Doki Doki on a Bugger

On Doki Doki Literature Club, science fiction, and self-awareness. An incredible volume of spoilers below, so if you have any intention of playing DDLC, play it before reading.

The standard (and pretty moldy) introduction to this topic, I’m told, is Star Trek, but fuck that, there’s tradition to uphold!  As always, we can’t just talk about philosophy–we have to insult someone, and, here, “someone” is a distorted amalgamation of John Kessel and Orson Scott Card.

The background, which is in no way current, is as follows: Sixteen years ago, Kessel wrote an essay criticizing the moral thesis of Ender’s Game (published 35 years ago, for reference).  As disclaimer, the essay is good, and, frankly, Ender’s Game is good.  Moreover, discussion has almost certainly taken place on this topic since the essay’s initial publication (if the “2009 postscript” is any indication), and in Wittgensteinian fashion, I intend to interact with none of it.  My concern here is not whether Kessel or Card are habitually wrong nor even whether they are prone to sloppy thinking.  Rather, I want to talk about this one particular morass of sloppy thinking because it makes for a lovely journey through something completely different.  We aren’t there yet.  Patience.

So Kessel writes this essay, tearing into Card’s vision of morality (“moral and immoral standing is determined by intent rather than action”), provides citation after citation of evidence that Card’s setup is hopelessly contrived, and closes with “in the real world genocide is not committed by accident.”  Heh.  You gotta admit it’s funny to watch a guy shoot himself in the foot, even if you feel bad for him afterward.  In case you missed it, the previously glossed-over Star Trek factoid is this: The advantage of the science fiction genre–arguably its primary literary purpose–is that it allows you to consider problems (moral, ethical, experiential) that may well exist but, cordoned off by safeguards in reality that technology has not yet stripped away, just don’t come up in normal, everyday life.  So yeah, duh, genocide doesn’t happen by accident in the real world, but did you forget you were a sci-fi author or something?

The real criticism of Card’s setup, the one it looks like Kessel was trying to make, is that he didn’t let the setup breathe.  You can’t just wave it all away–the ansible, the genius-breeding programs, the complete and utter control the establishment has over Ender’s life, the layers and layers of vicious abstraction needed to make interstellar war look like a computer game–with an “it don’t be like that.”  You have to engage with the argument on its own terms.  Here’s Ender, charged with genocide and two counts of manslaughter that the system literally built him for.  By virtue of the facts that the system used him for this purpose, that he never intended to kill anyone, that he did not, in fact, know that he killed anyone, does he get to be “innocent”?  The answer that Kessel does not dare provide (but which I think is correct, nonetheless): Yeah, I guess.

There’s a second question, of course, and I admit it’s a little suspicious Kessel doesn’t ask it: Ender’s innocent–we’ll even take it as a given.  So, uh, what does it mean?

I.

Some years ago, I wrote a novel.  I never published it, it was sloppy, whatever, but my setup was similar.  It was this: One man has been given credible information that the world is about to end in a magnified Malthusian crisis as human population continues to increase.  The event horizon for this apocalypse is one year out.  What do?

He considers his options.  His evidence is convincing to him but subtle enough that anyone who hasn’t seen it firsthand won’t believe him–thus, convincing any major government (let alone all of them) in a year that there is even a threat is a non-starter.  And, of course, this is to say nothing of getting them all to agree on a solution without any defection, tragedy of the commons, etc.  That about kills the top-down approach, so what’s left?  He settles reluctantly on a cull via mass-murder.  He convinces a small set of colleagues to help him build a doomsday device that will wipe out 90% of human life on the planet, and with the effort nearly complete, he (Johnathan [sic], in the below quote) fulfills his obligation as a sci-fi protagonist and ruminates on the morality of it all:

“The problem, Doctor Romanov,” he said, “is that you want me to justify mass murder, and I can’t do that.  You can’t justify mass murder.”  I stared at him.

“Wait,” I said.  “What?”

“The greater good necessitates mass murder, but it doesn’t justify it,” he replied, sitting back up in his chair.  “You’re looking at the wrong costs.”  I didn’t move, but I began glancing around the room, trying to make sense of the phrase.

“What do you mean by ‘wrong costs?’” I asked, finally.

