Monthly Archives: August 2012

Contextual Gaming: Persona, Ludonarrative Harmony and the Weight of One’s Bufula

In which the video game Persona 3 and its ending are discussed. Fair warning.

A playscape, a word I discovered during a brief dip into Wikipedia, the shallow end of the internet, is an architectural term which refers to playgrounds designed to resemble natural environments. I’m not going to talk about playground design theory. Even so, the playscape is a salient idea for my argument. To avert the dangerous possibility that anyone will ever have any interest in single/hand/clap, I should preface this entry now: I am going to talk about the Japanese role-playing franchise Persona, specifically the third installment, and the satisfying degree of ludonarrative harmony it displays. If you didn’t get the first part of that statement, maybe go do something else; I hear Breaking Bad is pretty good. If you were with me until the last part, try skimming this excellent critique of BioShock by Clint Hocking. I’ll be here.

No, wait, come back! Video games!

Long context short: back in 2007, Hocking coined the ultra-fancy term “ludonarrative dissonance.” Ludonarrative dissonance is nothing more than conflict between the way a player plays a game and the themes promoted by the game’s narrative. I’ll stop bolding now; sorry.

Ludonarrative harmony is the opposite. A game with ludonarrative harmony promotes its narrative with its interactivity. As a frustrated Hocking suggested, this is ideally how a cohesive, narrative game should be–unless, I guess, you’re a designer trying to be all ironic and make a point about the state of the industry or whatever, in which case just play The Stanley Parable and be happy that someone already got to it and made it funny to boot.

Unlike Hocking, I’m not breaking any new ground here. What I want to do is shed some light on a progressive development in modern game design. In the current games criticism atmosphere, where consensus is rare and optimism is rarer, derision is à la mode and pretty easy game. Kudos are largely dismissed by the overwhelming current of internet cynicism; if the game is Japanese, any praise is apparently “subtle racism.”

Now, I’m not trying to condescend, but I would assert that Persona 3 exhibits potent ludonarrative harmony. The result is a frequently draining, equally rewarding experience of mimesis, or art imitating life. It’s a playscape. Catch me on another day and I might let loose on a tirade concerning some of Persona’s archaic, frustrating design liberties: excessive dungeon recycling, the insistence on “save points” (why do we need those again?), the fact that time and time again, hobbled bosses will instantly trump the player’s party with a ludicrously destructive attack he was never fairly conditioned to expect. There are multiple facets of Persona that seem handmade to disrespect the player and require a masochistic threshold of pre-established tolerance for JRPG tropes. Amazingly, even the objectively bad parts of Persona seem to support its ultimately satisfying, “ludonarratively harmonious” (only time I’ll say that; sorry again) arc. Persona is about those choices and your own. Persona is about making the most of what you have while you can. Persona is about how you choose to invest your life into others; it’s about studying for a final that’s never handed back.

To be clear, the Persona games are not about player freedom. That bit is crucial: Persona 3 can be boiled down to a series of accumulating decisions made under very specific constraints and one concluding consequence. At this point in the discussion, I’d hope you’ve either finished Persona 3 or couldn’t rent Breaking Bad: the narrative of Persona 3 is a steady chug toward certain death. As a refreshing distinction from games such as BioShock, however, Persona 3 never attempts to don the weighty clothes of unrestricted choice. It is a meticulously themed, thoughtfully paced presentation. It’s hardly ambitious but deftly executed. Persona 3’s denouement reflects your decisions in the appreciative faces of those with whom you chose to spend your time.

Maybe not with this idiot.

There is that: the franchise’s signature mechanic, the Social Link, lends weight to your choices. As you follow the rigid schedule of a dedicated high school student (or take enough in-class naps to qualify for a diagnosis of mild narcolepsy), social and beneficent (your general save-the-world, slay-a-few-psychosexual-demons business) duties yank at your sleeves from every direction. With only so much free time in a period spanning less than three school semesters, your attention within and beyond the gates of Gekkoukan High is highly sought after. Go ahead; blow off the art club nerd’s invitations to hang out next Sunday in favor of spending all day grinding levels in the game world’s sadly unplayable, fictional MMO Innocent Sin. He’ll shrug off your refusals for a while, but eventually your turbulent friendship will dissipate and leave an ultimatum: either begin the process of reparation or cut ties for good. There is a strict economy at play in Persona; you won’t have time for everyone. Maximizing that time is essential. Life is short; yours is shorter.

