Affect Farm, No Bonus: Bad FFXIV Experiences as Game Design Discourse

Another cross-posted piece. Find it on Medium here!

This past Wednesday, Cameron Kunzelman posted “Bad Affect as Game Design, Or It Feels Good For Overwatch To Feel Bad,” a short piece on how the cathartic effects of limited toxic behavior, as enabled by Overwatch’s communication wheel, can lead to a more streamlined game state. Applying affect theory to things is becoming a bit cliche on my end, considering how much I’ve been doing it, but this article is a perfect springboard for some thoughts I’d like to detail.

The MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV is a very different game than Overwatch. First of all, Overwatch’s bards can actually move. More important, however, is that Final Fantasy XIV (or just FFXIV) facilitates matchmaking for content in two distinct ways: the Duty Finder and the Party Finder. The Duty Finder, or DF, allows a player to place themselves in a queue for any form of content, like a dungeon or boss battle, similarly to an Overwatch quick-play queue. In DF, you can be matched with anyone on your data center (a cluster of servers divided by real-world region) who has queued up for that same game mode. The Party Finder, or PF, allows you to place a listing for a piece of content that others join selectively. Basically an hour-long classified ad, these listings can be textually customized to broadcast to an entire data center particular reasons for joining (“farm, please know the listed fight”, “learning party! all welcome!”, “clear for 1 plz carry”…), or they can be modified to exclude players by in-game job or gear level. Duty Finder allows for quick and easy queuing into content without any restrictions, while Party Finder gives players the freedom to be selective, and all content from regular dungeons to high-level raids is represented within both systems to various degrees.

The DF’s dungeon list.

The differences between these two modes of operation lie in their investment levels. In Duty Finder, you get in, then get out. Clear rates for higher-level content are considered chance, as membership is only a click of the queue button away. In essence, time is money, and you get what you pay for — meaning the skill level of the typical Duty Finder player is usually below average. This idea of the “DF player” has been discursively constructed throughout Reddit and within guild chats since DF’s inception, and I have had to deal with these players in-game, too. However, this lack of accountability on the DF player’s part and our discussion about rather than direct confrontation with them is also indicative of DF’s fleeting nature. Players wait in the content queue for a specified amount of time until it “pops”; upon hitting commence, all party members are thrown into the content at the same time. Players apply the Protect buff, pull out their spears and shields, and get going. Dungeons especially take little communication, and should the run go smoothly, there will be little to talk about. The “DF player” may be just irritating enough to prompt veteran players to comment; however, the “DF player” will rarely make an impact any larger than the instanced incident, which makes commenting seem disruptive. The problematic party member is hence dealt with through back-channel dialogue and memes, as the “DF player”’s isolated influence on the game state prompts an appropriately minute — yet paradoxically identifiable — response. The “DF player” dungeon run may take ten agonizing minutes longer, but we can always complain on Reddit about it once it’s over with, right?

By contrast, PF often requires more commitment to the party because of its structure. Rather than waiting for a queue to pop, PF requires joining a party and staying in it until it hits its max capacity of eight players. Should you be one of the first to join the PF, small talk, battle strategies, and Discord voice channels are much more likely to be exchanged. While PF culture differs rather drastically between data centers, the PF itself allows for players to “settle down” into a party and implicitly sign up for the long haul. PF creates a tangible space through which people may interact without an overbearing feeling of ephemerality, and that space circularly standardizes a content-clearing norm. As people step into the PF for a specific purpose, often within restrictions that remind the player of such a goal, the PF encourages players to cooperatively achieve it. By the time you enter the dungeon or raid, there is most likely a clearer understanding of each player’s strengths, weaknesses, or points of ignorance, as the PF’s slow-and-steady structure emphasizes each individual that joins the party rather than grouping them together simultaneously. Under no circumstances are all PF parties successes, of course; plenty of parties, especially on the Aether data center, crumble after one wipe. However, the intent-based and player-agentic PF system at the very least supports this personalized approach to clearing content through its technology, as opposed to DF’s randomization of players.

An example state of Party Finder and its awesome names.

Yet something is lost in this oversimplified explanation of these systems. FFXIV players are probably thinking it, and they would be right: PF still sucks. We join PFs masochistically, almost like train-wreck chasers. We enjoy the spectacle of our parsers, and the moments in which we realize we’re carrying. We tell stories of these failed PFs in private chats even as they’re happening, and, indeed, often we leave these parties in a huff, as quickly as we came. We document these parties on spaces like Reddit, especially in the “F — — You Friday” rage threads, where players evoke the 39th rule of the internet and vent the week’s DF/PF misfortunes. These rants demonstrate that the “DF player” exists in all forms of matchmaking, including PF content.

