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January 2013

The stuff of Fairy Tales


Some think the World a Mysterie 
Through which to blindlie blunder,
Yet Wiseards since Prehistory
Have sought to know its Wonder. 
           --”The Wizard’s Companion,” Ni no Kuni

A hundred years from now, when cultural historians and literature professors look back on the games we’ve played for the last 30+ years, they will see a renaissance age of Fairy Tales. They will study a deep catalog of storytelling games filled with heroes and supernatural helpers, anthropomorphic animals, magic potions, healing fruit and epic sojourns. Tales of fate, souls redeemed, loved ones lost and found. Nature as leitmotif. Wise trees, restorative stones, and guiding wind. The stuff of fairy tales.

The Legend of Zelda, The Elder Scrolls, Dragon Quest, Mass Effect, Fable, despite their obvious differences, all exist within the "Perilous Realm” described by J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay On Fairy-Stories:

Fairy-story as “stories about fairies” …is too narrow. Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky, and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted. The definition of a fairy-story - what it is, or what it should be - does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country.

Zelda__wind_waker_by_ma5h-d52vo7tLike the video games we play, “fairy tale” is fraught with misconceptions, perceived by many as mindless frivolity aimed at children and adolescents. But we should know better. Like Grimm’s Fairy Tales (actual title: Children’s and Household Tales), our wildly imaginative games are accessible by children, but they also function on a deeper level where adults may unpack metaphorical connections to themes that challenge and captivate us, no matter our age. The melancholy, for example, that casts its shadow over the apparently childlike world of Wind Waker may not be apparent to children, but it’s there if you’re mature enough to see it.

When those curious academics look back at our fairy tale games, I believe they will recognize Ni no Kuni as a significant achievement. Few games have captured the once-upon-a-time magic and fanciful spirit of fairy tale so completely. Menacing darkness - a mother’s death, an abandoned child, and an evil spirit bent on destroying him - underlies a bright enchanted universe of eccentric fairies, cat-kings, and cow-queens. A boy overcomes his fears. A perilous journey is undertaken.

Of course, as with most fairy tales, there’s little new here, but novelty plays almost no role in such stories. Familiarity is a pivotal dimension of fairy tale because it is in the act of telling and re-telling that we dig into these apparently simple tales and derive meaning. In Ni no Kuni the infusion of Studio Ghibli style is notable because it distinguishes the game from the avalanche of teen-angst anime that has dominated JRPGs for so long. But in the end Ni no Kuni rings bells we’ve rung many times before, built with blueprints borrowed from Dragon Quest, Pokémon, and Spirited Away.

So, if Ni no Kuni is so familiar, why does it feel so irresistibly fresh? Why does it captivate my imagination so thoroughly? Why does it linger in my thoughts, and why, as I near the end, do I feel a genuine foreboding that this intoxicating journey with friends will also soon end?

Frog_king_popI believe it has something to do with Tolkien’s notion of the Perilous Realm and “the air that blows in that country.” Ni no Kuni situates the player similarly to our position reading or hearing fairy fales like The Frog King or The White Snake. These stories aren’t about kissing frogs or talking animals. They’re about enduring values like patience, devotion, and abiding love. The designers of Ni no Kuni know what the Brothers Grimm understood about persuasive storytelling. A good storyteller allows his most cogent themes to drift serenely in Tolkien’s “air that blows in that country.”

Oliver searches for his mother in a land of fairies and monsters, enveloped by game design elements (collecting stamps, leveling up familiars, etc.) that quietly reinforce the game’s central values. He heals broken hearts and helps lost souls find their spiritual middle way. These are presented as apparently extraneous “sidequests,” gameplay padding to fill the 40+ hours that post-Final Fantasy JRPGs are expected to provide.

But like the servant in the Grimm’s The White Snake (and many other faithful fairy tale heroes), Oliver’s simple tasks - small missions he accepts from townspeople or minor characters - are the ones that define him. Grimm’s servant discovers what Oliver also learns: the big quest and the many little tasks are all part of a single overarching journey of sacrifice and self-discovery. In both stories the little things matter, but the reader/player may not realize that truth until the end.

Sometimes we try too hard to squeeze video games into the kinds of meaning we derive from books and movies. Think Cinderella and her stepsisters and those shoes. Maybe we're looking at games like Ni no Kuni the wrong way. Perhaps the fundamental structure of most games makes their narratives more akin to fairy tales than Hollywood pics. Given the enduring nature of fairy tales and their marvelous capacity to reach the elusive "children of all ages" demographic, maybe that's a good thing.

The humble case


A few days ago, I wrote that reasonable people have genuine concerns about the effects of violent video games - and depictions of violence across media - on our kids and society at large. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, harsh critics of video games have pitched drastic measures to curb violent content, while defenders contend our fascination with violence is healthy, innate and as old as The Iliad.