The arcs of those you do meet, such as one girl who must face her inferiority complex by coaching a grade school sports team, can be  less inspired than others, such as a whiskey-swilling, brusque monk who sees in your own the face of his long-absent son. When they land, however, they land firmly like dropkicks to the gut. The localization writers at Atlus should be commended for exceptional work: emotional crescendos that might sound flat or cloying if composed by a lesser pen increase the player’s fondness of the Social Link characters and eagerness to pursue a stronger bond. It’s a rare example of how quality writing and resonant themes can drive a game even while other elements are left wanting.

Earlier I mentioned how even Persona‘s weaker areas contribute to a cohesive whole: the primary area in question is Tartarus, the half-baked, towering dream-castle wherein the player reaches new heights in tedium. In a review, I might be more severe toward the whole, uninteresting slog. For the purpose of criticism, it’s an admittedly effective metaphor for life’s more discouraging moments. The amount of measured sadism and anti-commercial intuition required to produce a microcosm of life as entertainment is respectable. Sometimes life sucks. Through all of Tartarus’s hardships and drudgery, time never rests; if the player refuses to move on, stymied by indolence, a personification of Death drives him or her forward. As the underlying, subconscious presence that motivates our every aspiration in human life, Death’s appearance reminds players of their ephemeral existence even within the warped world of Tartarus. Likewise, each ascension in the castle is one step closer to the end.

Additionally, the game’s turn-based skirmishes, arguably its one concession toward convention, have been adapted to suit the theme of momento mori (“remember you must die”). Persona 3’s protagonist is a silent vessel: you fill in every detail save the My Chemical Romance haircut. With full responsibility over one’s self comes complete lack of control over others: just as you can’t hope to dictate how a friendship develops, you also can’t micromanage your party’s actions in battle (until Persona 4, that is). You are left in charge of your own life. In an even greater departure from traditional JRPG design, that life is unique. There are no Phoenix Downs to help you back on your feet. Once your avatar is downed, you are escorted out of the game with a quick reflection on mortality and retired to the title screen. If you don’t manage your resources throughout Tartarus and make the right calls in battle, you will die.

Then there’s the small bit where you continually place a gun to your head.

William Blake, an outspoken proponent of taking life by its balls and plucking the pubes of opportunity one by one, includes this sentiment among his invigorating Proverbs of Heaven and Hell: “The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.” Blake’s cosmic reflections are echoed in Persona 3 by Akinari Kamiki, a young man wrestling with fatal illness.

The meaning of my life is not something I should worry about. It’s really what others think of my life or what I was able to do for them. So… for me, or you, or anyone… the meaning of our lives is something that we make but don’t see.

It’s not maudlin. It’s not an outlying bit of philosophical nonsense. It is Persona 3’s thesis statement, an idea that summarizes every moment preceding and following it.

When you’ve made your final choice in Persona 3, you will find yourself resting in the arms of one of your closest companions. You say nothing, make no dramatic, closing gesture to punctuate your fading life. For a game that can be so frequently exhausting in its expository jabber, the last moments of Persona 3 are heavy with silence. The emotional response, the catharsis, to your fictional death is earned organically, bred internally, having culminated out of choices that brought frustration and determination, success and failure, heart-swell and heart-break. It’s an affecting example of ludonarrative harmony, a small slice of life, and you don’t need an open world, dialogue trees and the option of infanticide to achieve it.

That feeling you get when you wrap up 80 hours in a game about mortality? That’s irony.

Project Silverscreen: The Graduate

Way back in 2011 and before the Endtimes, two friends and I underwent an oath: to watch one highly-regarded film each week, selecting from a list I myself carefully compiled. A year passed. Now, we’re making good on that oath. No matter how long, esoteric or beguilingly paced, we’re paying each film on the list our devoted attention. In the end, maybe we’ll have learned a thing or two.

