Video: Visual storytelling in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

After writing three in-depth posts about the visual storytelling in World 1, World 2, and World 3 of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, I realized something: the blog format isn’t well suited for what I’m trying to explain. So I rectified that oversight by creating a more complete analysis, this time of the entire game, in video form!

This video was a lot of work, but I think it turned out well! Thanks to everybody who’s been following my posts thus far. I had a ton of fun making this video, so I’ve started a new YouTube channel for this blog: Dpad on YouTube. Please check out my video and let me know what you think!

I’ve been watching Let’s Play videos for several years now, and after being an admirer from afar, I decided to finally tackle this new method of analysis. In this post, I want to talk about what went into the creation of this video. I’m sure there are plenty of resources out there for Let’s Players. Here’s my perspective on what I went through in the creation of this first video.

Research

First, I needed to play the game again so that I knew what I was talking about! I’ve already played DKCTF extensively for the write-up of the previous posts, but I went through the game for the umpteenth like, making notes on each level I played. I did this without capturing any footage; the focus at this stage was just to get information, and to figure out what footage I needed to capture.

I also played bits and pieces of the previous Donkey Kong Country games, as I knew I wanted to make comparisons to Tropical Freeze.

Gathering the assets

Next, I needed the assets: that is, the audio and visuals needed to make the video happen. I captured footage with the Hauppauge HD PVR Rocket. There are probably more sophisticated game recorders out there, but this one seemed intuitive to use and was fairly inexpensive at $140. That said, before I started gathering my assets, I played around with this recorder for a couple hours, learning how it connected to the system, troubleshooting errors that came up, and experimenting with short videos to see how big the file sizes were.

Once all that was out of the way, I played through each level, starting and stopping the recorder for each level so that I could better organize the data. Some levels I played all the way through, especially those levels where I knew I would be taking about them extensively. Other levels I knew I wouldn’t devote much time to analyzing them, so I played until I died, sometimes only 30 seconds.

One great feature of many games is the ability to adjust the volume of the music and sound effects independently. In 25 years of playing video games, I’ve never found a use for these options. But for this project, they came in handy! I turned the music all the way down, recording only sound effects. I knew that when I put the video together, I would have music playing on a separate track from the gameplay footage.

Then I needed to capture music. I readjusted the settings—turning the music all the way up and the sound all the way down. Luckily, DKCTF has many unlockables in the game, like soundtracks. I recorded 2-3 soundtracks from each world, usually for 3-4 minutes so that I had plenty of music to work with. The game doesn’t let you unlock all the soundtracks, so in a few cases I went to specific levels to record the music I needed.

Finally, I gathered some footage from the previous games in the series: DKC, DKC2, DKC3, and DKC Returns. I had the SNES games on the Virtual console, so I played them right from my Wii U. I also had DKC Returns on disc. No emulators were used in the creation of this video!

Recording the scripts

With all assets gathered, next it was time to write the scripts. This was a challenge for me: any follower of my blog knows that I write lengthy posts! The difference between reading and speaking, though, is that somebody can read something much faster than speaking the same words out loud.

The final script was over 6,000 words long! I tried to limit my discussion of each world to around 600-700 words, plus there was a little extra to introduce and conclude the video.

The scripts written, the next step was to record the voiceover. I purchased the Snowball iCE USB microphone by Blue from Best Buy. The mic is pretty good quality for $50. I figured, before I buy a ton of expensive equipment that I might not even use, it’s best to start with fairly inexpensive equipment and improve it over time should I really get into making this videos.

I recorded the scripts in chunks, only 2-3 sentences at a time. If I tried speaking longer than that, I usually stumbled over my words! I recorded the audio in Audacity, a free, open-source audio editor. After recording each segment, I combined the segments into one track, spacing my sentences apart as naturally as I could.

I’m not entirely satisfied with the voice-over work in this video. If I made the video again, I would spend more time editing my scripts for word choices (I tend to repeat certain words and phrases a few times, which makes the voice-over sound redundant in parts) and I would’ve rerecorded some of the sections so that the cadence was more natural.

Preparing the video

With all this prep work complete, it was time to put the video together! I edited the video with Adobe Premiere. I don’t own the program myself, but I’m a professor in a Mass Communication department, so I have access to this program on the school’s computers. I’ve used video editing software before, mostly Sony Vegas, but Adobe Premiere was considerably more sophisticated than Vegas. Fortunately, Google is a good friend! Typing in “How do I do XXX in Adobe Premiere” taught me a lot!

With the project open, I started by laying down my voice-over tracks. Then, I created text overlays for all the level names in the game. I relistened to my voice-overs, had whenever I started discussing a new level or world, I dropped a text overlay at the appropriate place.

Then I laid down the music. Each song would play long enough to cover the analysis of 4-5 levels of a given world. I think there are 15 tracks total in this video. I couldn’t have the music competing with my voice-overs, so I adjusted the audio so that the voice-overs were the loudest, and the music was quieter.

Finally, I was ready to sequence the game footage. I started at the beginning of the video and worked through to the end. I imported the videos, adjusted the volume so that the sound effects were quieter than the music, then cut the video into pieces, depending on what I discussed in the voice-overs.

I didn’t use all the footage from each level, so if I had unused footage, I put it toward the back of the timeline, as I knew I would need some general filler footage for the intro and conclusion to the video. By the time I got to editing the conclusion, I had a couple dozen clips to choose from. Almost no video repeats itself on this project!

Of course, there were several snafus I had to overcome in the creation of this project. Sometimes I forgot to record a tiny section of gameplay, or my voice-over just wasn’t good enough so I rerecorded it. Sometimes the video wasn’t displaying properly in the editor, so I had to fix it. And exporting the video took a few tries until I was satisfied with the final result.

Overall, I estimate that it took about 40 hours to produce this 37 minute video! Hopefully in the future, now that I’ve been through the process once, I can produce videos faster!

Since I am so pleased with how this first video turned out, for my next project I’m going to analyze the visual storytelling in the first Donkey Kong Country game: how did the inaugural entry to the series tell its story?

Stay turned for more videos, and more blog posts!

Game on,
~Dennis

Review: Are the Star Wars Little Golden Books Appropriate for Kids?

As the world approached the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in December 2015, Disney got a several month jump start on merchandising. Star Wars products started appearing everywhere, on everything. I was quite surprised to find that Star Wars had even taken over my local grocery store!

Next to the birthday cards was a little stand with Little Golden Books, that generations-old beloved children’s series. Among the 30 or so titles were Star Wars books! One for each movie!

The artwork in these books is great, but immediately a question arose in my mind: is Star Wars the best series to adapt for books largely targeted at preschoolers? All the films are there: even Revenge of the Sith, which is rated PG-13.

I love Star Wars, and I loved it as a child. But I wasn’t exposed to it until I was about 8 or 9 (and this was before the Prequel Trilogy came out).

