19 votes

If you had to teach a class on an element of gaming, which games would you put on your syllabus?

Here's the task: pretend you're a professor! You have to do the following:

  • Choose a focus for your class on gaming (with a snazzy title if you like)
  • Choose the games that you, as a professor, will have your class dive into in order to convey key concepts
  • Explain why each game you chose ties into your overarching exploration

Your class can have any focus, broad or specific: level design in first-person shooters; the history of pixel art; the psychology of non-linear narratives; the use of sound effects in mid-2000 platformers; the limitations of turn-based systems in tabletop strategy games, etc. Anything goes, and any forms of gaming are valid!

After choosing your specific focus, choose games that you would put on your syllabus as a sort of "required playing" for students, and talk about why you've chosen each item and what it brings to the table. If you decide to choose, say, NetHack and The Binding of Isaac for your class on "Roguelikes, Roguelites, and the Fallacy of the Berlin Interpretation", discuss how those particular games illustrate some of the key concepts you want to convey to your learners.

While I'm intending this to be serious and straightforward, I also like the idea of people having fun with it, so feel free to come up with some less serious or more entertaining classes. I'd love to see the outline for course that explored, say, the history of exploding barrels or an investigation of taste levels in the fashion of JRPG outfits.

28 comments

  1. [3]
    wirelyre
    Link
    What a compelling prompt! I'd teach Platforming physics in video games: the transition from 2D to 3D. I find gravity and movement options really interesting, and of course how those inform the...
    • Exemplary

    What a compelling prompt!

    I'd teach Platforming physics in video games: the transition from 2D to 3D. I find gravity and movement options really interesting, and of course how those inform the types of obstacles that are used.

    Obviously the syllabus includes the Mario series: Super Mario Bros 1 and 3, Super Mario World, and Yoshi's Island; and in the 3D era Super Mario 64, Sunshine, Galaxy, and Odyssey. I'd cover how jump gravity eventually had more natural physics than it started with, and how that carried through the 3D transition. Also how 2D stage design isn't as fun if transferred directly to 3D, due to how naturally linear it is (the most "classic"-looking levels in SM64 are the Bowser stages — why is that?).

    The Tanooki Suit and Feather are a kind of platforming "flub" item, which can be used to give a little extra leeway if you miss a jump. But the Feather admits a different kind of floating obstacle entirely! Likewise, starting with Sunshine, all 3D Mario games have "flub" mechanics (F.L.U.D.D., Luma, Cappy), which made quite a few otherwise tricky platform mechanics possible (for instance, rotating platforms started to work very well).

    Also the development of wall jumps and wall sliding. For that it might be interesting to cover the New Super Mario Bros. series: wall jumps were glitches starting in SMB1 (2D), a mechanic starting in SM64 (3D), then afterwards became a mechanic in NSMB (2D again).

    I'd have to go back and play all the Mega Man games to figure out exactly what to put in, but I'd contrast them with the Metroid series. In Metroid, the game environment is basically locked in place but deeply interactive, based on what items you have. In Mega Man, the platforms are far less interactive than other objects you can put on screen (like the Magnet Beam and Rush).

    Then we'd look at the transition with Metroid Prime: which interactive environment elements worked, and which didn't. In particular, how well Bomb Blocks updated to Sandstone, and how Boost Blocks didn't work in 3D. Also we'd cover the relative strengths and weaknesses of environmental secrets in 2D and 3D, basically concluding that it's much harder in 3D because there's so much more space that you're less likely to bonk on the walls.

    I'm sure that the Crash Bandicoot series has enough to learn simply from all the transitions from 3D to 2.5D within a single game. But I'm not familiar enough with it to know what kinds of things you could learn.

    Finally, I think I'd cover the Kirby series, almost an "anti-platformer" since it's built around the hovering mechanic, meaning you don't usually need to touch the ground at all. And there aren't very many bottomless pits, so the most interesting obstacles are enemies, which usually aren't attached to platforms at all! To my knowledge, there has never been a mainline Kirby game in 3D — why is that? (Because it would turn into a flight simulator.)

