Last year my wife took a class called ‘Music Appreciation’ at our local community college. She loved the course and told me all about it every day she had class. She talked about classical music like Brahms and Beethoven and Mozart and all those cats. We had to watch Amadeus and the one with Gary Oldman. I wasn’t ever keen on any of this stuff, considering classical music impenetrable and snobby, while lacking any motivation myself to look into it.
She showed me something through sharing about the class that I never knew. Her professor (a conductor who teaches this class for fun once a year) told her the story of Beethoven and how he would play with his audience’s expectations. He built upon the their expectations, sometimes giving in, sometimes smashing them etc. To say he didn’t follow the rules would be untrue. He knew them, manipulated them and went beyond them, leaving a legacy of genius that some still consider unparalleled. After learning vicariously about Beethoven, I suddenly grew a great appreciation for his work. As my wife would come home with more of these fascinating stories, it was clear to me that these stories are the key to unlocking the meanings behind art and the media that I didn’t naturally understand.
I haven’t learned to appreciate Opera, but I am convinced that if I had enough background information, I certainly could. And I never thought I would write that down in my life. Certainly not on a blog about video games.
Opera and video games, totally not my idea (pictured: Final Fantasy 6)
I wonder about weird stuff. The idea of the opera seems quite arbitrary. Why would human beings create such an odd thing? Why would they continue to do it? It just seems like such a weird twist of history. Tom Bissel, in his 2010 book called Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter did mention opera actually (on page 94) when referring to a medium that knows where the art is happening. Opera is singing, theater, orchestra etc. but it doesn’t have qualms, say, of making sure that all the props are as realistic as possible. It knows where it can cut to the chase and focus on what its art truly is. Of course, I don’t know what the art truly is because I don’t know anything about it. I did see a showing of Aida once, but I think that was more of a musical? Hell if I know.
On a similar note – get it?, note… sorry…- Scott McCloud made a very interesting book in 1994 about the art of comic books titled Understanding Comic Books. Its quite amazing, as it unlocks a great deal of things to do with artistic media, comics and cartooning. I found it quite enlightening to think that the more cartoony characters, the more simply drawn they are, sometimes are made in such a way as to not obstruct our reading of the story. And, how realism in comics might detract from their direct appreciation. I’m sure game designers can and have taken plenty of cues from this interesting comic book.
This book probably blew my mind at least 8 times
I could have done without all the edginess of Bissel’s book, but I couldn’t have written it myself. What edginess you ask? For example, he exposed his addiction to GTA/cocaine and apparently said a bit of sexist stuff in it as well causing some controversy. But, when he stuck to how video games work as genres, it stood out, at least for me. After I played The Last of Us, I thought it was one of the funnest games I have ever played. It was brilliant fun with great story-telling, etc. But was it great story-telling? This thought sank into my head after watching one of my favorite films of all time (Tampopo) with some friends. It perplexed me, but I think the lesson of genre is key here. Like classical music, video games also have conventions and genres that build meaning. No matter how arbitrary it may seem (especially when comparing video games to film), shooting thousands of zombies, with snippets of story-line can be extremely moving because it has genre verisimilitude. Only those who know these game genres, through gaming experience, have the keys to appreciating them. Like the opera goer, they have certain expectations, but they also want to be wowed. Gamers have certain expectations and want to be wowed as well, but the expectations are wildly different and make sense only if you take into the history of games (or were there for it).
A mind-blowing book about games where the author talks about blow and how Blow talks about his games
Personally, I argue that video games have importantly different media/genres that have been congealing for some time. I don’t believe that they are well-formed or clear, but there are trends that are quite noticeable. That is, within video games I believe that you have the equitable differences between Opera, theater, film, etc. existing all under one superfluous banner; games.
One of those genres are Metroidvanias. I think this term is a bit of a misnomer, but I like the sound of it too much to let it go. The reason I think its a misnomer is because its characteristic style really is more Metroid than Castlevania. Metroid, hey Tom Bissel talks about it in his book too, so I might as well use it while I have the book out. He argues that “…Metroid is, in fact, the first open-world, nonlinear platformer.” (97) Whether you agree or not doesn’t matter because this is my blog, not yours!, no, it doesn’t matter so much as my point is that the Castlevania games didn’t get nonlinearity until Castlevania: Symphony of Night (SoTN). The nonlinearity is the key mechanic at work here and clearly predates SoTN. It is actually a Metroid thang, hence the term “Metroidvania” really owes much more to the early Metroid series than to the Castlevania series. The term Metroidvania was really based off of SoTN without really appreciating the historical significance of its core mechanics. Of course, I loved SoTN and consider it one of my favorite games of all-time, misnomer or not.
Obligatory posting of the infamous line from Dracula in SoTN
It is quite clear though that this genre just won’t die. Like the undead characters oft portrayed in the genre, it too is undead. It continues to rise like Dracula in the countless
and tiresome Castlevania iterations, but perpetually clad with the gilded garments of open-world exploration wherein the character finds permanent and/or temporary power-ups that let them explore more of the world, while getting gulps and swigs of lore and story along the way. It is arbitrary, but if you have the key to appreciating it and know its history, the beauty, meaning and its lineage become much clearer. And like Opera and other media/genres, its here to stay. You gotta keep your eye on it because, it has also moved into 3D games outside their original IP’s.
Comprising of some of my favorites, the following is a extremely sparse and incomplete family history of the genre Metroidvania, for your pleasure, …but mainly for mine:
Metroid, 1986. Not pictured, a 7-year-old me, peeing his pants.
Super F***ing Metroid. 1994. Cream Dream.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. 1997. I’m pretty sure this game cures cancer. Pictured: not the US version.
Cave Story. 2004. This game came out of nowhere and uppercutted me in the feels with great story and that core Metroid mechanic. One man made this game. This man is a legend.
Shadow Complex. 2009. Polishing, and iterating on the mechanics of Metroidvanias. It’s clear by now, this genre is never going away.
Dark Souls. 2012. 3D Metroidvania. Yup, by my definition
My definition (from above) in case you are feeling lazy: “…open-world exploration wherein the character finds permanent and/or temporary power-ups that let them explore more of the world, while getting gulps and swigs of lore and story along the way.”
Axiom Verge. 2015. Another one man job with an amazing and haunting aesthetic.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. ????. By the creator of SoTN Koji Igarashi. At the moment this game is being Kickstarted and has raised 5.5 million U.S. dollars. When the “F” is this gonna come out?