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6:07 PM on 02.23.2010

Star Wars: Republic Commando : Doing Things Right



Sometimes it's nice to cut away all these gameplay vs. narrative arguments and just find a game that does both, and does them both right. Star Wars: Republic Commando is a terrific little piece of software. It is a first person shooter set in the Star Wars universe franchise. You play as “38,” also known as “Boss,” the leader of a four-man squad of clone trooper Commandos known as “Delta Squad.” The game takes place in the same time frame as the second and third Star Wars films, starting on the Battle of Geonosis – that big ending battle from the second film. After that, you are deployed to a decrepit Republic freighter that has been assaulted by mercenaries and Separatist droids. Finally, you do covert ops on the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk, culminating in a climactic final battle with the Separatist forces.

This ends up punctuating the tension of the game into three arcs, first Geonosis, then the freighter, then Kahyyyk. However, this works beautifully. Consider a longer game with only one thread of tension running through it. Many games may take in excess of ten hours to beat. The tension decreases dramatically because your experience is so punctuated – you’re not playing fifteen hours in one sitting (I hope you aren’t at least). Republic Commando avoids this problem by breaking the game down into three “Acts,” each with a discrete rising action and brief denouement before the next.

This game offers a really fresh take on the Star Wars franchise. The movies are very Jedi-centric, and because of that they have a certain tone. By this I mean the element of danger is less omnipresent. Not so in Republic Commando. You’re a soldier – albeit a highly trained one – and even droids can kill you if you aren’t careful. This tone – gritty and more personal – combines with the tension provided by the “Act” setup to form a much more compact, forceful Star Wars experience.



In Republic Commando, your squad is your lifeline. You can direct them in combat with presses of the “F” key and the F1 through F4 keys. Let’s say you’re in a firefight with some droids in a large courtyard. There is a piece of destroyed masonry crossing the center. Hovering near it is a translucent white target (more on this in a second). You orient yourself towards it and press “F.” The Boss says something like, “Take cover, Commando.” The appropriate squad member will dash to cover and begin firing from that position. The F1 through F4 keys handle functions such as regrouping and holding ground, offering you another degree of control over your squad mates. The translucent target comes from your “Heads-Up Display” in your clone trooper helmet, your health, ammunition, and vital environment information are relayed to you as electrical displays in the corners of your character’s visor – cleverly avoiding the problem of simply having this information displayed on the screen for no apparent reason.

What makes a good character? I run through a useful exercise whenever I encounter this question. Describe the character without using any concrete physical terms – like appearance, race, or clothing. For the purposes of this exercise, let’s look at two Star Wars characters.

Han Solo: Rogue with a heart of gold. His sense of morality develops throughout the movies as he grows closer to Leia – even though its clear from the get go that he doesn’t consider himself just another criminal. Sarcastic and witty. Atheistic in the sense that he doesn’t believe all the “mumbo-jumbo” about the Force. Practical, pretty cool under pressure. Usually just gets frustrating during fights. Has a funny repartee with Chewbacca.

Vs.

Queen Amidala (Padme): Luke and Leia’s mom. Queen of Naboo….uh….

See what good characterization does, and how easy it is to check for it? Here’s the kicker: all the members of Delta Squad wear identical armor, save for coloration differences and some equipment differences. You will never see a squad member’s face. But by the end of Act 1, you’ll know these guys better than your girlfriend.



07 “Sev”: The hunter. Brutally efficient. Favors the sniper rifle. Very dark sense of humor, for example: “A well-built sniper rifle is a beautiful thing. Ours has two zoom modes, "Up close and personal" and "Hello, you're dead” (IMDB). Gets frustrated when injured in combat. Strong sense of loyalty to the squadron. He likes killing, no bones about it.

62 “Scorch”: Demolitions expert and explosives aficionado. Unflappable commitment to humor. Unlike Sev, favors witty comebacks to dark observational jokes. Seems to view being a soldier as more of a job than anything else. Enjoys something of a repartee with Sev (Scorch: Was it red-red-green or red-green-red? / Sev: And he's supposed to be the demolitions expert? (IMDB)). Strong sense of irony, does not relish combat in the same sense that Sev does. Jokes freely with figures of authority.

40 “Fixer”: Skilled mechanic and hacker. By the books, all business. Hardly ever cracks jokes and never uses nicknames to refer to squad mates. Loyal to his squad but seemingly neutral on all matters of opinion. Does he like fighting? Does he agree with the war? Who knows. In this regard, he has less humanity than Sev, who you’ll grow to like once you get used to his sense of humor. This doesn’t make “Fixer” more sinister, but only more detached and aloof.

For a long section of the second Act, you are separated from the squad. You’re completely on your own and the sense of vulnerability really kicks in. By the time you regroup, you’ll have never been happier. This is what makes Republic Commando great. It actually makes you attached to a squad of three fictional soldiers without faces! So what are we left with? A taut, well designed shooter with an emphasis on fighting as a team, a well structured sense of tension and plot, a gritty soundtrack and aesthetic, and a group of characters that you actually care about, who you hope to god will make it through this war alive. Republic Commando is a videogame’s videogame. Pick it up if you ever have the chance, you won’t be disappointed.   read


12:20 PM on 01.23.2010

Close, But No Cigar: The Mark of Kri

Inspired by Edge’s Time Extend article on the The Mark of Kri, I thought I would do my own writeup, which arrived at many of the same conclusions as the Time Extend. Nevertheless, I decided to post it since The Mark of Kri has six levels in it. Each will take you around an hour to complete, maybe a little longer. It’s mostly about a bad guy and a good guy in the most American cinematic sense of the terms. It doesn’t sound very remarkable - in fact, it's a lopsided sort of game after all is said and done. But it is pretty remarkable. Here's why:

The Mark of Kri looks like Don Bluth and a bunch of Disney animators made a video game based on Polynesian and Pacific mythology. That’s not very far from the truth. Most of the people on Sony Computer Entertainment America’s San Diego Studio were classically trained 2D animators who had worked for places like Nickelodeon, Disney, and Dreamworks. The character designs were animated by hand, as opposed to motion-capture. It took 18 months of animation. It’s a rolling, thundering ballad that -when you're least expecting it - will kick you in the teeth.



