Monday, 20 July 2020

Five Empowerments from Video Games in Troubled Times

It’s 2020. COVID-19, lurching authoritarianism, mass atrocities. Chances are the political and human rights conditions of your country – or the one you are stuck in, like England – have become so farcically obscene that you are challenged to hold together the sanity, let alone the words, to coherently critique it.

For the majority of reasonable people, the recent years have been anywhere between troubling and downright wretched. What we are experiencing is no less than the breakdown of the promise, indeed the premise, of modernity: of a world where tomorrow is supposed to be better than yesterday. Instead we have let yesterday's darkest horrors return and put our tomorrow at their mercy.

We each do what we must to survive and make meaning in this nightmare. For me it has meant looking once more to video games, which are full of such meaning and have helped me so much to navigate the madness of humankind before. Here I would like to pay respects to five of my recent discoveries, and explore some of the power they offer to struggle on through an impossible world.

There may be mild spoilers in this article for each of these games.

1) The Power of Freedom: The Legend of Zelda – Breath of the Wild
2) The Power of Perspective: Fire Emblem – Three Houses
3) The Power of Distance: Animal Crossing – New Horizons
4) The Power of Presence: Assassin’s Creed – Odyssey
5) The Power of Will: Xenoblade Chronicles

1) The Power of Freedom: The Legend of Zelda – Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, 2017)

You can go anywhere. That is the basic principle of the latest in Nintendo’s venerable Legend of Zelda series, which drops you in a vast and stunning post-apocalyptic wilderness then more or less leaves you to it.

The Zelda games have done me considerable service over the years. Their recurring journeys to confront authoritarians contrast so starkly with the exasperating tendencies of populations in this world to prostrate themselves before the abusers of power while blaming their victims for their own suffering. But Breath of the Wild takes this psychological liberation to a whole new level. Its title, which it never explains, captures it best: it provides a world in which to breathe. And what a world.

Everything you can see here, that is to say, absolutely everything, can be reached and explored.
In every environment there are views to take in, plants and materials to forage, deep geological histories to ponder, and secrets to unearth – humorous secrets, chilling secrets, profound secrets, and secrets that will stay with you long after. Also there are wild bears.
This wilderness was Zelda’s Hyrule as you had never seen it: a full-resolution massiveness of fields, forests, mountains, lakes, rivers, ridges and deserts more akin to the random enormity of the wild places of Earth than the attractive but typically more abstracted subzones of the Zelda tradition. And where its earlier games tended to nudge you along a fairly linear plot and character growth trajectory, Breath of the Wild dispenses with those altogether. If you can see it, you can reach and explore every corner of it in any order you please – so long, that is, as you can shows the strength, ingenuity and equipment to survive a world whose tough rocks and sharp teeth better bring to mind Alaska than the Hyrule that returning Zelda players thought they knew.

They would typically learn this the hard way early on at the hands not of fearsome monsters but of physics itself, which, so suppressed for the convenience of players for more than thirty years, finally exacted its long-pent-up revenge. Where people unbothered to climb down a tower might have simply leapt off, expecting a deft forward roll and mere one or two hearts’ worth of damage like in the old games, they instead got a crunch and a Game Over screen. Those who got over the shock of that could look forward to hours of blowing themselves up with their own bombs, getting one-shot by lasers after accidentally waking up ancient death-machines, or rolling ignominiously down hillsides when shoved by even minor monsters if they weren’t paying attention to positioning. This was freedom like you had never known, but with it came beautiful responsibility. Just as the old restrictions had gone, so too had the ability to take your survival for granted and you now had to sneak, scavenge, forage, cook and calculate your every step of the way up the hero’s path.

Abstract hearts no longer drop from monsters or grass to replenish your health. Freedom means actually learning to prepare food now. You can cook any of dozens of mushrooms, meats, fish, fruits, condiments and monster parts you obtain out in the world, and some combinations bestow bonuses like extra endurance or temperature resistances that help explore more challenging environments.
A later update added the ability to track your movements on the world map. This was mine after about a year.
And yet, this was still The Legend of Zelda. It had enough familiar elements to root you in the classic Zelda experience: the diverse characters and cultures (many likewise explored in finer resolution than before, from Zora inter-generational caste politics to the Gerudo desert economy); the aesthetics, motifs and symbols; the explicit narrative connections with the preceding games; and of course, the overarching framework of a heroic struggle to overthrow a world-ruining dictator. Most of all, the gameplay held tight to the same sense of underlying fairness in spite of its hurling open to the bruising wilds, making the effect refreshing, indeed breathtaking, rather than cruel.

It’s possible this game saved my life. After a full-scale mental demolition in Japan, it was to this demolished Hyrule that I managed a retreat to piece the shattered fragments of my psyche back together. I recall reading in the same period of many other traumatised people finding relief and healing in Breath of the Wild’s wild wild winds of freedom: a case, yet again, of video games making up for the mental health failings of governments and societies.

Three years later, that title – Breath – acquires yet another layer of meaning in the mounting reckoning for our racist world. It hardly seems coincidence that the phrase I can’t breathe, with its origins in white police officers literally choking people to death for being black, has become such a resonant expression against both structural racism and the broader atmosphere of oppression in our time. We have created a world which suffocates people – so honour and respect to anyone who creates air-pockets like Breath of the Wild for them to come up to breathe.

