DoctorHair spends way too much time thinking about video games. He is constantly torn between two worlds: that of a media-consumption, and that of content creation. What good are ideas if you don't devote any time toward expressing them?
Destructoid's own Jonathan Holmes recently wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about the representation of black characters in videogames. For an article which dared to ask gamers to consider the existence of imperfections within the medium of games, it sparked surprisingly little controversy and even less anger. In fact, the vast majority of the article's comments were composed of one of two things: calm criticism about the facts within the article itself, and good-natured musings between commenters about the various little implications that the data within the article suggested.
One remark, by a user named Megamatics, was of particular interest to me. He submitted for consideration a few black characters who had been left out of the article, one of whom was SEGA's Sonic the Hedgehog. He explained that his primary reason for considering Sonic "black" was his erstwhile Saturday-morning portrayal by famous Urkel-er Jaleel White.
Now, obviously, Sonic the hedgehog isn't a black man. He's blue, and not a person. But he's not just an animal, he's an anthropomorphized animal with lots of human traits and race is a very commonly-observed human trait. Is it incorrect to attach certain human traits to characters like these? Where does one draw the line?
Previous to reading Megamatic's comment, I had given very little thought to this subject. However, it did cause me to realize that I'd always considered a different character from the series to be black: Knuckles the Echidna.
Full disclosure: I was a Nintendo kid, so my first substantial experience with the Sonic cast outside of the cartoons was the GameCube port of Sonic Adventure 2. In this game, every character has specific theme music, as well as songs that only play during their stages. Knuckles's music selection is a bit unique in that it's almost entirely vocal music sung from the perspective of Knuckles himself. And--I'm just going to come out and say it--it's all rap.
I am very aware that rap is not exclusive to any one race, and I'm certainly not trying to imply that only black characters can be represented by rap. However, this particular rap is all explicitly from the perspective of Knuckles. Nearly every song has the black artist performing it refer to himself as Knuckles several times, while other tracks simply describe the details of a specific level from a first-person perspective. As far as SA2's music is concerned: Knuckles literally IS a rapping black man.
I was actually shocked to find that, as far as I can tell, Knuckles has NEVER actually been voiced by a black man. Scott Dreier's performance in SA2 didn't really give an impression either way, so I'd always assumed it was a black voice due to all the accompanying theme music.
Am I wrong to consider Knuckles "black"? Is Megamatics wrong to consider Sonic "black"? Are people who consider them to be "white" right, or less wrong? Why?
If I have a "point", so to speak, I suppose it's that anthropomorphic characters are human-esque by the very nature of their design. It is impossible to exclude them completely from the categories we use to define humans. In the case of Knuckles, I think the association with black culture was pretty deliberate on SEGA's part when they made Sonic Adventure 2. I may have "decided" he was black when I was 11, but I think that decision holds up pretty well to scrutiny.
While there may not be a way to definitively tell what race a blue hedgehog or a red echidna is, in human terms, it's an interesting little gray area to consider. What does it mean for a specific race when a company very obviously tries to make a cartoon animal resemble them through superficial qualities? Is it a compliment, or an insult?
And, most importantly, which of these critters are our redneck family members supposed to hate?
Choice is an integral component of what makes a videogame a videogame. Much fuss is made over the role of a player in the world of a game. The Fallout and Bioshock series have sold themselves on a reputation for offering the player a deeply meaningful level of control over the events and outcomes of their stories.
One series which is almost never offered as an example of choice in games, however, is Nintendo's long-running Legend of Zelda. It and other Japanese mainstays are quite often lumped together as "linear"--mere rollercoasters meant to show you an experience rather than let you create one for yourself.
However, there is one game in this tentpole franchise which stands taller than the rest: The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask for the Nintendo 64. At its heart, this game may have a more important message about choice than any other: you don't really have any.
You think you know someone...
As Link first enters Termina--a world parallel to his own Hyrule--he is smacked in the face with the unmistakable stench of strangeness. Nearly every face in this new locale is familiar to him, but the world itself could hardly be more different; the technology is more advanced, and the Kokiri seem to be entirely absent. Even the surface-level familiarity with the townspeople quickly dissolves in light of their differing personalities.
