My Favorite Games of 2017

It’s not much of a stretch to say that 2017 was among the best in history for video game releases. Hell, if it weren’t for Chrono Trigger and EarthBound both releasing in 1995, this year might have been the (personal) best year in my nearly thirty years of gaming. I love revisiting the memories I’ve had with games at the end of each year, but this year was particularly fun. Here are my Favorite Fifteen™ of this year.

15. Cosmic Star Heroine

This was another game ‘in the vein of Chrono Trigger’ that ended up not being very much like Chrono Trigger, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun. It wasn’t deep, exactly, but it was easy to get into and had some fun characters and cute dialogue. I wouldn’t mind a steady flow of these kinds of simple, short, low-priced RPGs.

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14. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp

I don’t normally care for mobile games, but come on: it’s freaking Animal Crossing. While I would have loved for a more fully featured AC game, I still spend at least an hour playing this game every single day. Plus, its lack of depth gives me hope that Nintendo is still planning on a heftier game for the Switch. But as it is, it’s still got some of that classic Animal Crossing magic. Now, instead of decorating my basement to look like a creepy murder-hole, I do it with my camper. See? Magic.

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13. Star Trek: Bridge Crew

Star Trek: Bridge Crew is like a slice of my dream Star Trek game, which would be a BioWare-esque RPG where you actually go through your last year at Starfleet Academy, graduate, get your first starship and then begin your journey through the stars. I don’t know that we’ll ever see that game, because it seems like licensing costs prevent publishers from having the will to throw enough money at a studio to do the series justice, but this game is an exciting enough sliver. Giving commands from the captain’s chair is exciting, but when you’re in a really tight spot and you jump to the engineer’s station to reroute power, then shove the helmsman aside to jump to warp, and end up back in the captain’s chair to drop shields and go stealth? Pretty awesome.

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12. Star Wars Battlefront II

I was a little upset by how the whole microtransaction debacle prevented reviewers from judging this game from an objective critical distance, but after playing it for a while I could see why they couldn’t. It’s not the money part of it that was constantly nagging at me, distracting me from the game, it was the progression system. I’m still playing it, and it’s still hard to be excited about unlocking things because I know it’s going to take forever and I’ll probably stop playing before I get all of the things that I want. That aside, I can’t deny that I love playing the game – it’s hard not to, being such a big Star Wars fan and being able to fly Darth Maul’s Scimitar over a Separatist battleship, hop around Tattooine as a jumptrooper, or just stand around and exist as Rey. The gameplay is frantic and fun, and I smile almost every single time I’m playing as a droid and I drop a turret, only to hear my character say “good luck, turret!”

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11. Mass Effect Andromeda

While this wasn’t the leap ahead for the series that I was hoping, it was more Mass Effect, which I will probably never complain about. Jumping from planet to planet, navigating relationships with smugglers, traders, and pirates, and (most importantly) wooing a certain spunky, blue teammate, made this adventure worthwhile. I’d have loved for a better villain and more engrossing plot, but I sincerely hope that BioWare doesn’t completely abandon the series. I mean, unless they go back to single-player Knights of the Old Republic games. A fair trade, I’d say.

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10. Everybody’s Golf

More like Everybody’s Gold, am I right? Eh? Eh? No one? Anyway, I was totally shocked by how much I liked this game. I seem to go through phases with sports games, where I buy a new game in each genre every three or four years and get really into it, so I was about due. For me, golf games have to feel right. If the wind doesn’t affect the ball in a realistic way, or my ball bounces oddly, or slopes don’t change the trajectory of the roll like they should, the game just feels wrong. Everybody’s Golf feels very right, though, and I found myself spending a lot of my dwindling mid-semester free time playing hole after hole, hoping to unlock more courses to play with my friend. Good times were had by all.

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9. What Remains of Edith Finch

Between this and Gone Home, I’m starting to think I just have a thing for walking around big, empty houses and looking through people’s drawers. But what drew me into Gone Home, in part, was the relative mundanity of the house. It was so normal that I found myself appreciating the care that went into making it look like a family had really lived there. In What Remains of Edith Finch I found myself appreciating the care that went into making it look like Tim Burton’s grandmother had once married Dr. Seuss’s grandfather and this is where that family lived. These games are all about detail, about how every bookshelf and stray magazine subtly contributes to the narrative, and this game in particular had so much color and quirk in its nooks and crannies. The overt nod to classic Tales from the Crypt comics also made me way more excited than it should have.

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8. Assassin’s Creed Origins

I don’t know that any game, Assassin’s Creed or otherwise, will give me the same kind of wave-breaking, swash-buckling, booty-plundering thrill that Black Flag did, but Origins was its own kind of special. Yes, the pyramids and deserts and landscapes were beautiful, and the combat was (eventually) satisfying. But what this game did better than any other in the series (that I’ve played) was make its characters seem human and make me care about them. I found myself so impressed by how Bayek changed his demeanor and tone depending on who he was talking to that I plan on writing more on it at some point, but for now I’ll just say that it made him so much more believable and memorable than any other lead character in the series (sorry, Evie, love). That made every mission and story beat that much more meaningful and worthwhile, and I hope they carry that lesson into future games.

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7. Emily is Away Too

Man. Emily is Away Too made me feel more feels in a shorter span than probably any game on this list. I spent a lot of time on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) in my late teens, and a fair proportion of that time was spent flirting (very badly) with girls and wondering if they were flirting back. So this game was not only nostalgic in its interface, but it also did such a good job of capturing the kind of hesitant excitement that came with every winky emote or exchange of favorite bands. Where the first game, Emily is Away, took that and added a cruel twist, this game allows you to actually experience the joy of genuine connection, despite it being completely artificial. And I really loved that.

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6. Injustice 2

I played a lot of fighting games this year, but almost every single one disappointed me on some level. Injustice 2 was easily the exception, blowing away even its predecessor in depth, beauty, and fun. Every character was fun to play in this game, and for the first time in years I found myself looking forward to playing through each of their individual story/arcade modes. The main story mode was just as bizarre but immersive as the first game, but the cinematics were just gorgeous. Speaking of gorgeousness, the character models are stunning in this game, and I couldn’t stop taking screenshots of some of the many awesome characters, like Poison Ivy, Supergirl, and Scarecrow. I played many hours of this game and I still want to go back and play it as I write this. My only wish is that the next Injustice game brings DC’s Blackest Night storyline to the video game world. Zombie Batman versus Star Sapphire Wonder Woman? Yes. Please.

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5. Stardew Valley

“You have to play Stardew Valley,” my friend Tabitha said. Again. And again. For months. I’d put it off long enough, so its release on the Nintendo Switch (which is one reason I’m including it on this list, the other being that it was new to me in 2017) meant that I had run out of excuses. I downloaded it, and after a few hours of playing I thought “well, I guess it’s okay. I’m not sure what the fuss is about, though.” The fuss, Joey-from-a-few-months-ago, is what happens after those first few hours. Stardew Valley is not about the big moments, it’s not about a steady rise and fall of action and drama. It’s a slow, deliberate trek through a subtly touching and immersive town of weird, funny people who are both normal and completely odd. I spent over 170 hours playing Stardew Valley, and I don’t regret a minute of it.