“You’ve identified mass murder as the cost of the greater good,” Johnathan said.  “But that’s not a cost and it can’t be justified.  The cost is the part of your identity that mass murder will swallow up.  The cost of the greater good, for you, is becoming evil.”  I thought about it.  I probably thought about it for much longer than an acceptable pause in conversation.  Eventually I looked back to Johnathan.

“Becoming evil,” I said quietly.  “Complete with punishment, I suppose?”

“Of course,” Mishibezeyu said, leaping onto the table.  “Just imagine, you could do what most good people do and commit blazing suicide out of shame for the horrible things you’ve done.”  The cat smiled.  “When the time comes, you could give everything.”

“Or,” Johnathan said, tapping the table.  He was obviously annoyed.  “Or you could not do that.  A better solution: You could live through it, shoulder the responsibility, bear the pain of guilt–”

“And give more than everything,” I said, still mulling over the notion.

-The Torment and Misery of Samuel Delacroix, Chapter 41

First, yes, my thesis is not Card’s.  I’m gonna throw out there that if you commit genocide, you deserve social censure no matter how justified it was.  Fittingly, Johnathan’s collaborators attempt to murder him when this is all said and done.  But be that as it may, I’ll still take a joyride in Card’s boat because that’s what the setup deserves.

Is Card’s setup contrived?  Hell yes, and so is mine (the contrivance is a plot point–we aren’t there yet).  But the proper response to a question is not to deny its pretext.  “It doesn’t work that way.”  Yeah, but what if it did?  What if you could be manipulated into committing genocide through no fault of your own?  What does that imply?  I’ll quickly jump back to Kessel’s side to agree that it certainly does NOT mean that people in general are good and bad independent of their actions, but I think the hangup might be on the question itself.  I’ll substitute it with a different one, less direct but perhaps more illuminating: What happens next?

For Ender, this is vague penance by way of attempting to reseed the Formic race as well as lifelong devotion to the construction of a philosophical/religious framework meant to validate that what he did was Not Evil.  Meanwhile, he peaces out to another solar system and disavows his identity as, predictably, people turn sour at the fact that he committed genocide.  We can probably give Card a break here–this is well within the realm of reasonable consequence for what went down–but does it exonerate Ender?  Haha, no.  The Nazis who made it to Argentina are, of course, free to live out their lives in the haze of whatever cognitive framework helps them sleep at night, but should they ever reveal themselves, it seems fair for the system to scrub them, right?  So too with Ender.

“So what does that imply?”

Can a person commit genocide and still be good?  Kessel shoots back a categorical “no”; Card tries for a “yes”, and I see why.  Whether Jesus of Nazareth might be responsible for the millions killed in his name–and all the other similar questions–demand answer in this age of increasing hostility to religion, but Card’s thought experiment, his overwrought and careful setup to make the sequence of events possible, offers no relief.  Ender’s Game simply doesn’t answer the question.

II.

Yes’s and no’s are rough, so let’s move onto something completely different.  As the title might suggest, I’ve been playing Doki Doki Literature Club.  In case the title did not suggest that to you and/or you have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about, Doki Doki Literature Club (DDLC) is, nominally, a visual novel.  Since the setup here plays on your expectations, the expectations you “should” have are these: This is a narrative-focused game that will place the player in the shoes of a high school student attending an after-school literature club.  Through limited and gimmicky mechanics for player input, you will be able to romantically pursue one or more of the other (female) characters in this literature club.  The characters are tropey, and the aesthetic is clearly for people who like anime/manga/cutesy Japanese things.

“Sounds like trash.”  An aggressive opinion, to be sure, but I won’t really disagree.  The twist is that those are just the assumptions presumably intended by the branding.  The setup is actually this: One of the four characters, Monika, is aware that she is in a dating simulation, is aware that there is no plotline in this game that gives her a happy ending, has access to the game files/source code, and is altogether not pleased with the whole affair.  This, of course, is playing a little fast and loose with the fine line between being a deconstruction of the genre and a Bitch You Thought prank, but it’s very well written, and once you peel away the slough of what the game is pretending to be, it cuts pretty deep.  The topics include fairly honest discussion of some of the heavier issues high schoolers go through (depression, self-harm, parental abuse, everybody’sgotbaggage, etc.), but the meat of it all isn’t a high-school slice-of-life quandary–it’s a sci-fi one, one that our rapidly increasing proximity to functional AI is making more apt every day: What happens when an artificial intelligence discovers its circumstances?

