Turning Japanese: The “Character Empire” that Infiltrated Video Games

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I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for games – not only were video games an important pastime and hobby of mine as a young teen, but the most memorable games inspired my creativity. Some of my first stabs at non-fiction writing were essentially bad video game fanfiction (thankfully, not quite this bad). I taught myself to sew so I could cosplay as some of my favorite video game characters. I’ve even had friendships with people half-way across the globe that I wouldn’t otherwise had met if it wasn’t for a mutual love of certain video game franchises and characters.

Now, many of these things, such as cosplay, bad fanfic, and online friendships, were similarly inspired by a love of Star Wars and Harry Potter during those formative teenage years. But only video games have the privilege of drawing me towards Japanese culture and history more broadly. Anyone who’s played console and PC games for a number of years has likely played a video game created predominately by a Japanese team. Japan is a dominate force in the AAA commercial video game industry; for instance, popular Japanese games, such as titles in the Pokémon and the Legend of Zelda series, typically sell as well in the West as they do in the domestic market.

In any case, the large appeal and success of Japan’s games abroad, I think, rests not solely on the gameplay but the characters available in gameplay. In Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination anthropologist Anne Allison wrote that Japan is a “character empire” with icons such as Hello Kitty and Pikachu being recognized as ambassadors of their respective brands abroad. The importance of character branding in games is unsurprising given its wider prevalence in Japanese media culture, including anime and manga. Indeed, many early video game studios in Japan sought talented artists and writers from the extant anime and manga trades.

marioWith creatives from Japan’s comic book and animation industries bringing character design and complex storylines into digital games, Japanese video games may have been some of the first in the industry to emphasize plot, writing, and characterization. Japan’s video games include some of the most memorable characters that represent the industry at large, going as far back as the likes of Nintendo’s Mario who originated in 1981. Since the introduction of Nintendo’s cute and unforgettable icons, Japan’s video games have arguably set a high bar for character design and pushed the market in new directions. As recently with the release of Nintendo’s and Niantic’s Pokémon GO, the success of first-party console developers in the mobile games market has been attributed to the gaming public’s affinity for recognizable characters from popular franchises.

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The popularity of branded characters in Japanese games is evident in the likes of Gundam, Final Fantasy, and Capcom theme cafes located in Tokyo. My love of Japanese franchise Resident Evil (Biohazard in Japan) was documented quite recently in my review of the Capcom Café, which I visited in cosplay of Jill Valentine on two separate occasions to sample the literal ‘Jill Sandwich’ and merchandise offerings. The café circulates different Capcom games as themes reflected in new food items and merchandise that center on particular franchise’s characters. There’s no denying the popularity of Resident Evil’s playable characters, such as Jill, Chris, and Leon, who also star in spin-off CGI films, comic books, and even made appearances in the Paul W. Anderson film franchise. These characters and others adorn merchandise ranging from keychains to coffee mugs and t-shirts to hand towels. In a very Japanese fashion, the Capcom Café embraces the success of its game characters.

The appeal of branded characters in Japan extends the likes of Akihabara and the shopping malls. When I took a trip to the more remote World Heritage Site, Koyasan, I couldn’t escape character sightings. I spotted a Sengoku Basara cardboard cutout at Koyasan’s train station, apparently promoting some kind of themed train ticket, specifically targeting fans of the series.

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Japanese games have historically been successful with branding their games with popular, likeable characters. Consider Mario, who has practically been a household name since the 1980s and the array of merchandise available from that franchise alone. What Japan has arguably offered to the world of game design is an emphasis on memorable and unique characters, the likes of which Western games have imitated, perhaps most recently in Blizzard’s cast of inspirational Overwatch characters. The concept artwork for the game seems inspired by the Japanese anime aesthetic.

Indeed, Katherine Cross at Gamastura writes that the explosive fandom surrounding the cast of Overwatch and Pokémon GO  is attributed to the simplicity of the character design.  She writes, “there’s a lesson to be found in Overwatch and Pokémon Go: it takes shockingly little effort to create characters that people can get very deeply invested in.” I agree with the overall sentiment that characters grounded in simple narratives, when imaginatively designed and implemented, can be just as successful as more complex characterizations found in narrative-heavy roleplaying games. But I think there’s a caveat. The popular team leaders created for Pokémon GO already belong to an insanely popular Japanese media franchise with an established and strong fan base. And it seems Blizzard’s stylized Overwatch may have sought reception from a similar demographic of gamers that easily recognize Japanese influence in games.

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Yoshimitsu (Soul Calibur III) and Zhange He (Dynasty Warriors 7) are two of my favorite game characters originating from Japanese franchises.

Undeniably, some of my favorite video game characters are Japanese in origin. They’re unique, memorable, and… just plain playful. I’ll never forget pummeling a swarm of Chinese peons with flamboyant Zhang He in Dynasty Warriors; trolling my opponents with Soul Cailbur’s (sometimes pink) cyborg-ninja Yoshimitsu; and fighting back the zombie hordes with the somehow campy yet (mostly) grounded cast of Resident Evil.

Are some of your favorite video game characters Japanese in creative origin? Do you think that Japanese character design sets a standard in the industry? I’d like to hear about your favorites!

Originally posted to Destructoid Community Blog.

I’ll have the Jill Sandwich, Please: An Experience & Review of the Capcom Café

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I recently returned from an amazing fifteen-day adventure in Japan. I visited video game bars and ramen stalls in the scrawling cityscapes; feudal castles, holy shrines and peaceful temples amidst the urban landscapes; and historic cemeteries and memorials to fallen warlords among the cool and serene mountainsides.

