Category Archives: games

Wreck-It Ralph Made Me Cry

A children’s movie brought me to tears.

It’s not how it sounds. It’s not because I’m a simpering, overly-sensitive manchild, although I am. And it’s not because the movie, Wreck-It Ralph, is anything stellar:  the film features some real, resonant moments of emotional punctuation, but these are mostly capping off long stretches of average, goofy kiddie-fare (lots of compound insults featuring words like “stink,” “booger,” and “underwear”).

Wreck-It Ralph wrecked me because not ten minutes into its gorgeously realized conceit, it became obvious that someone had made a movie for me– not the “me” of today, exactly, but the fun-loving kid within. My 16-bit spirit animal.

There’s something weird that happens when we reach maturity. People talk about children “putting away their toys,” as if those toys don’t just get put away by the parents and collect dust as soon as boys notice girls and vice versa. Stuff like Beanie Babies and Small Soldiers action figures occupy a very specific bubble in the life of a growing child. Barring the occasional Woody or Buzz Lightyear, they’re momentary fixations. Thus, the natural order is sustained and from the discarded toy box emerge men and women.

But what happens when the toy grows into adulthood?

Games were a momentary fixation, once. Atari sat alongside toy brands like Mattel and Fisher-Price. Then, Stephen Spielberg brought his sickle down on the wills of young gamers everywhere. E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, the video game, decimated life as we knew it in a brilliant flash of discordant game design. The 2600 was burned in effigy as fallout rained down in pieces of yellow, orange, and brown.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite that bad (although the real story is much more interesting). The point is this: the modern video game almost never happened: it almost wilted like a Cabbage Patch; it might have lasted as long as the average Teddy Ruxpin cassette tape. It didn’t, though. Another toy company, Nintendo, dared to bring their Family Computer overseas as the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was accompanied by a plastic gun and a useless robot and arrived as a young medium seeking redemption, biding its time in a cardboard Trojan horse with “TOY” scrawled on every side. Nintendo games sparked the imaginations of children everywhere, the sparking of children everywhere lit a fire underneath the likes of Sega and NEC, and the rest is happy history.

That brings us back to my man-tears.

There is a point early on in Wreck-It Ralph, after the initial, dazzling parade of video game character cameos, when a sullen Ralph gives a cherry to the cabinet-less Q*bert (because video games feel hunger, I guess?), who sits dejected in the squalor of Game Central Station, the arcade’s connecting “hub” where peppy sprites and polygonal heroes bustle between their respective games. Q*bert’s home, coated by a thin film of neglect, has been carted from Litwak’s Arcade. As he gazes up at Ralph with the starved eyes of a Victorian orphan, one can almost hear the mourning of digitized violin.

Honestly, the interaction isn’t meant to let loose the floodgates. It introduces the viewer to the concept of video game vagrants, instills a bit of respect for goodly baddie Ralph, and stirs a pint of sadness for Q*bert’s predicament.

Q*bert’s predicament punched me straight in my ventricles. In this and every other scene of Wreck-It Ralph (the races of Sugar Rush, the rail-shooter gags of Hero’s Duty) is embedded a palpable concern and deep love for the video game medium. The animators, the director– everyone involved in bringing Ralph to virtual life clearly regards Q*bert’s plight with genuine gravity. The scene isn’t extended with manipulative cloying. It concludes briskly and doubles as a referential joke, but because the movie’s sense of care for its subject is so obvious to adult gamers, many of whom are sharing bits of their childhood with their own children, the emotion sticks.

I cried because I am not a glitch.

In 2010, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World bombed gloriously. The movie, a bizarrely invigorating sonnet dedicated to the most intimate crevices of video game culture, found instant cult embrace but could not earn so much as a side-hug from mainstream moviegoers. Scott Pilgrim truly had versus-ed the world, and it appeared that the world had won. Apparently, the general populace was not quite ready for a blockbuster movie about video games rather than about selling them.

In 2012, Wreck-It Ralph earned $49.1 million in its first weekend, double-jumping over expectations. Now, maybe Ralph is enjoying the slower pace of Little League compared to the Major League challenges which prevented Scott Pilgrim from reaching its considerably older target demographic. To understand my optimism, consider the following:

Wreck-It Ralph is a kid’s movie. It’s a pretty decent one at that, lovingly crafted by a video gaming “old guard” and presented to a new generation. DVDs of Wreck-It Ralph will proliferate in households the world over; it will be some child’s favorite movie; that child will grow up regarding “video game” as a viable medium. The child who loved Wreck-It Ralph, who first watched Wreck-It Ralph with her own game-loving parent, might one day introduce Ralph to her children. He might be their favorite, too. It’s a beautiful, romantic cycle.

The film falls flat in quite a few places. Some jokes are lame. Some references are forced. A blunt, unsophisticated theme of acceptance and self-love is regurgitated through simple dialogue.