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4. Resident Evil 7

As a Resident Evil fan from the very beginning, I’ve seen the series lose something about what made those first few games on the PlayStation special. I enjoyed Resident Evil 4 and 5, but both were a far cry from the cramped, claustrophobic mansion in the first Resident Evil or the empty and eerily quiet police station of its sequel. Resident Evil 7 captured that atmosphere again, and the fact that it did so in virtual reality is amazing. I wasn’t able to get past the nausea I experienced after the first twenty minutes or so (I didn’t try hard enough, honestly), so I didn’t get to experience it fully, but even without it I felt some of the same intimate terror that the early games evoked. I mentioned my odd penchant for big, old houses earlier, and the designers of this mansion did such a great job of giving each room its own unique brand of gross creepiness. Keeping the player in one general area makes developers put so much more care in the design of that space, and it almost always shows, as it does here. I know the game didn’t do as well financially as some had expected, but I hope that doesn’t dissuade Capcom from making future Resident Evil games in this same gloriously horrific vein.

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3. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Simple yet elegant is how I might sum up Breath of the Wild. One of the things I pay attention to in open world games is how dense and varied the topography and foliage is, and at first glance this game might seem to be lacking in that department. But after you start travelling the plains, gliding from mountains, scurrying along cliffs, you begin to see how smoothly everything flows together. That tree is there for a reason. That cluster of rocks is not there by chance. That half-buried statue means something. This Hyrule is not thick with action and activity. It is empty. Lonely. But it has so much life.

Add that to the simple but versatile combat, the beautiful art style, and the low-demand high-reward narrative, and Breath of the Wild ended up being my favorite Zelda game of all time.

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2. Horizon Zero Dawn

Like other games on this list, Horizon Zero Dawn surprised me by how good it was. When Sony used the game as their showpiece for E3 2016, I thought “huh. It looks okay, I guess. I mean, I don’t get why cavepeople are fighting robot dinosaurs, and that seems like a bit of a gimmick, but it looks pretty, I suppose.” Once again, Joey-from-the-past, you were wrong. Breath of the Wild’s open world was indeed beautiful and visually poetic, but Horizon’s world was also gorgeous and extravagantly rich with not only life, but hidden relics of a forgotten world. I love both worlds, but I found myself pausing and just looking a lot more often in this game. I probably spent at least a few hours in photo mode, and that’s no exaggeration. Every moonbeam breaking through lush bushes, glowing machine eye bearing down on me, haze of fog hanging over a thick forest, had me captivated.

It wasn’t just the visuals of this game that won my heart, though. The characters, Aloy especially, were nuanced and subtle, believable and human. The voice acting was top-notch, the sci-fi storytelling was superb, the pacing managed to feel brisk despite being and open world game, and holy hell was the combat satisfying. When I began the game I felt intimidated by how deadly the machines seemed, especially the larger ones, but once I got a handle on dodging and aiming, I began to crave the challenge of a particularly ferocious robo-dino (or dino-robo?). I couldn’t survive by blindly button-mashing or hacking-and-slashing like in some other action RPGs, I had to think about my surroundings, my enemies’ weakness, the tools I had on hand, and the best weapon for the job. It was a deep but not impenetrable combat system, and it’s a big part of why the game became progressively more enjoyable as I ventured into new areas filled with ever-deadly machines. But I’ve said enough, I think. I loved this game. A lot.

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1. Persona 5

Speaking of loving a game a lot, though, hot freaking damn did I love Persona 5. I wrote a whole blog about it not long ago, so I’ll try and keep this short, but this is the kind of game that only comes along once in a great while for me. A game that I think about at random points every few days, without even realizing I’m doing it. I spent something like 360 hours playing it to completion almost three times and yet I sometimes find myself wanting to start it up again. If Atlus releases the screenshot restriction on PS4, in fact, I will almost certainly play it again this coming summer. I love the art style, the fast-paced combat, the characters, the humor, the world… I’m rambling. I probably can’t say it better than I already have in my previous blog, but this game is truly special to me. It’s objectively an incredible game, but subjectively it scratched some internal itch for me that makes it one of my favorite games of all time. I’m a broken record, I know. But I really do love it to death.


There are two games that don’t qualify for me, because even though Mario Kart 8 DX is new to the Switch, it’s not new to me, and while Final Fantasy XV is new to me, it’s not new to any platform that I played it on (and it was released in 2016). But I mention them because I played a whole lot of both of them in 2017, making it an even more magical year for me as far as video games go.

And I still haven’t played everything 2017 had to offer, unfortunately. I need to finish Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, I bought but haven’t gotten around to Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Super Mario Odyssey, and South Park: The Fractured but Whole, and I really want to check out Doki Doki Literature Club! 2017, it seems, is the gift that keeps on giving, and I’m glad to have had the chance to take part in it.

If Video Games are Art, We Should Discuss Them as Such – Reviews vs Criticism

As a teacher (and student) of rhetoric and composition, I’m frequently thinking about how art and different kinds of media are presented to various audiences, and how those audiences react in turn. Given that I am also an avid gamer and have taught my first-year college students about rhetoric using video games, the subject of video game criticism comes up pretty often. It’s something I’ve thought about again and again, and a recent episode of IGN’s Game Scoop! podcast addressed some of the things that float around in my head.

At the heart of it, I believe that there is a distinction between a ‘review’ and criticism, and I think that the gaming community at large – on the Internet, anyway – suffers from a lack of clarity when it comes to the function of popular gaming site reviews. Further, I think that video games as an art form suffers from the popular public discourse around the medium centering around reviews and popular commentary, with a lack of criticism – or what some might call ‘high criticism,’ though that phrase always struck me as either self-important or dismissive.

Though my blog isn’t aimed at any particular audience, I wanted to share a transcript of the segment of Game Scoop! that centers on this issue and provide some of my own commentary on the discussion, and suggest some solutions for how we as a very broad – and admittedly loosely defined – community might move toward a more productive way of discussing games.

First, here is the transcript of this segment in its entirety, just in case you wanted to read it unfiltered and free of my thoughts before I dig into it. I did trim some repeated words and a few lines of comedic interjection, but otherwise this is unedited. It’s a long read, but I think it’s interesting throughout. This is episode 451, starting around 34:13:

Daemon Hatfield : (reading a listener’s email) “When you review a game, how much does the tie into real world issues factor in? i.e., making you think about current problems in society. I really like games that are not only insanely fun to play but also leave you thinking differently about the world you live in. Some recent examples are Horizon and Hellblade.”

