19

I’m At That Age where the slang that the kids use is beginning to cause me to see red, even when I tend to agree with the slang in question. “Thirsty” is the most recent target of my irrational hate; used in a dating context, “He’s pretty thirsty” means sexual desperation to the point of patheticness. It’s a good descriptor of the state, and a state that I see all the time, but for whatever reason I find it impossible to take anyone seriously if they use it.

And so seeing the term “Dadfeels” bandied about gave me a huge rage which I initially ascribed to the fact that anyone who uses the word “feels” as a plural noun immediately drops about 40 IQ points in my estimation. The term is also used dismissively; since I’m a soulless human, I think the concept of parenting in general is a terrifying one. Babies are not people; they are animate lumps of flesh which produce shit, tears, and mucus and not much else. “I had a baby” generally gets translated, in my mind, to “I expelled a wet animal from my genitalia.” Having a baby is something that will never, ever happen to me–I’m of the John Waters school of thought, where lack of access to marriage, children, and the military is part of the gay consolation prize–and “this person is your child” is not as good motivation as the frankly more simple “the dude at the end is really ugly, and then the treasure you get for fighting him is super shiny.” That I appreciate the ambivalence at the heart of Nier–a man who’s so devoted to his sick daughter that he spends all his time on exciting adventures instead of actually spending time with her–says a lot about how lucky it is that I don’t have the opportunity to breed.

But the term isn’t “parentfeels”, it’s “dadfeels”, and it really wasn’t until last night that I started to think there’s something a little more demeaning to the term. It’s one of those impressive Catch-22s that the identity politics arm of the videogame community is so fond of doing. “Dadfeels”, and it’s hard to write the term without judging my fingers for typing a 22-year-old’s word, is simply a way that the very same people who call for greater varieties of human experience and emotion can judge certain types of those experiences and emotions as invalid because they’re coming from a–say it with me, folks–cisgendered, heterosexual, white man.

That most videogames, particularly traditional mainstream console games, are quest narratives has a lot to do with the fact that the quest narrative is possibly the literary structure that has the clearest and most explicit goals. A Hero at Point A seeks a Goal at Point Z, and in the meantime can go through as many levels and dungeons as the designer wishes. The goal can be a treasure or knowledge, or it could be Anita Sarkeesian’s favorite trope: The Damsel in Distress.

That the Damsel which is usually in Distress is often a Princess is pretty significant. Your average Hero who saves the Princess doesn’t usually go to bed alone after his quest; most likely his rescue has earned him the Princess’s hand in marriage. Most likely they live Happily Ever After in a castle on land that the King has granted them. Look, the Princess is just as incidental in this case, but she’s a goal more explicitly symbolic of social position than anything else. Saving a Princess quite literally allows someone to move up in the world. In your average medieval fantasy story, you get precious few opportunities to do that.

Well, that’s all well and good, but it’s 2013. You can’t make a simple Save the Princess story anymore–unless your name is Nintendo, of course–because, let’s face it, you’re too aware of the resonances. You kidnap a woman–you kidnap ANYONE–you’re going to have to explain to me a) why people were able to kidnap her in the first place, b) why she doesn’t immediately work on an escape plan, and c) why that escape plan doesn’t work, and I need an answer to all of those questions which isn’t “because she’s a woman”. And if, at the moment I rescue said woman, she doesn’t immediately arm herself with a similar level of weaponry as the hero in order to help us get out, there’d better be a good reason for that. This can very easily be done, and if you’ve ever seen Star Wars you’ve seen a movie which answers those questions satisfactorily, and good on it. You’re Mario, she’s the Princess, get to Saving is kind of a really boring premise, and frankly, Peach is a really boring character. I don’t want to make those games over and over again.

We can argue for a while about whether or not games should have more story or not–I’m beginning to roll my eyes at videogame plot in general these days–but we can all agree that we’re tired of the simple, old stories. That we want to tell more. I’ve read plenty of pieces arguing for greater types of human experience in videogames, and you know what, I’m there. I agree with that. There need to be more personal and more interesting motivations in gaming.

Now, the Quest Narrative structure is never going to go away; there will always be videogames about saving people because the desire to both save and be saved is within all of us. You don’t (always) want to make the object of the quest a Princess–or a girlfriend because of the inherent imbalance; it’s difficult to do that plot without casting the guy as a traditional protector.

Giving the player control of a father looking for a child is a way of killing two birds with one stone.

