Gaming Symphonies: A Reawakening...

The holy trinity of Video Games Live, The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses, and Distant Worlds: Music from FINAL FANTASY should be on every gamer’s bucket list. I’ve attended them five times, collectively, and I’d rather take an arrow to the knee than miss one of these symphonies next time they tour in my area. Video game concerts are part performance and part classical orchestra, with a bucketful of nostalgia on the side. Large screens project scenes from a game’s key moments, synchronized to the live music. There’s dramatic lighting, occasional acting, lots of cosplay, and a surprising number of geeky marriage proposals in-between. Sometimes there’s audience participation, too. Bellowing out “One-Winged Angel” in a mass sing-along (with Nobou Uematsu leading the lyrics) may be the most unabashedly geeky thing I’ve ever done in my life (even if I was Engrishing my way through the Latin lyrics: “bells, frogs, big cher-ries, Peter Pan, magic cheese, SEH-FEE-ROTH”). Gaming soundtracks have come a long way since the 8-bit beeps and dings. I doubt the original video game composers ever imagined their work would be performed fully orchestrated; but take a look at most acclaimed retro titles and you’ll find a composition so theoretically sound, you’d think the composers could see the future in-between the notes they penned to sheet music. At my most recent Distant Worlds concert, I heard Final Fantasy VI’s “Opera Maria and Draco” for the first time as the night’s finale. A twelve-minute opera movement, this piece was originally composed for the 1994 NES, using nothing but jangling MIDI sounds and synthetic “voices.” It received a two-minute-long standing ovation. And an encore. Gaming symphonies are making classical music “cool” again. Video game concerts are re-envisioning classical music and reawakening interest in...

I Tried, Shepard

When the Illusive Man shot himself near the end of Mass Effect 3, it was an oddly emotional moment for me. He was the dark reflection of Commander Shepard; dedicated, smart, and determined. Shepard was on the side of the angels, seeking the good of all life in the galaxy. The Illusive Man wanted to protect human kind above all and dreamed of homo sapiens as preeminent in the galaxy. In the end, he failed and his last words were, “I tried, Shepard.” Then he shot himself in the head. For a moment, I contemplated his life—his achievements, the compromises he’d made, the depths to which he had sunk, and the heights to which he could have ascended before I returned to the mission at hand (the galaxy needed me, after all, I couldn’t just sit there mourning his death forever). Long after the final credits rolled, my mind kept wandering back to the Illusive Man. Certainly, Martin Sheen’s voice acting gave the character gravitas, but my fascination went beyond just enjoying a good performance. The Illusive Man is an intriguing, complex character. It would be easy to write him off under the category of “does evil in the name of a greater good.” Except that his goal had nothing to do with the greater good. He started from a wicked premise and followed his goals relentlessly. History pretty much proves that my way isn’t always the right way. The Illusive Man founded a pro-human terrorist organization called Cerberus. Using his personal wealth and companies he created, he sent operatives on missions to advance his humans-first agenda. He was willing to sacrifice lives to achieve his ends, pursuing his goals without compromise. The government condemned his group as terrorists. His followers—people who believed humanity had...

7 Reasons Handsome Jack is the Perfect Hero...

“See, I can’t just have some psychopathic murderers getting to the Vault before I do. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cute that you all think you’re the heroes of this little adventure, but—you’re not. You’re bandits. You’re the bad guys. And I… am the hero.” You might notice there are eight things on this list. That’s the kind of guy Jack is. 1. He’s generous. “If you bring me word of Lilith, I will pay you enough money to build a mansion, made of other, smaller mansions.” 2. He has a majestic mount. “I just got a pony made of diamonds, I think I’ll call it butt stallion.” 3. He knows big words. “Be honest with yourself, kid. Do you really think you can stop me? I knew you were gonna go for Roland. I am smarter than you. I don’t mean to condescend, that’s just a fact. ‘Condescend’ is a word that means ‘talk down to.’ You got that, kitten?” 4. He always wins. “Oh, I’m sorry. Was that your shields that just went down? So you knew that I knew, you were going for the power core—and you just plugged it in? Even for you guys, that’s pretty—ah, man, that’s pretty stupid… I told you, I always win.” 5. He cares about the little guy. “I just came back from rescuing the Space Vixens of Eden-6, and thought I’d check in with my number one fan. Hey, Justin, why the long face?” 6. He has statues. “Go ahead. Knock the last one down. I’ve already got a great idea for a new statue. It’s just gonna be me, kicking you in the junk. I’m gonna commission like fifteen of those [things] and put them everywhere!” 7. He’s all about teaching. (Taking out...

