We begin with the protagonist being arrested, drugged, beaten, and accused of unknown crimes by a corrupt police force. Players are quickly asked to sign their name to a confession, without knowing what they’re confessing to, let alone whether they’re actually guilty. A butterfly tells you that you are the only hope for humanity, but that your chances of victory are slim to none.
At the beginning of Undertale, the player character has the opportunity to look at themselves in a mirror. Interacting with the reflection gives you one simple line: “It’s you!” In the immediate it’s just a cute moment, a fun little interaction in a game packed full of them. But hours later, towards the end of the game’s pacifist route and after hours of challenges, trials, and growth, there is another mirror. It looks just like the first; even the room you find it is nearly identical. This time, however, the message upon interacting with it is different, an acknowledgement of how far the player has come and how they’ve grown: “Despite everything, it’s still you.”
Morgan Yu, the protagonist of Arkane Studios’ 2017 immersive sim Prey, also goes through an awful lot over the course of their game. Waking up with no memories is already a pretty rough start to the morning, but to then find out your life is a Truman Show-esque simulation designed to monitor your every move, then find out the only reason that simulation has been interrupted is an invasion of human-munching psychic aliens? That’s only the beginning of Morgan Yu’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Between fighting to survive, seeing loved ones die, and the constant manipulation from the other human denizens of Talos I, the only word that seems to convey the magnitude of impact on Morgan’s psyche is traumatic. Morgan is a person suffering from trauma, both immediate and from the past.
Trauma can change a person in two ways: it leaves scars on our bodies and minds, a direct impact of the event permanently changing who we are; it also prompts us to actively change, to adapt and equip ourselves to deal with our newfound reality and survive. While I’m sure the events of Prey leave plenty of physical and mental scars on Morgan, it’s this second method we particularly want to focus on. During the game, Morgan literally takes on aspects of the alien attackers, the Typhon, in order to fight back against them. The powers and abilities Morgan is granted by Neuromods are permanent effects, a kind of hardened skin put on to reckon with a new reality. But not only are many of those powers of Typhon origin, the Neuromods themselves are made from the Typhon’s organic matter; the very source and representation of Morgan’s trauma is permanently within them. Morgan carries that experience as an aspect of themselves in a very literal and physical way, as a constant part of their being and an irreconcilable change in their character.
Alex Garland’s 2018 film adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is refreshingly straightforward about its themes regarding trauma, and how it becomes a part of its bearer. In the film, the Shimmer as an environment, a location, represents the traumatic events of the characters’ lives and the collective mass of a lifetime of experience and hardship. It seeks to display for the audience how that alters—and ultimately becomes an inescapable part of—the self.
The Typhon in Prey act as a similar metaphor, but with the important distinction that the internalization of the Typhon is conscious. Where the Shimmer forces itself upon its victims and makes a home in their minds and bodies, the way a traumatic experience often will, Morgan Yu intentionally takes upon aspects of the Typhon as a matter of survival. It isn’t voluntary, per se, as the choice is at the very least made under great duress, but it is active. The Typhon powers are all the ways we learn to protect ourselves from further harm after a traumatic event; the barriers of mistrust we put between ourselves and other people, the way we avoid places, feelings, smells, and visuals that remind us of our pain, the way we avoid situations or circumstances resembling those we would rather forget. The aliens are a manifestation of the changes we bring upon ourselves, both consciously and unconsciously, in order to keep moving forward through life.
Over a lifetime one accumulates countless scars and learns thousands of little behaviours to keep from repeating past trauma, and like a biological Ship of Theseus eventually all those little changes add up. Eventually, you have to ask if what remains is the same person. As Morgan acquires Typhon powers, the security turrets of Talos I stop recognizing them as even being human, having taken on so much of the alien biology and psychology as to be indistinguishable, at least as far as computers are concerned. Much of Prey’s narrative is focused on this idea, that someone can change so much that they are functionally a different person. The experiments Morgan was the subject of before the game’s opening were to determine how Neuromods would change the subject’s personality, and Morgan even says they no longer recognize recordings of their prior iterations as themselves. If the player helps Danielle Sho and deals with the imposter who killed her girlfriend, Sho will tell Morgan they seems like a completely different person than before the Neuromods. Mikhaila Ilyushin will say something very similar if you are honest with her at the end of her own quest, and even Morgan’s own brother Alex says he believes “the old Morgan is still in there”, implying the Morgan he sees now is unrecognizable to him.
Trauma isn’t always a big, scary event however, and it isn’t the only experience that leaves a permanent mark. Every event in our lives and every person we meet is absorbed and becomes a small part of us. In Annihilation, this is represented by the protagonists literally taking on each other’s physical characteristics, most notably the Ouroboros tattoo first sported by Anya and Kane but eventually the whole of their respective teams. Prey, on the other hand, features the Phantom enemy, a physical manifestation of psyche left behind by dead members of the Talos I crew. Every one of Morgan’s co-workers, from employees briefly passed by in the hall to close personal friends and associates, is a part of their experience, and ultimately shapes who they are. It’s theorized in-game that the Typhon are largely made up of both the crew’s organic matter and their psychic energy, that the aliens literally are the people they consume. Whether we’re talking about the experience of the alien outbreak or the physical makeup of the neuromods, in a very literal way the thing that is shaping Morgan, and changing them into a new person, is all the people around them in their daily life. This is primarily characterized through violence, because this is an action-focused video game where you blow up aliens with your mind, and also several big guns, but it isn’t necessary to interpret this as entirely negative. The people in our lives change us in a myriad of ways, for better or for worse, but either way become an inseparable part of us.
One could argue the purely human powers available through Neuromods are the positive impacts those around us have; the ways our loved ones make us stronger or the behaviours we emulate from those we admire. A human powers-only playthrough of Prey is a version of the story where Morgan has healthy habits and coping mechanisms and manages to get through their very bad day at work with no serious side effects.
Prey asks the question, can you truly remain yourself through trauma, a lifetime of experiences, and the inevitable influence of those around you? It also seems to offer a pretty firm answer: no. The you of today is not the you of yesterday. This ship is no longer the one of Theseus. But through all of this my attention is drawn to, of all things, the games Status screen, featuring the same still image of Morgan looking back at the player as a reflection in a mirror. There’s some reassurance to be found there. No matter what Neuromods you install, no matter what conditions you accrue or choices you make, the same face of Morgan is there looking back. Despite everything.
When the Nemesis first attacked me in Resident Evil 3, I was terrified. It was 1999, and I’d already played Resident Evil 2, dabbled in other horror games, watched too many episodes of The X-Files late at night while bonding with my dad; I knew all about scary monsters. But the Nemesis was something else; he felt like a real, living threat. The way he stalked Jill Valentine around the maps of the game seemed, at the time, to be a serious and ever-present problem that could ruin my day at any moment. This looming quality that the Nemesis has, a feeling that he might be reaching beyond the boundaries of the rest of the game, is one reason the creature continues to occupy the collective minds of horror game enthusiasts over 20 years later.
Capcom’s remade version of the Nemesis—repackaged and gifted high-definition by the 2020 remake of Resident Evil 3—should have been a triumphant return for the beefy, tentacle-whipping gentleman. Instead, it left me wondering what the big deal was in the first place. Resident Evil 3 Remake was subjected to a fair amount of criticism on release, from the short length of the game, to the absence of large sections of the original game. But, after finishing the game and sitting with the experience, I think there was a fundamental misunderstanding of the Nemesis as a character and as a mechanic, which made it impossible for the Remake to match up to the original game.
What does the original Nemesis represent in the world of Resident Evil 3? I mean that in a mechanical, practical sense, not philosophically; in the broader narrative of Resident Evil he mostly represents the idea that Umbrella will waste as much money as possible trying to clean up the mess they made by spending too much money on the last thing.
In terms of mechanical purpose, Nemesis is there to trouble the player, to harass them and create a general sense of unease as they attempt to work on whatever the actual problem is in Raccoon City. Essentially, RE3: Nemesis is about what it would be like to play a Resident Evil game if the final boss was chasing you for six hours straight. It’s a nightmare. Collecting gems from around the city streets so you can open a door with a clock puzzle is manageable, doing that while a brick-house maniac with a rocket launcher chases you at full sprint is tense. Add to that Nemesis’s habit of pursuing you across different parts of the game’s locations—something almost no creature in any of the games could dream of doing—and you’re set up for an experience far more tense than the normal flow of static enemies and scripted boss fights. You’re being hunted.
New Nemesis, in comparison, exists in a cage. Resident Evil 3 Remake is a much more linear experience than its source material, guiding players on a strict roller-coaster of fire, explosions and zombie mayhem which makes the 1999 game look positively sedate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but the concept of a relentless hunter existing only to track down the player simply doesn’t function in that environment. While there is a point right after his first appearance where Nemesis stalks you through a dollhouse-scale section of the city, this quickly gives way to a series of scripted encounters.
