Thursday, February 23, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Shibuya

Wow, two months since the last post. It's embarrassing, what with my readership having exploded into the mid-single digits. But it happens. There've been posts in the works, and writing on other fora, but mostly I think I just couldn't bear for my first post of 2012 to be about Twilight.

On the social media, a lot of my friends are game designers on one side of the academic divide or the other. I get a lot of posts about the process of development, upcoming projects, relevant press, etc. From the academics, I get a lot of links to things I should read, things I have read and should write about, etc. It's always a bit disarming, as I become aware to what extent I've fallen out of the loop on gaming culture.

I still game, of course, and often do so obsessively. But between the mono crisis and the fibro crisis, there's been a definite bias towards games I can play with the sound off while keeping one eye on Netflix on Demand. My long, futile war against multitasking has taken some ignominious defeats, and I can't imagine that my attention span--never quite as strong as that of my book-readin' counterparts--has entirely avoided the attrition. Depression makes it hard to do new things, and my late preference for comfort-food gaming is probably a manifestation of that as well.

Still, I am more fortunate than most. There are worse unhealthy preoccupations than the Nintendo DS, to my mind the most perfect game console yet devised. Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes.. . Professor Layton, Advance Wars: Days of Ruin, Dawn of Discovery...not a bad deal for a perpetually novice strategy gamer with an affinity for narrative and extensive replay.

The World Ends With You, a game that stands in the very narrow group of games whose titles refer to profound philosophical assertions (cf. Little Red Riding Hood's Zombie BBQ), is a game I've spent years trying to find something significant to write about. Don't get me wrong: I love WEWY. Not in the way I love, say, G.K. Chesterton, or Lady Gaga. It's the kind of love one can only acquire from a Blockbuster Video employee ten minutes before midnight.

The trouble with writing about WEWY is that anything meaningful I could think of to say about the game would be read, heard, and felt by a player more beautifully than any mediated translation I could throw together. The plot, if you go in fresh, is thick with twists, and spoilers would abound in even the most perfunctory summary. Think Pokemon meets Job.

The best I can do, in terms of commentary, is to note that I am terrified of a sequel, not merely for fear of fucking up a really great story, but because I really can't imagine the game working on any apparatus without two vertically stacked screens. The conceit that there is no such thing as a shared reality ought to be challenged, at least for the player, by battles that ask her to control (and therefore, "be") two characters at once. Happens all the time in strategy games, after all. But usually the controls themselves are optimized for this purpose. In WEWY, you play Neku with the stylus and a guest with the d-pad, and like so many things in this game, it should be an unplayable mess, but somehow, it works. Even though it's not strictly possible to actively watch both screens at once, you learn to slip from one to the other as needed, and gradually, your attention becomes more fluid, the slippage less binary. You're not playing as both characters simultaneously, and you're not exactly playing as each in sequence; you're a thing between the screens, between the characters, responding to stimuli and moving on.

The tendency to refer to the character on screen as "me" seems to be endemic as gaming, so it's oddly profound to be reminded that Neku is only Neku, and Shiki is only Shiki, and I...I am only me, chronically unemployed, dangerously unhealthy, and still capable of enjoying the moment.

If you like beans, buy a coffee shop. If you like ideas, I suppose blogging have to do.

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