Oxenfree: A Case Study of Theming

Themes in fiction. They’re one of those things that are easy for the authors to work in, easy for the readers to detect, and they make everyone feel smarter for their inclusion. Themes are great. Just latch onto one idea, bring it up in your story a few times in a few different ways, and bam, you have an easy way of making your story go just a bit below the surface level.

Ok, so maybe it’s a little more complicated than that, but not by all that much! Given that themes are all in the eye of the reader, it can be easy to just work some themes in there accidentally. Hell, I’d been finding themes in the Saints Row series, and you know, if they had the sort of creative minds to be deliberately carrying a solid idea through than maybe they’d be able to write an ending that doesn’t suck without overriding it the next game. Moreover, themes are fun! Try finding some consistent ideas in the next story you go through, and see for yourself!

Oftentimes you see a theme, at least one implemented deliberately, the work will have something to say about it. Not always. And really, the works that don’t impose anything on their themes aren’t necessarily any worse than those that do. But what you rarely see is a work that does make a conclusion about its theme, and fits it into the greater work, but that conclusion comes entirely from the consumer. That’s a way of handling a theme that is largely unique to videogames, and even then, it’s something you’ll see rather rarely. So when Oxenfree freakin’ rocked it, I felt compelled to take a moment to recognize it.

Now, you might notice Oxenfree was released relatively recently. So I’m going to be talking about a modern game here. On Lost to the Aether. That never happens. It’s like Christmas and your birthday all put together. And we’ll be talking about some plot stuff. But I’ll do my best to keep it spoiler light. For the most part.

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So, Oxenfree has a theme of guilt and blame. It’s not like a major thing in the game, so don’t expect it to be hammering you over the head with it, but it’s a concept they return to every now and again, enough for it to gain some mental real estate. It does some minor exploring of the concept. Or rather, it guides you through it. Sometimes, stuff happens. Bad stuff. People are unwittingly involved in the bad stuff happening. Whose fault is it?

For example, in the beginning of the game, you meet your dead brother’s ex-girlfriend. She blames you for his death. You get no other information as to the circumstances. How do you react to that?

You track down your stepbrother investigating some creepy stuff. You find something strange, he wants to push it further. You end up unknowingly doing a thing because of it that triggers the inciting incident. Who’s to blame there? You for actually doing it? Your stepbrother for putting you in that situation? Nobody, because seriously, who would expect that thing to be holding evil?

Even the backstory event that set things up happened because people were forced to act with insufficient information and there ended up being some grave consequences for it. Is it the executor’s fault for doing so? The person who held the limited information for putting it in the hands of those who had to act? Nobody’s, because everyone did the best they could with what they had? One background character spends her entire life blaming herself for it and trying to deal with it. Should she have done so?

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At every stage, the story poses the questions, then lets you put in the answer. What does the narrative have to say about this concept? Entirely up to you. And that alone ends up doing some interesting things with its treatment of the theme. It turns the story from your garden variety plot to something with elements of a thought experiment. It forces you to be more introspective about the plot, to reflect and conclude on happenings there. And that is a way of storytelling that is so uniquely videogames.

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The Higurashi Notes, Chapter 1: Onikakushi-Wild Mass Theorizing

So after all that, we come around to the big question.  What exactly is going on in Higurashi?  The first chapter, Onikakushi, has no answers.  But it does have some fuel for speculation.  And you know what?  In the latest chapter released, the developers straight up ask you to spend some time on the speculation.  So let’s do that.

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Now, there’s two main questions the game leaves hanging.  Why, and HowWhy does the town hate Keiichi?  Why do his friends keep turning evil and trying to kill him?  Why do people get murdered there?  And How all of that?

Let’s explore this.  I do want to say, I’m going to do my best to avoid spoilers here, and limit things to content as presented in this chapter.  But, honestly, some of these conclusions are informed by what’s been presented in the other question arcs, and really, I’m not going to be able to get around that.

Anyways, let’s go into some random guesses as to what all makes things work in this story.  I’m not entirely convinced in all of these, in fact, some of them I’m pretty sure the story will never even consider.  But they’re all taking up some mental real estate.  And you know what, before we get into the meat of it, let’s get one thing out of the way.