As a longtime gamer and fan of Japanese media, especially of Capcom’s Resident Evil (RE), my trip to Tokyo was exciting with the prospect of visiting the electronics district, Akihabara, alone. When I heard about the creation of the Capcom Café about 6 months ago I was interested but not quite sold on a visit. You see, the café circulates different themes that center on Capcom games and when it was first launched the theme was Monster Hunter – a game I’ve not played and actually know very little about. However, when the RE theme was set from March to the end of June of this year, I scheduled it for my itinerary without a second thought. I mean, how many other times would I be in Japan and have the chance to dine on themed food and drinks from a favorite video game series?

But why not visit the more famous and popular Capcom Bar in Shinjuku? Well, for one, there’s the issue of needing a reservation in advance to attend the Capcom Bar which was problematic for my rather hectic schedule. Additionally, the Capcom Bar focuses on all Capcom games broadly, and the appeal to the café’s RE theme during the 20thanniversary of the franchise was just too good to pass up. It may help to back up my fanaticism with some data: I am probably one of the few people who purchased the Collector’s Edition of RE5 – so yeah, I’m that kind of shameless RE fan who loves the series to pieces, even when it’s been less than stellar in recent years (with the exception of RE: Revelations 2, in my humble opinion).

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Anyway, my first visit to the café occurred on June 8th around 5 PM which was my second day in Japan and Tokyo. Additionally, I returned for a second visit on June 19th, a couple days before I left the country, because a new item was added to the menu just after my initial visit – more on this later.

First, the café itself is relatively easy to find – if not a convenient location within Tokyo – as long as you do your transportation research.  The café is located at Aeon Mall, just off of the Koshigaya Laketown stop on the metro’s Musashino line, which is nearly an hour from Tokyo’s central station. From my accommodation in Ekoda it took me about an hour to arrive at the Aeon Mall with transfers at two subway stations. It’s not the quickest commute, especially around evening rush hour, so keep that in mind if you plan a visit yourself. Once at the mall, I stopped immediately at an information desk and asked for the Capcom Café and was quickly pointed to the third floor.

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My first impression was that of merchandise… overpriced merch, everywhere. For reference, these acrylic keychains are priced at 1,000 yen – that’s close to $10.00 USD, with tax. Impressively, Ada was completely sold out (looks like we know the #1 Resi waifu in Japan!). Needless to say, I passed up on the adorable keychains, and instead purchased a slightly more practical mug, since I love coffee and tea. Even that was about $13.00 USD and it only comes in black and white coloring. Still, the character images are cute and I like that it references the 20thAnniversary of RE, so I think it makes for a good souvenir. There were many more items on display, including zombie cookies, character-shaped candy, pens, notebooks, tote bags, badges, t-shirts and hoodies… even small backpacks and T-Virus perfume! But I didn’t buy those at a high price, strangah. Also available was plenty of merch from other franchises such as Mega Man, Monster Hunter, and Sengoku Basara.

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Aside from being bombarded with game merchandise, the atmosphere was eccentric and fun. A game console was available with RE: 0 remastered edition, a TV showcased cut scenes and game trailers in the dinning area, and a large mural depicted chibi RE characters in the Spencer Mansion. Aside from the spectacle, however, the shop and café was rather quiet and devoid of customers. This came with costs and benefits – I had looked forward to mingling with other Capcom/RE fans but at the same time I probably received the best service the café had to offer. I made small talk with my waiter about RE and other games and my food arrived promptly.

I’ll admit I ordered the cheapest item on the menu but mostly for practical reasons since I already had dinner plans later in the evening. The Raccoon City Set features four RE-themed sweets with a drink for about $9.00 USD which is actually a good deal among the café options since the fancy drinks alone cost about $6-7.00 USD. For the drink I ordered the “Jill Valentine” which tasted fruity and included a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. The dish delightfully featured RE characters as their cutest food forms imaginable. It included more ice cream, dollops of chocolate and vanilla cream served with a Jill cookie and marshmallow-like poof with an adorable rendering of Nemesis. Particularly (4 itchy) tasty was a stawbarry cream cake – see what I did there? – with a mini-flag reading “Welcome to Raccoon City.” Overall, the Jill drink was probably the tastiest of the items but everything was sweet and enjoyable. For ordering a fancy drink, you receive a coaster with an adorable chibi character (I got Leon) but you will not receive the coaster if you only ask for water. The paper placemat is also yours to keep but it’s not particularly thick or durable. I was able to preserve mine by rolling it up and I plan to eventually frame it because it’s so gosh darn cute.

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When my food arrived I wanted to have a very memorable and unique photo-op. For Halloween last year I put together a Jill Valentine cosplay – I had decided to pack the essential components along and wear them at the café – and that’s exactly what I did. The employees were very responsive to me when I explained in broken Japanese that I brought along “kosupure” and a girl employee was excited to take my picture for me. Needless to say, this portion of the experience was half my reason for going!

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I left the café with my pockets a little lighter, my curiosity satiated, and several very memorable pictures. I was content with my visit but towards the end of my itinerary – the day before I returned to Tokyo prior to flying back home – I discovered a revelation on the Capcom Café’s Twitter account… A day after my initial visit an official “Jill Sandwich” was added to the menu! [Watch the linked video if you’re unaware of the self-referential game humor]. It was not even listed in the café offerings the day prior. I was definitely a little heartbroken, but with a day and half left in Tokyo, I decided to make the pilgrimage one last time on a Sunday evening around 7:30 PM.

