A few weeks ago, vice president-elect Mike Pence went to see Hamilton and the internet got into big fights over it. No surprise there. While there is no need to retread the controversy itself, or get into political debate, Pence and his party’s politics are well known. This event got me thinking, though, why would he want to see that musical? Was Pence unaware of the racial and social issues inherent in the musical? Maybe. Surprisingly enough, this made me think of many online multiplayer games in which we can see the same phenomenon happening. In games like Overwatch, people sometimes behave in a racist or sexist manner even while playing with a very diverse cast of characters. But I started to notice that this behavior is more prevalent when characters’ identities aren’t reflected in stories.
As a consumer of a lot of geeky media, I love it when a book or TV show has excellent worldbuilding that involves different cultures with different magics of their own. However, a lot of times I find that those magics and cultures are pretty rigid. One does this. The other does that. It makes for an easy understanding of how magical battles in that world might work, but it’s an unrealistic and rather simplistic view of how cultures and cultural immigration works.
We’ve talked about a lot of topics since the inception of this Magical Mondays column—religion and worldbuilding, worldbuilding in general—and inherent in these discussions is the idea that if the magic in a story grows organically out of a real understanding of culture, history, and religion, especially if the story is set in the real world, then the magic (and story) makes more sense. Inclusion of culture in a real, non-appropriative way can only help, not hinder, a magical system. To that end, today we’re writing about a book that really exemplifies what magic could be like if more people thought more deeply about magic.
Enter Hammer of Witches by Shana Mlawski. Some slight spoilers below the jump.
Usually when I discuss K-pop and J-pop, it’s all about the music, but today there’s something a little more serious that has come to light. Being an idol in Korea or Japan is all about the image, no matter if you’re male or female, and every aspect of an idol’s life is strictly regimented to uphold that image. When that illusion of perfection is tarnished, however, the repercussions can be severe, and in this case that’s blowing up the internet gossip sites and fansites alike, the consequences almost seem akin to the abusive hazing rituals that we’ve come to know in America.
In the final days of January, Minami Minegishi, one of the members of Japanese super group AKB48, was caught leaving the home of another male pop star (Alan Shirahama of GENERATION) after spending the night with him despite the strict ‘no dating’ rule within the group. After being exposed, Minami was demoted to the position of kenkyuusei (trainee) despite being one of the longest participating members, being part of AKB48 since it first started in 2005. Not only that, out of a desire to show how truly sorry she was, she shaved her head and issued an apology on YouTube.
It’s a game without any definition of your character’s gender. It’s a game without any clarification of your character’s race. One of the most appealing aspects of games is the prospect of experiencing one of the epic adventures we read about or watch onscreen. Many times this experience is diluted in games and we never get attain that catharsis we seek. You should care about this game because it fulfills the promise of experience right down to the sensory and emotional levels. It’s a significant step forward for the medium because it is art; it is literature. It’s an interesting game, to say the least. Journey feels like, well, a journey.
Journey begins with you taking control of a character, apparently meditating or resting in a vast desert. My first impression left me feeling as though I was looking at a woman, but after playing for a small while I identified with the character so directly that she became a he, just like me. All you can see is a mountain in the distance and vast, desolate desert. You instinctively move towards the mountain, the correct direction, thanks to the perfect visual design. There is no instruction manual, no overt tutorial, and no explanation of what is going on. Indeed, the only facts you know are that you are alone, and you don’t know what is going on. This leaves you feeling uneasy about your environment, anxious for direction, and eager for help – just like you were wandering alone in a desert. The sand glistens in the bright sun. Things happen in this world that you don’t understand, and you only come to understand the rules that govern you in terms of what you can use to your advantage. As you become confident in your own abilities, anxiety about your survival disappears, and you journey on.
Since there is no explanation about what is going on, the short cut-scenes you view are welcome treasures, almost as though they are prophetic dreams giving you purpose while you rest. Eventually you see another wanderer just like you. This is another human playing the game online. Journey’s multiplayer, you see, works under the assumption that every player is connected to the internet. So, it pairs you with another individual when you are both at the same point in the game. You cannot interact with this individual; in fact you can’t speak or communicate with any language. Whether you join up or go your separate ways, your journey continues. I was so relieved to see someone else during my first play-through that I instinctively clung to my new, anonymous partner. Just as I had come to relate to my character as myself, I related to the other wanderer as another human being. The game can be played solo if you so desire, but, since the multiplayer component is additive and nonrestrictive, doing so limits your experience.
The visual presentation is done to perfection, and not just to the purpose of establishing setting, but even to narrative significance. The brazen sun and shimmering sand don’t make you feel hot sand in your toes and dry air in your lungs. Instead, the bright light from the sun makes everything blend together, and the sparkles in the sand give you reference. It all leaves you feeling very uneasy and confused. You loath the sun’s brightness and the endless ocean of sand, yet it is what you know best. This is how the setting and presentation become narrative, how you become the wanderer, and how you seamlessly acquire instincts befitting of yourself, the wanderer. Making cut-scenes a positive experience is no small feat, making you see a character on screen as a real human being is even greater, still. The journey is authentic. After completing a play-through, you contemplate your experience as though it were real. You search for meaning and context. What you don’t need to search for is satisfaction. Each journey feels complete, yet leaves you hungry to journey again. Oftentimes there is a real emotional connection with the other people you play with, and so the game graciously gives you an opportunity to communicate with your partners after the conclusion. The experience engrossed me so fully that my heart broke at the end when I realized I had in fact played with half a dozen separate people, and I began anew in the hopes of finding a partner to travel with from start to finish. Craving a relationship, I turned to a game.
Subtlety is perhaps the most aptly wielded tool by Journey. Without realizing it, I made emotional connections. Without realizing it, I searched for true meaning and found it. Without realizing it, I forgot about all boundaries of culture, race, gender, or otherwise. Devoid of even the slightest hint of any pretentiousness or presence of a soapbox, this game makes a powerful social statement. If you ask me, it achieves this by allowing the consumer to find the message within him or herself as opposed to scripting a lesson. This is why Journey matters; it is a significant mile-marker not only for games, but for narrative itself.
With a score of “Universal Acclaim” on Metacritic, it has been very well received. Journey was developed by ThatGameCompany and is the third and final game in fulfillment of a contract with Sony. As such, it is a Playstation 3 exclusive title. It comes after Flow and Flower, respectively, and is a wonderful capstone to this otherwise unrelated set of games. Feeling wholly natural, making profound statements, and expanding games’ possibilities, Journey fulfills that promise of games, to allow us to experience in ways impossible for any other medium.
It’s that time again! Let’s take a look at today’s Web Crush!
Skottie Young is an artist and cartoonist who has work with Marvel, Warner Bros., Image, Upper Deck, Mattel and many other well known groups. His art style is not something I always like or enjoy, which is why it surprises me everyday when I view his latest sketches to find that I absolutely fall in love with them. The style works perfectly with the characters he draws and gives them a new look that is so distinct yet still so perfect for who he is depicting.
I strongly suggest everyone check out my latest Web Crush!