    Throughout this all I'd be showing how 3D areas tend to have much lower platforms and a flatter design. To some extent that's a limitation of a free camera, but mostly the physics just gets confusing if you're moving in a plane parallel to your line of sight. And above all I'd show how much "tighter" jumps were in early 2D games compared to 3D games — and then how some of those lessons in "looser" jumps are being used in modern 2D games.

    7 votes
    1. [2]
      kfwyre
      Link Parent
      This is such a fantastic writeup and demonstrates a wonderful depth and appreciation for platformers. This was my main issue with Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U. Don't get me wrong, it's a...

      This is such a fantastic writeup and demonstrates a wonderful depth and appreciation for platformers.

      Also how 2D stage design isn't as fun if transferred directly to 3D, due to how naturally linear it is (the most "classic"-looking levels in SM64 are the Bowser stages — why is that?).

      This was my main issue with Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U. Don't get me wrong, it's a great game and is very good at what it does, but at the time it came out I was craving a 3D Mario with more open-world level design, and I instead got a game with more linear, 2D-inspired levels. It's not that the game was bad, it's more that at the time I couldn't even identify my own specific tastes or interests, because I'd never thought about 3D level design in that way! Your mention of the Crash Bandicoot series is actually another great example of this. I went back and played the recent remaster and realized how explicitly it's 2D design mapped to a 3D space (especially the first game).

      2 votes
      1. wirelyre
        Link Parent
        Thank you! I played 3D World just a bit. Despite how it looks, arguably it's not really a 3D platformer. At least, it's not in the same genre established by Mario 64 and carried through e.g. A Hat...

        Thank you!

        I played 3D World just a bit. Despite how it looks, arguably it's not really a 3D platformer. At least, it's not in the same genre established by Mario 64 and carried through e.g. A Hat in Time. It's almost more of an isometric platformer, maybe in the same spirit as Marble Madness.

        Of course there are some real strengths of the fixed camera! A lot of 2D concepts map over perfectly. Obscured areas in particular, like the ones Nintendo started using in New Super Mario Bros., work really well. I wish I had had more time with it — it's still on my to-do list!

        2 votes
  2. [3]
    PapaNachos
    (edited )
    Link
    I'm actually already planning give a short (30-60 minute) talk titled An Introduction to Modern Board Games in a few weeks. My pitch was: There are a lot of games and concepts to talk about, but...

    I'm actually already planning give a short (30-60 minute) talk titled An Introduction to Modern Board Games in a few weeks. My pitch was:

    Modern board games are a great way to hang out with friend and socialize, but most people are only familiar with older, simpler games like Monopoly, which often leave a bad taste in peoples’ mouths. Games have come a long way in the last 2 decades and I can show you how to get started, how to understand some of the lingo, and how to find what’s right for you. Finally, given that we’re in the age of COVID-19, I’ll talk a bit about how to enjoy games while staying safe.

    There are a lot of games and concepts to talk about, but some of the most "influential" ones I want to talk about are Settlers of Catan, Dominion, Power Grid, Agricola, Pandemic, and 7 Wonders. In my mind those are some of the most important games in kicking off the modern board game revival, though I may reassess that list.

    I'll also talk about some 'gateway' games which are good games to play to get your feel wet such as Azul, Splendor, The Shipwreck Arcana.

    And some more indepth games for more committed board gamers such as Terraforming Mars, Gloomhaven or Twilight Imperium.

    And I definitely want to provide the audience with a lexicon of terms to help understand some of the lingo that's used. Terms like:
    Card drafting, working placement, co-op, hidden information, randomness (as applied to games), asymmetric games, set collection, point salad, social deduction, action economy, engine building, etc...

    Edit: Added terms. Additional stuff to talk about: "duel" games, legacy games, tabletop role-playing games, tabletop war games, particularly portable games

    8 votes
    1. [2]
      kfwyre
      Link Parent
      Here I am asking people to pretend to be professors without realizing that we already have some in house with us! This is very cool. Who is the audience for your talk?

      Here I am asking people to pretend to be professors without realizing that we already have some in house with us!