Dan Stapleton: Yeah, any way a game affects you – it’s just like a movie. Like, if a movie has something to say, then it’s more about – it’s about more than just the events that are happening on the screen and whether the hero wins in the end. It’s got commentary, and that can have more effect on an audience than just nothing at all, just some throwaway plot about saving the day. It adds context and subtext. So I don’t want to say there’s a fixed amount that that’s going to affect things, but anything that can affect you as a gamer, as somebody experiencing a game or a movie or anything, you know, a song can be about something that’s not apparent too.

Sam Claiborn: Booties.

Dan Stapleton: For example. So that can factor into your review, absolutely.

Sam Claiborn: So he’s asking us about reviews, right? And I, you know, a couple of us here are probably English majors, like myself, I had a lot of classes where we studied criticism, and part of critiquing something is putting it in the context of its larger role in society and in its genre and in its, you know, everything that it does. So when I’m thinking about a game, I’m thinking about ‘how does this affect other games? How does it affect how I think about games, how does it affect all that,’ but Dan is a really good editor, and he says the one question we should be answering at IGN, for our reviews, is ‘is this fun?’ And that’s a different prospect, I think, than normal criticism. And so, sometimes when you read video game reviews, or especially movie reviews, and especially-especially book reviews, if you read those, that is criticism and it’s always looking at our time, what this means, and it’s trying to tie this work of art into that. And I think that’s important. That’s not necessarily what we do. I don’t think Dan’s gonna shoot that down if you turn in a review with that in it, but we’re definitely answering a different question here.

Dan Stapleton: Yeah, the priority is about the game itself, rather than-

Sam Claiborn: Like, you don’t demand that kind of critical aspect.

Dan Stapleton: No, I’m not going for literary analysis of the plot of a game, necessarily, unless, like in the sense of a very story-driven game, then yeah, there’s a lot of room for that.

Justin Davis: Yeah, as you said, Sam, this was a question specifically about the context of reviews, and so yeah, I don’t think anyone’s saying this game gets plus or minus one point because of its commentary on real world issues or its ability to influence my opinion on something that’s happening in the world. Outside of the context of reviews, I’m consistently disappointed by a lot of games shirking — a lot of game creators don’t seem very interested in their games, or try to run away from the responsibility that they have as artists for –

Sam Claiborn: Provoking controversy.

Justin Davis: Yeah, for putting something out in the world. You know, they kind of want to have their cake and eat it too, or just be like ‘hey, man, we’re just making our thing and we’re not really thinking about how it sits in the context of the world,’ and I’m like ‘man, you can’t’ – no other artistic medium gets to claim that kind of ignorance.

Dan Stapleton: Far Cry 5 has actually been called out for that a lot as, like, how far are they going to go toward maybe saying something about militias and cults in America?

Justin Davis: Yep. When obviously they’re saying a lot, but they want to say a lot without really answering to that in interviews or any sort of, I don’t know.

Sam Claiborn: Or they’ll include all that but they won’t touch on racial aspects at all because, you know, it could divide their audience or – divide their audience into people that say ‘I don’t want this talked about,’ no matter what their stance is, and people that do.

Daemon Hatfield: Yeah. You’ll find that indie developers are much more willing to talk about social issues in their games—

Dan Stapleton: Although, something like Metal Gear Solid is loaded with subtext, even though the story itself makes no sense.

Justin Davis: I mean, games have a stance. Metal Gear Solid has a stance and makes a statement and has opinions about, you know, the military-industrial complex and everything else, but then game makers seem unwilling to – you know, they stop short of the finish line in the way that I think creators in other mediums do often. And that’s not a universal, I’m making a blanket statement. Obviously there are a million exceptions, but generally speaking, I don’t think our medium and its creators go as far there as they should or could.

Daemon Hatfield: I think social commentary in games is still a fairly recent phenomenon, in the life-span of video games. There’s not a lot of social commentary in Pong or Super Mario Bros.

Dan Stapleton: Games that have story, some of those stories can opt to veer into having something to say. Most don’t.

Justin Davis: But even – Nintendo and Mario are some of the greatest games ever made, but how many times has Princess Zelda been kidnapped? Or Princess Peach been kidnapped and need to be rescued? Does that matter? Like, is that something that Nintendo-

Sam Claiborn: That’s what Brad [?] is talking about, right? You know what’s cool, is that when you mentioned that I was trying to think of the earliest game that I could think of with social commentary – Death Race is. That was the first controversial game, and that game is this – the setup is, you’re collecting points for just mowing down people. Running them over in a car. And, yes, it’s gratuitous violence, but now when you look at it it’s completely stupid. It’s, like, barely a car and you’re barely running over humans, because they’re just dots. But it came out in 1978, there’s a gas crisis, there’s car culture going crazy, and there’s Death Race, there’s all these kind of cultural things happening about cars killing people, and that’s kind of a cool thing, but at the same time people were like ‘hey, this is wrong that this game is taking the perspective that running people over for points is a good thing.’ And it seems really simple now, but that was the first game that I can think of where there was any discussion of that games impact on wider society and what it means, and how that’s evil.

Daemon Hatfield: Well, there was discussion about it, but I don’t think the game was making any sort of social commentary.

Sam Claiborn: Yeah, it’s hard to say. There are games-

Justin Davis: But it doesn’t always have to be intended. Even if they weren’t intending social commentary, by virtue of it existing and them having made something, they were making a statement and taking a stand.

Sam Claiborn: Or like Chiller. Is Chiller actually saying, this gore and this goofy stuff , like, is all – that’s kind of a bold statement to make.

Dan Stapleton: Postal is the same way.

Daemon Hatfield: I think it’s making a statement, but I think violence is offered as entertainment very, very often –

Sam Claiborn: It’s almost a self-parody, though.

Daemon Hatfield: It’s never bothered me. I’ve always been a big fan of violence in entertainment.


Justin Davis: Yeah, I mean, for me it’s not about moralizing or being the ‘moral police’ and saying this is too violent or too this or too whatever, it’s just creators owning up to some responsibility for what they made. Or at least just saying, ‘yeah, we wanted to make this super violent thing and here’s why we enjoy that aesthetic and that’s what did it for us.’ And that part’s missing sometimes, I think.

Daemon Hatfield: Yeah.

Dan Stapleton: A lot of people look at reviews that criticize or praise games for social commentary as the reviewer trying to police that, trying to either say ‘I didn’t like this so a game should never do that,’ or ‘I like this and all games should do it.’ Which isn’t really what a review sets out to do, it’s simply offering  an opinion, guidance on a game, and whether a developer chooses to take that advice or not is entirely up to them, and really, sales are gonna guide that more than anything that we are ever gonna say, so it’s – I think a lot of people worry about critics trying to impose a certain view, even though that’s not what they’re trying to do, they’re just offering an opinion, a perspective, just like any other.

