a weapon to surpass blaming yourself or god while knee-deep in the dead

writing on video games, by chuck sebian-lander

ok first of all: obviously there are many robust emulators available that run games released for the Nintendo DS. drastic is the one I know of for Android; there’s desmume on PC; there are surely others.

speaking of Android: I recently got the Android-powered Anbernic RG405V, a 4:3-screen retro handheld with big DMG vibes:

(the wood grain looks as silly in person as it does in a photo. it’s a clever way to ensure that scuffs and scratches are never too visible, but it worked better when it was as a vinyl cover over my Guitar Hero III guitar controller many years ago.)

for the most part, the 405V is a fabulous emulation tool. its 4:3, 480p screen is pixel-perfect for home consoles predating widescreen television (GameCube or thereabouts), and it’s just performant enough to emulate all of those systems (though you’re pushing it if you try PS2 or GameCube). the hand-feel and controller layout blend retro and modern nicely, all things considered.

however: when playing around with this thing on a flight earlier this year, I decided to start playing 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, a visual novel originally released on the Nintendo DS and later rereleased on PC and home consoles (we’ll get to that).

relevant tech specs: the Nintendo DS has dual screens each sporting a resolution of 256 x 192. that’s two 4:3 screens, one perched atop the other. the lower screen is a resistive touchscreen, designed in the pre-smartphone days. (you can mash your finger on it if you need to, but it’s meant for precise interaction via the included stylus.)

my primary issue when playing 999 on my 405V was that getting screen text readable on one of those screens too severely compromised the other. 999 takes advantage of its dual screens in non-gameplay segments by placing non-player character dialogue and portraits along the top screen, while third-person narration (including the protagonist’s dialogue and inner thoughts, as well as external action) plays out in tandem below:

this means there’s (pretty small to begin with!) text that needs to be read across both screens simultaneously. my options were a) map a button to drastic’s “switch screen” button and swap often to read each screen in full, or b) use a weird overlay with the “secondary” screen shrunken down to fit within the aspect ratio:

this works a bit better on the 405V than it looks here, because its higher resolution allows it to display the smaller screen more clearly, but it’s still an eyesore. the overlay also creates problems when you need to see or interact with something on your current “primary” screen while it’s covered by the “secondary” screen.

interaction creates whole other problems. the screen’s still not ideal, for one, as the game clearly often expects you to be able to see both screens during gameplay:

…but even if you manage to find a comfortable compromise there, you run into the other major issue: the DS’s touchscreen.

this hardware feature creates two problems for android gaming handhelds like the 405V. one is that, though these devices usually have a touchscreen, they’re not designed with touch as a primary interaction. imagine having to take a hand off your classic Game Boy to prod at the screen. it’s not great.

the other issue is that, again, the DS screen was resistive and more-or-less required the use of a stylus. 999 knows this and demands corresponding precision that’s hard to replicate with a finger. the DS stylus also covered much less of the screen than a finger; your visibility was not supposed to be compromised while you played.

the result is clunky even after you sort out these issues. ultimately I sought other means to play the game. soon I realized that every option outside of native hardware was going to run into the issues I outlined above to some degree or another, no matter what.

the shame is that I have, in theory, the perfect type of device to emulate DS and 3DS alike: a foldable phone. ever since the advent of these too-expensive, too-delicate pieces of tech, people have made drastic skins to transform their foldables into a surprisingly convincing simulacrum of the real deal:

I can confirm this is as cool to behold in person and in your hands as it is in the photograph! unfortunately I must also confirm that pressing touchable zones on a phone screen remains an awful replacement for real buttons when playing games designed for the latter. note too the conspicuous absence of shoulder buttons: you’re forced to drop those in unnaturally around the facade (I put mine basically just below the hinge).

what you get is a closer visual cousin to the original experience, but still something definitively worse to play. visual novels like 999 work OK in this set up, but game-ier games like, say, mario kart DS are a nonstarter.

there are plenty of devices that can more than ably output the software experience of a DS — properly rendered graphics, responsive input/output, and so on — but software emulation definitionally cannot replicate hardware and input methods, and the DS is one of the most unique gaming hardware designs in history.

nintendo has a long history of such designs — hell, you can go back as far as the Virtual Boy. dolphin, a longstanding and well-polished GameCube and Wii emulator, can run near any Wii game flawlessly (even upscaled to 1080p or 4k), but if you haven’t connected a Wiimote to your PC emulator box, you’ll struggle with any game that took any advantage of the unique control possibilities.