Light like Ori’s...

When I first came across the video game Ori and the Blind Forest, I wondered, “Why did the creators call it ‘The Blind Forest’? Why ‘blind’?” Thus I began my journey as a young forest sprite named Ori. When Ori was born, a terrible storm separated her from her father, the Spirit Tree. The benign beast Naru found and raised her to be intelligent and kind. After Ori had grown to a young adult, the Spirit Tree called back his child. However, when she arrived, Kuro, a gigantic she-owl, attacked the Spirit Tree and stole his lighted core, blinding the Forest of Nibel. As the ecosystem decayed, so did Naru and Ori’s food supply until eventually there was nothing left to eat. In one last act of sacrifice, Naru gave her adopted daughter the last peach she could find, then died of starvation. Weak from hunger, Ori traveled through the mangled and twisted forest. Eventually, she too, died of hunger. It would be awful if the story ended there. Since the game was only beginning, I knew there would be more. But I’m reminded of how, sometimes, caught in a hopeless place, I feel like there will be nothing more. Hard times have blinded me and left me hollow. I have lost my light many times, my little spark, the piece of me that keeps me hopeful. “This is it!” I’ve cried. “There’s nothing left. I’m done.” But I wasn’t actually done. There was light up ahead; I just couldn’t see it. I’m pretty sure I hurt some other people because of my focus on my own suffering. In Ori’s case, the Spirit Tree used its meager strength to grant her new life, and tasked her with restoring the light in the three great...

Faith of a Technomancer...

Zachariah Mancer has a secret, and it’s a game changer: the electro-powers he wields are not a gift from the gods but a genetic mutation. While that may seem like no big deal; the society he lives in doesn’t believe mutants are actually people, so if the word gets out that he and those like him are mutants, they will lose not only their position but their freedom. And the position of Technomancer is worth protecting. Part shock troop, part interplanetary enforcer, and part hand-of-god, they are feared and revered, given all access and almost never questioned. So if society finds out that they are the product of mutation rather than divine order than they will become nothing more than tools in the hand of Viktor Seeker, a malevolent commander who attempts to wrest the secret of the technomancers from Zachariah but is ultimately rebuffed. So much of the game is centered around capturing possible data leaks, suppressing information, and quelling questions into the histories of Mars that might shed light on the technomancer origin. Quests like this leave a bitter taste in my mouth. I know it is supposed to make me want to protect my brothers and band together behind a shared secret. Instead it upsets me that a bunch of young people are growing up with a power they don’t understand but are told it makes them special, until they are brought into the inner circle and discover everything they believe is a lie. Not only is everything a lie, but all the work that has gone into achieving an exulted rank has earned them the task of protecting and perpetuating that lie. No organization should ever demand this from those who are part of it, yet I feel that throughout...

Small Worlds, Big Stories...