2) The Power of Perspective: Fire Emblem – Three Houses (Intelligent Systems, 2019)

‘Both arguments are acceptable’, said the ancient Chinese lawyer and philosopher Deng Xi, who represented both sides in legal cases and, it is said, upset those who believed in fixed standards of right and wrong by demonstrating that through skilled manipulation of words and definitions all sides of an argument were defensible.

Such relativity is not comforting in a world where, to take just one example, many seem convinced that COVID-19 is some imagined conspiracy spread using 5G phone masts and possibly orchestrated by George Soros. Yet there is always, even here, another side of the story. Though there may be one common reality, people experience it differently, and from these divergent paths grow different narratives and different frames of reference. The conspiracy theorists might be blatant in their errors, but their beliefs make sense to them as framed within the rules through which they have learnt to interpret the world.

A failure to grasp this, a preference instead to insist to the point of violence that one’s own story alone is correct, is found behind every conflict in human history. Who has ever gone off to fight while believing themselves to be the villains?

To bridge these differences requires empathy, a resource in which our societies find themselves impoverished (never minding how they enjoy to boast in the faces of autistic people about its imagined plenty). Even with the best of intentions all round it is not easy to reconcile the stories which grow from people’s contradictory experiences. This is demonstrated, spectacularly, in Fire Emblem: Three Houses when its world collapses into total war.

Three Houses is a turn-based role-playing strategy game in the Japanese Fire Emblem series, known for taking the player on an epic journey through the hopes and tragedies of a world at war alongside a growing roster of characters, exploring along the way their relationships and personal journeys amidst great political and military upheaval. It has been suggested that Three Houses is three games in one, but perhaps it is more accurate to call it one game from three perspectives, because what it shows is precisely the power thereof: how even a slight shift in viewpoint can invest you in completely different attitudes to the same story, leading to radically different choices on your part and outcomes for the world.

In this game you are a mercenary who gets a professorship at the Officers’ Academy of the Garreg Mach Monastery, a place in the long tradition of artistic treatments of English public schools. Your role is to instil the military and magical arts into the aristocratic children – along with a few token commoners – of the three great powers that dominate the game’s continent of Fódlan. These begin at relative peace, and you and the students build rapport and fight alongside one another over a year of instruction. But Garreg Mach is a privileged bubble, not necessarily reflecting the poverty and injustice of the world on whose highest peaks it is perched. Dark clouds gather, and events transpire; eventually all hell breaks loose. After a five-year timeskip you are brought back to find the circumstances have changed classroom buddies into bitter enemies, crushed youthful dreams into grim determinations, and derailed gallant scions into unhinged maniacs. Your position in this conflict, and its outcome, are determined by the choices you have made but there is no holding back the broader chaos of war. Inevitably, you must soon cross swords with former students and colleagues attempting to kill you by means of the very skills you taught them.

Garreg Mach monastery, where you spend time in each chapter to develop relationships with staff and students and make decisions that affect their performance on the battlefield.
Battles take place via the latest version of the Fire Emblem series’s turn-based battle system, in which your grasp of choices and consequences is put to high-stakes test. You are responsible for keeping your students alive.

Three Houses carries this off compellingly because aside from a few obligatory sinister cults and suchlike, its story has no caricature villains. Fódlan is an oppressive, violent, prejudiced and profoundly unequal land trapped in the abusive power structures of a magical feudalism, in response to which different characters, often driven by their own traumatic experiences of that world, each come up with conflicting analyses of its problems and visions of how they ought to be solved. Your choice of house to run at the start, so seemingly innocuous, determines which of these visions you end up responsible for as things unravel: that is, which you will feel committed to fighting for even as its shadow of corpses and war crimes lengthens; and which you must seek to vanquish, even when it means striking down those who once trusted you and question you to the last with disgust as to how you could possibly side with “those monsters”.

The seminal decision: Edelgard of the Adrestian Empire, Dimitri of the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, or Claude of the Leicester Alliance? None is exactly what they seem. Your choice of which one’s house to lead has far-reaching repercussions.
It’s also effective because of how well it intertwines the personal and the political. Because in Fire Emblem it’s very personal: you witness the story through the individual experiences of the students and faculty, the knights and clergy, and the very human web of relationships that grows up between them. But these are shaped, if not dictated, by the complex and shifting politics of the world which, to the game’s credit, it refuses to dumb down, rather trusting the player’s intelligence to take on board the dynastic intrigues, competing factions and unburied historical grievances that pockmark all three nations’ political landscapes. These directly bear on the interactions of a student body comprised of heirs to some of their most powerful families, leading to all kinds of uncomfortable my-dad-killed-your-dad situations and their like. At the heart of these political struggles is Fódlan’s suffocating class system and the heavy-handed theocracy that maintains it, to which every character has to work out his or her response, often from a place of life-changing suffering on its account. Indeed, the game has received much commentary for how it handles a range of the sorts of complex mental health problems you would expect such a world to produce.

Prince Dimitri, a gripping study in trauma. Some of this game’s most potent characterisations can be considered Shakespearian. Trauma underlies so many characters’ behaviours in the world of Three Houses; making sense of it could be good for your empathy in the world outside it.
As you might expect from all this, Three Houses is emotionally hard work. I am one of no few people that its tougher experiences brought to the verge of tears. At one point, stuck in what was supposed to be a glorious revolutionary war against a corrupt system that had in fact started to mean a war against old students and friends, I had to put the controller down for an hour, psychologically unable to go on, as I reflected on what the hell I had done. Which is not, make no mistake, an argument against revolutions – yet one can only imagine how much better our actual revolutions might have gone had their participants had the chance to give this game a go and factor its lessons into their struggles.

