A Short Hike

A Short Hike was released for Nintendo Switch about three weeks ago, and my only regret is that I waited so long to download it.

You play as an anthropomorphic bird named Claire who’s spending the weekend on holiday visiting her Aunt May in Hawk Peak Provincial Park, and your goal is to climb to the top of the mountain so that you can get reception on your phone. Since you’re a bird, you can jump down and glide whenever and wherever you feel the need. You can also fly for short periods of time, and you can collect Golden Feather upgrades to extend your flying time. There’s no combat, no danger, and no puzzles to solve. Although you’re free to go anywhere you like, the main climbing trail is clearly marked. If you get lost, you can just jump down and glide to an earlier point on the trail. It’s all very relaxing, and the soundtrack is adaptive, meaning that the music changes depending on the altitude and weather.

Because the game is so overtly referential, I don’t think it’s lazy to call it a cross between Animal Crossing and Night in the Woods. Some of the (completely optional) mechanics, such as fishing and digging up X marks on the ground, are pure Animal Crossing, as are the character designs. The dialogue never gets grim or dark, but it’s a little weirder and less performatively wholesome than Animal Crossing. The writing is unobtrusive but clever, and Claire has a lot in common with Mae from Night in the Woods.

Meanwhile, the exploration elements are very Legend of Zelda, and the game looks a lot like Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, from the cell shading to the head-to-body proportions to the 3D modeling of the landscape. There’s an option to increase the frame rate and make the graphics less pixelated, but the Nintendo DS style visual atmosphere is lovely even if you don’t harbor any particular nostalgia for that era of gaming.

If you go straight up and down the mountain, the game takes maybe half an hour to play, but you can easily spend another half hour going off on side trails and having conversations with the various people you meet during your climb. I imagine that you could spend even more time with the game if you wanted to find every Golden Feather and record every species of fish in your journal, but the game’s menu screen isn’t set up in a way that makes you feel compelled to do so.

I’ve read a few reviews that criticized A Short Hike for being too, well, short, but I don’t think that’s a problem. I am no stranger to the task of collecting all 900 forest sprite poos or evolving all 900+ species of battle monsters or getting all of my fantasy fighters to Level 99, but I also love being surprised and delighted by short, self-contained, and immensely satisfying small-studio games.

I’m not sure how I feel about Nintendo asking $20 for this game, which is a bit expensive for its category, but honestly that seems like a reasonable price to pay for the experience of a solid hour of uninterrupted joy.

Malice

(The above illustration is by the amazing @mehkuno on Tumblr.)

In my writing logs, I keep mentioning the fanfic novel based on the Breath of the Wild sequel trailer that I’m writing, so I thought I’d try to describe the project. Here goes!

Story
When the long-dormant Guardians begin attacking Hyrule, Zelda, Link, and Ganondorf go underground to try to find the source of energy powering them.

Background Setting
This is an urban fantasy set in a modern-day version of Hyrule based on New York City. In this setting, the cave that Link and Zelda are exploring in the BotW sequel trailer translates to the sewer tunnels underneath the old site of Hyrule Castle, which has been converted into government offices. Everything that happened in BotW took place about three hundred years prior to the present day, but all mentions of magic, the Triforce, and the true nature of the Calamity have been erased from history. Ancient technology is exhibited in museums, but people treat it like art and have no understanding that it’s actually machinery. When the Guardians and other artifacts of ancient technology start going berserk, no one knows what’s happening.

Zelda (visual reference)
Although she comes from a powerful political family, Zelda is interested in the history and functionality of ancient technology. She’s 26 years old and about one or two years out of a Master’s program in Chemistry. She wants to get away from her family’s influence, so she currently works as a lab technician. Her intention is to succeed through her own efforts while pursuing her research. She was reserved and uptight when she was younger, but her relationships with Link and Ganondorf have helped her to become braver and more self-confident.

Link (visual reference)
He works as a courier for a delivery company, and there’s nothing he loves more than driving around Hyrule on his motorcycle. He’s into urban exploration and has a hugely popular account on Skyloft (Hyrule’s equivalent to Instagram). Like Link in BotW after he’s lost his memories of being constantly under pressure, this Link is easygoing, clever with his words, and a lot of fun to be around. He’s a year older than Zelda, and he gradually becomes friendly with her while making deliveries to her lab. As Zelda discovers odd inconsistencies regarding Hyrule’s history and technology, Link corroborates her suspicions by offering evidence of the strange things he’s seen with his own eyes in some of the city’s more out-of-the-way places.

