantasy XIII and Mass Effect 3 are often counted against the games, I consider them a triumph of narrative design.

Suppose suppose

Videogame Thought Experiments

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1. Narrative

Suppose bright and early one day, a documentarian were to set up their camera in the middle of an empty street in the laziest part of town. They rig the camera to its microphone so everything is working perfectly, and steady the tripod so it stands perfectly firm and well balanced, and the whole setup is ready to start recording. On the camera is a timer which, when activated, will wait an indeterminate length of time before beginning the recording, record for an indeterminate length of time, and then delay for an indeterminate length of time before signalling to the documentarian that the recording has finished. The documentarian triggers the device and promptly leaves the entire area until the timer calls them back.

On returning to their camera, the documentarian removes the tape and packs up all their gear. At this point, they may do one of two things: they can either throw the tape into a fire to be burnt to a crisp, or they can pass the tape off on a random stranger they meet on the street, who might at some point go home and give it a watch.

Now, assuming the camera recorded for a duration longer than zero seconds, most people would accept that the tape contains a narrative, meaning a sequence of events connected by presentation. In the latter case of someone watching the tape, this is confirmed, but even in the event of the tape never being watched prior to its incineration, the same tape with the same contents would still have that narrative. This in spite of the fact that the narrative—an accounting of events—has not and will never transpire. The involvement of a future viewer or audience member in interacting with the tape to allow its narrative to unfold on a screen has no bearing on the narrative’s existence in the present tense.

Further to this, when can it be said that the tape first has a narrative? Is it when it’s being watched for the first time, is it right after the recording has ended, or is it while the recording is still ongoing? If it’s while the recording is still taking place, what marks the contents of the tape as a narrative as opposed to the actual events on the street being recorded? Conventional wisdom suggests the simple act of being observed and framed transforms events into narrative through the process of presentation, that in being recorded an account is taken of these events, to be regaled later or never at all. (Surely an event is not itself a narrative, but an account of that event by definition is.) So by this, as a series of events are unfolding do they constitute a narrative by the fact of a witness observing and storing in their memory all that they perceive, prior even to the narrative’s original recounting?

Lastly, if a narrative’s existence predates itself, in what way is an audience member important in actualizing it?

 

2. Agency

Suppose an android stands at a window of an otherwise boring room, looking out onto a beautiful grassy meadow. Somewhere off in the distance some vague figures stand in various states of toppling over and facing in all directions, but they’re too far away to see clearly. Below the window is an array of buttons, some of which are lit up. The android has never pressed buttons of this kind before and has no idea what they might do prior to giving them a try.

Far off in the meadow, a crew of men and women lie prone in the grass, unseen by the android. They have been given instructions on what to do. When the android presses a button, the selection is relayed to the crew through a monitor, and they must consult a chart to orientate the figures accordingly. Some button presses ask them to move certain figures to stand upright while leaning other figures lower, and face some figures eastwardly while pointing others westwardly.

Every button press has some combination of these effects according to the chart. But for a certain third of the button presses, the crew can mess around and move one figure of their choosing however they want, but only one. If they can get every figure into a leaning position at the same time, they get to go home for the rest of the day.

As it happens, the figures themselves are another crew of men and women. They’ve been instructed to act like statues, but also to allow themselves to be moved around by the prone crew when required.

The android has been programmed in an unusual way to have preferences of order and neatness (as opposed to chaos) depending on yesterday’s weather. If it was rainy yesterday, the android prefers things that point west. If it was overcast, the android favours the east. And if it was sunny, the android enjoys things that point upwards. As you know, when the android presses a button some of the figures turn to the west, others turn east, some straighten upright and a few topple over, but also the sequence of lit buttons changes according to what was last pressed. What nobody in the room or on the meadow knows yet is this: half of the lit buttons give the prone crew their one free move.

So who is the player?

Parenthood

[Minor spoilers for The Last of Us and BioShock Infinite follow.]