      This is very cool. Who is the audience for your talk?

      4 votes
      1. PapaNachos
        Link Parent
        It's for a private STEM group I'm a part of, so it won't be available publicly, but if it goes well, I might eventually give it again elsewhere or record a version to post online.

        It's for a private STEM group I'm a part of, so it won't be available publicly, but if it goes well, I might eventually give it again elsewhere or record a version to post online.

        4 votes
  3. [16]
    sib
    Link
    i think i would talk a bit about the evolution of game design in 2d platformers - how they are being created with novel mechanics even after 30+ years and how they pay homage to their history....

    i think i would talk a bit about the evolution of game design in 2d platformers - how they are being created with novel mechanics even after 30+ years and how they pay homage to their history.

    Specific games i would like to focus on:

    • super mario bros, this game has created such a legacy that people are still referencing it (and playing it!) 35 years after it was released. I would talk about the game design, how it evolved through the series and about how mario went on to become a pop culture icon.

    • celeste, this is a modern take on the genre and pays homage in different ways. I would talk about how the mechanics have been designed to take into account player ergonomics, eg fudge factor when jumping off the edge of a platform, contrasting them with SMB which is much more unforgiving. And how in spite of this, the game is not easier, but it is more fluid.

    • braid, this is a more cerebral take on the genre and probably could have its own class. Braid takes a turn towards puzzle games by introducing new mechanics that allow the player to manipulate time in different ways. It is less about precision (still required) and more about thinking about how the player and the world are connected in order to solve the various levels.

    Additionally, both Braid and Celeste add layers of commentary through their dialogues and stories. Mario, on the other hand, has no real character development or story. Over time, we have realized that games can also be used to communicate ideas, much in the same way as books and movies.

    I’m sure there are some other games I would like to sprinkle in there as well, i just can’t think of them off-hand at the moment. Probably super meat boy would come up while talking about celeste, for instance.

    5 votes
    1. [10]
      daturkel
      Link Parent
      I haven't played a ton of new games in the last 10 years, but I played Celeste and I can't help but think...story in games still isn't that good. I don't think it's necessarily a restriction of...

      Additionally, both Braid and Celeste add layers of commentary through their dialogues and stories.

      I haven't played a ton of new games in the last 10 years, but I played Celeste and I can't help but think...story in games still isn't that good. I don't think it's necessarily a restriction of the medium—good stories can be told even when we allow the player freedom to do what they want (within reason)—I think deeper story development just isn't heavily incentivized for game studios. I appreciate what Celeste and, for example, Gone Home are doing, but as stories they felt to me like run-of-the-mill young adult fiction.

      This is reflected in the way people write about games: you'll find lots of reviews seeking to inform you if a game is worth playing/buying (and that same thing exists for films) but you won't find a lot of "games criticism" in the way we have film or literary criticism, and I'd argue that this is because the content of games has largely not grown deep enough to merit it. As a life-long gamer, I've been disappointed to find that by and large games have not grown with me.

      10 votes
      1. [3]
        joplin
        Link Parent
        I concur. I've played a bunch more games over the past year than I have in the past thanks to subscriptions, the lockdown, and some other factors. I'm finding some of the stories to be simplistic,...

        I concur. I've played a bunch more games over the past year than I have in the past thanks to subscriptions, the lockdown, and some other factors. I'm finding some of the stories to be simplistic, which in itself is not a bad thing. But worse, I'm finding many stories that are incoherent.

        There are times when it's as if the studio came up with a story, removed half the storyboards, then implemented it. I don't know if it's something I'm doing where I'm missing subtle bits of the story, or what, but there are times when I'm playing, and I just can't make sense of what's going on. Who is this character? What are they telling me? Why is this important? What does this have to do with anything? I can deal with surprises and non-linear story telling, and leaving some parts unexplained. But when it's bits of the main focus of the story that are missing, it just leaves me confused.

        4 votes
        1. Deimos
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          It's usually a hard thing to discuss because people tend to get defensive about it, but honestly the writing in almost all games is just plain bad. There are a lot of reasons for it, including...