After purchasing the books, and then reading them several times (they don’t take long), I’ve concluded that these adaptations are ultimately unsuccessful. The violence is toned down, so on that front, they are “safe” for kids. However, the Prequel Trilogy is so convoluted that I’m still not sure, after 15 years of puzzling over it, I understand all the plot points.

Boiling these complicated films down to 23-page stories for children is challenging. Let’s look at each book and see where the problems arise.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

Cover of Star Wars The Phantom Menace Little Golden Book

The story opens with a shot of the Jedi flying to the Trade Federation command ship above Naboo. The classic words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” greet the reader. Followed by a massive block of text:

The peaceful planet of Naboo is under a blockage from the greedy Trade Federation! The Galactic Republic quickly sends Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi to help. They are Jedi Knights, guardians of justice and masters of the Force—a power that connects all living things.

But when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan arrive, they are attacked by battle droids! The Jedi defend themselves with their lightsabers, but they are outnumbered and must flee the Trade Federation battleship.

Wow, already there’s a lot going on: and this is the first page! So many nouns are mentioned: could a child follow all of this? Most of the action is contained within the words, not the pictures. That entire second paragraph sounds pretty exciting. Too bad the only visual is a partial page illustration of Obi-Wan slicing one battle droid in half.

As the story progresses, it’s immediately clear what the problem is with these books: too many characters, not enough space to develop them. On pages 3-4 we are introduced to Jar Jar Binks and Boss Noss. On pages 5-6, Queen Amidala and Viceroy Gunray. On pages 7-8, R2-D2, Darth Sidious, and Darth Maul.

On pages 9-10, we are introduced to five (!) new characters: Padmé, Anakin, Watto, C-3PO, and Shmi Skywalker It’s not until pages 11-12 that we get our first break in all the introductions: no new characters! Pages 11-12 cover the podracing sequence.

On page 13 we see Qui-Gon and Darth Maul duel for the first time, and then on page 14 it’s back to new characters. Yoda is mentioned by name, though two members of the Jedi Council are in the background, evaluating Anakin’s readiness for Jedi training.

We’re past the halfway point, and fortunately, no new characters are introduced the rest of the tale. But we’ve already had 15 named characters in as many pages: the book’s only 23 pages long!

As far as the adaptation goes, the book sticks close to the movie. We see Padmé reveal herself as Amidala to the Gungans. Then the Jedi battle Darth Maul and the Gungans fight the droid army. Anakin even gets two pages where he goes to space and destroys the droid control ship!

On pages 21-22, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan finish the duel with Darth Maul. The illustration is striking, but look at how much text is used to explain the action:

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan battle Darth Maul

In the palace, the Jedi fight Darth Maul together. But the Sith Lord is driven by the power of anger and hate. Darth Maul strikes Qui-Gon down with his double-sided lightsaber and knocks Obi-Wan into a deep pit. Just when it seems that Obi-Wan is defeated, the Jedi springs into action and destroys Darth Maul with one mighty blow!

Obi-Wan runs to his master’s side. With his last breath, Qui-Gon asks Obi-Wan to train Anakin as a Jedi.

Now you see how the story avoids mentioning the stabbing of Qui-Gon and the slicing of Darth Maul in two.

The story ends with the main characters celebrating on Naboo. Boss Nass holds up that glowy sphere thing (no explanation of what that is, of course, just like in the movie).

The artwork in the book is fantastic: praise goes to illustrator Heather Martinez. But instead of telling a coherent story, adapter Courtney Carbone tried to fit all the major plot points in. While she did the best with what she had to work with, maybe the real problem is The Phantom Menace itself: maybe it can’t be simplified in a coherent way.

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones Little Golden Book

AotC opens with Padmé arriving on Coruscant, now a senator, no longer a queen. Her ship blows up, but she survives! No mention of her body double dying, however.

As in The Phantom Menace, the first few sentences of this book are incredibly dense:

The galaxy is divided. Many planets are leaving the Republic to join the Separatist movement.

I’m not sure if preschoolers understand what a Republic is, or what a Separatist movement entails. And if they’re already confused, tough cookies: the book will never explain it.

Maybe the problem isn’t with the book: maybe it’s with me. As I read those first couple sentences I realized that I still don’t fully understand what the central conflict of the Prequel Trilogy is. In TPM, some group called the Trade Federation was blocking trade to Naboo. Who is the Trade Federation? I still don’t know. Why did they not want to trade with Naboo? And why did they have their own army?

In AotC, the Separatists uses droids, and our pal Viceroy Gunray appears here and there. So did the Trade Federation become the Separatist movement? Why do the Separatists want to separate from the Republic? Is it because the Republic told them in TPM that they can’t blockade a planet?

And why does the Republic care if a few planets decide to leave: do they not have that freedom? After all, from the looks of the Senate chambers, it appears that there are thousands of systems in the Republic already.

I’m so confused.

Anyway, back to the story. Like TPM, AotC introduces a ton of named characters: 15 in this book as well. On pages 3-4 we are introduced to Obi-Wan and Anakin. R2 is seen in the background, as is the assassin droid that tries to kill Padmé.

On pages 5-6 we meet the assassin, Zam Wesell—hey, I learned something! I never knew what that assassin’s name was.

Page 7 shows us the entirety of Padmé and Anakin’s love story on Naboo. Palpatine is mentioned, but never seen (the first book didn’t mention him at all).

On page 8 we are introduced to Jango and Boba Fett, and see the Kaminoans in the background, along with the clone troopers. Hey, we’re making some progress! At least that overweight alien diner cook Jax isn’t mentioned.

AotC is more action-focused than TPM, and perhaps that’s a reflection of the movie being more streamlined. Pages 9-10 show Obi-Wan and Jango battle, both on land and in space.

Pages 11-12 show Anakin’s showdown with the Sand People. I always thought that this was the point in the Prequel Trilogy that Anakin irrevocably turned to the Dark Side. I actually like that scene a lot; it’s powerful. The book, naturally, sanitizes it for young readers:

The young Jedi races into the desert to rescue his mother, but he is too late. He finds her just in time to say goodbye. Anakin feels rage and anger growing inside him—and that is not the way of the Jedi.

On pages 13-14 we’re introduced to more characters: Dooku, C-3PO, and the Geonosians. Mace Windu shows up on page 17.

Pages 13-22 are more tightly focused than TPM. For half the book we are on Geonosis: we see Anakin, Padmé and Obi-Wan get captured, then they escape the area. The Jedi descend to fight the droids. Then Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Yoda fight Count Dooku. There are fewer new characters introduced, and this part might be the easiest for children to follow, as the plot is at least coherent, though the extreme violence of this part of the movie is missing.

Here’s how Jango Fett’s death is described:

Jango Fett tries to blast Mace, but the Jedi Master is much too powerful and strikes the bounty hunter down with one blow!

The accompanying visual is Jango on one page, shooting his blasters, and Mace on the other side, deflecting blaster shots with his lightsaber.

