Wii Hardly Knew U

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So, last night, Nintendo pulled the plug on its Miiverse social network. This means I just lost a convenient method to take screenshots of Wii U games. Not only that, I also lost the only method I had to take screenshots of the video feed on the Wii U Gamepad.* I hope the screenshots I’ve saved so far are enough to illustrate any future writing!

Of course, we could ask why players ever needed to connect to a social network to take screenshots of a game in the first place. (Certainly, the ever-reliable twelve seconds required to reach the Miiverse servers was never welcome.)

But, in honor of its passing, let’s cut the Miiverse some slack. The Wii U was, after all, the first console to launch with a built-in screenshot taking mechanism, catching up to Steam’s well-worn “F12” key. And it remained, up until last night, admirably responsive. Despite the network-induced downtime, you were still guaranteed to capture the exact frame up on the screen when your thumb hit the “home” button, with none of the guesswork-inducing delay of the PlayStation 4’s “share” function.

That’s not the only feature the Wii U sported that was demonstrably superior to those of its competitors. It gave the world the first web browser for a home console that didn’t completely suck. To this day, I still curse the Steam and PS4 browsers for not auto-filling your browser search bar with the game you have suspended, a cherished Wii U feature. And the notion that strategy tips posted on Miiverse would transform every game on the console into a pseudo Souls-like was intriguing, even if never got implemented beyond a few choice first-party titles like Super Mario 3D World.

Ah, and now I’m getting all misty-eyed. I missed a prime moment to post a retrospective on the Wii U console, back in March when the Switch launched. But the Miiverse’s death seems like a worthy milestone, so let’s commemorate.

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Mourning a Lost Feed

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Since the unexpected and shocking death of my friend Hannah Frank last week, I have been thinking a lot about the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back” (Series 2, Episode 1, dir. Owen Harris, 2013). Since the time I first saw it, I’ve thought it was a very good slice of speculative fiction, but it was not until the past week that its insights into 21st century psychology truly hit me.

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A Hodology of Videogames: Silent Hill

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I have wanted to write about the original Silent Hill (Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo “Team Silent,” 1999) for a very long time. But it has been difficult to find a “way in.” Unlike its pseudo-remake, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Climax, 2009), which I have successfully gotten around to writing aboutSilent Hill doesn’t have much in the way of interesting flaws to pick apart. It has flaws, to be sure. But its flaws are banal. It falls prey to the “let’s belatedly explain our incoherent story via some back-loaded cutscenes” problem so typical of games of the original PlayStation era, especially those produced in Japan that I have only ever experienced in English translation. Its successes, meanwhile, are numerous. But I’ve never found a way to approach them with intellectual rigor. My reaction to the game is a primal one, and I have struggled to conjure critical thoughts beyond, “my, it really is surprising how effectively scary this game still is, despite the limitations of its visual style.”

But, what the hell: I’m going to give it a shot, in the form of one of my “hodology of videogames” series of posts. Since it’s been awhile, here’s a quick refresher on the ground rules: “Hodological space” refers to the space that humans inhabit: not a space made up of strict coordinates, but a thicket of preferred paths, affected by factors such as interest, distraction, fatigue, and urgency. It’s a term that originated in the writings of psychologist Kurt Lewin, and which traveled by way of Sartre into the realm of phenomenology. Today, I’ll be thinking about the paths players take through the town of Silent Hill.

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Double Blind

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Ian here—

I’ve written about synesthetic interfaces before: that is, interfaces that perform a sensory substitution, translating the information normally associated with one sense modality into the phenomenal forms normally associated with another. In my previous work, I’ve usually focused on forms of nonhuman perception and certain modes of perceptual expertise. The release of Perception (The Deep End Games, 2017) yesterday, however, gives me an opportunity to dip into a new topic: disability.

Perception is a horror game about a blind woman exploring a haunted house. Unlike a game such as Papa Sangre (Somethin’ Else, 2010), however—an experiment in audio-only digital game design that has sadly been taken off of the iOS App Store as of this writing—Perception doesn’t court blind and other low-vision players. Rather than featuring robust, binaural sound localization simulation, Perception re-imagines the auditory perception of its blind protagonist Cassie as a kind of sonar vision, thrown up on the player’s screen in spooky, warbly monochrome.

This isn’t the first time games nominally about blindness have been served up to sighted players. In this post, I take up a comparative investigation of Perception alongside Beyond Eyes (Tiger and Squid / Team17 Digital Ltd, 2015), which drops the horror angle in favor of child-friendly, colorful adventure.

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Lesson Plans: The Definitions and Expectations We Have of Games

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Ian here—

This post serves as a little mini-postmortem on two difficult class sessions in my “Frames, Claims, and Videogames” course. There are multiple overlapping reasons why these class sessions were difficult for me. One is that my lesson had to pivot strangely from seemingly-academic debates on the definition of games to a sudden dive into matters of harassment in game culture. Harassment itself is, needless to say, a difficult thing to discuss in class. It becomes exponentially more difficult when one is teaching  a class with a high percentage of international students, many of whom (thanks to the registration realities of late-scheduled courses) have no particular interest in games, and who simply cannot fathom the cultural forces that align to drive a certain subset of American men to use things like changing conceptions of videogames (videogames!) as an opportunity to harass women online. I mean, how do you explain this, really—to anyone at all, let alone someone completely on the outside of American “gamer” culture?

I won’t go so far as to claim that my approach to this material was entirely successful. (The class did not, for instance, become a platform for thoughtful discussion in the same way my unexpectedly post-Trump-election lesson on the politics of American comedy did.) It was, though, a learning experience for me, so it’s worth sharing some details.

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Shattered Memories Scattered Thoughts, Pt 2

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Ian here—

Welcome to part 2 of a 2-part post on Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Climax Studios, 2009). I’ll admit to a bit of wordplay here. In my first post, “scattered thoughts” referred to my own train of thought, since I’ll be the first to admit that my thoughts in that post weren’t guided by a single, coherent thesis. This post, however, does have a coherent guiding line: it is about how Shattered Memories itself uses distraction and split attention to heighten anxiety. So, the “scattered thoughts” in question here are the player’s.

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Shattered Memories Scattered Thoughts, Pt 1

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Ian here—

It is 2016. Sam Barlow is widely appreciated today for revitalizing the full-motion video adventure game with HER STORY (2015). Why, then, return to Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Climax Studios, 2009), which Barlow served as writer and lead designer of, which released seven years ago today? Am I prepared to claim that it is a lost masterpiece, a testament to Barlow’s skill at expanding the narrative possibilities of the videogame medium? No, I am not. Shattered Memories is certainly interesting. But it’s also flawed in too many ways to be considered a masterpiece.

Why these critical musings, then? Well, a bit of biographical detail: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is the reason I bought a Wii. I had no prior interest in the console until word of this title started leaking out in mid-2009. I had played the first three Silent Hill games (all earlier that year, in fact) and loved them, but skipped the most recent iterations due to a seeming consensus that the series had subsequently lagged, especially following the departure of the original Team Silent. But here was something new: a game that actually seemed as if the designers were using the Wii remote in interesting ways, a game that seemed like it had a shot at leveraging the bodily engagement of the Wii platform in the service of horror, a game that was promising to rescue the survival horror genre from its seemingly inexorable slide into the action genre. In 2009, all three of these things seemed like breaths of fresh air.

So I have a personal attachment to this game, even if my feelings on it are complicated. What follows, as the title of this post suggests, are somewhat messy thoughts—although I’m planning to post a more organized follow-up soon.

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