(this is a real problem I’ve dealt with a few times — not with games like Resident Evil 4, where the then-revolutionary pointing precision can be mapped well to a mouse or even a gyro-assisted right analog, but with Super Mario Galaxy 2. that’s a game in the rarefied air of Games I’ve 100% Completed, but I haven’t gone back to it since I played it on a Wii over a decade ago. most of its controls work fine, but its star collection-and-use mechanics are intolerable without real IR-pointer controls. you just end up with this stupid blue star stuck on the center of your screen every moment you aren’t using the right stick or some other imprecise and frustrating controller input to move it. yoshi’s a pain in the ass, too. one of the most purely fun games I remember playing isn’t fun anymore, when played this way.)

again, dolphin is maybe the most polished and impressive emulator ever built. it absolutely can emulate Wii games, most of them perfectly even on an older PC, but it cannot replicate the experience of sticking an IR sensor onto the top of a dorm room’s 20-inch CRT unless you happen to also own those things.

for now there are relatively cheap hardware solutions for that, and Wiimotes are still in relative abundance. you can see this landscape shifting as time passes, though. I switched to playing 999 on my old DS Lite but soon found it too small and cramped for comfort, and it was a huge pain sifting through listings to find a DSi XL in decent enough shape to be worth picking up that didn’t cost extra hundreds of dollars—simply because hardware like this is now a collector’s item, transitioning from obsolescence into scarcity.

the hardware-software mind meld is a vital piece of the home console and handheld gaming experience, and it’s a lot harder to preserve over time than the software, which already struggles with proper preservation due to the ongoing efforts of companies like nintendo, for whom IP control supersedes the historical record.

this is the flip side of what I was talking about with romhacks. community preservation efforts can often create something more modern and playable than most studios’ own remasters and remakes, but they’re much less able to capture the authentic and holistic experience of playing those games for the first time in their original context.

context is crucial for understanding art! it also decays over time for all media. fascinating debates abound regarding appreciation of works with decayed contexts. like, what should it mean to how we perceive ancient Roman statues that in their time they probably looked more like carnival clowns? how do you balance an analysis of beowulf’s storytelling or thematic power against its status a work that comes to us incomplete and heavily reworked by the Christian monks who recorded it?

and since interaction is core to the videogame medium, hardware “context” is essential. even as a simple work of human effort, it’d be much harder to appreciate the statue of david if you had to view it through a foggy mirror, or the divine comedy if no translated existed in your language.

if you tried to play devil may cry on your phone using touch controls, and you thought that was the intended way to play devil may cry, you’re going to think that devil may cry is a very bad game designed by idiots. actually, trying to play dmc that way feels closer to viewing a statue while altogether blind.

perhaps this doesn’t need to be framed as dire, though. maybe it is a phenomenon closer to marble Roman statues, where for one thing new beauty and worthwhile strangeness can arise in half-preserved experiences overlaid upon new, modern forms of interaction or perception. that’s a nice idea. for example, I like playing emulated SNES games on a modern controller, where quality-of-life features like fast forward or save states are easily mappable to otherwise-unused buttons. old software and new hardware create something new that can inform and articulates something about each. all well and good.

but then again, mass-released games aren’t just art, are they? they’re commodities, compromised at every turn by corporate considerations. the easiest way to play 999 now is through a steam remake/rerelease that by necessity collapses the dual screens, and essentially loses half of the game’s intended visual information, creating an intended experience similar to my severely compromised 405V one:

from what I’ve heard, the rewriting and reworking done as part of making this feasible does real damage to the game’s writing and storytelling. what I’ve heard is also enough to leave me uninterested in buying the remake; doing so knowing of the original experience would feel too much like trying to play devil may cry blindfolded.

(POSTSCRIPT, WITH VAGUE 999 SPOILERS: having now finished 999, I simply cannot believe I wrote this whole thing before completing the game. if I work this script into a youtube video at some point, it’ll probably have a spoiler-heavy section on just how much 999’s whole narrative structure relies on the DS hardware.)

caveat emptor: I’m not a rom hacker, I don’t distribute pirated shit, and I have no idea what I’m talking about

I’m doing my millionth replay of the original Mega Man X trilogy. (halfway through 2 at the moment, thanks for asking, I wish I ever remembered powerup locations and proper sequencing in the latter games as well as I do in X1)

these games, even the first one, pushed the SNES to its limits, and the seams show. there’s slowdown on every level if more than two or three enemies are on screen. entire levels—underwater sequences, or anything with full-screen effects like X2’s weather weirdness on Wire Sponge’s stage—drag and struggle to maintain playable framerates. this wasn’t uncommon on the SNES—and to be clear, the amount of times I’ve still beaten these games demonstrates that they still function fine in spite of the limitations.

but for this most recent playthrough, I’m using SA1/fastROM versions of every game, plus enhanced romhacks for X2 and X3.