Immediately there is motivation–we can buy that Harry Mason is going to keep searching through Silent Hill to find his daughter because–talking to a father or two will make this clear–any father worth a damn *would* stay in hell to find his kid. Immediately there is a reason for the power imbalance–it literally *is* a parent’s role in life to protect their child. Immediately there is a reason for the protagonist’s greater competence–age and inexperience justify the child’s relative weakness.

Quite simply, “Dadfeels” is an evolution of the Damsel in Distress concept, but one which takes the undertones of the original–put it crudely, a Knight rescuing a Princess from a Dragon eerily resembles a competition to the right to claim the Princess’s vagina–and shifts the consequences for failure to a much more relatable horror. Heavy Rain is often seen as one of the most notable examples to feature themes of failed fatherhood prominently. While you may certainly take issue with the way that game handled the themes–the infamous “Press X to Jason” meme says a lot about the flexibility of interfaces and with David Cage’s skills as a designer–one cannot dismiss it. This is not a trivial, imaginary subject such as war; to dismiss themes of a father losing a child because they do not, say, reflect the violence that you live under and therefore aren’t “real” to you is to utterly deny the validity of the emotions of all fathers.

It smacks of hypocrisy: One understands that the strongest urge when designing a videogame is to design a character who is an avatar of oneself; for a man to make an honest declaration of his intense feelings of love for his child, only to have it slapped down with the demeaning term “Dadfeels”–well.

I would like to clarify that I am not necessarily arguing in favor of the subgenre–I’m more arguing against the condescension inherent in the term. I don’t think that making a lot of games about parents saving their kids is the solution for Getting Gaming Taken Seriously or whatever the goal is these days. I will accept an argument to the effect of this being merely a quasi-acceptable face of an inherently problematic trope that doesn’t actually correct his flaws. I get that there’s a lot of men saving daughters–few sons, fewer mothers. I get that those are intimately intertwined with about sixty other problems about how gender is regarded in videogames.

I just…can’t see the term “Dadfeels” used to mean anything other than, this game is stupid because it deals with fatherhood which is a ridiculous emotion.

An invalid emotion.

It’s very difficult for me to see the term without thinking it’s suggesting that “Dad” is a character archetype not worth paying attention to. Take it as the usual cue to call for people to talk about different experiences–get some moms to design games about saving their kids, maybe. Or, I mean, don’t. The more plot, the more cutscenes, and the less I’m gonna give a shit. Seriously, I just need the treasure to be *really* shiny and I’ll be fine.

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18

Wizardry 6 continues to be wonderful, if extremely claustrophobic. It’s part and parcel of the greyness–a beach looks like a mountain looks like a tomb and all of them are stone walls closing you in. I’ve gotten to the River Styx, which features blue water tiles instead of grey floor tiles, and it’s almost a completely different game. As I’ve said: The game exists not as software but as a combination of itself, the maps I’m drawing, and my imagination, and it’s interested in being brutal, which I’m loving–it respects the fuck out of me as a player. CF something like Skyward Sword which is Very Proud Of You For Figuring Out How To Open A Chest And Gives You Fanfare Every Time. I think it’s quite possible that Nintendo thinks its audience is mentally disabled. CF Dark Souls which doesn’t give a fuck whether you beat it or not and which is considered one of the finest games of this generation. Makes you think.

But brutality, lovely as it is, needs to be tempered every so often, and solely to give myself a break for an evening after a particularly tough bit of maze, I broke open that Might and Magic pack I bought from GOG. There are, I believe, 9 separate games in the pack–M&M 1-9, the fangame Swords of Xeen, and something called Crusaders of Might and Magic which I have been told is a bit of a letdown.

I’d played one of the M&M games years ago as a kid–it came with our new computer–and I remember playing it but not getting very far, mostly because I was 10 and I was too lazy for it. I was attempting to get through it without mapping, which worked hilariously, and I wasn’t used to such an open game as it was. Breaking open the seal on the six-pack–games 1-6 are sold together on GOG with the rest separately outside of bundle sales–I played the first, found it too punishingly old school for my mood–it’s not very different from what I’m dealing with with Wizardry. I’ll get to it later. Might and Magic 2 turns out to be the game I’d played all those years ago–I remembered it immediately from the title screen–but again, very old-school, and the draw distance is a little annoying.

I’d really been interested in World of Xeen (M&M 4&5), but I played 3 and it immediately hooked me.

Well…not immediately. It took a little while to figure out how to fight and how to explore, but boy howdy!