Natural vs. Supernatural

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Right, so I said earlier we could just brush this question off.  And really, we can.  But I figure, this chapter makes something of a deal of it, so we may as well address it.  In brief.  Because that’s all this question deserves.

Are the weird happenings in this game the acts of men?  Are the consistent murders a series of copycat killers?  Are the villagers getting organized to expulse any outsider they consider a threat to their operations?  Is there some sort of conspiracy going on among the major families to maintain the village in just the way they want by force if necessary?  Or is it the act of otherworldly beings?  Is Oyashiro-sama real and working to purge the village?  Are there truly demons among the villagers?

Again, this is a question this chapter tries to raise, and definitely the one it wants you speculating on, but I don’t think it’s very material to the story.  Some being is making murder, whether it’s a human or a spirit doesn’t make much difference in the end.  And really, this chapter doesn’t give you anything to base it off of.  The idea of the supernatural is raised, but if you take Keiichi’s fractured sanity into account, you don’t see anything concrete as to how it’s acting.  Unless that fractured sanity is how it’s acting.  But even that could be the drug they allude to.  They don’t give you enough either way to foster good speculation on that. 20160709181328_1.jpg

For what it’s worth, given the direction the story’s been going, even in this chapter, I’m of the opinion that there’s at least some supernatural element there.  The people are definitely involved in it, at least as far as covering it up goes, but there is some magic involved either in the actual execution of the murder/disappearances, or in the organizing people to do such.  I just don’t think the lead they’ve given and the way the following chapters progress will make much sense if there’s something beyond human running behind it.  But it’s not completely supernatural, because this is a character-driven story, and all that actual characters are human.  If you take the humans out of it, then you’ve wasted at least the early chapters.  So some mix of human and supernatural is where it’s at.  If it’s not, I will refund you the price of reading this blog post.  What do you have to lose?

The Theorizing

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The Higurashi Notes: Onikakushi-Keiichi’s Sanity and Ooishi’s Behaviour

All right, so now that we’ve taken a look at the happenings in our last post, let’s go back and try to work out… you know, what actually happened.  Onikakushi drops a whole lot of questions.   No answers.  But if you know where to look, there might be a few hints.  So, what do you say we start with the biggest question?

How much is actually real?

Yeah, yeah, Onikakushi runs really heavily on the “Is it magic? Is it mundane?” question, to the point it has the characters arguing about it OOC at the end.  But you know, that question is nowhere near as interesting to me as this one.  Stuff happened in this plot.  A lot of stuff happened in this plot.  But, did all the stuff that happened actually happen?

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At its core, Onikakushi is a story about Keiichi’s descent into paranoia.  You see him going from being a normal kid, run into a conspiracy so far beyond him that starts targeting him for even knowing about it, and in defense, Keiichi starts backing into the corner and pulling out the claws.  Starts smashing up nothing, thinking enemies are all around him.  But, maybe it goes beyond justifiable paranoia.  Maybe Keiichi starts experiencing things that are not actually there.

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It’s interesting to me how much Keiichi does that seems to serve no other purpose than to make his house a portrait of madness at the end.  The entry way of his home is all smashed up.  Mashed garbage strewn all over the room.  A hastily scrawled note asking “Was there a needle?” on the fridge.  The brief, hand-written memoirs of a crazed child stuck with tape behind his clock.  The kind of home that would make you think its owner escaped from the asylum if you came across it in any crime drama.  Of course, all of these were in response to something Keiichi was reacting to, and you see all the context for that, but take a look at that from outside Keiichi’s head for a bit.  He smashes up his house by swinging at something invisible and intangible.  He has a relatively calm phone conversation with Ooishi, then mention of the needle causes him to take a break and throw garbage all over his house, before he returns to the calm-ish conversation.  Keiichi knows what it all looks like.  That’s why he’s so very careful about what he puts in his dead drop note, and why it ends up being way too vague to be useful, outside of the bits that get torn out before the police find it.

But how far back does Keiichi’s altered perception go?  Let’s start from the end, and take a look at some contradictions between what we’re shown and what we know.