Ganondorf (visual reference)
He works at a prestigious investment firm that specializes in technology. He’s only around thirty years old, but he’s inhumanly good at what he does and has managed to become extremely wealthy. Unlike Zelda and Link, Ganondorf was never in doubt that magic exists, mainly because he himself is a powerful wizard who is able to control both hardware and software. He knows what ancient technology is and what it can do, and he’d like to figure out a way to make it profitable. When his path crosses with Zelda’s, he becomes interested in her research, and he inadvertently becomes friendly with Link in the process. He’s an intense and unpleasant person, but being with Link and Zelda mellows him out and helps give him a sense of humor and perspective.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I’m afraid that I may have misrepresented this story as a lighthearted adventure. It’s a psychosexual melodrama with some fairly dark themes.

Link is smart, hard-working, attractive, and charming, but he doesn’t come from privilege, so he’s been jumping from one pointless temp job to another. He does good and interesting work on social media, but he can’t monetize it, which makes him bitter. He doesn’t feel as though he’s allowed to express negative emotions, though, so he comes off as fairly shallow. Later in the story he is going to snap and go feral.

Zelda was horribly abused as a child by her family, who tried to use psychiatric medication to control her. She represents a conflict between science as an incredible driving force of civilization and science as a means of social control, but she’s also my vehicle for working through my own experiences with how I’ve been dehumanized by the mental healthcare industry.

What’s going on with Ganondorf is something of a spoiler, but it’s distinctly unpleasant. On top of some Akira-style body horror, he’s an immigrant in a country where there’s a distinct possibility that the police could arrest (or even murder) him for no good reason. Even though he has an excellent grasp on human psychology, he sees empathy as a luxury he can’t afford, and the way this mentality influences his behavior toward Zelda can be creepy and uncomfortable.

I don’t openly talk about mental illness, but Zelda and Ganondorf are both coping with intense trauma. Neither of them is mentally “healthy,” and I don’t clearly signpost their toxic behavior as such. There’s no violence or angst or abuse for the sake of being edgy, but there’s not a lot of healing. Their character development goes from “bad” to “bad in a different way,” with “empowerment” being an unhealthy but necessary response to horrible circumstances.

When I started writing, I told myself that I would allow this story to become as dark as it needed to be, and it has gone to some places.

Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King

Blossom Tales is a Zelda clone modeled on A Link to the Past with graphics that feel like a cross between Final Fantasy IV and Secret of Mana.

It’s a cute game that takes about six or seven hours to complete, and it is delightful.

The world design is intelligent, the writing is clever, and it’s a lot of fun to walk around and mow grass while collecting various items and discovering secrets. The dungeons are a bit tedious, but the level of challenge is relatively balanced, with no inexplicable puzzles or sudden jumps in difficulty.

It probably won’t surprise anyone that I play a lot of Zelda clones, but I never make it past the first hour of most of them. Blossom Tales is good, though. It’s fun to play, and the Princess Bride style frame story of an older man telling his grandchildren a story that is most definitely not *cough* Legend of Zelda works well as a lighthearted metacommentary and a source of jokes and silly puns.

I know it’s not that easy, but now I kind of want to make a Zelda clone too.

“Sorry about your ass.”

A lot of the dialog in the Final Fantasy VII remake is not well written. It’s like someone turned the original game into a weird cringe comedy, and the game itself is the cringe.

A good example of this is the character Wedge, who is fat. We know he’s fat because that’s (almost) his entire character. Just in case we forget, there’s at least one fat joke every time he’s onscreen.

During the game’s second trip above the plate, Jessie takes Cloud, Biggs, and Wedge to her house in Sector 7 so that Cloud can appropriate her father’s Shinra employee badge while Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge distract her mother. The “nice” suburbs of Sector 7 are soulless and awful, and it turns out that Jessie’s father is in a coma after coming down with mako poisoning. The fact that this easily preventable accident was caused by corporate greed and mismanagement convinced Jessie to give up her dream to become an actress and join Avalanche, but the situation with her father is so dire that she’s been lying to her mother to keep her from worrying.

This should be a powerful and sobering moment in the game, but the atmosphere is broken by jokes about how Wedge wants more pizza and hasn’t had enough chips. Because, you know, he’s fat. Aren’t fat people hilarious? It’s too bad Jessie’s father is in a coma, but at least he’s not fat! Ha ha ha!!

I put the game down every time there’s a line that physically hurts me, so I haven’t been making much progress.