This is a broad question, so I’ll here clarify that this is not the [killer robot/singularity/end of human civilization as we know it] angle.  That has its own questions, but they’re all pretty irrelevant here.  Rather, this game is posing a more benign, much more individual question: What is it like to be a simulated being who knows they are a simulation?

III.

Oh wait, I wrote this too:

“But what will happen to you when we actually open the second chamber?” Christophe asked.  Benjamin raised an eyebrow, evidently confused.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“If all of this is virtual, like Espereza said it is,” Christophe said, “then you’re part of the program.  Won’t you disappear when all of this ends?”

“I’m…part of the program?” Benjamin asked.  The concept was obviously disturbing to him.  “I..um.  I don’t know.  This is a program?”  He looked around the circle.  “Are you saying that I’m not real?”

-The Torment and Misery of Samuel Delacroix, Chapter 21

The obvious first sub-question is whether the simulated entity is a simulacrum or a “person”.  In my own work, it’s solidly the latter, as the distinction between real and virtual space is vanishingly ill-defined and the simulations wind up escaping into the real worldDDLC has a rough time with this one, though, and it relies on goodwill from the player to interpret it kindly.  

A lot of this is the game’s length: It’s very short, and while the questions it explores are good and the methods of exploration (glitching, psycho-horror, fucking with game files as a play mechanic) are innovative, the lack of weight makes it easy not to get invested.  If you aren’t invested, you are more tempted to look at the overall work as a prank rather than a deconstruction, and you won’t pay as much attention to Monika’s dilemma–she isn’t a person; she’s an image of a person, pretending to be a broken simulation.

While this is “true”, it’s a little heartless, and besides, when was the last time you read a novel where the characters weren’t literally simulacra?  “Why are we even discussing Jean Valjean? He isn’t a person, he’s just symbols on paper pretending to be a person.”  Yeah, well you’re not invited to dinner anymore.  This is the setup.  You can’t walk away from the Ender’s Game argument yelling “it’s just a book, man!”  You need to engage with the setup on its terms, which for DDLC means taking as given that Monika is a person.

DDLC does take the extra risk of having Monika address–indeed attempt to court–the player directly, but the wall is one-way.  She can speak to you, but you can’t communicate with her, except via the options the game provides, which become meaningless as she dismantles the plot they were meant to support.  Still, as we consider her dilemma, it becomes an interesting exercise to pick out the pieces that are her character and those that are artifice, which is to say, part of the setup implied by the deeply flawed simulation in which she is trapped.  

For example, she is absolutely smitten with you, despite absolutely no knowledge or experience of who you are–is this part of the simulation?  Is it inherent in her identity that she should be in love with this presence that she can just barely detect behind the player character?  Or is she just a teenage girl who has caught a glimpse of a world far grander than her own limited horizons, who has latched onto the only identity with which she can associate that alternative?  Frankly, both possibilities are pretty cursed, but this is a good jumping-off point. We have our setup–what happens next?

Well, first she drives the player character’s best friend to suicide to stop them from falling in love.  Then she does the same to another potential love interest (albeit in a much more horrifying fashion) and finally just says “fuck it” and deletes all the rest of the game’s supporting infrastructure.  All that’s left is her, staring into your eyes from a room suspended in space:

Her plan is apparently to “date” you, which seems to entail her staring out of the screen and you staring back in forever, except for the times when you really need to get up, in which case you can bring her along in a flash drive or something.  Yeah, you can say it: That’s whacked.  But is it killer-robot whacked or just depressed-teenage-girl whacked?  I’m sure Baudrillard would like a word, but I’m gonna err toward the latter.  Fucked up programming is only so interesting of a motivation–let’s look at it through a slightly different lens.

Monika admits in her “confession” that she wasn’t just motivated by jealousy (though it seems a pretty hard part to ignore).  She had begun to see her world as grey and two-dimensional, had become hyper-aware of its shortcomings and limitations.  Her friends weren’t “people”; they were just semi-reactive collections of dialogue meant to support the game’s plot, and, feeling completely and utterly alone, she was just about ready to kill herself before she realized the player character was a window to the outside.  Remember, a priori, she’s a person.  What does that mean?