One part that I thought was funny was this panel:

Count Dooki fights Obi-Wan and Anakin with lightsabers.

Count Dooku has twin crimson lightsabers? I don’t remember that part of the movie! The only person in that fight with two sabers is Anakin after he picks up Obi-Wan’s. I’m sure it’s an honest mistake, but I think its humorous when children’s books have errors of fact like this. After all, how long does it take to copy edit a children’s book?

The book ends with Anakin’s marriage to Padmé on Naboo. His robot hand is not shown.

Overall, this book is slightly better than TPM due to its more focused plot. But it still introduces a bantha load of characters when it doesn’t have the space to develop more than a handful of them.

Let’s conclude this review by looking at the final book, based on the most violent film in the trilogy.

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith Little Golden Book cover

The story opens with a beautiful picture of the chaotic space battle over Coruscant. After the obligatory Star Wars beginning, little readers are once again greeted with a dense two-paragraph intro the introduces a ton of characters and political terms:

War rages between the Separatist army and the Galactic Republic. Evil General Grievous and his droid army have just captured Chancellor Palpatine, leader of the Galatic Senate! The brave Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker blast off in their starfighters to rescue him.

With the help of their astromech droid R2-D2, Anakin and Obi-Wan evade the Separatist vulture droids and land on General Grievous’s flagship.

On page 3, there’s an illustration of Anakin and Dooku clashing with sabers. The text summarizes Dooku’s defeat, beheading unmentioned:

Vwoosh! Dooku attacks with his crimson lightsaber. Obi-Wan is knocked aside, but Anakin defeats Dooku on his own.

This book makes some quick cuts to the plot of the movie. After Anakin lands Grievous’ ship on Coruscant and says hello to Padmé, the immediate next page introduces us to Yoda and Chewbacca fighting on Kashyyyk. The page after that shows Obi-Wan on Utapau riding the lizard thing. At least I learned something else from these books: that lizard is called a varactyl.

From there, Obi-Wan fights Grievous on page 9, and Palpatine reveals to Anakin on page 10 that he’s Darth Sidious.

The plot of pages 11-12 are hamstrung by LGB’s obvious need to censor the violence. On page 11, Mace Windu enters Sidious’ office and attacks him: Sidious stands opposite him on page 12. But then with no explanation, Sidious suddenly looks different on the bottom of page 12:

Anakin kneels before Sidious.

The Sith Lord sends Mace Windu crashing through a window! Anakin kneels before his new master.

Why does Sidiou look different? Who knows? No explanation is given for the preschool readers. Maybe the publishers think that little kids are too stupid to notice the character change.

From here, the story hews closely to the plot of the movie. Anakin attacks the Jedi temple. Order 66 is issued (though it’s not called that in the book). Sidious declares himself Emperor, and Obi-Wan and Anakin fight on Mustafar.

The Mustafar battle is interesting: four illustrations are provided of Anakin and Obi-Wan battling, just various lightsaber poses. Then two pages later we are introduced to Darth Vader in robotic suit. Here’s the explanation given for why Anakin now looks differently:

“I hate you!” Anakin cries.

Saddened that he had to destroy his friend, Obi-Wan leaves the planet with Padmé.

At least on the two-page spread when the Emperor greets the new robotic Vader readers are not subjected to Vader’s infamous “Noooooo!”

The book ends with the introduction of yet two more characters: Owen Lars and his wife (unnamed) holding a baby Luke while Obi-Wan smiles in the background.

Conclusion

I’m being a little harsh and nit-picky on these books, I realize. They are children’s books after all. But Star Wars, especially the Prequel Trilogy, is not appropriate for preschoolers, the 2-5 age bracket that the books are targeted at. It’s inappropriate not just because of the violence, but because of the complexity of the films as far as the politics go.

I wouldn’t say these books are without merit, though. I think the target audience is actually adults like myself. As summaries of the films go, they are accurate, and again, the artwork is amazing.

The Little Golden Book format doesn’t seem conducive to summarizing two-hour science fiction movies. A better take would be shorter stories, based on certain characters in the Star Wars universe, that are better suited to the reading and cognitive level of preschoolers.

Thankfully, such a series exists. LGB recently released their “I am” series of Star Wars books: I am a Droid, I am a Jedi, and I am a Pilot. And more are forthcoming this summer. I haven’t seen these books in the store yet, but based on Amazon reviews, it seems these books are a better match for their target audience.

For $5 each, the movie adaptation books are a fun bit of nostalgia for adult audiences. If I pick up the books based on the Original Trilogy, I suspect I’ll have more affinity for them based on my overall appreciation of that trilogy.

Has anybody else read any of the Star Wars Little Golden Books? What’s your assessment of their quality?

~Dennis

Critique of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Strategic Butt Coverings” video

Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency fame is back for Season 2 of the polarizing “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series with the release of “Strategic Butt Coverings.” Sarkeesian is retooling the series, in part due to the mental abuse of her critics and the physical toll this project has taken on her body. Though I disagree with most everything Sarkeesian espouses, I certainly don’t wish ill on her as a person. She’s had a busy couple years with the Tropes series, so the newer, shorter videos are a welcome change of pace.

In this video, Sarkeesian compares how the butts of female and male characters are depicted differently in video games. In short, games tend to emphasize the assets of female characters, but not male characters. Instead, designers employ a variety of visual design tricks to deemphasize male butts as much as possible, even in games that provide a third-person view of the character.

She uses a couple dozen examples to show the double standard, though admits that not all video game characters are treated this way:

Of course, not all games with male protagonists keep the character’s butt obscured or out of frame like these games do. The real issue is one of emphasis and definition; a significant portion of third-person games with female protagonists call attention to those characters’ butts in a way that’s meant to be sexually appealing to the presumed straight male player.

As far as her observations go, Sarkeesian showed me some things that I wasn’t aware of. Certainly female butts are emphasized in many video games: this wasn’t a surprise to me. I’m not interested in countering this argument with examples of non-sexualized female characters, like Princesses Peach, Daisy, or Zelda. Her examples from Arkham Knight and Gears of War of how designers will go to great lengths to hide male butts are illuminating.

What bothers me, however, are the implications of Sarkeesian’s brand of feminism as it relates to the bodies of real men and women. But before I get to that, watch her video: it’s a short one.

Getting to know a character

Sarkeesian opens the video with a very provocative assumption of game designers’ motives:

If you want to get to know a character, learn about their interests, goals, or desires, their butt is probably not going to give you that information. It won’t tell you much about who they are, or what they’re thinking or feeling at any given time. But video game designers often choose to put tremendous focus on the butts of certain characters, while going to almost absurd lengths to avoid calling attention to the butts of others.

Her opening is so full of hyperbole that I found myself laughing. In Sarkeesian’s view, female butts are the primary way designers want us to engage with a female character. Designers care more about the woman’s butt than anything else.

But if that were the case, why do games like Bayonetta and Tomb Raider have such lengthy plot lines and cutscenes? Do players really reduce female characters to their butts?