          It's usually a hard thing to discuss because people tend to get defensive about it, but honestly the writing in almost all games is just plain bad. There are a lot of reasons for it, including that many games don't (or can't) pay for a dedicated, experienced writer to be involved deeply in the development process, but in the end the writing in the large majority of games is worse than you'd find if you picked up a random young-adult novel.

          There are exceptions, but in general I feel like in the cases where the writing is actually good, the game is either not very "game-like" (visual novels and other narrative-centric styles), or the writing is fairly disconnected from the gameplay. For example, I think The Talos Principle had good writing, but all of it's presented almost completely separate from the actual gameplay of the game.

          Overall, I just don't go into games expecting good writing any more. It's nice if they do a decent job of it, but it's not the main reason I'm playing a game. There are tons of great options to choose from in other mediums like books and movies if I'm specifically looking for a well-told story.

          5 votes
        2. Akir
          Link Parent
          Honestly, I think that in about 80% of games, the story is an afterthought. Or at least an extremely low priority. Which is strange, because the supporting elements for that story are given...

          Honestly, I think that in about 80% of games, the story is an afterthought. Or at least an extremely low priority. Which is strange, because the supporting elements for that story are given excruciating effort and detail - think of all the time and effort for all of those mocap actors, animators, lighting and shading experts, voice actors, voice directors, directors, and producers who have to work on those scenes - and all of that is for some throwaway transition scene for Call of Duty or something else where the scene is likely to be skipped by the player. I remember reading a story a while back that the people who work on the story elements for the Wolfenstein games are a completely different team than the one who deal with the gameplay.

          I think that a lot of producers put story in there simply for the sake of having a story. Perhaps because they are afraid that there is a section of audience who will not buy the game without it. It seems especially noticeable with indie games. Games like My Friend Pedro or The Messenger would probably be a lot better if the dialogue was stripped away.

          I do get that for some games, especially ones based around twitchy action, story segments act as a kind of buffer - a change of pace to relax you between rounds - but I think it could often be better served by something else. Perhaps add in some concept art between rounds, or add in short animated scenes that give you a better perspective on the characters or world.

          What I really don't get is why there are so many plot-centric or narrative based games that have really poor plot delivery or simply bad writing behind them. Particularly with 'walking sim' style games that are not chocked full of environmental storytelling the way Fullbright's games are.

          2 votes
      2. [2]
        kfwyre
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        I largely agree, and I say this as someone that loves narrative games. Storytelling in games is really quite difficult. People laud their interactivity but don't often consider the drawbacks of...

        I largely agree, and I say this as someone that loves narrative games. Storytelling in games is really quite difficult. People laud their interactivity but don't often consider the drawbacks of that, namely temporality and cause-and-effect.

        In novels, time is erratic and the author can go slow, fast, or jump back and forth at will, because they are in complete control of the pacing of the story. They can make minutes take whole chapters, or they can skip months in a few words. Movies have a similar leeway with their timelines.

        Games, on the other hand, suffer if their temporality is interrupted or adjusted too much, so we experience them mostly as linear chunks of time that move at a consistent rate. This creates the need for filler that novels don't have, because they don't have to "fill time" but games constantly do by nature of the way we interact with them. Luckily, that's where our experience as players comes in. A paused narrative doesn't matter as much if we're busy exploring, fighting, or taking in a beautiful environment, for example.

        Furthermore, games are also a contract with the player to engage with a predictable set of rules governing cause-and-effect. If I press this button, my character does this action. Interactivity is enabled by this contract, because if the contract didn't exist or wasn't consistent, we wouldn't have player agency. Games can definitely play with this concept in some very cool ways, but they can't ever fully discard it, especially not from the beginning. Some form of this has to exist in the first place for the game to even get off the ground with the player. A downside of this is that it's incredibly difficult to make a game about, say, inaction or disempowerment, because such an experience would be deliberately uninteractive. There are ways around this (e.g. having the game convey it through a non-player character), but it really limits what can be done from the experiential standpoint of the player themselves

        Sidenote: This is actually what makes Spec Ops: The Line so interesting and why so much has been written debating its merits, with seemingly no good or definitive conclusions. It is deliberately aware of its contract with the player and attempts to use that as a form of commentary, but it also has to establish that contract in the first place, so is the game merely commenting on the player's actions or is it in some way responsible for them?