Daemon Hatfield: Yeah, like we were saying, I think social commentary in games is starting to become more and more common, and there is a certain segment of the gaming community that’s calling for more of that. For my part, while I think that’s certainly fine, and I believe in a creator’s right – whatever kind of art they’re making, to make whatever they want to make – for my part, what I’m looking for is just good old fashioned escapist entertainment. I just want to play Mario + Rabbids. That’s what I’m looking for in my games.

The team says a lot of interesting things, but one of the lines that stood out the most to me, and is perhaps the primary motivation for this blog, is: “the one question we should be answering at IGN, for our reviews, is ‘is this fun?’ And that’s a different prospect, I think, than normal criticism.” I know I’m not saying anything new here, but video game review sites are by far the most popular venues for video game criticism, and their reviews treat video games as consumer products, not necessarily pieces of art or artful experiences (except when they conflate the two, as with reviews that praise Nier: Automata for its artistic statement, regardless of its lack of technical or mechanical finesse).

I’m going to generalize a bit, but the vocal gaming community seems at odds with itself. When it wants to feel mature about its chosen hobby, or when non-gaming media sites attack video games in the wake of a violent shooting, it is not shy about holding the medium up as art. But when it comes to the discourse surrounding games, it wants them to be treated as consumer products. Is it fun? Is it worth $60? Are reviewers going to ‘mess up’ the Metacritic score for my favorite game? Popular reviews are not based on the artistic merits of a game, the GameScoop!  crew points out here. Their function is to inform the public on a game’s merits, based in their personal tastes, so that the public might choose to purchase the game or pass on it.

For game criticism to be more like criticism of other art forms, it has to be less concerned with things like ‘value’ or how the audience might respond to commentary on social issues. An example of this would be the concept of ‘franchise fatigue.’ Franchise fatigue is certainly something to consider in a review of a video game as a consumer product: if a reviewer is tired of the series and it does little to excite them at this point in its life cycle, the consumer might well feel the same and might be glad to have been warned of the issue. But (depending on the angle), that should have very little to do with criticizing a game as art. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate comes to mind, because I have heard many podcasters and people on social media claim that they didn’t play it or they disregard it because it was just another Assassin’s Creed game. Consider that argument in criticism of other art forms. We celebrate refinement in other mediums, like film, where few critics would say something like ‘I don’t remember The Dark Knight because it was just another Batman movie,’ or even ‘I’m going to pass on Dunkirk. I think I’m all Christopher Nolan-ed out.’ On the contrary, we reward franchises and artists in film when they iterate and continually refine their craft. In video games, they are boring.

Sam says, at one point, “sometimes when you read video game reviews, or especially movie reviews, and especially-especially book reviews, if you read those, that is criticism and it’s always looking at our time, what this means, and it’s trying to tie this work of art into that. And I think that’s important. That’s not necessarily what we do.” What do you notice about the progression of emphasis in Sam’s claim? The ‘higher’ and more ‘artistic’ the medium, the more serious its critics seem to take it as art, and their criticism reflects that. Sure, there are sites for less ‘serious’ film and literature reviews, sites that function very much like popular game review sites. But I would agree with Sam that movie and book criticism tends to have a lot more in the way of looking at content either in isolation – not comparing it to other popular products for the audience’s sake – or considering it as a part of a larger conversation.

Why does this matter, though? Why do we need more critically minded consideration from games writers, especially if the majority of people seem to just want validation of their own tastes in the form of a numerical score from popular gaming sites? Well Justin hints at the reason when he says “a lot of game [developers] shirk … the responsibility that they have as artists for putting something out in the world. You know, they kind of want to have their cake and eat it too, or just be like ‘hey, man, we’re just making our thing and we’re not really thinking about how it sits in the context of the world,’ and I’m like ‘man, you can’t – no other artistic medium gets to claim that kind of ignorance.” By focusing on whether or not a game is ‘fun’ or ‘worth your money or time,’ popular reviews give this kind of behavior a pass. Art is powerful and in a great many ways it shapes how we view our world and ourselves in it. We learn a lot more than we’d like to admit from watching movies and television and playing video games, regardless of age. If we want games to be taken seriously as an art form, that’s something we have to be absolutely willing to accept. So our criticism of the art form should be unflinching in its own willingness to analyze how any given game does just that.

Dan brings up Far Cry 5 here, and I think it’s just one of several recent examples of games that say something about the world or culture in which it was produced. Unlike other art forms, video games tend to stay away from hot political or cultural topics, which is partially why many people are still hesitant to consider it an art form or, at the very least, a ‘mature’ art form. Ubisoft (Far Cry 5, South Park: The Fractured but Whole) and MachineGames (Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus) both seem willing to include culturally relevant material in their games, so by ignoring their commentary and sticking to whether or not the games are ‘fun,’ we devalue them as art, de-incentivize the developers from making more culturally relevant games, and lower the bar for what’s expected out of our own game criticism, making it a consumer review rather than an criticism of actual art.

I’m not saying that popular reviews are bad. I’m not saying rating things for consumers isn’t useful. What I am saying is that our community needs to mature in terms of what it expects of game reviews and associated games commentary. If video games are art, let their creators make artful statements. By making ridiculous claims like ‘keep your political commentary out of my games,’ you’re exposing yourself as a mere consumer and one who feels they should wield power over the artists that create the art that you insist is yours. It’s not. It’s theirs. Let them make their games about gender inequality, racial tension, societal collapse, capitalism, etc., and criticize it as art. Is it important? Is it new? Is it adding something meaningful to some relevant conversation? The more we think video game developers should bow to our wishes because we are the consumers that support them, the more we separate our art form from others, which is ultimately self-defeating.

(Featured photo from:

Gaming Memories: Saving Up for Super Mario RPG

It’s the beginning of fall, 1995. I’m twelve. My lifelong love of video games will increase exponentially in a couple of months, when I receive Chrono Trigger for my thirteenth birthday, but before then I am quietly becoming obsessed with a game called Super Mario RPG, for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.


It didn’t yet have it’s subtitle, Legend of the Seven Stars, and I didn’t know much about it outside of what Nintendo Power had teased in recent issues. But I loved Nintendo and Mario games, and this one seemed more mature than Super Mario World. I had no money for games, though, and I couldn’t get the game for either my birthday or Christmas. Nintendo Power originally had it listed as a winter release on their release forecast, and at some point I’d read that it had an official release date in March of 1996. On New Year’s Eve I made a resolution to save up enough money to buy the game on my own. I’d never had very much luck with saving money for anything. Prior to this, after collecting a tidy sum of wrinkled dollars and loose change, I would inevitably succumb to the impure and ancient urges of middle school boys everywhere:  Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Sprite. You might be surprised by how much junk food you could buy for $5 in the mid-90s.