It’s not quite criticism; it’s not quite a review; I guess it’s Project Silverscreen.

The beauty of director Mark Nichol’s opus, The Graduate, is that it could be one of the best films of any year; the reality of its release in 1967 is irrelevant to its lasting appeal. As long as there are young men and women who paddle against (or submit to) the swirling eddies of post-collegiate ennui, The Graduate will continue to prick at our zeitgeist. I’m one of those indolent, young men, uncannily resembling Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock in nearly every way save the implication that his actual undergraduate experience, skipped in favor of an in medias res exposition, was not an entirely rushed, sparsely satisfying period. Ben’s myriad athletic and academic accomplishments aren’t making his transition beyond academia any easier, though: the criteria for success he has been fed since primary school is suddenly useless. He has come within inches of his education’s celebrated culmination only to reach through what he thought to be solid, to have it blur into the horizon like a mirage. Months after graduation, I still feel the way Ben does, that I’m skimming the surface of the world on a raft, waiting for rescue or to drown in apathy.

Right, I’m back. That regrettably dark tangent is proof of how well The Graduate’s first act, our introduction to Ben and his neuroses (which are played to wonderfully endearing effect by Hoffman), works by fashioning him as an avatar for the viewer. It’s a method of characterization often attempted and so rarely successful: to place the audience directly in the protagonist’s shoes and establish an affinity which, if consistently developed, results in a cathartic payload magnified several times over. Crafting personally identifiable characters has been of popular interest since the inception of the epistolary novel. Those works stand as pioneers of first person fiction. The Graduate’s introductory act is first person film.

The film’s initial few shots, inaugurated by the ever-welcome “Sound of Silence,” are extended, continuous, strange, shoulder-height views that never feel composed. From there, the viewer lodges himself behind Ben’s eye sockets: one notable set piece emulates the “male gaze” as Ben struggles (and fails admirably) to stare a stark-naked, seductive Mrs. Robinson square in only the face; another plummets underwater and places the viewer behind a scuba mask as Ben reluctantly demonstrates his new wet suit for party guests. The camera is an observer: subjects are occasionally obstructed by moving bodies (Mrs. Braddock’s sequined party dress, a wooden knob adorning the hotel’s front desk) just as they would be during one’s most productive sessions of people-watching. Yes, The Graduate is a movie about people watching people (watching people, if you want to get obnoxiously meta), an idea that reasserts itself through composition and narrative frequently. Speaking in excessively broad terms, it is a film about long, paralyzing bouts of passivity and the sudden, rash fits of action which punctuate human life.

As the film climbs toward its frenzied, farcical climax and Ben’s affair with Mrs. Robinson imbues our hero with a fraction of confidence, he accordingly loses a bit of that tendency toward passive hesitation. A change in camera work reflects his growth: the observing eye is further removed; the audience’s connection toward Ben weakens as his character grows more prominent and his situation more complex. This would appear to be the trade-off with avatars, and the reason why so many video game protagonists maintain radio silence, or why so many romantic love interests have absolutely sterile personalities: the true individual cannot be Everyman. The true individual has his own set of ugly problems. This is realism.

There is a clear moment when the scales begin to tip. Having been coaxed into an uncomfortable date with Mrs. Robinson’s own daughter (a plight which is, despite its over-use in today’s lexicon, definitely “awkward”),  Ben is disgruntled and looking to project his frustration onto an innocent victim. What better way to greet his date, Elaine, than from behind a pair of sunglasses (worn at night, no less)? Where so much of the film’s emotion is previously emitted from Hoffman’s eyes and inferred using the audience’s privileged perspective, the affinity is now severed. The viewer struggles to keep up as Ben hurtles down the highway like a bullet with the trajectory of a sin wave and pulls Elaine brusquely into the front row of a burlesque club. Not quite redeeming himself, Ben at least recognizes the injustice of his plan as the curiously mean-spirited dancer’s pendulous breasts threaten to smother poor, sobbing Elaine. It’s strange to witness the fair-weather Elaine’s instant capitulation: immediately after exiting the club, they share a kiss, a hamburger and the revelation of true love. From here, the film transitions from a meditation on the consequences of indolence to those of spontaneity. It all gets reasonably ridiculous and carried away and, as the smiles fade from the faces of the eloping couple during their final filmed moment, it’s clear they feel a bit egg-faced, too.