These matchmaking technologies are actually sides of the same coin. DF is a direct line to the most fleeting of instances: hence, vitriol is expressed (in private or in public), then let go. PF’s technology structures the content to a personalizing degree: thus, bad experiences are more solidly internalized through expectation and the subsequent letdown. My feelings, however, are still managed in similar ways via Reddit and other forms of anger-venting. So if the same affects occur in both spaces no matter how ephemeral, and if we manage these affects in similar ways, then why do we subject ourselves to them? What do we gain from joining a “trap party,” as we call them, if we expect it to disband minutes after?

A potential answer lies in the structure of another system: DF’s roulettes. FFXIV implements many kinds of “roulette” matchmaking modes that randomize select pieces of content, such as leveling dungeons or boss fights, and give daily rewards upon completion. Roulette algorithms prioritize the content that people are queued for in DF, which can lead to duty patterns; new boss fights, for example, are almost all that you get in Trials roulette for the first week of their release. Nonetheless, roulettes often grab the most random duties, keeping nearly all fights relevant and fresh in players’ minds.

DF’s roulette screen.

The roulette, however, exemplifies the randomness of play in FFXIV. DF roulettes are often the sole deciders of a player’s daily content, which creates a constantly fluctuating game state. Should we multiply the 75,000+ potential party members by the amount of potential content in any given roulette, while adding in variables such as player skill level, job, gear, etc., we would most likely find our encounter possibilities to be in the millions. The performatively made meanings and “ludonarratives” within DF/PF-facilitated content are effectively infinite, as every trial, dungeon, or raid you participate in will be completely different as defined by their technologies.

As the DF’s roulette system is the randomized ludonarrative taken to its farthest extreme, players must justify its inner workings. When the “DF player” arises, a player vents in the aforementioned ways to mitigate the pain of these bad feelings and to constitute the DF as an ephemeral space. By consciously constructing the “DF player” as a byproduct of chance, players remind themselves that better runs are on the horizon, which creates motivation to keep playing tomorrow. Complaining about the DF on Reddit, for example, also fulfills a bias towards the “DF experience” that is universal: the laws of chance victimize players constantly, which simulates the state of playing with AI. I can construct other players participating in a DF wipe as part of the game rather than as other players because of the DF’s randomized technology. My affective responses to these events objectify other players as part of a broader ideological happening: the bard that died three times to a mechanic is a weapon I can use on Reddit to fulfill a “DF player” construct, and the negativity I generate over that person make it easier for me to justify my own place in the roulette. This phenomenon is different from blaming another player for my faults, however; the bard’s mistakes don’t matter because they don’t affect me, but they generate affect that I can use to fulfill the idea that the content revolves around my presence within it. I make the content into a single-player game state by externalizing mistakes that I’m not making, which is a byproduct of chance that I’m subjected to, and which fosters feelings that I can use online to justify the experience to others.

Yet this affect also works on another level, as demonstrated by the PF. In DF, everything is random; in PF, the party leader controls the variables enough, and humanizes the party members enough, to alleviate some of the above externalizing. It’s hard to feel like the center of the universe when I’ve spend five minutes talking with the Dark Knight about anime (no, not the Ninja; it’s always the Dark Knight). But when wipes and mistakes occur, I can use my feelings to objectify players like I do in DF content, while also turning that affect into a common thread of dissatisfaction spanning all content within this game. In DF, I feel like a human playing a quick-play game with bots. In PF, I don’t have that luxury, but I can use those same affects to connect me to something concrete amidst all of the game’s variables.

Kunzelman notes that “becoming consistently angry about particular things in Overwatch may have a calming effect that generates a smooth space of play,” and this theory is made evident when contextualizing affect in the quasi-personal space of the PF. Getting angry at unskilled players becomes symbolically intelligible no matter who I’m playing with, even if I would feel guilty for saying “you’re bad” to someone I can hear on Discord. My experiences with the so-called “bots” in DF constructs me as a victim of chance, which is a sensation replicated when a PF goes wrong, and I attach myself to these bad feelings to remind myself that all content is essentially the same. DF sucks just like PF does, and I’ve made this real by defining reality in FFXIV as synonymous with disappointment. This phenomenon occurs through the infinite amount of variability in FFXIV parties, DF or PF, that create only one constant: underperformance. The roulette system only underlines how players internalize variables and “ludonarratives”; we are trained to expect randomization of every gameplay element with the exception of our own dismay.

That wonderful Aurum Vale flow state. I was healing.

