Itís all surface level.
With most people itís as far as my connection goes. Ironically, itís even more of problem with many people who self-identify as ďgamersĒ. Oftentimes these are people who easily spend enough time playing games to be considered ďhardcoreĒ as well, which may or not apply to me. Despite our common interests, often I find that they donít share the same passion.
Videogames are undoubtedly a defining force in my life and personality, to the point where my Facebook page lists Videogames as my religion (In the name of Miyamoto, Mario, and the Holy Triforce, Amen). Iím joking of course, but it reveals an underlying fundamental truth about me.
I am an arcade soul. I am a scholar. Videogames exist for me on an emotional and intellectual plane that goes beyond being a hobby. I hunger for knowledge of the medium. For me, the measure of a good game is not how much ďfunĒ Iím having, or how quickly it helps me pass the time, but within the quality and density of the experience on a micro and macro level. This can be driven by the atmosphere, tone, themes, but most of all by the relationship of those factors to the underlying mechanics.
As an example, while a majority of players will find a game like Skyrim to be one of the highest marks of the medium, I find Galaga to be a superior experience. Bethesda have created a magnificent world that is easy to get lost in, an achievement that shouldnít be discounted. However, it all feels illusionary. Those chaps over at Action Button Dot Net do a bit better job of explaining it, but overall when you break Skyrim down to its fundamental parts you find mechanics that feel fundamentally unsupportive to the immersive vision that it attempts to bring. While the experience of getting lost in Skyrim can be beautiful, the act of playing the game itself is unsatisfying. Quests breakdown to tasks of travel, delivery, and killing a handful of enemies. The combat itself lacks meaningful moment to moment choices, and while it definitely requires a certain threshold of skill, more often the stats behind those actions are going to decide the outcome of the battle. You donít progress through Skyrim by getting better at it, but by simply spending time playing it.
On the flipside we have Galaga. Galaga is a game of the early age of arcades, an experience nearly stripped bare. There are only two verbs in Galaga: move and shoot. You can only move at a limited speed, and you can only have two bullets onscreen at once. While it is complicated by the ship capture mechanic, every action remains significant. Your ship moves too slow to dodge entirely on reflex, likewise with your bullets. Galaga requires an understanding of the mechanics to progress. The deeper the understanding, the further the progress.
At the height of my skill I was able to take on waves of enemies that I had never encountered. I was a step ahead, the pattern and mechanics of the game making their way into my mind and motions. I was one with the machine.
The increasing mastery over the mechanics is what continued to draw me back into the low resolution world of Galaga. Itís the reason I continue to be drawn into the world of SHMUPs and fighting games, despite not having expertise in either. This Arcade Soul those games share ensures that these games are a condensed emotional experience, short and intense. The build up, climax, and resolution are contained within only one play session. Unfortunately, it is the reason why my attention has become so fickle with many other games. In my search for new and intense experiences, games quickly lose my attention when Iíve felt that Iíve experienced the core of what they bring. Unless a game can hook me deeply mechanically, or through a combination of the themes and mechanics, it will simply not hold my attention.
Maybe it seems shallow that I write of so many of what may be incredible experiences, had I only stuck around. Iíd argue against that. For me pleasure from a deep understanding and analysis of the medium. Games that donít offer enough either thematically or mechanically, donít have anything to explore. They may be a good bit of fun, but they simply donít seem important.
Music is the pulse of the soul. Music is the beat of your actions.
Music is what drives the curves and straights of the track, the force that becomes the heart and identity of what makes a racer. Every driving game Iíve ever loved can be identified by their soundtracks. Ridge Racerís deep danceable electronic beats slip into the drifts of each mastered curve. Outrunís breezy open air melodies and vocal crescendos call me to freedoms of its endless roads. Wipeoutís electric trances keep me focused as I feel the tight turns of the tracks and deal with aggressive opponents.
Games are repetitive by nature, and racers exemplify this. A good racer has a strong identity, definable elements that separate it from the pack. Thatís where games like Gran Turismo, Dirt, and Need For Speed have failed me. Their identities are either over-engineered or schizophrenic; the best racers assert their identities will ferociously impossible ease.
