Keyboard Geniuses is our weekly glance at a few intriguing, witty, or otherwise notable posts from the Gameological discussion threads. Comments have been excerpted and edited here for grammar, length, and/or clarity. You can follow the links to see the full threads.
Knights Of The Round
For Gameological’s contribution to 1994 Week, John Teti wrote about why he finds the death (or rescue) of Shadow in Final Fantasy VI more effective than the death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII, the latter being a moment which has become something of a cultural touchstone. There’s been a loud Final Fantasy VII backlash taking place over the last few years, but a couple of commenters stepped up to defend it this time around. Here’s RedBlueGreen:
Final Fantasy VII is a hard one to be objective about because it came out at such a landmark transitional time in the industry. For me personally, and I’m sure for a lot of people, it was not only my first exposure to Final Fantasy, but the first time a video game truly felt so huge and immersive. Hell, it was probably the very first narrative I ever cared about that wasn’t a Disney movie. I was only 9 when I played it.
As with everything that becomes so huge, it’s gotten popular to kind of shit all over FF7, especially in when comparing it to FF6. But I’d argue that there’s still so much to love about it. As Kyle O’Reilly said, it’s dripping with personality. Take the Midgar slums; everything slots together to make that place come to life: the design, the music, the abject somberness of it all. It’s way more atmospheric than any PlayStation game from 1997 has any right to be. And the whole game keeps that quality up. As an adult, the plot doesn’t really hold up. It’s convoluted faux-spiritual drivel for the most part. But the world is almost palpable: The Gold Saucer, Cosmo Canyon, Corel, The City Of The Ancients, the Junon Parade, Costa Del Sol—it’s a really wonderful game.
Many commenters pointed out that the death of Cid in Final Fantasy VI, which is also something that is under your control to a degree, was just as, if not more, heartbreaking than that of Shadow. Lucky for them, Anthony John Agnello wrote an essay that’s in part about the death of Cid during our Special Topics In Gameology series about emptiness in games. Talking about what makes Final Fantasy VI great, Pgoodso echoed a lot of Anthony’s sentiments:
The whole game is about moving on from tragedy—especially in the original sense of the word, where your misery is born out of your own mistakes, whether you know it or not. Dealing with the past to move on toward the future, grim as that future may be, and whether or not you can make the best out of the tattered remains of your life decides who you are as a person. Shadow can die because you didn’t wait, and that changes Relm’s fate in the World Of Ruin. Cid can die because the fish Celes catches aren’t good enough, which brings Celes to attempt suicide. Locke’s entire motivation is trying to run from or face the guilt of being gone when Rachel “died,” and every other character aside from Relm, Mog, Gogo, and Umaro (i.e. the cute ones) has a similar problem dealing with their past and who they are (even Gogo might have a past stuck in tragedy depending on which theory you subscribe to about his/her origins). That you can not only choose whether or not to retrieve your party members, but also whether or not to deal with their pasts and their new post-apocalyptic lives gives you a real sense of agency in this game that many others in the series do not.
Calum Marsh wrote a For Our Consideration essay about the way Hotline Miami plays with flimsy calls-to-action in retro games to make a point about video game violence. NakedSnake also had some kind things to say about Hotline:
Everything about the game—the “story,” the music, the aesthetics—merges perfectly to highlight the sweaty suspicion that the whole game (and by extension, most games) exists only as a vehicle for murder. Stranger still, the game manages to make that point by drawing you into a psychopathic point of view. This is a game where you feel savage satisfaction from killing scores of people in time with the beat of the music. Any second of the game in which you are not bursting through doors and cutting and shooting your way through bad guys feels strangely hollow. When you shut the game off, though, you feel dirty. It acts as a critique of video game violence by demonstrating how easily video games can peel away the veneer of civilization and let your lizard brain take over.
And BuddhaBox had this to add:
My favorite part of each level is actually at the end. The throbbing techno music is totally silenced, replaced with a horrible, unearthly droning as you’re made to walk over the masses of shot, bludgeoned, and pool-cued nameless goons. It feels like the game is really rubbing your nose in it. “Oh wow, what a big man! You beat the level and killed all of these people for some reason. Congratulations!”