It’s a good time to be a Zelda fan. I’m elated to finally know something real about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. After years of teasing, we can finally see what a Zelda game will be like in the style of Skyrim, Fallout, and Metal Gear Solid V. I recognize that I might be tying myself to the tracks of the hype train by saying this, but I was secretly hoping Breath of the Wild wouldn’t be open-world. I’m not trying to trash the glorious reputation of open-world games. Rather, the reverse. Everyone knows how good these games are. They’re everywhere. Their quality is self-evident. Instead, I want to prove that linear games are great too. Not better, just different. Like, a better sort of different. Here’s why: I’ve found that a story is a finite thing. If you want to stretch it very wide, you must accept that it can’t go deep. Breath of the Wild’s long development process and release on two consoles parallels my experience as a teenager waiting for Twilight Princess to come out. When that finally arrived, I cried watching Link ride across the sunset-washed title screen for the first time, in spectacular 480i. (That was a big deal ten years ago, wasn’t it?) We don’t like being unable to choose, even though we rarely can. Twilight Princess was massive. But outside of the vast main quest, there was not much to do. Back then, I was disappointed—I thought there was potential to fill the game with so much more. In retrospect, I think I was missing the forest for the trees. The things that make me truly, truly feel like a part of the game, are when the story sinks its teeth in, when the...

Pokémon Go and Outrage Culture...

Last Sunday, we spent about half an hour at a local park. As people holding their cellphones drifted past, they all stopped at the same place and started swiping furiously at their screens. Most punched the air in triumph, one or two sank to the ground in disappointment. Consulting our copies of Pokémon Go, we worked out that they were hunting a wild paras. Common, but we can understand the allure. We wanted to catch it too. The Pokémon Go app is two weeks old in the U.S., less than one week old in Canada, and it’s already easy to spot the players. They aren’t texting or talking on their phones, they are immersed in the intersection between the “real” world and the video game on their screen. If our outrage draws lines that we cannot cross in order to understand one another, maybe it’s not worth expressing. Call us old curmudgeons (an accurate assessment for two of the three of us writing this), but it reminds us of an old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Star Trek predicts everything. And this is no different. Commander Riker returns from shore leave with a highly addictive video game. Like a contagious disease, enthusiasm for the game spreads among the crew until the everyone is playing rather than attending to their duties. It falls to Wesley Crusher to uncover the underlying alien plot, rescue the crew, and save the ship. It’s been years since we saw the episode, but the image that sticks with us is the crew wandering around the ship, completely absorbed in the game. Watching our fellow Pokémon Go players, we experienced a feeling of déjà vu. While we doubt aliens are using the new game to take over the world, a simple google search reveals that the conspiracy theories of Pokémon Go are already...

Playing Video Games and Finding Community...

“Did you see that Darius pentakill last night?” If I was in an anime, my eyes would have popped out of my head. I was sitting at the table for Thanksgiving dinner, courtesy of my best friend Kyle and his extended family. The usual chatter was going on around us, but when the words “Darius” and “pentakill” reached our ears, we immediately turned to look at who was speaking. “Wait, what did you say?” my friend asked his 50-year-old aunt. Surely we had misheard her. She couldn’t possibly be talking about League of Legends, an online video game that both Kyle and I played regularly. “That Darius playing last night. He was amazing!” she repeated. Kyle and I looked at each other, dumbfounded, and then a grin worthy of Jake Peralta when Captain Holt does something particularly amazing on Brooklyn Nine-Nine spread across my face. She continued to explain that she was watching the e-sports 2015 League of Legends World Championships with her nephews because they were into it and she wanted to bond with them. (I believe the match she was referring to was the Flash Wolves vs. Origen quarter final, but I digress.) Go, Auntie Pam. Why are her words so shocking and delightful to me, a gamer in my late 20s? … Read the rest of this article on Christ and Pop...