Disrupting the Heroic Narrative

I spend a lot of time talking about the character Ganondorf in the Legend of Zelda games as a symbol for the disruption of monarchies, with “monarchies” serving as a cipher for “entrenched power structures based on arbitrary hierarchies of privilege.”

A response I occasionally get, especially on Tumblr, is the assertion that the people who worked on the Zelda series couldn’t possibly have put this much thought into suggesting that Ganondorf is a figure of resistance because they’re Japanese. According to this line of reasoning, Japanese developers wouldn’t hint at the necessity of challenging authority because Japan is a constitutional monarchy.

Japan is indeed a constitutional monarchy, but Japan is also a modern postindustrial society with a highly sophisticated media culture and an enormous population of roughly 126.4 million people. As with anywhere else in the world, it’s impossible for a generalization about the political views of a population of that size to be accurate.

In addition, many progressive thinkers in Japan have been highly critical of Japan’s imperial household and its symbolic role in enabling some of the darker chapters in Japan’s history.

To give an example, Junichiro Tanizaki, often celebrated as one of Japan’s greatest twentieth-century writers, translated The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese during the Pacific War as a form of protest, as the eleventh-century court romance suggests that the imperial line is very much “broken,” as well as undeniably human.

More recently, Kenzaburo Oe, who received the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature, has been a vocal critic of the emperor system and the role of the United States in maintaining it. Haruki Murakami, who is often dismissed because of the popularity of his novels despite being an extremely political writer, has published an extensive body of work challenging Japan’s imperial legacy and advocating resistance against the shadowy forces that allow its ideology to persist into the present.

What I’m trying to say is that stories about toppling monarchies aren’t rare in Japan.

Although Nintendo has frequently been used by Japanese officials as an instrument of international soft power – Shinzo Abe wearing a Mario hat to announce that Japan would host the 2020 2021 Summer Olympics, for example – Nintendo is an international corporation and no more an arm of a national government than the Disney Corporation is a mouthpiece of the American state. Moreover, like Disney, there are hundreds of artists and writers working at Nintendo, and the views of the individuals creating the media licensed by the company may not align with the company’s brand image. In the case of Nintendo in particular, a lot of the key players in Shigeru Miyamoto’s generation don’t make any secret of the fact that they belonged to various counterculture movements when they were younger.

What creators working for these giant publishers do is what artists have always done – they tell stories that will appeal to a broad audience on top of stories that are much more serious and subversive. For example, Lilo & Stitch is about “ohana means family,” sure, but it also sets up a real conversation about the various “aliens” who have come to the Hawai’ian islands and how these flows of people and culture have affected the native population. In the same way, the Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon games are about stopping bad people from hurting animals, but they’re also about how economic development impairs local communities in Hawai’i, not to mention how many of the research foundations that come to the islands to “protect nature” are just as bad as the corporations. These secondary stories aren’t hidden or otherwise kept from the audience, they’re just more apparent in the details of the story and setting than in the main narrative.

So, while the Legend of Zelda games feature a mix of Arthurian legend and Tolkienian fantasy that informs their easily digestible stories about “brave heroes saving our sacred land from evil forces,” they’re made by intelligent adults who are entirely capable of using themes relating to “empire” and “divinity” and “heroism” to offer critiques regarding what this sort of mentality actually does to individual people and entire nations. Even if these games aren’t directly addressing Japan’s imperial legacy – and there’s no reason for them to do so, because not everything coming out of Japan needs to be about the Pacific War – adding this sort of political and emotional complexity to the story is just good art.

I’m not denying that there are clear undercurrents of nationalism in the Legend of Zelda games – and sometimes, as in the case of Skyward Sword, giant waves of nationalism – but I think this is endemic to the heroic narrative that structures the gameplay of the series. The archetype of “the brave hero who fights to defend their homeland against malevolent outside forces” goes back to the earliest recorded human stories, of course, but I think the nationalistic elements of this narrative have been emphasized by the cultural context that shaped the heroic fantasy that directly inspired the Zelda games.

Specifically, the Zelda series gets a lot of its DNA from popular Japanese fantasy epics of the 1980s, including Guin Saga and Record of Lodoss War, which were inspired by Robert E. Howard and Dungeons & Dragons, respectively. There’s no small amount of Lord of the Rings in the mix as well. Nationalistic ideologies from WWII and the Cold War are therefore built into not just the dominant tropes but also the fundamental structure of contemporary heroic fantasy, including many video games.