Worse, all of the later encounters are boss fights with an increasingly gooey and shapeless Nemesis, transformed into lesser and larger versions of himself to keep up with the rapid pace of the rest of the game. At two distinct points in the game, Nemesis acquires a new weapon—flamethrower and rocket launcher, respectively—in what should be terrifying moments for players. But both times the experience is undercut by a design that favours forward momentum at all costs. When he shows up with the flamethrower, Jill simply has to run up a bunch of ladders until she reaches the rooftop boss fight. When the rocket launcher appears, it’s just a matter of dodging while yet again running along a single path as quickly as possible. By making the Nemesis a collection of events rather than an independent force, his appearances are predictable and inevitable. He isn’t hunting you anymore, he’s just another obstacle to deal with, like a locked door, or a zombie sleeping in a hallway.
Boss fights against the creature are fine, I suppose, as boss fights go. Hit the big monster as many times as you can with all of your resources until he goes down. Thematically, though, they do nothing but damage to the idea of an unstoppable foe. Setting him up in so many boss fights with so little time in-between necessarily frames the Nemesis as an enemy that can be bested. If there’s a boss fight, then you can kill him; and things that you can kill over and over again are not very scary.
Nemesis was an outrageous bullet sponge in the original as well, but with the caveat that almost every fight against him is a calculated choice made by the player. Very few encounters with the Nemesis in the 1999 game make combat mandatory, and most players are encouraged to run. There are rewards for besting him at various points, however the resource drain and the constant threat to your life is presented as a large risk. This is in the Remake to a smaller extent, but the opportunities are diminished, most are gone and replaced with compulsory boss fights, and the concept is eroded by making Nemesis not particularly tough to take down. Even Jill herself doesn’t seem particularly worried, with her new action-hero coat of paint, constantly yelling at the monster and showing more annoyance than concern. The scary ragdolling of Jill in the original, when Nemesis would pick her up and throw her around like a helpless kitten, is replaced with a sort of resigned indifference.
One of the ways that video games build tension, particularly in the horror genre, is by using the player’s agency against them. You have to walk through that door, you have to decide when to shoot and when to run away, you need to make all of these decisions that could well be wrong. If something horrific happens to the character, it’s because you made some or all of their decisions up to that point. Resident Evil 3: Nemesis understood that well, even putting hyper-dramatic story decision points before many Nemesis encounters, as if to point at him and say “this guy is going to kill you if you make one wrong move.” The remake doesn’t want you to make any decisions at all, frequently putting you on rails toward the next encounter, or gifting you with so many supplies that it’s clear they want you to succeed in all cases.
There’s a desperation in the way RE3 Remake pushes the action focus of the original game into overdrive, harkening back to the edgy marketing of the 1990s and early 2000s. Remember Resident Evil? Well this isn’t your mum’s survival horror, it’s got explosions, and swearing, and everyone is running all the time, and more explosions. Please take us seriously. It wants to be an action game so badly, in fact, that it forgets how you make action meaningful in the first place. Remake opens with a few scenes in Jill’s apartment, just like the original, but these are rapidly interrupted when Nemesis smashes through a wall with a plastic bag on his head, throwing Jill through several walls and floors. The building catches on fire, you have to run away in a scripted sequence, and it’s all trying very, very hard to set up a big, frightening enemy. But there is no setup, there’s only a bombastic wall smash and a lot of fire. The action is all meaningless because there’s no tension or investment from the audience. We just got here, now everything is broken. This sort of in-media-res storytelling would be fine, except the story never slows down to do that foundational work later. In fact, it actively chooses to forget some important points it did manage to set up in that opening, like the attempted exposing of Umbrella, and Jill’s PTSD from the events of the first game.
This strange tendency to Go Fast and Break Everything extends, unfortunately, to the Nemesis’ physical and mechanical design. In the original, Nemesis remained as a seven-foot-tall, leather-clad mutant man for the majority of the game, and even when he transformed it was into something that was still clearly humanoid (albeit with a six fold increase in back tentacles). This recognisable and oddly familiar form was a big factor not just in making him an iconic enemy, but in making his presence unsettling. It’s impossible to avoid thinking about the human hands behind the creation of the bioweapon, the once-human shell that was used to build the monster in the first place, the distinctly human villains making specifically nasty decisions in the name of money and power. Unlike a zombie, or a licker, or a slightly bigger shark, someone made the Nemesis, had the perfect outfit designed for him, thought about what sort of weapons would be able to be fired by his mutated fingers. The ominous thudding of his enormous boots is an awful, humanising reminder of his approach.
You’re being hunted by something very explicitly designed to murder you, and it was sent here to do that. That’s far more troubling than just some monster. It has intent. When it mutters S.T.A.R.S. under its breath, it’s because Nemesis is thinking about you.
In the Remake, Nemesis spends about a minute with a bag on his head, then about an hour in his first “dressed” form. Before you can really get used to him being around, he mutates into a giant angry dog; and before you can get used to that, he mutates again into a slightly larger dog with bigger tentacles. By the end of the game, he’s a pile of pulsating goo, and then he gets blown up. Where Nemesis’ face and silhouette became a nightmarish reminder of your awful situation in the original, in Remake we never get a chance to care about any version of him one way or another. In the same way giving a human face to the enemy helps an audience connect, taking an enemy’s face away instantly distances us from them. We can’t relate, so we can’t care either. Nemesis’ degeneration at the end of the original Resident Evil 3 was cathartic, a subtle realisation that this thing chasing us wasn’t actually a person, that it could be destroyed after all. Remake’s Nemesis is a constantly melting rabid dog, dangerous but forgettable.
Ultimately, what purpose does the Nemesis serve? In the Remake, I’m genuinely not sure. Aside from being a scary enemy for Jill Valentine to overcome, he seems to just exist as a recurring boss. Original Nemesis provides an impetus for fear while exploring; an instant tension builder for every scene he isn’t in, and a big scare when he does show up. He permeates every aspect of how the player conducts themselves in the game. But the Remake version can’t do that, because there really isn’t much exploration, and once he becomes Clifford the Big Meaty Dog he no longer represents anything tangible during normal play. He just won’t fit, for a start.
Outside of redesigning the entire game to have more of a focus on exploration and looping through familiar areas (giving Nemesis a reason to show up and disrupt that loop), it’s strange that they didn’t use him to build on the existing themes brought up in the opening. Nemesis’ ability to infect people and zombies with a stronger version of the virus seems to dovetail very nicely into Jill’s hallucinatory fears about turning into a zombie herself. In the original and the remake, Jill is infected by Nemesis partway through the game; you can easily imagine a version of Resident Evil 3 where each encounter with Nemesis has the chance to increase that infection, where Jill’s anxiety and fear begins to overcome her to the point where it affects her ability to function. If something like that were included, avoiding the monster has meaning and benefits, every encounter has stakes for the player and the character.
As I said, Resident Evil 3 Remake got what is commonly referred to as a Mixed Response. But I don’t think the key problems with the game have anything to do with its length or specific mechanics; it seems more like the development team were so focused on being a sufficiently different follow-up to Resident Evil 2’s remake that they sidestepped actually making this game about anything. The action focus is a response to RE2 being more slow and designed around backtracking, the aggressive and bombastic characters are the antithesis of the softer Resident Evil 2 cast, and the Nemesis is the twisted result of a promise not to make something too much like RE2’s Mr. X. It’s a shame that this game wasn’t viewed as more of an update to the classic 1999 game, instead of as a companion to RE2 Remake. If it had been the former, we might have seen a little more respect paid to the Nemesis concept, and the important role it plays in shaping the story and mechanics around it.
Video games have a complicated relationship with sex. Relationships in general, romance as a side note, but particularly sex, and all the sex-adjacent parts of life. If I ask you to think about sex in games, some will immediately remember the Hot Coffee incident, where Rockstar accidentally left code in GTA San Andreas which allowed the main character to have poorly animated, full-clothed dry humping sessions with NPCs; it was hard to swallow that as a controversy even at the time, but still occupies the industry consciousness. Some might think of Bioware’s adorably tame fades-to-black, where Commander Shepard or Thedas’ Inquisitor culminate their game-long romance by cuddling their special someone in bed and, well, you know, the thing happens.
What you won’t see very often (outside of games literally about sex) is characters in a story who are absolutely gagging for one another, consumed by sexual or romantic feelings in a meaningful way. Nobody really wants to bang in mainstream video games, basically. They might talk your ear off about their emotions and how important you are to them, or how the galaxy exploding really made them think about what matters, but they don’t get messy. It’s all sterile, calculated, friendly the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Windows 11, or a Children’s Illustrated Bible is friendly.