Once more, I was the sole diner, which was slightly disappointing. A few people lingered around the merchandise while others played RE: 0 and a couple looked at the menu on display, but when I sat down at a table I was the only one in the dining area. However, the staff were very friendly and made a sincere effort to talk with me as I didn’t have any companions. I was actually informed that the Jill Sandwich was very popular and, in fact, the waiter claimed he had 20 people order it in a single day. This may have indeed been an exaggeration, or perhaps the café is far more popular around lunch time. From my experiences the café seems to be relatively dead in the evenings – which makes sense as most of the food is suitable for smaller meals and snacking.cap-cafe-8

For those who are curious the Jill Sandwich costs a little over $6.00 USD and is a typical egg salad sandwich that is topped with a slice of ham and tomato. It includes a very small side of potato wedges (serving sizes in Japan, from what I saw, are much smaller on average than we have in ‘Merica). In short, it’s a relatively plain, but yummy, sandwich. The wooden tray that it was served on was decorated with a cocoa powdered effigy of Jill which I nearly smudged the second it was handed to me. The chef was even kind enough to doodle an image of anime Jill on the receipt, which I thanked her for and kept as a keepsake. And of course, I just had to pose with the Jill Sandwich because it’s so meta.

Overall, I enjoyed my two trips to the Capcom Café – but I’ve very likely had my fill if I ever return to Tokyo again (which I plan to do, one day). I can suggest this excursion to diehard Capcom fans, especially so to fans of the games that are presented as the current café theme. FYI – the theme just changed to Sengoku Basara. But for everyone else, because the location is not particularly quick to get to if you’re staying somewhere in central Tokyo, you’d probably be better off checking out the Capcom Bar in Shinjuku if you’d like to have a similar experience – especially if you want to play games while you eat/drink, as this is not an option at the Capcom Café. Moreover, the bar might be a more social place to interact with other diners/players while you wait for your food in the presence of said video games.

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Although I can only recommend this café to the big Capcom fans out there, I will say that I enjoyed my visits very much and commend the staff for taking the time to talk with me and take photos – I am certainly glad to have these memories!

Originally posted to personal Destructoid Community Blog.

“How Has Dynasty Warriors Lasted So Long?” – Might We Ask the Same of Any Repetitive Franchise?

Dynasty Warriors could borrow Soul Calibur’s tagline: “A tale of souls and swords, eternally retold…”

The other day when the brand new Assassin’s Creed game was announced – I couldn’t help but wonder… How is it that the Assassin’s Creed series releases 2 to 3 games a year (in addition to releasing portable spin-off titles) and has yet to crash and burn like the Guitar Hero series? I mean, I enjoyed AC II until it decided to glitch half-way through the story, but the introduction scenario of AC III was so dull (for me) that I haven’t managed to play beyond the first three hours or so…

And then I realize that I don’t have much of an argument because I still play Dynasty Warriors… 

For gamers, I think there’s something especially comforting in a series that’s familiar. Often, repetitive (and fan favorite) series are nostalgic. I know, personally, that when I play a ‘new’ Dynasty Warriors game I feel like I’m 15 again – the age when I started my Warriors journey with Dynasty Warriors 3. I’m reminded of the many happy memories I have with my younger brother, playing the game with our favorite characters at 7:30 A.M. before school started – and playing more rounds of free mode and versus mode after the school day ended – to see who could get the most K.O.s.

I suppose the same is true for other fans – not just of Dynasty Warriors – but also Assassin’s Creed, Final Fantasy, etc. The characters are like old friends; the stories are old memories; and the gameplay is a skill that players have mastered and perfected over time.

 In games studies research, one of the most highly cited concepts regarding video game enjoyment is flow. Sherry (2004) explained that a flow state is achieved in gaming when there is a balance between the difficulty of the given task and the player’s skill. Tasks that are too easy result in boredom and tasks that are too difficult for the player induce anxiety. Fans of a particular series are likely to experience the flow state when they play a new game in the franchise because the gameplay is still familiar enough – but also presented in a different way – to establish a balance between the player’s skill and the difficulty of the given task.

Flow, in addition to nostalgia, may be one way to understand the popularity of repetitive and sequential video games.

But – please – Tecmo-Koei… you do need to revitalize Dynasty Warriors. Flow can only get this series so far.

How Has Dynasty Warriors Lasted So Long? | gamesTM – Official Website.

References:

Sherry, J.L. (2004). Flow and media enjoyment. Communication Theory, 14(4), 328–347. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.2004.tb00318.x

MART 702: The Hermetic

Last week’s reading and discussion of The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus inspired me to create a remix of my classmate’s previous projects in the course. I argued that the remediation of their videos as animated .gifs hosted to a website remediated (new media format) and remixed (new meaning) their projects served as the alchemical substances from which a produced a philosopher’s stone.

I anticipated mixed feedback from my peers; I thought they might feel somewhat violated that I used their works for my own purposes without their consultation. This expected reaction was intended to augment the isolation experienced by an alchemist, such as Paracelsus, but in this case, me (the artist). On the contrary, my classmates voiced that they loved the concept and thought it clever! Such much for the veiled hostility; the presentation was not at all uncomfortable.

[P.S. the below is not my best writing, as I was severely rushed last week]

http://artalchemy.net46.net/index.html/

“Now at this time, I, Theophrastus Paracelsus Bombast, Monarch of the Arcana, am endowed by God with special gifts for this end, that every searcher after this supreme philosophic work may be forced to imitate me… Come hither after me, all you philosophers, astronomers, and spagyrists, of however lofty a name ye may be, I will show and open to you, Alchemists and Doctors, who are exalted by me with the most consummate labours, this corporeal regeneration. I will teach you the tincture, the Arcanum, the quintessence, wherein lie hid the foundations of all mysteries and of all works.” Thus wrote Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, a Swiss German Renaissance physician and occultist who preferred the sobriquet Paracelsus, in his meticulous compendium on alchemy (p.45). Today, his texts are available in English as The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus.

