The Bangaa in Final Fantasy XII

As I’ve been playing the PS4 HD remastered version of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, I’ve been following along with the Tumblr-based playthrough of Livvy Plays Final Fantasy, a writer I’ve admired for years. As I’ve been reading Livvy’s commentary, one post in particular resonated with my thoughts about diversity and representation in Final Fantasy XII:

Every now and then, someone asks me what I think of XII’s portrayal of the viera.
http://livvyplaysfinalfantasy.tumblr.com/post/55999684383/every-now-and-then-someone-asks-me-what-i-think

We also see that while XII’s viera NPCs all look pretty much the same, they are all very much unique in their thoughts and behaviors. Some are contemplative, some are brash. Some are hunters, some forsake battle completely. No two viera NPCs are the same, something that cannot be said of XII’s bangaa, seeq, or nu mou. In terms of personality, the viera receive better representation than most of Ivalice’s other races.

I personally take issue with the notion that Fran, Jote, and Mjrn can’t be “strong female characters” because their designs contain fanservice. Their plot arc is one of the greatest stories of love and sacrifice in the game, and they make up one of the best portrayals of a sisterly relationship in the Final Fantasy series.

I understand the need to acknowledge problematic elements in fictional media, but there’s a huge difference between acknowledging problematic elements in female characters and telling other people what they are and are not allowed to like.

These are good points all around; but, as an ardent bangaa appreciator, I’d like to argue that there’s actually a lot of diversity in the bangaa characters as well. Although I assume most players don’t have any reason to notice this, there’s a wide range of visual designs used for bangaa NPCs (although, unlike humes, we never see any bangaa children or older bangaa except Migelo). Like the humes, the bangaa NPC have a range of personalities and occupations. Ba’Gamnan and his crew are mercenaries, and the Hunt Club on the Phon Coast is run by four bangaa, but otherwise the bangaa are merchants and traders and architects and day laborers and clerks, just as humes are. A bangaa in Nalbina tells Vaan that the Archadian army only accepts hume recruits, and there are no bangaa on the streets or in the shops of Archades, but there’s a one-to-one ratio of bangaa to hume NPCs in Rabanastre, Bhujerba, and various other areas, and nothing except their appearance indicates that they’re bangaa. Bangaa work together with and hang out with humes and seeq and moogles in groups and in pairs, and this is a part of the visual and social landscape of the game that is never addressed or commented on by anyone.

One of my favorite bangaa characters is Barrong, who posts the bill for “The Creature Collector” hunt. He’s hanging in an alley next to the entrance to Aerodrome in Nalbina and muttering to himself, and the player is meant to think that he’s a creeper until he explains himself. He’s working on an illustrated bestiary, he says, but he wants the book he’s creating to be different and special, so he’s hiring hunters to track down creatures he’s heard rumors about. He’s afraid that people will make fun of him, though, so he wants to keep his pet project a secret. When Vaan returns to report that the hunt was successful, Barrong gets excited and asks all sorts of questions – which none of the other bill petitioners ever do, oddly. At the end of the conversation, Jovy (a seeq who was friendly with Vaan’s older brother Reks) comes by and wishes Barrong luck, telling him that his bestiary will be wonderful when it’s done. Since completing the bestiary in the Clan Primer is always one of my main goal in Final Fantasy XII, and since I love bestiaries in general, I am right there with Barrong, and I appreciate that he’s willing to be proactive and collaborate with people to achieve his artistic dreams despite being really shy.

I also appreciate Rimzat, the Arcadian grad student who was sent to Rabanastre to to study the sandstorms of the Dalmascan Westersands. Apparently he can’t get anyone to help him not because he’s a bangaa, but rather because he speaks with an Arcadian accent. Ultimately he has to go back home when his funding runs out, and I’m like, I know that feel friend.