And then there’s Final Fantasy VII Remake, kicking in the door, covered in sweat and dirt, shirt half untucked, confused and embarrassed look on its face. Even if you haven’t played it, the first thing you probably learned about the game was that the character designs were all uncomfortably hot, and that’s part of the appeal, but beyond the superficial FFVIIR has a raw, haphazard sexuality present in every aspect of its design. The characters aren’t just sexy, they’re sexual. Human. They want one another in a breathtakingly forward manner, stopping the plot in its tracks frequently to have an indulgent pine over one of their very sexy colleagues.
Let’s take a look at Jessie Rasberry, which absolutely is her real name. In the original game, Jessie is an Avalanche freedom fighter who helps blow up a few Shinra reactors before getting unambiguously pancaked by a falling city block. In the Remake, however, she’s reimagined primarily as Someone Who Wants to Have Sex With Cloud Strife. This version of the character flirts mercilessly with Cloud, teasingly attempts to get his attention at various points, gives him gifts, and invites him to meet her parents (in order to rob them). Jessie kisses Cloud on the cheek during one mission, which makes Cloud very flustered, because he’s a very large human-shaped golden retriever. Jessie’s flirting is so overt that Cloud at one point tries to divert her by calling her desperate, and she invites him over for a date that has particularly intense sexual implications.
They’re not all so in-your-face horny in Midgar, but that same feeling of humans being humans despite themselves runs through all of the characters. Cloud clearly has heavy feelings for Tifa and weird new emotions bubbling up about Aerith, but he was a Soldier, and they never taught you what to do about awkward sex thoughts; Tifa is a powerful and independent woman, and she still seems very ready to try and make herself known enough to get some romantic attention; Aerith is the quirky Zooey Deschanel next door, however she dedicates a good portion of her energy to making herself come across as sexy and capable as Tifa. Even Barrett—whose sexual exploits are limited to the ones that produced his daughter—exudes a messy vigour in every scene.
A tremendous amount of developer energy has gone into making sure players don’t just find these characters sexy, they find them to be sexual. Ridiculous skin textures, realistic sweating, and hyper-realistic anime-style hair exists not merely to impress the audience, but to impress upon them the three-dimensional nature of the cast. Yes, they’re sexy, but they don’t want to have sex with you, they want to have sex with each other. Which is far more interesting.
That’s what’s so intriguing about the overwhelmingly horny nature of this game, it treats the character’s sexuality as an integral part of the storytelling process. Where many video games may have sexy character designs simply to titillate the player, FFVIIR uses it to increase the emotional and intellectual connection we have to these fictional people. Beyond the literal plot points about terrorism, capitalist hellscapes, living planets, human experimentation, Remake makes us care about the individuals and their dirty thoughts. Aside from Jessie’s eagerness, a lot of the steaminess is communicated with 10% dialogue and 90% body language. In fact, have you seen how good these characters look when they’re touching each other? Do you know how difficult that is to achieve with 3D graphics? Just the scene in the ghost-infested train yard, where Tifa and Aerith both grip Cloud’s oblivious and perfectly-toned arms, must have cost a fortune in technology, time and labour. All to give us another indicator that these people absolutely want to get nasty.
This isn’t a game that shies away from sex or the sexual, and it doesn’t get weirdly defensive or judgemental about it either. Aside from Cloud’s reflex deflection of Jessie’s advances, nobody ever shuns anyone for being sexual or expressing themselves. Midgar is a safe place, at least down below.
Having that sort of acceptance allows them to use these aspects of the characters—and aspects of the human experience—in broader pieces of the game. On several occasions during the game, you have the chance to determine what sort of attractive outfit a character wears. In Tifa’s case, this is done by choosing the description which you think best suits, rather than by just picking the hot one; for Aerith, the dress she wears is picked by the game based on how many people you chose to help with side quests in the Wall Market. Both require you to connect on some level with the characters and the world.
The section where you need to enter Corneo’s mansion, infamously played for laughs in the original because Cloud needs to dress as a woman, is transformed into a complex minigame where Cloud needs to learn to dance as a gateway to learning to express his true self. It’s not accidental that this part of the game uses the language of burlesque, a performance art known for allowing participants to harness their sexual confidence. So many parts of the game that seem frivolous and ridiculous at first glance are actually using the raw humanity of the characters to bring you closer to them as a player.
On a macro scale, this is all serving the bigger story as well. Flirtation, romance, and sex are all framed as a necessary distraction from the soul-sucking dystopia in which these characters live out their lives. Midgar is a horrible place filled with inequality and death, but the people in the slums survive and thrive because they maintain what makes them human. And yes, that includes sex, sometimes. Compare the Wall Market—which we first see as a seedy nightmare full of debauchery and criminals, but later come to embrace as a melting pot of people simply trying to enjoy themselves—to the cold, harsh architecture of the Shinra Headquarters. Shinra represents the cutting away of everything human, flattening and removing imperfections until only things that are ‘useful’ remain; the Wall Market is excessive, loud, filthy, and it has texture. You can sense the stories behind every corner in the Market, and imagine all the inappropriate acts happening behind every door. Nothing sexy has ever happened in the Shinra building, unless you find black marble and expense reports arousing.
Final Fantasy VII Remake’s sexy and sex-distracted characters exist to tell us the same thing that the story of the game does: life is messy, and exciting, and it makes you want to kiss people and make horrible, sexy mistakes, and enjoy all the weird parts. If you take out the sex, the dirt, the fumbling looks and awkward touching, the colour, then you’re killing it. So I sort of hope other developers look at this oddly horny JRPG and see that games could stand to be a little less sanitised and a lot more emotional, to match the unsanitary, emotional people that play them. Let more video game characters bang each other, it’s good storytelling.
Don’t panic, but they’ve released Skyrim again. With the 10th anniversary of The Elder Scrolls V’s initial release, Todd Howard, that little scamp, has graced gaming enthusiasts everywhere with the aptly named Anniversary Edition. We’ve seen all of this before in one form or another (although now there’s fishing, apparently? I promise not to make this about the fishing), and Skyrim itself has rightly become a memetic representation of the industry’s laughable slide toward endless remakes and remasters. The Anniversary Edition was preceded by the Special Edition, which came after the Legendary Edition; you can play the game on PC, 14 flavours of Xbox, Amazon Alexa, select refrigerators, and simply by closing your eyes at night and allowing Bethesda to jack into your dreams. I fully expect to be greeted at the gates of hell upon my death with a copy of Skyrim’s Inferno.
And yet, here I am, lined up to have one more adventure across the frozen wastes of Tamriel, prepared to finally be awake, saved by circumstance, ready to choose no sides in a war between bad people and bad people from slightly further away. Why? What is it that compels me—and thousands of others—to return, over and over, to this world? Ten years on, it’s abundantly clear the primary target audience for Skyrim isn’t fresh faced youngsters, it’s people who have already played the game multiple times. It’s practically a guilty pleasure by now, friends sheepishly noting that they were playing Skyrim again, trying not to make direct eye contact with the dozens of untouched new games that have come out in the interim.
Skyrim is not a masterpiece of narrative, nor is some mythic pinnacle of game design. It is, however, a near-perfect expression of player agency. Many, many jokes have already been made about Todd Howard’s infamous pseudo-quote “See that mountain? You can climb it,” referring to the supposed limitless possibilities and grandiose scale of the RPG. While there are certainly mountains you cannot climb in the game, because a game simply cannot code toward infinity, the core message in the quote does ring true. Do whatever you want, have fun. Skyrim’s central theme is not the discovery of new and exciting story beats, the overcoming of challenges, the chance to meet compelling characters; its guiding principle is to be interactive, to encourage play. In that light, many of the game’s limitations actually begin to look more like boons.
Players interacting with the world of The Elder Scrolls V are essentially akin to children given unfettered access to a full toybox. Inside, there are brightly-coloured figurines, spooky cave sets, plastic animals, dragons, shopfronts, even a CD player. Like a box full of toys, there’s minimal value to knowing the contextual importance of particular characters or locations. Ulfric Stormcloak has as much narrative value to me as decades of Batman comic history has to my 8-year-old. He acts as a gateway to my own exciting adventures, more than a fully-formed character.
Near the beginning of the game, if you’re playing without any time and space-bending modifications, you quickly end up in the town of Riverwood. Inside the Riverwood Trader—the town’s only shop—you can quickly pick up one of your first irrelevant quests, as the proprietor wants you to help return a golden dragon claw that was stolen from his shop. If I do go to Riverwood, I always pick up this quest, even though it’s been completed a thousand times. There’s a warm and familiar comfort to meeting Lucan Valeruis and his sister Camilla, hearing their argument about the theft, offering to be the hero who saves the day. The content of their discussion isn’t vital, they’re archetypal characters: a shop owner in distress and his attractive (and available) sister. You can almost picture a dozen variations of this scene playing out while I hold my Lucan, Camilla and Dragonborn action figures, doing all the voices myself and smashing them together if this is the one time I decide to rob them instead of helping.