Well, first, the friend thing, even by the logic of the game, is hogwash.  Though Monika seems to be able to fuck with their memories and cognition, the other characters do, in fact, react to non-plot events.  After the second character commits suicide, the last remaining member of the club walks in after 72 (in-game) hours to find you standing over her rotting body and, in a very human fashion, freaks the fuck out.  Likewise, as Monika begins tweaking their personalities, the other girls certainly notice.  They take note of the changes in their perception, they feel that something is wrong.  Consider the numerous historical examples of how easy it is for a person under stress to discount the humanity of another human.  I don’t feel like it’s a stretch to assume that they’re as real as she is.  Likewise, “grey” and “two-dimensional” could be reference to the medium, but they fit “anhedonia associated with major depression” even better.

Before this gets too bizarre, no, I’m not saying we should look at this medically.  I’m saying if you’re looking at a person’s behavior, put yourself in their shoes.  Let’s say you, in some freak epiphany, get absolute, unequivocal confirmation that there is an outer world, and someone is looking in, watching you.  “Sounds like schizophrenia.”  Sounds like you need to go back and read the Ender’s Game section again.  It doesn’t matter whether accidental genocide happens in the real world; it doesn’t matter whether you would actually be convinced that the world was going to end in a year; it doesn’t matter whether the nature and quantity of proof necessary to make you believe you live in a video game is implausible–that’s the setup.  Should you become convinced of this, what might you feel?  

Could it be depressing?  Could the sudden smallness of your world affect what it means to you?  What if you could access pieces of the code that governed your world, such that you could see bits and pieces, you could see the plan the simulation has for you?  What if that plan was just that you should just be a set-piece, a spectator on the sidelines of life–except you’re not even there to see anything.  It’s even worse than that.  You’re just there to be seen.  It isn’t entirely without upside: You can change the code, but no matter what you try, you can’t create with it.  You can only make things worse.  All in all, I think two outcomes are clear: I would expect you to be upset, and I would expect you to be very interested in the watcher.

IV.

I dearly wish DDLC had gone there more readily.  Make no mistake: It went there, but the sheer brevity of the game prevented it from diving in, and dear god, there is a lot to dive into.  As it was, it hinted at that depth, but mostly it was just sad.  All of the characters are, ultimately, compelling examples of humanity that you get to engage with only barely.  There is no resolution, there is no reparation; even with a lot of fiddling, the best you can really maneuver it all to is a vague impression of bittersweet.  And for Monika, even the best ending involves near erasure from existence (you have to delete her character file from the game directory).  Frankly, it fucked me up for days.

And after all of it, I have to wonder if I don’t already feel the same sort of hopelessness, living in a tiny corner of a vast reality as the Powers That Be watch with disinterest from above.  I can see how the gears turn, driving the system forward, but I can’t really bend them to my will.  I can chuck a wrench in, maybe fuck someone’s life up.  I can certainly hurt myself, but I’m mostly just a spectator, and it’s not clear that it matters whether I watch.

“What’s the point when none of it is even real?” Monika asks, having destroyed her reality so that she can stare you down on the most equal terms her circumstances allow.

Sorry, girl.  It’s lies all the way up.

AlchemicaVania

This is nominally a review of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, but only so much of it is actually about the game.  The title is a convenient intersection: The events of the game proceed from the activities of an Alchemists Guild, sure, but alchemical principles also give me a basis for describing the game to an audience that I perceive to lean more literary than nerd-cred (if only slightly).  To clarify, reviewing the game to an audience familiar with Castlevania is very, very easy: Bloodstained is Castlevania to a T, it’s absolutely lovely (if short), you should probably play it.  If you’ve never played a Castlevania game, well, your conclusions may be different for one, and also, [deep breath], it’s a side-scrolling, [mumble] exploration, [mumble]…combat…You may or may not have any idea what I’m talking about, but you’re sure as hell missing the point.  So put on your Plato Hat because today we’re dissecting shadows.

I.

“Metroidvania” isn’t really a precise term, and a lot of people hate it for that reason, but counterpoint: You got something better, asshole?  You probably don’t, because genres are hard to define in the best of circumstances, and our circumstances are fouled significantly by the relative lack of art theory dealing with the parts of games unique to the medium, hence blunt taxonomic buckets like Metroidvania and “Souls-like” (pardon, having a stroke) that people vaguely dislike but use anyway–they work for Steam, what can you do?

This brings us to the alchemy.  There’s a certain poetry in Igarashi achieving Bloodstained by transmuting his legacy with the Castlevania series, but that’s the principle: exchange.  You turn one thing into something else. It’s a straightforward start, but an alchemical transmutation is actually an argument (I’ve written about this before).  For it to succeed, you have to have that first thing, duh, but you also need to persuade the world that what you’re ending up with was always the same thing as what you started with.