But this time was different, I told myself. This was not some dumb pair of shoes that I wanted so that I could fit in at school, or a cheap toy that I’d eventually break or get tired of. This was a video game. A treasured, revered piece of technology that was worth far more than the plastic and metal that housed it. And I wouldn’t have to beg for it, hope that my begging worked, and then wait weeks or months for a birthday or Christmas. If I could save up the money I’d need, I could buy it on day one and have it to play all spring and into summer. The thought of it made me very serious about saving up the money, and I felt that it was something I should be able to do as a newly minted teenager. I had three months from New Year’s Eve to save up $50 plus $5 for sales tax. Let’s do this, I might have thought, if I was thirteen in 2015. But it was 1995 so I probably thought something like Totally tubular, dude, let’s do this, cowabunga, or something dumb like that.

I was off to a good start, considering I had a fresh, crisp five dollar bill, a Christmas gift from a relative. Where would I keep this glorious stockpile of cash, though? I knew it would grow to be a big pile of coins and small bills, and I didn’t have a wallet (too young) or a piggy bank (too old). Well, like any self-respecting kid in 1994/95, I was obsessed with Jurassic Park. I saw the movie seven times in the theater that year, and I had as many toys as I could convince my parents to buy me. One of these was a velociraptor egg with baby raptor inside. A part of the egg could snap on and off, allowing you to vaguely simulate that scene in the movie  where a baby raptor is born in front of our very eyes. More importantly, I could toss the baby raptor in a corner and fill the egg with my sweet, sweet stash.


And so I did. For weeks, I did favors for family members for a few bucks whenever I could (we didn’t really get allowance money for chores or anything), I literally pulled apart our couch looking for stray silver change, and when I wasn’t hungry at school I’d save the three quarters I was given for a school lunch and toss them in my velociraptor egg. It was tempting to spend it all on Ring Pops and Fun Dip at first, but after a few weeks I was proud of the small fortune I’d saved (probably about $15) and became more determined than ever to see this through and get the game.

My obsession heated up, too, because I knew I was going to get it and was more determined than ever to love it. Nintendo Power had gone quiet about it. It was there, on their release forecast every month, but there was no new news or previews to satiate my hunger for the game. I imagined how it might play. Like Chrono Trigger, maybe, but with Mario. Would we learn more about Mario characters like Princess Toadstool and Luigi? Who were some of the other odd characters in the screenshots? I waited, and I dreamed, and I saved up dimes and dollars.

Release Forecast

As unbelievable as cloning dinosaurs for a theme park might be, I might not have believed I’d be capable of saving up enough for a brand new video game at the age of thirteen. But like John Hammond, somehow I pulled it off. By the beginning of March I’d saved up almost $60. Half of it was loose change, but my mom agreed to buy it from me so I wouldn’t have to embarrass myself at the local Toys “R” Us by dumping a velociraptor’s egg worth of change onto the counter for payment. I counted the money again and again, making sure I had enough, and calculating for unforeseen emergencies like a sudden increase in sales tax. But everything was right and I was ready. I brought my not-so-fresh stack of wrinkled bills to Toys “R” Us and, not seeing a hanging tag for the game on their wall-o-games, proceeded to the video game area to ask if they had that hip new game called Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars in stock so I could purchase it with my very hard-earned money. “Uh, what game,” a young female cashier asked. I repeated myself. “Hold on a sec,” the girl said, and disappeared into the cavernous backroom (you bought games and electronics from a separate area than the registers, with a little window that opened to a stock area). She came back after a minute or two and said they didn’t have it. Can I pre-order it, like other games? “If you could, there would be a tag for it on the wall. Did you see one?” Uh, no. “Sorry. I don’t know when we’ll get it, then.” On the car ride home, I was confused but not dejected. I mean, I had saved up this long, and maybe it was just a week or two from release. I could sit on this egg for a little longer. It would all be more than worth it. But soon after this failure, I received this in the mail:


When I first saw the cover my pulse quickened. It was as if Nintendo had heard my nerdy prayers and sent its printed messenger to soothe my nerves. Except, well, for one little word.


But, how? The game was supposed to be released this month! Previews were normally printed two or three months before a game came out! This should be a review! Wait, maybe that was it. Maybe this was a review, but the cover was a mistake. I quickly flipped to the feature and-


No. How could this be? What astronomical alignment had cursed me with such a fate? May? That was two whole months away. That was almost as long as it had taken for me to sacrifice every shred of dignity and self-restraint I had to scrape together the money for this game. Do you know how many Flamin’ Hot Cheetos I could have eaten? How much Sprite I could have guzzled down? I could live in a castle made of the Laffy Taffy wrappers I could have gone through with all of that money. Two months. Now, at the ripe old age of too-damn-old, two months is nothing. I forget and remember people’s names in the span of two months. I might buy four or five games in that span. But at the age of thirteen, two months is an epic, stretching eternity. Two months is 1/78 of a thirteen year-old’s whole life. Two months would be 1.3% of my whole life that I’d already lived up to that point. At my age now, it would .5%. Do you see the difference? Two months might as well have been two forevers. I had a stupid egg filled with stupid, useless money that took way too long to save up.

So I bought a Dennis Rodman jersey with it, and used the rest on Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Sprite. Yep. Not worth it.


Persona 5

Way back in 2001, I was walking around an Electronics Boutique and I came across a used copy of Persona 2: Eternal Punishment. I was always on the lookout for new RPG experiences, and the cover art for this particular game looked dark and somewhat sexual, which was even more rare during the PlayStation era than it is now (by far). I wanted to buy it but it was something like $40 or $45, and that was too much for a used game, I’d decided. I went into that store every time I went to that mall, always looking for the price to drop to $20 or $30, but it never did. No big deal, I thought. It wasn’t exactly a popular game that people were buzzing about, so I’d find it for cheap somewhere else, someday.

Persona 2 Eternal Punishment (SLUS-01158) (Front)

I never did, and the price has steadily increased to the point where I regularly see copies on eBay or Amazon for $200 (with manual and case). I picked up Persona 5 with very little knowledge of the actual game. I mean, I knew it was an RPG where you are a high school student who both attends class and fights demons… or something like that. But I avoided all previews or reviews of it because I wanted to go into the game with a fresh mind, untainted by expectation. I just got the platinum PSN trophy for the game yesterday, after 340 hours and almost three full playthroughs, and I wanted to write about my time with the game, but I was so overwhelmed by the experience that I wasn’t even sure what to say about it. I won’t let a lack of purpose stop me, though. I loved this game so much that I feel I have to say something about it, even if it’s less than cogent or coherent. So here I am. This is not a review, just some love in the written form. A warning, for anyone who might end up reading this: there will be some spoilers ahead, particularly in the pictures of my playthroughs that I’m posting.