        Ultimately I don't believe games will ever achieve storytelling on par with books or movies simply because their scope includes much more than narrative. Books and movies are able to laser-focus on that one goal, but games have to manage a lot more in order to achieve their narratives, and this isn't necessarily a bad thing. I actually think trying to do direct comparisons between media types is mostly fruitless because so much has to be discarded that makes them borderline unfair.

        Gone Home, for example, is as you identified: a fairly standard YA fiction story (and I say this as a teacher who reads a lot of YA fiction for my job!). That said, the game isn't simply about the story on paper, because the story is experienced by the player in the context of the game itself. The atmosphere of the house, the player's exploration of its layout, the mystery of certain areas, the use of horror tropes to create suspense in a non-horror game, and the detail embedded in the game's environment are all part of the game too, and I think it excels in all these areas. If we isolate it to just its story, we cut out a lot of the game's richness and criticize it for something it isn't and wasn't ever designed to be.

        It definitely doesn't mean we can't critique game's stories, as there's plenty of ground to cover there. I just think it's more valuable to do so within the context of the medium rather than outside of it.

        4 votes
        1. daturkel
          Link Parent
          I haven't played Spec Ops, though I'd quite like to, but this reminds me a bit of whichever Call of Duty game had "No Russian" in it. For those not familiar, there's a mission where the...

          It is deliberately aware of its contract with the player and attempts to use that as a form of commentary, but it also has to establish that contract in the first place, so is the game merely commenting on the player's actions or is it in some way responsible for them?

          I haven't played Spec Ops, though I'd quite like to, but this reminds me a bit of whichever Call of Duty game had "No Russian" in it. For those not familiar, there's a mission where the protagonist is undercover with some terrorist group as they commit a mass shooting at an airport. The character is under some pressure to participate (or at least not intervene) in order to maintain cover, and I felt like that was a decent mirror of the player's own discomfort of being pressured to play the level (though you could skip it): the character and the player both experience similar discomfort being forced into this situation. In the player's case, it's the game that's the coercive force compelling you to do something you don't want to do.

          Of course, as I recall, the rest of the story for that game wasn't much to speak of, but it was certainly a good use of the use of the medium (and the relationship between player interactivity/freedom versus the inevitability of the scripted game story) to aid or complement the story.

          2 votes
      3. [3]
        culturedleftfoot
        Link Parent
        I very much agree... but to be fair, video games are what, almost 60 years old? We're probably just about in its adolescence as an artform.

        I very much agree... but to be fair, video games are what, almost 60 years old? We're probably just about in its adolescence as an artform.

        2 votes
        1. [2]
          daturkel
          Link Parent
          I don't fully buy this though. We're far past the point where the technology is a barrier to meaningful storytelling. And 60 years into film history was ~1955. The 50s in film included Seven...

          I don't fully buy this though. We're far past the point where the technology is a barrier to meaningful storytelling. And 60 years into film history was ~1955. The 50s in film included Seven Samurai, Rashomon, A Streetcar Named Desire, Rear Window, Vertigo, Ben-Hur and so on.

          3 votes
          1. culturedleftfoot
            Link Parent
            It's not just the technological capacity for storytelling that has to mature. It's the pool of people who play video games in the first place to then have interest in making them, it's the pool of...

            It's not just the technological capacity for storytelling that has to mature. It's the pool of people who play video games in the first place to then have interest in making them, it's the pool of people who'd be interested in writing for video games, it's the pool of those people who then understand video games well enough to write appropriately for the medium and not just try to make the cliché 'interactive movie,' it's the demand of the audience who play games for meaningful storytelling, etc. Jonathan Blow speaks about this every now and then, and I think we've seen some small progress in that regard in the past decade, in part because of his influence in the indie scene.