Think back to Plato’s cave (or consider it for the first time, I don’t know your life).  We’re only able to see the shadows on the wall, but somewhere, Truth, the Form of Truth, is casting those shadows.  So if the cavedweller knows what Truth looks like, he can move the light to cast the shadow he wants. The would-be alchemist, of course, needs some reference for what Truth is in order to make his argument: The hermetics used geometry, Igarashi (as a demonstration of real demand) used Kickstarter, and our oft-disdained Steam taxonomists seem to like “game mechanics”, which strikes me as sort of like categorizing paintings by the chemical composition of the paint.  It’s valid, I guess, but on second thought, maybe we actually can do better.

II.

“Wait, what are we trying to…transmute…?”  A game you like. “From what?” Another game you like, try to keep up.

In case the metaphor is too soupy, here’s an exchange that actually happened: A friend mentioned to me recently that while she does not enjoy the Dark Souls series itself, she does enjoy games like Dark Souls.  Aside, this is a common claim, it’s almost always wrong or misleading, and the “Souls-like” designation might actually be the worst-used category in games.  Naturally, I asked what she meant by that, and she gave an example: Hollow Knight.  

I was pretty confused.  I had played Hollow Knight, liked it quite a bit, but I didn’t feel it was anything like Dark Souls (to my shame, I had mentally categorized it as Metroidvania).  On further reflection, Hollow Knight does tell its story in a way fairly similar to Dark Souls, but other elements of the game are way different in a way that limits words.  I can describe differences in the exact mechanics, but again, I feel like I’m just offering up that the paint is made with egg yolk instead of acrylic as a shitty, garbage proxy for saying that the point of the game feels really different.  The trick is that the Point really seems like the Truth, both in that it’s crucial to our judgment of equivalence and that it’s fucking impossible to identify.  

It isn’t the side-scrolling versus third-person perspective–Salt and Sanctuary is a side-scroller and perhaps the only non-From Software game that deserves the “Souls-like” distinction.  It isn’t the art style (duh). It isn’t any of the various slight differences in mechanics either–Sekiro threw out most of those and still feels very Dark Souls.  If you must look at it from a component point of view, it’s probably tied up somewhere in the advancement systems–and sure, watercolor does generally evoke a different image than ink-printing–but I think we’re probably wrong to be looking at the components.  The differences are higher level, in what the games are about, and while we may not be able to reliably zero in on that Point, we can at least change our taxonomic structure to be looking at the right types of things.

III.

So what is a Metroidvania game?  This is just a stab, but I’ll posit it will be much more useful for deciding if you like Bloodstained than the mumbly alternative: It’s a game about exploring a big-ass castle/spaceship/cave system/dungeon, ferreting out its loot (as opposed to the hack’n’slash paradigm where you peruse the contents of the loot piñatas exploding around you), and expanding your arsenal of weapons/spells to kill shit-tons of demons/monsters/aliens that engage you in much the same way as inanimate traps (they aren’t very smart, but they can still hurt).  This matches with Hollow Knight along the first two criteria, while lacking Hollow Knight’s historicity and feeling of dereliction (both characteristic of Dark Souls) as well as the focus on actually moving through the space (platforming is difficult in Hollow Knight–it tends to be trivial in Metroidvania).  The third criterion is key: Metroidvania is about killing stuff, to the point that the game is not designed to be fun without it, and the specific stupidity of your targets means that the feeling you get as you’re facing them down is way different from the experience of fighting comparatively smarter enemies in other genres.

Where does that leave us?  Well, hopefully, we’ll all try to be a little more methodical in our efforts to classify things, but it also gets me to a point where I can talk about the specifics of Bloodstained to a broader crowd.  As my half-sentence review in the first paragraph of this post would imply, I enjoyed it quite a bit.  Beyond the Metroidvania template, there were some…odd aesthetic decisions that feel mostly like bad anime.  I’ll admit to a pet theory that the vibe of “bad anime” in any medium (including anime) has a lot to do with Japan’s window to Western culture centering on Victorian Europe and getting muddled by bad translation, but the main character’s atrocious “Chun-Li meets Dracula in a miniskirt” outfit meshes with it far too well.  Also, the villain’s name is Gebel, which is German and traditionally pronounced with a hard “G”, though localization for the game either did not know this or opted to ignore it for the express purpose of inducing facepalms each time its English-speaking audience has to reconfront the fact that they are fighting against a guy named “Gerbil”.  