It is no surprise that debate between players about which of the three nations has the best case, or what actual historical figures their leaders correspond to, has raged ever since and will likely never conclude. Three Houses claims to be set in Fódlan but is as much as anything about Earth, and with its multiple perspectives on complex realities it is the perfect work for our time of mass retreat into silos of Us and Them, each with its own story of why it is right and all the others are wrong.

Although, if you ever cause someone to tell you 'your dismissiveness regarding cake is inexcusable', they are probably right.
Of course, no level of empathy can excuse the atrocities of some of the barefaced evil to which humans have handed power whether now or in the past. There can be no accommodation with those who would deny the humanity of marginalised groups or wilfully inflict cruelties to get their way. Yet even in their cases, standing in their shoes if even for a moment is vital for understanding the conditions of pain and fear that created them – conditions we are each and all responsible for. Then, and only then, will we find the healing power to walk together toward that essential though as yet never-fulfilled aspiration: never again.

3) The Power of Distance: Animal Crossing – New Horizons (Nintendo, 2020)

Escapism. In the rain of prejudice against videogames this is a most common drop of disdain. The term carries a brutal stigma. It is a charge of immaturity, of cowardice, treachery even: of a failure to live in “reality”.

But is that fair in a fraudulent reality manufactured brick by brick by the collective psychopathy of our kind – built, that is, specifically in order to break people? Is it justified to heap shame upon those who, if merely in order to survive, reach for other realities – any reality other than this! – any more than to slander the child who escapes abuse or the dissident who flees from jail?

Perhaps the dramatic events of this year have shifted many minds on this matter. For as COVID-19 dumped unto our sorry arrogances a new reality of lockdowns, curfews and stay-at-home regulations, all of a sudden millions of people discovered a new meaning to the desire to escape. On top of that, when questioned on where they would like to escape to, only a marked few – what a surprise! – seem to want to go back to the old “reality” whose pretensions this virus has done in.

By way of witnesses, we could do worse than call on one Mr. Tom Nook: esteemed and disarmingly friendly tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog), estate agent, respected financier and wealth creator and by no means a sinister corporate godfather of the Nook Inc. conglomerate with secret control of skyscrapers, helicopter fleets, mafia organisations and the sovereign debt of half the nations of the world. This charming fellow popped up in March – by complete coincidence, just a week after COVID-19 had grown menacing enough to be declared a pandemic – and offered anyone with a Nintendo Switch a simple proposition: a package deal to escape to their own deserted island in the middle of nowhere. (The only catch, so reasonable of course as to go unstated, was that they then developed that island as they saw fit, with Nook Inc. naturally the sole and trusted partner in all matters of credit, capital and infrastructure).

Within two months, more than thirteen million people around the world – the same world that disdains videogames for escapism – had chosen tanuki.

This is how it begins: just you and your tent on an island covered in bush.

New Horizons has been the artistic face of the COVID-19 world. Its persuasive formula follows in the footsteps of its predecessors in the seminal Animal Crossing series: you, a cutely-rendered human, set up in a remote village or wilderness and build it from the ground up into a thriving community of anthropomorphic animals. Every aspect of this life – your appearance and clothing, your house, your community’s layout and landscape, the animals you invite to live in it, even its flag and anthem – is yours to shape out of the nigh-limitless DIY recipes and customisation options available to you. The experience is open-ended, there is no finish line or win condition: how often and for how long you proceed is entirely up to you.

Retreating to your own island might sound, well, insular, but this could not be further from the truth. Your island comes with its own airport and registered seaplane, manned by two dodos with rigorous experience in the aviation sector. They are your gateway to any of the millions of islands on which other players have likewise established themselves, and you can visit one another’s islands to take notes and marvel or gloat at their unique and colourful development ideologies. Each island has its own native flowers and fruit, which you can trade to diversify the natural resources grown on yours. With a network of island-hopping friends and a little imagination, there is no limit to the trading, scheming, fishing, bug-catching, raving or shooting-star-watching events you can hold together in your happy archipelago of exile.

Come to my island instead of England. England doesn’t have coelacanths.
Arriving in England, you get abused and deported because of your skin colour. Arrive on my island instead and you get bears.

I took up Mr. Nook on his deal in April at the same time as countless other people stuck in quarantine. In a period when people who consider video games beneath them have been gleefully handing power to murderous macho-clowns who don’t believe in face masks and call tens of thousands of preventable deaths a success, I do not feel alone in attesting that my sanity, mental health and thus ability to operate in (and against) that corrupt reality outside have been done tremendous good by having this island of good works and charming animal friends to retreat to when needed.

My approach has been relatively solitary: I have kept a step back from the community to build a space that reflects a peace unique to my experience. It has been small but indispensable comfort, after a given day of raging and suffering, to be able to return to this pocket of reality and perhaps commission a new bridge here, rearrange some flower beds there, every touch making small improvements to a lasting expression of my time in this world, as, I suspect, most people’s islands are of theirs.