So first, the police report at the end.  Right off the bat, it states, and states conclusively, that Keiichi had called Rena and Mion over to his house before he beat them to death.  Now, it doesn’t list any of the evidence for that claim, but logically, the police would be able to look into phone records in regards to what calls were made.  At least, I’m going to assume they could.  I don’t know ‘bout that 1983.  So we can figure that it’s more than just an assumption that Keiichi called them out.  Thing is, if you recall from the events we saw, when Keiichi woke up in his house before he killed his friends, Rena was already there.  Sure, she called Mion from Keiichi’s house, but there’d be no reason for Rena to be called over.  Unless, either the ‘Director’ she called share’s Rena’s number, or Keiichi had in fact called her over, and just wasn’t cognizant of it.

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Keiichi died in exactly the same way as Tomitake did earlier.  That’s exactly what Mion was threatening, saying he’d be injected with the same drug.  But there’s two problems with this.  The first, going by what we saw, Keiichi was never injected with the drug.  He blacked out just before he did, came to with his friends dead, then recalled that he had knocked them away before he was injected.  Possibly, this is recreating memories after the fact, but otherwise, he should never have been impacted by the drug at all.  The second notable thing is that Keiichi started following in Tomitake’s footsteps long before the drug ever came up.  The big moment is when he smashed up his front entryway, striking at the presence he detected but couldn’t see.  Ooishi had notice that Tomitake had been found with a two-by-four that had impacted several things, but had no blood, skin, or biologic materials found on it.  He smashed up a guardrail, but had no sign of actually hitting anyone else with it.  Mayhaps he had been finding a presence that couldn’t be seen or touched, himself. Continue reading

The Higurashi Notes, Chapter 1: Onikakushi – Plot Rundown

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Look at this!  Isn’t this amazing!  I said I was going to do a thing.  Which, ok sure, that happens.  But then!  But then I actually did it!  How often does that happen in your life?!

In any case, here’s the first part of typing waaaaaaaaaaaay too many words talking about Higurashi.  If you missed our intro post, here’s the deal.  I’ve been playing these visual novels.  I’ve been wanting to talk about them.  To analyze them.  To dissect them.  So that’s what we’ll be doing today, over the first chapter of the series, Onikakushi.  We’re going full on for spoilers for that chapter, but we’ll be keeping things safe for all the other chapters.  We’re free on discussing chapter one, whatever we need to there, but we won’t be brushing on anything else.  Might be literally the only place on the internet to do that.

Do I need any further ado?  I think that’s enough ado.  Let’s get into the do.

So, today, we’re mostly going to be following along with the plot.  Summarizing things for those who are just joining us or could use a bit of a refresher before we jump right into the deep end.  We’ll be dropping some bits of analysis on the way, but it’ll be the next post where we really get into things.  So hey, if you’re interested in this stuff, why don’t you follow along?  If not, go ahead and wait for next time.  Do whatever works for you.  Ain’t required reading here.  But, chances are, it will make your life better.  So much better.  In fact, I’m pretty confident about that.

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Movies in my Games? The Power of Video Game Cinematography

I used to hate when people would treat the creation of video games the same way as the creation of movies.  It used to pop up all the time in the schlock gamingsphere, because, well, back when the veil was still first being pulled back, that was all people had to compare it to.  It’s the only other primarily visual-creative industry of similar size and undertaking, games have a lot more similarity to movies than, say, sculpture, early on in the industry it was a lot of ex-film types really driving things, etc.  Still, that just led to a lot of oversimplifications and false equivalences.  So every time someone on the internet was like “hey, could you imagine if movies were like 90% fight scenes the way gaaaaaames are?” I just died a little inside.

Nowadays, I’m starting to wonder if game developers aren’t learning enough from the film industry.

So let’s talk cutscenes.  Some people don’t like ‘em, some people don’t mind them, some people might rightfully claim they’re overused or used poorly, but frankly, they’re just going to be a fact of life as long as games try to have a structured narrative and deliver events outside what’s strictly interactable to the player.  But some games make them suck.  Some games put you through a lot of straight boring cutscenes.  And you know what, it’s probably not the content itself.  I’m starting to think it’s really just the way the scenes are presented.  The cinematography.

