Video Game Literary Classics 101

Imagine it’s 2050 and you’re helping design a course for high-school students called Video Game Literary Classics. You’ve been asked to suggest culturally-significant video games for them to academically analyse and discuss. Which titles would you choose for literary study and why?

It’s a good question, and one posed to the community by Angie over at Backlog Crusader at the end of last month. The aim here is to look at releases which say something significant about humanity; interesting philosophies, ethics or social commentary that’s worth in-depth discussion. The number of responses will determine how long the course will be and, although it’s been a very long time since I was in education, I’m stepping up to the challenge. Here are five games I’d suggest and the reasons why.

From 1993: Mortal Kombat

My brother had a Game Gear when we were kids, and we played the original Mortal Kombat together while news reports appeared on television and in papers to declare it as being a source of corruption. Back then it was considered to be a horribly-graphic release and both parents and politicians were worried about the affect it was having on children. I can remember my sibling and I thinking this was kind of stupid: how would playing a game on a screen make anyone to want to be violent in real life?

It was an interesting time. Society was a mix of excitement for new technology, fear of the impact of digital violence, and mass hysteria about ‘keeping our children safe’. Almost three decades later and the title in the spotlight may have changed but the moral panic hasn’t: we’re still having the same conversations about whether playing video games is harmful or addictive. Fortunately there’s plenty of research now to show the benefits too, so at least we’re able to have a more balanced discussion.

From 2012: Journey

In a complete contrast from the earlier release suggested above, Journey is about a quest to reach a mountain in the distance that contains no violence whatsoever. You’ll meet other players in-game with whom you can only communicate through musical noises made my your character; but far from being an obstacle, it in no way stops you from wanting to them on their way. Does this say something about human nature, that we’re all built with an intrinsic desire to be ‘good’ and do the right thing?

It’s something to ponder over, but one thing we can be sure Journey highlights is that gaming experiences can be beautiful, scary and exciting all at the same time. It ignited the debate about whether the medium should be considered as art and has a lovely philosophy at its core. My stepson summed it up nicely in a comment he came out with after completing the title: “So I’m the star… and the next person playing right now will see me in the sky at the start of their game. That’s cool.”

From 2013: Gone Home

Games like Journey and Dear Esther sparked a trend for narrative titles in the early 2010s which were sadly looked down on by some members of the community. They ended up becoming known as ‘walking simulators’, a derogatory term meant to imply that their lack of traditional gameplay made them less worthy than other action-heavy releases. Could something where the player did nothing but move forward and where there was no need for skill still be considered a video game?

Game, story, art: however you want to define it, the genre is perfect for telling a story and helping the player to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Gone Home in an amazing example as it wonderfully captures 1990s culture and what it was like growing up in the decade. More importantly, it also discusses views on homosexuality at the time and the stigma attached to being anything other than straight. We’ve still got a long way to go but it’s interesting to see how things have changed over the past 40 years.

From 2017: Horizon Zero Dawn

There are so many questions about society which can be explored through the narrative of Horizon Zero Dawn. Where will the relationship between humans and robots ultimately lead, and is artificial intelligence (AI) something to be feared? Will the way we’re treating the planet eventually lead to our downfall? And how does Aloy rappel down mountains, slide into patches of tall grass, go head-to-head with all sorts of dangerous machines and everything else Mother’s Heart throws at her – and still look absolutely perfect?

Jokes aside, this girl is far from being a one-dimensional character who only exists as an object to be rescued or for the gratification of men; and she actually wears something practical rather than being scantily-clad. There have been many discussions in recent years about the portrayal of digital women and just as much abuse thrown at the females who make them. Are protagonists such as Aloy, who we can be proud of and look up to, evidence that both the industry and gaming community are finally starting to grow up?

From 2017: Fortnite

Love it or hate it, Fortnite interestingly highlight several current trends in the gaming industry. The title itself is a copy of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) and now other creators are starting to replicate Epic Games’ baby in return. Its free-to-play and cross-platform basis has been a reason for its huge popularity. But there have also been recent reports of the company’s employees being placed under extreme pressure to work gruelling hours too, revealing a darker side to maintaining the success.

It seems as though there’s not a week that goes by during which this game doesn’t make an appearance in the news. There’s a fear about how addictive it is and how it’s going to be the downfall of our children – but not so much talk about good parenting, and how it’s important to know what your youngsters are playing and whether it’s suitable for them. Whose responsibility is it to moderate: parents or publishers? And what impact is this going to have on society in the long-run?

Thank you to Angie for coming up with this collaboration, and for letting me participate! There’s still time to join in: take a look at her post before 23 June 2019 for all the details, and get involved.

Great gaming moments

Gaming. We love it because of those moments it gives us. The unexpected that can make you smile, curse, gasp or scream. There’s no other medium like it and why, I like to think, we all love it so.

With that in mind, here are a few gaming moments that stick in my mind.

Assassin’s Creed Unity online

A complete car-crash at launch and not much better when I picked it up a few months later, Assassin’s Creed Unity has gone down as a lesson in how not to do things. Which is a shame because when it went right it went really right.