There is precious little in the way of setup. In the intro, the series antagonist appears and babbles some threats at you, and then the next thing you know you’re in a town and given pretty free reign. Opening your journal, you’ll get some notes about Moose Rats attacking the town, and dealing with that will probably be the first major quest that you do, but beyond that, the game doesn’t really care. Eventually a set of goals appear–the bulk of the game appears to be collecting a series of macguffins for three kings representing the various alignments, and then you get to pick which one you think is the best–but the structure of the game is plain and simple adventuring. You dick around towns, buying stuff and finding quests; you dick around the map, finding secrets and fighting monsters; you dick around dungeons, finding treasure and navigating mazes. Some of these get you closer to the endgame; the rest just give you treasure or fun little experiences.

I’ve just described Skyrim, essentially. Skyrim, like Final Fantasy VII before it, is such a product of its era, so representative of The State Of Gaming At The Time that it can be used as representative example of What Gaming Was Like in 2011. Skyrim is a more elaborate Dickaround Game, featuring many many more quests and many many more square miles and many many more enemies–

Well, no, because this is one of the first reasons I disliked Skyrim–there’s no fucking monsters. There’s a couple of ones, but for the most part you’re fighting wild animals and generic bandits. By Hour 10, you’ve pretty much seen all of the basics of what the game has to offer, in monster design and environment design and character design and puzzle design. Skyrim is less fast food and less a buffet and more a gigantic tub of gruel that you’re allowed to eat as much or as little as you want. The more you play Skyrim, the blander it gets.

I think there’s a point of diminishing returns, especially when you’ve got such a big budget game like Skyrim that’s so desperately terrified that someone’s not going to like it. Skyrim is made not for the person who is going to drop hundreds and hundreds of hours on it but for someone who’s going to spend maybe 20 on it. The philosophy seems to work like this: That 20 hours can be picked up pretty much anywhere in the game and will be fairly representative of what the game has to offer. If you drop a hundred hours on it, you’ve seen those 20 hours five separate times. Dwemer Ruins may be interesting the first few times, and if you’ve only seen a couple you’ll probably enjoy it; by the time you’ve hit the dozenth, well, everything kind of blurs. Spread this over the towns. Over the overworld. Over the battles. Over the spells. After a distressingly short period of time, Skyrim forgets to include new content, and you’ve got 80-100 hours left to go.

For a game named after its location, Skyrim itself isn’t the kind of place you’re ever going to navigate by memory because it’s simply too big. The map is good for giving you an idea of what direction you need to go in–although the arrow, taking the place of the guy who owns the game who’s watching you play, makes a need for orienteering almost COMPLETELY nonexistent–but it’s not going to help you remember where anything is beyond a few landmarks. There was that meh article going around a little while ago about whether or not Skyrim is “impressionistic”–which is a concept I can’t necessarily disagree with. I don’t really remember explicit Events or Dungeons or anything from the game–I remember mountains, and giant spiders, and cheevos popping up.

By contrast, Might and Magic 3, colorful, vibrant Might and Magic 3, where all the enemy designs are goofy and cool and I’ve seen more so far than in Oblivion and Skyrim put together, although I may be exaggerating, gives you a lot more in the way of engagement for the world you’re saving. It’s a lot smaller, for one. I’ve mapped out the first island already, although I certainly haven’t done all of its secrets–and based on a map I glimpsed at, there’s maybe five or six major ones. With the automap skill–which you can learn within the first few minutes of play–mapping islands becomes a fairly easy experience, monsters aside. Finding all of the Stuff in Skyrim is impossible and absolutely unrewarding. Each secret you discover in M&M is a larger percentage of the whole. Some more initial direction and focus might not be a bad thing–apparently World of Xeen addresses that as well–but given the game’s focus on random questing over an intricate storyline, that’s not a problem. You’ll figure out quickly enough if monsters are too strong for you, and if there’s a riddle you can’t solve, well, enough of the game is optional and there’s enough stuff to do that you can always come back to it later.

Coming back to it later: Are there any dungeons in Skyrim that are too difficult for the moment you find them that you have to put them aside? I never found one. The game is constant progress, constant conquering, and it’s absolutely lame.

Now, particularly when the dungeons are concerned–M&M is in first-person although it’s constructed like a classic RPG with squares representing entrances to towns and dungeons–there is a notion of Completed. You finish a dungeon, you’re done with it; you never need to come back. Once you’ve solved a town’s dungeon–there’s usually only one–the towns are only good for supplies and leveling up. As far as supplies go, you sell a LOT more than you buy–there are enough good treasures in the dungeons that I don’t spend much money in the stores. Leveling up is done by trainers, and that each town has a different level cap for how high they can train you is one of the main reasons to spend time in any other town. In ANY case, each town has a portal that, once you’ve discovered the password, allows you to quick travel between them.