Zoe the kitten

The closest I am to a parent is a cat owner. For empathising with parenthood-themed videogames it’s a serviceable enough reference point. A year ago I’d have called myself a dog person with zero hesitation, and yet here I am: I love our kitten, Zoe. The way she nuzzles her face into my nose tells me she loves me.

I can tell a few things about her, which I pretend amount to a singular personality. Zoe loves to climb into the tiny space behind the gas boiler, so we’ve had to block it off with Stephen King books. When the plumbers came around they took away the boards under the kitchen cupboards, and since Zoe saw they could be removed she’s dedicated her mornings to clawing them ajar herself, even if she needs to open the fridge door to get the angle at them. She thankfully prefers the cheap Tesco cat food to the expensive Whiskers stuff. As soon as she was able to jump high enough she took to perching atop doorframes – I’m afraid she’ll one day climb up into the ceiling tunnel leading to the skylight and slip to her death, even though one time she walked happily away from a two-storey fall from the bathroom window. She wants to be friends with the dog next door. They like to stare at one another for extended periods.

So I have a cat, we’ll approximate her to a child. She’s wilful enough. I’m watching her grow up too quickly, learning new things, getting bored of old toys. When I’m not home, I worry she’s wedged herself in some crevasse and died. I wonder if I’m not paying her enough attention or if there’s something wrong with her litter tray and that’s why she’s been pooing in the sink. We tried teaching her to use the toilet but she didn’t fully get it.

Zoe isn’t a gun I point at a butterfly and shoot. She doesn’t “manage my resources” by eating and crapping and letting me clean it up. She is another living being, astonishingly, not a power-up or an accessory that increase my abilities.

And yet, parenthood as described by videogames on a whole generally tells us this is what children are: dreadfully bothersome creatures who suck up all your energy and tolerance, baited with rewards. Apologism follows, as it did with BioShock Infinite, which sought validation of your daughter-figure through mechanical use. “Elizabeth can change the shape of the battlefield”; she can find loot to hurl your way. Irrational makes Elizabeth useful as a gateway to making her endearing, exalting her systemic function.

BioShock Infinite’s vision of parenthood is finding someone of a younger generation to help you do the things you were doing anyway, indistinguishable from a minion but for your tone of voice. In this manner, your daughter is a walking, talking pair of pants that give your bullets fire damage. But they say the relationship transcends because she’s always there on-screen and sometimes points to things and says “Ooo”.

Irrational divines its philosophy from the popular school of thought that says if it’s not happening to you, around you or of you, you will instantly doze off, and Elizabeth’s existence is included in this. Although suddenly free and all-powerful after a life of imprisonment, Elizabeth doesn’t have an ounce of self the entire game through. She can’t even scavenge without Booker’s permission. Elizabeth’s actions are only those which you permit or those cued to environmental triggers, which Irrational boasts you can ignore and she will attend to your convenience. The Lamb of Colombia is a sheep to Booker’s empowerment.

Cat pyjamasThe Last of Us carries a similar message more expertly told. Joel’s ward, Ellie, serves little in the way of gameplay functionality. I think she offered some bullets once and they were discretely added to my backpack, although I could be wrong. Sometimes she will stab a bandit to death, sparing me the cost of combat, and she does it off her own back, without my say-so. It grants her a voice outside of mine. Baddies can even grapple with her, making her a little bit less invisible than Elizabeth.

If your relationship with Elizabeth is utility-based, with Ellie it’s behaviour-based. TLOU is less concerned with making her beneficial to you and more concerned with making her feel real: speaking and acting in natural or unpredictable ways, existing alongside me.

Still, she plays second fiddle to Joel because, ultimately, the game revolves around Joel growing up. It’s the story of him reconciling the death of his daughter and learning to trust again, to love again, albeit in a terrifying antagonistic way. Joel’s patriarchal need to command Ellie supersedes her autonomy – each major step in their relationship begins or ends with his assertion of dominance over her. The climax centres on Joel’s inability to accept her self-sacrifice for the good of all humanity. It’s hard to believe Naughty Dog didn’t intend for Joel to be a selfish and frightening villain and Ellie the relatable heroine.