Neither argument is fully persuasive, and I think most of us fall somewhere between the two perspectives. Banning or censoring “objectionable” material is a dangerous and self-defeating precedent ; but the ceaseless flow of combat, death and destruction in games has come to feel overwhelming, even to those of us who sometimes consume and enjoy such media.

It’s important to note this isn’t just about kids and parenting. It’s also about civility and stewardship of a society. It’s about fostering a culture that values peace. And it’s about a real and growing concern that a bellicose nation, numb to the consequences of violence, breeds ever more fear, hostility, and hate. These concerns extend far beyond games and guns. But both are implicated, regardless of the rhetoric or data thrown at them.

That’s why we who love games need to talk to anyone willing to listen. We need to tell our stories. The defining qualities of games - beautiful systems that engage us like no other medium - are not self-evident, especially when they’re buried inside iterative formulations of shooters, RPGs and other well-worn genres. I am forever explaining why this hero-saves-the-world game is infinitely superior to that one, among colleagues who can see no apparent difference between the two. But they are different, and those differences matter.

As a teacher, I’m predisposed to believing we can teach and learn our way past most problems. Maybe that’s a naive perspective. Perhaps Ian Bogost is right when he calls Joe Biden’s meeting with the video game industry “a trap.”

The truth is, the games industry lost as soon as a meeting was conceived about stopping gun violence with games as a participating voice. It was a trap, and the only possible response to it is to expose it as such. Unfortunately, the result is already done: Once more, public opinion has been infected with the idea that video games have some predominant and necessary relationship to gun violence, rather than being a diverse and robust mass medium that is used for many different purposes, from leisure to exercise to business to education.

I understand Bogost’s point, but I don’t believe talking to a politician implies acquiescence. We can’t surrender a point we haven’t yet owned (I didn’t say “earned,” which is a different thing). Bogost and I (and probably you) know from experience that games are, in fact, a “diverse and robust medium,” but the conversations I described in my last post suggest we’re nowhere near ubiquity on that point of view. Brendan Sinclair gets it right in an op-ed piece that appeared on GamesIndustry earlier today:

Despite everything the Wii and mobile and social games have done to expand the audience in recent years, when people think of games, they still think of an endless parade of games that let players shoot each other square in the face. And it's completely understandable why. That's what we make. That's what we market. That's how we present ourselves to the outside world... So when tragedies happen, our response must be galling to those who don't "get" games... Instead of explaining the merits of what we do, we throw up discussion-ending roadblocks of First Amendment rights and scientific research... It's not unlike what the National Rifle Association does when the issue of gun control comes up. They say it doesn't work, namecheck the Second Amendment, and change the subject.

It would be a mistake to overstate the importance of E3, especially given the rise of mobile/casual games that rarely appear there. But we must acknowledge that the show exists as the biggest, loudest, and most media-blanketed games event in North America. Nearly all the major developers are there (and an increasing number of indies), and coverage reaches into mainstream media outlets like no other event.

E3 is the public face of the video games industry, and it is an ugly mess. This year’s event was essentially about watching publishers run one bloody shooter after another up the E3 flagpole. As I noted after returning from L.A. last June, two massive convention halls filled with shooters isn’t ethically problematic. It’s worse than that. It’s boring.

In the current political climate, we who care about games can make a difference, but we must acknowledge and address genuine public concern about games that make killing feel like fun. It’s a moment for us to bring forward our best stories about games - not as a collective “God, I love this game,” or “This game made me cry,” but as careful observers of the deep and vivid experiences games can provide. We must put our faces and reputations behind the games we admire and explain to a skeptical public why violent games like Bioshock, Metro 2033, and The Walking Dead really are about more than plugging baddies with bullets and ray-guns.

I’m not pointing at an invisible mountain. It’s there, and many have successfully climbed it. It’s an ongoing effort from a community I’m proud to be part of, and we’ll keep doing our thing.

Our new challenge (not really new, but certainly more pressing now) is to fuse our critical sensibilities with a humility that understands why otherwise tolerant people feel outrage when they see bulky power-fantasy avatars armed to the hilt, mowing down enemies with automatic weapons. We cannot shield ourselves from the reality that there have been 62 mass shootings in the U.S. since 1982, with killings in 30 states. 25 of those mass shootings have occurred since 2006, and 7 of them took place in 2012.(1)

We may never finish making the case for games, but if we’re to succeed, we must make that case with compassion for those who feel victimized by violence in all its forms.

Violence will always factor into our play. It’s our job to explain the function of that violence in our make-believe worlds and assign meaning where we can find it. The places where we cannot may be the places where our critics have something to teach us.

Notes from the wild


This holiday season I went off the grid. No email. No Twitter or Feedly. Notifications disabled. Nothing chirping for my attention except my kid, whose startup sequence deploys at 6:30 A.M.

This wasn’t something I planned, but after a few days I decided to stick with it. I expected to feel disconnected, but instead it felt cleansing, liberating…necessary. If you can manage to cut the cord, even for a few days, I recommend giving it a try. You may find yourself noticing things like the UPS man’s nifty gloves, the sound of snow crunching under your feet, or your own breathing.