None of that matters. Wreck-It Ralph‘s message, especially as it pertains to video games and the individuals who have grown up alongside them, is delivered with ringing clarity through the very sincerity of the film. Wreck-It Ralph is true to itself. It’s a movie about games–kids enjoying games and games enjoying kids enjoying games. It’s a movie about fun.

Games excel in fun. They’re super effective at it. “Fun” doesn’t have to mean superficial or anti-artistic, either. Should we need to create a less frivolous-sounding word to describe this level of engagement? Are we truly desperate for games to be recognized as a “medium” by some mainstream “authority”? Perhaps we should enjoy the slow, measurable progress as the rest of human culture grinds to catch up. As Ralph owns up to his “bad guy” core at the romp’s cataclysmic climax, so does Wreck-It Ralph assert that The Video Game should worry less about following in others’ footsteps and forge its own path, for the sake of fun.

Fun will carry this adolescent art form into adulthood.

As I broke from the theater and into the evening chill, I felt nothing but warmth. I came alone and left with company.

Nearing the finish line of the movie’s final lap, Vanellope von Schweetz, a cute-as-gumdrop-buttons kart racer exiled for her buggy behavior, ends up relishing the glitch she previously regarded as a disability. She harnesses her sequence-breaking quirk to instantaneously skip ahead of the competition. She bounds down her own, inimitable road to success. Cliché, sure, but it triggered a memory in my personal debug menu:

I have a friend who spends his races in Mario Kart 64 ramming into walls. He’s looking for the game’s seams. I tear ahead, chastise him, tell him he’s playing the game “wrong.”

He shakes his head and answers, “It’s in the game. It’s fair.” With one final push, his kart slips through a solid wall and leaves me a lap behind.

He thinks it’s fun.

Haikus Regarding the Game Boy Printer

Winter ’98:

Monica Lewinski blows.

Game Boy Printer, too.

Frosts accost us.

Also, your friend is a dick

Who wastes my stickers.

Small hands tug loose jowls

Fading life will bloom again

Printer paper gone.

More printer paper

Spring foliage grows in new shades

Camera shows four.

Summer ’98:

Earth teems with vital odors

And Game Boy Printers.

Autumn air annuls

Life’s many disappointments.

Not Game Boy Printer.

Years later, still cold.

Yet as color parts I greet

Private parts in green.

Seriously, though, I need some new printer paper. For my art.

Hero with a Thousand Masks: Majora and Myth

A black forest. A boy with a sword. A world-devouring god.

The mythological hero-journey formula as mythologist Joseph Campbell describes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a well of stories that will never run dry. It’s strange, then, to consider that stories explicitly about exceptional heroes, elect individuals who raise heaven-forged blades against evil and distribute their prize among the people, aren’t being created today. Many modern writers, including Community creator Dan Harmon and Sandman mastermind Neil Gaiman, regard the book as a tool for understanding plot structure. Unfortunately, the ancient stories within–fantastic testaments to human creativity–are mostly overlooked as dusty relics. Today, our popular imagination is funneled into narrowly-defined genres proven to sell. Anything else is weird.

Simple enough.

The Legend of Zelda is weird. Campbell could not have imagined that one of the finest examples of “modern myth” would manifest in a video game series debuting two years before his death. Collectively, the series outlines a rich, enigmatic history for the land of Hyrule that boasts an original pantheon, inspired cultural aesthetics, the rise and fall of several civilizations, and a cadre of predestined heroes.

One installment in particular, 2000’s The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, boldly abandons the series’ established fiction. Its self-contained story and strange, new world qualify Majora’s Mask as possibly the most engaging, succinct primer on Joseph Campbell’s hero-adventure ever created. The mythologist’s ideas leap from the page to the screen and become characters, locations, and play mechanics. Majora’s Mask shuffles and reorganizes The Hero with a Thousand Faces into a virtual experience.

“I believe ‘Nintendo’ is the ancient Sumerian god of phallic foods, yes?”

Before video games, there was Jo-Cam’s own definition of a term he borrows from James Joyce, the monomyth:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man (23).

Most stories adhere to that basic formula on at least a symbolic level; it’s the last part that’s problematic today. Hop in the Way-Back Machine: late 19th century literature began to take cues from burgeoning psychoanalysis. Focus shifted from boons for society toward boons for the Self. Realism birthed the first real character studies. The hero’s adventure developed increasingly personal ends; the “fellow man” part was shuffled under the rug in favor of daddy issues. Odysseus became Woody Allen.

Majora’s Mask’s hero Link doesn’t end his journey at self-improvement; try world-improvement. Writers Mitsuhiro Takano and Yoshiaki Koizumi should be lauded (along with Treehouse scribe Bill Trinen) for their artfully simple and resonant tale of altruism. The game dedicates itself to a theme of benevolence during hardship. It’s the best example of Nintendo best doing what Nintendo does best– creating uplifting experiences in fantastic worlds laced with real darkness. Majora’s Mask is authentic, modern myth.

For those of you playing along at home, let’s take a look at the instruction manual:

According to Jo-Cam, the hero has two tasks (276). The first is to enter a new world by transcending his or her own: the hero discards reality and plunges headfirst into the abyss.