If you cross the bridge out of my island’s town and head for the hills you will find yourself in the Rawr Rawr Woods.
In the upper reaches, a Memorial to the Victims of All Authoritarianism.
This one is the Memorial to All Victims of a Gendered World.
And this? This is Newgrange.
The politics of Animal Crossing – because everything is political – is delightfully light-hearted. It has not escaped veterans of the series that its gameplay is at its core a capitalist exercise. Much of your time is spent extracting raw materials – plants, fruit, fish and so on – to sell to the little raccoon twins Timmy and Tommy, who run the community’s shop on behalf of Nook Inc. and categorically deny any dynastic relation to Mr. Nook despite looking exactly like him but smaller. You do this in order to amass the funds to buy fixtures and infrastructure off Nook himself while paying off the chain of mortgages he has so charitably granted you (at zero interest, to be fair to the fellow) to expand your house. What is this game’s charming genius, indeed, by which it manages to make paying off a mortgage fun?

As you invest in your island, more dimensions open up with further enticing political food for thought. On reaching a certain administrative complexity Nook brings in his number two, the cheerful golden Shih Tzu dog Isabelle who is really the perfect expression of the Japanese office lady: an eagerness to serve with a butterflies-and-sunshine smile that never fades, even as it surely conceals the mountain of pent-up rage that has made her the utter terror of the fighting game Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Soon a marvellous museum also sets up in your village, run by the ever-informative owl Blathers who will unload on your brain the latest in scientific knowledge (plus a healthy dose of his personal opinions) on the insects, fish, dinosaur fossils and artworks you acquire to fill its collections – raising all sorts of questions, incidentally, on the welfare of large sharks stuck in tanks and art pieces you are sure have been stolen from prominent museums (when not stolen by them from colonised peoples in turn). Eventually your island will gain the prestige to attract the wandering musician K. K. Slider, a mellow white dog who has mastered seemingly every musical genre possible and hands his music out for free (now there’s a politics if there ever was one). Finally, stick it out and you will be granted terraforming privileges, allowing you to rearrange your island’s rivers and cliffs to your heart’s desire or even flatten the whole thing into a gigantic desert or lagoon if that is what so possesses you.

Or, as I demonstrate here, to cut a water supply for a biscuit factory.
The museum has four wings. Everything in the fossil wing has been dug up on the island, identified by Blathers and summarily put on display instead of notifying the public authorities for significant finds. As well as complete dinosaur skeletons they include some of the most ancient material record of life, as well as more recent specimens that might yield crucial information on the ancestry of modern species. But this is my island and its public is better than yours, so no your police can’t come in.
Isabelle: one of the most frightening psychological phenomena in the history of art?
Ultimately it is the villagers themselves who bring your island to life. As someone for whom animals have long been vital solace and a contrast to the irrationality of my own supposed species, I find a comforting nostalgia in the homeliness and hospitality of neighbours like these. From the gentle pink gorilla and exercise-crazed green horse who took their chances with my island from the outset, my community has expanded to include, among others, a blue rhinoceros who says ‘schnozzle’ and likes sweets, a delightfully grumpy old lion, and a ridiculously cute tiny chubby white thing who I think is meant to be some kind of hamster. It is saddening to think that one day each will likely move on from my island, as no doubt must I, but already I do not expect to ever forget them.

In a year of confinement, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has given so many people the chance to escape an unlivable reality. Far across the sea these exiles can rebuild their lives and look back in reflection as the crumbling hollowness of that so-called reality is laid bare. The one thing a fish knows nothing of is the water (at least, at any rate, till some islander catches it and puts it in Blathers’s aquarium). There is power, that is to say, in travelling to where you can scrutinise a reality from outside it.

And don’t the keepers of corrupt reality know it. After New Horizons players began using their islands for virtual protests against the Chinese authorities’ violence in Hong Kong, the game was pulled from sale in China. Which goes to show: when people slander you for video game escapism, it’s not because they think it’s weak and beneath them. On the contrary: they fear the power it gives you to heal, express yourself, and undermine the authority of people like them.

4) The Power of Presence: Assassin’s Creed – Odyssey (Ubisoft, 2018)

At other times the reverse is true. From a distance their power appears woven in the cosmic fabric, and the way to loosen its threads is to get right up in its face.

The lived experience of the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 BCE, between the ancient Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta, might as well be as far away as the moon for most people, but its imaginative power looms unspoken behind the twenty-first century world. This was the conflict out of which Athenian general Thucydides wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War, widely regarded as one of humanity’s first works of rigorous history. Like much that came out of classical Greece, this text has since been oft re-interpreted to serve the agendas of those who claim to the legacies of that world. Most explicitly, Thucydides was seized on by that tradition in International Relations (IR) that has the breathtaking presumptuousness to call itself Realism. From the author’s sober reflections on a conflict that brought out so much of the worst in all parties to it, these academics derived a philosophy – often disguised as science – of human nature as inclined to a permanent competition of all against all, manifest in a world of self-interested states forever locked in a ruthless power struggle. Might makes right, they claim; or, in their favourite selection from Thucydides in which the Athenians arrogantly threaten the island of Melos before massacring its people: ‘the strong do what they can, and the weak do what they must’.

Naturally this is an enormous cop-out. Such behaviour is not a timeless principle but a political choice, and one for which in 2020 the human race remains as far as ever from taking responsibility. Yet as an individual you might forgivably feel limited in your options on what to do about it. You can ignore it, if you are fine to live out your time in this world as a historical passenger. Or you can sit there awed into silence by what seem sweeping historical forces which crush you beneath the stares of those sculpted, bearded marble statue-men that textbooks and museums would have you imagine all ancient Greeks must in fact have been.