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the usefulness of a silent protagonist is, I think, fairly clear. it’s a direct line to player-avatar connection. Link never says anything you wouldn’t say; Crono never insults a character you like; Mario in Super Mario RPG never says something that ends up problematic a few decades down the line so you’re uncomfortable cheering as he jumps on a turtle until it dies. these protagonists are simplified to the point of literal avatar; any characterization derives from player expression. it’s the simpler alternative having enormous dialogue trees, but it’s also limited by the means by which the game allows for individual expression through play.

put another way: silent protagonists are ciphers and struggle to shape the plot of otherwise dialogue-heavy games. non-player characters in such games often have to be self-motivated enough to move the plot on their own, which runs counter to how narratives work in “traditional” non-interactive media. it can and does work; it’s just a little odd.

in fromsoft games, a silent protagonist often matches well with the abstract, dissociative narrative design. these worlds are long-dead and moldering. your allies are often only so out of desperation, ulterior motive, or necessity. human connection doesn’t really exist, which is part of the existential trauma and tragedy. your character in demon’s souls does not have a “relationship” with the Maiden in Black; she is a character, with strange and half-spoken motivations and feelings of her own, but she’s in no way informed by her relationship to you except how she provides you, a vessel for power, the means to be filled.

lies of p, the latest soulslike I’ve encountered and thus far easily my favorite not developed by from, has you play as public-domain Badass Twink Pinocchio, who as you may have guessed is silent.

now, lies of p does something that’s not uncommon among games with silent protagonists, which is to have moments where pinocchio clearly communicates to fellow characters even though it’s not spoken or animated. how else to explain how Hot Dad Geppetto always knows what’s happened in your latest boss encounter? someone’s told him his favorite church has gone a little rotten, and the only other candidates seem to want to keep a wide berth from the old sadsack.

the implication seems to be that pinocchio is not actually a mute—the game is suggesting that his silence is a mechanical choice for player-avatar synchronicity and not a choice of characterization. Link’s charades-style communication in tears of the kingdom, similarly, is so complex and clear to everyone he meets that you really have to be taking it as a given that he’s talking, and you just don’t get to hear it — all the better for you to insert your own voice in the margins.

but lies of p does have protgaonist dialogue, too, sort of! lying is a mechanic in the game (of course it is). the moments where you’re asked to lie are almost always given an emotional valence; the lies are rarely “claim to be someone you’re not to access to a locked door.” instead you lie to protect others from shame or guilt, to offer them grace instead of forcing them up against an awful truth. sometimes it’s clear they know you’ve lied to them, but they appreciate it all the same, because the lie means you care about their feelings.

it works well enough in those moments, I think (so far, at least; I’m only about halfway through the game), but these half-steps create some weird dissonance. principally, the reason I thought to write this: there’s at least one moment where you’re made to fight a character I did not want to fight, whose reason for wanting pinocchio dead is misguided in more than one way. the character in question traps you in an arena where, given your silence and the lack of dialogue choices, killing is your only option.

it’s not that I wanted to be able to talk my way out of the fight—this isn’t a fallout game and I don’t want it to be—but the scene lacks characterization of both pinocchio and his opponent. the character talks plenty during your fight; pinocchio says nothing. am I meant to intuit that he’s trying to respond? is that character so far gone that attempts to console or bargain are futile?

there’s also the fact that pinocchio’s whole deal, in terms of character arc, is traditionally his quest to be a “real boy.” the lying (and listening to music, a clever way to show off the game’s great musical direction) feel like steps on the path towards a “good ending” where this, or something like it, happens. but in practice, pinocchio’s such a cipher that the journey means nothing beyond any gameplay benefits it may offer.

soulsborne games with silent player-characters use them to emphasize how their worlds refuse connection and trap individuals into cycles of despair and violence. lies of p, though it cribs heavily from those games in play and aesthetic, is ostensibly telling a story about trying to connect to the world, broken but not lost, and to discover what it means to be human. the narrative’s isn’t a failure, but it’s hamstrung by this opposition.