According to Sarkeesian, if a character has an attractive butt, then the player is somehow compelled to see the character solely through her asset, as if the butt is the lens by which players actually understand female characters.

Her hyperbolic outrage is a strawman, and made me think of this wonderful, off-color comic copyright Nathan Bulmer:

Man checks out a girl's butt

Modeling real-life fashion

Like I said in the intro, I can’t really argue with Sarkeesian’s observations. She says of Catwoman:

In Batman: Arkham City for instance, the player’s gaze is drawn to Catwoman’s behind, which is emphasized by her costume and exaggerated hip sway.

Then later says of male characters:

There are a few examples of male protagonists who are wearing clothing that calls attention to their butts but for the most part, men’s butts, even when visible in the frame, are deemphasized. Plenty of male heroes wear baggy pants or jeans…

And here is where Sarkeesian’s argument diverges from reality. Yes, digital artists design the butts of female and male characters differently. But if you think about the male and female sexes, aren’t there biological differences between the two? On a whole, on average? Women’s bodies tend to be shaped differently than men’s bodies.

Not exclusively, of course. But women’s bodies tend to have a higher percentage of fat than male bodies. And women, I think, have much more variability in their shapes, from hip size to bust size to hip-to-chest ratio to hip-to-waist ratio and waist-to-chest ratio. I think one reason women tend to spend more time looking for clothes than men is that they are almost forced to: their bodies have much more variability, and what fits one woman might not fit another woman. And because women have to hunt harder for properly fitting clothes, they naturally are going to know more about fashion than the average man.

After all, just think of one of the biggest changes a woman’s body can undergo: pregnancy. A woman’s body shape will change many times over the course of nine months, and after the baby is born, her new body will likely be different than her old body.

I don’t think it’s out-of-line, then, to point out that men and women, biologically, have different body shapes.

What also contributes, though, to the “double-standard” in how female and male butts are depicted are the real fashion choices of real women. Women often wear clothes, in real life, that emphasizes their rear end.

I’ve been on college campuses for 12 years now, in many different parts of the country, both as a student and a professor. I’ve seen thousands of young women. All generalizations fall apart on some level; all students, male and female, display great diversity in their fashion choices.

That said, there are several fashion trends of young women that emphasize their butts. Many students wear yoga pants or black leggings-as-pants. I’m not here to condemn them or support them for their fashion choices: I’m just making an observation. And while they might wear yoga pants or leggings because they are “comfy”, these garments are tight and they do emphasize the exact shape of a woman’s butt, jiggles and all.

Women sometimes where designer jeans that have sparkly rhinestone hearts plastered on the back pockets. Women athletes wear sweatpants with their last names emblazoned across the butt. They wear short shorts that show off not only the curves of their backside, but even their pelvis.

I lived in Florida for three years, and one fad that surprised me was the “under butt” style of shorts. Florida is hot, so naturally men and women don’t wear much clothing. And this was only a small minority of women, but some wore shorts so short that you could see the bottom curve of their butt cheeks.

Now, perhaps women are forced to show off their backsides because that’s the only kind of bottoms they are able to purchase in stores. After all, even women’s dress pants and skirts tend to be tight. But whatever shadowy forces are at work in society to shape women’s rears, wearing shorts that are so short that they show off a woman’s “under butt” is a conscious choice. Societal expectations of gender roles are not that controlling.

Sarkeesian says that men in video games tend to wear baggy clothes. That’s true in games, but that’s also true in real life. Whether men wear jeans, shorts, or dress pants (about the only three options men have for bottoms, compared to the multitude of choices for women), these garments tend to be baggy. Let me offer one possible explanation why men’s bottom garments are baggier: men have external genitalia, genitalia that can often change shape and size throughout the day, so men want more freedom in their clothes, not less.

(Discounting, of course, the minority of men who favor skinny jeans—that fashion seems so uncomfortable to me.)

To bring this long tangent to a close, I think many digital artists are simply modeling reality. They design male and female butts differently because 1) male and female bodies are different, and 2) men and women’s fashion options are very different in real life.

Of course, games are fantasy spaces, and plenty of video games (and related anime and comic book series) have pushed the limits of fantasy fashion. In other words, games don’t have to model real-world fashion choices, as they often do not. But even fantasy games have a basis in reality. That’s why male and female characters in fantasy spaces tend to look like men and women in real life.

Who’s being disconnected from the character here?

Sarkeesian’s observations are accurate, but her point misses the mark. Why is it wrong if a female’s butt is depicted?

[T]he emphasis placed on the butts of female characters communicates to players that this is what’s important, this is what you should be paying attention to. It communicates that the character is a sexual object designed for players to look at and enjoy. And by explicitly encouraging you to ogle and objectify the character, the game is implicitly discouraging you from identifying directly with her. [emphasis added]

Sarkeesian gives too much credit to the power of butts. Perhaps well-crafted butts cause her to disengage from a female character, but they don’t do that for me. I recently conducted a research project in which I analyzed games with overly sexualized female characters. The games were the standard culprits—Tomb Raider, Bayonetta, Dead or Alive, and Lollipop Chainsaw.

I chose to analyze these games for a specific reason. These games are often criticized for how female characters are modeled—and usually that’s where the criticism starts and ends, with the character’s appearance. After all, it’s impossible to argue that a character like Bayonetta is not sexualized:

Bayonetta 2 Box

However, when I actually played Bayonetta, I realized that she, along with the game, actually had quite a bit of depth. Bayonetta’s certainly aware of her sexuality, but she’s not a whore. She has a “look, don’t touch” mentality. She flaunts her body, but doesn’t really tease the male characters with it. Her main pursuer, a male journalist, gets close to touching her from time to time, but doesn’t succeed. Nor does he see Bayonetta as a body to be conquered.

Bayonetta has a tricky past, and she wrestles with the darkness (she is a witch) but also the light: she helps people, and cares for those closest to her. She is strong, courageous, and capable. She’s not prone to negative emotions, and she’s rarely scared or sad. There’s even an undercurrent of motherhood throughout the game, as a little girl insists on calling Bayonetta “mommy” even though Bayonetta insists she is nothing of the sort.

I really enjoyed playing Bayonetta. And honestly? Once the action gets going, she moves so fast, and so much is happening on the screen, that there is often little time to “ogle” her body. Sarkeesian insists that the design of female butts reduces these characters to their butts, but I think she’s the one who is reducing female characters to their bodies.

Are costumes like Bayonetta’s over-the-top? Obviously, clearly, undoubtedly. On the other hand, look at how cool her costume design is. The diamonds going up her legs, the neon heel pistols, the silky hair tied up with charms, the frilly sleeves. And as I pointed out before, many women love cosplaying as these characters.