In sum, FFXIV players have grown accustomed to internalizing randomness via DF and PF technologies to the degree that bad affect, as both identity-constitutive device and weapon against other players, has become the norm. We don’t actually expect anything from content at this point because of how we proliferate these ideas of the “DF player” — not because we can blame our negativity on our own rants, of course, but because our negativity has performatively constructed the “DF player” as the only player that exists in DF. We are surprised when we see high-parsing players, good-quality gear, and so forth because they set the match upon the strawman — a strawman that we have assumed to be reality this entire time, as it justifies the bad feelings that have created all this “reality” in the first place. Kunzelman is right to observe that he’s “meditative” in being angry at Overwatch because that anger is assumed to be natural in such an environment, as constructed by ideas of, outbursts of, and the subsumption of “anger” within an unchanging idea of the game state. I myself have witnessed the “DF player” in action, and I would be remiss to invalidate the construct as simply an outlet through which we I can be angry on the internet. But this interpretation is wrong specifically in how it conflates the idea of the “DF player” with the event of seeing one. Remember: if we weren’t angry at the “DF player,” we wouldn’t have made them into a meme at all.

I’m certain there will be those who peep their blacklists and find my username on there. I won’t be surprised. Being who I am, I still let affect get the best of me. But understanding that game states and cultures are created by these ideas rather than being the other way around is an important step to changing them. Do not simply remind yourself that there’s a human being behind the screen: remind yourself that the emotions generated within the screen create what you believe is real about it. It’s on all of us to be the best players we can be (in all senses) to mitigate “toxicity,” yet toxicity is generally borne of a matrix of disappointment into which we’ve all been indoctrinated. Valorizing player skills, mentoring players to raise ability averages, and approaching mistakes from systemic perspectives rather than as personal failures — while not being defensive in receiving such criticism — creates a more inclusive and productive performance-based community.

Affect of all kinds has its place in video games. Affect can connect players to their environments in formative ways. Yet the normalization of negative affect masquerades as a “flow state,” a carefully constituted reality that we take at face value. Whether we’re raising the tank because they didn’t pop cooldowns, or saying “THANKS!” to the Reinhardt who never shields our asses against those who’ll gladly kick them, we should remember that the “flow” of affect farming is only as real as our faults are.

Just the Tip of the Iceberg: 4Chan and its Creation of a Virtual Body Politic

Note: this article is cross-posted from my new Medium account. I’ll be writing for both platforms now.

I couldn’t really figure out why I had never officially come out to my parents until last week, when I realized, in re-reading Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion, that desire is a materialization of the body. The swelling of members, whichever ones; the sweat pouring from your head of tied-up hair; the spasms in your legs after walking 500 miles for your one and only; all of these things tie us to a particular culture of physical affect and being that we can use to make our bodies intelligible entities within the world. Gender, sexuality, and all of the other things that I have historically disowned are some of our most common methods of rendering ourselves visible as objectifiable flesh and boiling blood. And by getting out of the closet, you’re not just implying it: you’re deliberately bringing your body out of the darkness and into the seemingly enlightened gaze of heterosexual culture, an embodiment that is as personal as it is political in ways that the second-wave never could have imagined. Picture yourself saying to such a feminist that the “cultural vs. biological” thing doesn’t matter, because either way you will be subjecting your physical presence to a heterosexist patriarchy. Would that have made sense before Sedgwick? Trick question, because it still doesn’t make much sense now. But that’s why, in the new age of the internet, we need to figure out how materialization works.

I remember when doxing was this thing that no one but the denizens of the deep web did — or, at least, that’s how we constructed it. The idea that your information was out there, should you have fast enough fingers to hack-type, was ingrained in a lot of our young minds, especially those growing up in the ‘09–11 era of the internet. We looked up to our Encyclopedia Dramatica masters at the same time as we bowed down to them. A callout post was nothing compared to the lolcows we could be herded among. The sheer fact that we could be caught dead at a furry convention (thanks, CSI?) made us side with the goons and created a culture of hatred bred against things unreal: only that which we could be corralled into believing. It was not that we were impressionable, though we very much were. It was that we needed to be materialized through the screens by our peers. We needed to be embodied as internet celebrities, trolls, delivering OPs, as much as we needed to be disembodied versions of the same. Virtuality afforded us the possibility of being seen in a “fake world,” and we hid behind 7 boxxies because that’s what made us real. In all the senses of the word — “keeping it real” as we were beheld by others; “real” as those who gazed upon us had no other skin to look at; “real” as our emotions were — we were becoming real in direct contrast to the internet as a place of “real life” information. Darting among the Wikipedia pages were we who believed in alternate facts of a different kind: the materializing identity-political infrastructures that bound us together through pride, pseudo-selves, and our ability to boldly ask, “umad?”