Following a compelling first act, I’m not sure if what The Graduate becomes is a pear-shaped compromise toward narrative convention or a grounded rebuke of consequence-free, youthful rebellion. Not that any of that really matters: it remains a damn entertaining film.

Jiffy Pop Culture: Chew Your Food

Immediately following a week-long Samurai Champloo bender, I remained seated in front of my TV for several minutes, attempting to process the 26 stylish, hilarious and heartrending installments I’d chugged so ravenously. I doubt I formulated any thoughts in that recliner; instead, a primal, gaping absence inside ached for a 27th episode. Indigestion was bound to occur: I’d completely assimilated Champloo’s universe in the time it usually takes to watch, deconstruct, and read several other nerds’ opinions on a new episode of Community. When stripped of weekly viewing constraints, a television show ceases to really be television (after all, isn’t the traditional distinction between film and TV the size and delivery of its portions?); what we have instead are extra-long, episodic films. On top of that, Hulu and Netflix allow more consumers to descend upon a larger selection of entertainment than ever before. It’s increasingly easy to consider the “television experience” a slash-and-burn operation. We, the consumers, are an all-devouring maw from some Lovecraft book I haven’t read. That maw dines and ditches. That maw doesn’t give a shit.

Kanjuro Shibata XX, Enso ca. 2000

In my tender teens, Cowboy Bebop (which is, although I didn’t know it, another Shinichiro Watanabe joint) spent years defining much of what I would come to expect from entertainment. Cowboy Bebop is, like Samurai Champloo, a brief, 26-episode jaunt. If you’d have asked my fourteen-year-old self how many televised adventures he thought Spike Spiegel had, the answer probably would have been an irritatingly exasperated sigh followed by, “I dunno, like a hundred, maybe?” Just last week, I could have sworn the answer was 52. So why was I seeing double if Cowboy Bebop is supposedly such a lucid inspiration? The reason lies in portion control. Dieting. Samurai Champloo can go toe-to-toe with any episode of Cowboy Bebop, but the truth is that Champloo will never occupy the same place in my memory as Bebop or even Community. By the time Champloo aired in the United States, that nostalgic, golden era of all-night anime marathons with my sister had mostly given way to the artificial gravity of high school affairs. I would occasionally catch an episode here and there, as evidenced by fleeting bouts of déjà vu over the past week, but the adventures of Fuu, Mugen and Jin, in my mind, didn’t conclude until now, seven years after the finale’s airing. Subconsciously, I’d been savoring a small sampling of Samurai Champloo for over half a decade; the characters had lived on in some dusty, mental recess. They lived until last week, when I scrambled in filthy, half-naked and desperate for sustenance, smacking my lips and sweating like a hog, and devoured them whole.

To this day, I’m not sure if I’ve ever completed an entire run of Cowboy Bebop–certainly not sequentially. I would anticipate the next week’s episode with bated breath, never sure if the unpredictable higher programming powers would bequeath a new episode, re-run or deem me unworthy and yank the show entirely. Due to the once rigid constraints of television viewing, Bebop had to spread itself thin across years of my adolescence. Single episodes such as “Toys in the Attic” would parasitically dominate my thoughts for weeks. I anthologized my favorites on VHS tapes. I lived in 2071; Spike, Jet and Faye were my first roommates.

I can’t claim as much intimacy with the vagrants of Samurai Champloo. I accompanied them for an eventful week and gleaned a few memorable images–opium-addled revolutionaries, Kamakura zombies, the earliest and deadliest incarnation of Japanese baseball–but the journey is finite. That’s the Zen philosophy that Champloo offers: don’t waste your life expecting denouement; don’t treat your friends or your TV shows as a means to an end. In today’s streaming age, the option to binge on pop culture is feasible and tempting. Do yourself a favor, though: don’t rush. Don’t be the gluttonous maw. Take time to smell the sunflowers on the way to the samurai; the end is hardly ever the best part, anyway.

Or maybe just don’t invest so much in fiction.