There’s obviously much more to be said about how diversity is portrayed in the world of Final Fantasy XII, but I want to stick up for the bangaa, who are some of the most interesting and compelling NPCs in a game filled with wonderful NPC-related side stories.

Video Games and Japan

This semester I’m teaching a class about The Wind Waker! I commissioned the artist Visi Herman (@visicolors on Instagram) to create the image above to use on promotional posters and flyers, which I hope to use to try to nudge the GMU Game Design program into crosslisting my “Video Games and Japan” course in the future. If you’re interested, I’ve posted a syllabus for this semester’s class here:

https://kathrynhemmann.files.wordpress.com/2019/01/japa-370-syllabus-spring-2019.pdf

Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP

I’m a fan of the Superbrothers OST because there was a period of my life that was more or less me listening to Basco’s Gamebient mix on loop, but I never played the actual game until it came out on Switch at the end of November.

It’s difficult to control and interact with, and the exploration elements feel wooden and perfunctory. I’ve played the first two (out of five, I think?) “sessions,” but I’m still not sure what this game wants or expects from me. I appreciate the cleverness of the writing, and I’m intrigued by the Zelda references, but this isn’t enough to keep me going.

I don’t think Superbrothers is for me. I’ll leave it on the system in case I get bored or ambitious later, but I’m going to give myself permission to quit playing it for the time being.

The soundtrack is still very good, though. I especially like the two-song sequence of “The Maelstorm” followed by “The Ballad Of The Space Babies,” which is a solid five minutes of focus and calm.

Monument Valley

I’ve been interested in Monument Valley for a while now, and I’m glad I finally sat down and played it. It’s actually much better than everyone says it is, but that’s probably because it’s difficult to describe what makes the game so good.

Monument Valley consists of ten stages, each of which will take most people about five minutes to play (except the first, which is very short, and the last, which can be very frustrating). I’ve heard this game criticized as being “easy,” but I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s carefully designed to facilitate player engagement. Each level (again, except the first and the last) has a core mechanic, and the player is encouraged to learn the limits and potential of each mechanic in a guided yet natural way. My favorite stage is “Level VIII: The Box,” in which a cube can be opened, closed, rotated, and then opened again from a different perspective. This might sound complicated, but it isn’t; in fact, it’s nothing short of pure joy.

The story is hinted at in a few scattered text panels, and I’m not sure I have a good grasp of what’s going on, but here’s my interpretation: A human society used magical “sacred geometry” to create fantastic buildings (presumably in a valley?), but they fell into decline when their sacred geometry was stolen from them, and now all that remains are monuments haunted by flightless crow people. The player-character Ida is a princess who has been told that she will be given her crown only when she restores the sacred geometry to the monuments. As she does so, she begins to remember that she herself is a crow, and that it was the crow people who stole the sacred geometry from the humans. When she returns the last piece of the sacred geometry, the human curse on the crow people is lifted, and Ida and her people regain their wings and fly away. After spending the entire game forced to walk on linear paths along the surface of the monuments, the final animation of free flight is very satisfying.

I appreciate the narrative progression of returning treasure to temples instead of taking it, and I’m interested in what a traditional adventure game – okay, let’s be real, a Zelda game – would look like if the player’s abilities were limited instead of enhanced as they made their way through the story. I also appreciate the conceit of realizing that the player-character is actually the bad guy – or, in this case, the bad crow girl. Speaking of power, it hit me really hard when I realized that Ida is a crow. Monument Valley isn’t all that deep, but I can’t remember another instance of a game flat-out saying, “No, you are not, in fact, the hero of this story.” (I think Braid is supposed to be like this, but I’m garbage at platformers and was never able to get too far into it.)

In any case, the Monument Valley OST is fantastic. It’s almost exactly forty minutes of soft energetic ambient music, which makes it perfect for a good, solid writing session.

2019 Resolution

I want to play more video games!