How do you talk about The Mark of Kri? Let’s start here: “If Ico had been an architect’s blueprint of a platformer, Kri was more an animator’s impression of a third-person action game” (EDGE 2009). The Mark of Kri doesn’t operate like any other action game. There are no grab bags of powerups to collect, other than extra health scattered around the level and bundles of arrows tucked away* – no long ticking chains of combo numbers and points flashing on the screen during combat indicating 99 HITS! with a flash and a guitar riff. In combat, you use the right analog stick to send out an abstract “focusing” beam of light, representing Rau “targeting” enemies. These enemies are then coded to a different face button on the controller, either Square, Triangle, or Circle. The less foes you target, the more frightening your combos and finishers.

The Mark of Kri is violent. If it was a Disney movie – which it sure as hell looks like – people would be appalled by the violence. Rau Utu is a barrel-chested, tattooed beast, silent at all times, save for grunts of pain and bellowing war cries. His “stealth mode,” walking without a weapon equipped, is low, predatory, rolling. The first time you sneak up on a guard and catch him unawares, Rau will grab him by the throat, press him against a wall, and quietly run him through. In combat, enemies will shrink with fear whenever you kill one of their comrades, disgusted by the savagery. The shock of it is not gratuitous - even when paired with animation which people would normally consider “family friendly” – it just contributes to the overall flair of the game. His bird, Kuzo, is just as much a player character as Rau, he can be directed to fly to – and perch on – objects in the various levels of the game. The player can then switch his view to that of the bird, getting a literal “bird’s eye view” of the dangers ahead. Rau, the implacable bull, and Kuzo, the silent device for planning your next course of action – add up to form one unstoppable being.



The Mark of Kri is a myth in every sense of the word. You are a Herculean force, and enemies only exist to be overcome. Once spotted, you cannot reenter stealth by evasion, you can only leap into the fray - it's an interesting, and I'd say realistic touch. How many games have you played where guards just GIVE UP chasing you after twenty seconds?** Even in the levels where the enemies do not appear to be frightening cultist-soldiers (two of them to be precise), your foes are dispatched which just as little mercy as any other. They are an obstacle in your path. Kri has no puzzles or unnecessary backtracking, just pure forward motion.

The Mark of Kri doesn’t get into stride until the third and fourth levels, particularly the fourth. The fourth has you fighting your way through a mountaintop monastery / fortress filled with vicious pseudo-samurai. You drop patrolling guards with well placed arrows, you stalk through the mute snowdrifts, and you throttle soldiers quietly and quickly in the shadowed parapets. The Mark of Kri’s visuals and violence come together in near perfect harmony in this level (called Vaitaku).



Unfortunately, this feeling doesn’t last. You acquire a spear at the end of the level. Visually it’s a joy to wield in combat, but it can target more foes, which the next level heaps on you at an alarming speed, starting to abandon the previous emphasis on stealth and those pregnant moments before explosive combat. By the sixth and last level, you’ll have acquired an axe, which can target up to nine foes at a time. All pretense of stealth is gone and the shortcomings of the combat system - which really only shines through careful application (read: less is more) - are exposed.

The Mark of Kri is a unique game, in the same vein as Shadow of the Colossus.*** It strives to maintain its tone throughout the game, and while mechanically it is not on the level of Sony’s later third person action blockbuster God of War, it isn’t trying to be. The bottom line is that it is an uneven experience that peaks in the middle and fizzles by the end. But that peak is worth the trek. “Gather round, all of you who would listen: I have a tale to tell,” begins the narrator in the opening of The Mark of Kri, and what a tale it is – one that players would do well to experience.


*I lied – there are some hidden “Tikis” to collect in each level, but since I can’t recall what they do, they can’t have been that important.

** Rhymes with "Betal Meer"

**Author’s Note: I didn’t like Ico much.   read


8:35 PM on 01.02.2010

Gender and Sexuality in Mass Effect

Mass Effect was a fantastic game from Bioware, burdened by its representation of sexuality and gender on the part of supporting characters. Expanding on this Escapist article by Ray Huling, http://tinyurl.com/ygueqt6, this post will take a look at where Mass Effect stumbled in its otherwise locktight step.

A special premiered on the SciFi channel a few months before the release of Mass Effect titled “Sci vs Fi: Mass Effect” In it, Drew Karpyshyn, the lead writer for Mass Effect, said the following:

“I think we're entering an age when people are more open-minded... People are saying traditional sexual roles don't necessarily have to be the way to go. And Mass Effect lets you maybe explore things a little differently, because, let's be honest, alien chicks are hot.”

Notice how the last sentence obliterates the preceding. I’m reminded of a press release for the Marvel comic series “Marvel Divas” in which a Marvel rep said the purpose was mostly to have “hot fun.” It’s understandable that Karpyshyn, and the rest of the Bioware team, want to sell their game. A TV special is a great way to do that, and we all remember the old moniker: “sex sells.” But perhaps this was only hyperbole meant to draw in potential buyers? Not entirely.

There are a few major races in Mass Effect. Four, including humans, are represented in your squad. Several of the game’s races didn’t actually have female models or characters, I’m chalking this up not to any sort of maliciousness on Bioware’s part but to time constraints on the team when it came to producing models, animations, and dialogue for each species. As such, they will not be considered in this article.