Characters and situations in Skyrim are paper thin, largely pointless affairs, which certainly isn’t a compliment to the game. And yet, it’s hard to imagine a more rich universe like ones crafted in titles like The Last of Us or Horizon Zero Dawn ever supporting similar levels of engagement. Context is demanded in these games, where the why matters as much as the how, and your enjoyment is linked to how much you connect with the narrative. In Skyrim you’re dumped into a world made of LEGO blocks and objects designed to help you have fun at the expense of everything else. It inspires a kind of admiration to recognise how deeply the game cares about entertaining you by leveraging methods largely unique to games as a medium.
This inherent malleability means players can interact with the Skyrim box on any number of levels without having to experience significant cognitive dissonance. A wolf glitching out and flying 200 feet into the sky, or an NPC trying to arrest you after they already died, isn’t breaking any immersion, because we were only ever immersed in the play itself. If all the world’s a stage, and we merely players, then everything is part of the show.
Similarly, this blasé attitude to the complexities of worldbuilding and storytelling explains why Skyrim is so heavily and gleefully modded by almost everyone who plays the game. Plugging in new mods to change the way people look, add new adventures, change the genre of the combat, yank out vital parts, or turn all the chickens into kaiju is just throwing more toys into the toybox and encouraging more imaginative play in a world where it was already all about your own imagination. Where discussion might swing toward artistic intent with more narratively and mechanically meaty games, here it seems to practically beg for experimental button-pressing—even before Bethesda’s Creation Club codified and commodified the whole idea. You can’t play Skyrim wrong, any more than you can eat a delicious pie wrong. Stick your fingers in the middle and shove it straight in your mouth if that makes you happy. It goes some way to elucidating why nobody ever really goes out of their way to finish what counts for the main plot in game; you simply take what you need from the story until you’re full, then you leave the table.
Viewed through the lens of play, rather than a deliberately coherent experience, the constant replaying and rereleasing of Skyrim becomes much less puzzling. Nobody begrudges a kid for returning to their favourite toys, and it’s actually a healthy part of developmental psychology for them to exercise their brain in coming up with new versions of familiar scenarios. In a similar vein, there’s no shame associated with owning a train set or some other kind of endlessly tweaked hobby. So, as I head into Whiterun, again, to be told that I need to climb the 700 steps and learn to do magical screams, again, I’m doing so with a clear conscience and a new appreciation for a game that has consumed hundreds of hours of my life. Because it’s okay to just play for the sake of play, sometimes.
When I first started playing Watch Dogs: Legion, the game gave me the opportunity to pick who I wanted to help to rebuild DedSec, this universe’s inexplicably large and suspiciously benevolent hacker collective. Naturally, I selected a wet noodle of a human being named Gavin or Steve, who’s defining characteristics were that he had failed his motorcycle license test, and that he spoke like he was always five seconds away from a well-actually. He really sucked; like, as a person, he was a lousy example. This set the tone for everything that came after in that particular adventure, given that he was doing the recruitment. I found a middle-aged man with irritable bowel syndrome, a street hypnotist who couldn’t stop flirting with everyone, an esports champion. These were not the best and brightest London had to offer, but it was the best Steve (or Dave, or Mike) could do on short notice.
All of this was very funny and ridiculous, but the problem is that Legion isn’t trying to be funny. It’s not a comedy, and the story is arguably the furthest from comedy you could imagine, what with all the fascism, murder, corporate overreach, fascism and government corruption. So there’s a bit of a disconnect between what the game does, and what it is; what tools the player has at their disposal does not fit with what they are asked to immerse themselves in.
What’s worse is that the emergent comedy of Watch Dogs Legion is—despite being very secondary—what the game is best at. It is genuinely and unexpectedly hilarious that the game’s procedural algorithms decided to give Dave his own personal motorcycle, but also make it canon that he failed his license test, as if he so disagreed with the test result that he went and bought a fancy racing bike out of spite. It’s very funny to watch a man in a purple dinner jacket take time out from saving London from the oppressive jackboot of fascism to earn a few extra crypto-dollars playing his trumpet on a street corner. In comparison, it is aggressively uninteresting to break into a gang base to steal files for some reason, again. There is nothing at all exciting about making sure the bad guys can’t do that horrible thing they want to do with technology, or guns, or whatever else. Legion’s systems are bristling with the potential for comedy and emergent gameplay, but its story and world are less interesting than a Netflix Original Film.
They also clash, badly. Despite the well-meaning intention by the narrative to create an evolving cast of ordinary people who rise up to save the city from evil, the goofy characters are often at complete odds with the story being told. Marceline the construction worker who likes gambling should not be thrust into the centre of a human trafficking conspiracy, where organs are being cut out of the corpses of immigrants. She’s going to lose her goddamn mind. She’ll have nightmares forever, and be unable to relate to her friends and family due to the darkness she witnessed and the lives she took. You can’t just focus on how fun it is to have a remote-controlled spider robot and electric knuckles when a scientist is threatening to upload humanity into the cloud, or the government is putting people in prison camps. Legion jumps the shark twenty times an hour, flipping madly between deadly serious fate-of-the-world business and the frankly nonsense people who are supposed to fix it.
Despite the narrative intentions, Watch Dogs Legion wants to be an ensemble comedy; and it would be better for the change. Exceedingly boring main characters like The Woman Who Gives You Missions, The Deeply Annoying Computer Voice, Angry Fascist Man and Powerful Hard Lady Who Runs a Gang want your attention, but never really do anything to demand or deserve it. Every story mission feels like an interruption, and they’re all painfully rote open-world busywork.
Imagine what this game might look like as a real comedy, for a moment. Currently you can do all sorts of tiny, silly things to disrupt the fascist society around you. Distract police officers* who are interrogating innocent citizens and watch the citizen beat the hell out of them; use hacking powers to control army vehicles and cause havoc; steal from authoritarian jerks and then make them look stupid chasing after a housewife in a pig mask. These should be the core of the experience, rather than side activities. When you have systems as potentially interesting as Legion, the narrative should be about those systems. As it is, the story feels like a corpse at the centre of this dynamic world.
I’m not saying you can only tell a happy, fun tale filled with rainbows and robot butterflies, the meal just needs to match the ingredients. Part of the reason a guy whose farts alert the enemies to his position is such good comedy is the contrast between the seriousness of the situation and the ridiculousness of the outcome. But wow, it does not have to be so unrelentingly edgy and dark. If the Ubisoft writers need some assistance, kid’s animated shows are practiced experts when it comes to pairing light, fun times with serious topics. An episode of Justice League Unlimited or She-Ra is undeniably skewed toward a young audience, but they also manage to balance the talking horses with references to war crimes—without ever resorting to literally showing a surgeon about to cut out someone’s heart.
It’s frustrating, because Legion is very clearly a game that doesn’t know what it wants to be, hamstrung by what it thinks the market wants. The narrative is about the evils of absolute power, but it creates a third-party villain and mostly absolves the real government of responsibility. Unchecked technology is supposed to be a villain, but your partner is a perfect AI who gives you infinite access to autonomous robots. For every serious moment there are a hundred ragdolls flying comically from bikes or characters wearing hot pants and skull masks. Ubisoft wants to tell a story about fascism that mirrors the current rise of similar movements in various countries, but it also wanted to advertise that story by showing everyone how hilarious it would be to see an old lady do a stealth takedown. Discussing anything about Legion feels complicated and difficult precisely because it cannot pick a damn lane; every part of it is messy, it’s difficult to see what the purpose of one idea could be without catching a dozen other ideas in your peripheral vision.
All of these problems could have been solved by making it a proper comedy. Giving it a real focus. Lightening up the tone would have given the game more freedom to tackle more serious issues without the cognitive dissonance that infests the experience now. It would have strengthened the concept of a group of ragtag nobodies attempting to overthrow the government, because they genuinely would have come across like underdog weirdos instead of superheroes with the equivalent financial backing of a hundred James Bonds. Being less beholden to the false idea of realism and more free to build a world that suited a tone—any tone—would have given the universe a direction, context, the space to use subtext instead of painfully blatant text all the time. And it would have been truly funny, instead of a very boring, ordinary story punctuated by farts.
*Yes, I’m going to refer to the Albion troops as “police” even though Ubisoft is too cowardly to have the police be the bad guys.