During my time in the analog wild, I thought a lot about games. I made a point of discussing them with anyone willing to chat with me about them. My circumstances in recent weeks brought me into contact with students from all over the world, travelers, family members, and a broad assortment of friendly folks I met between Indianapolis and Los Angeles.

Recently I’ve begun to reflect on how we think and talk about games and the industry producing them. By “we” I mean developers, critics, enthusiasts - basically anyone likely to visit this site or others like it.

The upside of our evolving community is an enhanced critical focus on games and quality writing about them. The downside is that we’re growing increasingly detached from the people who play games and fuel the market for them. I see this as a predictable (and not altogether negative) result of several factors: growing specialization among critics and a trajectory toward more micro-analysis; an increasingly segmented market of games and players; and a natural tendency to overestimate the prominence of the echo chamber we’ve built to host our conversations.

My informal chats with “regular gamers” have led me to a few conclusions, none of which I’ll attempt to quantify. I’m relying on impressions gathered through careful listening here, so if you’re looking for hard data, you should probably get off the bus now. I’m an artist, not a sociologist, folks. :-)

  • We don’t pay enough attention to the games people actually play.
    Many of us were happy to learn that Dishonored recently topped 2 million in sales, exceeding expectations of its publisher. According to Bethesda’s Pete Hines, “We clearly have a new franchise." Good news for a good game, but consider it in context with Rovio’s recent announcement that its Angry Birds games were downloaded 8 million times on Christmas Day alone, and 30 million times in the week of December 22–29. 

    Clearly, I’m comparing apples and oranges in terms of design and price, but my point is that we routinely ignore mobile/tablet games that utterly dominate the games marketplace. Sure, many of these games are throwaways (as are some console games that receive far more attention), and a few receive critical-darling treatment (e.g. Superbrothers: S&S, Osmos). But most mobile/tablet games appear and disappear quietly with little critical fanfare outside mobile-centric sites like Touch Arcade or Slide to Play. For games like Dream of Pixels, Gua-Le-Ni, Girls Like Robots, or The Room, that’s a shame.

  • No one appears eager for a new generation of consoles.
    I couldn’t find a single person who expressed anything resembling excitement for the next generation of consoles. Some believe new hardware will lead to better looking games…but not a lot better, and that’s the sticky point. In this economy, with current systems still perceived as viable, it’s apparently hard for many people to muster much enthusiasm for pricy new systems with incremental improvements.

  • Very few people have even heard of the Wii U
    I wish I had a dollar for every person who looked at me quizzically when I asked them about the Wii U. Few knew anything about it, and the ones who did had fuzzy ideas about its touchscreen controller or how it differed from the Wii. Even those who had seen a TV or print ad for the system seemed confused about it. I didn’t speak to a single person who expressed an interest in owning one. That’s probably bad, right?

  • Lots of people are perfectly happy with their outdated, outmoded, hopelessly dead-end Wii systems.
    In fact, when I asked people what games they play at home, Wii titles like Sports Resort, and Dance Party came up more often than other games. When you read someone in the games press say “I dusted off my Wii to play X,” remember that for lots of people, it’s the only system they own, and it’s still lots of fun, especially at family gatherings. I shot this bit of evidence the day after Christmas.

  • Nobody cares about 3D or voice-control, and nobody wants to navigate a menu by waving their hands.
    I don’t think I can add anything to that statement.

  • Indie games like Journey have a tiny footprint.
    I may feel strongly that Journey is a masterpiece of game design, but the reality is that most people have never heard of it and will never play it. Chalk it up to indie games still making their way in the marketplace. Minecraft is more significant in this regard, at least among the people I spoke to. 

    But the real culprit remains the self-defeating marginalization of system-exclusive releases. I can preach to a class of 30 students that they simply must play Journey, but when only 2 of those students own a PS3, few will respond. I realize the industry is what it is, but until I can recommend games, or loan them out like I do books and movies, games will remain culturally balkanized. Here again, moble/tablet games are knocking down such arbitrary walls. When I say “you must play Triple Town” to a person with a smartphone, chances are she will because she can.

  • Intelligent people are genuinely worried about violence in games.
    You and I can debate the question and exchange scholarly studies, but recent events have sensitized people to the issue of violence in games like never before. We (critics, press, designers) must address this now. Claiming a lack of data or citing studies that say violent crime has dropped in recent years won’t cut it. 

    Why not? Because those arguments fail the sniff test. It no longer matters whether or not games contributed to the massacre at Newtown. What matters is that lots of reasonable people have come to believe we’re awash in depictions of bloody violence across media, and repeatedly exposing our kids to this stuff is just plain wrong. In all my years of playing shooters and brawlers, my mother never expressed a shred of concern. But this year at Christmas she looked me in the eye and asked, “Do you worry that video games make killing seem like fun?” And for the first time I answered yes.