Decisive Book Reviews
The Study of Play
The Arkham games reveal the most palimpsestual qualities of Origins’ Gotham are tied up with the Gotham of Arkham City. While the concept of the palimpsest derived from textual analysis places importance on that which has been erased from a manuscript document to make space for new writing, in critiquing contemporary cultural objects we can think in terms of layering as well as erasure to focus on the theoretical implications of adding new tiers of meaning to form novel products over on top of relevant qualities that pre-exist in the transmedia assemblage. Asylum’s world was largely limited and matched the player’s linear progression through the game’s narrative. Players are allowed to visit one part of the game map at a time, and a heavy emphasis is placed upon indoor environments. Open movement through the exterior areas of Arkham Island is mainly used to go from building to building, with only sidelining points of interest. In Arkham City, however, the focus shifts from the inside to the outside, as the game is filled with side missions and enemies to face all over the map, as well as some missions involving trails of clues from point to point in the city, or chases that ask the player to traverse great distances over a limited period of time.
In-game screenshots are by no means a new phenomenon; publishers have long used the techniques of live-action photography to capture scenes of their video games for use as advertising materials. So too have gamers had the opportunity to take screenshots during play for later reflection and sharing. The photo editor mode in TLOUR is unique in that it does not require technological literacy, such as modding or coding, to operate this feature. A player does not need specialized skills beyond the ability to play the game in order to take photos. This democratization of game photography may be another commercial impetus, a means of Naughty Dog to get more people creating promotional content for their game, but it also enables a new means of play and self-expression.
Most danmaku games share certain commonalities: a number of stages, each of which has a boss at the end, and all bullet patterns in danmaku games can be readily broken down into three core archetypes. Firstly, the “fixed” bullet pattern: in this case an enemy spawns, fires a set pattern of bullets (say, a stream at a 135 degree angle and a second stream at a 225 degree angle, if we take the top of the screen to be 0 degrees), and then leaves the play area. The second is the “random” bullet pattern: these are created by enemies who fire a semi-random stream of bullets in a particular direction. The third is the “aimed” bullet pattern: in this final case the bullets fired by an enemy are aimed specifically at the player’s current location (or the enemy fires a wider bullet pattern whose “centre” is aimed at the player), and is therefore different on each playthrough based on the player’s location. Examples of all three (random, fixed, and aimed) can be seen in the diagram below, taken from the danmaku game Score Rush.
But ultimately, the interactive elements of Beyond: Two Souls prove to be of inadequate meaningfulness. Your participation as a player has minimal importance on how events unfold throughout the game. While players are given the opportunity to react to events and interact with the world, there is no real in-game penalty for failure, often including failure to act. The game creates numerous Deus ex machina situations to bail players out and reveals the general lack of agency the player has in influencing the game world. In Beyond: Two Souls, telling the story is more important than playing it.
As you explore this deceptively massive house, going from room to room and unlocking secret passageways that lead to even more rooms (a gatekeeping mechanism used to establish some sense of narrative linearity), you discover the personal domains of each of the family members and get to know their secrets, worries, pleasures, and vices. You stumble upon Dad’s stash of porno magazines, liquor bottles, and rejection letters from book publishers. You find out about Mom’s budding flirtation with a park ranger. You uncover a history of abuse perpetrated by your Great Uncle Oscar who died in this very house, leading Sam’s classmates to call it “the psycho house on Arbor Hill” and convincing her that the house is haunted.
The book outlines early on that the way that the authors are examining history is more related to present memory than history itself (xix); in other words, the way we tell history is always reflective of the time we live. This precept holds true as games themselves can be considered historical objects, but the ones that the book examines are about the representation of history. Overall, Early Modernity and Video Games manages to present some worthwhile strategies and theories to studying videogames through a historical lens, but is limited because of its early entry into this field.
Some people might respond to that last sentence and say that good scholarship requires discomfort. You should have to prove yourself in order to be accepted by the community. To be clear, I’m not arguing that I like fan studies because they have no standards. It’s just that the standards that fan studies sets are actually achievable. Fan scholars understand that you can’t possibly be a fan of everything that anyone is a fan of. Recent scholarship even makes the argument that as a fan of one thing you aren’t even expected to know everything about it. Zubernis and Larsen (and Jenkins) argue that defining a fan as someone who makes or collects things—as being active—denies the ways in which fans can participate by reading, by thinking, by sharing links (Zubernis and Larsen 16). There are as many ways to be a fan as there are fans.