I tend to get obsessed with one game and play it for hundreds of hours. For most of 2017 and 2018, that game was Breath of the Wild, and it’s currently Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age. Since there are only so many hours in the day and only so many days in the year, this means that I don’t play many new games, which is exacerbated by the fact that I really enjoy replaying older games.

This year I’d like to set time aside to play games I’m interested in but don’t play because I feel like I’ve already exceeded my quota of fun by staying up until two in the morning filling in rows of a character’s license grid (or collecting Koroks or, you know, whatever). I also have an irrational compulsion to finish games even if they stop being fun, which means I’m unlikely to pick up a new game unless it’s a #1 Top Tier Indie Classic That Requires No Time Commitment. I’d like to get past this and try new things!

I’m limited by the fact that I refuse to play games on Steam, but I still have a short list of games I’d like to try now that they’re starting to be released on the Nintendo Switch, like Kentucky Route Zero and Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery. During the past year the University of Minnesota Press started putting out fantastic and inexpensive paperback monographs on games and gaming culture that have veered away from the pretentious “Videogames As One Word™: I Am A Straight White Man” genre that currently characterizes the majority of academic writing on games and have instead focused more on broader strands of literary and Media Studies criticism. Aubrey Anable’s Playing with Feelings is a good example of the sort of interesting work that’s coming out in the series, and reading books like this makes me want to sit down and play every single game under discussion. Saying that scholarship has made me want to play games is peak nerd, and I am ashamed of myself, but still.

Video games! Let’s play them in 2019!!

Online Horror Fiction

In the presentation I gave about Japanese urban legends for Anime USA, I mentioned a few cursed websites that are relatively well-known in Japan. These websites are mostly digital memorials for deceased relatives (and pets) that overshoot “elegiac” and land squarely in the realm of “disturbing.” I’m sure that a scholar of Asian religions could write an interesting paper about these websites; but, for the purposes of my presentation, the most important thing was to maintain a sense of respect for the family members who created them. While I was putting together my PowerPoint slideshow, I started wondering if there are any cursed websites in American internet lore that might serve as a basis of comparison. Indeed there are, but the actual “cursed websites” I ended up visiting were somewhat underwhelming. What I did find, however, was some fantastic online horror fiction.

For the uninitiated, urban legends that spread online are called “creepypasta” after the “copypasta” text that used to be cut and pasted from a website onto a forum and then into an email and then into another email (and so on) back in the days of AOL and GeoCities. Like urban legends, creepypasta is generally presented as true. Most stories are ostensibly something that happened to the people who originally wrote them, who are presumably “a friend of a friend” of the people who then copy and paste and thereby spread the story. There’s an entire Creepypasta Wiki devoted to these types of stories, but they can also be found elsewhere, including the NoSleep subreddit and Jezebel’s annual scary story contest (here’s one of my favorites, from 2014).

There are all sorts of “Best of Creepypasta” lists out there, but what I’ve collected here are stories I found during my research that were very clearly written as fiction and presented online in interesting ways, as well as a few journalistic attempts to debunk creepypasta that ended up becoming stories in and of themselves.

Annie Is Typing
http://www.storiesforyourscreen.com/annie96-is-typing/

This is a short and very creepy story written in the form of a text message conversation between a young man and his friend, who’s not entirely sure that she’s alone in her house. It’s a lot of fun to watch the story play out seemingly in real time, and the twist at the end is fantastic.

The Dionaea House
http://www.dionaea-house.com/

This is epistolary fiction written in the form of a set of emails that the recipient has posted online for the family of the sender, who has gone missing after he quit his job to investigate a random murder instigated by someone he was friends with as a teenager. He confesses that he always knew something was wrong with this friend, especially after the boy spent a few days in a strange house that his realtor parents could never keep occupied. Between the presentation of the digital found objects and the encroaching insanity of the narrator, this story is like House of Leaves, but with all of the mystery and none of the pretension.