Anonymity allows for discourses to emerge in ways not possible in other circles, even to this day. Anonymity allows for autistic infodumping without the nerve-wracking requirement of a next conversation. Anonymity allows for rapid-fire, no-holds-barred conversation and its subsequent shutdown. Anonymity fosters an environment where we can say what we want and ideate without regard for how we will be seen outside of the words themselves. In a sense, anonymity bred an entirely new generation of close-readers, those obsessed with the art of communication and discourse beyond the physical being. How do you pick apart one’s ideologies in just a sentence, a meme, a reaction image? How do you analyze the identity politics of a response when “Anonymous” is the default, and the default is still white, cisgender, hetero… labels that we have come to associate with bodies as they exist in the physical realm, yet here lodge themselves amidst semiotics? How do you tell that someone rejects that default when they can masquerade as it with no consequence?

The personification and normalization of hatred, figure A.

We live in an age where 4Chan’s persona is stuffed with straw and hung out in a minefield, with no analysis of its discursive constitution. The meme that 4Chan is the “cesspool of the internet” used to refer to its unabashed love of the gritty and grotesque; now, it has taken on a new meaning, one of political disdain. I will never argue against this meaning. 4Chan is a hotbed of white supremacist, sexist, transphobic[…] sentiment. No one can, nor should, argue this, ever, for any reason. It is as irreversible as the damage done to the marginalized is. But we never really asked why it worked so well.

The internet is supposedly “not real,” a place where, at the end of the day, affect is part of the joke. It’s salt; just flavoring, and it’s always on you to stop shaking it. The internet as an “unreal” entity means that any and all identities created within it mean nothing — and that the emotions fostered there, too, fit that default state. The pride you see on /pol/ is all artificial and born supposedly of the anonymous factor. If people are able to say things, they will say them, yet intent means nothing because the words themselves are subsumed under the flood of “internet discourse.” The waters are so filled with shipwrecks from shitstorms past that the intent of anything sailing across them will fade into the Bermuda Triangle of the board you browse, never to be cared about again.

Virtuality created a literal “body politic” through its demonization of emotions and feelings. We policed affect to the point where the expression of it was an admittance of defeat. We heard “listen here cumslut” and feasted upon the anger as if it were chocolate (or jism). We saw the word “triggered” used on a depression Tumblr blog and beat our classmates with it after school. At the same time, we created a culture that weaponized its own pride. We spammed the blogs of the marginalized with gore. We created list after list of essential reading, music, and other art that put onto pedestals radical reactionary ideologies. We saw people celebrating a hobby and fucking gassed them for it. And as we watched the tweets roll in — the fearful, the despairing — we laughed.

Love and hate, pride and fear; these things go hand in hand. They work together to create bodies out to get other bodies. But for years — a good decade, even — we have been denying that the internet has been a space for bodies to emerge. Constructing doxing as an “old-world” technique, of the days when information wasn’t so easily commodified, is ironic because it feeds the thought that the internet has had a “before” time, a mythological geneology in which the body wasn’t there. Doxing was a way to solidify the body as it existed on the other side of the screen, yet the screen has always realized us in ways that inscribed onto our fingertips new ideas of what we could be, should be. One who doxed fit this neo-material matrix, becoming a breathing entity within the virtual space by attacking what was understood to be “real” outside of its own realm, yet able to hide behind the “boxxies” of its own discursive self. And while the idea that we could create new identities within the virtual realm sounds as innocuously inventive as creating a fursona does, there were consequences beyond the four corners of the monitor that were all too painful.

Victims of the attack, however, can expect hatemail from their sympathizers as soon as they log back into FurAffinity.

Two things have spawned this post. First, the rise of white supremacist demonstration has deeply troubled me (as it should you). Just as troubling, however, is how the internet as a simultaneous catalyst and platform for this rhetoric has been nigh-deified throughout these tubes. Too many people see ideas of anonymity and 4chan as intrinsically and materially synonymous with these politics, rather than as constructs infiltrated by them and worsened by such ideology. It is time to lay down some ultimatums. I do this with the full-blown fantasy of being read by everyone and the disappointing reality of being read by a select few. Hence, there is little self-importance here, nor is there any dramatization, except that which engenders my own catharsis:

There has never been a divide between the internet worlds like you think there has. There has never been a “cesspool” of the internet that is politically anything, just different methods of embodiment and self-actualization that have constructed themselves as such. Anonymity allowed for bodies and selves to take form through the emotions they policed and proliferated, and that which could not be externalized began breeding in the letters between those iconic slashes. Internet reality is not lessened by these factors: reality iscreated by them. The internet is as dangerous and subdivided as the outside world, yet built by different bricks, those bricks being the affects that have been circularly politicized. The mortar was then lined with ideologies reinforced by these emotions, which even now facilitates hatred for identitarian others. But the same rules governing all virtual spaces and the affective embodiment of individuals within them made this lining possible. The “body politic” need not be a singular one in this regard, as all kinds of ideas are represented in memetic culture (which are literal manifestations of the abstract “discourse”), but these politics have become hateful through the need to be, should you desire to become a realized person online.