The blacksmith’s name is Wagner. This isn’t information I had to research, nor is it useful to know, it’s just a fact about the city of Mondstadt in Genshin Impact. At a very basic level, I know there’s a blacksmith because I need to use a blacksmith to play the game. Everyone in Mondstadt knows Wagner, though—the knights and guards go to him for their weapons, the food stall owners run into him at work, random residents see him hammering away near the gates—and as a result they bring him up in conversation now and then, or ask me to go speak to him while I’m doing a side quest about ghosts or potato supplies. Rather than being just a faceless NPC, he exists; Wagner is a three-dimensional piece of the Genshin universe.
Everything in the game follows this philosophy, a desire to make sure each person, object, concept, god or piece of fruit has a place to be and a role to play in the ecosystem (literally or figuratively). Often when players enter an open world playground they’re presented with a thousand disparate pieces, shiny characters and places that serve their purpose and then step politely back to make room for the next piece. Go here and find this item, speak to the man at the corner to get a quest about the old shack on the hill, climb a tower and search for the next man on the next corner. In the world of Teyvat (where Genshin Impact is set), all things are part of the greater clockwork of the universe, because that’s how it works in the real world, more or less. Genshin achieves this not with one silver bullet solution, but by using myriad mechanics and writing tricks to draw the player in and constantly feed them more information about—and empathy for—the world.
Through ordinary gameplay and dialogue, Genshin is constantly reassuring you about the continuity of the world, and making sure to organically merge the two sides. Upgrade materials include all sorts of flowers, rocks, plants and seeds from around the map, but these aren’t just items to be collected; characters frequently reference the fictional fruits, flora and fauna in quest dialogue and friendly exchanges, reinforcing the idea that this is a real world you’re living in, not just a sandbox for video game adventures. When characters talk about their favourite food, or discuss going out to eat as part of their interactions and quests, the food they mention always exists as a recipe the player can obtain and make themselves. There’s a constant flow of practical and narrative information, back and forth, keeping you from losing that belief in the reality around you.
It brings to mind the potions and mutagens of The Witcher’s universe, where Geralt calmly discusses the ingredients he will need to do his job, but now writ large over an entire open world ecosystem. You can easily imagine NPCs being able to direct you to the crafting ingredients you need if you could simply ask, without the need for layers of abstraction.
Let’s not forget about Wagner, though, or any of the random denizens of Teyvat. Characters are where Genshin Impact really shines, and, while they might not be blisteringly clever portrayals fit to put the stars of classic literature to shame, they manage to feel more like real people than most other games in the same space. Again, this comes down to respecting the ecosystem of the universe. Wagner forges weapons for many folks around town, including Noelle, one of the potential playable characters and a maid-slash-assistant to the Knights of Favonius. His weapons keep getting broken by Noelle and he eventually works out it’s because she’s ridiculously strong and basically shattering them with her raw anime girl power. Every quest you pick up, or piece of dialogue you scroll through, is full of these kinds of connections. One quest for Venti, the bard, involves him inventing a pair of goggles that let you see people’s imaginary friends, which leads you on a merry adventure around different NPCs, but makes one stop at the local pub to watch two of the male characters—Diluc and Kaeya—have one of their many sassy exchanges. This adds nothing to the quest itself beyond the satisfaction of knowing who these people are and enjoying the interaction. The value is in the context.
Genshin Impact fosters these connections to its characters by treating the players’ relationships with them as an ever-evolving, dynamic thing. Unlike in many open world titles, where NPCs primarily exist in their piece of the story, as part of their quests and narrative moments, before fading out of view, Genshin characters are always being constructed from several perspectives at once. When you unlock a character as playable and put them in your squad, they begin accumulating Friendship Rank, which is essentially a measurement of how much you’ve used them while playing. Higher ranks mean accessing more voice lines and backstory details, so you gradually get to know that person better, and they slowly become more well-rounded characters, even without any emotional dialogue scenes or dramatic moments. This slow-burn method of unveiling the details of a character feels truer to the way an open world game flows than simply dumping information into cutscenes; building a relationship with someone over the course of a journey feels more natural in a game than passively watching them in cutscenes.
As of the 1.4 update, Genshin added Hangout Events, which are essentially small outings you can go on with specific characters that have dialogue choices and multiple endings. Hangouts turn the game briefly into a dating sim of sorts, and they offer another way to get to know characters outside of a traditional quest. Also, crucially, while they do have multiple endings, the endings aren’t exactly mutually exclusive; rather than providing a series of what-if scenarios where you decide what might have happened if you said the right or wrong thing, the hangout stories play more like a set of possibilities that are all equally true. That means replaying them is less like creating an alternate universe and more like just learning more about your date. When singing deaconess Barbara meets you in the forest, it is equally plausible that you helped her chase off an over-eager fan and that you shared a quiet moment learning her recipe for alcoholic chilli. Both of these adventures happened. It’s another excellent example of how Genshin Impact takes advantage of the specific advantages of telling a story inside a game, where continuity is optional and time has no real power.
Now you can even invite your companions (unlocked playable characters) into your teapot for a nice, relaxing afternoon. At a certain point in Genshin, in case you’re confused, the main character is given a magic teapot, inside which exists a pocket dimension that the player can decorate like a tiny private estate. The 1.6 update added the ability to invite a couple of your friend in, and then wander over to speak to them about how they feel, or what they think of the magic teapot universe you filled with fruit stands.
How much they have to say while they’re visiting is tied to their Friendship Rank, and you can get into some reasonably meaty conversations with your favourite people. It speaks to the overall feeling you get while in the world of Genshin that this is a living space with characters you can spend time with, learn from, build relationships with. These aren’t simply cardboard cut-outs here to dispense sob stories and adventure hooks, they’re part of the same cities and stories and universe as you, they have agency and dreams, they have more to show you if you just take the time to pay attention.
That’s what sets it apart, really, that respect for the passage of time and how it interacts with a gaming experience. An open world game in particular is designed to be a leisurely experience full of discovery and immersion, but many games in the genre treat the concept as more of an excuse to checklist a bunch of cool experiences that have very little to do with one another. Genshin is a set of strings on a board, all connected to one another, and when you pull on one of the strings it shakes everything else just a little bit. The end result is a very satisfying experience, because it rewards players who invest in the world with more of the world they already love. Quests get easier because you understand the environment, stories become more engaging because you’re motivated to be engaged, not just for this piece of narrative but for all those in the future. Genshin Impact is a true open world, rather than a sandbox. And Wagner is going to keep being rude to me for a long time yet; that’s honestly so like him.
Time passes. And with the passing of time, comes the end. In Final Fantasy VIII’s world, the end means the compression of all time and space, so the end is also the beginning. Are we any closer to finding out what exactly Guardian Forces are and how they work, after all this? They’re pretty much everywhere, for one thing, and they eat your thoughts; they can control the flow of time and space with their god-like powers even though they seem eternally trapped; and they’ve been subjected to endless experimentation that nobody really wants to talk about. It’s tempting to cast them off at this point as a sort of unknowable anomaly in Squall and friends’ universe, but at the same time their ubiquity suggests they must play some vital role in how things work. At the end of the official GF list, there’s even a strong indication that they are involved in the shaping of reality itself, with their forms and powers far outstripping anything other entities are capable of, apart from Ultimecia.
“GF gives us strength. The stronger the GF, the stronger we become.”
There are no more Guardian Forces to pick apart, though, right? The list is complete, the endgame approaches. Actually, it turns out there are a few optional, pseudo-GFs floating around the game that are surprisingly relevant to the discussion. And, despite FFVIII’s reputation for a scattered and unfinished narrative, one of them might be the key to figuring out what the whole game is supposed to be about. That’s right, it’s been at least two discs since summons had any visible role in the plot, but maybe it’s about to turn around. Which would be particularly nice given the effort the game puts into making them seem like a big, scary, mind-eating problem at the beginning, all the while jamming them indiscriminately into the heads of children.
Deep in the Centra Ruins, beyond the tonberry infestation and past the giant metal diamond, a god lurks with a challenge. Get to a specific room in the ruins within a 20 minute time limit and you are confronted by a huge masked figure on horseback who demands you to demonstrate your strength. This is Odin—named after the Norse god of war, death, and a dozen other minor concerns—and he will become your companion if you can slap him enough times before the clock hits zero. Curiously, Odin doesn’t fight back in this battle, but if the timer runs out at any point he unleashes his signature attack, Zantetsuken, which instantly kills the party and ends the game. Beating him doesn’t add him as a controllable force, but actually gives the player a 12.9% chance of Odin appearing to Zantetsuken enemies in any battle (excepting bosses, tonberries and cactuars), granting an instant win. When he appears, the sky darkens, he rides in on his trusty white steed, and his sword literally cuts the 3D models in half.