However, readers who expect to uncover the alchemists’ ancient secrets through the author’s vast wisdom and instruction might be disappointed. The opening passages of the book promise that alchemy is a practice that rewards few. Paracelsus writes that, “You who are skilled in Alchemy… who willingly undergo toil and vexations, and wish not be freed from them, until you have attained your rewards… experience teaches this everyday, that out of thousands of you not even one accomplishes his desire” (p.10) His words suggest that alchemical knowledge is only imparted to those who devote their entire life to the craft: “Is this the failure of Nature or of Art? I say, no; but it is rather the fault of fate, or of the unskillfulness of the operator” (p.10). His words of caution imply that only a select number will achieve proficiency in the purported craft. These passages, above, imply that Paracelsus’ writing, at the literal level, appears to imbue scholarship and knowledge to aspiring alchemists. Figuratively, the book is a much different read.

The allegorical interpretations of this monograph are a testament to the deception of words and appearances. There is no doubt that Paracelsus was a brilliant man. But was he a brilliant alchemist? The answer to this question is open to interpretation. Paracelsus explains that, “In this Art, nothing is more true than this… all the fault and cause of difficulty in Alchemy… is wholly and solely lack of skill in the operator… the straight road is easy, but it is found by very few” (p.11). His brilliancy lies in is his power to convince others that he possessed vast occult wisdom and performed transmutation, the changing of one substance into another. This is evident in his bombastic words, “An inferior intelligence does not easily perceive occult and abstruse objects… Many persons, puffed up with pride, fancy they can easily comprehend all which this book comprises” (p.11). To rebuff Paracelsus and his text as the words of a driveling madman was equivalent to ignorance. It is imagined that few men might have contested his expertise for fear of being branded incompetent.

In class, we discussed how Paracelsus’ book was a cunning means to influence his readers and assessed that, “a good alchemist is someone who has convinced others that they are a good alchemist.” This statement intrigues me because I accept that most, if not all, people might relate to it. I assume that the majority of individuals, at one point or another, have performed a pretense to appear/behave like something/someone they are not. In a world that prioritizes appearance and opinion over character and knowledge, it is not an impossibility to imply that humans adopt facades in order to be accepted, loved, or to survive.

I am also drawn to the central tenant of alchemy: transmuting one thing into another; and that this is possible because every thing shares in common the essence of everything. Paracelsus asserts that, “Any one can at pleasure learn this Art in Alchemy [transmuting mercury into silver or gold], since it is so simple and easy; and by it, in a short time, he could make any quantity of silver and gold… the method of making Sol [gold] and Luna [silver] by Alchemy is so prompt that there is no more need of books… than there would be if one wished to write about last year’s snow” (p.13). Paracelsus implies that, for a gifted Alchemist, gold and silver are an unlimited bounty. At the literal level, he speaks of Sol and Luna in the valued mineral forms. For the context of Alchemy as a philosophy, Sol and Luna might be construed as positives arising from something negative, or the improvement of something deemed average into a more spectacular form.

For an Alchemist’s response that plays with these concepts, I transmuted the previous projects of my classmates James, Keyes, Jordan, Alison, and Katie. I re-mixed their respective video projects, the previously submitted responses to Invisible Cities and Portal. In this way, their works served as the object of transmutation. I.e., I produced an original series of animated gifs from their videos. Two of the remixes are more obvious than others (obvious meaning that it is apparent what the original project was). Two are happy accidents; glitches produced by unusual css formatting of a div container. The glitches are more experimental and less obvious than the other transmutations.

For the context of my project, I use remix to mean “a new context” and remediation as a “a new form.” The remediation is from video to animated gifs, still images, and presentation on a new webpage called Art Alchemy. Paracelsus explains that during the transmutation process, “… the Alchemist, who again corrupts, mortifies, and artificially prepares such a metallic body” (p.17). Similarly, I “corrupt” and otherwise alter the original projects of my peers into something else. Transmuted into the animated gif format on a webpage, the stills from video are less transitory; as animated gifs embedded into a website, they continue to play in cyclical fashion until the user leaves the webpage or closes their web browser. This means that the stills may be more closely examined than they would be in their original format.

For example, this is my intention with the transmutations of James’ and Katie’s video projects for Invisible Cities and Portal, respectively. “Absentia” features a table that expanses four columns by three rows. Each cell contains an animated gif. “Refresh your visit” appears at the very top of the page above the table. Upon refreshing the page, the gifs appear in new cells each time. One cell, located in the top left corner, abruptly cycles through all of the gifs that load into each table cell.  Truthfully, I wanted the javascript to perform this task for all of the cells but there is an error in the code that prevents this. Arguably, the new format for James’ video might not change/alter the message of his work; there still exists a sense of absence and quiet from the images that I have chosen to display on the webpage. I kept the essence in tact but chose to alter the way it is mediated. Instead of playing in sequence from beginning to end, a narrative timeline no longer exists. The objects in frame remain in frame and at the same time, they may appear in another frame within the cell on the table. In this way, the remediation calls attention to the materials that clutter spaces. The repetition of these objects is meant to espouse a sense that the things once valued never remain so.