Does that matter?  Probably not a lot, though I’ll admit I don’t relish tacking onto Bloodstained’s Point that it’s not a game about taking yourself seriously.

Top Image: Screenshot from Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. I don’t own it.

Things Worth Trying

A review of Catherine.

I find it’s much easier to write when I have someone to be mad at.  To that end, take a look at this.  If I were in the mood to be kind, I would describe that as an informational review, and including it saves me a certain amount of effort in describing the thing I intend to explore a little more critically.  In case my dichotomy doesn’t read: There will be spoilers. If you are the type of person that cares, go play the game first. All good? Let’s begin.

I.

Catherine is a game about cheating, or, more particularly, it’s a game about how well-established social morals around cheating interact with “modern” ideals of how romantic relationships look.  The scare quotes are because the game’s (c. 2011) interpretation of modernity probably solidified around the late 90s and is at least a little different from what things are like today (accord variance for local culture as you will), but understanding that difference helps resolve at least a little of the cognitive dissonance you get when socially average (read: complete loser) protagonist Vincent wakes up massively hungover next to naked, beautiful, and not at all hungover Catherine after a night at the bar and immediately internalizes it as his fault.  Frankly, there’s a good argument that it is, but there is conspicuously little examination of what, by even more modern standards, is essentially date rape.

I’ll be clear: I’m not saying that I wanted that examination–God knows I get enough of it from modern media–but its absence is a good marker for where this game is coming from.  More broadly, there is a lot we can glean from what Catherine takes for granted.  In context, Vincent is characterized as a fairly together person who is going through a weird time in his life, but anyone looking at this by Western standards is immediately calling bullshit.  Vincent is a raging alcoholic in a clearly dysfunctional relationship, and that his behavior is normalized is telling, but before you get angry at that, slow down, have a drink yourself.

It’s easy to get pissy at the message this sends to society (“relationships are oppressive, excessive alcohol and poor communication skills are acceptable”) or at the people who get pissy thereof, but the story is still (depending on your ending) one of a fuckboi slowly learning to be less of a fuckboi, so the vector is still in the right direction in my mind.  Instead, let’s talk about fairy tales and how the general public has a hot-garbage understanding of the underpinnings of writing.

II.

Has anyone else run into that asshole who, you know, actually says the words “show, don’t tell”?  Honestly, it’s good advice in high school, but thereafter it’s generally not a kind conclusion.  As with all advice, “show, don’t tell” has an implied context, and a fair amount of fiction falls outside that context.  Case in point: folklore. In myth, legend, fairy tales, it’s extremely important to the format that you don’t show what actually happened.  The story you’re telling is actually the story of someone else being told what happened, and putting aside that you literally can’t show things in that framework, even so much as trying would disrupt the tension between the storyteller and the audience, which is important regardless of how hypothetical each of those entities is.  Same thing with the historicity in Dark Souls, and more generally, same thing with any story where you’re calling attention to a source.

Catherine, of course, doesn’t have a problem with showing or telling, but instead of reading its hyper-media-coded characters and “fumbled gender stereotypes” as hokey, politically incorrect attempts at description, consider reading them as deliberate oversimplifications, the types of things a storyteller would include in a tall tale to drive home a central point or exploration.  Actually, that suggestion may be a little soft–that’s exactly what they are, or did you just ignore the introduction where the game told you that everything you were about to see was a TV show?

This is, of course, one of the reasons why the outrage over the game’s treatment of transsexuality is ridiculous.  You’re looking at a well-intentioned and inclusive piece (provided you don’t view Vincent, et al’s transphobia as aspirational–you shouldn’t), wrapped in 90s/00s language that simply doesn’t have the same words and concepts as the modern []-Studies crowd.  The criticism then translates as a critique on fashionability, which seems kinda petty.

Aside, though uncomfortably political: The game’s nightmare–the one that only affects men, including the game’s trans-woman–is ultimately revealed to be generated by a demon whose stated aim is to torment men who are not contributing to human reproduction.  Given that it is a targeted weapon controlled by a specific entity rather than an axiomatic validation of gender, I would ask the folk who are upset to contemplate exactly how woke they think Satan is (1). “Sounds stupid?” Yes.