What’s interesting isn’t so much Odin himself, but the place in which he appears. Centra was a civilisation said to be extremely advanced and doing very well for itself right up to the point where monsters exploded from the surface of the moon and reduced the entire population to a dusty memory. Yes, in case you had somehow forgotten, monsters in the FFVIII universe come from the moon, and periodically get space-blasted down to the planet’s surface. With a little research, I discovered the reason this happens is because of gravity; when all the moon monsters gather on one side of the moon they all just get dragged off into space in an event very poetically referred to as the Lunar Cry. This had been going on for tens of thousands of years, but part of the reason it destroyed Centra was that it brought down a massive pillar of crystal with it, obliterating almost every sign of the world’s largest civilisation. The only pieces left are the Centra Ruins, Sorceress Edea’s orphanage, and the mobile shelters that eventually became the Gardens. Keeping up? Don’t worry, none of us are.
Centran architecture is a strange mix of Roman styles and futuristic technology, and the ruins provide plenty of both. Odin’s room houses a giant throne and is decorated on the outside with gargoyles, but pipes and wires run inside every wall and piece of flooring. Entering the final area requires moving gemstones and then putting a security code into an ancient device. It’s seemingly impossible to discern what these ruins were designed to be before the Lunar Cry, in much the same way that details about the Centrans is basically non-existent.
But hold on, that throne is bothering me. It’s huge, and it’s clearly part of the ruin, which means it was built to specifically be that size. That could mean Odin was around and functioning as some sort of Guardian Force before the calamity. However, the huge chair does fit with one theory that Centra was a society of very large people. Giants, even. This is based on a lot of conjecture, of course, and bits of evidence that might not really connect, but stick to the path for a moment. Adel, the other evil sorceress in this game, is demonstrably giant, towering over every other person in the game. Her size is never explained, and sets her far apart from the other characters in the game in terms of physical form. It’s conceivable, given the diaspora of the surviving Centran population, that she descended from Centran stock, and her size—combined with her sorceress abilities—allowed her to gain power in Esthar. Centra was also, incidentally, very into the whole idea of sorceresses, which would mean Adel having power passed down to her through living in that magic-friendly society makes a lot of sense.
With that in mind, Odin’s throne perhaps isn’t a seat of power for some outrageously-proportioned god, but a throne for a normally-sized Centran. Without knowing the purpose of the ruins before the pillar, it’s hard to extrapolate much more. But, given that GFs can clearly be shaped by environment, thoughts, and events, perhaps Odin is a reflection of what happened to Centra. It could be that all that death, all those lost souls, coalesced into one masked figure of vengeance that was doomed to seek out the strength that could have saved its people. And like the chaos of a moon-based apocalypse, he can only even manifest that cursed power at random. The wire-filled room where you find Odin also continues a theme throughout FFVIII of melding technology with magic, and perhaps hints at the idea Odin was partly created through those memories and souls continuing to exist in a digital form.
If the player collects Odin before boarding the Lunatic Pandora to find Adel, they will be confronted by Seifer and Odin will automatically be summoned. In this case, Seifer will use Zantetsuken Reverse to turn the tables on the GF and slice him in half, permanently killing him. Odin’s sword will then cut a hole in the fabric of spacetime and another entity, Gilgamesh, will retrieve the sword. If the battle lasts long enough, or if Seifer’s HP is depleted, Gilgamesh will appear to cut Seifer down and join the party. Gilgamesh also appears at random, with a 3.5% chance, but has four swords to choose from. One is Odin’s, and acts the same as it would for him; Excalibur and Masamune do heavy damage to the enemy, while Excalipoor does exactly one damage to foes.
All of this is very exciting, and Gilgamesh’s design is pretty neat, but as a Guardian Force he is essentially a collection of Final Fantasy references wrapped in a nod to an Akkadian poem. As such, there’s not much he can tell us about the world of Final Fantasy VIII, save for affirming its obsession with random events.
Boko, MiniMog and Moomba
Hold on, do you remember the PocketStation? It was basically a memory card that doubled as a Nintendo Game & Watch, it ran various software connected to different PlayStation games, and it was very hard to ever see one outside of Japan. If you did somehow have one, you could have used it to play something called Chocobo World and in turn used that experience to level up a Chocobo in FFVIII called Boko. This tiny chocobo can be summoned into battle using a specific item, and may put “being murdered by a baby chicken” at the top of the list of most embarrassing ways to die in the game. If you play even more of PocketStation classic Chocobo World, you can even unlock a moogle called MiniMog, who can heal GFs, and a Moomba.
All of this is nonsense, and not even the good kind of Final Fantasy VIII nonsense with time travel and secret parents. However, let me just say that Moombas are fascinating because they are actually one of the final evolutionary stages for the Shumi, and melty slug people who turn into tiny lions is exactly the right kind of nonsense. Shame it doesn’t tell us anything about Guardian Forces.
Speaking of lions, Final Fantasy VIII, in its very quirky and unhinged way, actually decides to drop the wildest and most telling piece of Guardian Force lore into the very final battle of the game, with the nonchalance of a smoker flicking a cigarette butt into the gutter. During the fight with Ultimecia—the reality-bending witch from the future—reaches into Squall Leonhart’s mind and plucks out a Guardian Force. Screaming about it being “the most powerful GF,” the sorceress casts into the floor, and an anthropomorphic purple lion with bat wings crawls out of the abyss to ruin your day. In the Japanese version, Ultimecia states that she is summoning the entity Squall sees as the most powerful, and when Griever lets loose with his big-time attack, Shockwave Pulsar, Ultimecia describes it as the GF’s true power. Shockwave Pulsar transports the party to a featureless energy field, where a beam of energy whites out the entire universe. Yikes. Griever takes on whatever name the player decided to give to their lion ring during the Battle of the Gardens, cementing the idea that this creature is a pure manifestation of Squall’s thoughts.
Okay, wait a minute, now we have definitive proof that Guardian Forces can be formed from nothing more than the anxious thoughts of a deeply-traumatised teenager. Griever didn’t exist, and then Ultimecia just brought him to life so he could slap the hell out of the party. This is moderately terrifying information, as it suggests that there exists the power inside any individual in the Final Fantasy VIII universe to create a literal god from nothing. Think hard enough and suddenly something infinitely worse than Doomtrain is setting off a nuclear magic bomb in the main street. Yes, it required history’s most powerful sorceress, but Odin appeared out of nowhere, Diablos exists outside of time, Pandemona crawled out of the abyss unprompted, Eden was a failed experiment, and Cactuar is literally just a cactus that got angry. FFVIII presents us with a world where the gods are as fickle as the ancient Greek pantheon, but can also spring from nothing like the worst Stephen King horror story. It is a nightmare universe.
Then you beat Griever, maybe, and the nightmare is over. Except that Ultimecia junctions herself to the GF, melding their bodies and powers together in an unholy mass of flesh. And that reminds us immediately of another case where this happens: on Lunatic Pandora, Adel increases her own power by junctioning herself to Rinoa. Body horror aside, this is upsetting news for the delicate barrier between reality and the chaos beyond the curtain. There is no functional difference between a Guardian Force and a normal human being; on a practical level, they occupy the same mechanical space. But we’ve just learned that GFs are also pure thought transformed into reality, which means that every character in FFVIII is half a step away from being nothing but a thought. Nobody really exists, outside of the fact that other people think about them existing. And then we remember that Centra is a nearly forgotten civilisation, that people are encouraged to erase their memories by junctioning GFs, that the central villain wants to remove all perspective from reality and exist in a single point. All of this runs through your mind as a mad witch climbs inside the physical manifestation of your own anxieties right in front of you. Griever is the single most existentially terrifying moment in this game, and, I remind you, he turns up as a final battle afterthought, 60 hours into the story.
Simply losing our minds
This series started with a simple question: what are Guardian Forces? Four articles later, the answer appears to be that they are everything. No part of the Final Fantasy VIII universe escapes their grasp, from the advances of technology, to the psychological effects of war, to the deaths of millions, to the workings of reality itself. At certain points it appears they were created by humanity to serve a purpose, but many of them simply seem to exist, or were brought into being by accident. They represent our greatest fears, our conflicting values, the desire to protect and destroy; they serve humanity, but this seems like a voluntary position that could very easily be reversed at a whim.
Ultimately, GFs seem to be an attempt by the game to represent the collective unconscious, which is an interpretation that fits nicely with this Final Fantasy’s more holistic approach to worldbuilding. Nothing in FFVIII makes sense in isolation, yet everything is connected in the end. Centra’s destruction, the creation of the Gardens to fight the sorceresses, a lost father who becomes the head of a secret civilisation, these are all utterly bonkers elements that end up fitting together conceptually, if not literally. The GFs are much the same; each of them represents something about the world of FFVIII without necessarily fitting into it. It’s easy to imagine a different story about this universe, where the role of these vastly-powerful thought monsters is scrutinised thoroughly. But maybe that’s what happened to the scientists at the undersea research base, they looked into the abyss and it looked right back at them.