Where Majora’s Mask is concerned, that abyss is Termina, an eerie, supernatural world beyond the edge of reality. Termina certainly meets Jo-Cam’s criteria for “strange”: the world is inhabited by doppelgangers of Hyrule’s inhabitants (Majora’s Mask was completed in just one year by re-using characters from Ocarina of Time) who behave in unsettling defiance to Link’s memory. For players who have followed Link from his previous adventure, the effect is dreamlike.

The seriously bitter icing on this cake: he is faced with imminent apocalypse. Termina (possibly named after Terminus, Roman god of boundaries) is set to terminate. An anthropomorphic moon, complete with crimson eyes and terrifying grimace, will collide with the earth in three days (or 72 hours, as players come to know it) and annihilate everything and everyone in its wake. Sight-seeing is off the itinerary.

The moon is lovely tonight.

Rising against the lunar assailant is Termina’s architectural centerpiece, the clock tower of aptly-named Clock Town. The Clock Tower is Majora’s Mask‘s most important location: it is the spiritual epicenter from which Link (the hero) emerges and the point to which he is continually drawn. Jo-Cam would call it the world navel: “The place of the hero’s birth or the remote land of exile from which he returns … is the … navel of the world.” It’s fitting that the hero’s “birth place” should also be a ticking reminder of his doom.

“Just as ripples go out from an underwater spring, so the forms of the universe expand in circles from the source,” Jo-Cam illustrates, unwittingly describing the symbolic geography of Termina (287). Please refer to the beautifully-rendered map:

Pictured: the navel, the foils, the Others, the turbulent townies.

As the world navel is representative of the hero, its surrounding areas are representative of the hero’s character-testing tribulations. Majora’s Mask’s world map is one big metaphor for the obstacles toward self-actualization. The field wrapping around Clock Town unfurls in each cardinal direction to meet four unique geographic regions: there is humid Woodfall, frigid Snowhead, tropical Great Bay, and arid Ikana. These territories are populated with meaningful foils that drive Link’s adventure. Link’s foils–an insular tyrant, a fallen, would-be emperor, a hero slain in his prime, and a war-monger undone by his ire–provide the hero with trials of virtue.

Other key figures in the adventure are Tatl, the supernatural helper, Skull Kid, the ogre-tyrant, the demon Majora, a destructive aspect of the father, and the Happy Mask Salesman, an androgynous, mysterious vagrant, the only fellow Hylian to hop dimensions with Link, and a vendor of happiness who might control a larger storefront than his patrons would guess. These figures provide the meat of Link’s quest; stick a fork in that for now and we’ll dig in later.

While the stories and game mechanics of many games seem to have been developed completely separately, perhaps with the aid of blindfolds and dartboards, the story and design elements of Majora’s Mask operate symbiotically: the mere act of playing reinforces theme. Likewise, the game’s fixation on masks is significant. As one might expect of a society on the verge of Armageddon, goodwill doesn’t exactly flourish in Clock Town or its outlying provinces. Jo-Cam notes that while monsters lurk outside the hero’s domain (representing the Other, the made-up villain we all blame occasionally), there are also miserable creatures within town. These are the human, everyday tyrants (Jo-Cam needs to find another word for “shitty person”) who spread their misery about Clock Town. In video game lingo, they create side quests. 

As Link aids the victims of the everyday tyrant’s aggression, he accumulates small slices of the human experience– oppression, isolation, joy, love, understanding– and earns masks symbolic of those experiences and emotions. He carries the masks as we each carry our own unique recipe for humanity, a balanced mixture of blessing and burden. This revelation is the boon our lonesome hero pursues: heroism means to face humanity with benevolence, every rotten day. “The elementary deeds of the hero are those of the clearing of the field,” Jo-Cam adds; that makes Link a very thorough gardener (290).

Of course, not everyone’s problems can be fixed in three days.

A note on the game’s three day system: by the end of Link’s time in Termina, he’ll have experienced the same three days over and over. Link will return to his previous state and lose many of the supplies he had accumulated over those 72 hours. A man shuffling past the mailbox at 9:30 AM on Day 2 will always shuffle past the mailbox at 9:30 AM on Day 2. It’s a conceit often compared to Harold Ramis’s classic film Groundhog Day. NPCs don’t tread erratically or stand frozen to the spot, puking the same cryptic advice or meaningless dribble; they go about their business, thank you very much. Beyond achieving an impressively organic, “lived-in” fantasy world, the odd design choice promotes Campbell’s mythological vision in a few different ways.

Just as the game’s masks represent the multitude of human experience, the ability to observe Termina’s inhabitants in various moments of work, rest, and emotion transforms each character into a jewel with several unique sides. Majora’s Mask does not simply offer a variety of characters; it offers a variety of characters in a variety of states. For example, the master swordsman is cool and focused on Day One but panicked and cowardly on Day Three. Observing how each citizen denies or accepts his or her own mortality in the steady march toward apocalypse is fascinating: there’s a lot of real humanity packed into 72 virtual hours.