Or, thanks to video games, you can rampage across that world in the wonderfully unstoppable body of a big tough mercenary woman, carving and slicing and bashing a trail of devastating revenge for that poisonous inheritance upon the whole damn malákes lot of them.

Athens. This is where the likes of the English and Americans think their democracy comes from. Never mind that neither really have a clue about democracy and its meaning has constantly changed anyway, now you can go into the concept’s birthplace and experience street by street, mob by mob, slave by slave, intrigue by intrigue, how Athenian democracy was not the glinting political paradise it’s often imagined as but rather every bit as violent and corrupt as its hyper-militarist Spartan rival.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is the latest in the Assassin’s Creed series of action-adventure games featuring the open-world exploration of richly-depicted historical settings. The game’s choice of title captures the ambition of its portrayal. Homer’s Odyssey in Greek mythology is the ultimate archetype of the epic journey in Western imagination, so immense in its reach that even the great Mario has doffed his hat to Odysseus’s footsteps in recent years. Well here we have another Odyssey, set in the world whose imaginations – like so many imaginations today – were most immediately shaped by the havoc Odysseus and his fellow mythic archetypes made in the Trojan War, and it begins right next door to his legendary home of Ithaca on the larger island of Kephallonia.

This time the journey belongs, canonically, to a certain Kassandra: a misthios, that is to say a mercenary, with her own legend to carve out of a fractious and hostile Greek world that nonetheless insists on the merits of its cultural achievements. Kassandra herself is an absolute unit, well-adapted in body and temperament to push her way across this tapestry of violence. This is in part explained by her Spartan upbringing, with her relationship with that supposed homeland taking centre stage in a story of the complex problems of family, identity and belonging.

She’s probably bigger than Odysseus was.
The stage for this drama is no less than the entire fifth-century-BCE Greek peninsula. Regions and cities whose names served for so long to make English-speakers who pronounced them wrong sound cleverer than they were, have been reborn as vibrant and integrated game zones for you to explore, complete with questlines and recommended level ranges.
A mercenary protagonist is a feature Odyssey shares with Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and perhaps that is significant. These two games are very different, yet alike in asking you to look on the conflicts of their worlds’ warring factions as an independent outsider; to exercise your own agency in who or what you decide to fight for, what future you choose to shape. In the European tradition mercenaries are an unpopular archetype, reviled for forsaking higher loyalty to flag or principle in order to heed, apparently, the baser calls of wallet and whim. Their reputation has never really recovered from their pasting by Machiavelli, who vilified their behaviour in his likewise fractious and divided Italy (and who is another favourite in the canon of old authors appropriated by the IR “Realists” to insist they were right before they even existed). Yet times have changed. In our broken modernity perhaps it is exactly such expectations of blind loyalty, of brazen commitment to one nation’s superiority over others, that have landed us in the present authoritarian cock-fight in which people of competence and good judgement are kept from power in favour of those with the most deferential genuflections and mouths most bilious with prejudice. When better for these games to prevail on us to reconsider the mercenary archetype?

In such an era there is value in the mercenary’s non-alignment. There is power in the so-called citizen of nowhere’s refusal to bow in allegiance to anyone; in the detachment to consider the merits and flaws of all sides for yourself; in the choice to lend your strength to causes you, on your own two feet, decide are worth it, all the while reserving the right to part ways and go fight with someone else if your first choice does not meet your standards; and of course, to develop family and belonging in a way that works for you, rather than dismember your heart to fit your society’s coercive cookie-cutters.

Kassandra’s awkward relationship with Sparta reflects this. Raised in a Spartan family under a cultural ethos in which every individual is a resource to be forged to maximum potential for the war effort, Sparta made Kassandra the juggernaut she is and is evident in her every interaction with the world. Yet it quickly transpires that her life has been defined by acts of tremendous cruelty both by and upon her family for which that same Spartan culture is at least part responsible. Whatever threads bind Sparta to Kassandra’s heart thus hold only so far on her mind, and still less on her sword arm. Hers is a journey in which she will happily walk alongside Spartans when she identifies with them or finds her and their interests aligned, just as she will with the Athenians – but conversely will not hesitate to clean Spartan hoplites out of their fortresses, crush them by the dozen on the battlefield or ram their ships to splinters when they stand in the way of her journey.

If she ever finds her way into Smash Bros. and comes face-to-face with Animal Crossing’s Isabelle, then we’re all in serious trouble.
Because it’s Greece, this game has a rousing naval dimension. You can dominate the high seas in a ship that's yours to upgrade and customise along the journey, including a wide selection of crews who sing Greek sea shanties and cheer with excitement when you come on board.
The power in this comes from the utter immersion of doing it in as thorough and exhaustive a likeness of the ancient Greek world as perhaps has yet been assembled in human history, and which the interactive nature of videogames makes them uniquely suited to attempt. The strength of the Odyssey team’s effort is plain: to conjure an ancient Greece made not of two millennia’s accumulated baggage of stereotypes, but of the sights, sounds and smells of a real and complex culture lived in by real and complex human beings. Of great effect to this end is that they seem to have bothered to get actual Greek people to do most of the voice acting, and the result is a believably enlivening spoken environment, with Melissanthi Mahut’s outstanding Kassandra the pinnacle of its accomplishment. 