Similarly, I conveyed how gifs may concisely and, perhaps, more efficiently, perform the same message of a video. I demonstrated this using Katie’s Portal project, a video response that visually represented the themes of fragmented self and surveillance. Her montage featured several intriguing sequences, which unfortunately, suffered from overexposure. I felt that the he presence of several long takes in the original piece was unnecessary. As such, I screen capped the five most relevant shots, imported the stills into GIMP photo editing software, and copied the layers to ensure that each image, once animated, would loop back to the beginning of the sequence. It was tedious but worth the effort. “Refraction,” my transmutation of Katie’s video, is one of my more successful remixes. Again, the thematic connotations of the piece are not disturbed via the transmutation process; rather, it was my attempt with “Refraction” to reinforce them through succinct visuals.

Two of the pieces are the result of a glitch of the animated gifs created from Keyes’ and Jordan’s video projects. “Spectra,” the corruption of Keyes’ response to Invisible Cities, illustrates how a conceptual piece remains susceptible to further abstraction. “Spectra” compresses a gif of Keyes’ video of peripheral lights to create a spectrum of colors as they animate across the screen. “Noisy,” the bastardization of Jordan’s Portal response is a similar but less stunning visually.

The transmutation of my peers’ artwork into a different form suggests that I might have a higher opinion of my own creations. This also reflects the status of Paracelsus, who was estranged to his contemporary community of scholars and doctors. My remix project might espouse a similar reaction from the artists whose work I manipulated for my own purposes.

 

MART 702: Portal

Here’s my second post for Media-ART 702. Last week, we played Portal and discussed the game’s themes of self and surveillance. My project response to Portal is a mock webpage for an imagined service that provides a new use for data stored to today’s popular social media platforms. The website is available here: familybook.co.nf

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Artist Statement (in case you’re confused, but I think the project speaks for itself):

Portal, a 2007 video game developed by Valve Corporation, shares in common the controls and aesthetics of a traditional first-person shooter. The puzzle-based room navigation as assisted by a portal gun, however, is anything but orthodox. Portal places players in the role of a test subject at the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, a facility that studies the corporation’s experimental (and potentially dangerous) technologies. Throughout a series of tests, players are provided a gun that fires inter-spatial portals that function as doorways. These thresholds are fired onto flat surfaces to provide access to additional areas of the test chambers that cannot otherwise by reached. The game challenges players to become problem solvers as they avoid various obstacles such as turrets, impassable force fields, and poisonous water in order to make their way to the exit area. The creative placement and, at times, carefully timed firing, of portals onto flat surfaces is the main mechanic for play in this game.

In addition to engaging gameplay, Portal also tells a compelling story. As mentioned above, the setting is a testing facility and the portal gun is provided to players in context of a routine laboratory test. When players make progress to new test chambers (i.e. levels), they are encouraged by the melodic, disembodied voice of GLaDOS, an artificial intelligence program, to continue onwards with the promise of “cake” and “grief counseling” upon completion of all test sequences. Each room features several security cameras to signify the all-seeing presence of GLaDOS, who constantly monitors the activity of players to provide instructions and feedback. In this way, GLaDOS serves as the narrator to the game’s events. It is players that move from room to room and advance the plot, but it is GLaDOS who provides the context. Players, as embodied in the character, are entirely mute. All narrative information, including what happened, how it happened, and what will happen, is provided by one character and is, therefore, subject to bias.

Portal is still relevant to gamers and for game critics/scholars years after its release. What has allowed this game to stand out in a saturated market and become a fan favorite in the collective consciousness of gamers is its memorable protagonist and antagonist duo, Chell and GLaDOS.  The player-as-Chell is silent, a common archetype of first-person characterization because it encourages players to suture themselves to the body of the player-character and to become immersed within the gameworld. From the first-person perspective, Chell’s body is not seen until the player encounters their first portal. Looking into a portal, the player is able to see the body of Chell stepping into and exiting from one portal to the other. This allows players to catch brief glimpses of the character’s body. The first appearance of Chell reveals that the player-as-Chell is, in fact, a woman. Chell’s gender plays against the expectations of gamers because many first-person shooter games often, almost ideologically, default to a male character for the player’s control. Chell’s embodiment of the player-as-female is striking not only because it is atypical, but also because she has a counterpart in GLaDOS.

In video games, it is unusual that both the protagonist and antagonist are female, and in this respect, the subtext is worth investigating. GLaDOS is Chell’s antithesis; she lacks a human corporeal form and, for most of the game, remains a disembodied voice. In contrast, Chell has a body but never speaks. Together, but separately, they constitute a “complete” person, or in this case, woman. These characteristics of Chell and GLaDOS conjure to mind the old sexist statement that, “women should be seen and not heard.” Chell, as the seen but not heard woman, ultimately fights against and destroys the woman who is heard but not seen, GLaDOS. The opposition between these two women suggests that Portal might make a statement about the expectations for women in a “man’s world.”

There is also the age-old adage that says that, “actions speak louder than words.” This is also useful for the discussion of these two characters. Players-as-Chell are given the choices/actions that lead to the (apparent) destruction of GLaDOS. Throughout the events of the game, GLaDOS provides a near-constant barrage of commentary. In the beginning, it manifests as lukewarm praise, only to intensify to chiding reprimands, passive-aggressive statements, and, towards the end, snide insults. In Portal, Chell, the index of “action” overcomes the “words” of GLaDOS and escapes almost certain death. This symbolism might allude that it is our choices, not our words, which define who we are and what we become. Words are easily forgotten, but actions rarely are.