The emergent view of the body, according to Sarkeesian

I’ve studied Sarkeesian long enough that I’m starting to understand what her feminism is rooted in. Now, I’m making some assumptions here; even though her body of work is quite largely, I don’t know what she thinks about other feminist causes, such as abortion rights, equal pay, discrepancies in women’s health care, etc. It might be safe to assume she holds standard liberal, feminist views on women’s rights issues, but I don’t want to assume.

I also want to be careful about labeling her philosophy in language she has not used. After all, while I hold a high view of women and believe that women are just as capable and valuable as men, I would bristle at somebody labeling me a feminist. That’s because my support of women is fueled by a different philosophy (namely, Christianity) and is not fueled by the contemporary academic well of feminism.

All that said, Sarkeesian’s view of the body, particularly the female body, does remind me of two philosophies.

First, for all of her liberal leanings, Sarkeesian’s view of the female body is strangely conservative, even Puritan. I really do wonder what she thinks of women who consciously choose to dress provocatively, who choose to flaunt their bodies, who choose to embrace their sexuality. As I’ve said before, there are strains of feminism that celebrate the female body, even going as far to support women who make a career out of pornography.

Occasionally Sarkeesian will praise a video game that depicts females “correctly.” And these women are usually covered up and have small chests and flat butts. Her conservative leanings on the female body get dangerously close to “body shaming,” the act of criticizing women not only for their fashion choices, but even the very shapes of their bodies, which are often out of their control.

When I think of the female college students I work with on a daily basis, most of them are thin. And body shapes vary dramatically in all the areas I’ve already enumerated. So when Sarkeesian criticizes somebody like Lara Croft for having the perfect, rounded butt, I wonder: what does she think about actual women with that same rear-end shape? What does she think of women who also wear tight shorts, just like Croft?

Every week I see women joggers run by my house in tight shorts and sports bras. Lara Croft is similarly athletic, climbing the ruins of ancient civilizations, often in places like jungles and tropical islands. In a way, her tight clothing is appropriate for the athletic feats she performs.

Second, a related philosophy, going all the way back to ancient societies, is mind-body dualism. This philosophy exists in many forms, and even early forms of Christianity (as well as other religions) have embraced this philosophy. It’s really hard to gloss over dualism, but essentially, dualists see the mind and body as completely separate entities.

And usually, dualists see the body as lesser than the mind. The body is a flawed, imperfect vessel for the mind. For example, in the Christian heresy of Gnosticism, the flesh is seen as wholly separate from the mind. Even farther, the flesh is seen as sinful and corrupted: the body is a prison that our souls need to escape from.

Certainly Sarkeesian is not Gnostic. But she seems to have some disdain for the female body. She says in this video:

Third-person games with female protagonists typically display those characters in a way that gives players a full-body view. A classic example of this is the original Tomb Raider games, which are presented from a third-person perspective wherein protagonist Lara Croft’s entire body is visible. In these early Tomb Raider games, Lara’s butt is typically right in the center of the screen…

I’m not sure what’s so offensive about her observation. Most video games feature a third-person view, the entire body of the character visible. This camera orientation goes back 30+ years to the days of Donkey Kong. Now, those who have played 3D third-person games know that the camera can often be adjusted on the fly. The camera might default so that the center of the person is in the middle of the screen, but the camera can also take many other positions.

And is it really so offensive that the butt is in the middle of the screen? If not the butt, then what part of the body? If it was the character’s head, would Sarkeesian be arguing that the camera supports a fetishization of the female head? The butt is roughly in the middle of the body: legs are below, torso is above.

This very practical camera orientation has nothing to do with butts. By this logic, the 2D platforming games also fetishize Mario’s butt. When Mario eats a Super Mushroom, he’s two squares tall: the bottom square is his legs and butt; the top square is his torso and head.

Super Mario World screenshot

Learning from a character’s appearance

To go back to Sarkeesian’s opening statement: I agree, you can’t learn anything about a character’s interests, goals, or desires by looking at their butt. But does that mean you can’t learn anything at all about them based on their physical appearance? Does not the entirety of their physical appearance tell the player something about who they are? Body shapes and clothing choices can tell us what drives a character, how they take care of themselves, even how they see themselves.

This is why I bring up dualism. Sarkeesian seemingly wants a world in which characters have no sexuality, dress plainly, have square, flat bodies, and do not let their body dictate anything about who they are. She ends her video by saying:

So to be clear, the solution here is not to simply show more butts of male characters. Equal opportunity butt display is definitely not the answer. Rather, the solution is to deemphasize the rear ends of female characters … This is not an impossible task given that game designers do this all the time with their male characters. It’s time they started consistently doing it with their female characters, too.

The rear ends of female characters should be deemphasized, should be depicted in the same hidden, shadowy ways that male butts are depicted. No butts for anybody!

Just as a person who shows up to a job interview in a suit versus somebody who choose up in jeans tells us something about the person, a video game character who wears tight clothes tells us something about who they are, and a character who wears baggy clothes tells us something as well.

Before playing Dead or Alive, all I’d ever heard was that the game oversexualized female characters, especially in the chest area. Each character has a range of costumes, and when you mix in DLC, you can get teeny tiny lingerie and bathing suit costumes for all the female characters.

However, the default costumes do tell us something about the female characters. Body shape and fashion choices matter. They aren’t a distraction, or objectification, as Sarkeesian believes. Just look at the range of DoA female characters. If you’ve played the game, you’re already familiar with who these characters are.

If not, tell me if you can’t figure out, at least a little, who these characters are, based on their dress:

Dead or Alive 5: Hitomi

Dead or Alive 5: Kokoro

Dead or Alive 5: Leifang

Dead or Alive 5: Lisa

Dead or Alive 5: Mila

Dead or Alive 5: Sarah

Dead or Alive 5: Tina

On some level, it’s the responsibility of every player to figure out what kind of characters they like, and which they don’t. Sarkeesian bemoans that she can’t identify with female characters, but insists that we should be able to identify with them as people. Yet she also argues that characters are designed by people, that they are not independent creations, that they are subjugated by game developers. She views female characters as being autonomous, though objectified, beings who are at the same time lacking in agency.

It’s becoming clear to me that Sarkeesian holds the female body in low regard, and believes that who a person is should be divorced from the form of their body. That’s not to say that a character’s personhood is wholly determined by the shape of their body. But there can be a middle ground: a character’s personhood and body are both important.

I’ll wrap up my thoughts on the matter for now: my analysis is 3+ times the word count of Sarkeesian’s video. At the very least, her views are generative of much discussion.

Game on,
Dennis

Theatre Review: Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom

In 2014 I saw a play about video games entitled Leveling Up. In 2015 I saw my second play about video games: Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom. The play is by Jennifer Haley and was performed by the Bloomsburg University Players. As in Leveling Up, this play examines the dichotomy between fantasy and reality, and ultimately concludes that video games can dangerously warp one’s sense of reality.

This post is not a review of this specific run of the play—the performances of the actors, the set design, the costumes—but rather, an analysis of the themes conveyed by this work. I’ll also be making comparisons to my review of Leveling Up, since both plays cover much the same territory.