            I think comparing film to games in terms of development of the art may have some limited usefulness as it's the closest analogue we have, but I don't expect their trajectories will be very similar because the difference in economics of the respective technologies are (or maybe have been) so great.

            3 votes
      4. wirelyre
        Link Parent
        I tend to read video games with story or atmosphere as more like paintings, fables, or short poems. That way you can very clearly see artistic trends (literal visual and audio techniques, also...

        I tend to read video games with story or atmosphere as more like paintings, fables, or short poems.

        That way you can very clearly see artistic trends (literal visual and audio techniques, also fashions in narrative techniques and tone), and it makes sense to put any particular game in context of its contemporaries. But it's not as tempting to say a particular game is deficient in narrative, because there's just not room to put a whole story arc in a painting.

        Or, put another way, any story in all the games I've played is entirely subtext. Maybe not literally — maybe there is a plot that drives the game forward, like in an RPG — but whatever is there is functionally serving some other purpose(s), like a battle system, or puzzle mechanics, or even showing off the world and characters.

        I know almost nothing about visual novels, but someone else here might? I bet it's a lot easier to use traditional literary criticism on visual novels. There's also probably recent combinations of visual novels and other modern game mechanics.

        1 vote
    2. [5]
      wirelyre
      Link Parent
      There's an underrated subgenre of platformer that includes N, DustForce, and Remnants of Naezith. In my head I call it "momentum platformer", which I cautiously define as a platformer where...

      There's an underrated subgenre of platformer that includes N, DustForce, and Remnants of Naezith. In my head I call it "momentum platformer", which I cautiously define as a platformer where platforms and the level are not obstacles; instead, you use movement options with the platforms to traverse open space. That's connected to momentum because momentum is what decides whether or not you can navigate a particular empty space.

      I'd be really interested to learn the history of the subgenre, especially because there are so many novel mechanics in each game! Slopes that preserve or increase momentum, actions on the ground that trade off momentum for something else…

      3 votes
      1. [4]
        daturkel
        Link Parent
        I played the hell out of N (the original Flash version and the Nintendo DS version), and liked DustForce a lot too. Super Meat Boy probably also fits this genre with lots of focus on momentum and...

        I played the hell out of N (the original Flash version and the Nintendo DS version), and liked DustForce a lot too. Super Meat Boy probably also fits this genre with lots of focus on momentum and ...moving through the air I guess?

        2 votes
        1. [3]
          wirelyre
          Link Parent
          Yeah, the categories can become unhelpful when you get this detailed. I was specifically not thinking of Super Meat Boy because I think there's only one run speed which you get to in like half a...

          Yeah, the categories can become unhelpful when you get this detailed. I was specifically not thinking of Super Meat Boy because I think there's only one run speed which you get to in like half a second? There also just aren't that many things you can do in midair or against the ground, if that makes sense. Whereas the main mechanic of DustForce is "bang against the ground then keep speed".

          But Celeste is pretty similar in that respect (although is keeping speed a feature or a glitch?). And insofar as Celeste has momentum as a game feature, it's strongly related to wall jumps, which Meat Boy is built around. So… maybe? I really like 'em all!

          2 votes
          1. [2]
            hook
            Link Parent
            Not to contradict you, but to some extent even Sonic and Donkey Kong games are a lot about momentum. But yes, the air ballet if N etc is something else.

            Not to contradict you, but to some extent even Sonic and Donkey Kong games are a lot about momentum. But yes, the air ballet if N etc is something else.

            1 vote
            1. daturkel
              Link Parent
              Mario 3 and Super Mario World also had interesting speed mechanics (in Mario 3 it's even visualized on the HUD)

              Mario 3 and Super Mario World also had interesting speed mechanics (in Mario 3 it's even visualized on the HUD)

  4. hook
    (edited )
    Link
    (on mobile, sory for being terse) I'd cover adventure games and RPGs and the connection between them: start with grandparents: Colossal Cave Adventure and Rogue try NetHack for homework, report...