Similarly to Groundhog Day, a complete hero-adventure in Majora’s Mask will involve dozens of aborted timelines. For every one of Bill Murray’s toaster suicides, Link abandons an entire version of Termina to fiery doom. Well, that’s the implication, at least; it’s difficult to shake that feeling of failure. Not everyone can be saved in three days: even with the moon stopped and evil expunged, the people of Termina will victimize each other.

Mythology, in this sense, is tragic in its view. But in the sense that it places our true being not in the forms that shatter but in the imperishable out of which they again immediately bubble forth, mythology is eminently untragical (231).

Majora’s Mask‘s endless procession of three-day cycles captures Jo-Cam’s philosophy of microcosm and macrocosm. In a mythic sense, an entire lifetime is as fleeting as 72 hours. “True being” is the immortality of one life into the next. It’s the cockroach that survives nuclear war.

A simplification of Campbell’s monomythic cycle (23). Also, Batman.

Momentary disappointment is just a blip in the joy of living: Bill Murray will eventually stop being a selfish prick and get with Andie MacDowell. After a series of failures, Link, too, will meet with his Andie MacDowell. Every hero does.

That’s why there’s adventure.

Yeehaw! First, an overview of the monomythic tropes specifically at play in Majora’s Mask:

The hero, by chance blunder, receives the call to adventure. He heeds it and, with the help of his supernatural guide, crosses the first threshold into a supernatural world, eschewing all earthly comforts until arriving at his lowest point, the belly of the whale. Transcending the challenge, he proceeds to complete four trials of virtue. His goodness proven, he confronts his ugliness through atonement with the father and conquers his negative aspect. An atypical meeting with the goddess bestows the hero his boon (in this case, benevolence to mankind). The successful hero then departs in magical flight and crosses the return threshold to share his boon with humanity (211).

Indeed, wherever the mythological mood prevails, tragedy is impossible. A quality rather of dreams prevails. True being, meanwhile, is not in the shapes but in the dreamer.

– Joseph Campbell, “Out of the Void–Space”

Majora’s Mask begins in a dark forest, where a boy with a sword and trusted steed is searching. He searches for someone important, a companion who followed him into adulthood and back again. This “valuable friend” is never blatantly specified (although there is a strong suggestion) and that vagueness is important to Majora’s Mask‘s thematic strength: Link combs the woods for a symbol of friendship. Friendship, an extension of benevolence, is the only persistent currency during Link’s stay in Termina: material possessions such as Rupees come and go but mementos of friendship are priceless and, in another design choice that is both functionally and thematically sound, permanent.

If friendship is wealth then Link begins his adventure as a peasant. He’s broke save the silent companionship of his horse Epona. The scene is set; something has to happen. An urgent incident must move the hero to answer Jo-Cam’s call to adventure.

Skull Kid is just as alienated as Link: he’s a socially-stunted brat who’s saved himself a punch in the throat by skirting civilization entirely. Before he stumbles upon the perfect complement to his nightmarish ensemble and succumbs to the seductive nihilism of an ancient god, he’s just a lonely guy with a beak. A touching, wordless, flashback vignette later shows his isolation; how he befriends sibling fairies Tael and Tatl (get it? Tattle-tail? Hmm?) on a rainy night and shares in their warmth; how Majora’s deceitful promise of validation and respect drives him to mug the traveling Happy Mask Salesman; how he gazes into the demonic mask’s hollow with starved eyes. Jo-Cam would classify Skull Kid as the “ogre-tyrant”: he is a fool pretending borrowed power as his own (290).

Emboldened by his previous success, the clownish ogre-tyrant selects another victim– Link. Tael and Tatl, Skull Kid’s fairy cohorts, startle Epona, who bucks in fright and jettisons Link onto the forest floor and out of consciousness. As the cruel misfit gleefully abuses the hero’s magical ocarina with back turned, Link blearily rises and gawks at his aggressor. The fairy siblings alert Skull Kid, who stares back at Link from behind the security of Majora’s Mask. He casually slips the ocarina behind his back as if to avoid suspicion. A moment passes.

Link makes a pass at the thief; too quick, Skull Kid leaps onto Epona and flees. After a rather stunning pursuit involving at least three front flips, Link follows Skull Kid into the hollow of a large tree only to wobble before a sudden precipice of inestimable depth. He cannot regain his balance and tumbles forward. The world falls away as he plunges through space and into the abyss.

A new world has new rules. Skull Kid, or perhaps Majora, now hovers weightlessly before our disoriented hero, arms crossed. His speech is cruel. Epona is nowhere in sight: Skull Kid boasts of having “got rid of it.” Why stop at material possessions and companions, though? As a guardian of the first threshold, the imp must strip the hero of everything he knows (64). Why not abscond with his humanity?