Before getting to the alien races, let’s briefly consider the two human members of the squad, Ashley and Kaiden. Both are loyal soldiers, and both are heterosexual. This is fairly innocuous. Ashley is a religious individual who would probably repress lesbian urges were they ever to manifest. Kaiden is just…Kaiden, the biotic of the squad. Questions only arise when we compare the two against other members of the squad.

The Asari are a long lived, mono-gendered species that prefer to mate with members of other species to produce offspring. They achieve this by forming a “mental and spiritual”connection with their partner (in other words, mind-sex). Consider the capacities the Asari appear in. First, are the “Consorts,” a group of Asari and human women on the Citadel. A clear answer is never given on exactly what the Consorts do, even when asked. They seem to function as social workers, psychiatrists, and sex workers all at once. But to what end? What is the context of this activity? Secondly, we see Asari working as strippers in a Citadel bar.* Thirdly, we have Liara’s mother, the sinister Matriarch Benezia, an Asari in league with Saren. And finally, Liara, the awkward, bookish, emotionally vulnerable party member available as a sexual partner for Shepards of either gender. Huling writes in his article that, “The easiest romance to develop in Mass Effect is with a blue-skinned, bisexual, hot alien chick who prefers to date outside her race.”** The major appearances of the Asari are then:

- In three cases, as sexually available individuals, possibly even promiscuous.
- In one case, an asexual antagonist.





The Quarians are a humanoid race known for the creation of the Geth, the sentient robotic species that formed the bulk of enemy NPCs in the original Mass Effect. Forced from their homeworld by the Geth, the Quarians roam the galaxy in massive ships, and, lacking a proper immune system, can only venture outside of them in airtight suits. Tali’Zorah nar Rayya, or Tali for short, is a female Quarian who joins the squad after being rescued from assassins by Shepard and the team. Tali is a talented engineer on a pilgrimage to find something of use to bring back to the Quarian fleet. Her consummately cool-under-pressure dialogue is provided by Liz Stroka. I spotted a forum post a few months after Mass Effect’s release that proceeded something along these lines: “There are three female squad members in the game, Ashley, Liara, and Tali. You can have sex with Ashley or Liara but not Tali.” Tali is the “other” female squad member, distinct from the others because she is not sexually available.

You can essentially see where I’m going with this. Women in Mass Effect are either sexual available, or devoid of sexuality. There is no sexuality existing independently from Commander Shepard, in terms of female characters.*** In addition, the two human squad members – which Shepard can form a relationship with - prescribe to normative sexual roles, while the two alien female characters are bisexual in one case and asexual in the other.





This can be interpreted in more than one way. If we take Mass Effect for what it is, a video game intended for the mass market, and a power fantasy – which most games are, not in a masculine sense, but in the sense that we are playing to exert control over a game world – then sexuality existing independently – and outside control of – the player character is something aberrant. However, if this was truly the case, would there not be an option for a homosexual encounter for a male Shepard? Is this because lesbianism has been thoroughly sexualized by mass media, and thus, easier to accept, than homosexuality? I think the overall quality of Mass Effect’s writing illustrates that its writers and designers are striving for both marketability and respectability in their titles, and this kind of representation is ultimately detrimental to their overall vision.

Kazua recently posted an article on using the benefits of using a female Shepard in Mass Effect. He wrote that, “There are no subtle lines that seem more appropriately directed toward males than females,” and pointed out how appropriately direct Jennifer Hale’s vocal performance was. I would offer that a simple factor helped this: the male and female Shepard have the same dialogue. There was no “feminine” dialogue written for Hale’s performance, nor were there any machismo-fueled lines in Meer’s male performance. It is particularly jarring, in one sense, to play the game as a female Shepard while witnessing the typecasting I’ve gone over in this article. I have not played Dragon Age: Origins, and I’m curious to see how Bioware has gone forward, or backpedaled, since Mass Effect.





*Aside: This is actually quite funny when you think about it. Due to the Asari’s advanced lifespan, some of the strippers were probably in their 100s, 200s, and above.
**Why are bisexuals always more receptive to sexual advances than both heterosexual and homosexual persons in media? I’d like to know if there’s any literature on this.
***Urdnot Wrex and the Krogan represent masculinity run rampant. With four testicles and their penchant for destruction – and nothing else – the Krogan might as well be the last 20,000 years of male human history condensed. Wrex himself is difficult to control and fiercely independent – to the point that you might have to kill him. Did Bioware unconsciously write in a diametric opposite to their sexually receptive females in the form of Wrex?   read


5:39 PM on 12.28.2009

Section 8 : A Brief Look Into My Confusion (And Madness)

In mid August I went to see District 9, as I'm sure many Destructoid readers also did. I enjoyed it immensely and was left with questions. What were the "prawns" fleeing from? Had there been a war? Had their planet been invaded? But then, two weeks later, I see an ad for a game, called Section 8. You might've seen images from the game.



My immediate thought, when I saw this armored figure, was that it was a prawn, and that this was a video game that had been developed alongside the film.



"Aha," I thought, "The similar name is intended to evoke the movie itself, while being different enough to refer to a section of the "prawns" military. This must be a tie in game about whatever it was that drove them to flee their homeworld. Terrific idea."

A day or two later I found out it was not, in fact, an awesome video game based on the District 9 franchise and expanding upon it in a unique way, but instead an unrelated title about separatist human forces in a sci-fi future featuring an emphasis on online multiplayer battles.