Candle Cove
http://ichorfalls.chainsawsuit.com/

This story takes the form of a short series of posts on a Reddit-style forum about “Candle Cove,” a homebrewed children’s show broadcast on a small public access channel. The people posting share their memories of the show, which, in retrospect, was quite sinister. The twist ending is horrifying and delightful.

Mr. Bear’s Cellar
https://www.bustle.com/articles/72619-is-the-creepypasta-1999-real-heres-the-truth-about-caledon-local-21-and-mr-bears-cellar

This article, written by Lucia Peters, explains the cultural context of 1999, a famous story on the Creepypasta Wiki. This story’s premise is similar to that of “Candle Cove.” The narrator vaguely remembers that a small local public access station, Caledon Local 21, once broadcast a low-budget show called “Mr. Bear’s Cellar,” which is just as upsetting as you’d think it would be. Peters provides an excellent summary of the rambling creepypasta and argues that, although this particular story isn’t true, it’s not unreasonable to think that a similar story very well could be.

Abandoned by Disney
https://www.bustle.com/articles/88129-is-the-creepypasta-abandoned-by-disney-real-heres-the-truth-about-mowglis-palace

This is another article written by Lucia Peters (who – can I just say – is a very cool person). In this article Peters investigates the origin of another famous story on the Creepypasta Wiki, “Abandoned by Disney,” which is about a Disney resort on the coast of North Carolina that was suddenly shut down with no official explanation before it opened to the public. These haunted ruins are not real, but that doesn’t mean that Disney hasn’t actually built and then abandoned waterside resorts. What’s interesting about this article is where and how Peters manages to track down information about these derelict theme parks online. It’s also interesting that the original story has apparently been deleted, perhaps because the author was afraid of the real monster in the room, the Disney Corporation.

Sad Satan
https://kotaku.com/a-horror-game-hidden-in-the-darkest-corners-of-the-inte-1714980337

In this in-depth article, Kotaku reporter Patricia Hernandez tries to figure out whether or not a game called “Sad Satan,” which was featured on a popular Let’s Play channel on YouTube, is actually real. She and I both think that it’s mostly likely not, but her investigation takes her to some interesting places online. What I appreciate about this article is its no-nonsense explanation of what the Deep Web actually is based on details drawn from interviews with people who spend time there. I was also amused by its references to real horror games hidden in places you’d never expect, like Microsoft Excel 95.

The Princess
http://ifyouseeherturnoffthegame.blogspot.com/

This is classic creepypasta from 2011 written in the form of thirteen blog posts. On one level, it’s about the strangeness of video game glitches. On another level, it’s about how odd game-related forums used to be, with faceless and anonymous people spreading rumors, making things up, and roleplaying in ways that didn’t always make a great deal of sense. The fact that this story is posted on Blogspot, which now feels akin to a collection of lost and forgotten ruins on the internet, only heightens the eeriness, but the story is really more nostalgic than scary.

SPC-231
http://www.scp-wiki.net/scp-231

This is probably my favorite story in the shared universe of the SPC Foundation, a wiki hosting the X-Files style “records” of a paragovernmental organization given the task to “secure, contain, and protect” various dangerous and unexplainable phenomena. I learned about this subset of creepypasta through a video of someone playing SPC-87-B, a game based on the entry for SPC-87. What’s so horrifying about this story, as well as many other stories on the SPC wiki, is not the various creatures being documented, but rather the inhumanity of the bureaucratic organization that documents them. SPC-231 is especially disturbing in this regard, specifically in terms of its refusal to specify what something called “Procedure 110-Montauk” actually entails. A short story based on SPC-231, Fear Alone, offers a brilliant interpretation that makes the nastiness of the experience of reading the original case file worthwhile.

Legend of Zelda Theories

During the past two years I’ve begun to present and publish academic papers on the Legend of Zelda series. During my research I’ve encountered a lot of fan speculation about the many mysteries of the expansive universe of the games. I ended up taking notes on some of the more common theories I’ve encountered, as well as some of the stranger headcanons formulated and shared by fans, and I’ve noticed that these theories tend to fall into six main categories:

Expository Theories
These theories aim to fill in a sizeable gap in the story of a specific game.
Example: The Gerudo became the Twili in Twilight Princess.