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When I first booted the game up, I was immediately thrown by the very clearly 1970s jazz/disco-inspired song that played over the opening animation. What had I gotten myself into? What kind of RPG draws inspiration from that era? Is the whole soundtrack like this? But the more I listened to it, the more I liked it. It was fun and energetic and unique. I would eventually fall in love with the entire soundtrack, especially the normal battle theme, “Last Surprise,” and the theme for a dungeon (palace) based on a casino, “The Whims of Fate”. There is a lot of music in Persona 5, and so much of it seems so fresh and unlike anything I have ever heard in any other video game. Even the music used for minor things like video games or crane machines was good.


One thing that kept coming up in podcasts or articles before launch was general praise for the game’s art style, and I was pretty smitten with just the few artifacts I’d seen online. But it’s hard to fully appreciate the level of detail and energy that pops from every character, level, and menu screen. It’s hard, too, to describe in absolute terms why I love this game so much, but a lot of it comes down to how much care seemingly went into the smallest of details. The meticulous detail put into the backgrounds of a shop, or how perfectly a character’s face is animated in response to a joke, or the ever-changing background chatter from classmates, neighbors, and city folk. I know video games are big productions with many people involved and the work environment can be grueling and at times boring, but it’s hard to think that a game as beautiful and elegant as this came from a team who didn’t passionately believe in what they were making and love every minute of making it.


If I’d read that status effects and enemy weaknesses were an integral part of Persona 5’s battle system before playing it, I would have been worried. Systems like that in other RPGs have annoyed me in the past, because it was a constant hassle to remember which enemies were weak to what, and then figure out what new enemies were weak to, then start all over. But Persona 5 fixes all of that by showing you enemy weaknesses once you’ve learned them, or revealing them entirely if you’ve captured that particular enemy (shadow/persona). I took to the battle system immediately and felt rewarded by how fast-paced and simple it seemed, even though it’s quite complex in reality. On a recent episode of USgamer’s RPG podcast, Axe of the Blood God, host Kat Bailey and co-host Nadia Oxford discuss their picks for best battle systems in RPGs. Kat argues for Chrono Trigger’s battle system, and I was elated to hear that she loved it so much, it being my favorite game of all time. I agreed, too, at the time of listening. But as I write this and think more carefully about Persona 5’s battle system, the choice becomes a little less clear. I do love Chrono Trigger’s tech system, and it does encourage experimentation with party configuration and all that, but once you get pretty high level and have the strongest weapons, techs aren’t as efficient as standard attacks. So playing a new game plus in Chrono Trigger means mashing regular attacks for most of the game, if you want to save time and magic points. You can get away with that in some battles in Persona 5, if you have a strong weapon and persona, but many battles demand your attention and force you to think about which party member or persona is best suited to knocking an enemy of their feet so you can go for an all-out attack. That might sound irritating, and maybe it is to some, but I found it exciting and (at times) challenging. I don’t yet know if Persona 5 has the best battle system of all the RPGs I’ve ever played, but it’s definitely among them.


I was also excited to hear that the Persona games have dating sim components, and I thought it was pretty seamlessly integrated into the plot in Persona 5. I mean, it would have been cool to have it be more acknowledged by characters around you, where maybe you are publicly a couple with your selected partner, but that didn’t irk me too much. Also, I agree with the notion that the player could have chosen a gender for their main character. I do understand that the developers might have found it culturally problematic in some scenes (like maybe the police interrogation scene early in the game), but I’m sure it would have been more immersive and satisfying for women to be able to play as women (or for male characters to pursue male characters, for that matter). There aren’t a lot of references to your gender in the game, so it seems like it would have been an easy enough thing to add. But overall I very much liked the dating component of the game. I feel like the game sort of nudges you toward hooking up with Ann, but that wasn’t exactly unwelcome on my part. She is beautiful, of course, but I also liked how laid back and fun she was. They implied at some points that she was an airhead, but I never actually got that vibe. She seemed smart and capable and willing to do what it took to help her friends. For my second playthrough I chose Futaba, because I identified with her otaku lifestyle and found her funny and charming and generally just pretty adorable. For my third playthrough I chose Kawakami. I have to admit that I was tempted to delay my pursuit of Ann in my first playthrough to see where things went with Kawakami, because the whole teacher/maid thing really did it for me, surprisingly. Well, maybe that’s not surprising, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t say I normally have a ‘thing’ for that kind of, well, thing. I liked her as a romantic partner a lot, though.


If someone asked me what Persona 5 was “about,” I might have a hard time explaining it. Nothing that I’d heard or read prior to playing the game adequately prepared me for it. A game about a high school kid who enters an alternate dimension with his friends to fight against things called shadows… maybe? You could start there, but this game is about so much more, and even if you listed all of them (justice, society’s fickle nature, friendship, love, greed, etc.) it still wouldn’t quite capture it. This is the kind of art that is more than the sum of its parts. I can go on about how much I love the art style, or soundtrack, or characters, or funny moments, or whatever else, but it wouldn’t do this game and my experience with it justice. I played this game three times in a row, for almost 350 hours, and somehow that doesn’t seem like enough. Maybe that says something?


Video Game Crushes: Princess Zelda

I’ve probably played around half of the ‘core’ Legend of Zelda games, but I never really had much of a thing for Princess Zelda. I mean, she was an elusive and rarely-seen damsel in distress in The Legend of Zelda, a slumbering pile of pixels that I never managed to wake up in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and a child in Wind Waker, so can you blame me? I do remember having a bit of a crush on her when I was young and watching The Legend of Zelda animated series, though. While she was occasionally in need of a rescue, she was often the one rescuing Link. She was brave, spunky, and was rarely ever afraid to jump into the fight against Ganon and his minions.

Zelda Animated

It wasn’t exactly love at first sight with the Princess Zelda I encountered in Breath of the Wild [some spoilers ahead]. With little recollection of the princess, Link must refresh his memory of her by searching out the locations of photos that she took before the world went to hell and Link was put into a hundred-year slumber. The order in which Link collects these memories affects how the player sees the princess, and technically the memories are optional so the player could go through the entire game learning very little about Zelda as a character.

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In the early memories that I gathered, Zelda seemed like a petulant brat. She impatiently complained about her lack of power, she lashed out at Link for following his orders to protect her, and she generally seemed distant and uninspiring when her kingdom needed her the most. I wasn’t exactly looking for a love interest in her, though, and I was just glad that she was a more vocal and prominent character than in the previous Zelda games I’d played.

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But as the game went on and I spent more and more time in Hyrule, puzzling over remote temples, toppling hearty stone taluses, and scraping together rupees for armor upgrades, I collected more and more memories of Zelda and my vision of the princess began to change without me even realizing it. Yeah, she was angry and distant and losing the will to lead – because her father had no faith in her intelligence and ability to research and problem-solve with her wit and wisdom. She was, it seems, an academic at heart, poring over texts and tomes in an attempt to find answers where others could not. She wasn’t content with waiting around for her fabled powers to become active; she wanted to find other ways to contribute to the defense of the kingdom. She wanted to learn about the guardians, and the sword of legend, and the divine beasts, and Ganon; she wanted to coordinate with the champions and talk strategy; she wanted to explore Hyrule and discover useful ways to utilize its resources. She lived under a father who dismissed all of this as wasteful, yet she defied him and carried on in secret. When her powers did finally activate, she destroyed a legion of guardians and saved Link’s life, and she was not afforded the luxury of a century long nap: she had to fight to hold Ganon in check until Link woke up and spent more than 165 hours (in, uh, my game, anyway) running around buying clothes, playing snow bowling, and corralling chickens.