But imagine how cool that would have been?   read


6:04 PM on 11.09.2009

Surviving Nostalgia; Rayman 2: The Great Escape



Every few years, I come back to Rayman 2: The Great Escape for a play-through, at least a partial one. Why do I keep returning? I try to replay many of my old games every few years to purge myself of nostalgia, to see what stands the test of time and what doesn’t. Many games might have one particular element which ages well, as the rest of it corrodes against the promises of new titles. This is expected and understandable, but from this we can generally draw two further distinctions:
1) The game has deteriorated not because it was poorly designed at the time, but because it has been outdone by more recent titles.
Or
2) The game has deteriorated because it was poorly designed at the time of release. Rayman 2: The Great Escape has weathered, like every game, but it remains sharp enough to stand the test of time.

In Rayman 2, the titular hero, Rayman, finds himself captured by the Robo-Pirates, a band of, well…robotic pirates bent on enslaving his planet’s population. You must escape and go on a journey to defeat the pirates and their leader, Admiral Razorbeard, to save your world.

What Rayman 2 comes down to, and what makes it survive ten years later, is fundamentally these things: cohesion and polish.

Rayman controls like a heavier Mario from Super Mario 64. Less an acrobat, more an endurance fighter. There is much more heft to his jump and stride. He is less slippery than Mario, more rooted. Verticality is less of an issue here (but it’s still a true platformer). Every time you jam the B button to send an energy globe at an enemy (the primary method of attack), you feel the feedback. Have I ever mentioned how much I love control inputs that have you hold down a button and then release it? Lock onto an enemy, hold down B. Rayman charges an orb into a basketball sized ball of light, release, and WHAM, you feel, see, and hear the globe hitting as a pirate gets tossed to the floor. In fact, I only wish there was a louder smash on impact, with more controller rumble for a fully charged globe.



The action in this game feels tightly choreographed. This is not an item collection game. Your purpose is always moving forward, always towards a goal. Levels feature brilliant set pieces and extended action sequences to keep things varied, but these rarely feel gimmicky, perhaps because they seem so fine tuned. The game keeps throwing different play styles at you, reinventing itself as soon as something has been used up. You'll be chased by pirate ships along rickety cliffside platforms while dodging cannon fire, water skiing through a dark marsh - pulled by a speedy aquatic snake, and racing along tortuous forest pathways on runaway missile with legs. Rayman 2 is constantly itinerating, with a new take on some form of play (be it movement or combat) in every level, or at least every other.

The dialog is sparse, mostly a few interactions here and there, but it has that understated Ubisoft humor of yesteryear. Much of it physical humor, such as a character’s reactions. The dialog is accompanied by the nonsense-language verbiage you usually see in 64-era Rare titles, but it seems to have been written with some syntax in mind, meaning it isn’t just a series of guffaws, and ends up working well with the game's humor.



Every level feels so organic I'd be hard pressed to find one that doesn't fit. Some have puzzles which I don't care for as much, but they are all impeccably ordered. Rayman 2 presents a world which has existed long before the player ever set foot in it, breathes and moves while you spend your time there, and feels alive enough that it is one of those settings which just seems to exist long after you've shut down the console. Most of the planet is a warm, temperate to muggy climate, so you don't have any requisite "ice levels," "desert levels," etc. They are all interrelated, so you don’t have that weird break in linearity where you snap between wildly differing level aesthetics.

The music is good. A couple are so good that I downloaded them. From the haunting thrum of the swamps, to the bubbling drums of the lava temple, every track fits snugly with its level.



So what do we have? A player-character that is a joy to control, tightly scripted action, an expansive and well-realized world, and a fun tale tying it all together. No one of these things makes Rayman 2: The Great Escape a great game. It's all of them combined. This game has an overwhelming sense of vision, of all these parts working together as a whole, cleanly and effectively. A huge amount of care went into this game. It’s just so damned together without being pretentious about it that it ends up being a wonder. Rayman 2 is the sort of video game that a group of people can make once, under specific conditions and will probably never be able to reproduce exactly. It's like sea glass, singular, a little mysterious, utterly polished (pun intended) and never to be reproduced without seeming artificial. As it should be.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some robo-pirates to defeat.   read


7:26 PM on 11.01.2009

Nothing Is Sacred: Genres and "RPG"

We’ve got a bullet to bite here folks, and it’s not a pretty one. It’s the big elephant in the room, and it’s only going to hurt us if we don’t look at it.

We’ve been seeing a great deal of “Nothing Is Sacred” posts on RPGs, demonizing this aspect or this mechanic, to the point that it seems like RPGs in general are in deep doo-doo. I think this is part of a bigger problem.

At the end of the day, there are basically three (3) genres of videogames.

1) Action: Anything requiring twitch reflexes.
2) Strategy: Anything not based on reflexes, but instead on your decisions dictating the proceedings on the screen.
3) Like strategy, but a problem that tests the thinking abilities of the player. They can be mathematical or logistical.

Every game can be classified as one of these things. Once we start doing this, and stop using stupid names like “stylish action shooter,” and, “tactical hack n’ slash top-down rhythm fighter,” we’ll all be able to stop arguing about what genre and game or game isn’t and start arguing about what matters: whether or not the game is actually good.

Take “RPGs”. An RPG is a role-playing game, one where you determine the actions of your character based on their specific characterization which you have created, operating within a discrete, rule oriented world. So pretty much everything we call an RPG is not an RPG, it is a strategy game. Real RPGs would be table-top games, like Dungeons and Dragons, Exalted, and Vampire: The Masquerade.



And there’s the rub, over two decades of “RPGs” and look at how much evolution has actually occurred within them (protip: not much). Lately, we’ve gotten these things called “action-RPGs” which are action games with menus cluttering up the place. And while we’re on the subject, saying it’s the stats that make “RPGs” is a moot point, all games have stats, “RPGs” just let you see them more clearly.