Spoilers abound in this post!

A suburban neighborhood dripping with blood

Cover of the Neighborhood 3 playbill

Synopsis

The story follows the lives of several teenagers and their parents. The teens are into the latest video game, Neighborhood 3, a zombie killing game. The hook in Neighborhood 3 is that the game uses GPS to recreate a person’s neighborhood in-game. When the kids go house to house in the game, they are exploring their own neighborhood, protecting their own houses.

The families live in an affluent suburban neighborhood. The parents are largely clueless about what their kids are doing after school, but are concerned nonetheless. Whenever the parents attempt to talk to the kids about their excessive gameplay, the kids blow them off, whine, or run away.

As the kids get more into the game, buzz starts to grow about the so-called “final house.” Some kids are too scared to enter, and quit playing the game. Others, though, press on. The kids collect a variety of weapons, either in-game or in real-life. By the third act of the play, it starts to become unclear when the actors are “in-game” or “in real life,” reflecting how the teens’ dual realities are merging.

It’s never clearly stated, but it seems like the “final house” is each kid’s own  house. In-game, the kids must enter their own house and kill the zombies. But because the kids are getting their realities mixed up, they end up killing their parents.

The play ends after one kid in particular kills his mother after she harasses him all night to get off the game.

Fantasy vs. Reality, redux

After rereading my analysis of Leveling Up, I think I could largely repost what I wrote for that play here. N3 is strongest in the beginning, when it shows how faulty the artificial division of “fantasy” and “reality” is. As for the kids, they spend hours playing this game, which to an outsider, might look like a waste of time. But they are socializing and bonding with each other and forming friendships (and in one case, possibly a romantic relationship).

Do they spend a lot of time on the game? Sure. But this seems like a game that has a definite end, and some of the kids realize they are playing it too much. The kids are caught up in a fad. It’s unclear whether it lasts a week, two weeks, or more, but the fad grows and then fades rather quickly. The kids are ultimately engaging in harmless, if fantastical, fun.

While the parents do not understand the fantasy of the game, they are caught up in their own fantasy. They live in perfect suburbia, where every house looks the same and homeowners’ associations fault anybody who steps outside the lawn care guidelines. One of the parents, a judge, is an alcoholic, but some of the characters, particularly the judge’s wife, are too dumb to confront him about it, maintaining the facade of his fantasy life.

The parents are also under the delusion that they have control over their kids. They send their kids to fancy schools that require uniforms, and they try to set boundaries on when they must be home. And yet whatever control they think they have over their kids evaporates as soon as the kids step into the virtual world, where they can do anything.

Leveling Up, in the first half, covered these same themes. That play was also strongest when it pointed out that real life can be fantasy, and video games can be reality.

Like in Leveling Up, Haley comes to largely the same conclusion by the end of N3: the fantasy of video games is worse than the fantasy of real life, and the fantasy is so compelling that it can drive people to murder.

A fundamental question about video games?

I’m not sure if Haley, or Deborah Zoe Laufer (the playwright behind Leveling Up), are gamers. Based on the way the characters in both plays talk about games, and the way the games are conveyed, it seems like the playwrights aren’t exactly enthusiasts of the medium: the characterizations feel close to reality, but off. It seems, though, that for some people (mostly outsiders to the medium) the fundamental question to explore about video games is: what’s the line between fantasy and reality?

For the past three decades, movies and television shows have asked about this line in some form or another. Tron (1982) and WarGames (1983) ask these questions. In QuestWorld, seen in The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest (1996), sometimes the characters get trapped in the virtual world. The Matrix trilogy showed us that virtual worlds can be more real than the real world. In Sword Art Online (2009) the same ideas from QuestWorld are revisited on a grander scale. All of these stories examine these issues much more effectively than Leveling Up or N3.

As a lifelong gamer, I’m not sure if these are the most interesting questions for pop culture to ask about video games. To me, the line between fantasy and reality seems clear. I recognize the many realities of video games and the many fantasies of reality. In fact, the more I play video games, the line between the two becomes clearer, not blurrier.

And for the many gamer friends I have, it seems they know where that line is as well.

But to outsiders, perhaps this is not only the most interesting line of questions to ask, but also the most vital. After all, how can somebody who spends hours killing something in a virtual world not be affected by it? How can video games not teach people how to kill and destroy? This line of questioning isn’t a casual one either. As a mass communication researcher, I am well-versed in the line of research investigating the effects of video games, particularly in the area of violence. For some, it’s clear that video games do influence people to be violent.

But as somebody with a PhD in mass communication, who’s looked at these research reports, I find the evidence the people get the lines between video games and reality confused shoddy, weak, and overextended.

A better question

This isn’t to say that pop culture shouldn’t explore these issues of fantasy and reality in video games. For some people, these are important questions to ask. But as a gamer, plays like Leveling Up and Neighborhood 3 are asking level 1 questions about fantasy and reality. And the conclusion to that level is this: yes, virtual worlds can be both real and fake, just as the physical world is both real and fake.

Next question, next level, please.

So what are the level 2, the level 3, and the level 4 questions about video games? I don’t have a solid answer yet, but I’ll share with you some thoughts. I think these storytellers, regardless of the medium, are onto something exploring fantasy and reality. It’s just like how all robot stories are essentially about the same thing: what if robots become sentient? What if robots come alive? Can robots become human?

As a lover of fantasy media, and a writer of fantasy stories myself, I have a huge personal stake in the theory of fantasy. For me, fantasy media (and I’m using fantasy very broadly here to mean created works, regardless of whether they feature swords and dragons and magic) are about showing us new worlds. Fantasy stories take readers, viewers, and players to new worlds, and allow them to explore.

One should not engage a fantasy world out of dissatisfaction with “the real world.” Fantasy helps people like me understand the real world better.

Neighborhood 3 sounds like a compelling game, if it were real. Is it really so creepy to have a game where you run around a virtual simulacrum of your own neighborhood, shooting zombies out of your house and the houses of your neighbors? My brother and I did the same thing when we were kids, only in “the real world.” Our backyard and side lot became dozens of different worlds. The playground at school was a multitude of worlds. Fantasy allowed me to see these spaces in many different ways, to see the possibilities of what they could be.

So let’s move past stories that ask level 1 questions about the line between fantasy and reality in video games. Let’s create stories (fantasies) about video games that show the depths of virtual worlds, how virtual worlds can be mapped many times over onto “the real world,” not in an effort to hide the real world, but to expand it.

~Dennis

In Defense of Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII logo

I’ve been a Final Fantasy fan for more than 20 years now, as might be evident from my recent posts on Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call and Final Fantasy I. In 2010, Square-Enix released Final Fantasy XIII, the first FF for the seventh-generation of video game consoles. After playing Final Fantasy X, then XII, then oddly IX, I was ready for the latest adventure.

Of the seventh-gen consoles, I only own the Wii. I borrowed my brother’s Xbox 360, bought the game at the full price of $60, and settled in for the 50-hour quest.