    (on mobile, sory for being terse)

    I'd cover adventure games and RPGs and the connection between them:

    • start with grandparents: Colossal Cave Adventure and Rogue
    • try NetHack for homework, report your most interesting death
    • early text adventures like Zork or even Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
    • Ultima and Ultima Underworld as the parents of western RPG
    • at this stage a pen&paper homework in groups. A shorter D&D or something like The Warlock of the Firetop Mountain
    • early Sierra graphical adventures like King's Quest or Space Quest
    • Dragon Quest as the father of JRPG and Chrono Trigger as one of the masterpieces
    • Diablo which got the action RPGs with Rogue influences to mainstream
    • Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island 2 as the height of LucasArts
    • one of the Baldur's Gate or Pillars of Eternity games as the modern classic western RPG
    • Beneth a Steal Sky and Broken Sword as more serious adventures
    • one of Final Fantasy games (because you have to) and Xenoblade Chronicles as pinnacle of modern JRPG
    • Grim Fadango as a an early 3D adventure
    • Zelda BotW as how less can be more in open worlds
    • TellTale games as a modern take, that sadly did not survive
    3 votes
  5. [5]
    Akir
    Link
    I'm a closeted lit nerd at heart, so I would probably make a class about themes and storytelling in games. For sure we would cover Chrono Cross. As far as games go, I don't know any other that...

    I'm a closeted lit nerd at heart, so I would probably make a class about themes and storytelling in games.

    For sure we would cover Chrono Cross. As far as games go, I don't know any other that uses themes so pervasively as Chrono Cross - or really just about any piece of literary media, for that matter. This game just has so many things to talk about - it's got environmentalism, the nature of choice and impact of decisions, the impacts of time, the concept of fate from just about every angle imaginable, the bonds between people, the nature of love, the lust for power... I could just go on and on. The most amazing thing is that Masato Kato, the writer and director for the game, stated he writes the story for his games as secondary to the gameplay - and yet every single literary decision seems painstakingly positioned to have some sort of greater meaning.

    I could spend all day talking about Chrono Cross, but there are others to cover. D2 is definitely a must - It's just a rife with theme, but because there are fewer and simpler themes, they tend to hit harder. It's also a good example on how to influence the audience to make changes in their perspective - there are two specific points in the game that make really heavy use of emotional manipulation to really drive in those themes, and it accomplishes it by investing quite a lot of time building up to them.

    More modern examples are a bit harder to find - The two Nier games are probably good candidates, as is Iconoclasts (which also has the benefit of being relatively obscure and short so I could get students to play though quickly). I wonder if telltale's games might be good for it, but I have honestly not played any of their games; something about them just rubs me the wrong way.

    3 votes
    1. [4]
      kfwyre
      Link Parent
      Have you ever fully written up your own thoughts on D2? You've referenced the game and your appreciation for its depth here on Tildes several times before, and it always piques my curiosity. I'd...

      Have you ever fully written up your own thoughts on D2? You've referenced the game and your appreciation for its depth here on Tildes several times before, and it always piques my curiosity. I'd love to read a full rundown/thematic analysis from you if one exists (or if you'd be willing to type it out). I played the game a long time ago but never finished it, and I don't have the same appreciation for it that you do, so I'd love to know what I'm missing. I do think the game has a lot there, I just didn't get there myself, if that makes sense.

      2 votes
      1. [3]
        Akir
        Link Parent
        I'm pretty sure I did when I was young, but that would be too embarrassing to bring up now. I'm actually surprised to hear that you played D2 but didn't finish it. It's a pretty short game. I...
        • Exemplary

        I'm pretty sure I did when I was young, but that would be too embarrassing to bring up now.

        I'm actually surprised to hear that you played D2 but didn't finish it. It's a pretty short game. I wonder if you might be confusing it for Diablo 2? I'm talking about the Dreamcast game literally titled D2.

        D2 uses themes somewhat differently than other games, to the point where some of them might be better described as motifs. As a horror game, the scenario includes people transforming into monsters, and there are a number of named characters who you will have contact before their changes and afterwords their monster form will reflect their goals in life. Interestingly enough, when you have to fight them, you will find symbols of that dream that act as their weak points.