Link awakens from a hex-induced nightmare to greet the reflection–his own reflection– of a diminutive forest sprite (a Deku Scrub, canonically). Skull Kid bids Link an abrupt adieu and disappears behind a magical gate which seals before Tatl can follow, trapping her in the chamber with the transformed Link. She capitulates with a weak apology and proposes a pact: she’ll help Link regain his form and friends if he helps her reunite with her brother, Tael.

The contract of the supernatural helper is begun (57). Tatl is a good fit: she knows the lay of the land, she’s hardly trustworthy, and she’s assuredly supernatural. Advice offered by the supernatural helper enables the hero to pass his inevitable series of trials. The supernatural helper trope is pretty useful in a video game: Tatl speaks to Link and the player, explaining game mechanics and providing puzzle hints.

A gnarled passage opens into the colossal, stone interior of the clock tower. Inside the monument, rushing water is churned by a large, wooden paddle-wheel. Wonderful light seeps from between a sturdy set of doors at the peak of a ramp; relieved to be finally released from the green darkness, Link shuffles his tiny feet to the exit.

“You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?” From the shadows materializes the Happy Mask Salesman, the threshold’s final guardian. He politely introduces himself and offers an agreement: you see, one of his most valued wares was recently stolen from him; it’s horrible, just horrible. Many apologies, but he’s been following Link, and in return for retrieving this precious mask, he’ll restore his humanity– but, busy fellow he is, he really must be moving on in three days. “Why, to someone like you, it should by no means be a difficult task.”

The Salesman is one of the most intriguing figures in Majora’s Mask‘s bizarre gallery: he speaks in vague terms and rarely breaks his painted smile; he comes and goes like a fog and moves like a child’s flip-book animation; on his back he carries a mask for every aspect of Man, and the knowing glint in his half-shut eyes reaffirms the wholeness of his being. He is neither good nor bad, yet he is both, terrifying and hilarious. His androgynous appearance betrays an ancient, mythological role: he is an archetypal hybrid of the father and the goddess (239). He is Fear and Life. By agreeing to his proposal, Link seals his destiny; they will meet again in the end.

Link opens the doors to Termina. Stripped of every familiar comfort, he may as well be standing in the belly of a whale (74).

To simplify a complex sequence, Link struggles through three days in his altered form. He recovers the enchanted Ocarina of Time, plays the Song of Time to return to Day One, and is restored to human form by the Salesman, who chastises the hero for not returning with his mask. Clearly unhappy but not discouraged, the Salesman emphatically explains what already seems obvious: no mask, no future.

There is a legend in Termina which speaks of giants, protectors hailing from the world’s cardinal points: “Swamp. Mountain. Ocean. Canyon.” If awakened, their strength might hold the killing moon at bay. The four giants serve two purposes: on the surface, the quest to awaken the giants is a good justification of the game’s “levels.” In a mythic sense, these “levels” are the hero’s trials, tests of virtue demonstrating Link’s supreme aptitude.

The idea of four giants of four geographic quadrants acting harmoniously also reinforces the game’s simple moral of human understanding. “The dome of heaven rests on the quarters of the earth, sometimes supported by four caryatidal kings, dwarfs, giants, elephants, or turtles” (34). Jo-Cam explains that the meeting of the giants at the world navel symbolizes the culmination of the trials’ lessons and the hero’s progress toward spiritual balance.

Rejuvenated by his rebirth at the world navel, the freshly-human hero sets himself to task. Imagine a montage. Between perilous trials in far-flung regions, Link not only locates his steed Epona, but also stops to:

protect a farm from an alien invasion, inexplicably raise at least half a dozen baby chicks to adulthood, provide an unconventional solution to a man without toilet paper, moderate a city council meeting, restore a small girl’s undead father, race some beavers, play lead guitar in a rock outfit, fight to stay awake as an old crone prattles on about older lore, inform another father of the tragic fate of his son, dance with a ghost, dance with professional dancers, foil the robbery of an elderly woman, usher several lost souls into the afterlife, and reunite star-crossed lovers.

The true hero of myth is a champion of the people. By donating as much time to the plight of the mailman as to his own world-redeeming quest, Link practices a doctrine of altruism and exposes the falsity of Otherness. There is no Other: every villain in Majora’s Mask save Majora itself (an aspect of pure destruction) is just a dude with serious emotional baggage. Majora, the terrible father, represents the primal self-interest that sways us all. “He is the monster avid for the greedy rights of ‘my and mine'” (11).

If he were a lesser hero, Link’s journey may have faltered; Majora’s Mask explores these paths through its hero’s four primary trials. Over the course of the trials, Link nails all the great video game standards: forest level, snow level, water level (a good one; that’s impressive considering  “good” and “water level” are nearly antithetical to most players), and a spooky canyon. “Ho hum,” you say, “Super Mario Bros. 3 had nearly all of those and I got to be a fun-ass raccoon.

Did Kuribo’s Shoe provide a compelling foil for Mario? Did the giant, red Koopa capture the essence of one of Joseph Campbell’s hero variants? Link’s trials are practically guided tours of Jo-Cam’s “transformations of the hero.” Some of the hero’s transformations–the youth cut down in his prime–are beautiful. Others–the champion corrupted by ego and turned tyrant–are ugly.