Continuity Theories
These theories attempt to impose a sense of order on the shared universe of the games.
Example: Breath of the Wild is set in the distant future of the Twilight Princess timeline.

Meta Theories
These theories offer a deep reading of the stories, characters, and themes of the games.
Example: Majora’s Mask is based on the five stages of grief.

Dark Theories
These theories go out of their way to hurt you by providing the darkest possible interpretation of a specific story element.
Example: Navi dies at the end of Ocarina of Time.

Fridge Horror Theories
These theories go beyond “dark theories” in that their only purpose is to keep you awake at night. Example: Link recovers his energy by eating the bloody raw hearts of the enemies he slays.

Crack
What are these theories, what are they even.
Example: Ganondorf and Princess Zelda are secretly dating.

I’m not going to try to organize the theories I’ve collected by this typology, however, because they’re all over the place. Some are silly, some are creepy, some are actually plausible, and some are genuinely bizarre. Like urban legends, these theories have been circulated by word of mouth on online message boards. Some of the oldest appeared on the forums of Something Awful and Albino Blacksheep, and the more recent spread by means of Reddit and Imgur. Essentially, wherever people get together to have conversations about video games, someone always has a Zelda theory to share. In no particular order, here are some of the theories that have caught my attention.

– Paya, Impa’s granddaughter in Breath of the Wild, is shy around Link because she doesn’t often get the chance to interact with people her own age. Almost every Sheikah teenager leaves to join the Yiga Clan, which is why there are so few young people in Kakariko Village and so many Yiga Footsoldiers.

– Groose from Skyward Sword is the ancestor of the Gerudo. He settled in the Lanayru Desert, which is filled with ancient and contemporary technology, because of his love of machines. It’s possible that Ganondorf is a reincarnation of Groose, which is why he was affected so strongly by Demise’s curse.

– Tetra’s pirate crew in The Wind Waker are all reincarnations of the royal aides whose group portrait hangs in Hyrule Castle. This means that Princess Zelda isn’t the only person whose soul is reborn in different eras of Hyrule’s history.

– Agitha in Twilight Princess is Zelda’s sister, which is why she calls herself a princess. Like other princesses of the Hyrulean royal line, she experienced visions of a coming calamity, and these visions were so overwhelming that she lost touch with reality. She had to leave the castle for her own protection, but she is still wealthy enough to reward the hero who appeared in her visions for catching golden bugs that resemble the insects plaguing the Spirits of Light.

– Because only one male is born every hundred years, the Gerudo in Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask reproduce through gynogenesis, which is similar to cloning. This explains the relative lack of phenotypic diversity among the Gerudo, as well as their comparatively large population. The pregnancies following unions with Hylian men result in more noticeable genetic permutations, including those resulting in the rare Gerudo males.

– Link died while protecting Zelda during the Great Calamity that occurred one hundred years before Breath of the Wild. The Shrine of Resurrection created an entirely new body to house his spirit, much like how Ganon attempted to fashion a body for itself using the ancient technology hidden within Hyrule Castle. This is why Link is so weak when he wakes up, and it’s also why he has so much trouble remembering the past.

– According to Hyrule Historia, the “Downfall Timeline” leading to the original 1986 The Legend of Zelda results from Link dying at some point during Ocarina of Time. The world of Termina in Majora’s Mask is a purgatory that Link’s soul moves through on its way to the afterlife. The four main dungeons and final set of dungeons on the moon are therefore meant to represent the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Everyone Link meets in Termina symbolizes an aspect of the trauma he experienced in Hyrule, and Link must help them in order to heal himself and pass on peacefully.