What’s wild is these summons could have easily just been big monsters that appear when you want to hit things. Yet they exist as this kind of commentary on the tenuous relationship people have with reality. Every time the main characters summon a GF, a little piece of their identity is devoured to make room. Each time they fight, the world they fight for slips away a bit more. Whether you view them as a commentary on the damaging effects of war, the nature of reality, or a dozen other plausible ideas, Guardian Forces are a pervasive energy in Final Fantasy VIII. And much like the game, they seem to resist understanding by design.
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I spent the early part of my first full day in Night City punching cops in the face. In my defence, it was the direct result of me trying to be a good person; I found a woman being assaulted in the corridor outside my apartment, so I shot the guy in the head. The woman thanked me, then started screaming because I had a gun out, and that’s what NPCs do when you have a gun out. Anyway, somehow my frankly heroic action alerted the cops, and when I went out onto the landing two of them started shooting at me. Naturally I punched them until they were unconscious, which takes 3-4 punches, in case you’re curious.
More cops came, more punching. Suddenly I realised exactly how easy it is to bottleneck the police and keep beating them until they pass out. Uh oh.
Eventually they stopped, I’m not sure why. Perhaps they just ran out of police, or they realised it wasn’t worth it to lose thirteen police officers to a mad redhead in the slums. A few minutes later, when I accidentally used a poison gas grenade on a food stall vendor, I discovered something horrible and sinister about why the police kept coming until they stopped coming: they don’t actually exist. Rather than walking in from some pre-approved outside location or being dropped off by cybercar, they spawn in from nowhere, pre-filled with sound and fury signifying fascism. Four armed officers and two NCPD drones manifested from the inside of a pile of boxes. In a more metafictional environment this would almost be a clever interpretation of the relationship between the police and civilians, cops representing an omnipotent force that watches your every move and isn’t beholden to the rules normal people are forced to follow. Like physics. Here it’s more of a shortcut to avoid coding in a more complicated solution to getting the police to harass you. Still, the end result of this—and the fact that apparently LOOKING at cops for too long makes them angry enough to shoot you in the head—is a fear of the police that I’m far too jaded to experience in a more realistically-coded setting. These officers are moody, unpredictable, chaotically violent and duty bound to cause harm. I’m going to do my best to stay away from them.
The inconsequential, unnamed NPCs in general have a similar transient quality. Like Schrodinger’s Citizens, they only have form when you look straight at them. When I ran from that merchant I poisoned, he fled his stall while suppressing the urge to vomit; when I backed up, his stall was already being looked after by a brand new procedurally generated gentleman. NPCs are swiftly removed and replaced as you walk around, which is, I’m sure, a technical boon, but is also a big kick in the nuts for my sense of immersion. Nobody you meet matters, even by the standards of a video game nobody, because they’ll be wiped and reformed anew before you can say Creepy Watson. Again, this would be a pretty cool setup for a story about reality being a simulation, and the world of Night City even has its own virtual reality system, but in our reality it’s just a curious quirk of the code.
Since we’re moaning about NPCs, it really bugs me that Cyberpunk 2077 keeps up the grand sci-fi tradition of portraying poor people as hunched, miserable losers, huddled in their garbage slums and trying not to be too oppressed today, thanks. Most folks in this first area (inside the Judge Dredd-style apartment block) mope around like someone took a big shit in their cereal, or sit outside literally begging. It may come as a surprise to developers that low income folks, even in a dystopia, are perfectly capable of having a normal, happy day.
On a more positive note, I did run into a loud man spouting conspiracy theories in the street, and not only could I engage him in a bit of conversation, but after a minute or so some California-accented tourists came to get a selfie with him. There are brief moments where the world of Cyberpunk 2077 feels very alive, and they’re very appreciated.
V goes to the Ripperdoc—one of Cyberpunk’s cyberdoctors—and gets some new eyes, a new hand. We get dragged into a big new job that will set us up FOR LIFE. It definitely won’t go horribly wrong. For one half of the planning process we need to go visit the woman who requested the heist. I kind of like that we have to wait until night time because it’s a bar. She gives us a briefing in a room with a very naked hologram and then we get our first taste of a BRAINDANCE, which is a fancy way to say “virtual reality tape recording.” These sections allow you to walk or float through a recorded event and pick up little details that give you necessary information. In this case, we get to case the top floor of a fancy hotel so we can get around the security later. It’s fancy and I like it. Reminds me of the memory breaking bits from Remember Me. Remember that game? Probably not. It was fine.
I’m getting distracted because there’s a LOT going on in Cyberpunk now. These sequences really bring into sharp relief how linear the prologue was; V can chat to various NPCs, decide in what order to do things, go off to check out a few side missions rather than advancing the story. It feels more like the game it wants to be now. A corpo woman named Meredith wants to help me get a thing for the thing we have to do as long as I let her upload a virus to the gang who currently have the thing. I speak corpo back to her with a special dialogue choice and she gets angry and drives off. It feels good to have a little control, and to see the shape of my V emerging. Now all I have to do is head to this gang hideout and get a machine from them as efficiently as possible.
Okay, I can explain. See, Jackie didn’t want to sit down and I wasn’t paying attention to my responses so… anyway we had to kill them all.
They seemed like they wanted to rip us off anyway, and now we have the thing! But I had to destroy a lot of lives to get there. It turns out that my V is a big fan of swords and shotguns, and specifically the pleasing effect of switching between them while running around like the world’s clumsiest ninja. Didn’t need to sit down afterwards. Particularly liked that the end of this section gave me the option to sneak around the boss to escape, then it gave me the option to not brutally murder him after I refused the first option. Anyway he’s dead.
Before the big damn heist section, I was contacted a few times by a cop with an eyepatch who wanted me to do cop stuff. In Cyberpunk 2077 you can trip over crimes in progress (assaults, robberies, people not filling in their tax returns correctly) and intervene to gain a reward and the respect of the police force. No thank you. The woman on the phone will also send you bounty jobs, the first of which is to literally kill or otherwise neutralise a “good” cop who wants to expose corruption in the force. I cannot for the life of me figure out if this is supposed to be irony, or satire, or completely straight-faced villainy. Suffice it to say, I’ve been deliberately ignoring any possible way to assist the police. It’s perhaps unintentional, but refusing to do anything they want me to do actually instills a weird sense of pride, as if V was shouting FUCK THE POLICE from her car window.
Act one snowballs pretty quickly towards this big job, which requires a lot of hacking and sneaking and includes a bunch of enormous plot reveals I’m not going into here. It was a lot of fun and the writing here is pretty solid. I may have even felt some emotions. Also the robot cab driver is a good example of how to do fun AI characters so take note every other game that isn’t Fallout New Vegas.
It does get a little prologue here for a while, in the sense that it throws a big plot reveal at you every 30 seconds for what felt like an hour. This explodes, that character dies, this character dies, this person was really this other thing, betrayal, emotions, you get dumped somewhere terrible, you come back out, a car chase, another explosion, a crash, a blackout, a montage of being incapacitated, more talking. It’s all good, mind you, but there’s a long time when you’re just watching interesting things happen to a character you’re supposed to be controlling. There appears to be a struggle the narrative designers had with working out how to tell the story and allow any sort of player choice at the same time. It makes me think of the Hades approach, where every story tidbit is isolated and fed to the player while they go about their actual gaming business. Here, the story sometimes feels arbitrarily walled off from the flow of the open world, actively working against the pillars it’s built around.
Somewhere in this maelstrom of CONTENT, the actual title card comes up, now we’ve been playing for hours. Welcome to Cyberpunk 2077, I guess.
SPEED ROUND: Don’t Threaten Me With A Mixed Time
- RIght at the start of this act you find out that there’s a fight club in the city. Why is there always a fight club?
- All the advertising and posters in Night City still feel like they come from a different game with much stupider writing.
- I came across a minor accident scene where one guy had rear-ended another and they were on their phone trying to sort it out, and that felt pleasingly authentic.
- There was an unexpected instant death moment in the plot maelstrom and I am here to tell developers DO NOT.
- Don’t put musical instruments in your video game if you won’t let me play them.
- I still don’t know why you’d bother going non-lethal in this game, nobody has explained it to me.
After what seemed like a very lengthy prologue, we finally get into what Night City is actually about: accidentally causing huge amounts of violence and telling the cops to get in the sea. I may have missed the point, or maybe the game isn’t making any points. Next I hope to get more involved in the sidequests of Cyberpunk 2077 and put even more points into sword powers.
Here’s something weird about Cyberpunk 2077: You’re not allowed to be ugly.