And then a year later I played through the entire game again. Another 50 hours.

FFXIII has received its share of criticism, unfortunately. Most reviewers, and gamers, criticize the game for three reasons: the story is convoluted, the game is nothing more than a trek through corridors, and the game doesn’t open up until 2/3 of the way through. In this post, I’ll put those criticisms to rest.

FFXIII is one of the best of the series, a refreshing change of pace that reinvents nearly everything that had grown stale in the FF series.

A stripped down adventure

FFXIII is streamlined. The creators dispensed with the clutter and clichés of JRPGs, clichés pioneered by the FF series. Towns are nonexistent in FFXIII (well, towns that are safe havens). Gone are the inns, the shops, the endless townspeople who sometimes offer good advice, but most of the time say nothing of consequence.

Gone are the multitude of stats for each character: strength, agility, speed, defense, magic, magic defense, stamina, luck, so on and so on. Only two stats remain: strength and magic.

Healing is accomplished out of battle. In fact, everybody fully heals after each battle, so inns are useless, as are potions (though potions still remain). No longer do you need to equip armor for your characters, headgear and gauntlets and breastplates and shoes. You can equip some accessories, and weapons are modified at the save points, but the modifications really aren’t necessary.

The overworld is gone, as are airships. Dungeons lack puzzles.

Many fans were extremely upset that FFXIII stripped away nearly all of these elements. What’s left of the game without all these things? In short: the best parts of Final Fantasy—the combat and the story.

At first, I was a little shocked to see so many of the familiar conventions of the series left by the wayside. But I found over the course of the adventure that I didn’t miss any of it. That’s not to say I don’t like exploring towns, solving puzzles, and optimizing my armor and weapon choices. But what I learned was, if I wanted that style of game, I could always go back to FFVI and FFVII. It was time to move on from those trappings, and FFXIII’s creators knew it.

Combat is fun again

Combat in the FF series has always been easy. In the early FFs, a four-person party was too much (and FFIV went overboard with a five-man party). Most battles consist of this: selecting “Fight” for each character, watching your four characters plus 2-6 enemies perform their basic attacks, then repeat. Magic and healing and defensive postures are necessary on some boss battles, but 90% of the time, you can get away with mashing “A” or “X” when a battle starts, choosing the default options.

Combat used to bog down in the “grind,” those parts of the game when you arbitrarily had to level up your characters so that you could face the next boss. FFVI had an obnoxiously long grind at the end of that game, as you had to prepare 12 characters for the final battle.

In FFXIII, grinding is unnecessary (unless you want to take on the optional side quests, which I never found the need to).

What makes combat in FFXIII most interesting, though, is the paradigm system. You have three characters in your party, and each has three roles (later six if you want). Commanders are the leaders of the party; ravagers cast magic, healers heal, and so on. Before the battle begins, you set up your paradigms, and at any time in battle, you can switch.

For example, I might begin a battle with Lightning as the commander and Sazh and Vanille as ravagers. Then I might switch to an all-ravager paradigm, and if I get hurt, maybe switch to a healer-commander-healer paradigm.

Paradigm switching happens in a couple seconds, and is absolutely necessary to winning quickly. See, the enemies have a “stagger meter” that fills up with each hit. The more hits, the higher the meter goes. When it reaches a certain point, usually 300%, the enemy’s defenses temporarily fall, allowing you to do massive damage. Staggering an enemy is important, as it’s common by the end of the game for an enemy to have millions of hit points.

Now, if you didn’t care much for the fighting, you could just hit “Auto” each round, having the computer choose your attacks for you. But FFXIII does something unique compared to the other FFs: at the end of the battle, it rates you out of five stars based on how fast you completed the battle. The rating isn’t really important (maybe you get better item drops with more stars), but for me, it was a challenge to try to get five stars as much as possible.

I set up my paradigms in such a way so that I did as much damage as fast as possible. I had to constantly watch the stagger meter, as when you aren’t attacking, the meter slowly drains. This simple addition, the post-battle rating, made combat exciting for me.

Some people criticize FFXIII for only giving you control of your leader character. The computer plays as the other two. But the focus has changed: it’s not about controlling everybody’s actions anymore. As I said, in previous FFs, most of the time you just select “Attack” anyway. This time, the focus is on managing your paradigms, and keeping tabs on your party’s health and status second by second.

FFXIII does not have turn-based combat, but real-time, which makes battles a lot more intense. And because you are healed at the end of each battle, the monsters are a lot more aggressive in attacking your characters. In previous FFs, you could often complete a battle without taking any damage, or very little. In FFXIII, all characters take massive damage each fight, so in-battle healing is now that much more crucial.

There are no magic points to worry about either. By fully reviving the party after each battle, the game can make every battle deadly.

And deadly they are. Another great fix to combat is, if you die, you immediately respawn right before that battle took place. Set-up the paradigms differently, and away you go, right back in the action! No more respawning at save points found 30 minutes in the past.

Final Fantasy XIII PS3 game cover

Lightning, the protagonist of the game, was a divisive character, as she had a steely, cold personality.

A story that flips the script

The story in all FFs is basically the same: your group of nobodies rebels against the government/church/monster overlords, slowly gets stronger as the adventure progresses, and finally takes on the boss, the ruler of the world, sometimes a godlike creature. The balance of the entire planet is in your hands, and you inevitably save it.

This trope makes for a compelling story arc and gameplay, but how you do change up this all-too-common script? FFXIII found just the way to do it. Instead of trying to save the world from a godlike monster, your characters are the godlike monsters, tasked with destroying the very world they love!

The story is admittedly a little complicated, but let me try to make it simple. In FFXIII, there are two worlds, Cocoon and Pulse. Each world is managed by overseers, godlike creatures called fal’Cie. The fal’Cie treat humans as their pets, providing for all their needs: food, light, heat, technology. Humans live in advanced, futuristic societies because everything was given to them by their benevolent overlords.

The fal’Cie are unable, however, to directly intervene in human affairs. So when they need something accomplished, they call a human to do their bidding. Humans who are called by the fal’Cie are branded, turning into l’Cie. The l’Cie have two options: complete their Focus, or mission, or ignore their Focus. If they ignore their Focus, they become Cieth, undead zombies. Nobody wants that.

However, if they complete their Focus, they are turned to crystal and given eternal life. So the in-game fable goes. But who knows if they actually get eternal life?

In the beginning of the game, our six heroes awaken a fal’Cie from slumber and are branded as l’Cie. The heroes live on Cocoon, and Cocoonian society is afraid of anything from Pulse due to a war far in the past. Our heroes stumbled upon a Pulse fal’Cie, living on Cocoon, so they are branded Pulse l’Cie, which marks them as enemies in the eyes of the Cocoonians.

It takes a while, but eventually our heroes figure out their Focus: Destroy Cocoon. This is how the script is flipped around. The heroes become more and more godlike as the story progresses, so certainly they have the power to destroy their home planet. But, of course, they don’t want to do that.