Portal may or may not make a statement about sexism or passive and active personalities; the game’s message and characterizations can be interpreted many ways. Regardless of the type of subtext one chooses to read, what I find most interesting about Chell and GLaDOS is that they are both incomplete characterizations. In this respect, gender is a moot point; I place the emphasis on their piecemeal forms. Chell represented as body/action and GLaDOS as voice/words made me consider how “self” is represented (and stored) in the domain of social media, now and in the future. In the relationship between these two characters a variety of symbolic messages may be read; in the context of my project, I view GLaDOS to represent social media and Chell as the user of such a service.

My response to Portal is a commentary on this theme. FamilyBook.com is a mock website and video for an imagined online service that provides users access to data stored on today’s popular social media platforms. I built the webpage using Adobe Dreamweaver and coded it with HTML and CSS; I did not use a template. The video was captured from my laptop using QuickTime and edited using VideoPad freeware. I also provide the voiceover narration. The logo and “family tree” image were created using the freeware graphics-editing program GIMP.

This project envisions that, in the not-to-distant future, popular social media platforms such Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and Instagram will become obsolete and defunct. They will likely be replaced with advances in technologies and changes to social mores and practices that occur over generational shifts and population changes. However, the data stored to a social media platform may continue to exist long after the demise of the actual service. FamilyBook.com suggests that the data saved to social media servers might be used in unexpected ways many years from now. It invites people to reconsider how they use such services and their relationship to the social media/corporate entity.

A service like FamilyBook implies that social media data may be available for new uses in the future. It proposes that personal data saved to social media might become searchable as an online resource for family members, historians, and the general public. This envisioned use is not unlike the contemporary service Ancestry.com, which allows users to browse massive databases of census records, city directories, voting lists, travel logs, military service documents, marriage licenses, birth and death certificates, and other digitized data from the recent past.

In this contemporary moment, information is decreasingly stored on the paper document and increasingly saved to a digital format. I am oddly fascinated that personal Facebook profiles, including statuses and photos, continue to exist after the death of the person to which they belong. My bizarre and cynical theory that data from Facebook might become available as a service similar to Ancestry.com; that is, future people (this generation’s great-great-grand-children) might pay to access Facebook as an archive for the retrieval of data about their ancestors (i.e., people who use Facebook today), is not so implausible when understood in the context of today’s methods of genealogical and historical research. During the research process, information is pulled from a wide array of available sources. This assumes that social media will be an invaluable time capsule for the researchers in future generations.

My response to Portal invites a critique of the practice of habitual photo/status sharing via social media and suggests that such activities might have unforeseen repercussions decades after the time of original posting. I was inspired by Portal‘s theme song, “Still Alive,” as sung by GLaDOS during the end credits. I find that the lines “While you’re dying I’ll be still alive. / And when you’re dead I will be still alive” are particularly relevant to my project. In the context of FamilyBook, I take this to mean that social media profiles will “live on” to represent their users long after they cease to exist in the real world. The gaze remains upon individuals long after the demise of their corporeal form; yet, this idea is rarely something that is considered by the average user of social media.  Most people who use social media share information about their lives with friends and family and think only in terms of the present moment.

The FamilyBook.com project reveals that personal data distributed on social media might be “still alive” and continue to represent individuals long after they die. This project asks its viewers to reconsider the long-term consequences of using social media because these platforms store valuable personal information to databases for a period of time unknown to the user. There is also a large degree of invisible surveillance that monitors user’s activities on services like Facebook. For example, data stored via Facebook exceeds that of what is publicly viewable on the profile timeline. According to Facebook’s Data Use Policy, “We receive data about you whenever you use or are running Facebook, such as when you look at another person’s timeline, send or receive a message, search for a friend or a Page, click on, view or otherwise interact with things, use a Facebook mobile app, or make purchases through Facebook” (https://www.facebook.com/about/privacy/your-info, accessed February 10, 2014).

In this respect, Facebook.com and similar social media services, are akin to GLaDOS because they too are monstrous, all-seeing, all-knowing entities. Everything posted to a social media profile is saved to massive, comprehensive databases. This is not unlike GLaDOS who oversees and analyzes the series of tests performed by Chell. As an AI computer, GLaDOS has her own database for storing and retrieving information. She even imparts this knowledge to the player about Chell’s past and suggests that she has “no friends” and was “adopted.” GLaDOS employs this knowledge to exploit the insecurities of her test subject to signify data/information as power. Here, there is another parallel to Facebook. When personal data such as a status update, photo upload, GPS check-in, or comment is posted, it is certain that an entity like Facebook, as long as its servers are “still alive,” might have access to it for years, decades, even centuries, after the time of the original submission. Data of the magnitude amassed from social media is indeed a powerful tool for a corporation.

The user of social media is not unlike Chell, who, while actively agrees to the terms of use and openly participates according to the rules, is subservient to the system. It is also relevant to consider that Chell is only useful to GLaDOs as a means to an end: to test the portal gun. Once the test is complete and the data is collected, Chell becomes expendable. But, this is also the moment in which the player-as-Chell decides to fight back at GLaDOS. Once the player-as-Chell becomes aware that they have been used and that they will not be promised their freedom (or cake), they take the initiative to destroy GLaDOS. Similar to the self-serving AI, the all-seeing, all-knowing Facebook Inc. amasses data, not for the benefit of the people to which it originally belonged, but to make a profit.