Let There Be Yoshi

Yoshi’s Woolly World is a place without 1-UP mushrooms, Bowsers, or princesses. Playing the game makes me question much more than just the last ten years I’ve spent mastering Mario’s staple platformers. Though I’m controlling Nintendo’s patent dino this time around, my actual identity within Yoshi’s Woolly World is vague at best. I live in an Etsy power fantasy, surrounded by worlds knitted from fabric and thread, with loose spools and spare cotton fluffs marking the uncharted land of craft supplies. Intelligent design is afoot, and I, green Yoshi, am its woolly creation. …Or am I actually the creator? As I omnisciently survey the workshop beyond Yoshi’s limited vision, importing amiibo designs into the game to create even more yarn dinosaurs, I find myself in an identity crisis. Perhaps the word “woolly” is appropriate in more ways than one. Clever, Nintendo. In spinning a yarn about a valiant Yoshi determined to re-stich his community, Nintendo not only puts a soft, home-made twist on Mario’s aesthetics, but also dares to probe into the spiritual nature of creativity by putting players in the dual roles of creator and creation. I originally played Yoshi’s Woolly World expecting to find nothing more than a sweet, if not idealistic, lesson about teamwork and friendship. From the moment the evil wizard, Kamek, unravels Yoshi’s friends, an uncanny valley of emptiness sets in (though not quite gloom—it’s hard to feel gloomy with all those vibrant colours filling the landscape and that happy-go-lucky music playing). Without its community of little dinos, the otherwise lively world feels like an unframed painting—beautiful, but incomplete. As Yoshi travels through sub-worlds, reknitting architecture and friends alike, the overworld gradually regains its sense of order. Seeing the vast world through Yoshi’s eyes reveals that the creator is powerful and imaginative, but studying Yoshi himself reveals that the creator is also loving. Yoshi are colour-coded to best suit the sub-world they live in. Compared to the sloppy yarn loops that hold Shy Guys and other Mushroom Kingdom baddies together, Yoshis’ designs reveal every knit and purl, without a single fuzzy mistake. I psychologically take on the role of creator as I not only omnipotently guide and protect my little dino, but I also feel proud of him. I take pleasure in watching Yoshi’s dedication and love for the world which I have “built.” Oppositely, from Yoshi’s point-of-view, I feel fulfilled each time I give back to that world by collecting spools and beating sub-worlds. Like a two-way mirror, I reflect the world around me to the creator, and the creator to the world. I am clearly the creator’s magnum opus—the sentient being meant to keep, manage, and enjoy the woolly Garden of Eden around me. Any creator would certainly intervene when their creation threatens to come undone, or so it would seem, but the game doesn’t allow the player to intervene that way. Instead, the player, as Yoshi, performs a primary role in bringing about restoration without god-like intervention. The unspoken message reveals a much bigger picture where each character—yes, even Kamek—is hand-crafted to tell the story the creator has mapped out long in advance. Rather than abandon creation to its destiny, then, Yoshi’s Woolly World implies that the creator honours her creation by empowering it to play a vital role in her grand story, rather than play NPC to the creator’s power. In many ways, Yoshi’s Woolly World imitates the Christian understanding of creation and the creator’s role within it, while granting the player two perspectives to fully appreciate the complex dynamic. On a meta level, the game is an endless cycle of creativity inspired by the ultimate act of creativity, trickling from God, to Nintendo game designers, to player, to avatar. I am clearly the creator’s magnum opus—the sentient being meant to keep, manage, and enjoy the woolly Garden of Eden around me. Yoshis aren’t breathed into life from the dust...

Learning to Die

I love the Dark Souls series, but I didn’t always. Dark Souls was introduced to me in an interesting time of my life. I had just graduated high school and was starting my four-year Bachelor of Arts degree. I had moved out of my parents’ home on my own for the first time. I didn’t see it then, but this was the time I was deciding who and what would make me uniquely myself. A friend introduced me to Dark Souls, and within the first hour I was ready to give up. It was difficult, didn’t explain much, and I was constantly failing. I had my friend Colin sit next to me and watch me play through the game just to encourage me, to keep me going through the initial grind of learning the game. The first time I kicked the ladder down, making a shortcut to the undead burg bonfire, everything changed. I found the Claymore, I beat the Gargoyles. “I can do this”, I thought. I see this as a defining point in my life because I couldn’t handle the pain of failure. I was taught from an early age that I shouldn’t expect too much of myself. I wanted to succeed at school and work, but when they told me I couldn’t, I believed them. I entered into college having acted out these beliefs about myself for years. The fear of failure crushed me beneath the weight of self doubt and robbed me of my will to even try. Oscar of Astora, the first character you speak to in Dark Souls, sends you on your way with a prophecy about the undead and some Estus Flasks, an undead favourite. Yet, when you meet him again, he will attack you, having lost...

