Thursday, October 24, 2013

New Stuff!

So hey people, Austin here. Long time, no post. Well, at least until about two nights ago. In any case, here's what I've been up to.

  • After I finished "Free Will and Defiance", I was a bit exhausted as a writer. That essay took me almost half a year to write. So I took a small break from major writing, which is why everything I put up after that was small pieces.
  • Those pieces were written after I finished "Free Will and Defiance"
  • I got a job. I'm pretty close to actually losing this job. (I'm selling shoes at the mall, and I'm not very good at it. Or rather, I'm not good at meeting the ridiculous expectations that this company has for sales and sales technique.)
  • Went back to school. (Technically I never dropped out, but I was barely ever present.)
  • Wondered about what to write next while a few different ideas floundered. 
  • The only one I'm still making tenuous progress with is an analysis of the late-game design of Ninja Gaiden (NES) and how it defies the consistent pattern of tutorialization that made the game feel "fair".
  • Played the HD version of Kingdom Hearts. Stopped struggling with what to write about. It's a good game, and you're gonna hear about it in my next "big" essay.
That about sums it up. Regarding the new stuff, the "Scattered Thoughts on Gone Home" is pretty self-explanatory. Short version: it's a good game.

The two things marked as being part of "Free Will and Defiance" were originally part of that essay, but the flawed structure of said essay gave neither of those parts good place to put in sequence. In a lot of ways, I still view that essay, as proud as I am of it in it's current state, as a rough draft. And in a lot of ways, I view this blog as a place (other than my Twitter) to collect my written thoughts about games, so I wanted to put up those (incomplete) thoughts about things I regard as important topics in Metal Gear Solid.

When I do revisit "Free Will and Defiance", I won't delete those original posts, but I will be reincorporating all the cut material, and new insights I had after I published the original piece.

In any case, sorry for being an absentee. I'm working hard on the Kingdom Hearts thing, and it might be a while before that (or anything else) goes up. In any case, I'll see ya around.

- Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2013

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Behind the Keyboard Vol. 2

Free Will and Defiance (Cut Content, Part 2): An Aside Regarding Otacon

Until now [This section was originally placed after the discussion of the Gray Fox reveal – Austin], Metal Gear Solid has treated Snake and the player as a symbiotic entity, but in essence, the villains, unlike mission support are not aware of the player's presence. In reintroducing a character from his past, the game has taken the first steps in separating Snake from the player.

Otacon himself acts as a not just new surrogate for the audience, but actually a symbol of the player playing the game. For one, Otacon is based on a stereotype of the games likely target audience: he is a young man who likes anime and plays video games with a spine so weak he pisses his pants at the mere sight of Grey Fox. But that's not all. Over the course of the game, Otacon acts in more realistic and human ways than any of the other characters onscreen, as well as fits easily into his own stereotype. For example:

Otacon falls in love with Sniper Wolf. Kojima's artistic vision succeeded here in that most people remember Sniper Wolf for (what else) her death speech describing her traumatized past and such, allowing her to rise above what might have been her fate in any other game. It is thus: in any other game, Sniper Wolf would be a fanservice character, what with the femme fatalle personality and unzipped jacket with no bra. That Otacon falls in love with her[1] is an indictment of audiences that would sexually idolize the character for her image alone despite both her obvious villainy and, on the other hand, her own humanity.

When Sniper Wolf dies, at one of the game's darkest and most honest moments, Otacon asks a very audience surrogate question in one of the more memorable exchanges in the game:

Otacon : Snake!!  What was she fighting for?  What am I fighting for!!  What are you fighting for!?

Snake: If we make it through this, I'll tell you.

Otacon: Okay.  I'll be searching too.