*

addendum: I said at the top that lies of p is probably my favorite game in this milieu that wasn’t developed by from, and it probably outpaces a few of their games, too. that comes down, ultimately, to polish. mortal shell had some interesting ideas but was a clunky mess to actually play, with wildly unbalanced difficulty and janky animation. lies of p by contrast is tweaked to near-perfection. it can be maddeningly difficult, and I think some enemies have too much health, but my mistakes always feel like my own failures to read animation cycles (my own or my enemy’s), which is the kind of tough-but-fair balance you need to make it feel satisfying to get your ass kicked a dozen-plus times by one boss only to finally triumph.

it’s a cool game, it’s on game pass, it’s worth a look

the horse is fine.

pictured: boudicca (me) atop her beautiful steed (not me)

no, it is not as versatile as the horse in elden ring with its double jump. it’s not as fast as link’s horse of choice in the latest zelda joints, and its burst of speed is more limited in use-cases and cooldown. this is all fine, though, because it is intentional, and because diablo 4 is not elden ring or zelda and doesn’t want you to play it like those games, or even to play it like diablo 2 or 3.

the horse in diablo 4 is an opt-in movement speed buff that, while used, locks you out of combat. it is given to you close to campaign end-game, after you’ve already unlocked most of the major waypoints on the enormous map. it does not prevent you from getting sandbagged by a nasty pack of enemies along your route, nor does it prevent you from getting blockaded or forced to jump a cliff on your own.

this is because diablo 4 is built around you walking little trails for questlines and exploration, and the horse is meant not to skip but instead to encourage those activities. you’re supposed to hop on it for little clearings and then hop off for a bit of sustained combat before traveling on. hence the lengthy cooldowns.

a different thing about diablo 4 that I do find annoying: you can’t have multiple quest objectives visible on your HUD at once. I’m often playing the game such that I have 3 to 4 quests active within a certain region, and it would be convenient and efficient for me to be able to track and knock out quest objectives in parallel. the map menu gives you this, but it’s not efficient and it’s not a pause menu so it’s not without danger while in the middle of hostile territory.

again, though, I think this is intentional: the quest design encourages getting invested in the little side stories, which often have multiple acts and pivots within them before you get your chunk of reward XP. a rescue mission to bring a sick woman back home ends up going awry and getting the whole town infested, so now you’re on another trek to collect stuff for a soup, but then the soup doesn’t quite work, so now you’re going over here. a woman with magical powers is ostracized by family and community, repeatedly, and you keep having to pluck her from distress or help her find a new path forward.

if you’re playing this game like a checklist — like your standard baal runs in diablo 2 or the “friction-less” postgame quest design of diablo 3: reaper of souls — you’ll skip the atmosphere, the consistent and strong voice acting and writing, the ways so many of the questlines attempts to weave its own beginning, middle, and end within your larger journey. they’re not all successful, of course, but they can’t work unless the game forces you to give them a chance.

we’ve all had this conversation before, haven’t we? friction in games is not negative. game design choices are almost always deliberate, and even if they’re cash grabs they’re also thematic. I find it pretty easy to ignore diablo 4’s monetization, built as it is around a small helping of cosmetics. yes, the menu item is always marked with an obnoxious exclamation point that claws at my desire to have all checkboxes ticket, but it’s a quick thing to pass by, which once again feels intentional on the part of the many game designers involved who didn’t care how blizzard-activision wanted to live-service this game to oblivion.

diablo 4 wants you to ruminate within the decay of a world now running through its fourth apocalyptic scenario. (some plot spoilers follow; skip the paragraph if you’re not interested.) those who know more about the never-ending theological sparring have grown either tired or manic, clinging to cynicism and alcohol or else to extraordinarily tenuous faith in absent or explicitly dismissive deities. even the deities themselves are done with this crap — lilith wants to kill her dad and end the eternal conflict for good, damn the rest; meanwhile inarius just wants to go home, that poor stupid guy.

the way the game uses its legacy to this effect is interesting. you see locations from the first pair of games in passing visions or nightmares. one (non-demon) character returns in a way that let’s just say keeps with the themes. there’s a notable use of a location from diablo 3 but the place is a crumbled waste; you end up walking through entire chunks of the same map as that previous game, but all your former destinations, merchants, and traveling partners are dust.

you walk (or trot) through a half-dead world, and there are all these people still trying to make it into a place worth living, whether through delirious faith or little familial comforts or whatever vices are available. it’s a compelling space while also going for a different vibe than the previous games’ claustrophobic corridors and souped-up character tropes (the wizened guide, the eastern mystic, the booming archangel).

it still feels like diablo but I find it harder to play for sustained periods, which I think is to the game design’s credit. do a quest or two, fight a helltide, then get out for the day (or for the next few hours, at least). I haven’t even started a second character yet. the game seems to discourage the “end game is when you’ve unlocked everything and are grinding forever” mindset locked into veteran series gamers, which is good, because that mindset and approach came out of the absence of proper endgame in previous games. I might one day see everything in diablo 4, but it’s the first of its franchise’s worlds where that feels like a distant end goal rather than a first step to the “true” game.

