Kirby 64: Silent Cutscenes

March 29th, 2009

I’ll probably follow this up with some generally impressions later on, but I wanted to spend this initial post discussing my favourite aspect of Kirby 64. If you have 11 minutes to spare (or even just a couple), and don’t mind having the game spoiled for yourself then take a look at the cutscene compilation below.

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The cutscenes in Kirby 64 are interesting and not just on the cute factor alone. I have to fess up and say that the animation and facial expressions of these miniature stories drew me into the idea of posting solely about them in the first place. Kirby’s draw dropped curiosity and King Dedede’s sullen pessimism are all so charmingly rendered with the simplest of shapes and textures. They colour the vanilla gameplay sequences with up-beat, positive energy – oodles of happiness. It’s not my key point, but damn, this game is adorable.

The voiceless cast rely on miming actions, and exaggerating facial expressions and body movements to convey their feelings of a given situation. In a way they’re similar to the 8 and 16-bit characters before them, which had no choice but to frantically mime their actions as a way of squeezing personality out of a handful of pixels. There is a distinct difference between the two though. Kirby and pals jesture because they lack a voice, a language (beyond odd ‘yelps’), the 8/16-bit characters did this because they lacked the respective technology and instead leaning  on text. If they had a choice, they’d probably be speaking. Kirby and friends don’t even have text, nor the will or ability to speak.

Kirby is and always has been a children’s game. It’s a game many gamers, including myself thoroughly enjoy, but generally speaking the series is usually light on challenge and saturated in a care free vibe. It’s perhaps aimed at an audience even younger than the general perception of the children’s audience, since not even language is a barrier to entry. Many childrens games and media feature talk and dialogue, Kirby doesn’t. It’s similar to the Teletubbies in a way, except void of any fictional exclamation language. The freedom here for younger children, or at least children still processing language to understand is very accessible.

Kirby 64 like some other media normalizes dumbness – that is lacking the ability of speech. It’s a game that hadn’t vocalized it’s cast in an era where voice boxes were being added to old friends. While I’m no particular expert on the subject, I think there is obvious merit in a game that avoids speech altogether, instead focusing on other means to communicate. I wonder how such games and media like this are interpreted from people with a background of not being able to speak. I guess it would be something of a mild encouragement to see this transition in a medium like video games. Kirby 64 portrays the lack of speech (like everything in the game) in a pleasant nature. It doesn’t focus on the frustrations of miscommunication, rather every exchange is a success. I wonder what effect this has on such an audience, if any.

I discussed this briefly with Richard Terrell from the Critical Gaming blog as well, and he further likened it to the idea of silent films which is another suitable example.

Video Games as Cultural Symbols in the Global Cultural Supermarket

March 28th, 2009

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I read a paper a few days ago taken from the first chapter of Gordon Mathews’ book Global Culture/Individual Identityyou can read the first chapter on Google Books (albeit with pages torn out). In the paper he dissects the two core definitions of culture; the traditional anthropological definition as “the way of life of a people” and the more progressive model of culture as “the global cultural supermarket”. Surprisingly the latter definition was completely new to me. On digging around the references it made sense as to why. Mathews had pretty much invented this term himself, although in the references he acknowledged previous examples on where the concept was touched upon briefly by other authors.

I don’t usually cross check references in such a way but this time I felt compelled to not only because the metaphor makes it easy to comprehend a particularly complicated issue but also because it’s such a very workable definition. Hardly perfect of course, as Mathews himself points out, but an interesting lens in which to view the subject matter.

The basic definition is that our consumerism defines our culture, the products we buy, things we consume are as Kathryn Woodward would say symbols of our identity. The global cultural supermarket is a vast database, but full access is privileged unfortunately, and this is one half of where the definition falls short. The cultural supermarket works well only within the model of modern affluent society. It doesn’t particularly cater well for lesser developed countries where the complete range of products within the supermarket is limited. Mathews slices this as being a flaw of the definition, I liken it more to an inherent issue that is part of the definition itself. Geographically the same issue exists as well, where geographical distance limits access, something Mathews didn’t actually touch upon.

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The other weakness in the definition is that sometimes our consumerism within the market has no bearing on our identity. An example from the text is an American women who feels that she is of the wrong blood, so each week she eats sashimi, learns Japanese art and religion, all in the pursuit of being “the Orient”. While her involvement is governed for her lust to become Japanese, others participate in such activities purely for interest or simply because the food taste good – it plays little to no part on their concept of self identity.

Video games, like any form of consumer goods exert their own impressions of cultural identity, at least within the players mind. There’s something that has to be has to be said about fans of niche Japanese developers such as Altus, Nippon Ichi and SNK. Games consumerism is representative of culture, buying certain games and being an enthusiast of that flavour of gaming makes us appeared cultured to that respective origin.