Doxing, anachronistically speaking, showed us two things. It first showed us that the web was filled with information and data, and it then showed us that such data could be used to become those who belong within a culture of pain and pride. Actualization in the virtual world thus comes from being able to play by its rules: being able to manage emotions, show yourself as fitting in with the right people, and handle your words appropriately, as words are your primary representation in this space. “Identity theft” is performative. Identity exists to the extent that the politics you enter do, which are created by your and the collective’s actions — and your actions form the collective more easily than ever, as “discourse” becomes a tangible idea you can always link back to with those greater-than symbols. You don’t need a credit card number to hijack the emotions of the Other, and the same principles of self-identification that made your parents Facebook addicts can work to become a troll. A radical. A white supremacist.

“Close-reading” on the internet requires knowledge of these performatives. In other words, it requires knowledge of how discourse and politics emerge in each unique space. And that means that praxis follows closely behind. Anonymity gives us privilege we may not otherwise have: access to information and a never-ending stream of knowledge and rhetoric that we can use to our advantage. The streams of collective conscious may have been polluted, but they have been running the same way since internet culture ephemeral. And we have the ability to cleanse them by getting out the boats and reminding ourselves that these ideologies do not own the waters. The affect that holds these communities together — pride, pain, fear, love — can all be reversed via multiple layers of direct action.

First, taking notes on how this thought proliferates — such as what I have laid out here — is an important part of the process. The Wild Wild Web seems untamed, but you are playing by the same, if not very similar, rules of virtuality in every internet space. Next, don’t just examine how, but who is internalizing toxic ideologies. Redirect and educate if able. Engage with others in your circles on how the internet, especially memetic culture, sides with oppressors. And finally, remember that seeds of counter-discourse cannot germinate without sewing them in the proper places — and that punching a Nazi need not always be a physical encounter. Inside the racist video game party chats and Klan meet-ups you call your meme Discord channels, be aggressive. Make people angry. If you’re retweeting your desire to replicate Spencer’s takedown, yet cringe at the thought of verbally shaming a Nazi into silence over a screen, you are being a coward. Arguing on 4Chan may not seem like radical praxis, but such demonstration chips at the institutional reality of the internet. Remember: intellectual property is still property, and should be seized or destroyed appropriately.

7 years since figure A’s circulation, and we still have people believing in it.

If you are reading this with no knowledge of nor claims to any spaces such as 4Chan: congrats, I guess. I tack on the conditional because I adamantly believe that understanding virtual identity construction is vital to fostering a better political climate. If you are reading this and cringing at the mention of 4Chan out of its puritan disidentified context, however, I would like to add a subject-positional addendum.

If you are like me — exactly like me, in fact — you have been browsing the aforementioned virtual spaces since your formative years. You have been caught up in ideologies that you never would have been had you not been active on whatever fringe little board culture you took pride in saving memes from. You retired your tripcode years ago; you know you could show up in a waifu thread and be recognized for your taste; and you have mostly moved on, yet cling to the hope that, whatever you mean by it, perhaps it will be better soon.

My friend, we are the oldfags now. New board cultures are so far beyond our old understandings of them that 4Chan reflects none of the pseudo-purity of our rose-colored .rar files. 2009 was 8 years ago now. Those born in 2000 are almost the legal browsing age. Times have not innately changed: however, we have to recognize that, by continuing to engage with this rhetoric at all, we are making serious claims about ourselves that we must resist in every way. Take the superiority you feel towards the so-called newfriends and wield it to make a better state of affairs for everyone. The very same ideologies that had raised you are making mini-yous every minute. You can be the one person in that thread to make them a plate of food for thought. It may not feed them for a lifetime, but any shelter you can provide for them that rejects the politics that you have since abandoned will be worth it.

In conclusion, this is not the end. Theory and empowerment in every corner of the virtual world will emerge where it will. I wrote all this not to jump-start a new political wave, but to acknowledge it. Calling this a manifesto is a misnomer; calling this a call to action is a falsehood. But for all that we have debated about humanity, and for all the doing-better for which we have pleaded, it’s time to deconstruct the places in which humans have lived forever now.

Contrary to the title, this is not the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg of the internet does not exist. Perhaps it did at one point, but it’s been melting for a while now, and you should probably get yourself a life jacket lest you drown in your own discourse.

Until then, we’ll be sailing on.

May the winds of change be at your back.

~

Special thanks to Rina and Nhato, who both powered this writing through its every word.

the nostalgia for sine waves passed (a brief recollection)

I saw Madeon live two years ago. It was life-changing and I wrote a massive article on why, if you care to hear. But something I didn’t talk about too much was his opening act: Louis the Child.

