This week, Mike Joffe at Video Games of the Oppressed has been proposing a number of games to play within other games. A number of his games have been based in retro console RPGs like Pokemon and Earthbound. The proposed games make for interesting opportunities to personalize experiences that are generally pretty consistent from player to player (“The Joffelocke Challenge.” Jan 27 2014; “Life After Exdeath.” Jan 28 2014; “Poemmon… Pokeom… Po-em-ke-mo- You know what? Forget it.” Jan 29 2014; “Your Game is in Another Castle.” Jan 30 2014.).
Many of these meta-games that Joffe has suggested, however, also alter the narrative of their material in fascinating ways. His Joffelocke challenge for Pokemon, for instance, is directly tied to a retelling of the Pokemon story: he suggests the player approach Pokemon from the perspective of an undercover insurrectionist, not as a complacent participant in its world’s rules.
I find it interesting that most of the games he’s suggested so far have been single-player RPGs rightly or wrongly celebrated as “story” games. Not only because I’ve written a lot in the last year about how nebulous the distinction is between a story and the mode of telling it (“Tighten up the Narrative in Level 3: The grammar of videogames.” Medium Difficulty. Sep 21 2013.) but because handing over a narrative to a new player in something like his Life After Exdeath game totally reworks the narrative the first player had developed.
While playing Final Fantasy V, I may have developed Lenna into a skilled physical fighter, mastering the knight, samurai and monk classes. These classes have mechanical similarities that compliment one another but progressing through these classes creates a narrative as well. In choosing these combat roles, Lenna becomes a certain kind of person: a cool in the face of danger, stalwart and noble, lawful-good, disciplined and rigidly moral person. The attributes attached to those classes can then be applied to the character she displays in the game’s plot.
In previous writing Joffe has noted that the characters of Final Fantasy V are pretty one-dimensional (“Uniforms in Video Games.” Video Games of the Oppressed. Mar 8 2013.) but that assumes one is only looking at written dialogue. Final Fantasy V‘s characterization might be simple, but incorporating the job class system into each character’s personality affords the game considerable depth. Lenna is the chosen heir of Tycoon, the only child of the good king and the recipient of a royal education; she’s known her whole life she’ll be inheriting her kingdom and knowing that has made her responsible, devoted and emotionally strong. It makes sense for her to choose the class route I’ve described for her even though I can only apply that narrative after I’ve chosen her classes for her. The attributes associated with her class development from knight to samurai to monk can be retroactively applied to understand her as a person while I’m playing. I can construct Lenna’s character based on the job classes I choose for her. In fact, it’s because the game’s writing is so shallow that using her job classes to characterize her fits so well.
So what happens if, say, Mike Joffe hands me a save file where Lenna has not mastered a knight/samurai/monk path? What if he passes on a Lenna that is a berserker/ranger/ninja? What do those class choices say about Lenna given what both Joffe and I know about her history? Lenna’s role as the berserker implies rage, her role as ranger implies a love of nature and a desire for freedom and her role as ninja implies secrecy and subterfuge. Those different attributes she takes on through those classes completely changes the interpretation of her character: where my Lenna’s classes imply a security and responsibility with her history, Joffe’s implies anger and a desire to escape it. The script remains the same, but the characters are different. When I take over Joffe’s save data, I’m not only adapting to his play style, I’m taking control of a new cast of characters with different personalities and outlooks: I’m exploring a different interpretation of the game.
With that in mind, there are games that even further explore a different player’s interpretation of characters. Turn-based SRPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics ask the player to build heroes out of red shirts. One of the most compelling things about Final Fantasy Tactics the first time I played it was how inviting the game was to my interpretation of these poor, nameless souls (“How Agnes Taught Me to Appreciate Difficulty.” bigtallwords. Nov 18 2012.). Through a number of little touches, I grew attached to my katana-weilding white mage, my summoning lancer, my geomancing oracle. The different classes and the aesthetic properties attached to them carried narrative weight that the game—intentionally or not—invited me to use to stamp a reading onto my cast of randomly rolled grunts.
So here’s a different challenge based on Joffe’s Life After Exdeath meta-game:
- With a partner, play an RPG driven by randomly generated characters. Most RPGs are out automatically because their casts are named and characterized; most turn-based war games are out as well because units are too disposable to last the whole game. Final Fantasy Tactics and X-COM and a number of other SRPGs are in because it’s possible to preserve a party across the long-term and build a team out of a small squad.
- Characters that the game names are forbidden from battle. They must be rejected from the party if possible. If ever they’re required, the player must assume they have no combat ability and have them lay down arms and flee from danger.
- Optionally, each player may keep track of every unit’s hometown (if none is given assume it’s the location where they were recruited, or the location of their first battle will suffice). I also encourage each player to note details such as the number of casualties the party sustains, who was present for each casualty, the number of times each character was nearly slain, the number of kills each character has made, the number of class changes; any details that the player wants to keep track of that might be relevant to characterizing the person.
- When each player has reached the last save point before the final boss, players swap their save data, just like in the Life After Exdeath challenge.
- Now that you’ve got the other player’s game, rewrite the game’s plot so that there is no player-character: the cast you’ve been asked to use for the final battle consists of the game’s only heroes. Based on the information in the game (class, abilities, attributes and stats) and the information the other player has noted for you, create a story for the people in your party. What are their relationships? what kind of people are they based on what the game and other player have given you?
- When the game is over, compare notes with the other player. Did your interpretation of the characters they lovingly developed over the course of the campaign mesh after having them air dropped on your game?
There really isn’t a game in there, I just think it might be an interesting exercise in creative writing and interpreting mechanics. It’s the kind of exercise that illustrates how much of what is called narrative in games is actually impregnated in mechanics.
Further reading: Vestal, Andrew. “Final Fantasy V: Misremembrance of Things Past.” Gaming Intelligence Agency. Jul 27 2013.
Mackie, Drew. “The Lady in the Armor.” Back of the Cereal Box. Jan 23 2009.
Burton, Lo. “That’s a Wrap: FFV & FFVI.” And Then She Games. Jun 13 2013.
Voorhees, Gerald. “The Character of Difference: Procedurality, Rhetoric, and Role-Playing Games.” Game Studies. 9.2. Nov 2009.
Hemmann, Kathryn. “Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Five).” Contemporary Japanese Literature. Apr 7 2011.