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It all sort of hit me as I was about to strike the final blow to Calamity Ganon. I found myself almost dreading the end. When I finally shot that last arrow and Ganon was dying, I just knew I would discover that Zelda had died long ago and it was her spirit that was guiding me, like the spirits of the four champions guided me through their respective divine beasts. They had gifted their powers to me to aid in the fight against Ganon, so it only made sense that Zelda was doing the same. There was no way she had survived a hundred years as I had. I, as Link, was in a sleeping chamber specifically made for keeping someone alive for extended periods of time. The tragedy of Zelda’s story was that she had sacrificed everything and fought continually for decades just to perform her primary function: sealing the darkness. These thoughts swirled through my head with little cohesion, and I realized I was heartbroken about the whole thing. I had, it occurred to me, fallen into virtual love with Princess Zelda. And I was about to discover she was gone and I was alone in a Hyrule where few truly even knew me.

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Which is why my eyes quite literally welled with tears when the battle was over and Zelda materialized before me, very much alive. I saw her differently now. She was tough, smart, brave as hell, caring, mature, and powerful, and she looked beautiful standing before me, having saved not only me, but the kingdom and everyone in it. A Zelda game had never made me feel this way, and Princess Zelda had never inspired these kinds of emotions in me before. I was more than happy to immediately return to the game and complete the last few things I needed to do to get the ‘good’ ending, which made me even happier about my new life with Zelda. I know Zelda has had her admirers, many of them, and I can’t claim her as one of my ‘old school’ video game crushes, but she is definitely on my list now. She has all of my hearts.

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Book Notes: Rise of the Videogame Zinesters (Anna Anthropy)

This series, Book Notes, is just my thoughts on some of the books I’ve been reading about video games. I don’t have a thesis for my dissertation yet so I’m casting a wide net, and these are loose and unfocused because I’m not sure what I might end up using them for. I may or may not end up using them, but I hope they’ll be useful to me at some point, and if they’re useful to other people too, cool.

“I have to strain to find any game that resembles my own experience. This is in spite of the fact that videogames in America are an industry and institution” (2). This might bepp; a catalyst for the book’s momentum, propelling Anthropy toward her thesis, which is an argument that game development tools are easier to access than ever and a broad community of people should be using them to make games that represent their own experiences. She gives lots of examples of people who do just that, and I think it’s something to keep in mind when using games in a classroom of students who have various backgrounds and different levels of expertise with games. Some of the tools she mentions seem relatively easy to use, but probably aren’t easy or intuitive enough to use as a tool in a first year English class. Twine might be a fair solution, though, and is worth checking out in more detail.

“The ability to work in any art form with the digital game’s unique capabilities for expression shouldn’t be restricted to a privileged (and profit-oriented) few. If everyone is given the means to work in an art form, then we’ll invariably see a much more diverse, experimental, and ultimately rich body of work” (21). When we talk to students about authorship and intent and the rhetoric of video games, it can be tricky. Most big, studio-driven games don’t have a single person who we look to as the primary creative force. It took decades for us to do the same with film, as producers were more readily given credit for a film’s ‘message’ or creative success until the 50s and 60s. With the smaller games that Anthropy and others make, there is typically one person who is responsible for the game, making authorship clear. This makes them nice, easy texts to use in the classroom, but I think it’s important to discuss how those big studio games still have authors and messages and should be critiqued as such.

“Given the expenses of distributing a game – lot check, compatibility testing, printing, marketing – how does anyone afford to make games?” (33-4). She tracks the tie between development cost and who has made games historically – middle-upper class white guys – and how computers and the Internet (35) have made distribution of small, independent games much easier, changing the landscape of what games look like and how we view game developers. This is one of the most interesting and important points in the book, I think.

“A game is an experience created by rules” (43). She goes into considerable detail in arguing for this definition of a game, and I think it works. Without rules, a ‘game’ is just activity, and video games automatically introduce rules by having a world that is run by rules – of physics, and systems, etc. It might be interesting to ask students to define what a game is, especially if we discuss games like Gone Home or Her Story, since they don’t have the trappings or rules that are typically found in popular games. But I’m not sure when I’d fit this in during a composition class.

“Folk games, like folk songs and folk texts such as the Bible, have no single credited author, but rather many untraceable authors over many years. They’re artifacts shaped by entire cultures, and generally they can tell us a lot about those cultures” (49). This is a huge part of how I already teach games to my students. Why should we study videogames? Because they are a reflection of who we are as a culture, regardless of the genre or platform or audience. Most games are commercial products first, yes, but like film and popular music before them, they still say something about the producing culture’s values, beliefs, and attitudes towards itself.

“Folk games tell us about the culture that created them; authored games tell us about the author that created them” (51). Yes, but I would argue that they also tell us something about the culture. Authors and their creative visions are shaped by the culture that they are immersed in, and if enough authored games are studied, patterns begin to emerge to reveal the same kinds of patterns that folk games do. I don’t think Anthropy would argue against this, I just thought it was important to note.

Anthropy talks about what she calls “grown-up games” and gives the example of a paper and pen RPG called Gang Rape, developed by Tobias Wrigstad in 2007 (58). Wrigstad’s intent was to highlight the mishandling of rape cases in Sweden. This is an important discussion to have, maybe with students. Video games have mostly shrugged the stigma of being for children, but they are still seen as a form of entertainment for kids, teenagers, or dumb, immature adults (see almost any movie or TV show where video games are played by characters). If we’re accepting that video games are a modern art form, which we are, then they should be allowed to deal with mature subject matter without discussions of appropriateness or censorship. I think some would like to say we already allow for that, because we protect games with the first amendment, but we still censor games as a culture in other ways, which is why sex, nudity, and sexuality is rarely shown in western games but violence is prevalent, and vice versa in eastern games. Our cultures dictate what’s acceptable in art, even if not explicitly stated or regulated.