I spent most of the opener contemplating their music choices, as they exemplified, in the words of my article, “the EDM scene’s emphasis on club bangers – the squealing basslines and massive kick drums blared so loud, I could barely hear myself think.” It was physically taxing to hear so many things that my synesthesia could only visualize as “black black black black white black black white black white black black BLACK HOLE black…”

But they closed off their set by yelling into the mic that they had something for us. They had made a track that had yet to debut – one that would be dropping that summer for sure, but they wanted to keep it special for now.

I could be wrong, but I /think/ we were some of the first to ever hear this song – and sing along to it, dance to it, smile at each other to it. Hearing that drop for the first time, blared at a thousand decibels, and watching everyone go crazy was an experience.

And it was an experience because this little thing is so unassuming, so cheerful. That concert was in May; a month I synesthetically remember for its sunshine, each day on the calendar enveloped in the boldest Crayola yellow and most gorgeous bursts of light. A color that swallows up this entire track, the ding-dong of the sine wave beaming through the black hole that was the rest of the setlist, and the entirety of EDM at the time. And you may hear the hops and skips of the season in each sidechain, but it was a whole ‘nother thing to watch the entire crowd enact them. You could hear our acknowledgment of this transformation, this pivoting, in how we sang it back: “I like.”

I forgot this song existed until the other day when it came drifting through the window, myself slamming some queer theory into a word document – a rhythm that eventually morphed to fit that of the sine, that cute little thing hammering away against the bass. Looking at the views on this video, I realize that it made its impact: it did become the song of the summer, Louis the Child went on to make even more smash hit remixes, and they’re still touring with Madeon. But what impacts me the most is how we somehow managed to keep that little wave – the sine of summer and all things bright and special – alive in such a dark time.

It’s strange. But this song stood as one of the only sunspots in the storm that was early 10’s EDM. And to see it thriving, to see it bobbing through the airwaves still, is happiness in itself.

“No One Criticized Bioshock Infinite Before!”

As someone who is deeply invested in discursive archival and games criticism both… this kinda says it all. Fantastic post.

this cage is worms

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All week long I’ve been reading tweets that have intimated that there has been some kind of sea change opinion shift in the way that Bioshock Infinite was received by audiences. The entire conversation has had a kind of “these damn hipsters” feel, as if the HD rerelease of some blockbuster game should be met with the sanctified silence of the venerated tomb, and I just wanted to take a moment to maybe put some of these sentiments into perspective.

In my neck of the internet woods, Bioshock Infinite was put under the knife. I collected thirty pieces of criticism on the game myself, and I probably made the active choice not to put another thirty on there for content overlap reasons. It was a game that the critical community showed up for, talked about, and came to some general consensus about. People were critical, have been critical, and…

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Eyes Wide Open: On Hardship, Hammerheads, and Zelda’s Greatest Game Yet

Last year, I wrote a response to Nintendo’s E3 presentation of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, celebrating what seemed to be Breath of the Wild‘s radical, unabashed love for the Zelda series’ exploratory roots. I tearfully ushered in what I thought could be the new age of Zelda – which really only was, at its core, the spirit of adventure that got us all into the whole thing in the first place.

I would like to hope (heh) that people hold my opinions of Zelda in some sort of regard. Having flooded Hyrule with my own tears and having water-bended a beast of an analytic series (which I desperately want to modernize, by the way), I feel like my experiences with Zelda exemplify how we can use emotion and subject position to understand virtual worlds and their characters. I want to do that again. I want to chart a course towards understanding and critical thinking with personal experience as my sail and analysis as my anchor. I want to remind us that we all embody Link during that moment of play. And I want to do this with every Zelda game, including this one.

With that being said, I want to blow you away just once more, before we sail into any stilted, sugar-coated depths:

Breath of the Wild is the best Zelda game of all fucking time.

BOTW-Share_icon

Just… God. This game takes your breath away. The moment I got my paraglider I climbed the tallest mountain I could find, jumped off, and let it take me to nowhere. So my story truly began, crawling through highland grass to jump on a deer (I was unsuccessful), talking to organ-playing birds (I’m still humming that tune, to be honest), and splashing through Lizalfos-infested waters to find a cute fish-boy who wants me to meet his parents (I would say that’s moving too fast, but my swimming speed is inexcusable). The amount of thrills I’ve received in four days of play are simply unparalleled, and I can’t praise this thing high enough for that. But I can at least be more articulate.

The amount of open-world titles in the last decade have been staggering. Fallout, Watch_Dogs, Grand Theft Auto,  Mass Effect, The Witcher, The Elder Scrolls… Games that prioritize and reward exploration and large-scale interaction are par for the course nowadays, lest they feel hollow and soulless. “Sandbox” genre games, exemplars of a bygone era where kids actually waxed (sanded?) creative in sandboxes, used to be rarities; now they stand as epitomes of the video game as an art form, prime examples of what they should be, and comparison points for all entries into the medium. Should players have to wish they could open that unlocked door or climb the peak of that distant mountain, or should they be teased by the perimeters of that open plain, that’s indictment. That’s failure. That’s lame.