Contrast this to Wizardry 6, one huge dungeon, which is crossed and recrossed, sometimes because you missed something but other times because you’ve found a key to unlock a door. The game, like Dark Souls, is a complete whole–my maps are becoming multi-page for each floor and every single one lines up EXACTLY with the floors above and below–and the better you know it, the more shortcuts you’ll discover. Keeping the game in your head is practically a survival tactic. Because I’m making my own maps, keeping the game in my head is extremely easy; I have a very strong working knowledge of that first continent in M&M3, but beyond that I need to look at the automap a lot. (And the automap cannot scroll; I hope THAT is something they fix in the fourth game as well but I’ll find out soon enough.)

But given the self-contained nature of the dungeons and towns, keeping the entire game in your head isn’t necessary, and frankly it’s nice. Might and Magic 3 is certainly more difficult and sophisticated than Skyrim–heh, think about that, Skyrim as an unsophisticated game, and you know what, it is–but compared to Wizardry 6 it’s a fun romp.

Okay, fun romp over, time to break out the graph paper again.

5

Treasure Adventure Game is not without its flaws–the developer is remaking it and has promised to address many of them. It’s a shame that its introductory sequence is one of them because it goes on for a very, very long time. There was a while where the length of the introductory cartoon was a point of pride, where long cutscenes meant a game was a Good Solid Game, and that’s an attitude which has taken a long time to fade. TAG is a lot more longwinded than it ought to be. There’s an opening narration talking about the evil wizard and the cataclysm and the twelve treasures and all of that. And that’s revealed to be backstory to an adventure undertaken by two friends and the young son of one of them to find the legendary twelve treasures. And that’s skipped over in the opening credits–which feature a sort of slide presentation about the trio’s adventures–as backstory for the climax of their journey, when they bring all twelve treasures to the final temple. And that turns out to be a flashback nightmare that you wake up from–finally you get control of your main character. And you dick around a few islands for a while until you finally get your mission, which is to find all twelve treasures and Set Right What Went Wrong or whatever.

Like I said, it takes a while.

But once the game opens up, it opens the fuck up. After you find the first treasure, the game basically tells you, okay, what you just did you’ve got to do eleven more times and that’s the flow of the game: Find a treasure, bring it to the temple, get an item, use the item to find a map, use the map to find the next treasure, bring it to the temple, repeat until there’s nothing more to do. In no way does the game grab your next and drag you to the next checkpoint, but after its opening, it expects you’ve been paying attention and know how to play a videogame. You get a parrot friend who acts as a companion/hint system, but while it gives you guidance for the first few quests and can give you vague pointers towards specific puzzles, for the most part it’s just there to keep you company. Right now, all it’s telling me is that I’ve got all I need to go on my journey and I’ve got to find where the next treasure is. The map points to the coordinates, but it gives you no instructions how to get there. If you need an item, or need to go into a specific dungeon, well, you’re an adventurer. Go adventure. It’s trendy to compare things to Dark Souls when you just mean “it’s hard”, but in terms of dumping you in a world and expecting you’ll figure it out, it’s a distant cousin.

The issues I’m finding with the game–occasionally it’s slightly more aimless than it ought to be, the movement is a little too slow, the issues with the introduction–are all fairly easy to ignore in light of the raw quality of the rest of the game. It’s very simple pixel art, but the color scheme is lovely–it’s bright and beautiful and pleasant.

What I adore about TAG is how utterly unpretentious it is. Its grandness and epic scope is less because it wants to be an Important, Canonical Work and more because it delights in its own existence. It’s a happy labor of love.

Fez is the work of a genius who’s happy that he’s sold as many copies as he has because ha ha, you motherfuckers, I’ve finally shown you all: Gomez’s adventure is important to him because it sets him apart, marks him as special, gives him abilities no one else has, lets him see things no one else can see, lets him understand the world the deepest of everybody. Yes, yes, Gomez is essentially cleaning up his own mess but let’s forget about that: HE IS SAVING THE WORLD. And the world *is* an illusion: Its art style ensures that we only get *glimpses* of its true nature, ideas of what it “really” looks like. Treasure Adventure Game wants you to appreciate its world, wants you to enjoy it, and allows you to love it.

It’s a love letter to the games of Orlando’s youth: What Treasure Adventure Game reminds me, most of all, is being a kid and talking to my friends about the Nintendo games we’d make when we grew up–all of the notebooks of elaborate dungeons and traps and puzzles, of the hardest dungeons ever, of the coolest bosses. Stephen Orlando is one of those rare people who actually grew up to make that game.