“A better comparison [for games] than film is theater, which is where a lot of our game vocabulary (“the player,” “stages,” “set pieces,” “scripting”) comes from” (60). She goes on to explain that players interpret intent and narrative differently, performing the same role – say, of Master Chief – differently based on how they interpret it. I think this is an interesting idea, but I’m not sure I agree. The vocabulary she points to seems to have come from other arenas, like game terminology (a chess ‘player’) or film (stage and film share much in the way of terminology, including ‘set pieces’ and ‘scripting,’ but given the latter’s vast popularity, it seems more likely that we took terms from it and not from the former). The idea of players interacting and creating scenes intuitively does smack more of theater, but I think games that are collaborative and less narratively structured, like MMOs or online shooters, are really the only good examples of this. Many games are cinematic and have fairly rigid narratives that have something very specific to say, leading the player through it. They use camera angles, music, and scripted action/dialogue that can’t be improvised, making them very much more like film than plays.

“I thought (and think) that ‘higher education’ is bullshit” (96). Ouch. There are certainly some aspect of higher education that are, in fact, bullshit, but I think it’s dismissive and short-sighted to label it all as such. Sure, the closer we get to a profit-based jumble of bureaucratic crap the further we get from the original intent of our institutions, but I’m sure there are millions of people who have had intellectual awakenings thanks to engaging in scholarly study and debate. But I very much digress.

“That’s part of the reason why contemporary big-budget games have so much clutter and so few strong ideas. The games are all over the place because the creators were all over the place. It’s hard to have a strong singular vision when the process of creation is spread so thin” (102-3). This is a fair point, but I would add the commercial nature of many games, too. Some of these big-budget games are not created with any artistic intent, they are crafted as products that should perform well and entertain consumers enough that they spread the gospel. Yes, it can be argued that every game is a piece of art, but sometimes the art is just a byproduct. Games like World of Warcraft or League of Legends or Overwatch are primarily focused on user experience, value, and social engagement, so it’s this focus on the product as a commercial object that keeps them from having a unified artistic vision, not a large, non-unified group of artists. There are, in my opinion, big-budget games that can have narrow artistic visions despite not have a clear artistic leader at the helm, even if it is rare.

“What videogames need right now is to grow up. The videogame industry has spent millions upon millions of dollars to develop more visually impressive ways for a space marine to kill a monster. What they’ve invested almost nothing in is finding better ways to tell a story, and in exploring different stories to tell. That’s for us to do … Every game that you and I make right now – every five minute story, every weird experiment, every dinky little game about the experience of putting down your dog – makes the boundaries of our art form (and it is ours) larger. Every new game is a voice in the darkness” (160). And here it is: the thesis, a call to action. This book was published in 2012, which is forever ago in video game years, and it’s interesting to consider its message in the wake of the indie game explosion that’s happened since the book came out. I suspect Anthropy would look at many of the commercially successful indie games – Minecraft, Stardew Valley, Firewatch, etc. – as different than the short, experimental games that she often highlights, but I do think that the number of these types of games shows that things are changing. Slowly, yes. And painfully, given that every time a game like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture or What Remains of Edith Finch is released we have to suffer through the vocal minority that claims they’re ‘not really video games.’ Either way, I think this text’s focus on authorship and voice in the art of game making interesting to consider when teaching games as texts.

Gaming Memories: One, Two, Freddy’s Coming for Me

Drive-in movie theaters were not completely extinct by 1984, but they were scarce. Like any cliché 80s family unit, mine would occasionally pile in our station wagon and drive an hour from our home in Chicago to watch newly released movies on the big screen from our backseat. The original A Nightmare on Elm Street was released on my second birthday, and according to my mom it was the second movie in a double feature that we went to see in November of that year. The first, of course, was a family film, so after it had ended, most of the cars, ours included, began lining up at the exit while the second movie started. The way my mom tells it, the line of cars waiting to exit creeped forward until the scene where Freddy Krueger drags Nancy’s friend Tina up to the ceiling of her bedroom, then cars began to peel away and drive back to spaces to watch the rest of the movie. Again, ours included.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

I was only two and remember very little from that night, but I did end up falling in love with the series, and my family rented each new entry as it came out on VHS. I had an odd relationship with Freddy Kruger, though. Half of me loved watching him on screen. He was frightening in a way that other horror villains were not, and of course as a kid I appreciated his quickness with a joke. But I was also genuinely terrified of him. I’d watched other horror movies as a kid, but killers like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers had specific domains that they stuck to, or particular people they went after. Why would they come all the way to Chicago to kill a little kid? But Freddy could infiltrate dreams, and he was originally a child killer, meaning I would have been a prime target. So of course I had many, many nightmares about him, some of which I can still remember clearly today.

I was seven when A Nightmare on Elm Street was released for the NES in October of 1990, but I might have been eight by the time I rented it from Blockbuster. The game was developed by, of all companies, Rare. Yes, Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie – that Rare. It’s not a direct adaptation of any of the movies, but I didn’t know that when I rented it. I was just excited to play a game that might give me the experience of running from or fighting or maybe even playing as Freddy Krueger. Excited and, well, nervous.

Ad – A Nightmare on Elm Street (NES)

The first time I sat down to play, it was a pretty standard action-platforming experience. I died several times trying to get the hang of the controls, started learning how the different enemies tried to kill me, that kind of thing. Your character is awake when you start the game, and it’s not until you fall asleep, when your sleep meter runs out, that you have the chance to run into Freddy. So it was a while before I fell asleep in the game, but when I heard the 8-bit version of “One, Two, Freddy’s Coming for You,” I can’t deny that I was scared. I frantically rushed through the level, trying to find one of the boomboxes that would wake me up. It was too late. A screen flashed “FREDDY’S COMING!” In a moment of panic, I jammed the NES’s power button.

Freddys Coming
Stay Away, Pizza Face

That night, as I lay in bed, I wondered how possible it was for Freddy to sense me through the game and use it to haunt my dreams. It seemed like just the thing he might do. Would I dream about him that night? Is this how I was going to die? But that was dumb. Freddy wasn’t real – probably. And if he was, why would he come after me? It was just a video game. A video game that many other people had probably played and I hadn’t heard of anyone being killed by it. They wouldn’t rent it out at Blockbuster if that had happened, right? Right? At some point, I fell asleep.

The next afternoon, the house was quiet and mostly empty. I thought about the previous night and felt a little silly for being afraid of a game. The light of day filled me with a certain kind of hesitant courage. I should try the game again. I only had it for one more day and I knew I’d regret it if we returned it and I hadn’t even seen Freddy Krueger in it. The NES was hooked up to a small TV upstairs, in a tiny room with a sloped ceiling and a single window that looked out over our back roof. I walked upstairs and looked at the NES. A series of brief and irrational thoughts came to mind: I saw Freddy laughing and sitting on our roof, waiting for me to start the game. I saw the “FREDDY’S COMING!” screen flashing. I saw Freddy bursting through the window like he jumped through Nancy’s door mirror in the first movie and chasing me down the stairs. But that was so stupid! I was stupid! It was a game! I was good at games. I could beat him in this game. I turned the NES on and the creepy opening music started. The title screen faded in and Freddy grinned menacingly at me.


I stared at him.


He stared at me.


I stared at him.


I turned the power off and ran downstairs.