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I remember the first time I realized the impact cinematography could have on a game’s cutscenes.  It was Yakuza 2.  That game has a scene about 3/4s of the way through where they draw some of the major players together, sit them down around a table, and they just talk.  For a good 10-15 minutes.  No fighting, no action, not even any real twists or surprises given.  It’s just a bunch of dudes and dudettes making plans.  And it’s not boring.  It should be the most out of place thing in what’s otherwise a sandbox action game, it should be just a big delay in what’s otherwise a high-tension packed plot, but the developers keep it from being boring.

It’s all because of the cinematography.  The people sitting around talking may not be doing any real action, but the scene is still full of activity.  The camera’s always swooping, panning, and scrolling.  The characters fidget, nurse their cigarettes, and physically expressing themselves.  Even if that motion is not really leading anywhere, the scene is absolutely filled with it.  The scene incorporates a lot of elements you’d normally see in film, where the actors deliver a bit of nuance or, at the least, visual interest through simple actions while they talk, and the direction uses camera movements to instill a sense of action and energy where otherwise there is none.

Compare that to something like the Elder Scrolls, where plot developments are largely given to you by means of a single Bethesdaface yakking at you with a single expression on his face, filling your screen.  While you could deliver the same dialogue in exactly the same way, the amount of engagement, what you’d really need, is completely different.  Hell, just compare Metal Gear Solid to itself.  Kojima’s a former film dude, he knows the rules of cinematography, and that really shows in the cutscenes.  But then they decide that’s enough work for them, and go to the codec screens to talk to you about the Lolly who Lays Low, and then you just sit on one hand and down your drink with the other while the game Speak-and-Spells to you.  Not the best way to deliver that espionage action.

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I’ve been playing through Yakuza 5, and it’s clear that whoever handles cinematography for the series has not lost his touch.  Yakuza has a lot of plot just delivered through dialogue, you guys.  Even more so than already texty series like Mass Effect.  And if this game handled dialogue the way Mass Effect does, by just having a few static camera angles read to you, it would be interminable.  Would really drain the impact of the scene, if, when they’re dropping those plotbombs on you, nobody had any real reaction, and the camera wasn’t imparting any real import to them.  But with the cinematography they show, especially in these dialogue-heavy scenes, they’re able to capture your interest and keep your attention going right on the points they want to.  The Yakuza series has some of the best cinematography in gaming, and that is one thing I really wish more games would pick up.  It’s a thing of beauty, and this cinematography lets them pull of the type of stories that would be horribly suited to the medium otherwise.

Story Quality and the Persistence of Memory

Every once in a while I get something stuck in my head that’s absolutely unproductive but I spend a whole lot of time thinking through.  So here’s a question I was faced with recently.  Can a story be considered good, have the right mix of elements that resonates with the readers and makes for a good plot, when it’s absolutely unmemorable?

I came upon this when I started up playing Max Payne 2.  This wasn’t my first go round with the Max Payneiverse.  I logged my time in with the first Max Payne, like 15 hours or however long it took to get through it.  And that was an award winning game.  Back in 2001, it was the talk of the town.  The video games journalism town.  It’s scummy and the family trees are all tangled up there, I wouldn’t recommend you visit.

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Anyways, the first Max Payne.  Most highly praised for its gameplay, atmosphere, and squinty mugshots, but more than a few people gave it props for its story as well.  I played through all of it.  I have memories of my impressions of the plot.  But, in going to the supposedly familiar places, meeting all the supposedly familiar people, and killing a bunch of dudes all of again, I discovered that I don’t remember much of the actual events at all.  I spent hours with it, yet the actual happenings of the story are a big void to me.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad story.  Plenty of people had a good time with it, else it wouldn’t have gotten all those plotprops.  The few memories I have of the plot are decent enough.  I remember it being surprisingly down to earth compared to what else I was playing at the time, I remember being satisfied by the noir style telling, and I remember hating the Nordic theming at first but then absolutely loving it towards the end when I realized Payne is pretty much a historic berserker.  But the things that went on to cause those impressions?  No idea.

Part of that is just the nature of the beast.  Max Payne pulls back some noir storytelling, and noir by its nature is very introspective, reserved, and doesn’t tend to lead to the big Aha! Moments that really stick in the mind for the long term.  So the fact that a lot of it’s not sticking around may be a sign that it’s hitting the form it’s going for.