On top of that, the game takes that whole daunting stone-faced roster of Big Names that have intimidated generations of students and laypeople from their plinths and pages, and invites you to imagine them instead as flesh-and-blood human beings. Perikles, Herodotos, Aspasia, Sokrates, Kleon, Hippokrates, Brasidas, Lysander, Alkibiades, Phidias and their like, even (for reasons the plot makes apparent) half-legends from an earlier age like Leonidas and Pythagoras, are brought to life to induce, as apt, your mirth and frustration, suspicion and respect, as well as your personal involvement in the great political and cultural currents they are remembered for shaping.

Sokrates. The Socratic Method feels very different when it is not some abstract dialogue in a textbook but an interruption innocently applied by his grinning face to every encounter with strangers. You decide whether he’s trying to promote your critical thinking or just drive you up the wall.
A work like this necessarily draws scrutiny over its accuracy. Inevitably, it takes liberties. In the interests of smooth gameplay a degree of abstraction is applied to the warring factions, or to the association of regions and islands with given industrial or cultural themes – the salt mines of Lokris, the military sweatshops of Messenia, the purple dye of Kythera, or the tackification of the already ancient Minotaur legends to dupe tourists in eastern Crete (which contrasts nicely with encountering the actual Minotaur when you find it). Representations of such historic individuals and events are necessarily a work of imagination, especially as and where the documentary record is partial or plain lacking. On top of that, it takes a respectably bold cheek to take daunting and consequential landmarks in history – the death of Perikles, the Battle of Amphipolis, Kleon’s attempt to punish the people of Mytilene – and re-cast them as plot points in a drama that frames the Peloponnesian War as itself merely the manifestation of multi-millennial conspiracies slithering in the darkness of history’s backstage.

Yet consider this. The artists and storytellers of the Western world have rearranged the memory of Ancient Greece through all the centuries since, and all too often in the service of far unworthier agendas. The entire concept of Ancient Greece as the cradle of some supremely cultured, morally progressive Western civilisation is amusing when you consider that the idea of Western, even European, let alone what they tend to really mean – white – did not exist at that time and would not emerge in human imagination till centuries later. After so many layers of imagining and re-imagining, any attempt today to penetrate to that ancient world must want for accuracy just the same as two and a half thousand years’ worth of shifting cultural viewpoints and vested interests. At the extreme least, a videogame that gives it a go in good faith merely continues that tradition and is far from the most suspect of its participants.

An excellent bonus is the Discovery Tour mode that comes attached to the main game. It can be bought separately and is designed to offer an immersive instruction in Ancient Greek history, culture and daily life through tours curated by professional historians. Characters from the main game introduce these tours but all its narrative content and violence are set aside, letting you wander into military installations without being attacked or go up to wild bears in the countryside.
Nowhere can this challenge have been greater than on gender and sexuality: that is, how to portray a violent and misogynistic era for an audience in a different kind of violent and misogynistic era, while holding both to account, as humans must, in ways that chime with the climates of both worlds. This was an area where Ubisoft had previously been found wanting, especially after a controversy over non-inclusion of a playable female protagonist in an earlier Assassin’s Creed game upon a feeble excuse about it being too much extra work for animations and costumes. 

But the treatment they pulled off in Odyssey was masterful not least judging by the uproar it caused among the masculinist extremists that dominate Ancient Greece’s self-styled inheritor cultures today, who adore what they imagine as that world’s hyper-violent male dominance. Ancient Greece certainly deserves all the notoriety it gets for the crimes of its patriarchal culture, but as in all societies these were far more complex than sometimes portrayed and Odyssey maintains deft footing in exploring its cracks and contradictions. There is that world’s relative sexual fluidity, to which modern rigid sexuality categories and concepts of straightness would have been alien, and behaviours considered queer today familiar at least to particular social circles; the peculiarities of diverse regional cultures, not least the relative opportunities available to Spartan women in their otherwise brutally-reputed social structure; and as in most times and places, the overlaps between the power differentials of gender and class, and the ways the latter so often trumps the former.

Kassandra is an inspiration. Would that the entire notion of femininity, if allowed to exist at all, be re-forged around the magnitude of her example.
This game was a chance encounter for me, but its appeal was quick to work and called for much shuttling between the Aegean Sea and that other ocean where I built my island retreat in Animal Crossing. There is much that could be explored in that appeal – of roaming the cities and wildernesses of a tainted yet still beautiful ancient land; of the profound example set by Kassandra’s own character, whether as woman or as independent mind in a splintered world; or of getting one’s own back on the arrogance of Athens, the callousness of Sparta, and the guilt of both in saddling future generations with the memory of a pointless and futile war, not to mention the clay it dropped in the hands of irresponsible political theorists. But perhaps the real power Odyssey offers is to get up close and personal with an ancient Greek world too often interpreted through the misleading permanence of marble, the deceptive twirling of ink, and imagine it instead for what it was: a messy, chaotic, living jumble of humanity with its hopes and fears, dreams and insecurities, virtues and flaws – a world, perhaps, not so far from our one after all.

5) The Power of Will: Xenoblade Chronicles (Monolith Soft, 2010/2020)

Is it in our power to change the world? Or has everything already been decided, as though each particle of reality dances to a pre-determined script programmed into it at the universe’s creation?

