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

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Critical Switch: BBSD, Ludocentrism, and Abstraction

Kept you waiting, huh?

Yeah, the beginning of my April was pretty rough, not to go into too much detail now, but suffice to say that one of the results of my stress was having zero inspiration to write a new episode of Critical Switch, Which Is Supported By Listeners Like You At!

In any case, that phase has passed. Two weeks from now I'm going to be talking about the Souls games (yeah, that'll be fun) and this week I'm talking about Lulu Blue's new game, Bunny Bunny Smackdown.

Full disclosure of course, Lulu is a good friend of mine, I live like a mile up the road from her . . . but none of that actually matters to you.

Anyway, Bunny Bunny Smackdown is a game about bunnies having group sex. You have a Pounce button, a Kiss button, and a Smack button.

The game has a fun multiplayer mode where each of those mechanics shine brightly somewhat in abstract, but I think the single-player modes express the ideas a lot clearer.

You start off and everyone's more or less cool with everything, but as you progress through, you need to keep check of which bunnies have what rules. Some bunnies don't like to be pounced, others don't like to be paddled. So while you're jumping around and keeping track of this high paced action, it also keeps you in check by making you consider what people enjoy and what peoples boundaries are. This, of course, already makes it a far more mature systemization of sex than most that exist in videogames.

But something that makes it equally genius is that these mechanics are all borrowed wholesale from our existing understanding of action mechanics. The “Smack” button lets you swat the bunnies with a paddle that looks . . . familiar, in the context of a 2D action game, the “Kisses” are projectiles that just look different from most game projectiles.

What this means is that Blue understands how to use aesthetics and narrative context, even in a minimal sense, to recontextualize sets of interactions and make them mean different thing. Interpreting this as such falls to us as an audience of course.

Some have already said that they're disappointed to see that the game is “just swordfighting” because of the admittedly familiar look of the Smacking implement, but we can only call it “just swordfighting” if we acknowledge that textually what we see on screen is not a sword fight, but simply borrows hitboxes and frame data from games that actually have swords according to their own contexts.

That actually goes beyond ludocentrism into something even more insidious (and sadly typical) : it is not just that the narrative context of a game object becomes irrelevant, it's that people will tend to revert to the original contexts of these sorts of in-game objects and in-game verbiage. There are people who seemingly refuse to actually let the narrative context of certain hitboxes and lines of code be changed, and I think that's ultimately because they don't want them to.

Alternatively, it means they think new narrative contexts always demands new mechanics, which is obviously horseshit. If Square in the late-90's proved anything, it's that even the most minor alterations to the ludic structure of the Japanese Role-Playing Game provides fertile ground for games about anti-capitalism, spirituality, quiet moments of being in your bedroom alone, and even gorey monster schlock horror.

Now, granted, there's something else to think about: perhaps for a game about sex the interactions could feel more like sex? Well, for one, it's about bunnies, so it's not exactly a 1/1 relationship from human sex to this (not even for furries), but also I'd argue that what we might call the “abstraction” does more important things here. For one, it creates distance between our minds and something that tends to make our minds work . . . let's say “differently.” In this case, abstracting the sex away from a narrative context that would put the audience “in the mood” allows them to be more reflective on the thing the game values most, that being respect for partners boundaries during sex, and the idea that what you do is in service to the mutual pleasure of the both of you.

This is a small game, so I guess I should've foreseen this being a short episode.

I guess if I had to be critical, and I really feel like I'm nitpicking here, I think if the idea were developed more I'd like to see the ideas about consent, boundaries, kinks and such, being put back into the multiplayer. Those elements really shine in single-player, but multiplayer is as of now mostly a freeform romp which, though extremely fun, would probably benefit from both the mechanical and thematic depth we see in the single-player.

Other than extremely trite gripes like that, I still feel like Bunny Bunny Smackdown is an exceptionally coherent, clever, and insightful game, especially given the speed with which it was developed. Blue is a very talented game developer, and given this I'm especially excited to see what she does with her upcoming 3D revamp of Fantastic Witch Collective, which was itself already excellent.

In this episode we've heard, twice, a song that has no title that plays in the background of most of Bunny Bunny Smackdown composed by the also-very-talented Christa Depken.

Bunny Bunny Smackdown can be purcahsed at the Alpha Six website at, and I'm told that Blue's older games are likely to appear there soon as well. The links will be posted in the description.

Critical Switch is supported by patient listeners like you at, and any amount that you donate really helps. We're at a point with donations right now where I can afford to feed myself with what we're doing here, maybe I can eventually pay utilities this way!

In any case, Zolani Stewart will be with you next weekend.

From Seattle, Washington, I'm Austin C. Howe.