It may well be the type of story that only really shines on multiple retellings, when one’s had the chance to absorb more of it and read into it more fully.  I’ve come across quite a few plots that require experience or a certain mindset to really get into.

In any case, I find it difficult to look back on Max Payne and evaluate what I went through there.  Of course stories are subjective, and there are a lot of elements that can go into making a quality plot.  Does memorability need to be one of them?  If something was good while you went through it, even if it has no aftertaste, can you still consider it just as good after the memories leave?  I find myself torn.  To some degree, I’m pretty sure I enjoyed Max Payne’s story while I was playing.  There were at least good points to it, and just because I don’t remember them doesn’t mean they weren’t there.  But none of it stuck.  I spent all that time with it, and I’m carrying none of it around with me.  And to some degree, that has to diminish the experience once it’s over.  Is it enough to make it all invalid?

Then again, a lot of this is me trying to internally evaluate a work that I have no memory of.  I had my time with it.  I may not of been the most engaged, but I know I had some fun, and just because I don’t remember it any more doesn’t take that away.  Beyond that, it doesn’t matter to me now.  Whether I can call the original Max Payne good or not doesn’t have an impact on me until I start playing the game again.  We’ll see if a story can be unmemorable but still be good then.

Sticking the Landing

Red Metal and I have been going round and round these comment sections, complaining about when the plot turns sour at the end of video games for a long, long time.  And with good reason.  Dropping the ball on the plot like that is pretty much like giving the player a nice, delicious dessert, only hiding a big ‘ol rock in the middle of it.  You’re going along, enjoying yourself, and then bam!, all your teeth are shattered and you hate everyone who delivered that to you.

But, you know, plot is not the only way a game can fall apart at the end.  I don’t know if it’s even the most common way a game can fall apart.  Plenty of games fall apart gameplay-wise, as well.  In fact, thinking back, it’s hard to remember the last time I played a game that didn’t somehow just drop in gameplay quality at the end.

Fact of the matter is that most of the people who start your game aren’t going to get to the end.  As it turns out, not everybody can muster up the commitment that I do so magnificently all the time.  So, it makes sense that they’d put most of the quality up front.  That’s where the reviewers are going to focus, that’s where your first impression is developed, and really, that’s where you know most people are going to be playing.  From a pure dollar/value standpoint, of course that’s where you’re going to get the most impact for your operational inputs.

Of course, it may not be a conscious decision to focus on the start to the detriment of the end of the game either.  Oftentimes, if you’re making the end of the game at the end of the development process, you’re just running out.  Running out of funds, running out of energy, running out of creativity, it’s kind of natural you just wouldn’t be able to bring it the same way you were earlier.  Compounding this, one of the ugly truths of the video game industry is that crunch time is a standard practice.  When your game is getting close to being ready, your life will quickly become hell.  And you’re still supposed to squeeze out the magic there.  It just can’t happen.  So if crunch time is overlapping with you capping off the game, of course the quality’s going to suffer.

Just like a plot going down the tubes at the end can derail the whole experience, so to can the drop in gameplay.  I was actually enjoying Fallout 4.  I know not everyone enjoyed Fallout 4, but I did.  Until the end.  Which hit a really weird moment.  That was the point at which the plot was reaching its most tension, with all the factions I had been moving along having their irreconcilable differences finally coming to fruition, and with that pushing things forward, it really should have been at the game’s height.  The gameplay just wasn’t matching it, though.  The game completely ran out of anything new or different to deliver, leaving me fighting the same old goons without anything really special to it, glitches started popping up a lot more, and balance all went out the window.  The quests had the highest amount of emotional release in the game, but aside from the Brotherhood trying to get its troops at me through a toothpaste tube, which was kind of cool, the gameplay was all same old, where it wasn’t lacking.  It kind of made the experience feel a bit hollow.  Part of me was into it, part of me wasn’t, and I ended up suffering through the bad parts and not enjoying the good as much as I would have otherwise.

Don’t have much of a point here, just a bit of a rant.  But, while it’s easy to complain about a bad plot twist spoiling a game for you, and while a disappointing last level may not ruin the experience as much as a failed ending, it really amounts to a bit of lost potential.  I finished Fallout 4, and haven’t cared to go back, but a game that sticks the landing can have me coming back again and again.