You might be forgiven to think that I’m referring strictly to country culture (ie. culture as per the “the way of life of a people”). Where as in the case of the previous example, I’d be suggesting that players of these games would be in pursuit of the Japanese cultural identity, or at least the Japanese enthusiast/fan identity. This isn’t the only case, although it could be (again this refers to the second flaw). Players of those games may in fact be enthusiasts of the culture and identity created by the consumers of such games, I’m talking about fan cultures. Think of such purchases as aligning oneself to a particular fan culture/following.

These cultures are all multifaceted too. My previous example is by no means absolute. That is; playing games by those developers are not the fixed requirement of belonging to the culture of “Japanese wannabes”. This system is variable, and differs among tastes and interests. This is the crutch of the super market, of consumerism; you can pick and chose, accessorize if you will, or in less tainted terms create your own cultural identity through mixtures of different cultural symbols.

sinclair-spectrum

One last example to highlight the flexibility and divergent nature of culture. This time I’ll choose the symbols the Dizzy series, Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Rare Ware. These symbols are obviously synonymous with the 1980s through to early 1990 retro gaming scene in UK. Hence they fit under a variety of cultural spectrums: video games -> personal computer gaming -> the UK -> 1980-1990s era. And if we change one of those symbols to say the Commodore 64, the spheres of cultural influence shift again. Not to say that our original selection can’t be interpreted differently (because it can as well) but that on the whole the cultural effect of each piece is very vague. Every combination and each piece are culturally identifiable in many different interpretations, hence what they offer our identity is equally up for interpretation.

Perhaps I faltered with the last example, I don’t know. Whatever the case, you can see how games operate within this idea of the cultural supermarket. I’ve also used the concept as a vector to demonstrate how slippery it is to categorize and brand culture by relating it video games and Kathryn Woodward’s idea of cultural symbols. I hope it made some sense to you.

Metal Gear Solid Novelization Break down (Part #1 Impressions)

March 27th, 2009

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I was going to cram all of this into one mammoth article, but I’ve been a bit behind the ball with posting lately (no shortage of ideas though, just other distractions) and there is more than enough hear to fill a regular article. So here is part one of my thoughts on the MGS novel. The second part is a comprehensive list of all the differences between novel and game.

Background

Back in November last year while studying abroad in Shanghai, I by chance stumbled upon a novelization of the original Metal Gear Solid in one of the many bookstores just off the People’s Square. Far too entrenched in the Chinese lifestyle and language, I decided to read the book once I returned home in Australia, and over the past few weeks I’ve been just doing that. These are my thoughts.

Metal Gear Solid (novel) was published as a paperback on May 27, 2008 in America and over a week later in Europe on June 5, 2008. The novel was written by Raymond Benson, most notably known for his contributions to the James Bond series of novels between 1997-2003. Metal Gear Solid is the depiction of the events of the Shadow Mosses incident just as it were in the original video game.

General Impressions (Review)

Metal Gear Solid is by no means a reinterpretation of the original Shadow Mosses incident. The book rarely delves deeper into the characters, plot or themes any more so than I believe Hideo Kojima’s script would allow, rather author Raymond Benson is mostly a scribe for the game, intervening with the text where possible and necessary, often doing so to great effect.

This isn’t so much a review of the storyline as it is the novelization of the video game, so the documenting of the already static sequences (codec conversation and cut scenes) aren’t really worth discussing. Benson writes as these sequences purpose, and captures the essence of the cut scenes and codec sequences well.

When it comes to what one might call the player narrative though, Benson’s experience within the espionage writing genre is faithful to the Metal Gear Solid experience and lore. What was once your own means for tackling the game, has now become ingrained in the Solid Snake character. Where as a player might rely on a knowledge of conventions they’ve learnt from other games, Snake’s methodology is based upon lessons taught to him Master Miller, prior experiences in the field and training. Perhaps Benson’s greatest strength in this book is substantiating Snake’s prior knowledge and then channeling this back to the relevant characters, plot and dialogue at hand. This makes Snake’s mindset seem all the more real. Snake’s tactics within the natural environment draw on his experience of living in Alaska, his combat derived from lessons taught by Master Miller, dialogue from Campbell, Naomi and Mei Ling’s relevant to the chaos unfolding. Miller in fact is heavily called upon, replacing Mei Ling as the feature’s Confucious of wisdom.

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The necessary intervention at the point of where video games and writing don’t meet (the player) allows Benson to better contextualize Snake as a character. When he changes the already fixed narrative itself, the book become a little problematic, as he’s clearly playing with things he perhaps shouldn’t be. Thankfully, beyond the few exceptions where he does this, the story is just as you remember it.

It’s difficult to say if I would recommend this book, as the text is only fodder to picturize the game unfolding in your head. If you haven’t ever played the video game then, I’d probably recommend you play that, rather than read about it. I doubt that the hybridized interactive manga/film/comic narrative translates outside of the medium that it was born. Overall though, this is a faithful, solid adaption of Metal Gear Solid to another format. Word has it that the sequel is also received an adaption by the same author, should be interesting.

Artwork pinched from Creative-Uncut