Otacon not only asks that question and receives the answer, but also interprets it, in the way an (intelligent) audience would.[2]

In addition, the ways Otacon comes to help Snake highlight both the unreality of Snake's situation in their realness. When Otacon comes to help Snake when he's trapped in the prison cell, he's perfectly aware that he's incapable of incapacitating a guard, but he does what he can, bringing some ketchup because he thinks Snake might be hungry. ("Hungry? There aren't any hunger mechanics in this game. And I only eat food when I'm low on life! And I've never eaten ketchup to boost my health! What the fuck is going on here?!") Later, Snake, being a videogame character, is limited by system mechanics and user interface such that simply stacking crates in front of him prevents him from progressing, but of course Otacon does it no problem. When Snake asks how to freeze the PAL card, he replies ignorantly, "It's Alaska, go outside!" but when he realizes his mistake he notes how close Snake is to the freezer where he fought Raven.

The end effect on the game’s postmodern commentary on game structure is less itself a communication of theme and more itself an expression of structural intention: giving the game a character so much like the people most likely to be playing it (in positive and negative ways) simply helps to reinforce both that the player is not Snake, and also in many ways the impossibility of the game’s content itself. Otacon in MGS is possibly the most obvious commentary on form in the entire franchise.

The effect on the game’s political themes is also explicit: connecting Otacon, on a personal level, to the history of nuclear weapons and war, gives him a very specific end effect: his own arc is intended to reflect a sense of self-criticism for the player to undertake themselves, making them re-investigate how their role in a culture of violence helps persist that violence itself.

-Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2013

[1] Also check out that specifically geeky way of defending her: "She loves dogs, she must be a good person!" The game is more sincere about that statement than it lets on, but it still comes off as, at best, naive on Otacon's part.
[2]  I almost feel bad for putting this in a footnote but it's a detour: That is one of the best moments in the entire series. Just the sheer honesty of it is tragically beautiful, that in the haze of war, you take a moment to wonder why the hell everyone is shooting each other and you honestly have no idea. That this says multiple things on a thematic level is something else entirely. On one hand, it's Kojima putting in his typical pacifist word reminding you that war is pointless, on the other, he's readily admitting that to some degree, he's readily admitting that he's making this up as he goes along, which is itself genius as a reflection of how people justify their actions: "I'll do it now and figure out why I did later," or in the case of art, "I'll write this story and then give it a theme at the end," a stark indictment of how war stories are told (and similarly, game stories.)

Behind the Keyboard: Vol. 1

Free Will and Defiance, (Cut Content, Part 1): Defying History and Politics

Nuclear weapons figure heavily in the Metal Gear Solid series, but the anti-nuke talk was never as heavy handed as in this game. The conversation with President Baker was an extended discussion regarding the storage of dismantled warheads as they leak radioactive waste and the military-industrial complex, and the upcoming conversation with Otacon will detail how nuclear weapons can be safely tested in VR environments and the relationship between advancements in science and weaponry. At the end of the game, text appears informing us:

In the 1980's, there were more than 60,000 nuclear warheads in the world at all times. The total destructive power amounted to 1 million times that of the Hiroshima A-bomb.

In January 1993, START2 was signed and the United States and Russia agreed to reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 3,000 to 3,500 in each nation by December 31, 2000.

However, as of 1998, there still exist 26,000 nuclear warheads in the world.[1]

On their own, the anti-nuclear themes in Metal Gear Solid made it boldly political for a game intended to be a huge commercial hit in the United States only seven years after the end of the Cold War. However, the discussion of nuclear weapons are also in part a metaphor for Snake's own past, a past he'd rather forget. In the same way that "there's still no real way to dispose of this stuff," and they just "close the lid and try to pretend it'll go away," Snake up to this point has been unwilling to address the unshakable truth of what he has done and what has happened to him in the past. This is at least in part why this portion of the game, so concerned as it is with uncovering the history of it's characters, takes place in the Nuclear Warhead Storage Building, since everything that happens here and much of what happens immediately after is dedicated to digging up these characters' histories.[2]

In the same way that the game pans out with it’s observations of Snake’s character, we can apply the same ideology to the presence of nuclear weapons in the game. To deal with nuclear weapons, to disarm, we must confront the history that created them. Later games in the series would be more radical about what that would entail, as the games come to espouse not just a personal pacifism, but a radical political pacifism as well, a pacifism that might even be anarchist in nature.

-Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2013

[1] I cannot verify this claim as of 1998, however, according to the Federation of American Scientists, there currently exists 17,000 nukes in the world, some 4,300 of which are operational and deployed, ready to be used as soon as the command is given.
[2] This is also in part why the game takes away your weapon usage on the first floor, as a sort of metaphorical symbol of this journey into the unacknowledged past.

On Gone Home

Scattered Thoughts on Gone Home

Quick: I often use the clunky term “non-heteronormative” in this post because I think, personally, that almost none of the terms that non-heteronormative people use to identify themselves can be used by a straight writer with outright certainty.

·         Gone Home is one of the few games I’ve played that was not meant for me, that is, a cisgendered teenage boy, and that makes me happy. Even the games that my demo has rejected that I adore[1] are usually built on the expectation that the people playing it are teenage boys, which is not in and of itself bad, but It Is One Thing And This Is Another
·         Gone Home is also not meant for me because, I’m sorry, but I’ve never liked any of the Riot Grrrl bands. The reasons for that probably aren’t great from a cultural standpoint, but there’s a few different kinds of things that I’ve tried to get into, literally forced myself to experience, and they just couldn’t stick. Led Zeppelin is one of those things, and Riot Grrrl is another.[2]
·         On the one hand, reading analysis of Gone Home has left me with the impression that there’s stuff I missed on my first go through, but on the other hand, I don’t want to go back through the game to find it all yet. I’ve never been a completionist, though I will go back and complete the game eventually.[3]
·         Speaking of “completing” Gone Home, I found the map to the secret doors in the basement, but I never found the other secret door, and thus never found the attic key. I learned that one of the “modifiers” allows you to run straight to the attic. So I did it. There ain’t two hands about it, I don’t feel bad for doing it, because I couldn’t find the door myself, and I think that that was a cowardly, cowardly move to allow players to simply move through the game without playing it, and I think that it indicates that they knew enough people couldn’t get through the game without that option, and then didn’t redesign the placement of doors/keys/documents to accommodate that. This game is not Resident Evil and being that it isn’t, it feels too much like it. In some ways, this simple game actually doesn’t feel simple enough. Sorry.
·         Speaking of analysis, it put a smile on my face to see Brendan Keogh compare Gone Home to Metal Gear Solid 2, even though I disagree with the analysis of MGS2 that he puts forth to support the comparison. Seriously, where the hell would we be without Metal Gear Solid 2?
·         Gone Home is played using Katie, a real character. There is much talk of player agency, but I don’t think there’s ever enough talk of character agency. My point is this: Katie might pick up the various things she finds, but she wouldn’t throw them across the floor the way the game allowed me to.
· That piece totally points out exactly what I mean. (I missed this document.)
·         As a military kid (who now identifies as something between a Pacifist and some more extreme variety of a Pacifist[5]), I feel like an unexplored angle in both analysis of Gone Home, and in the game itself, is the fact that Katie is a member of the Armed Forces who has just returned from being stationed in Europe, and that Lonnie was about to join the Army and decided not to. The game more or less says outright that, aside from loving Sam, the reason for this is political. I feel like there’s a metaphor in there for how heteronormative people will accept structures and constructs that dehumanize people outside of the heteronorm, but I don’t think the game gives enough stuff about Katie to say this concretely, and that would’ve been really cool.
·         As a random tangent on that thought (this has nothing to do with Gone Home, but the fact that the game made me think about it makes it special to me): for some reason I still feel really guilty that I never joined up, even though every person I’ve ever asked about it has said the same thing “I don’t regret it. Don’t do it if you don’t have to.” I don’t know. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of my guilt for never formally becoming a part of the anti-war movement, for never putting my neck out for peace? In any case . . .