Imagine, if you will, going for a hike through the forest. You're going about your business, just walking through the trees, when you trip over a branch and fall. All goes black for a minute or two, and when you wake up you find yourself in an unfamiliar city. Within the city is everyone you've ever met, but they treat you as a complete stranger and sport new names. Worse yet, you've been turned into a weird plant thing. Even you don't know who you are right now.
In the unlikely event that you're able to explain what's going on, very few people would understand what you mean and even fewer would believe you. Many of us fall into this trap every day; it's like trying to scream in the land of the deaf. True understanding is hard to come by, even when one's words and actions are crystal clear.
Thusly, choice is, at least partially, an illusion of the mind. Our freedoms to speak and act supposedly afford us the ability to influence the world around us, but our degree of control is significantly lessened by the wills of others and the forces of nature.
This basic philosophical problem has become a living, breathing reality for poor Link. And to top it all off, he'll never get a chance to really figure out what's going on because...
Everyone and everything is going to die no matter what
Death comes for us all, eventually; it doesn't matter who we are or what we do. The inhabitants of Termina are even less lucky on this front than most of us, though, as they will all die in 72 hours courtesy of the moon up above. It's not so wonderful.
Since these events are beyond comprehension and control, most people just go about their daily routines of preparing for their regularly-scheduled carnival. Over the course of these three days, we see most Terminians go through an especially quick rundown of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
The moon has forced those below it to face not only their mortality, but the fact that they have no control over the situation.
And yet, they go about their daily routines anyway because...
Imminent death isn't an excuse to slack off
With a mere four dungeons to explore and plunder, Majora's Mask is an anomaly amongst its peers. Depending on how one plays it, it can be either one of the lengthiest adventures in the series or one of the shortest. This is due to an abundance of sidequests, nearly all of which require Link to deeply involve himself in the day-to-day lives of others. Since the main quest is a mere Zelda appetizer on its own, most players will find themselves plugging away at the "optional" endeavors sooner or later.
Scratching the surface of the game's sidequests quickly reveals the monolithic iceberg beneath. This, combined with the persistent 3-day time limit, serves to drive home one central point: there will never be enough time to do everything you need to do. Even after you've learned the Song of Time, which allows you to reset time to the dawn of the first day, you will never be able to manage your time so efficiently as to accomplish everything on one "cycle".
What does this mean for the people of Termina? Bluntly, it means that even were they to sort out all their problems, their progress would be undone on the whim of a boy with a funny-shaped flute.
It'd be quite easy to glance this over and claim that Majora is a meditation on that whole nihilism schtick the internet seems to adore so much. Why should one do anything if none of it matters in the end? Well, to paraphrase Destructoid's own Jonathan Holmes...
If nothing in life matters then everything in life matters
It would take a truly callous person to ignore the plight of Termina's people in favor of completing only the mandatory dungeons. A stupid, callous person for that matter, since many of the game's helpful tools and collectible masks are doled out as rewards for sidequests. It can be done, for sure, but director Eiji Aonuma's team has ensured that you will pay doubly for your transgressions.
Much like in real life, sitting around on your ass worsens both your life and the lives of those around you.
The masks and other optional items represent our life's experiences. By going out of our way to contribute to the world however we can, we are rewarded with an enrichment of character and experience. Even if the moon crashes, our memories of those close to us will soften the blow.
Ultimately, as this is a Nintendo game, the ending is far less bleak than the rest of the game would have you believe.
The reality of the situation is that Termina has a lot of work to do. Many good people--Mikau and Darmani among them--are dead and gone. The north is a barren wasteland, the pirate/Zora conflict rages on in the west, the east is lacking its greatest hero/former-future leader, and the southern swamp is ruled by an incompetent jackass.
Link may have delayed the inevitable, but Termina is still marching toward all kinds of doom and gloom. Unlike Hyrule, Termina is without Princess Zelda or some sort of equivalent to keep it out of trouble. One wonders what will happen to the land now that its sole savior has moved onward.
I mean, hell. Tingle must've moved to Hyrule for some reason...