No matter which quadrant of the earth he hails from, every hero is sewn from the same brittle thread. The prideful Deku King of Woodfall resides within a lavish palace and persecutes the innocent; because of him, his god abandons its people and the swamp’s waters run toxic. Darmani III, the heir of Snowhead’s Goron patriarchy, fell to nature, succumbing to the cold on a solitary quest for his people’s prosperity; never-ending winter reigns. Mikau, the rising star of Great Bay’s Zora, went unprepared in his mission to retrieve Zora eggs from bloodthirsty pirates and was slain; their poaching continues. The wrathful King Igos du Ikana (Igos? Ego? Hmm?) was consumed by the flames of his war against the nation of Garo; his kingdom has turned to ruins. Link averts each of these bleak visions: unlike the Deku King, he is kind and charitable. Unlike Darmani, he knows to depend on others when taking on the world. Unlike Mikau, he has the virtue of foresight. Unlike Ikana, he can forgive. Another hero may have tread any of these roads to ruin.

The Deku King, Mikau, Darmani III, and His Fleshlessness King Igos du Ikana

After Woodfall’s waters have been purified, Snowhead’s ceaseless winter has ceased, the pirates have been bested, and Ikana has been laid to rest, all four giants stand ready. They watch awkwardly from the edges of their respective axes as Link returns to the center for one last, weird dance– a dance with daddy.

The work of the hero is to slay the tenacious aspect of the father and release from its ban the vital energies that will feed the universe. 

-Joseph  Campbell, “The Hero as World-Redeemer”

Okay, so the classic myth has daddy issues, too, but they’re pretty well veiled. It’s Freudian stuff– deep-seated, hush-hush, when-you-say-dad-I-say-dragon type issues. The main issue being: dad has to die. At the very least, the hero needs to smack that tenacious grin off his face.

Just like the hero, the father of myth carries many masks. He can wear the mask of a good and fair king. He might also don the mask of the tyrant, the evil dragon, the world-devouring god.  It’s been said that a person will wear many masks in his or her life. The hero is the king is the tyrant is the god. This idea of the Self as a cosmic grab-bag of personas is perhaps best captured by the Hindu trinity: Brahma, the Creator, Vishnu, the Preserver, and Shiva, the Destroyer are often depicted as one form with three faces, emphasizing the many different modes of this one life.

Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva; Creator, Preserver, Destroyer

Link’s trials have demonstrated as much; during his travels, he has encountered every type of hero: those who wield swords as well as those who tend chickens. The time has come to see which mask he will choose.

Atop the clock tower, Link faces the fool Skull Kid one last time. The giants rattle the earth as they lumber from the extremes of Termina and join to push against the demon moon. Soil and debris hang in the air, caught in the titanic pressure of the collision. Finally, the pressure ceases and the repelled moon floats weightlessly above the giants’ outstretched arms. Skull Kid collapses. Tatl and Tael are reunited. Termina is safe– for a few minutes.

Skull Kid suddenly rises, dangling from Majora’s Mask like a marionette or a bad dream. The mask discards its host and the sad husk tumbles to the floor. Majora speaks: “This puppet’s role has just ended.” He announces the selection of his new host by retreating into the gaping jaws of the moon and returning hunger to its eyes. “I… I shall consume. Consume… Consume everything,” the moon bellows. The giants begin to buckle.

Using the portal left by Majora as an open invitation, Link ascends into the maw to find blackness and then–

The last act in the biography of the hero is that of the death or departure. Here the whole sense of life is epitomized. Needless to say, the hero would be no hero if death held for him any terror; the first condition is reconciliation with the grave.

-Joseph Campbell,  “Departure of the Hero”

The final segment of Majora’s Mask leading up to atonement with the father is an ingenious recursion of the hero-adventure. It works as a sort of thematic summary that builds into a well-earned conclusion:

Link is blinded by the brilliance of a robin’s egg sky. In the distance stands a single tree: it is Yggdrasil, the tree of life. At the base of the tree play four children, dressed in white. A fifth child hugs his knees in the shade. They wear the masks of evil monsters but speak with longing and dejection: “Masks… You have a lot. You, too… Will you be a mask salesman?”

He gives each child a portion of his mask collection until he has no more to give. The masks of Majora’s Mask are indeed the game’s only accumulative currency: they represent bonds forged and cherished. In the end, however, the Self must leave behind even the most personal connections and prepare for his reckoning.

Link plays with each child, abiding by the rules of their individual games. One by one, the children depart, questioning the hero’s integrity: “Your true face… What kind of face is it? I wonder… The face under the mask… Is that your true face?”

The last child sulks at the tree’s trunk. He wears Majora’s Mask. “Let’s play good guys against bad guys… Yes. Let’s play that,” Majora muses, playing on the duplicitous nature of the hero. “You’re the bad guy. And when you’re bad, you just run. That’s fine, right?”