Online was amazing. I’ll never forget the first time I teamed up with three other assassins and we swarmed over the Parisian rooftops. We were a wave of silent murder, climbing up towers, leaping off, rolling, running, dashing through windows. The guards never stood a chance. It all felt so fluid and free.

Then the game crashed, kicked you out and you had to keep your fingers crossed you’d reconnect. But for the brief moments it worked? Unbelievable.

Mortal Kombat X-Ray Moves

Remember the first time you saw a finishing move? Some made you laugh, others made you say how gross it was and some even made you wince. They are so ridiculous, so over the top though that they arguably lose their impact over time. Not so the X-Ray Moves.

Unleashed in the middle of a fight they zoom in to see ribs crack, backs break, bones shatter and spleens sliced wide open. All in glorious slow motion. Even now I still groan in shared pain every time I see one. They are so brutal, so violent and so well executed that their impact just isn’t diminished. The visuals are complimented by the sounds as slowed down the muffled screams are drowned out by the sharp crack of bones cutting through the fog before it’s all rounded off with a well timed vibration of the controller.

It’s a moment that never gets old.

Halo Warthog escape

At the very end of Halo the player is tasked with escaping the collapsing ring by driving along in the game’s signature vehicle, the Warthog. Might not sound much on paper but when there’s two of you playing (one driving, one shooting), the epic Halo theme music booming out of the speakers, explosions going off all around and the huge Duke controller rumbling in your hands it’s really quite special.

That it all happens after the grand final battle makes it a thrilling, fitting end and I loved it.

Molten Core for the first time

Coordinating 40 people to do anything at the same time is hard. Coordinating 40 people across the world to take down an ancient lava-tornado god-monster armed with a huge, fiery hammer, most of whom have never met in person is bordering on the heroic. That’s what it took to complete one of World of Warcraft’s first and most legendary raids.

It takes time to even get to Ragnaros, taking down multiple sub-bosses on the way. Then the fight itself is epic, and even the slightest deviation from the plan or your specific role can spell certain doom for the entire raid group. It’s a colossal effort all round and the feeling of completion is really quite special. So much so that it was traditional to take a picture of the whole party around the defeated foe’s hammer.

I only did it once and wish I could find the screenshot (it was ten years ago!) to share, but the experience lives long in the memory.

So what are your favourite gaming moments? It could be when The Legend of Zelda theme plays, using the pedal to duck in Time Crisis or zombie-dogs through a window. Maybe it’s a last minute winner in FIFA, a perfectly-timed resurrection in Overwatch or breaking into Shadow Moses. Let us know in the comments!

Bonkers, brilliant and ready to break necks

It’s 1992, I’m a teenager in the arcades with my mates and we’re pumping 20p after 20p into the Street Fighter II machine in a vain attempt to beat enough CPU opponents in order to face the final four. Then, from nowhere a cabinet shouts out ‘FINISH HIM!’ and all our heads turn.

That’s my first memory of Mortal Kombat and I’ve been in love with the series ever since. Initially it was the gore and photorealistic fighters, which 25 years ago was absolutely mind-blowing. Then it was the story about a tournament that EarthRealm had to win because they’d lost nine in a row and to lose ten meant the forces of evil could invade and conquer. Of course, that’s not forgetting the introduction of fatalities into the gaming world.

Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat 11, fighting, fighter, fire

And now, 27 years on, Mortal Kombat 11 is on the horizon. If I’m honest I’ve lost track of whether or not the 11 is accurate. In between deadly alliances, armageddons, deceptions, special forces and mythologies, I’ve forgotten just how many games there have been in series but I’ve pretty much played them all – from the bloodless original on the SNES (Nintendo insisted the graphic be recoloured and declared as sweat) to Mortal Kombat X on the PlayStation 4 a few years ago.

The story is now a delicious mess too. We (EarthRealm – I’m assuming there are no Edenians reading this) won that first tournament, then another, but through various machinations were eventually invaded, defeated that invasion but were then invaded again, then were just about to be defeated but Raiden (Thunder God, very powerful) rewound time to do it all again and make sure we (EarthRealm – keep up!) definitely won everything this time only we didn’t but actually kind of did but now Raiden’s corrupted, heroes are resurrected and fighting for NetherRealm (Hell) and their kids are saving the day. Or something like that.

Needless to say I can’t wait for just how bonkers the next instalment will be.

If you’ve spotted the various reveal trailers doing the rounds, you’ll have seen that the game has continued the evolution that began with 2011’s Mortal Kombat and, including the two Injustice games that NetherRealm Studios also make, looks to move the series on further. The same weighty fighting is intact but the best in the business facial animations and gear selections of Injustice 2 will make an appearance.

As will the eternally over-the-top bloodshed. To say each battle is violent is an understatement; gameplay trailers have shown that it’s even more ridiculous than usual and in glorious 4K to boot. It’s absolutely not for the fainthearted or anyone under 18. In fact it’s almost guaranteed to whip the media into a frenzy on release, just as it did almost three decades ago.

Anyway, that’s enough from me – why don’t you check it out for yourself opposite? Just… make sure you haven’t eaten first.