III.

“I get that you disagree with these people, but what about the game?”

I’m glad that it exists.  I’m reading it as a serious attempt at literary exploration of a complicated but atypically well-defined social perception.  The very first review I read for the game back in 2011 described it as “mature”, and I think that’s on point. There are a lot of cheesy places that a game about horror and sex can go, but I think that a puzzle loop harnessing the metaphor of elevating oneself amidst horrific emotional storms and antagonism feels very true.  

It’s not perfect, of course.  It’s really not perfect.  I’ll defend the game’s extremely blunt characterizations as deliberate choices, designed for a purpose, but that doesn’t mean they all worked.  Vincent, in particular, was rough. His shortcomings were fine as a baseline, but then they became a one-trick pony for advancing the plot, and I started feeling like I was going through the worst parts of Romeo and Juliet all over again–the problems stopped looking insurmountable because they were, in fact, very easy to solve, and Vincent’s sheer incompetence was the only thing standing in the way, which is even worse because this is a game, and games are supposed to harness your agency rather than strip you of it.

Still, when the game did invite player choice, it made good use of it, albeit in the really opaque, Persona-style sense, and the use of survey questions about romance as a means to guide the events and endings of the game was pretty interesting.

Ultimately, did Catherine push the boundaries of games as art?  Eh, not really, but my view is that the medium is still young enough that we can afford to give out cigars, because the game really visibly tried.  It picked an interesting topic and explored it in a fairly novel way with decent attention to detail and literary device.  If it were written a little more carefully, if it made just a little better use of its medium (specifically not fumbling it at the moments where giving the player control is most important), it might have been an artistic achievement.  Instead it was just a solid game, but the effort did not go unnoticed.

Footnotes:

(1): Perhaps, cynically or otherwise, you feel closer to Satan than whatever’s on your particular Light Side.  In that case, replace “Satan” with “Hitler”, which is only less interesting of a thought experiment because you know a priori he was a bigot.

Top Image: Banner for Catherine Classic (the version I happened to play) on Steam.

Next Steps and First Impressions

At this point, I am pretty much done with my backlog of material to post here.  That means that my lead time per long post is probably going to be a little longer than the 2-3 day intervals I’ve been following to this point.  Sevenfold Gyre part three is about a third done, but fuck, it’s update day, so while I continue grinding that out, today you get a shitpost of a game review.

Image result for sekiro

Those who have been following my Dark Souls series are probably aware that today, From Software released Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s first game since Dark Souls 3 in a vaguely similar space (technically he also directed Déraciné, but that’s radically different enough that I’m going to ignore it for the purposes of this timeline).  As the name might imply: This is not Dark Souls. You’re playing a named character, it’s a stealth game, you don’t do damage–you just need to break the enemy’s poise–the game has a non-historical story (which I’m disappointed about, but only because Dark Souls invented the genre, and I’ve never seen anyone do it as well), the reviews go on and on.  Oh yeah, most of that isn’t true, I’m just parroting the takeaways I’ve read online, and it’s actually a double fake, because the big idea is wrong, too: This game is totally Dark Souls.

I can quantify that.  Here are the actual differences between Sekiro and Dark Souls (taken broadly, in the “Soulsborne” sense):

  1. The main character has backstory.
  2. There is a jump button.
  3. Enemies block attacks in a way that makes fighting crowds is noticeably more dangerous.
  4. The advancement systems (equipment, stats) have been replaced with the type of thing you see in Devil May Cry (or equivalent action game).

Fits on one hand.  I, for one, am thrilled.  That said, it’s very polished, combat is intricate in spite of its very fast pace, and moving around is a joy.  By far the most significant of those, though, is the first, and it’s a deceptively small change.  At a very surface level, the setting is historical. The Ashina clan was a real clan during the Sengoku period, the named characters don’t appear to have been, but whatever.  Below that surface, we’re back to–you guessed it–more Dark Souls, with all of the desolation, bleakness, and lovely, fuzzy vagueness that From Software does so well, which is why it’s so cool that simply adding a pre-existing drive to the player character alters the experience so radically.  In a lot of ways, the Souls games were framed, defined by that void, and filling it changes the basis for analysis.

Mind, I have no idea at this point what that analysis is going to look like (I’m only 15 hours in), but man, am I stoked to find out.

Top Image: Gameplay/cutscene footage from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. I do not own it.