As I once again trace those curves in my mind I remember the places Iíve forgotten. The faceless vistas of racers void of the spark and personality of my standbys. Ghosts, on the horizon of memory.
During an interview with Eurogamer, Jenova Chen, the mind behind the fl0w, fl0wer and Journey had this to say about players. During an early prototype of his cooperative game Journey, players would constantly push each other into pits. When the team removed collision detection, players would look for other ways to get feedback from the game.
Itís a brilliant look into the way people operate, and knowing this provided me with insight on a few different issues in regard to other videogames. I wrote previously about the annoyances of Far Cry 2, and the possible reasons they were so bothersome. In short, Far Cryís only way to interact with the world you are given is to kill. When the mechanics of the game seem to actively negate the effects of even this action, the interaction becomes meaningless.
Violence is easy. Itís simple, direct, and emotionally stimulating.
Violence is also full of feedback loops. Think about the typical kill in a FPS: your aim snaps down the sights, pull the trigger, a loud shot fires off. The bullets hit the target, blood is released, the reticule expands to show your hit, numbers fly up and the target goes down. More than that however, youíve just removed another player from the playing space. An obstacle disappears.
Explosions, blood, death, the steel of a blade cutting flesh, an arrow penetrating an enemy: violence is immediate and big on feedback. Itís much more difficult to make talking to another character as satisfying. What were you talking about? Was it interesting? Was there some goal you need to achieve? Can you impose your will on the other character by talking to them? Is the dialogue believable? Did their reaction give you satisfaction? Itís a very subtle process, and oftentimes if it isnít just right it will leave the player void of the kind of response they seek in a game.
Itís much simpler to have them run around New York city, bounding up buildings, jumping from the highest points and eviscerating other sacks of flesh on the way down.
Most of us can relate to the sensation of running, or punching someone in the face. Itís a kinetic experience, and the simple inertia of movement can recall the adrenaline of the moment. Not all of us can talk our way through a hostage situation however, or understand what itís like to have a personís life in our hands.
This is what makes those experiences so valuable, however. Itís a different kind of feedback. More complex and difficult to understand, but full of a greater catharsis.
Familiar to those whoíve played Galaga as the form a player ship takes when captured by an enemy. At one point I entertained the thought of getting this as a wrist tattoo. In some moments, I still do.
At the time, my girlfriend and I had a competition going on. Both of us were avid fans of Galaga, and early in our relationship our scoring competition induced chemistry between us and left a lasting impression. The two ships remain a symbol of the bond.
In Galaga, the red ship becomes not only an enemy, but a possibility. If you can fire upon the enemy holding the ship prisoner, you can recapture that ship, and have it fight for you, doubling your firepower. However, if thatís the case, then what does that mean for the personal meaning of the symbol?
Am I the red ship? What has now become the enemy? A once ally turned against them? Or is she the red ship? Captured by the enemy, potentially returning to fight by my side?
Either definition is seems misplaced for my state of being. What once started as a vague symbol for a bond has been warped by both my changed relationship, and by meaning the mechanics of the game have begun to apply to this symbol. In time, the memory of all of this will fade.
What will be left will be a red ship, caught in the enemy grip. A single stray shot will destroy it.
At this very moment I am being untruthful. Itís a fundamental truth of our society that we only show certain sides of ourselves to each other. At times we engage in a complicit lie, pretending to care about one another in order to achieve some fundamental goal. At this very moment I am choosing only to show this side of myself to you, to engage you on a ďmeaningfulĒ level .This concept of the faces we wear around each other, the idea that the relationships we create are based not only on what we choose to share with each other, but we choose not to share, is at the core of the great game that us members of society play with each other.
Arguably, the idea of our ďother selfĒ has been at the core of the Persona series for some time. However, it is not until the release of Persona 3 that it finally metastasized into the core of the games.
With the introduction of the Social Link system, suddenly the metaphor is complete. Not only do you take upon various mystic entities as Personas during the battle phase, but now you also become a similarly multi-faced within the context of social situations. Within my playthrough I became a genius level student, proficient in Kendo, irresistibly charming, insanely badass, and a wooer of multiple women. There was not a man nor a woman that could resist me.
