Thursday, April 23, 2015

On Commercial Altgames

A quick disclaimer: I want to defuse the idea, immediately, that this is any kind of angered “response” piece to Soha Kareem’s excellent, brief discussion of #AltGames and her creation of the Support AltGames Twitter bot. I want this to be viewed purely as supplemental article, one that covers a particular angle of the #AltGames idea that is particularly important to me, and that I feel I have some expertise in.

Kareem’s article focuses largely on the work of independent developers and critics whose work is definitive of modern #AltGames, an idea that is described as being largely new, as a response to and critique of establishment and status quo. While this is true, it should be noted (as Kareem does in her description of the interactions present in She Who Fights Monsters) that ideas and games that inspire #AltGames developers and critics have long existed in the niche corners of the commercial games industry. Thus a historical picture of #AltGames is, I think, obliged to note the work of developers whose work is, as Kareem describes, “experimental, autobiographical, or political” that has also been released for consoles and through large publishers.

Thus, some notable games developers who are often called “AAA” whose work easily fits the bill for #AltGames, in my humble opinion.

Yoko Taro
His works have been published by Square-Enix, but rarely sell well. He writes games that often deal with taboo narrative subject matter (including the ultimate taboo of videogame narratives: tragedy), as well as tease the player’s prior knowledge of videogame genres through experiments in ludic structure. Drakengard pulsed with tense, dissonant music and brutal, primitive combat, NIER was a graveyard of long-irrelevant genres, as well as  predated deconstructed 2013’s “Dadification” of videogames, and Drakengard 3 openly concerned the sexual interests of various women, a sexually submissive man, and multiple queer characters. He has been hired recently to make a new game, but a name or any details have not been announced. I await news with baited breath.

Amy Hennig
Hennig’s unapologetically talky Legacy of Kain games were some of the first games of such extreme narrative focus in the west to be developed not as systems-intensive CRPGs, but action-adventures for consoles. Her stories starred immortal, unhuman creatures and considered ideas as extreme as theicide, and lend themselves well to interpretative allegorical readings. As well, her team at Crystal Dynamics regularly prioritized space, architecture, and aesthetics instead of overthought combat or puzzle design.

Masato Kato
As far as I’m concerned, Squaresoft in the late-90’s developed games I would exclusively call “alternative.” Each of them fits at least one of those criteria Kareem notes in her article: “experimental, autobiographical, or political,” and not in ways that are shallow or easily written off. Final Fantasy VII was deeply anti-capitalist, Final Fantasy VIII an empathetic investigation of masculinity and masculine suffering,  and Final Fantasy IX concerned itself obsessively with death and existential purpose. (Even moreso than VII and VIII which were themselves obsessively existential.) They don’t tend to get remembered that way.

But no creative person at the company was as dedicated to tearing away at convention, experimenting with structure, and telling outright weird stories as writer Masato Kato. He got his start at the company writing the notably dark Zeal sequence in 1995’s Chrono Trigger and writing a few scenes for Final Fantasy VII. (I’ve never been able to find out which ones they were, but based on his style I’d hazard a guess that at least one of them was the Cloud’s Subconscious sequence.)

Then, he and the equally experimental duo Tetsuya Takahashi and Soraya Saga (birth name: Kaori Tanaka) launched into prominence with Xenogears, a (tragically unfinished) tale of reincarnation, history, Nietzsche, and evocative, charged imagery. The game is as intoxicating as it is confusing and frustrating, and it’s something everyone should play at least once.

After that, Kato was given complete control to write and direct Chrono Cross. Do not listen to anyone say otherwise, Chrono Cross is a messy masterpiece of sun-baked island scenery and deep self-doubt that deals in short vignettes, with no easy endings that leaves the player always marinating in a sense of defeat even as they push ever onward. And, to the misfortune of it’s legacy, it’s also a vicious deconstruction of Chrono Trigger. That works fine for me because frankly, I can’t stand Chrono Trigger.

Many of these figures are well-recognized, even financially successful on a massive scale, but I also find it incredibly important to celebrate their contributions to gaming outside of the nakedly commercial, and note that their games can be seen as alternative. I hope I’ve shed some light and opened some eyes, and in general I will continue to take note of historical examples of altgames released commercially.

In particular, I’m within a month and a half of finishing the drafting for my long-delayed book about Final Fantasy VII that does not yet have a title. Unlike most writing on the game that exists, I see this as a reading of the game from an alternative perspective.

  • Austin C. Howe, Seattle, Washington, 2014

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