Master Chief Morality...

It wasn’t until I watched Halo: The Fall of Reach that I began to understand the enormous issue that surrounded the creation of John-117 and the other Spartans. Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 was created with a purpose: to bring an end to the Insurrection, the undeclared civil war occurring between the United Nations Space Command and groups of rebels in the Outer Colonies. Over the course of 43 years, the Insurrectionists had increased the severity of their actions, moving from peaceful protests to terrorist tactics. This is the political climate of the Halo universe that spurs on the SPARTAN programs. I grew up playing through the Halo campaigns, and I thought about the history involved as much as the next person; that is to say, not very. “I’m a super human and I’m killing the bad-guy aliens.” That’s about as far as it went. What I didn’t appreciate or understand at the time was the vast moral and ethical dilemma that surrounded the game’s premise. In the face of great injustice and evil, is it ethical to suspend our own morality to protect people? In Halo: The Fall of Reach, Dr. Catherine Halsey, a young genius, has a plan that she thinks will bring about the end of the Insurrection. If one soldier could be created that could replace 100, even at a high cost, isn’t that worth it? Especially if this one soldier can’t be outgunned or outmaneuvered by any regular Insurrectionist? If this soldier could be created, strategic targets could be removed with the precision skill of a scalpel. But, what is the high cost of these super soldiers? Dr. Halsey knows what it will take to create her Spartans: children. They needed to start with children. Halsey looks far and wide...

Morality, League of Legends, and a God Who Didn’t Care...

I have never, I repeat, NEVER, found a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. Oops, I mean, I have never played with a group of players with quite the level of negativity and hatred and bickering found in the League of Legends ranks. It. Is. A. Treat, ladies and gentlemen, with a capital ‘T’. If you can stomach the mental abuse via in-game chat, the game itself is very enjoyable and engaging (which stands to reason, otherwise who would put up with all the garbage that gets tossed at you by other players? Amirite?). When I first started playing League of Legends, I didn’t really have a problem with the raging, hating, unkind, unreasonable, idiotic, and any-other-negative-adjectives-you-care-to-throw-in people who found their way onto my team or the opposing team. That is to say, I was always able to stomach that side of the game relatively easily. I even found it quite amusing most times. For some people, it would bother them so much that they wouldn’t be able to play the game (and that’s fine. Not every game is for everyone). But I was able to enjoy League in spite of the negative community, especially since I had a great group of friends who I would regularly play with. If someone had asked me if I was a good person, I would have answered, “I’m not sure about ‘good,’ but I’m better than most.” However, I would also ridicule raging players, make fun of them, and insult them. Essentially, as soon as they made any kind of comment or did anything to show me they were a nincompoop, I would put in verbal shots whenever I got a chance because, after all, they deserved it, right? It’s not like they were going to...

Surviving the Crucible...

I don’t think I would be willing to sign up for any sort of training regime that would end with my demise. Granted, I don’t have a Ghost following me around to resurrect me. Why do the Guardians from Destiny put themselves through this? If you’re a Guardian, that means that you’ll die several times in just a single match! Lord Shaxx’s arena is designed to bring the absolute best out of the Guardians of the Tower. From fighting to control strategic points in a battlefield, to igniting the enemy’s rift, to straight up firefights, the Tower’s Guardians are pitted against one another in ruthless matches with live ammunition. I think if we’re to have a better understanding of why the Crucible exists, and is even encouraged, we need to understand the man behind it and his reasons for pushing the Guardians to their limits. Centuries previous, the Traveler, a large mysterious sphere, appeared in our solar system and ushered in the Golden Age. Technological advancements were occurring at rates never seen before. Humanity spread to the moon, Mars, Venus, and beyond. Humanity was at the height of its power, thanks to the knowledge it gained from the Traveler. But then the Darkness came. Humanity, even Earth, was overcome by the Darkness, a mysterious enemy of the the Traveler. The Traveler sacrificed itself to save humanity from the Darkness. Now, the humans live on in the Last City on Earth, protected by the now-silent Traveler hanging above it. We all need some sort of community that acts as a Crucible of sorts. Few remember exactly what the Darkness is, but it has returned and gives power to evil alien races, like the Fallen. These ruthless scavengers united in a desire to secure the Traveler from the hands of humanity. They...