Does it come down to the format? The ability to actually program a game to actually function like a real RPG would take a huge amount of time and a rethinking of our current (mis)understanding of genres. People probably wouldn’t even call it an RPG, because they’ve been so inundated with the labeling.



There’s the elephant people. I’m not suggesting you should stop liking whatever games you like, but game players as a whole need to step it up and stop letting themselves be dazzled by this terminology. Final Fantasy XIII is coming out next year, and SquareEnix intends to pull a fast one on everyone with their “RPG.” Don’t let them fool you.   read


8:03 PM on 10.27.2009

Rise of the Argonauts: Impressions

I picked up Rise of the Argonauts for fifteen dollars last week, and I must say, I’m pleased with it so far. It’s essentially a retelling of the classic Greek tale of Jason and the Argonauts, except in this incarnation Jason’s wife is assassinated and Jason goes on a quest to retrieve the golden fleece in order to bring her back to life.



This is probably one of the buggiest games I can remember playing. Characters pop and twitch, when they aren’t talking they stop blinking, movement is sometimes difficult or unresponsive, camera angles cut in strangely during dialogue, there is no onscreen map, and the lack of body language during extended cutscenes does nothing to help the games lengthy, Bioware-esque conversations.



But you know what? I’m enjoying it. The combat has been sparse, but the fights are entertaining. Maybe it helped since I’m playing on hard mode, but the dodge, block, strike at openings style of gameplay has a lot of “oompf” to it. You use a sword, shield, and spear, the latter of which is my current favorite for its reach and agility, reminding me of Troy and 300. There is no onscreen health bar, or anything onscreen for that matter, and I haven’t been having any problem with that at all, I rather enjoy it. Jason’s physicality is believable, whereas God of War’s Kratos is a superhuman Greek, Jason has much more of an India Jones flair about him, that he’s an ordinary man trained to rigorous physical ability.



Most of the game is spent in dialogue trees. I love what they’ve done with the branching tree system, like in Mass Effect. You have options, each aligned with a different god, which shows up as a differently colored symbol in the center of the convo tree. Ares for angry responses, Apollo for just and logical responses, Hermes for witty retorts, and Athena for wise words. Responses give you xp to be spent on each god to power up. But the phrases listed only allude to what Jason is actually going to say or do. Take a situation that unfolded on the Mycenean docks. An Ionian mercenary insulted Jason for allowing his wife to die, calling him the biggest coward in Greece. He said his home island of Iolus was weak like its king. The Apollo aligned response was, “Defend Iolus.” I selected it, and Jason proceeded to sock that son of a bitch right in the mouth. I practically shrieked with joy.



Though the dialogue is technically sound and well voiced (mostly), the bugs really put a damper on it. Awkward pauses which should have been smoothed out in editing, along with the aforementioned problems with character movement, cast a pall over what is generally good writing. It’s unfortunate, but if you can work past it, there’s a fun story being told here. Rise of the Argonauts is a retelling, like God of War, but it has none of the satirical, postmodern outlook of its predecessor. Rise of the Argonauts seems much more like what the Greeks would have thought of their epics in their own time, full of bold heroes in classic Greece doing Greek things. Hell, it has almost as much dialogue in it as the Iliad! If that doesn’t make it Greek, I don’t know what does.

It’s a shame this game was rushed out so soon, and that it didn’t offer more combat, especially against monstrous enemies. Perhaps I haven’t seen any yet? Don’t spoil it for me, I like to be surprised. I’m only about three hours in so I can’t make any assertions about the game’s ending or overall length, although I’m finding the latter is consumable in bite size chunks, perfect for a busy college student. Given a bit more polish, this probably would have been one heck of a game. Instead, it stands as a monument to unfinished greatness.   read


12:58 PM on 10.25.2009

Culture and Mythology in The Legend of Zelda: Triplism

As part of an ongoing project I’ll be looking at the cultural and mythological elements of The Legend of Zelda series, expanding on the sections of my introductory post and adding in a few new topics as well. First, let’s take a look at triplism in The Legend of Zelda.

Why is the triplet so prominent in mythology? There doesn’t seem to be a clear cut answer for this. It seems that the number three came into prominence before it specifically came to be associated with triplets of goddesses, and there just isn’t enough information to say exactly why. triplism pops up in Egyptian mythology through the gods Isis, Osiris, and Horus, a father-mother-son scenario. This two parent and offspring formation is probably the earliest incarnation of triplism in human belief systems, since it’s the easiest one to come up with. The Hindu Trimurti may have surfaced even earlier, with its triple god cosmos of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

One of the earliest examples of goddess triplism is the goddess Hecate, a Greek and later Roman goddess who seemed to have originated in the pre-Hellenic beliefs of southwestern Anatolia (modern day Turkey). She was originally associated with warriors, farmers, crossroads, childbirth, and a general grab-bag of concepts, but she gradually became more associated with witchcraft as the shift to the Classical Greek period occurred. Around this time she also came to be depicted as a trimorphic figure, sortof three women fused into one, sometimes appearing as a young woman, middle aged woman, and an elderly woman.

Hecate

Later, we see the Greek fates developing. These three were originally just “Fate” as a big incorporeal concept, but later came to be understood as three daughter goddesses of Zeus. In the medieval period, the Norse Norns came into play in Scandinavian/Germanic mythology, they were known as Urd (fate), Skuld (being), and Verdandi (necessity). They were markedly more powerful than the Greek fates since they seemed to have power over the Norse pantheon of gods. There were also the pre-Islamic daughters of Allah. The Bedouin nomads of the Arabian Peninsula were a polytheistic people before their conversion to Islam, although Allah was considered the supreme deity. During this period he was believed to have had three daughters, known as al-Lat (the goddess) al-Uzza (power), and Manat (fate, crone, the other). You’ll notice that the age setup keeps reoccurring, of youngest, middle, and oldest. This is the virgin, mother, and crone concept. It famously occurs in the Little Red Riding Hood myth, with Hood, her mother, and her grandmother. We’ll come back to it in a minute.

