Do we connect more with a avatar, a character, or a mute?

As soon as we turn on the game, we will play as one of three characters.  We may create our own character, or we will simply be presented with a clearly defined character with a clearly defined personality. Or lastly, we will be given a character who does not speak, the mute, such as Gordon Freeman in Half Life and Link in Legend of Zelda. While all of these have their pros and cons, which choice causes us to be more closely connected with the character and the world at large?

At first glance, the avatar may seem the most likely. After all we craft the avatar and make him or her our own. However, there are limits to the avatar. Some of them are simply built into the system. After all, in a game like Dark Souls there aren’t a large variety of options for customizing the character’s appearance(and that appearance will likely be covered most of the time with armor). In addition, if the chosen avatar has a backstory, like in the KOTOR games, then the avatar might feel disjointed. There is a certain degree of cognitive dissonance when you superimpose your expectations on this avatar, and all of a sudden the avatar has a back story of his or her own. Also, I feel at times that the avatar is little more than a puppet dragged along on the adventure. It’s like a marionette we use to experience the adventure without actually getting hurt.

Next we come to the character, the hallmark of the JRPG.  When you play Final Fantasy, you expect to play as a certain pre-defined characters with their own personalities.  All you do is facilitate these characters to their goals. You have little control over their real moral choices and actions. Connecting to these characters is like connecting to characters in a book, show, or movie. If you empathize with them, or simply like them, you will also connect with them. This also has the opposite effect if you hate the characters. This was my problem with God of War. I found Kratos so despicable, I couldn’t in any way connect with him as a character.

Finally there is the mute. This type is a bit more rare nowadays, a clearly defined character who does not speak.  This does not mean the character is without any traits and does not communicate.  For example, Link from Wind Waker communicates through his facial expressions which are diverse.  One can connect with the mute in a similar way as the avatar.  However, the key difference is the unique bond one can form with the mute. The mute does not speak, so one can feel as if they are the character. However, the mute is also a defined character herself or himself, thus one can empathize with the mute.  This creates an interesting duality that not many games take advantage of.

Video games are one of the few mediums that can truly allow us to project as much as we would like on the main character without ruining the story, as so often this tactic does in books and movies.

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Dark Souls: The Counterculture of Hard Video Games

When describing the Information Age, Bill Gates once said, “Content is king.”  We now have an overabundance of content.  We possess more than we could ever read, watch, or consume.  In order to deal with this over saturation of content, we have become more selective about what we consume.  In addition, we have become massively impatient.  Content is seemingly limitless, but our time is limited.  This can be seen in many manifestations.  For example, people become angry when their internet is slow, or the latest episode of their favorite TV show hasn’t been posted online yet.  It has also bled over into the gaming world.  We see games that are easier and shorter than before, that tend to hold the gamer’s hand in small ways such as explaining all the ins and outs of the game early on.  While games can certainly be very difficult, there is a noticeable lack of the grueling sluggish difficulty of older video games such as the Adventure of Link, which advertises itself as, “another journey of ultimate challenge.”  Yet, there is a game series which spits in the face of the impatient Information Age crowd, and that series is the Souls series which is most well known for its games Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2.

These games don’t explain their mechanics other than the bare bones basics.  You are left to your own devices to figure out which weapon would be best to use, and how best to upgrade your stats.  In many games, average enemies can rarely kill you.  In Dark Souls, any enemy can kill you in seconds if you aren’t careful.  The game rewards players for slow, cautious gaming as you traverse the treacherous lands of Lordran and Drangleic.  The games are unique blends of single player and multiplayer.  Although you spend most of the game alone, you can summon other players to aid you in boss fights, or more likely other players will invade your world and try to kill you.  Because of the always online nature of the game, there is no pause button.  This is a game that demands your complete attention if you want to succeed and it takes up quite a bit of time and dedication.

In other words the game requires you to actually learn.  In our impatient culture, learning seems to be almost counter cultural.  We see evidence of this on social media, when people rashly share stories that support their biased views without researching the stories first.  We want quick answers to our problems.  We all buy into the idea that we deserve as much content as we want but only as long as we are spoon fed said content.

Thus, difficult games that actually force you to try, try, and try again foster learning.  When you accomplish tasks in these games, you feel a sense of accomplishment.  The same can be said of true beneficial learning.  It is immensely satisfying to look back on your work and see how it started out rough but now has become a work of art.

So remember, when you see the words, “Game Over” or “You Died” that is only a challenge to fight our impatience and continue the journey.

Hero Series: Wander from Shadow of the Colossus

An obvious trait of a hero is that he or she battles monsters, but how do we know if the monsters are monsters in the first place?  Shadow of the Colossus challenges us in this question not through dialogue but through imagery.

If any of you have not finished this masterpiece yet, go ahead and beat it before you read this.  If you do not wish to have the ending ruined, I will have another post up for you to read instead.