That’s ugly by the game’s very narrow definition, mind. You can’t have one wonky eye, or fish lips, or unusually large hands; you can’t be overweight, underweight, muscular, shorter or taller than average; your skin must be one of the eight-or-so approved human colours; you can have rude bits, as long as they are big, small or default. Characters must be symmetrical, they must conform to some variation of the two genders, their scars must be aesthetically pleasing.
Some of these are likely design limitations (everyone being the same height makes it easier to program character interactions, a small range of model sizes prevents collision detection issues, etc.), and NPCs get to select from at least one other body type, but when you start creating a character in Cyberpunk there’s an immediate feeling of being constrained. Invisible walls erected to keep you from making anything unacceptable, anything that isn’t cool enough to let you hang with the many cool NPCs in their cool future clothes, standing in overwhelmingly cool neon-soaked environments.
Welcome to Cyberpunk 2077. We’re in the bathroom, and we just threw up. For my class… uhhh background? Upbringing? Oh right, LIFEPATH. I’m a Corpo, which basically means one of the bad guys by all logic of the cyberpunk genre. Arguably the bad guys by present day reality as well. Please enjoy this biting social commentary I’ve just made, which surpasses anything you might spot in the opening of the game.
“Corporates are the Armani-wearing, Machiavellian mega-yuppies you see in the RoboCop films. Being wealthy and persuasive, they can muster favors and resources beyond what most people can even hope.”
That’s what the wiki for Cyberpunk 2020, the pen and paper tabletop game 2077 is based on, has to say about Corporates. Their special ability in 2020 is RESOURCES, using their vast reserves of cash and influence to get things done. In 2077… well, let’s have a look.
What strikes me about this is how it says… nothing. It feels like it was written for someone who already knows what being a Corpo entails. Be either a winner or a loser, something about secrets, be a bastard of some description. But it also reads like a knowing wink to the fact that this high-flying corporate lifestyle won’t be a concern for very long. Maybe something awful is going to happen that renders our character’s background choices mostly meaningless. I don’t know, just a feeling.
Anyway we were in a bathroom. The Arasaka building, where our V works in their role as part of counterintel, looks exactly like you might expect. All clean lines and soulless interior design. It’s a little too cool, to be honest. Like, it seems like an interesting place to work, if you’re an asshole. Which sort of ties back into what I mentioned earlier about the character creator: Cyberpunk 2077 is a game that wants to be cool, and wants to give you the opportunity to be cool. You do not have a choice in the matter. You’re going to look awesome and say clever, pithy things; people will want to be your friend; your office will have futuristic cyberwalls and you’ll stick glowing USB sticks into your cyberhead. So of course the bad guys (this particular set, anyway) work in an outrageously stylish mega-skyscraper. It feels too nice. Too inviting. My head expects an environment as repellent and dead inside as the corporation. Something like the TV station from Detroit: Become Human, Neo’s office from The Matrix, or the distressingly clean and bright dystopian interiors of Mirror’s Edge. Empty, emotionally draining; dark and oppressive capitalism, rather than dark like the inside of an expensive liquid-cooled PC. Much of cyberpunk as a genre is concerned with the idea of rebellious elements dragging themselves out from under the boot of crushing capitalism, but this makes the space under the boot seem pretty comfortable. Maybe that’s part of the point, though, that it gets comfortable under there; or maybe I’m giving CDPR too much credit.
V heads upstairs, her boss is angry about something, her boss’s boss is a bad person. Blah, blah, blah. He kills a bunch of people with remote computer powers while you watch, because he’s evil. He complains about his boss, and of course that means you have to kill her. Or facilitate her death, at least.
The NPCs, in the prologue at least, are not particularly reactive. They tend to offer one piece of information or flavour only once V pays attention. This person discusses the disasterous job in Frankfurt, another talks about how the media will react to the aforementioned computer assassinations. My boss asks me to take a seat, and if I refuse he pauses for a while before asking me politely to take a seat. And if I still don’t then he really loses it and asks me to take a seat. Sir you are willing to murder half a dozen human beings to make a few cyberbucks, I don’t think you should accept this sort of employee behaviour. Characters just sort of… stand around, like participants in an amateur production of Waiting for The Main Character. There’s no sense of life to the world in here, everything is happening for my benefit. In fact, the only people you properly meet in this opening sequence are folks directly related to V in some way: her assistant, her coworker, her boss, this guy called Frank. We met during Icefall.
Side note: running is a lot of fun in this game. The combination of the sprint animation and the satisfying pounding of my expensive shoes makes me want to run everywhere. I noticed this while sprinting past Frank as he repeatedly called me rude.
The whole prologue is on rails like this. Conversations pop up as if we’re a movie character turning on the TV at the exact moment the news is discussing our brother’s arrest. It’s fun, it just feels staged. An odd choice, forcing the player through a very linear opening to introduce a game that purports to be all about choice and living your dream cyberpunk lifestyle. A good opening sets your expectations for the rest of a text. Think of pushing the broken-down car with your boyband friends in Final Fantasy XV, navigating a guard-filled dock at the start of Metal Gear Solid, or dashing straight out Peter Parker’s window and swinging across the city in Spider-Man. The start of a memorable game is often a microcosm of the game itself, and players are subconsciously aware of this.
Cyberpunk’s Corpo prologue mostly means being told what to do and then doing it. You get told you can use the car outside so you go and use the car outside, you head to a bar to find your friend because your friend told you to, you get betrayed by the corporation, of course, and forced into a life of cool crimes for cool people.
Not that you care about losing your job, of course, since you only found out about it 10 minutes ago and V already hated it. The lifepath deal feels like a stab at the Dragon Age: Origins style of bonding a player to their character by investing in their past, but it’s so fast! When I played a city elf in Dragon Age I was given a whole district to explore and a complex mix of intrigue, racism, sexual assault and forced marriage to pick through; in Cyberpunk your boss asks you to do something and then some goons tell you not to do that thing.
Oop, hold on, we’re doing crimes now. Or stopping crimes, I can’t tell. Mainly this section is designed to teach you how the action sections of the game work. We need to sneak up on this guy and decide whether he lives or dies. Then we have to kill everyone else, which is a little confusing. Why are we given the option for a non-lethal takedown on this one poor shirtless mook, when the game knows full well we’re about to murder six men in the next room? As teaching moments go, it’s poor. Despite being a tutorial, it says nothing about WHY you might want to use a non-lethal option, what the benefits might be versus the downsides. The only upside of keeping this one alive seems to be the idea that he’ll wake up later inside a freezer and quickly discover all his friends are dead.
The shooting feels good, so far. Weighty enough, and enemies don’t quite take so much damage that you wonder whether they’re immortal. There’s a decent flow to battle when you use your hacking powers to distract people, lob grenades and make use of cover. It’s just a taste, anyway. A sample. A dead body did lodge itself in a doorway, which doesn’t seem planned. Also, a still-living enemy flew out the window and kept shooting at me from inside the window frame. And if we’re talking about bugs, I feel obliged to mention that my breasts burst out of my shirt for a while.
At this point in the story we find the infamous woman in the bathtub and save her life, the ambulance-cops turn up to lift her away, and we’re left to drive home. This is absolutely just a chance for the game to show off its fancy city at ground level and tease some new things you’re likely to come across later. There’s a car chase which ends with an explosion, some people get gunned down by Cyberpunk 2077’s equivalent of SWAT, there’s rain, there’s more neon. And you arrive home at your apartment, which is entirely too big and too nice to make sense for your character at this point in their lives but HEY, gotta be cool. Narratively, the prologue ends at a weird point where the start of something has happened but there’s no indication of the shape of things going forward. Basically you’re just this badass who was betrayed and now you… do jobs. Nothing says punk like agreeing to carry out tasks for folks in positions of authority.
SPEED ROUND: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Have Even More Thoughts
- I like that you can shower in your clothes for that true Overwhelmed By Life feeling.
- Tutorial via holograms is a strangely common technique in video games these days and it’s a really boring design choice. Then again, at least they let you skip it.
- The TV so far comes off like it’s trying to be GTA-style satire but it’s not wild enough to be funny so it just feels like a satire of Cyberpunk 2077.
- Making it so you can only look into mirrors when you log into them is actually a neat and sneaky way to avoid having to render reflections constantly.
- You can buy an extra-large burrito from a vending machine in this future so how can it be bad?
- When you look at a sink it says “flush” instead of “activate” or “turn on” and that means every water source in 2077 is a toilet.
My goal for this playthrough was to stretch the game by playing contrary to the rules on purpose. Sadly, the prologue doesn’t offer much opportunity to do this, and wants you to stick to the path quite rigidly. Hopefully that becomes less of an issue now I’m headed into the open world. Now excuse me while I lie down sideways on my cyberbed and have some cyberdreams.