A Trainer’s Journey
This week saw the conclusion of two of our Game In Progress reviews. First, Nick Wanserski and William Hughes finished off their adventure through Pokémon Sun and Moon. (You can find all four installments here.) While it’s safe to say they enjoyed most of their time with the games, both agreed that the dozens of hours of Pokémon battling that led up to its big finale were far too easy. Surprisingly, it was the story, one of familial drama and searching for your identity, that shone through as a major highlight. Down in the comments, Dan Hahn applauded the games’ narrative even further:
The game’s story was superb, especially when compared to the series it was coming from. I’m not saying Pokémon stories are a low bar. I’m just saying that usually it’s about a 10 year old either trouncing massive crime organizations or saving the world from complete annihilation. It’s an almost sick wish-fulfillment fantasy, and I think this game was so much better.
First: You don’t get the girl. That seems so simple and unworthy of praise, but the fact that there is a female character who actually grows more independent and more distanced from the player character and develops into someone arguably sharper and more self-confident than even her immediate foil (Gladion) is rare to see from the video game world. There was a sensitivity and depth to handling Lillie that, in the first five hours or so, I totally figured was not going to be there.
Then Team skull: Guzma and his crew were actually pretty sympathetic folks. I almost pro-actively regret this comparison…so forgive me…but I felt like I understood Trump supporters better by experiencing a world where we got to see Team Skull. There was a sense of people who felt abandoned by the present system, who were rebelling and becoming angry because there was no effort by the powers-that-be to care or even attempt to care for these people, and so they became this organized group of angry outcasts clinging to a central bully figure who would fight for them.
And then there’s the whole story of Lusamine who just loses all touch with reality because of this mad pursuit of becoming immortal. It’s a story about people struggling to find their place in the world, and the people who do—like Lillie, Kukui, and our character—manage it because they are willing to adjust to the system and reshape it, rather than the people who were dealt a bad hand and can’t.
Wolfman Jew also praised the game’s story and setting:
In the end, I really liked this one. I’m a little disappointed that there are fewer trainers out there to help get my precious ‘Mons to higher levels, but in the end, that’s a fairly small complaint. All my previous comments remain: Alola has a life and energy and power far beyond every other region; the trials are great for presenting a culture and giving you a type-specific challenge; and while I’m sure the game’s easier with the Exp. Share on, not enabling it definitely made things more difficult, at least at the Elite Four and Champion fight.
As for the story, I would’ve liked the Ultra Beast and Aether and Team Skull stuff to mix and gel a little more (if nothing else, having the guardians be more prevalent would’ve only helped the excellent idea of them as prominent figures in Alolan culture), but the main cast is great. Gladion, Lillie, and Hau all work really nicely together in that dorky anime kids way, and I like how their relationships slowly build. Lusamine is appropriately nuts for this series, whose last chief baddie, let’s not forget, was a quasi-Objectivist by way of Scientology who wanted to annihilate the world’s poor. And most of all, Guzma is damn great, a reasonably tough leader to a wonderfully animated, goofy crew and who even has a little journey of his own.
Look At This Photograph
Also this week, Patrick Lee reached the end of his Final Fantasy XV review, a process that was perhaps more of an emotional roller coaster than the game itself. (You can find all three installments here.) Shinigami Apple Merchant has been recording a similarly turbulent experience across the comments of all three review entries, and with a final post dug into the game’s photography bent:
I just wanted to take this final space to praise that standout photography mode in this game. It turned out to live up to and fulfill all the potential I wanted for it while i was playing—it provided hidden pathos and narrative kick and organic connections to these people, unlike a lot of other elements in this work. It was truly something special for me.
And it could have been so easy for this to just have been some social network hook. (Which I’m sure is how it was billed initially. “Show pictures of you having fun using the built-in game engine and post it on Facebook to encourage your friends to buy the game!”) And yet you can look back on these pictures and feel something about the dungeons you’ve explored and the people you’re met more organically and cohesively so than from the in-game cutscenes. And yet there are little nuances and Easter eggs and tidbits to be drawn (Hideo Kojima-style surprises). And yet it hit me the most in how it was wielded in later parts of the game. And all the while, its presence is tied to a main character’s motivation for being on this trip. It’s unique to this game, utilized in this specific way, and can’t easily be replicated this same way ever again.
Are We Not Having Fun Yet?
We also dedicated this week to a special end-of-year edition of Special Topics In Gameology that took a look back at some of our favorite unheralded odds and ends from 2016, including the incredible sound of Samorost 3 and an especially haunting diner from Kentucky Route Zero. Caitlin PenzeyMoog wrote about her favorite board game of the year, Secret Hitler, and how its political themes got a little too real by the end of the year. Down in the comments, Venerable Monk remarked that it’s become a lot harder to deal with pop culture that dabbles in oppressive regimes, but he does suspect our current political climate might lead to some amazing work:
Can we talk about how it’s a lot less fun to play at joining or fighting an oppressive regime from fiction or history when all signs are pointing to a real one taking over next month? This is not to say that nobody should enjoy this game or that there’s no value in games that explore past realities. I’m just noticing that I derive less enjoyment out of such pursuits than I did earlier in the year. Instead of thinking “Yeah! We beat these guys and we’ll do it again!” I find myself thinking “Shit, we have to fight these battles all over again.” It has a real sobering effect.
Of course, a lot of this is balled up in the false sense of victory that came with electing our first black president. I was right there with the folks saying that racism isn’t over just because Democrats had the edge in 2008 and 2012, but it was hard not to feel optimistic. Though, for folks who feel the effects of our racist, sexist society every day, it was a lot harder to feel like things had improved.
I was reading the other day that well-to-do white liberals seem to be taking the 2016 election results the hardest, likely because everybody else doesn’t have the luxury of forgetting how hard it still is to be outside that privileged demographic. Those folks were fighting through the shit before Nov. 8th, and they knew they would have to keep fighting through the shit after.
So what does this mean for playing games about fascism and corruption? I’d say we’re going to see some incredibly interesting work from game designers that are wrestling with our new reality. I’ve been saying for a while now that nothing quite simulates the act of working a complex system of government and exploiting its rules like playing a well-made board game. More people should be playing board games with an eye toward game theory, because you see how small tweaks in the rules can tip the balance in major ways, and politicians today are doing everything they can to exploit the system in their favor: tweaking laws, defunding departments, and throwing up seemingly unrelated ordinances in the same bill.
And I mean board games specifically, because there’s no computer enforcing the rules of government. There’s no automated system to decide whether the players are breaking the rules. The game rules are only upheld by the players themselves, because there is no such thing as an impartial observer to society. So I’d have to be a bit more removed from the events of last month to enjoy a game about a neo-fascist regime, but I sure as hell want to see how a board game designer can break down all the ways that a system like ours can fall apart under one. And more importantly, how we can come back from it.
Ponsonby Britt suggested an interesting board game that plays into those notions:
CO2 is a really great board game in terms of “working a complex system of government and exploiting its rules.” The players are all different green-tech companies, trying to fund and build renewable energy projects around the world. The ludonarrative is really strong, because you start out thinking it’s a game about competing with everyone else to make money, but eventually it becomes clear that it’s actually a cooperative game, where everybody has to work together to stop carbon levels from getting too high and ending the game for everybody. The money is just secondary to that. (It also works in terms of “this was a severe problem even before Trump won, and bourgie white liberals are just now waking up to it.”)
That does it for this week, friends. As always, thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week for our annual Games We Liked extravaganza, and Keyboard Geniuses will return the week after that to celebrate the Games You Liked.