For some background, the game is about a young man named Wander who takes the body of his lover, Mono, to a forbidden land where is it rumored a being exists with the power to raise the dead to life.  This being does not have a body, only a disembodied voice.  It says that such a power is difficult to obtain, but if Wander uses his sword of light to find and  kill the 16 Colossi which wander this land, it might be possible to bring her back.

It is no surprise to many gamers that Dormin does not have good motivations.  Usually spooky voices that tell you to kill a certain group of beings in order to “revive” your lover are not good voices.  Yet Wander, the main character, carries out this quest to slay the Colossi in a world that is isolated and almost completely empty.  And the Colossi themselves are utterly majestic.  Their beauty needs to be experienced while playing the game.  Some are aggressive towards you, others simply wander the landscape peacefully.  And each and every time you slay one of these monuments of life, the game plays a haunting mournful song that I shall provide down below for context.

With each victory, your character looks more and more sickly and dark.  When he finally slays the last one and returns to the Dormin’s sanctuary, he is confronted by a character known as Lord Emon.  Lord Emon calls out Wander for collaborating with this dark being and attempts to kill him.  Then the Dormin possess Wander and turn him into a Colossi.  Lord Emon grabs Wander’s sword of light and plunges it into the stone where Mono rests.  It turns into a whirlwind which takes away the Dormin’s power.  Wander struggles against the wind, but it is fruitless and he is swallowed up by it.  Then in the credits, Mono is brought back to life and she travels through the Sanctuary until she finds a baby boy who looks a lot like Wander.

I cut out a lot of details for time’s sake, as it is difficult to do this story justice.  However, we can draw one interesting question from all this, was Wander a hero?  Traditionally speaking, he was.  He did whatever it took to revive the “princess” his one true love.  Yet his efforts seemed largely fruitless.  It was the cleansing of both himself and the Dormin which ultimately brought back Mono to this world.  And he destroyed several majestic beings in his quest which helped keep the darkness of the Dormin contained.

This is where we must make a clarification between brave actions and heroic actions.  To act bravely is simply to stand up when you are afraid.  However bravery can be used by both good and evil.  Bravery can drive us to help others or it can drive us to harm others.  A heroic action is a brave action which is performed for good and for the right reason.  Yet, even in this story, we can see how that line can be difficult to define.  None of us would blame someone for doing whatever it took to protect someone they love.  Yet that same drive to protect and save can drive us in foolish and damaging directions and it can blind us to the greater effects of our actions.   It can also be twisted by others for ill means.  Think for example of the southern elites before the Civil War who used poor whites’ desire to protect their families to create a narrative that if black people were set free they would slaughter whites everywhere.  This fear was one of many factors that led to a deep hatred of whites against blacks.

However, Shadow of the Colossus also ends on a positive note.  For I believe it says despite all the horrors and bad things that come from poorly thought out decisions, there is still room for redemption.  Even Emon says, “Poor ungodly soul… Now, no man shall ever trespass upon this place again. Should you be alive… If it’s even possible to continue to exist in these sealed lands…one day, perhaps you will make atonement for what you’ve done.”  Even from questionable actions, good can arise as well as the chance for something beautiful arising from everything wrong we humans pour into our world.

Evil is nothing more than rotten good, and because of that very fact, good remains stronger, not within ourselves but within someone higher than ourselves.

I call that someone God.

 

 

Legend of Zelda..Why not Legend of Link?

After all, isn’t Link the hero?  He is your avatar, the character you play as in every single Legend of Zelda game, yet the Legend belongs to the princess not the hero.  To explore this subject, we must first look into some of the underlying themes in the Zelda games, as well as the timeline to discover precisely what role Zelda and Link play in this.

First of all, the very name Link as series creator Miyamoto brought up is an obvious metaphor for the link between the player and the character.  Link is whoever you want him to be, especially in his early games.  Yet as new games have been released, Link has slowly developed a personality of his own, usually one expressed through facial expressions with Wind Waker being one of the most fantastic examples of this.  Also, with other games allowing you to create a character of your own such as Elder Scrolls, the appeal of there being a link between Link and the player decreases.  Despite that fact, you are Link throughout the games.

Zelda on the other hand is an outside force.  She might assist you but you never truly control her, save in a few non canon games or in Hyrule warriors.  She is a symbol not only for the prosperity and peace of Hyrule but for Hyrule itself.  Many times, the King of Hyrule is absent, dead, or powerless, but there must always be a Princess Zelda.  The reason for this is that she holds the Triforce of Wisdom.  She is the glue that holds Hyrule together.  When she is kidnapped, which usually doesn’t occur till near the end of most Zelda games, or more commonly when she is removed from a position of authority everything starts to unravel.