As our world is swept by colossal forces that seem beyond our control – wars, plagues, mass hatreds, or the runaway power of big data – it is easy to feel overwhelmed into impotence. Perhaps it is no coincidence that all of these games’ power revolves round the sense of agency they give back to you. They remind you what it feels like to travel freely, to fight the fight you want to, to create, to reshape the future. To choose. Yet this is a conflict as old as thought itself; one which troubled no few of those old Greeks in the last game, yet on which their debates would hardly have been the first. Do humans happen, or get happened to? Are we subjects, or objects? Are we shapers of events, or at their mercy? To what does this universe move: Fate, or Will? This is the question to which Xenoblade Chronicles brings its attention.

Xenoblade Chronicles is the oldest game on this list. It received a much-enhanced Definitive Edition remaster this May, but its original release year of 2010 already feels like a former age. This game was created, and its story written, in a world where phenomena like Donald Trump, the Brexit cult, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi had yet to ejaculate to power and commit their countries unequivocally to madness. The world of a decade ago was tormented and apprehensive for sure, but not yet floundering in today’s all-consuming anxiety that absolutely everything is fucked. Perhaps that is why this game conveys such a sense of clarity. Unencumbered by the 2010s’ minefield of traumas, it feels a fresher, purer reflection on timeless themes.

Which is not to say it is any gentler on your nervous system. Xenoblade Chronicles is an action-oriented Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG) par excellence, exhibiting all the features that people familiar with that genre, especially its most distinguished paragon, the Final Fantasy series, have come to expect of it. This is an epic story of a group of heroes travelling through a vast world, negotiating its diverse biomes and complex political problems in an ultimate struggle against world-threatening evils – but also exploring, inseparably, the protagonists’ personal journeys, friendships and conflicts in the midst of great philosophical problems and high-cultural references.

One of the many sweeping landscapes you explore in this game. This early-game grassland comes with the obligatory gigantic stomping red creature who is about sixty levels higher than the zone average and will effortlessly tread on your party if it spots you.
The game’s premise is a mythic clash between two titanic beings – one organic, the Bionis, and the other mechanical, the Mechonis – in a world of seemingly endless sea and sky. Evidently it is more than a myth, for the dormant husks of these two continent-sized entities make up the physical world in which this story unfolds. It begins with a few humans (or Homs in that world) in a settlement near the base of the Bionis’s leg; specifically, a young mechanic called Shulk, whose fate is intertwined with a mysterious kanji-flashing red weapon called the Monado that is the game’s central motif.

The Monado’s name evokes the Monad in cosmic philosophy: the notion of a singular supreme concept or being, with echoes of Gnosticism and the enigmatic mathematical mysticism of our old friend Pythagoras. This of course is not a coincidence. Coincidence does not enter into Xenoblade Chronicles.
Floating islands and seas in the sky are just a handful of the unusual settings that make up this world.
It transpires that though the two great titans’ movement has ceased, the conflict between the Bionis’s inhabitants and the robotic beings that swarm off the Mechonis has not. Dramatic events ensue that shatter the peace of the human colony and set the protagonists’ journey in motion within what at first appears to be a framing thesis of organics versus synthetics. This is itself a mighty philosophical challenge, existential to humans as a technology-dependent species and more relevant than ever in this age of oppressive algorithms and automation, of murder-drones and genocide-enabling social media. Most people will likely have some familiarity with its long interrogation by the arts, in video games perhaps most memorably by the Mass Effect series but with a lineage at least as old as Frankenstein, if not indeed Prometheus.

Yet as the story unfolds, new characters and civilisations get involved and the revelation of expanding layers of truth rolls open a far more complex picture. Your party is joined by members of the Bionis’s other factions, such as the fuzzy and bouncy Nopon and the proud and aloof High Entia, and the Mechonis likewise emerges as not the simple nest of killer computers it might have appeared. Subtly but surely, themes of ecology and environment, war trauma, historical inheritance and racism all bubble to the surface. The deeper in you are drawn, the further out you find the picture-frame extended. Steadily the stakes rise, and what started as a personal quest for vengeance grows into a political struggle and eventually a reckoning with supreme cosmic forces over the greatest questions of all – the meaning of life, the nature of godhood, and always, once again, that existential conundrum: Fate, or Will?

Nopons are cute, and the game knows well how to play that cuteness for affection and amusement to bely the sophistication of their society. Said cuteness makes them accepted among most species, with the result that their wandering merchants and broad diaspora give them an extensively-connected information network and considerable economic nous – and you bet there are Nopon who turn this to invidious advantage. They’re endearing even when they do that (and they know it).
There are people in our world who obsessively insist that people smile in photographs. In fact it is every person’s right to choose the facial expression he or she wants, or indeed whether to look at the camera at all. That is called bodily sovereignty. It would do the smile-obsessives well to learn this now rather than later, because there are also individuals, as varyingly evident here, who in response to their demands would teach them this lesson the hard way.
This core theme is built into the gameplay, in particular the combat system. Imagine the tank-healer-DPS mechanics of multiplayer RPGs like World of Warcraft, but mercifully, with the AI controlling the other party members so you don’t have to rely on actual humans who will leave the keyboard at random moments or wreck your evening with their swaggering ineptitude. Something about the Monado, it turns out, gives you visions of the hard-wired future – armed with which knowledge you are thus empowered to take action to change that future, such as a well-placed shield or stun to avert a monster’s smooshing of one of your party members a few seconds later.