Parenthood is nevertheless a major theme in Joel’s character arc, although told across the narrative of an increasingly subverted father figure. I like to imagine TLOU’s sequel is Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. “Joel was deified.”

So to the extent that BioShock Infinite and TLOU are about parenthood, they conceive it as control. Two of the biggest games of recent years dealing with a narrative as old as humanity, and this is the best they can figure: two father-figures to whom a daughter is but a mechanism for their own wish-fulfillment. More accurate to what I imagine parenthood to be, at least by the meagre extrapolation of having a cat, is for the burgeoning autonomy of the child to take centre stage, which can take the form of the child increasingly stealing narrative focus or performances. In strictly systemic, mechanical terms, when I think of parenthood, I think of A Mother in Festerwood.

Here it’s a harsh world. Monsters lurk deep within Festerwood – you can see them all around, great big purple behemoths and red-eyed, tentacled ghouls. Jotted around the woods amidst the dangers, however, are harmless bunnies, treasure chests, and what looks like a sword sticking out of the ground. In the centre of this bustling world is my home, where I live with my son, who I’ve decided to name Sprog.

Sprog wants to wander outside the house. He’s compelled to. From the moment he’s a tiny sprite, he drifts towards Festerwood as if it’s calling to him. My son, the adventurer.

But should he wander in, dinky as he is, he will surely die. Within the clearing surrounding our house I know he’s safe, but beyond that, where I can’t go, there’s so much danger all around. I coddle Sprog and keep him within the clearing, pushing him home again and again. I can do nothing but use my body as an obstacle, encouraging him homeward. The forest will kill him. Anything could kill him.

As Sprog wanders around the clearing, he experiences the world. Since this is a JRPG mock-up, he levels up his health and strength as he wanders. Every time I push him back to the house, the experience bar empties. Regardless of his rate of levelling up, time passes on and with it Sprog is also growing up, getting bigger and bigger, faster and faster. Soon I won’t be able to stop him from leaving. He’s always been an adventurer; try as I might, one day he will outmaneuver me and run away to see the world. So I skirt around the clearing as far out as I can manage and I try to encircle Sprog within it. I can’t dote on him: I need to let him roam and learn how to deal with the world while I’m still around to accompany him.

Then comes the day when he finally breaks past me – is he too young? Is he prepared? Was I over-protective? Should I have been paying more attention and stopped him? Should I have guided him northward when I had the chance, away from the dragons down south? He’ll die. He’ll stumble into a cyclops or be run down by a sleuth of bears and he won’t make it home. Sprog will blip out of existence and all that will be left is his grave. And the game ends.

2014-01-16 03.31.31Interpersonal tension comes about from conflict of autonomy, mine and his. He wants to leave and I want him to stay. He needs to learn and I need to keep him safe. I can’t stop him from growing up. I can’t fawn over him and, in my fear, deprive him of living his life. I can’t throttle away her agency and her individuality. But I’m scared Zoe might run away one day. She might not be able to find her way back, or she might not be able to reach the apartment. We live in the centre of town – I’m scared she’ll get run over. She wants to go outside so much, I’m worried she might transfix on a butterfly and pounce right off the balcony. She’s still only a kitten.

My mam gets worried if my brothers or I don’t answer her calls. She knows we have lives of our own, we’re tired or busy or out and about. We’ve long since left the nest, but still she frets.

There’s another ending to A Mother in Festerwood: if Sprog survives for long enough, he comes home to his elderly, grey-haired mother waiting by the porch. He tells me about his adventures, the treasures he found, the beasts he has slain. His speech bubble expresses love and he enters the house. Mine does too, and I join him.

This piece was community funded. If you liked this article, please consider supporting my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

 

 

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