In this regard, users of social media sites such as Facebook are not the recipients of a product, but the product being sold. It is public knowledge that Facebook reaps revenue from advertising space. Users of Facebook, therefore, are the product being sold to the advertisers. To make for effective audience reach, Facebook allows advertisers to cater to their specific demographics; i.e. certain ads will only appear on the newsfeed for specific locations and vary depending on the age, gender, and “likes” of the user who is accessing the site. In order to do this, Facebook pulls the data about a user’s location, interests, and gender. This method of demographic-based advertising encourages companies and services to place their ad on the website because they will reach niche audiences. In this way, Facebook sells its users’ data and eyeballs to companies who purchase the ad-space. Facebook is like GLaDOS; and a user of its service is not unlike Chell, incompletely represented as various points of data, that may or may not be useful.

Portal is a fascinating game to play and interpret. The incomplete characterizations of Chell and GLaDOS as two very different and oppositional women make them a memorable duo.  My response to the game has taken this theme of incomplete forms, and the messages of surveillance and power, and applied them to contemporary social media services and their habitual use. The imagined FamilyBook service is a critique of social media entities and their practices. The project encourages people to look beyond the present moment to envision a future service that offers personal data posted to social media to the public (for a price). The website is an uncomfortably reminder that personal data might be “still alive” to represent the self digitally, long after the time of original submission of data and that this information may reach unanticipated audiences. It also asks people to consider how beneficial the relationship that one has with a social media platform, such as Facebook, may or may not actually be. This is not unlike the relationship that Chell experiences with GLaDOS in Portal. At first, the AI appears helpful, but the façade emerges once she has what she wants: the cold data amassed from a series of tests performed by the human user, who is only useful as a means to an end.

MART 702: Response to “Invisible Cities”

Download the project, Invisible Boundaries, for Mac OSX.

Invisible Boundaries is, first and foremost, an artistic response to Italo Calvino’s text Invisible Cities. The narrative of the book is about Marco Polo’s companionship with emperor Kublai Khan. Marco Polo tells to emperor Kublai Khan fantastical stories about the myriad cities within his expansive empire. Each city, described to readers (and Kublai Khan) in one-to-two page chapters, is more unbelievable than the last, but with good reason: the cities that Marco Polo describes do not actually exist. In fact, the truth (revealed halfway through the book) is that each city described is actually the same: Venice.

Calvino’s Invisible Cities alludes to many different themes. A reoccurring analogy in the book is one of place and memory. Many of the different cities (i.e. chapters) resonate a sense of longing/nostalgia for a past/place that are impossible to re-experience/revisit. For example, Calvino’s description of Isidora (Cities & Memory) reads, “In the square there is the wall where the old men sit and watch the young go by; he [an old man] is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories” (p.8). I interpret Calvino to mean that humans never truly appreciate what they have until it is gone. When something is no longer as it once was, like the old men who stare at the city’s youth, one can only remember. It is in a moment of remembrance that humans pine for what they no longer have. Time moves forward and the people, places, and choices that once were present are no longer available. Invisible Cities constantly reminds readers of the ephemeral nature of existence (peoples and places) and the memories associated with them. This is a theme I aimed to recreate in Invisible Boundaries.

Invisible Boundaries is a first person virtual experience in which users explore the personal memories of the artist. These “memories” (i.e. levels) represent the lingering vestiges of her childhood home in Lebanon, Connecticut. The player is invited to walk across a mostly linear landscape for an unknown purpose. Invisible Boundaries never makes its objective clear. Users may find the experience trivial, at best, or frustrating, at worst. This is the artist’s intent. All movement is linear; the scenery lacks contextualization (and possibly coherence) aside from the obvious that there is a sense of similarity between the levels; and the message/narrative is extremely abstract. Is it worth your time to venture into the landscape of Invisible Boundaries? The artist’s response is to break it. The majority of the experience is succinct and obvious; however, there are areas where the seams are broken, much like “real” memories. A glitch may be exploited here or there and something unexpected may occur as result. Memories often conceal just as much as they reveal; similarly, Invisible Boundaries suggests that its users break through the invisible walls that confine them.

The prose of Invisible Cites features hazy, dream-like visuals and thought-provoking analogies. Unlike the book, Invisible Boundaries does not feature hazy, dream like visuals and thought-provoking analogies. In these attempts it is likely a failure. What it achieves, at its most base, is to force players along a predetermined path across one of four landscapes. The first of these scenes guides players towards a lake. A stonewall frames the pathway, evoking the historic New England atmosphere. Once players reach the lakefront, they are presented with a wooden dock. When the player walks on the dock they are suddenly transported to the opposite side of the lake and the sun is setting. What does this sudden interruption signify? Could it be a flash-forward in time and space? Or is it a new memory altogether? The player can only move onward; the interpretation is as good as anyone’s.  When Marco (i.e. Calvino) describes Zaira (Cities & Memory) he says that,

“This city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lighting rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls” (p.11). I take this passage to mean that spaces may be “read” like a text; signs (e.g. scratches, indentations, scrolls) leave a minute trace of what once was. In this way, certain signs in a space may evoke memories. These marks/memories within cities/spaces/landscapes are indexes to the past; a past that is often foreign and unknowable because the past that is known about a specific place/time is limited to that of one’s own experiences. A place has different meanings and associations for each person who encounters it. Invisible Boundaries has it’s own marks that may signify different associations for different people.