Norns

The Golden Goddesses created Hyrule and the world of Zelda at large. Din, goddess of power, Naryu, goddess of wisdom, and Farore, goddess of courage. These titles seem a little funky, particularly for Farore. We learn in OoT that Din created the mineral and elemental “stuff” of the planet, Naryu put in the laws of nature, physics, and weather to reign in the chaos Din had produced, and Farore finally stepped in to produce all the living organisms. They then returned to…wherever it was they came from. The idea of a non-involved deity seems pretty recent in human history, since many polytheistic faiths (ie: Greek) presuppose a lot of godly involvement in worldly affairs, and the three monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) assume an omnipotent and pervasive creator. The Golden Goddesses offer a rationale for the existence of evil: they are not present to stop it.

The Golden Goddesses

But don’t believe them all matronly figures. Consider the power of Ganondorf he obtains after shattering the Triforce and taking the portion associated with Din. Even though she is a creator, she is a violent, chaotic one. Hell, the Deku Tree says that her arms were on fire most of the time. If we take the Golden Goddesses to compliment the virgin-mother-crone concept, Din is definitely a hyperpowered crone. The virgin-mother-crone concept represents the three stages of life, particularly for women. Youth, which is virginal, motherhood, which is sexualized, and old age, cunning and wizened. Sometimes they were three similar but distinct bodied goddesses (ie: daughters of Allah), sometimes they were one shifting form (Hecate).

Triple goddesses are mysterious, often difficult to understand, sometimes alluring, sometimes scheming. Why? Well, that’s what the ancient world thought of women! In many patriarchies men were in control of how their people’s various faith stories were constructed and told. The easiest example is Greek mythology. Men, manly men, fighting a war over beautiful, passive women. Zeus is the lord of Olympus, always on the watch for his scheming, sneaky wife Hera. Who can blame her? He has sex with hundreds of women, sometimes through rape. Mythology always reflects the values of a culture at a given time. So, in Zelda, we have a world with no male gods, only three female deities. So we must be making some progress, right?

The Triforce in Zelda seems to be a pretty clear reference to the Holy Trinity of Christian doctrine. Though it’s never explicitly called the Holy Trinity in the New Testament, the combination of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit into one distinct godhead is implied. However, the Trinity is just a way of understanding the relationship between the three aspects of the Judeo-Christian creator. The Triforce is a powerful, at least partially material artifact that the three goddesses each placed a portion of their power in after they left Hyrule. Why did they leave this behind? Easy, it’s a taboo-plot device. The fruit in the Garden of Eden? Taboo-plot device. The One Ring in Lord of the Rings? Taboo-plot device. It exists specifically for the taboo to be broken. So Ganondorf broke it (sad trumpet noise). But he could not possess it fully, since he lacked wisdom and courage (I’m assuming). Those portions magically inhabited Zelda and Link, respectively, setting off the whole crazy chain of events that we call The Legend of Zelda series.



In the next installment we’ll be looking more closely at Arthurian legend, legend itself, and the monomyth in lZelda. See you next time.   read


10:19 PM on 10.22.2009

Culture and Mythology in The Legend of Zelda

Hey there Destructoid, Bryce here, but you can call me Khazar. I'll be fleshing out this page more thoroughly when I get the chance, but until then, here's a piece on, as the title suggests, mythology and culture in The Legend of Zelda series.





The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is one of the most critically acclaimed videogames ever made. It stands the test of time (no pun intended), remaining as playable today as it was then. Most games in The Legend of Zelda series features a young hero, named Link, who must go on a quest to save the kingdom of Hyrule, its inhabitants, and the eponymous Princess Zelda. Even when Zelda and Hyrule aren’t involved, Link is almost always going on some heroic quest. Though every game features a similar looked green-tunic wearing player-character named Link, they are almost never the same Link.

Note the Legend portion of the title, a term which typically denotes a myth which is understood to have a historic basis. As such, the games in the Zelda series, a staggering fifteen to date, can be understood as part of a larger, often ambiguous narrative, the details of which are kept mostly under wraps at Nintendo HQ in Kyoto, Japan, or as discrete reinterpretations of one core legend. The Zelda series as a whole are not based on one religious or mythological cycle; instead, they draw upon stories and motifs from around the world. During this post Ocarina of Time will be the primary reference point for mythological connections within the series, but I will also be referring to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess in this rambling wall of text. If you need to get a drink right now, I’d suggest something hard.

I: The Creators



The world of Zelda and the region of Hyrule (where most of the games take place) were created by three deities called the Golden Goddesses. They are Din, the Goddess of Power, Naryu, the Goddess of Wisdom, and Farore, The Goddess of Courage. Din shaped the world, Naryu gave it order, and Farore imbued it with life. After their task was done, they departed for the heavens. The Golden Goddesses are an example of the watchmaker argument of design. Essentially, a supreme being or beings created the world, and then left it to flourish. They do not intervene at any point beyond that. This rationalizes the existence of evil in the world with omniscient creators. They simply aren’t around to fix it.

The Goddesses are an interpretation of the triple goddess myth. Triple goddess myths crop up frequently in mythology, especially in Indo-European cultures. Examples include the Greek Fates, the Norse Norns, and the pre-Islamic Daughters of Allah. Notably absent in Zelda are any male deities. It is in this regard that Zelda combines both Shinto and Indo-European mythology. In Shinto mythology, the spiritual belief system of Japan, one of the primary kami (loosely meaning spirit or deity) is Amaterasu, the female sun goddess. So, destruction is secondary in the Zelda pantheon, the creation of life is the most primary function of deities. Evil is a purely human phenomenon.