Immortality According to Zack Fair...

I think about death. A lot. Not in a morbid, “the-end-is-near” sort of way, but with the understanding that each passing day means less time to accomplish my dreams. I’ve got half-a-dozen books to publish, a Master’s degree to complete, a world to travel, and a whole lot of video games to play (hurry up, Kingdom Hearts III!). But more than anything, I just want to be remembered for something—even just a small something. Being forgotten amidst history’s dusty pages is the proverbial “fate worse than death.” Whether I admit it out loud or not, I want to live forever, even after my heart stops beating. Thousands of years from now, I could completely “disappear” from public awareness. That thought used to make me wonder if my existence and actions even mattered in the first place. After all, only a lucky few ever become household names. The other millions of people born every year? History—if they’re lucky. Forgotten—if they aren’t. What chance do I have of ever becoming as recognizable as Stan Lee, as biographical as Tolkien, or even as quotable as Joss Whedon? Perhaps that’s why I empathize so much with Zack Fair from Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core. Growing up in a backwater town, Zack has dreams bigger than his small world can handle. I can’t blame him for suddenly leaving home, with only a scribbled farewell to his parents, promising that he’ll return as a hero of SOLDIER like his idol, Sephiroth. I believe anybody can be “destined for greatness,” but only when pride takes a backseat to selflessness. As rambunctious as a puppy and driven by equal parts passion and prestige, Zack quickly climbs the ranks of SOLDIER, flashing his (overly) confident smile and taking on bigger, badder beasties than...

Experiencing Emotions Like Thrall...

His name stands as a testament of the abuse he experienced throughout his youth. His orphaned past is, perhaps, an understandable reason for him to hate humanity. Of all the stories that I immersed myself in as a child and teenager, and of all the characters in those stories, Thrall was the one who taught me the most. And, now as I reflect again on the tale of him coming to be Warchief of the Horde, I can recognize what it means to experience emotion in a healthy way. Having been raised by humans, Thrall possessed the strategy and education of a human and the brute strength of an orc. By all accounts, he’s the best of both worlds, except he has no idea where he comes from. Throughout his childhood and much of his adolescence Thrall never had any sort of relationship with another orc. The human, Aedelas Blackmoore, who had “adopted” and named Thrall, had taken careful precautions to ensure that Thrall was just that: a slave gladiator. His upbringing was a nightmare of abuse, total disconnect from his own kind, and an absolute removal from his culture. One might expect Thrall to be a psychological mess, or, at the very least, to have a distinct hatred for humanity. I’m totally uncomfortable with emotions and I want to stay as far away from them as possible. But he doesn’t. After escaping and discovering the full extent of his people’s plight, he doesn’t lead his people in total war against humanity. Even in the midst of chaos, huge decisions, and mental distress, Thrall remains relatively controlled. There’s a certain beauty, I think, in how Thrall experiences and works through emotions. He’s passionate and yet collected, fierce and yet peaceful. He’s experienced more than his...

Operation: Burning Ember...

Operation: Burning Ember Date: September 20, 2015 Location: Classified It was supposed to be a routine capture mission. A scout-class UFO had been taken down in a nearby forest. Intel said to expect a handful of scouts making trouble for us, with a chance of light assault troops. We’d learned not to take any chances, though. The Skyranger was fully loaded with six squad members when we left XCOM. Nuke and I carried the heavy weapons and explosives; Warlock could hit a caterpillar off its leaf from a mile away with that new plasma sniper rifle of his; Smash and Cargo had enough gear, ammo and medkits to support us for two weeks if anything went sideways; and Wolverine was anxious to get back in the action after being cleared for duty by the medbay. We landed and began to survey the crash site. As we approached, a trio of small grey aliens burst out from behind a panel and fired their weapons at us. Wolverine was quick enough to take two of them out before diving out of sight. Cargo snuck up behind the third and knocked it out. Bringing back these specimens would shut up the boys in the lab for a while. But then we heard something new. Rule Four of XCOM: new is bad. It stood on two legs, head and shoulders above all of us. Arching its armoured back, it screamed at the empty sky above us through some sort of breathing apparatus. Its howl hit us like the heat from a blast furnace. The unidentified creature leapt from the burning wreckage, holding a gun so big it reminded me of a battleship’s turret. Before anyone could even react, the thing charged at Nuke. She was taking cover behind a fallen tree....