the horse is both a concession to this game’s “open world” billing and yet a statement of semi-defiant intent. yes, there are many checklists in this game, but there’s also a lot of aesthetic and thematic work happening within each detail, so the game’s been built to slow you down—and aggravate you, if necessary—to keep paying attention to those details.

once the game’s seasonal content comes most of this thoughtful approach goes in the bin, but that’s the way of a game being corporate-engineered into everlasting life, yes? I’ll avoid that, and I think many of the game’s designers would hope you’d do the same, in some secret part of themselves. diablo 4’s heart, to me, will always arise from its depiction of the sluggishness and insanity that come from being too aware of your doom. you can’t gallop your way past the grim scenes or skip the fact that every inch of good you bring back to this place is just an inch, one at a time, against an ever-rising tide.

[7/10, though, because it retains those flying bugs from 3 that spit out smaller poison bugs? or something? they’re less monstrous here than they were during diablo 3’s original release when they could one-shot you but they still evoke sour memories]

Watch this essay on YouTube:

Memories are rotten, and memories rot. Entropy and age take their toll on our brains. We forget that we had ever remembered some fond glance, some summer's favorite song. Memories that remain form a stain upon the present: nostalgia, regret, and frustration boil out of the same misremembering. We clutch our past so tight that we squeeze its life away, and then the corpse shambles along behind us. It's bi-directional: the present moment, corrupted by decayed memory, itself falls into memory and decays as well.

This is a grim way to introduce a Doom WAD, isn't it.

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surely, this topic — or at least the more general “hey john wick is like a video game” — has been covered ad nauseum by now. if nothing else, the fourth movie (which I just saw in the theater — god I missed movie theaters) has triggered some takes regarding certain scenes’ clear video-game influences.

still, because it’s fun and before we get into the meaty bits, let’s delight in some the mechanical and aesthetic respects in which john wick is a particular kind of video game franchise:

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there’s a scene in the campaign of diablo 4’s open beta period, which ran this past weekend, where you revisit Tristram, the setting of the first diablo. (this marks four out of four mainline Diablo games to feature this extremely damned town.) upon this visit, though, you find Tristram now literally in hell, having been so deeply ruined and damned by residents both terranean and sub-terranean that its best real estate now lies along shores of lava.

yet here I am again, visiting those shorelines, gawking at the weird rattling cage the skeletons stuck deckard cain in, fondly reminiscing beside the now-dry well at the town center. still gets me, even now, with the nightmare fully on display.

there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

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the thing about dark souls is that apparently only From Software understands how to make it work.

I was thoroughly souls-pilled by ELDEN RING and spent my gaming time after that experience cruising through the entirety of From’s entries. I’ve now beaten every souls-y game they’ve put out with one exception (fuck you sekiro and your inexplicable timing windows). I loved every single one, even dark souls 2 with its idiosyncrasies and one-off design choices. DS1, ELDEN RING, and bloodborne. are now easy answers for me if anyone asks me for an arbitrary assortment of my favorite games (not a question I get a lot but it’s nice to have newer answers than mega man x and final fantasy tactics).

straying outside From’s comforting polish has not borne much fruit, unfortunately. I’ve played a number of souls takes from other studios, large and small. note here that I’m being a little narrower than what “soulslike” is usually taken to mean in larger discourse; what I want at the core is that sweet, sweet third-person character action with animation-rhythm-based combat.

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I complained in my last essay about CONTROL's unwillingness to lean into being a video game. I'd been hoping it would violate its own spaces and mechanical boundaries in order to both amplify the potential of its premise and to highlight why video games have unique and untapped power to convey strangeness and unreality through mechanical, narrative, and level design. Alas.

So of course the next game on my to-do list was Tunic, a video game about its own video game-ness if ever there was one.

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I finished CONTROL last week. Taken mechanically, it’s a good game. I found the combat loops satisfying, especially after collecting the full range of non-gun powers; there’s few things more satisfying in video games than hurling a filing cabinet at a bad guy’s head. The upgrade and accessorizing systems were too finicky and incremental for me, but the fundamental weapon choices were sound, even if I found myself relying almost exclusively on the powerful “pierce” sniper-rifle variation. Traversal is fun, which is key for a game that expects no small amount of backtracking. The visual and physics engines feel delightfully next-gen, even playing at 40 frames per second on the Steam Deck.

(As YouTubers and Redditors will tell you. 40 FPS is a real magic number on the Deck: at the size of the portable, it feels nearly as smooth as 60 and worlds better than 30, but the Deck’s much more capable of keeping the lower framerate steady.)

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