II. Sacred Artifacts

The Triforce is a sacred artifact left behind by the Goddesses when they departed Hyrule, sealed in a hidden dimension of sorts known as the Sacred Realm. Each portion of the triforce was imbued with the aspect of a given goddess, so each portion of it is known as the Triforce of Power, Wisdom, and Courage. The Triforce was shattered by the antagonist of the series, Ganondorf, during the events of Ocarina of Time. Seeking to possess it, he was only able to obtain the Triforce of Power, a theme which has remained consistent in the games following Ocarina of Time (Ganondorf is the constant antagonist of the series, so Ocarina of Time can be understood as very early on in the theoretical “timeline” of the games). It granted him superhuman abilities. To Zelda went the Triforce of Wisdom, and to Link went the Triforce of Courage. The obvious reference is to the Holy Trinity of Christian doctrine, with divinity being represented as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (God (Yahweh), Jesus, and the Holy Ghost). However, the Triforce is a material interpretation of the Holy Trinity specifically as a relic of divinity. Interpretations of Ganondorf, Link, and Zelda being correlated to God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost are left up to the reader.

III. Arthurian Legend



Link’s own journey also parallels Arthurian mythology of the Medieval and Middle Ages. Though he does not wear the iconic shining armor, Link functions as the ideal chivalrous knight. He is a competent fighter, resourceful under pressure, and always places the needs of others before his own. Like medieval knights, he fights in the name of a lady, in this case, Zelda. Parallels might be drawn to the famed Lancelot of Arthurian legend, but remember that Lancelot brought about the downfall of Camelot because he slept with Guinevere (a classic mistake of dipping your lance in the castle’s ink). In this case a more appropriate parallel is Gawain of the epic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of King Arthur’s most loyal knights who never let his base ambitions get in the way of the task at hand. For the majority of the series, Link wields the Master Sword, or “The Blade of Evil’s Bane,” a powerful artifact which is a direct allegory for the Sword in the Stone wielded by King Arthur. Link is able to use the Sword because he is “chosen” by it, a hero worthy of wielding it.

IV. Songs Are Power

Music has played a large role particularly in recent Zelda games. Link often bears some kind of musical instrument, such as the Ocarina of Time in OoT, and can learn brief songs, to perform actions like alter the flow of time, influence the weather, and teleport from one location to another. We associate music with performance, with ceremony, and with memory. It has been present for much of human history and is likely to remain present for some time to come. The mystical effects of song in the Zelda series are a projection of the very human affinity for music’s influence. We say a song can move us, so why not make a song that can move storms? Zelda answers that question in the affirmative.

IV. The Monomyth

Link’s quest in Ocarina of Time follows the monomyth, or hero’s journey. It starts with his Call to Adventure in Kokiri Forest, where he frees the Deku Tree of its contamination and is then told he must leave home and stop the evil Ganondorf. He also receives Supernatural Aid in the form of the fairy Navi, who accompanies the player throughout the game and acts as a targeting device during combat. Interestingly, Link then meets Zelda, who further educates him on the nature of his quest and the price at stake (everything) in what could be understood as a Meeting with the Goddess. Link undergoes a series of Trials, punctuated by a large gap in time, defeats Ganondorf, and returns home. Without an ultimate boon.

Link’s journey is one of self-sacrifice. Because he is a silent protagonist, his mental reactions are left up to the player, and can be thought of as our own, essentially. Link is often an orphan in the series, and this is consistent in Ocarina of Time. Orphaned protagonists allow us to start with a fresh “template” character, without alteration by a mother of father figure. They are the perfect type of character to use in a videogame, because they often come with no familial baggage.

But let’s back up for a moment here. I mentioned a gap in Ocarina of Time. The game starts Link out at the age of ten to twelve. After a few dungeons, we discover that Link is simply too weak as a child to hunt down and defeat Ganondorf. Entering the Temple of Time, holding chamber of the Master Sword, Link pulls the blade from the stone and...wakes up seven years later.



Link has been in stasis in the Sacred Realm for seven years, under the watch of a sage known as Rauru. During Link’s coma Ganondorf entered the Sacred Realm, found the resting place of the Triforce, and shattered it, gaining the portion associated with Power. He then waged war on the kingdom of Hyrule and reduced it to ruins. Now at the age of seventeen, the remainder of Ocarina of Time plays out with the lead-up to and confrontation with Ganondorf. Afterward, Link is thanked by Zelda, who turns out to be a sage herself, for his service to Hyrule, and sent back seven years to his childhood. No one knows that he saved the world seven years in the future, because that future has already been prevented. No one would believe him anyway. Which leads us to…

V: Majora’s Mask: Fear and Loathing in Wonderland

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is a succinct and surreal direct sequel to Ocarina of Time, which can be appreciated for its own merits or as part of the larger story. The beginning opens with Link, wandering the wilderness of Hyrule in search of “a long-lost friend” (implied to be Navi), when he is accosted by a being known as “Skull Kid”, an ordinarily unnerving scarecrow-like creature of the forest made even more disturbing by a large mask he is wearing, called Majora’s Mask. He leads Link on a wild goose chase into deep caverns, eventually emerging in a sewer. Link finds himself in Termina, a world very similar to his own Hyrule but existing parallel to it. He quickly discovers that the moon over Termina is falling, and that there are only three days before it makes impact, wiping out all life. If that sounds as bizarre as Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it is. I actually omitted a few details to spare your addled brain.