Journeying to Eden

Garbed in an elegant robe and trailing scarf, my delicate legs danced nimbly over the dunes. Sunlight pierced through the scarred peak of the distant mountain and blazed onto the desert sand so the expanse turned into a sea of golden embers. There, in the midst of a crumbling ruin, I saw it—another creature like myself. I froze in curiosity, watching this newcomer pirouette with a human-like intelligence that belied any possibility of an NPC. Excitement spurred me forward, and we finally came face-to-face, sunlight framing our identical silhouettes against the sky. Then, wordlessly, we continued our pilgrimage to the mountain, side-by-side. I dubbed my steadfast companion “Long Scarf.” I knew that this was not their first trek through Journey’s deserts. But that’s all I knew, and all I’d ever know. Journey doesn’t redefine online co-op play so much as it re-focuses it. Apart from the wordless chirping between cloth-covered avatars, no communication is permitted. The default avatar is genderless and species-less, as ambiguous as my companion’s true identity. There’s no customization in Journey—no way to pick my gender, height, voice, colour, or even who I partner with. However, special designs on the robes of second-and-third-time pilgrims are reserved for guides who have survived the quest and willingly return to assist new players. And yet I turn away. I stand on Eden’s edge, chirping out in hopes that perhaps Long Scarf will answer. Long Scarf was my guide. We were instantly inseparable, chirping, flying, and dashing through the sands together like lifelong friends. Perhaps the two of us could not be more unalike in the real world, but within the virtual world of Journey we shared the adversity of the great quest ahead of us. We were like Frodo and Sam, wrapped up in something much bigger than ourselves, and all the more dedicated to one another for it. Despite appearances, Journey is not exclusively a co-op game. One can trek to the mountain as easily as two. Functionally, co-op is pointless. Simplistic puzzles don’t require any complex combinations of lever-pulling or button-pushing between teammates. The only real gameplay advantage afforded is that players can boost each other’s scarf powers a bit by chirping or making contact—not game-changers by any means. Unsurprisingly, Journey’s focus on themes, emotions, and beauty makes it less concerned with traditional gameplay elements. In revolutionizing the manner in which players see one another, Journey refocuses co-op on its original intent—support. Specifically, the emotional support between pilgrims makes Journey feel less like a video game and more like an experience. At first glance, Journey appears to be an escapist game built on pure sentimentality, but it encapsulates more feelings than joy, wonder, and peace; there’s a significant portion of the trek that’s darkened by despair, fear, pain, loneliness, and even death. Long Scarf and I bonded as we sand-surfed, probed ancient ruins for power-ups, and bantered in gibberish. But we bonded most during darker times. In the midst of a punishing blizzard, hardly able to make headway against the tormenting winds, we huddled together as our scarves were ripped to shreds and chirped weak words of assurance and encouragement to each other. Within a minute, we both froze to death—I collapsing just seconds behind Long Scarf—as scripted by the game. Scripted or not, I believe Long Scarf would have willingly frozen alongside me. I’d already watched my companion dive into the searchlight of a hungry monster, taking serious damage in a vain effort to save me. Despite knowing each other for only two hours, we were already prepared to virtually die for one another. Why? The word tumbled around my mind. I’m reminded of the three criteria necessary for the universal appeal of art laid out by Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts. The book suggests that there should be a portrayal of (1) Eden in its original glory, (2) Eden that...

Life, Death, and Mario Kart...