In the main storyline this determinism-versus-free-will struggle speaks obviously enough for itself, but it also stands out in the side-pursuits that dominate most of the game. Through its affinity chart system, the game encourages you to interact with an enormous supporting cast that populates its various settlements, most of whom have little to no role in the main story but whose innumerable (i.e. nearly 500) little sub-quests bring the Xenoblade world to life. These are sometimes funny and charming, sometimes dark and thought-provoking; there are the obligatory kill-something-here or gather-something-there quests, but also family breakdowns, research breakthroughs, squabbles over political differences of opinion, and more than a few superb moments of madness: a ferocious restaurant rivalry, ancient battles between giants and spiders, and of course a certain matter of a Nopon pollen-drug cartel. As you make your way through these people’s dramas you can observe their relationships changing on the affinity chart, hopefully for the better, but always in reflection of the fact that your choices have rippling impacts on the world.

A small part (yes) of the Affinity Chart. Different choices in some quests can have drastically different effects on people’s relationships, giving the Chart multiple potential outcomes. Improving your own party’s relationships with these communities unlocks more quests and makes them willing to trade better items with you.
It is that experience, specially deliverable by a role-playing videogame, that reminds you that questions of fate or will are not an abstract theoretical problem but one that makes or breaks real people’s lives. Its consequences in this game are played out not in equations scribbled on paper but in the loves and losses, hopes and despairs of individuals and entire civilisations. Xenoblade Chronicles is an emotional meat-grinder. If it succeeds at investing you into caring about its characters (whether helped or hindered by voice acting which is, peculiarly, very English rather than American), you are in for a heart-stretching, nerve-crunching ride up and down a story that, while sometimes predictable, knows how to draw out its suspenses, keep hopes and fears on slow boil, and deposit disturbing suppositions in your consciousness that will trouble it long after you switch the game off. There are body and memory alterations, dark genetic secrets, and perhaps the main drawback to being blessed with visions of the future in a troubled world: that pretty much every encounter with someone new comes with an immediate visualisation of their violent death (which of course remains in your psychological baggage whether or not you manage to prevent that future).

I happened to give this game a go at a time of mental instability, and at times had to wonder whether that was such a good idea. In the end I believe it was. The overall tendency is still for anguish to find catharsis, for cruelties to be forestalled and tragedies assuaged, or at least unfolded to resolution at some higher level of complexity – in other words, for Will to prevail in its battle with Fate. Maybe that’s also why the game’s relative genderedness as a jarring creature of the 2000s doesn’t shipwreck the experience either. There is certainly head-rearing by the likes of mono-normative nuclear family assumptions and the masculine-feminine axis of behaviours and relationship norms, not to mention that classic bugbear of RPGs in which a given piece of armour, when equipped on a female character, appears to magically lose about 95% of its visual mass despite somehow affording the same protection. For this, too, is a function of choices people have made, not of inevitable destiny, and it is up to us to self-interrogate, to reflect and to choose a better future.

To be fair on it this game makes a very worthy showing on strong and complex female characters. One of its most important and philosophically compelling narrative journeys is that of Shulk’s friend Fiora, though for reasons you know if you've experienced the story yourself, it would be prudent here to say absolutely nothing more.
The same is true of all the apparently cosmic gales that have swept down to shatter our lives, like the nationalisms, the bigotries, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the grand abuse of data and technology. Will, not Fate, has landed them in our path, and it is Will, not Fate, that will decide whether we push them back off it. We each have a share of agency in choosing how to respond to such a world, that is, in whether we put the weight of our own Monados into enabling its wreckers’ bloody visions, or rejecting them to build a future for everyone. 

The impact of that will might be small for any one of us, but its power is still the most important, for all other power flows from its foundation while if it is absent there can be no power at all. If a game like Xenoblade Chronicles can help awaken that awareness by equipping its players to think at such a level, then that, too, is power it would be folly to overlook.

Breathe. Feel and experience (not only see) things from multiple directions. Escape to a place where it is safe to reflect and express yourself. Soar back into the faces of vast destructive forces and expose that their grip on reality is not so absolute after all. Raise your awareness that reality is not just there, but has been cobbled together by countless large and small acts of will, and that yours, too, has real and potential cobbling power.

Those who have sunk our world into its present tribulations do not wish you to do these things. They seek to suffocate you (so you can’t breathe). To close your feelings to all alternative perspectives. To leave you no escape. To convince you that they, they alone, are reality. To make you feel your life, your will, counts for nothing.

That is why they fear videogames. They fear everything that helps give you back your reality.


  1. I have little experience in gaming, but reading these reviews really changes my perspective. The Legend of Zelda where you can "go a vast and stunning post-apocalyptic wilderness" sounds fascinating. The Power of Presence: Assassin’s Creed – Odyssey is particularly interesting as it gives new insights into the history of Greece and the misconceptions of it created by Western historians. Kassandra is a female Odysseus, what a fantastic storyline. And it is filled with the famed historical figures of Greece. Actually, I am considering a vacation to Greece with my wife and daughter next year, so this only fans my interest in the mists of its real history. Wow, Chaobang, what a brilliant summary! Thanks for enlightening me.

    1. Hello John! Thanks for sharing your impressions - I'm delighted to see you got so much out of this piece.