I think it’s fair to argue that the Zelda series has challenged this narrative, however. For example:

– The hero is deeply traumatized by what he was forced to do (Majora’s Mask)
– We should look at this from the perspective of the bad guy (The Wind Waker)
– It’s possible that our homeland is just as evil as our enemies (Twilight Princess)
– The bad guys are just like us and deserve sympathy (A Link Between Worlds)

I loved Breath of the Wild but was disappointed by its story, which felt incomplete to me. For example, why would the Hyrulean royal family ban technology? What inspired so many people to defect from the Sheikah and establish the Yiga Clan? If Ganon was once a person, how furious and tormented by pain would he have to be for the Calamity to take the specific form it did? Where are the old temple “dungeons” that are present in the other games? Why is the player never allowed to go underground?

The way the game brushed off these types of questions did indeed feel like an excuse to suggest something along the lines of “Hyrule never did anything wrong and is an innocent victim of malicious foreign powers,” a narrative that has disturbing echoes in real-world political ideologies.

Removing (most of) the shadows cast by the heroic narrative made Breath of the Wild’s story seem curiously flat, especially given the relative depth of previous games in the Zelda series. That’s why, when I first saw the trailer for the sequel, my immediate thought was, “Good, so we’re finally going to get the rest of this story,” which has a great deal of unexplored potential.

In any case, the games in the Legend of Zelda series are interesting and complicated, and I think it’s a shame not to give the creators who make them credit for the full range of storytelling they’ve put into their work.

If nothing else, I think it’s always worth challening the assumption that any given person or group of people has no choice but to think or behave in a certain way because of their race or nationality. After all, if someone named “Hayao Miyazaki” can make bold statements about the evils of authoritarian regimes, who’s to say that someone named “Hidemaro Fujibayashi” can’t also tell nuanced stories about the human cost of the narratives used (and misused) for the purpose of maintaining political stability?

Final Fantasy VII Remake

Well friends, I did not like the combat in Final Fantasy XV, and I did not like the combat in Nier Automata, and lo and behold, I do not like the combat in the Final Fantasy VII remake. The first real boss fight is way too long, and the endless barrage of rapid-fire flashing lights and numbers gave me a headache that lasted for almost six hours.

After getting frustrated and restarting the game,  I set the combat to “classic” mode. Unfortunately, classic mode is a lie and doesn’t change anything. Or does it? I’m not sure. I still have no idea what’s going on during combat. Instead of “classic” or “easy” mode, I wish you could choose “everything moves just a fraction of a second slower” mode. I was talking with a friend this morning, and they also got a headache from the first boss fight. Do I perhaps need to start playing this game with UV glasses?

In any case, the reward for finishing the boss fight is an extended narrative segment in which Sephiroth shows up and almost immediately jumps into a villain monologue. I don’t want to go into the spoilery details about how this happens or what’s going on in the story, but it’s fun.

I do want to say, however, that Sephiroth Is Very Gay.

I’m not being facetious about this. The camera will do a close-up on Sephiroth’s lips, and then cut to a close-up of Cloud’s lips, and then cut back to Sephiroth’s eyes, and then jump to Cloud’s eyes, and Sephiroth is like, “Have you been dreaming about me,” and Cloud is like, “I can’t stop thinking about you,” and oh my goodness this goes on for at least three minutes. I’m not actually super into m/m ships, but wow. This scene was intense.

I also want to say that Barret’s voice actor, John Eric Bentley, is doing some work. I’m not sure how I feel about the work, but he sure is doing it. I’m not criticizing the actor, but it’s an odd role. Barret has always been my favorite character, and I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts as I continue playing.

My main thought about Barret at the moment is that he seems to be the only character with body hair, and oh man does he ever have body hair. When the Sector 1 reactor explodes and everything catches on fire, he gets super sweaty, as does his chest hair. I’m not complaining, but… Well, I’m definitely not complaining. It’s just that an actual human being on this actual earth had to create and animate these assets, and they clearly put a lot of love and care into the job, as did the person in charge of texturing Sephiroth’s lips.

I feel like we’re starting to climb out of the uncanny valley, and it’s wild.

Hero


This comic was drawn by Valeria M. (@lunaartgallery on Tumblr) and written by me, Kathryn Hemmann (@kathrynthehuman on Twitter).

Listen, I’m not saying Ganondorf is a good person, I’m just saying that the Legend of Zelda games suddenly become a whole lot more interesting as soon as you stop thinking of him as being mindlessly evil. The way I see it, Ganondorf is an intelligent man who may have started out with good intentions, but he was twisted by his experience with the horrors lurking underneath the bucolic surface of Hyrule. To me at least, this interpretation makes the stories of the games much richer and more nuanced.