        With that being said, the main theme of the game is choosing how to live your life. One of the interesting ways this is conveyed is through the player character. You start off as a relative blank slate - you just know that you are a woman named Laura Parton and you have amnesia. But as you progress through the game you get little flashbacks of the events that got you there, you grow relationships with some of the side characters, and you even learn more about your parents and the circumstances of your birth. Your voiceless character who previously only had screams and cries eventually gets a few short speaking lines, which illustrate how she has grown and becomes sure of her path.

        You also have a companion you meet at the beginning of the game who acts as a foil to Laura named Kimberly, and she is perhaps the most amazing dramatic character I have ever seen. She is a complete mess: she was raped as a child by her father, has no family, suffers from crippling depression and anxiety, and has a literal fear of men. It should also be mentioned that she is often the player's voice, so you end up being extremely emotionally invested in her. I really don't want to give up the plot here, but she starts off as someone who has clearly been coasting through her life, and ends knowing exactly who she wants to be. And as Laura's foil, her story arch is a reflection of what is going on in Laura's personal story arch.

        Most of the other themes are related to that main theme of choosing how to live one's life. One recurring theme is how parents can be a roadblock to that goal. This comes out at one point in the form of a boss fight, where Laura must fight her mother in the form of an AI running on a computer that is shaped like a pregnant woman in stirrups giving birth (which gets more visceral as the fight progresses). There is also what on the surface seems to be an anti-antidepressant message, but on closer examination it seems more like the real beef is with the action of using drugs that cloud your mind to avoid finding your path.

        And of course, there are also strong themes of love, especially of the familiar and romantic varieties. It's actually really interesting from a feminist perspective, since both Kimberly and Laura are metaphorically 'saved' by men - or perhaps worse, by their romantic attachment to these men - but they never once lose their agency, and in a sense, the plot actually has the women saving the men. There is a child character named Jannie who basically acts as a universal reference to children in general, and most voiced characters are related to one or another.

        There are even some inter textual themes unique to Kenji Eno. The main character, Laura, is actually a "digital actress" who shows up in other Eno games. Eno also has a game called Winds of Regret, a visual novel designed specifically for the blind, and this game makes a number of nods to it, both in the use of blindness and in one segment where he sets the screen to black while a poem gets read aloud to the player.

        My god, how did you get me to write all of this! Just play the game already!

        4 votes
        1. [2]
          kfwyre
          Link Parent
          Oh no, I definitely mean D2. As a forever fan of the Dreamcast, one of the quickest ways to get my attention is to bring it up -- even moreso if you're talking about one of its deep cuts! It's...

          I wonder if you might be confusing it for Diablo 2? I'm talking about the Dreamcast game literally titled D2.

          Oh no, I definitely mean D2. As a forever fan of the Dreamcast, one of the quickest ways to get my attention is to bring it up -- even moreso if you're talking about one of its deep cuts!

          It's been so long that I played it that I don't really remember why I didn't finish it. It could have been the game itself, or it could have been technical issues, as I was most likely playing it via a self-booting disc I made myself using assorted community tools and a pirated copy of DiscJuggler. Ah, those were the days...

          Regardless, I really appreciate you writing this up. It's clear your love for the game has a depth and richness to it, and it's a wonderful reminder of why thematic appreciation for art is so important. I might see if I can spin up a copy -- or at the very least watch a longplay.

          1. Akir
            Link Parent
            Oh no, that game does not do well on CD. Those discs are positively packed with content, and the files are stored in an unusual way that makes the usual compression tricks fail. If you don't own a...

            Oh no, that game does not do well on CD. Those discs are positively packed with content, and the files are stored in an unusual way that makes the usual compression tricks fail. If you don't own a copy, you must emulate and use a full GDI rip.

            One thing to mentally prepare for; the game is somewhat infamous for Kimberly's voice actress being "terrible". People just get kind of upset because she doesn't really try to lipsynch. I implore you to ignore that; she puts all of her effort into preserving a natural cadence and believable emotional performance. Personally speaking, I think she pulls it off pretty well.

            1 vote