“That’s not fair!” And with that, at the finish line I was passed by Mario, Daisy, Yoshi, and the entirety of the Mushroom Kingdom. In frustration, I tossed the controller aside. I had run the perfect race, drifted every corner, hit every question block, collected every coin and abused every item, but in that final straightaway, the dreaded blue turtle shell came. With the finish line in sight and first place victory secured, I spun out and was passed again, and again, and again. Another turtle shell, red this time, and a Bullet Bill power-up ensured that I went from first to absolute dead last. Anyone who has played Mario Kart is familiar with that reprieve. The truth is, the Nintendo racers cheat. No matter how far ahead you get, no matter how perfect your race, the A.I. will unfairly adjust the speeds of each of the other racers to ensure that every race comes right down to the wire. And nothing could be more frustrating. Life, like Mario Kart, isn’t fair. I write this as I sit at the bedside of my mother in palliative care, knowing that there are only hours left in her life. In the same hospital six months ago and five floors below, I witnessed the birth of my son. And today we try to make my mother as comfortable as possible with warm blankets and happy memories. Life was never intended to be fair. Mario Kart was never intended to be fair. Three weeks ago, the doctor had broken the news. We all knew it was coming as she had been fighting a losing battle to Stage IV cancer for a few years already. The oncologist’s were quick, like a band-aid being torn off. “We are looking at...

But Nobody Came

It was with gritted teeth and DETERMINATION that I slayed Toriel, the sweet, mother-like figure who only wanted to guide me through the ruins and keep me safe. She wasn’t difficult to destroy. It took one hit. There was no heroic fanfare upon her death, no flashing text congratulating me on my victory, no epic loot, and there shouldn’t have been. The sight of Toriel’s heart breaking in two was all the reward I got for my efforts. I wasn’t a hero. I was a murderer. Before you completely write me off as a monster, let me explain how I got there. I’d already played through Undertale’s pacifist route, going through the game without killing a single creature, talking my way out of battles and making friends with monsters. The most endearing characters in the game (i.e. all of them) became my companions in the adventure, and I grew attached to each of them; from Papyrus, the skeleton with a heart of gold who just wants to be tough enough to join the Royal Guard, to Alphys, the reptilian creature with a fondness for anime who stutters her way through conversations, to Mettaton, the robot who hosts a popular TV show in the Underground—I loved them all. “It was you who led the world to its destruction. You think you are above consequences.” And I killed them all. Because there was more story to be learned from making a genocide playthrough, and I must know ALL THE THINGS. The things that were… the things that are… and some things that have not yet come to pass. Like a serpent was offering me an apple, I was tempted. I had to know. ALL OF IT. The scenes in the game became drastically different compared to...

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone! Take This....

Mid-summer birthdays are lonely. I mean sure, they’re spaced far enough away from Christmas that the “Kyle’s temporary material happiness fund” should be well stocked, but most of my friends were off on vacation and unable to attend an appropriately large birthday bash. However, in the summer of 1986 I could not have been more thankful for the solitude. In my hands I held the iconic gold cartridge of the original Legend of Zelda. I had maps, I had snacks, and I had a stack of Nintendo Power magazines by my side; I was ready to go. But none of those provisions were necessary when I directed Link into that first cave. It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this. I explored a vast unknown world, discovered hidden dungeons, felt the tension of that last half heart, slew great beasts of legendary proportions, and ventured through seemingly infinite sequels—and it all began with my first sword. Recently, someone posted a meme featuring that phrase on my Facebook wall. The scene was the same. Same old bald man in a red suit. Same bonfires on either side. Except instead of a sword, Link was lifting up a cup of coffee. I realized the sword I want to give my little girl isn’t called education. It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this. ABSOLUTELY, I thought. The world without my coffee in the morning truly is a dangerous place. I pondered that phrase for the rest of the day. The world really is a dangerous place. What did I have in my bag of holding to deal with its dangers? More importantly, what was I equipping my four-year-old daughter with to prepare her for what she would face? It seems like every week I am re-posting a new picture of a...