So they are presented with a quandary: destroy their home planet and fulfill their Focus? Or ignore their Focus and become Cieth, and likely doom the planet anyway as others would surely be made l’Cie to complete the Focus.

The story is not about stopping some godlike even being from conquering the world, but it’s about these Pulse l’Cie avoiding their fate to save the planet they love. They don’t want to destroy the planet, they don’t want to turn Cieth, and they don’t want to turn into crystal. The story is about fate versus freewill, destiny versus freedom.

Not only is the overall story amazing, but the individual dramas of the characters are the best of any FF game. In FFXIII, it seems like every character belongs together in your party: there is no dead weight.

Compare this to FFIX, for instance, in which one party member is a fat monster named Quina. You find him in a swamp, trying to catch frogs, which he loves to eat. His only motivation for joining your quest, I kid you not, is “I will join you so I can find more frogs to eat.” Really? What a dramatic letdown.

Let’s talk about those hallways

So the battle system and story are excellent, the best of any FF game, but what about the world? What is there to interact with, if not towns or an overworld? In short: nothing. Most worlds consist of nothing more than long tunnels. You run down the hallway, fighting monsters, and every 5-10 minutes are treated to a cutscene. Repeat.

In the beginning of the game, you run along a road, then a bridge.

After getting branded by the Pulse fal’Cie, you run along a crystalized lake, a long corridor through crystalized water.

Later you run down a tunnel bored through stone. Sometimes you run through a city, but it consists of one street, with all alleyways and cross streets blocked off, then you turn a corner, and surprise!, you run down another straight street.

Occasionally there are tiny branches off the main road, and in a couple places you might have two slightly different paths to take, each leading to the same destination. 97% of the game’s environments are tunnels, hallways, or streets.

And that’s okay. If you want an open-world to explore, play another game. I’m fine with the hallways because 1) they look beautiful, 2) the soundtrack is amazing (I’ve been listening to it almost every week for four years now), but most importantly, 3) the hallways keep the game focused on its strong points: battle and storytelling.

You are out of battle for no more than 5-15 seconds in most cases. The action of the battles is what drives the game forward, not the exploration. And the linear nature of the game allows the creators to tell a tight, focused story. You won’t get sidetracked by sidequests in FFXIII. To story is always moving forward, and that’s a good thing.

The game holds your hand for the first 35 hours

Penny Arcade expressed a common critique of FFXIII’s hand-holding, one shared by many:

Final Fantasy XIII comicHere’s what critics are referring to. In the first 2/3 of the game, you have no control over who is in your party. Six playable characters are at your disposal, but sometimes you only play as one, sometimes two, and sometimes three. The combinations are always determined by the game, dictated by the story. Not all of the main characters are in the same place at the same time.

Still, many people wanted to be able to access all six characters, and all six paradigm classes far sooner. I found, though, that once the game “opened up” it was a lot less interesting to play. Here’s why.

By forcing me to use certain characters together, I had to work within their limitations. Playing the Lightning and Hope party for a good chunk of the game was challenging, as was the Sazh and Vanille group. I appreciated that each character only specialized in three paradigms.

Once they had access to all paradigms, whatever individuality they had was lost. Everybody can be every class. Is that really what gamers wanted?

I found that I constructed my party based on certain paradigms I was trying to create. For a long time, Sazh was always in my three-man party because he had the ability Haste, which let me finish those battles twice as fast! But later Hope gets Haste, and becomes his combination of moves was more versatile, Sazh was gone and Hope replaced him for the remainder of the game.

And Snow, sadly, one of my favorite characters, fought almost no battles the last 15 hours of the game. He just didn’t have the right combination of specialized paradigms. So his experience points just built up and up and up: I had no reason to level him.

The only change I wish they made to FFXIII was that they randomized the parties on repeat playthroughs somehow. When I played the game a second time, I found myself constructing the exact same parties as the first time around once the game “opened up.”

See how this desire for an “open” game is actually more constricting in practice?

Gamers also longed to get away from all the hallway running. As previously explained, though, I enjoyed the hallway running. At the 2/3 mark, your party travels to Pulse for one chapter (of 13). Most of Pulse is also hallway running, but at one very specific point there is an extremely large “open” area. A big field, really, filled with dozens of new monsters, most more powerful than your party. It can take a couple hours to cross this field, given how many monsters there are. There are a few nooks on the periphery that introduce you to side bosses, but grinding just to fight these dinosaurs isn’t worth it, in my mind.

After Pulse, you go back to hallway running for the remainder of the game. So the game never really does open up.

The idea of an open-world FF, however, is mostly an illusion. If you play through previous FFs, such as IV, VI, VII, IX, X, or XII, you’ll find that the games are mostly linear. You travel from town to town, and while there is usually a big “field” to explore in between each town, there is usually only one entrance and one exit from those fields.

Now, usually these previous FFs opened up at some point, giving you an airship that let you travel anywhere you wanted. In my opinion, these open-world parts of the previous FFs, though, always came at the expense of the story. No longer was the story in the hands of the developers.

Conclusion

Every Final Fantasy fan has an opinion about which games are the “best” in the series. Comparing the games, though, is difficult, as only a handful of games ever appear for a single system. Every few years, advances in video game technology open up new possibilities for the genre.

In my estimation, the two best Final Fantasies are FFVI and FFXIII—a tie, but for different reasons. In the case of FFVI, the sum of its parts is greater than the whole; in the case of FFXIII, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Maybe I’ll talk about FFVI some other day, but I think it’s easy to see that, while FFXIII might be lacking in many areas compared to other JRPGs, when it excels, it soars above the competition.

Final Fantasy has always been a series that reinvents itself with every game. Compare this series to something like Mario, Pokemon, or Zelda, and it’s easy to see why. While Nintendo can get away with coasting on tried-and-true formulas and nostalgia, the creators of Final Fantasy have always challenged themselves to make something new.

FFXIII was that new thing I was looking for. The classic JRPG formula, established mostly by FF, is great, and whenever I want to experience it again, I have FFIV and VI and VII. By the time Square got to FFIX, the formula was dead. There’s nothing wrong with FFIX, per se, but there’s nothing fresh.

FFXIII’s combination of action, story, graphics, and music has inspired me in a way few other games have. The story, the music, and all of the lush scenery are constantly running through my head, motivating me in my day to day life.

So what if it’s linear? I know of no other game that promises 50 hours of unique content, an ever-progressing story and ever-changing monsters. There is no need to backtrack. The game has no padding, no sections that repeat themselves just to make the game longer. No, it’s a 50-hour trip straight through without sidequests, no shorter, no longer.

True, about 8-9 hours of that 50 is cinematics and cutscenes, but the FF series has always been about telling stories. And this is a story you can get invested in, because you play as these characters, you develop these characters, and while you don’t control their outcome, you experience their successes and failures right beside them.

Game on,
~Dennis