But, generally speaking, these worlds only feel alive because we’re in them. If you’ve ever heard someone describe Skyrim as a theme park, you may already understand this design philosophy. Shoot man here. Fast-travel there. Never explore, only hop from one attraction to the next. Open-world games give you the sandbox, but not the shapes to make castles, nor the friends to shove down into the grains. In other words, giving you a sandbox means little compared to the ways you can make meaningful play within it; play that empowers you, play that inspires you, play that makes memories. As not just the protagonists, but the agents of change within these spaces, we cannot always sustain ourselves solely through the performative act of driving a car through a one-lane highway. The living, breathing world that you inhabit stops being so when you realize you, the player, are the only one doing that. As soon as you recognize that the environment is a conduit for your actions upon the world, but not your actions within the world – and, in addition, that the world does not organically foster meaningful actions – the entire thing falls apart.

I consider this a certain kind of imperialism: that which is laid out for us in a virtual world is by default ours to take, and this setup rejects interaction that allows for a world to breathe on its own. Over-saturated by quest lines and objectives, interactive materials that do nothing when not hacked (or hacked apart), these games emphasize becoming an overlord rather than finding oneself in an overworld. And, much like all abuses of power, we grow tired of one region and expand into others. So the cycle goes.

And it’s no lie to say I was scared of Breath of the Wild‘s prospects. “It’s like Skyrim meets Dark Souls” are not words I want to hear about a series that has, with all due respect to the previous titles, refused what makes those games tick. I was worried that the moment I opened my eyes and stumbled out of the Shrine of Resurrection, I would be hit over the head with an entire world lying limp before me.

I’m so glad to have been proven wrong.

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The time it took me to reach Zora’s Domain meant nothing on its own. It was a good journey. I scraped my knees and lost a few hearts, but the Lizalfos were a fun challenge for someone as out-of-practice as I was.

It was the loneliness that truly knocked the wind out of me. The path up to the place was too long for me not to contemplate how I was walking by myself. No matter what route I took, whether I was riding the cliffs on my shield or crashing steel against Boko sticks, the weight of the looming mountain sat heavy on my sunken shoulders. The environment seemed to be eating at me; the isolation of my own journey was made evident with every step. No longer was I scared of what could lay around the next corner. I was more afraid that I would come around the wrong one. Indeed, a few wrong turns landed me in front of intimidating Zora-made guidestones, hard blue granite threatening to crush me underhead. They only reminded me of two things: the people miles away that I was desperate to meet, and how far off the beaten path I had become.

Impa had given me a task: set out to find some people and help them. She had marked the spots on my map – Zora’s Domain, Death Mountain, some others that made past lives rejoice when the names hit their ears – and had thrown me out to find them like the hero I was supposed to be. But why did I go to Zora’s Domain? It certainly wasn’t to help. To be true to myself, I was chasing a feeling of wanderlust, gazing upon Ruto Mountain from a distant tower with a pounding heart and a pointing finger. I wanna go there! was all my mind could process as my feet shot off that platform and flew past the Bank of Wishes to land on its rocky alcoves. And it was only by the time I had reached that second guidestone that I realized I had made a big mistake. I didn’t feel accomplished. I wasn’t achieving anything. The road was too long. It was too high of a climb. I was losing oxygen. And I was lonely.

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A splash shook me out of my soaking shoes and back to soggy reality. The river cutting through the unconquerable valley rippled to reveal a red hammerhead shark with a human face. It was Prince Sidon, the same Zora that had begged me to partake in this journey at the foot of this mountain, back where the Lizalfos stood at their strongest and the rain had hit the hardest. He waved.

Sorry for calling from so far away!  he yelled to me. The domain is still a ways off, but you’re making good progress! I shall be along soon myself.

I won’t be much longer! In the meantime, I’ll be cheering from here in the river, so hang in there!

You can do it! Stay strong!

And with a stylish back-flip, he vanished as quickly as he had appeared.

I held his words close to my heart as I cracked open the skull of another lizard, broke another Bokoblin club, and fried fish over an open fire. Parting the rainy haze of the mountain range was a newfound courage, a willingness to keep moving and see what lay beyond the risk-filled road. And so I moved those sloshing feet, against hell and its high waters, towards new friends and the prospect of something greater.