The disempowerment that comes with the hospital level is an interesting contrast with the rest of the game. Beyond the frustrations of getting game overs if you’re spotted and the migraine-inducing camera shifts, you’re totally helpless and can only hope to flee before you’re discovered and captured. Now that I think about it, part of that can be seen in the “Crackdown” level, where the stage is invaded by unkillable SWAT officers.
MerlintheTuna wasn’t as hot on the game and broke it down:
To preface: I enjoyed Hotline Miami quite a bit. It’s fun to play! But at the same time, it’s a little weird to me that it gets so much props for “deconstructing gaming narratives” and whatnot. Because at the end of the day, it’s a traditionally barebones narrative with “One Weird Trick: Players Hate It” thrown in at the end. And that twist consists of declaring “A lot of video games are badly written!” Which—it’s not exactly Shyamalan-tier, but no shit, Sherlock.
I’m trying to come up with a metric for plot twists that gets to why I was so underwhelmed with Hotline Miami‘s, and here’s what I’ve got. (1) Does it make sense? (2) Does it imply interesting upcoming story developments? (3) Does it reframe the story experienced thus far?
Hotline definitely hits number 1, but it missed the mark on 2 & 3 for me. Because unlike, say, Spec Ops: The Line, at no point in the game did I feel like a good guy. You start the game as a crazy person in a mask going on disgustingly violent rampages with barely any prompting. There’s no pretense of heroism. You’re a drugged-out maniac from square one. So when the “normal” ending (or the police station level) comes and says “Surprise, you’re a drugged out maniac!” it’s tough for me to get excited about it. And then if you do the “secret” ending, it just says “Surprise, you’re a drugged out maniac, and also these two douchebags had a dumb plan!” which, y’know, is not that much better.
So it felt like I started the game and acquiesced to playing a bad guy in hopes the story would go somewhere, but it only ever got as far as “you’re a bad guy.”
You Stay Classy, Sandiego
This week, Patrick Lee told us about why he believes Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego? is the closest thing we’ve gotten to a good Doctor Who game. This led to much Carmen nostalgia in the comments. The Space Pope wrote an appreciation for Carmen’s backstory:
I played a later version of this called Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time that was structured more like an adventure game. Carmen sends her crooks out through history to steal stuff and generally make a mess, and the player has to set things right by, say, acquiring supplies for William the Conqueror by following the feudal system, or putting together a proper Egyptian funeral for Hatshepsut’s husband. Every level took place in a single time and place and focused on learning about it in depth. The last mission to catch Carmen herself was the only one that employed the classic hop-through-time structure.
The most interesting thing about it was that it actually gave Carmen a motivation. The thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that Carmen actually has a backstory. She was a star detective for the ACME agency who was so good at her job that she got bored and decided to switch sides, forming V.I.L.E. and challenging her own coworkers to catch her, with such success that ACME now devotes most of its resources just to investigate her and her gang. She’s more or less the Riddler.
At the very end of Great Chase, you find out that the entire time-travel plot was a massive diversion. Carmen’s ultimate goal is to break into ACME headquarters itself and steal her personnel file, effectively erasing her life before her turn to crime. She only wanted to change her own history. I dare you to name another children’s game that put that much thought into its characters and theme. There aren’t many.
And StagefrightBaby kicked off a funny thread, warning against the inevitable:
Whoa guys, let’s be careful what licenses we start reminiscing about. Someone might hear us and start concocting a gritty reboot.
“Carmen’s henchwoman, Jen O. Side, has stolen the gold-coated Kuthodaw Pagoda from the city of Mandalay, Myanmar, and gassed the country’s Muslim minority Rohingya tribe during her escape. The leader of the military junta, U Thein Sein, has declared that you bring him her head.”
*Holds bruised and bloody man over the edge of a cliff by his tie*
“TELL ME WHERE SHE IS!”
“I don’t know! Please don’t kill me! I can tell you the person you’re looking for said they wanted to go to the Windy City to cool off!”
“NOT GOOD ENOUGH!”
*Lets go of the tie.*
In a third act twist, ACME are revealed as the real villains. You have been secretly destroying all their enemies so they can establish a New Geographic Order. You have to suffocate The Chief with the warrant she gave you on your first day, causing the entire organization to collapse. Then you hook up with Carmen Sandiego, leaving the doors open for a sequel which is never produced.
But as natty and frankiethirteen pointed out, our commenters were beaten to the gritty reboot by about seven years:
That does it! Thanks for reading and commenting, everyone. We’ll see you all next week.