Achieving this is simple: tell everyone what they want to hear. Like many RPGs, your character in Persona is a blank slate. This slate is not for you to impart yourself on. You are blank in the same way a mirror is before light strikes it. You are blank so you can become a reflection of everybody else. At one point a minor character points out that your character has an androgynous appearance. You as a character have an appearance that is both masculine and feminine, able to take on characteristics of either gender as necessary.
While others have Personas that remain constant throughout the game, at times evolving as they evolve as people, you are ever changing. Tellingly, the in battle icon for switching Personas is a mask. These spirits and demons are nothing but masks that change to suit the situation. You increase in strength by obtaining new ones, or combining the old Personas. You give the answers your friends want to hear for the same reasonĖbecause you know it will draw them closer to youĖand that the bond between you two will likewise increase your strength.
You have not truly grown together, however. As a near mute, you only answer when talked to, and even when others find out about your history, it is never because you confided in them or shared some part of yourself. You simply take in what everyone else gives to you, and reflect it back at them in the way you need to to bring them closer. They have given you the deepest parts of themselves, and you have done little more than listen and consume.
Who hasnít done the same in their real life, though? Have you never told someone only what they wanted to hear? Society is full of these half-truths. Oftentimes both parties are aware of the deception they are inflicting on each other, but itís simply easier to pretend. We donít live life as one person, but as multiple Personas. We change our faces, our expressions, our language, and at times our voices to whomever we are around. The relationships between people cause reflections of each other in the opposite person. We become aggressive, sweet, charming, loud, vulgar, or polite in a new contextĖor we simply hide aspects of ourselves. There are very few people, if any, in our lives that we show every face to.
We are liars. That we wear masks is our only truth.
Persona 3 is about character. In my final days I lost the will to climb Tartarus. I knew I was strong enough to take on what was to come. Instead, I spent my days spending time with friends I hadnít had the time to fully develop my relationships with.
I slurped ramen with Nozomi, helped work things out with Mamoru, and grew close to Yukari. At night I spend time drinking with Mutatsu and watching a bummed out Vincent mope around.
Some nights I would work at the Chagall Cafe, hoping to work up the courage to stomach Fuukaís cooking.
As I grew closer to some, I knew that I was at the peak of our relationship. Iíd never spend another moment with them that would be new or unique. Yukari would love me no matter what, and Mamoru disappeared with his family, looking for a way to support them.
When the final call came, I reflected on the people I would likely never spend any more time with. Fuuka and I came so close to becoming more than simple friends, and Iíd never know how the business with Bunkichi and Mitsuko worked out.
I regretted it more than the time I didnít spend training, all of Elizabeth and Margaretís endless side tasks I left incomplete. I actually felt that I spent too much time doing them. I felt like the father who is consumed by work, isolated from his family.
This is what Tartarus was to me. Work.
By the final days, I dreaded every encounter in Tartarus, every floor I had yet to climb. I half-heartedly tackled Margaretís challenges and looked only for the fastest way to ascend each tower, ignoring the piles of treasure to be found.
In my mind, Persona 3 would almost have been a better game without combat. While the Social Link system provides motivation to interact with others, and gives a tangible measurement of the strength and growth you achieve with the help of others, it oftentimes is drags on too long. Aside from the thematic considerations of the removal of combat, I found that mechanically it was simply an accessory to the experience.
P3 is a different beast than its predecessors. Its a character driven story shackled by the dungeon crawling origins of the Shin Megami Tensei series. Arguably, the Persona series could do well to minimize, or even eliminate itís combat system and still carry itís core engagement. The JRPG genre is generally could use a reexamining of the role of its combat systems (an argument covered in more detail by Extra Creditsí Western vs. Japanese RPG series ).
I fought to end Tartarus. Not because it took a thrill from doing so, but because it was dividing me from the time I wanted to spend with my friends. Catching only a glimpse of what a world without Tartarus would look like, I can only dream of the times I could have had with the others.