·         On the one hand, girls have always been about half of people on the planet, as well as half of the people that play games. On the other hand, I still think that name checking Street Fighter II and the Super Nintendo, even as an experience the developers might’ve had in their youths, might’ve been a coldly calculated move to make “Tr00” Hardcore Gamers™ relate more to the games initial impression of the friendship between Lonnie and Sam. That move doesn’t make me angry as someone who’s got more toes in that pool than I’d like to admit, but it does makes me a little bit sad as someone who wants to see games by certain people, for other certain people, without any consideration for the kind of people that games are usually for. (Me. The straight, cis, white male American teen.) And frankly, if I was on the team for Gone Home, I woulda said to take all that out because fuck hardcores, we don’t need that crowd. (Because Street Fighter II references ain’t gonna sell a mansion exploration sim anyway)
·         Especially since the entire aesthetic of Gone Home is based around subverting dumb horror clich├ęs in favor of more mundane truths
·         Come to think of it, was there any reason to do that other than to maybe be funny? Does it add anything to the ideas in this story? You should have a reason for subverting something and I can’t think of any way yet that Gone Home’s use of horror adds anything to it.
·         On the one hand, I think the “neatness” of Gone Home, as Anna Anthropy put it, as well as the whiteness and the privilege that that “neatness” formally emerges from, may cause the game to be not as well regarded in the future. That’s a prediction, not a criticism. On the other hand, damn, this is a game about a girl, and her girlfriend, and her neighbor, and her parents. And I think that’s special.
·         Going through the game, I was impressed that they didn’t stoop to the level of sending Sam to straight camp or something like that to heighten the drama of the situation. I was even looking forward to getting through the game without Sam’s parents being even really aware of the true nature of her and Lonnie’s relationship, but alas, no.
·         I’ll admit this disappoints me mainly because I found myself really invested in the story of the dad and like anyone I hate to admit that the people, not just that I like, but that I deeply love and care for, are all flawed and problematic.
·         I feel like the side stories of the father and the mother strengthen the idea of actual humanity of these characters as a group, and I think the father’s story in particular reflects how the rejection of abnormalities and non-heteronormativity is passed down along a family line. The father picks up his own father’s love of written word, but the grandfather, even as he recognizes the humanity of the genre novels his son writes, rejects it for being dishonest. He then rejects Sam’s relationship with Lonnie as a phase. Sam also writes, and is accepted to a creative writing college, and her writing reflects her non-heteronormativity.
·         If I missed out on the parents doing the “phase” speech because I never found that secret door for the attic key, then I call even more BS on the game’s aesthetic.
·         I feel shitty that I’m the obligatory straight cis dude pointing out what are kinda minor flaws in a game about not-straight girls for not-straight girls but a lot of this stuff really does bother me.
·         On the one hand, the ending to Gone Home is painfully “Born to Run” and on the other hand, I LOVE “Born to Run”
·         On the one hand, if I was Katie, I’d be angry at Sam and my parents for being out of town the day I got home. On the other hand, I’m angry at my brother for dying and I’m angry at my parents for divorcing.
·         Sam runs away with Lonnie, and that’s it. I don’t think games are concerned enough with, not just the burden of freedom, but the cost of freedom.
·         Woody Allen gave himself the happy ending in Annie Hall. In FFVII, Aeris’ death means something, but in real life, the death of Hironobu Sakaguchi’s mother does not. On the one hand, Gone Home isn’t how things work out in real life (even for straight teens in love, lemme tell ya), and on the other hand, I think that’s part of the reason we make stories. God is cruel to us, and thus we make ourselves into kind Gods who are good to our own creations.[6]
·         Gone Home is a good game.
Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2013

[1] Metal Gear Solid 2+4 and their American cousin, Spec Ops: The Line, and Final Fantasy VIII, to name a few.
[2] And while we’re at it, The Sex Pistols can fuck right off.
[3] To me, the first playthrough, the raw experience of a game, where you don’t catch all the details and don’t use a walkthrough if you don’t have to, is absolutely sacred ground.
[5] Conflicts within myself abound.
[6] Or if you’re Yoko Taro . . .