Here is the hero’s ultimate test: not to run and submit to the father’s authority, but to fight and become him. It’s time for atonement (“at-one-ment”)The game takes this idea fairly literally. Before the duel, Majora hands you a new mask: the Fierce Deity’s Mask is said to radiate with dark power; it represents the cruelty boiling within every human being. By subscribing to Majora’s “good versus bad” scenario and wearing the deity’s mask, the hero accepts that primal self-interest is an inextricable part of humanity. He must be willing to fight evil with evil (107).

So he kills Majora with his sword.

Myths can be simple, too.

As the phantom moon disintegrates into a resplendent rainbow, Link and his fairy companions are returned to consciousness in the green pastures outside Clock Town. Skull Kid stands at a distance and directs his subdued gaze heavenward. The four giants have turned their attention to him. He remembers a time before loneliness.

“You guys… You hadn’t forgotten about me? You still thought of me as a friend?” Skull Kid shakes, retreating under the brim of his straw hat in shame. The giants issue a deafening call, a bittersweet mixture of condemnation and assurance, and return to their slumber, leaving only the reverberations of their footfall.

Breaking thick silence, the little imp chuckles. “Friends are a nice thing to have.”

Two tropes remain on Campbell’s list: first is the meeting with the goddess and subsequent boon-receiving; second is the hero’s return to his own world and the gifting of his boon to mankind. The Legend of Zelda universe (and Termina itself) brims with goddesses, but the person to deliver Link’s boon isn’t the elegant, feminine spirit one expects.

A jocund chortle alerts the former friends and foes to the presence of the Happy Mask Salesman, who stands with his luggage on a nearby knoll. He gingerly cups his hands around Majora’s Mask.

“Well, now… I finally have it back. Since I am in the midst of my travels, I must bid you farewell.” He strolls past Link and Skull Kid, who recoils with guilt, before glancing over his shoulder. “Shouldn’t you be returning home as well? Whenever there is a meeting, a parting is sure to follow. However, that parting need not last forever. Whether a parting be forever or merely for a short time– that is up to you. With that, please excuse me.”

He takes a few more steps before another thought occurs to him. “But, my, you sure have managed to make quite a number of people happy. The masks you have are filled with happiness. This is truly a good happiness.” With that last casual remark, the Salesman turns and glides into another world.

The Happy Mask Salesman has just given Link, and therefore the player, the succinct kernel of Majora’s Mask‘s thematic intent: be good to people; celebrate people. As fireworks light the broad smiles of Termina, Link mounts Epona and removes himself from this once-strange world to deliver his gospel of altruism.

Okay– so there are a lot of stories that fit on some modification of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth skeleton. Campbell isn’t proposing a new formula; he’s identifying elements universal to all human storytellingMajora’s Mask isn’t unique in that regard. The game is so notable, at least to me, personally, because long before reading Joseph Campbell, before seeing a single story circle or pyramid or Möbius strip, before I knew plots could have structure, its meticulously crafted story resonated so profoundly that I could recognize its power instinctively. The power is called Myth: stories of true heroes who stave despair and share kindness.

[The hero’s] second (task), then, is to return from [the] abyss to the plane of contemporary life, there to serve as a human transformer of demiurgic potentials (276).

We never see the details of Link’s return, nor does he see the joy he has created. Our hero gallops back through those portentous woods and is enveloped by white sunlight. The fiction of Majora’s Mask is over. The real return is non-fiction: turning off the television shifts Link’s burden to the player. The creators of Majora’s Mask hope that the player will emerge from those dark woods with just a bit more goodness to spread around.

Majora’s Mask injects Joseph Campbell’s mythic themes into the virtual universe of a video game. Theory and philosophy, words so important to film, music, and literature, are almost non-existent in commercial video games. There are notable exceptions–the oft-cited BioShock comes to mind–but the scarcity of games with themes in the average consumer’s field of vision is criminal when one considers how well-suited the medium is to dialectic content. No other medium can boast the same ability to engage; no other medium can provide guided tours of ideas and adjust exactly to any audience’s pace.

It’s a game that should and tragically hasn’t been emulated. Majora’s Mask can be admired from many angles–the craft of its story, its ethical center, its fantastic world. In the end, though, Jo-Cam would boil it down to four things:

A black forest. A boy with a sword. A world-devouring god.

And a heaping helping of friendship.

D’awwwwwwwwwww.

I love it a lot.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed. Novato, California: New World Library, 2008. Print.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Nintendo. 2000.