Super Mario Bros. 3, which Shigeru Miyamoto has said is a stage performance, is popular in Hyrule, which is why the Happy Mask Salesman in Majora’s Mask has a Mario mask on his backpack. The King of Hyrule in Ocarina of Time is a fan of the play, which is why there are paintings of Super Mario characters in his throne room.

– The Oocca in Twilight Princess, who live in the City in the Sky, are the descendants of the Loftwings in Skyward Sword. The differences in their appearance and level of sapience are due to a divinely facilitated evolution similar to the event that transformed the Zora into the Rito prior to The Wind Waker. There is a related theory that holds that the Rito are the descendants of the Oocca, who used their technology to alter their appearance in order to better acclimate to Hylian society after the existence of their city became widely known in Hyrule.

– Ghirahim, an anthropomorphic weapon who serves as the main antagonist of Skyward Sword, was created by Hylia, not Demise. Hylia knew that Demise would have to be unsealed in order to be defeated, so she created a copy of the Master Sword that would serve its own “master” by working to break the seal she placed on him. Unlike Fi, who remained in stasis while waiting for the chosen hero, Ghirahim gradually developed a personality, but his character became twisted by social isolation and his centuries-long failure to make progress on the task Hylia created him for, which could only be completed once her soul had been reborn.

– The people who were exiled from Hyrule and became the Twili in Twilight Princess were originally Sheikah, as demonstrated by the Sheikah-style eye motif on Midna’s crown and Zant’s throne. Another theory holds that the Twili are what became of Ganondorf’s followers who were imprisoned in the Arbiter’s Grounds.

– The Arbiter’s Grounds in Twilight Princess were built on the site of the Spirit Temple, the sacred site where the Gerudo in Ocarina of Time worshiped the Sand Goddess. The Hyrulean army destroyed the Spirit Temple during the war against Ganondorf and then made use of its ruins to build a concentration camp to house the Gerudo during a mass exile (or execution).

– There is a fourth piece of the Triforce, which is actually the Tetraforce. The fourth piece of the Tetraforce is the empty center of the Triforce, and it is depicted at the bottom of the original Hylian Shield (which the developers supposedly redesigned in response to this theory). The Triforce can be split into multiple parts (as demonstrated by its eightfold split in The Legend of Zelda), and it split into four parts in Ocarina of Time. There are two common theories about what happened to the “missing” piece. One is that it is shared by the Great Fairies, four of whom appear in Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. The other is that it seals away the darkness in Link’s heart and gives it physical form, which manifests as the Dark Link who appears in the Water Temple.

– The Fierce Deity in Majora’s Mask is, as the eponymous villain says at the end of the game, “the real villain.” Majora gives the Fierce Deity’s Mask to Link in order to corrupt him, knowing that the mask will steal Link’s soul. The Link from Ocarina of Time appears to the Link in Twilight Princess in the form of a rotting corpse because he has been cursed by the Fierce Deity’s Mask and cannot die unless he is struck down by the Master Sword.

– Every episode in the Legend of Zelda series is a dream experienced by the Link who wakes up at the beginning of each successive game. The entire series is therefore a dream inside a dream inside a dream inside a dream (including Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask, which are canonically dreams).

– The Zelda series takes place in the same universe as the Silent Hill games. The Order, the evil doomsday cult that performs torture and human sacrifice in the town of Silent Hill, Maine, was originally a renegade faction of the Sheikah that was banished to another world like the Twili in Twilight Princess. The main basis for this theory is the similarity in the Satanic design motifs associated with the Order and with the Sheikah, which include staring eyes, magic circles, and bird-headed imps.

– Linkle, the “female Link” who is a minor playable character in Hyrule Warriors Legends, is the daughter of Tingle, the green bodysuit-clad creeper best known for causing unnecessary delays during the Triforce Quest at the end of The Wind Waker. This implies that Tingle somehow managed to breed. Congratulations! Now you can never unsee it. You’re welcome!