The threat of annihilation is always present in Majora’s Mask. In order to stop the moon from making impact and stop the machinations of the Skull Kid, Link must reset time at the end of the third day or earlier, returning to the dawn of the first day. Each time, Termina “resets” to 6am, with no knowledge of the reversal. Only Link is aware, returning with whatever items or information you have obtained in the previous three day cycle. And so you watch the world end over, and over, and over.

Much of the gameplay in Majora’s Mask consists not of stopping the moon directly, but helping the inhabitants of Termina with their own personal struggles in a large variety of what could be called “side quests,” but what I would actually refer to as another aspect of the central quest itself, because they are so vital to the story as a whole. From actions as mundane as stopping a thief from mugging an old woman, to laying to rest the undead king of a ruined civilization, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is as much about saving the world as it is about saving the people in it.

This all culminates in the final battle of the game against the true antagonist, Majora’s Mask, a malevolent, sentient artifact that was actually controlling the Skull Kid. There are twenty four masks to obtain in Majora’s Mask, each with some specific function or functions, many of which are necessary for the complex strings of tasks the player must undertake to help the people of Termina. Masks are a powerful symbol in human history, and like songs, they have been used in both theater and in ritual to symbolize beings, invoke the elements or spirits, or to frighten and amaze. Consider that Majora’s Mask occupies a three day cycle, like the acts of a play, and that Link is a player in the greater tragedy of Termina. The people of Termina are the starring roles, ranging from comedy to pathos. Link must don identities of a myriad array in order to save them; so many that you may be dizzy of masks by the end. As one of the Moon Children implores Link near the game’s close, “I wonder, the face under the mask, is that… your true face?”

VI: The Others in the Desert

Ganondorf began his career in the Zelda series as a fairly typical antagonist largely due to the constraints of design on the early Nintendo systems. Since his appearance in Ocarina of Time, Ganondorf and his culture have taken on an increasing complexity. Ganondorf is a member of the Gerudo, a desert dwelling tribe of warrior-women based loosely on the Greek mythological tribe of Amazons, an all-female nation of soldiers. The Gerudo have olive skinned, vaguely Arabic facial features and dress similarly to the Bedouin nomads of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. Many also dress in the cliché “harem girl” outfits popularized in TV, movies, and cartoons. A male child is only born to the Gerudo once every hundred years (or so we are told), and he acts as the leader of the Gerudo population until his death.



Even though the Gerudo are fascinating they are also highly problematic. It is implied that they may have male offspring with the same regularity as any other women, but kill them. For breeding purposes, we are told that they “go to [Hyrule] to look for boyfriends.” In other words, they leave the desert to seduce men. Despite their fighting prowess, which is probably above and beyond any other race in the series, they are viewed as “Others” because they live in a homosocial environment (not necessarily homosexual, but I am certain that joke was tossed around at Nintendo HQ). The other races fear them and shun them. The fact that they set aside leadership duties to one male offspring every hundred years seems contrary to their social structure, and I suspect it was put in place to imply that the Gerudo are animalistic (The females act as the “harem” of the one male patriarch).



From this challenging culture came Ganondorf, the heir apparent who would eventually seize the Triforce of Power, returning time and time again to sack Hyrule. But why? Ganondorf tells us at the close of another game in the series, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. In Wind Waker, implied to take place many centuries after Ocarina of Time, the world has flooded (ala the Biblical deluge and Noah’s ark), and mankind lives on the remaining mountaintops, now islands in a massive sea.

Ganondorf has returned to savage the remnants of Hyrule, and the Link of this title must go on an epic sea voyage to stop him. After battling Ganondorf yet again, he gives up on piece of critical information while his lifeblood ebbs away: “My country lay within a vast desert. When the sun rose into the sky, a burning wind punished my lands, searing the world. And when the moon climbed into the dark of night, a frigid gale pierced our homes. No matter when it came, the wind carried the same thing... Death. But the winds that blew across the green fields of Hyrule brought something other than suffering and ruin. I coveted that wind, I suppose.” All of Ganondorf’s actions can be understood as an extension of this jealousy he felt towards Hyrule, which had deemed his own culture as “Other.” That is why he tried to possess the Triforce, and that is why Link has been called upon, time and time again, to defeat him. See where cultural misunderstandings get us?

VII: The Lady

To this point I have made little mention of Zelda, surprising since the series is named after her. The series would be more appropriately referred to as The Legend of Link, but Zelda was first used, so named after the novelist Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald (the creative director for the first Zelda game liked the name for the female lead). And it stuck. Zelda’s function in the series has often been as an aid to Link, helping him during his quest and often coming into some danger near the end of the game, usually captured or incapacitated by Ganondorf or his forces, and Link must save her, the damsel in distress, in the nick of time.

We never hear any reference to her prowess as a government leader, and in the recent Twilight Princess she is referred to as Princess Zelda yet again, when she is clearly the only remaining heir to the throne and would logically be queen. The one clear exception to this is the final battle against Ganondorf in The Wind Waker, where Zelda is actually a computer-controlled character who aids you in the duel against Ganondorf, firing arrows to force him to drop his guard. More of this kind of thing is needed if Zelda is to be able to live up to her Legend.



VIII: Is He Still Talking?

This has been a cursory(!) look at culture and mythology in The Legend of Zelda series, perhaps with a little bit of game reviewing thrown in here and there. After all, I wouldn’t be taking time out of my life to write this article if there wasn’t any game behind all the backstory to hold it up. If your still interested, or have found renewed interest in The Legend of Zelda series, I would suggest starting with Ocarina of Time and moving outward. There is much more to the Zelda series than I could ever hope to cover here, so the rest is up to you.   read


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