Is this just a case study in reassurance and personal validation? No, the ramifications of that event run much deeper – and highlight precisely why Breath of the Wild does exploration right. First, it is clear, painfully so, that the world is not meant for my taking. If it was, why would it try to kill me, suppress me with its twists and turns, terrorize me with its creations? Why would it so openly fight back against my desires to conquer it, the lizards armed to their sharpened teeth and quick-flitting tongues, the octoroks breaking my will to live faster than my wooden shields?

The most important element of this world, however, is not how it resists my ministrations. Rather, the tension built by my time within it, a tension between wanderer and wild, keeps me, paradoxically enough, moving through it. Think back to my initial feeling of wanderlust and the joy it inspired within me. That wanderlust launched my feet off the tower, yet also, literally, grounded me in the grim reality of the rocky road. That wanderlust created the initial moment of joy and desire to explore – and the moment I acted upon it, I had to face those consequences. I needed to prove to the world that I was ready and worthy of treading upon it. In this way, I am constantly coming into my heroic own because of and in spite of the land itself. My desire to go there, to feel it there, comes from the freedom I have to go there – and I cannot have that freedom without the challenge of self-reflection.

And what of Prince Sidon? That dashingly handsome hammerhead, cheering me from the sidelines? He may have been cheering for me, but he does not exist for me. The real discovery is not of the wild, but of myself; how I, of my own volition, can press forward in a way that is organic and real. Yet that feeling does not define him. I could have returned to my bed at any time, turned my Sheikah Slate in to Impa and called it quits, cobbled my way back to a campfire and slept in defiance under the stars. Instead, the kindness Sidon showed me is a reflection of what the world can be, what I have to look forward to at the end of this struggle, and how an environment can reward the challenge of retaining my humanity by offering some of its own. He does not simply remind me of what I can become, but of the continuum that I exist in, and why I bothered to leap off that platform in the first place.

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When I speak of imperialism, of lifeless worlds, and of Zelda’s disavowing of both, I’m not implying that other games don’t try. I’m glad that we’ve realized the medium’s potential for expansive landscapes and performative discoveries. But the games we play have the potential to do something much greater: they can help us discover ourselves.

Breath of the Wild succeeds by giving us permission to do just that. We find ourselves and our inner explorers the moment our hands touch the paraglider, and we take to the skies not a second later. The joy that we feel upon landing is not out of our drive to accomplish or conquer, but out of the love of the journey, and of the landing itself. Yet dragging our feet across miles of prairie, mountain, and plain is rewarding because the land decrees it: as a world that cannot be exploited or imperialized, it asks us instead to grapple with what it stands for rather than what it can offer us. In that liminal space, on the island out at sea or within the crack in the cliffside, we find how to foster such a loving relationship, and we give it our regards once we take off again.

It would only be fitting, then, for an organically breathing world to foster all the emotions of the wanderer, including their sorrow. To find oneself out in the wilderness means facing all facets of the former, and the world closes in on us to make that known. But its affect makes both us and it human – and it only takes the gleaming sharp-toothed smile of a shark to remind us of that.

Abstractions aside, I firmly believe that Breath of the Wild is one of, if not the, definitive game of the last two decades. It has reaffirmed everything I have ever loved about Zelda and the rest of them, and the experience above is just one affecting moment out of hundreds that I’ve had in this title. If you have ever wondered if video games could reach near-perfect emotional fidelity, this game is it. If you have ever wondered if video games could reach near-perfection, this is it. If you have ever wondered, this game is it.

And if you’ve ever dreamed like I have, Breath of the Wild is those dreams come true. You can open your eyes now.

Accessible outlets…?

Okay, so I’m trying to write this piece on Breath of the Wild, I promise. (It’s just hard when you keep writing “BOTD” because attempted FFXIV speedkills take up all your time but I swear I’m weaning off of it okay fuck diadem)

And I’m wondering: to anyone reading this, how do you, like… interact with people? In the internet sense?

I am seriously considering remaking my twitter because the only one that I have is a private personal account, but it’s so hard for me to commit to any sort of social network.

Do any of you have one that you stick to, organize through, actually network using…? Because I am completely out of the loop but have just the barest bit of audience here – which is better than the audience I have everywhere else tbh.

Also, I’m realizing that one of the reasons I’m so averse to this platform is because I feel like everything I write has to be a monumental thinkpiece when it kinda really doesn’t. How do you avoid this?

Also, sorry for dropping off the face of the earth again. Last year sucked and I kinda have PTSD now. But at least it’s yet another thing I can cross off the mental illness list and life can’t get much worse right? xdd 

Maybe the trick is to pretend this is a DeviantArt journal. {Hmmm.}

Anyway, back to playing this game, because it’s good.

pceeee

~

BREATH OF THE WILD IS THE BEST GAME OF ALL TIME

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Listen. I wrote a lot about the trailer a while back.

I have far more to say on the actual game.

Expect it soon.

Thanks!

 

~alec