While Zelda is always present, Link is often a transient force, whose heroic actions are not always acknowledged.  This can be easily seen in the 3 way split timeline after Ocarina of Time.  In the adult timeline, Link defeats Ganon and then returns to his childhood leaving behind Princess Zelda.  In this timeline, he is known as the Hero of Time, but he is not around to enjoy any fame.  In fact, his absence later allows Ganon to rise again.  In the second timeline, Link is killed and is only mentioned as one among many knights who fell in the war to stop Ganon.  In the third timeline, Link as a child helps bring Ganon to justice but he receives no recognition for his heroics and he never trains a successor.  In all three of these, Zelda remains, but Link is only acknowledged as a Hero, a part of the Legend in one timeline and even in that one his memory is marred by later events.

This all brings me to my larger point, you as Link is merely a visitor to Hyrule.  You arrive in its time of crisis and save Hyrule not so that your legend will be preserved but so the Legend of Hyrule aka Zelda will be preserved.  It is no accident that in Skyward Sword, Zelda is a reincarnation of the goddess Hylia.  Zelda is the symbol of Hyrule.

This can be applied to the real world as well.  Are we attempting to make a name for ourselves or are we trying to genuinely make the world a better place?  It is similar to how Paul argues that he must be exalted less so that God can be exalted more.  To stand for something higher than yourself not for fame but because it is the right thing to do is the very definition of heroism.

 

As for the traditional implication that Zelda and Link are meant as a chivalric romance, it’s tough to say.  Certain games have more hints than others.  I’m okay with it though.  Zelda has always been a traditional story in the first place.

 

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The Skyrim Civil War and How All Wars Defy Easy Morality.

One of the greatest questions among Skyrim fans is “Imperial or Stormcloak?”  From the very moment you start the game, you are faced with the horrors of simple Stormcloak soldiers being sent to the execution block.

Allow me to supply some background information. This will prove important later. Skyrim used to be ruled by the powerful Empire of Tamriel.  Yet, the Empire got into a particularly perilous war for survival against the genocidal Thalmor, the government of the High Elves.  The Empire won a few victories but it eventually came to a treaty called the White Gold Concordant with the High Elves in which they agreed to ban all worship of Talos, the first emperor who ascended to godhood in the lore of the Elder Scrolls series.  Many of the Nords of Skyrim, particularly Ulfric Stormcloak became enraged with this decision and its effects of worshipers being executed by Thalmor agents.  Thus, Ulfric Stormcloak killed the High King of Skyrim in a duel and declared himself High King.  Now the land of Skyrim is engulfed in a viscous Civil War between the Empire and the Nords who support them and Ulfric Stormcloak and his army.

At first, this would seem to be a clear cut decision.  The Stormcloaks are fighting for religious freedom, so surely we should support them.  But we learn there are other complexities.  According to the Imperials, none of them are happy with the Thalmor and they barely enforce the ban on Talos worship.   The crackdown by the Thalmor came about as a result of Nords reacting violently.  Many Imperials argue that the Empire needs to be unified now more than ever if they hope to stand a chance against the Thalmor in the future wars to come. Also, the Stormcloaks are extremely nationalist and racist against other races such as the lizard like Argonians and Dark Elves.  Many of these other races are harassed, banned from cities, assaulted, or banished to ghettos.  Also, even more disturbing, Ulfric Stormcloak once gathered an angry militia to attack a group known as the Forsworn and executed their men, women, and children.  Yet, the Empire does not respect Nordic traditions or culture, and it does practice draconian executions and torture.  Also, giving in to the demands of the genocidal Thalmor is morally questionable all on its own.

 

I gave this long explanation to show that the situation in the Civil War is complicated.  It is difficult to say which side is the good or bad side.  The same goes for real wars going on today.  Think for example of the situation in Ukraine as Russian and Ukrainian backed militias battle for control of the country.  Or even better, think of the situation between Israel and Palestine.  It is strange that so many admire the more powerful Israel over the rebel Palestinians, but the fear of fundamentalist Islam and its influence in Palestine and regions around it seems to convince many that Israel is in the right, although both sides have committed atrocities.  With all this complexity, how do we pick sides in such a conflict?  Making the moral decision here is not easy in the slightest and should not be made without intense thought.  It requires a careful weighing of both sides of the conflict and an examination of the root causes.

Often the best decision is to not take sides at all, but rather attempt to work towards some form of reconciliation, but in many cases such peace would require one side or the other to be pacified or lose some of its former power.  For example, if Israel abandoned its Jewish only settlements on Palestinian land, this might start the process of peace, or perhaps if Hamas agreed to stop sending rockets towards Israel and dedicated itself to nonviolent resistance.  War is a terrible occurrence.  In truth, I can only stand behind focused military action against a very dangerous evil in the world, but it is rare to find such a thing in our world history.  When the Bible called us to be peacemakers, this was not a simple task, both in personal relationships and in war.  It is the path of most resistance, but perhaps the most rewarding.
Unfortunately Skyrim does not let you solve this issue without a fight.  You can bring about a temporary truce, but this truce ends as soon as the dragon Alduin is defeated.  Yet, real life gives us an opportunity to strive for peace or for conflict.

There is no such thing as easy morality in these matters.