Questions about Pokémon: Blue Version

  1. Do the different versions represent alternate universes? Are these Red and Blue versions only a sliver on the vast rainbow of existence?
    1. Does each version represent a reality in which urban development endangered the habitats of variable species?
    2. If so, are humans the true Pocket Monsters?
  2. How do Potions work? They just spray on your Pokémon and somehow heal burnt, cut and frost-bitten flesh? Do they sting?
    1. How does a move named “Guillotine” cause only fainting? Perhaps Pokémon necks are especially resilient.
  3. How do Pokémon die, anyway? They obviously do: there’s an entire memorial tower dedicated to Pokémon corpses.
    1. Does everything become a Ghastly? Do humans become Ghost Pokémon if they lead really shitty lives?
      1. There is obviously some set of spiritual beliefs held by the people of Kanto. What is it? How do skeptics feel about the apparently confirmed existence of the paranormal?
  4. If Pikachu is the Mouse Pokémon, does that imply the existence of regular animals in Kanto? How can Pokémon be named after animals from our reality if those same animals didn’t at one point exist? Are there a bunch of normal animals hanging out in Kanto that everyone just ignores because they don’t shoot lightning?
    1. Are Pokémon an invasive species that killed all the regular animals by shooting lightning at them, probably?
  5. How do TMs and HMs work? So they’re compact discs? Are they DVDs? Do they fit into a portable DVD player and play instructional videos on how to use Fire Blast? Who is making these discs (Silph Co., probably?)?
  6. How are Pokémon converted into digital media? What is their file type? Do they retain virtual awareness? How does time pass inside a PC? Is it like Narnia? Do Pokémon live entire lives inside of Bill’s PC?
    1. A common question: what goes on inside a Pokéball? How does that work? If certain Pokémon enjoy certain types of balls more than others, does that mean that a regular Pokéball is sort of like a low-rent apartment?
  7. Why are Pokémon trainers in Pewter City so much worse than trainers in Fuschia? Was it providence that you just so happened to begin your journey in the perfect place to accommodate an ideal difficulty curve?
  8. Why doesn’t Team Rocket just shoot you with a gun? Aren’t they criminals?
    1. Did the existence of lethal creatures discourage military development? Do guns even exist? War?
  9. Why did it take three years for the sun to set in Kanto? Did everyone just shuffle around in a sleep-deprived daze spouting instructional information before that? Is nighttime a technological innovation in the Pokémon world?
    1. How can there be a Pokémon Daycare if there’s no distinction between night and day in the first place?
  10. Why is Kanto’s infrastructure so shitty? City limits are marked by gigantic Duplo blocks, transportation is restricted by a hegemony of HMs (which seem to be in scarce quantity) and vital trade routes are completely shut down by obese Pokémon and obstinate security guards (whose thirsts, however mighty, should not impede public good).
    1. Did Kanto lift an Isolationist policy between the first and second set of games? Where did that passage to Johto come from?
      1. A lot of change occurred in Kanto between Pokemons Blue/Red and Gold/Silver. Industrial revolutions are usually spurred by an initial discovery or innovation. Was there an influx of technology inherited from Johto? The gulf in technological sophistication between Kanto and Johto is enough to fuel a study of its own.
  11. Is Oak omniscient? More likely, has he bugged your Pokédex? How does he know when you’re attempting to ride a bike indoors? Why is it any of his business where you ride your own damn bike?
    1. Where do you keep that bike? In your backpack?
  12. If the Pokédex is already pre-loaded with a complete catalog of information on every Pokémon, why is it even necessary to “catch ’em all”? Is Professor Oak pulling your dick?
    1. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the Pokédex is a highly sophisticated piece of technology that observes and instantly records data on a Pokémon the moment you catch it. That seems doubtful, though.
  13. Why were you ever friends with Gary?
    1. Is it possible that you did something to deserve his loathing? Think.
      1. It’s probably your fault.
  14. Why does the population of Kanto suffer from a severe combination of tunnel vision and nearsightedness?
    1. Maybe it’s an unforeseen effect of Potion waste in the water system?
    2. Alternatively, maybe strict social norms are in place which prohibit breaking one’s line of vision.
  15. How do I get Mew?

Nothings adds up: Kanto is a strangely composed, sparsely populated world in which the central phenomenon, the Pokémon themselves, is presented without question. It’s like convincing science fiction.

Ditto

Or perhaps it is science fiction.

From beginning to end, Pokémon  revisits one motif: virtual reality. After an interview with Professor Oak, the player shrinks into an avatar. It’s cute, but what if your new form is more than a simple aesthetic touch? The world outside Pallet Town seems as if it was designed around Red’s success; life’s obstacles fold magically as you sweep the Pokémon League (a feat which absurdly stands as the objectively greatest achievement known to Kantokind) and foil the country’s only criminals. The digital and the biological flirt in a nonsensical fog. Occasionally, however, you are made privy to your fantasy’s underpinnings:  you trade.

The room is clinical, white. You’re unsettled to notice a familiar face sitting opposite the Exchange Module. It’s your own. Suddenly, before you materializes a cable and something called a Game Boy and everything makes sense. Playing Pokémon is to play a game about a player playing a game. You trade Magmar for Electabuzz.

After returning to the lobby of the Pokémon Center, the virtual entity known as Nurse Joy is oblivious to your epiphany. She can’t know that she beholds God.

You fire a knowing glance and mount your bike.

OAK:  PLAYER! This isn’t the time to use that!

You pedal hard.

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.