Calvino addresses the unknowable in terms of place, experience, memory, and self. Invisible Boundaries attempts to channel these themes without blatantly acknowledging them. In his description of the city Tamara (Cities & Signs), Calvino explains that, “The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things…” (p.13). From this, I understand him to mean that one’s daily observances are governed by the reading and interpretation of the images around them. In our memories, we remember vague, but selected, images of privilege and give them vital meaning in order to better understand past experiences. The images, or signs, in Invisible Boundaries have vital meaning for me (the maker) in the way that I remember my childhood home. However, for anyone else, the representations are arbitrary (and possibly meaningless). Despite the arbitrary nature of signs, much of the imagery in Invisible Boundaries is symbolically charged. For example, the lake and river, fresh bodies of pure water, may connote purity because of their association with nature and baptism. The cemetery has strong symbolism of death, decay, and even fear and superstition. The bonfire may evoke death/rebirth because it may conjure thoughts of a funeral pyre or cremated ashes. For me, the meanings are more personal than these broad associations. The lake is where I spent my summers; the river is where I used to camp; the cemetery is where I rubbed the markings of old tombstones; the fire represents the giant bonfire my dad made in the backyard on the fourth of July. Calvino was aware of the power of particular signs in memories that espouse feelings and associations, as am I.

While there is an extent of freedom in respect to interpretation of the virtual signs, the design forces users to subject themselves to the rules of Invisible Boundaries. Calvino’s description of the city of Tamara is useful in this respect: “Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts” (p.14). In Invisible Boundaries, a player may assume that they have agency in this virtual world; in actuality, there is little. A guided path and invisible barriers prevent users from true freedom and opportunity to explore. The world has a discourse that must be obeyed to “complete” the experience; the user is subordinate to these rules, much like a visitor’s relationship to Tamara.

Calvino continues to explain that, “However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it” (p.14). Calvino’s words beg the question: do we ever really know a place? And once we leave, how do we really know that we have been? The more distant our memories are from the real, lived experience, the more dream-like and fictitious they become. People may visit a place, but after they leave it, all that they take with them are the memories. And memories paint an incomplete picture; they are simulacrum of the real. Therefore, it can be surmised that people often leave places “without having discovered it” because they misinterpret/misunderstand it.  At face value, Invisible Boundaries is defined by the invisible walls constructed from “box colliders” and the 3D models of trees, stonewalls, fences, and vegetation that line the perimeter of the virtual world. These objects are purposely placed to structure the experience. They enforce the idea that a user may “visit” this representational landscape, but they will never really “know” it. Furthermore, because this virtual world is a simulation of my personal memories that represent my childhood home, one cannot “know” the real place, either.

Invisible Cities is redundant. Cities share thematic chapters (e.g. “Cities & Memory,” “Cities & Desire,” “Cities & Signs,” etc.); some cities have almost identical allegories and symbolism in the stories as told by Marco Polo. This is intentional. Halfway through the narrative the audience learns that each of the cities is the same; Marco Polo simply describes the city of Venice to Kublai Khan each and every time. This is hinted at early in the book. When Marco (i.e. Calvino) describes Zirma (Cities & Signs) he says that, “The city is redundant: it repeats itself so that something will stick in the mind… Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist” (p.19). It begs me to ponder; does routine habit/practice/experience skew  memories or give privilege to some memories over others? People have a way of explaining a situation or series of events as, “It was all a blur to me.” I understand this in the context of Calvino’s text to mean that certain images/signs are privileged over others in a way to provide an aid to memories. The redundancy in recounting memories allows people to remember, and in the moment one remembers, it is the only instance that the past “exists” again. Invisible Boundaries is likewise redundant. Once the experience is complete, it may be replayed, but only to assume the same cycle. The cyclical experience is not unlike memory recall. Generally speaking, people remember to remember; in remembering, one may remember something that they had previously forgotten. Recollection is an unending, cycle of redundancy; this redundancy is necessary to maintain a semblance of self-awareness.

On his discussion of a “Continuous City” called Trude, Marco Polo/Calvino explains that, “This was the first time I had come to Trude, but I already knew the hotel where I happened to be lodged… The world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end” (p.128). I interpret him to mean that people see familiarity everywhere; for this reason, there are some things that are inescapable, especially the past. There is always a sign (a reminder) that may trigger a memory of familiarity, that unusual feeling of déjà vu. Invisible Boundaries imparts a similar sense of déjà vu with each leap forward to a new scene/memory. There is a sense of familiarity of the landscape that each user will come to understand differently based on their unique, individual lived experiences.

Speaking on Tamara, Calvino adds “Outside, the land stretches, empty, to the horizon; the sky opens, with speeding clouds. In the shape that chance and wind give the clouds, you are already intent on recognizing figures; a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant…” I take this to mean that people constantly construct the world around them through signs in order to make meaning… and sometimes, people make meaning where there is none just to make sense of the perceived reality. Sometimes, a cloud should just be a cloud. But for most of humanity, they want the cloud to be something more than the abstract concentration of ephemeral condensation. Humans, in their vain attempt to understand, want to give the “cloud” meaning, an explanation that provides context; e.g. why must the dark cloud blot out the happy, eternal sunshine? So that the sun may be all the more appreciated when it resurfaces. Similarly, deriving meaning from memory provides comfort that life and experience is knowable; that there is some kind of “point” or value in the suffering and pain that life unexpectedly produces.

Similarly, yet differently, Invisible Boundaries aims to recreate these connotations associated with memories of a place. Memory, not unlike experience, is fleeting. When one recalls a past event/place, the memory of it is likely to change with every retelling; i.e. one may depend more upon the “spoke words” that are used to retell a memory because, overtime, the visuals become less vivid and the “images” that account for a memory are rendered unreliable. Recalling and retelling ultimately leads to an erosion of one’s true memories; i.e. the memories that are preserved shortly after the actual, lived experience. As such, all memories become an imperfect recollection. Memories are a large part of what constitutes the self. Therefore, if memories are imperfect it can be surmised that people are also imperfect. If Invisible Boundaries is flawed or pointless it is as an extension of my imperfect self.