I recall spending countless hours on a Final Fantasy fansite as a teenager. One got the sense that a lot of the members were interfacing more meaningfully with RPG stories than they were with the classics from their English classes. Broken, unevenly-translated Engrish was deconstructed and interpreted as subtly-crafted prose; Cloud Strife and Fei Fong Wong were unironically lauded as the greatest characters in the history of fiction. The medium was treated with a starry-eyed reverence which, considering the frequently infantile sense of writing and comic book settings, seemed wildly out of place. And as we grew older, it was expected that this reverence be disowned, acknowledged as a symptom of aesthetic deficiency, progressed from, as a young adult might find their idea of high cuisine progressing from grilled cheese to foie gras. The few that remain stalwartly attached to the sprawling, fumbling, awkward epics of JRPGs past were cast under suspicion of wearing rose-tinted glasses (and if the baffling tale told by the recent Final Fantasy XIII is any evidence, this may well be true).
As much as I love him, Cloud falls somewhere
short of establishing himself as the Holden
Caulfield of our generation.
short of establishing himself as the Holden
Caulfield of our generation.
It's certainly true that no character from Final Fantasy VII or Xenogears holds a candle to the thematic depth of literature's heavyweights. On the other hand, I think there's something fascinating going on with the gaming community's persistent fixation with character-centric dramas set against the backdrop of giant robots or cyborg assassins or a mission to kill God, something that merits a little more than a snort or a groan. The subject matter is certainly pure camp. We're not accustomed to having to take giant robots seriously; we associate them more with cheap cartoons and merchandising than stories of personal revelation or Freudian psychology. But it may well be that the campy premises which video game narratives are so frequently drawn to constitute particularly fertile soil for dramatic storytelling.
There are some pretty interesting parallels with the comic book movie renaissance of the last decade, when the success of X-Men and Spider-Man filled summer movie screens with big-budget comic book adaptations. Spider-Man in particular is a good case study, because director Sam Raimi, a modern master of camp filmmaking, appeared to have somewhat schizophrenic intentions when he approached the franchise. Clearly, everyone knew the corniness and cliches were present - it was Raimi, the inclusion was willful and done with relish - but at the same time, the audience was expected to take Peter Parker's personal struggles seriously, even as he donned a spider costume and battled Willem Dafoe clad in a green Power Ranger suit. The fusion of the comic book's camp sensibilities with big-screen drama was a little uneven, but it found popular resonance where it had previously been niche. And by the end of the decade, murmurs of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight for Best Picture were circulating; Heath Ledger was posthumously awarded Best Supporting Actor for his role as the Joker.
We can still sense some discomfort with the improbable fusion. The Dark Knight called upon both Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine to buoy the film with a sense of venerability from their supporting roles, as though Nolan suspected the premise was just a little too ridiculous to independently sustain itself as serious subject material. But whatever the case may be, camp and drama are increasingly cementing themselves as partners in modern filmmaking, to wild popular reception and more-than-occasional critical acclaim. How, then, should this affect our interpretation of the obvious analog in video games?
I mentioned in a previous post that I'm a big Metal Gear Solid fan, and it might strike some as odd to follow an entry ripping into StarCraft II's story with praise for Hideo Kojima's notorious mindfuck epic. But the series is probably the medium's foremost exemplar with respect to high drama in a camp setting. The title itself, after all, refers to giant robots - walking, nuclear-equipped battle tanks that bear no small resemblance to Godzilla (which, incidentally, may well be where the entire marriage between camp and drama was blessed) - but the bizarre premises don't stop there. Floating psychics and flamethrower-wielding astronauts deliver insane soliloquies about their tortured lives; enemy commandos deflect bullets ("She really is Lady Luck!") and survive shots to the head with no real explanation; a nerdy companion named after an anime convention strikes up a conversation with the protagonist about whether love can bloom on the battlefield. Metal Gear Solid is a gritty war story at heart, but it's not itself without healthy servings of the paranormal, perplexing, and preposterous.
But - and this is where many gamers are understandably confused - Metal Gear Solid doesn't invite you to laugh at its sheer ridiculousness (at least, not always). Underneath all the jargon, technobabble, and downright cheese, it's got a serious thematic story to tell, and something about its B-movie sensibilities - from the lengthy, stilted exposition and broad, exaggerated caricatures right down to the pitch-perfect, gravelly corniness of David Hayter's delivery as Solid Snake - just clicks. The player becomes increasingly confused about where the dividing line is between the pretense of serious, traditional spy drama and the lunatic fringe. Eventually, we let our guards down, and the full dramatic force of the game's camp side - which would under normal circumstances be simply too silly to be moving - comes crashing down upon us. Snake's introspection, Naomi's betrayal, Otacon's sense of loss: all of these things are the better for their unabashed willingness to situate themselves within the aesthetic of camp science fiction.
The narrative strategy is perhaps best exemplified by the death of The Boss at the end of Metal Gear Solid 3. As she perishes, the scars on her chest turn into a pair of (heavy-handedly metaphorical) snakes, which slither from her body onto the ground as the white flowers surrounding her bloom red. At face value, it's an utterly ridiculous piece of visual eyeglitter to underscore the departure of an important character, a scene with no obvious consistency with the game's portrayal of the supernatural, and a catastrophically failed attempt of a director with juvenile sensibilities to execute something abstract or new-wave. But Kojima is nothing if not in constant implicit dialogue with his audience's confused reactions. The scene, which is punctuated by requiring the player to execute The Boss themselves by pressing the fire button (a move which cleverly recontextualizes the hitherto-unreflective manner with which they have killed every other enemy in the game), deliberately blurs the boundaries between the emotionally moving and the aesthetically indulgent. The storytelling technique of Metal Gear Solid therefore functions very much as a curiously effective embracing of kitsch.
Metal Gear Solid exemplifies a narrative style which has transcended the realm of authorial immaturity and become genre. As it willfully insists that it be critically defined by its own terms rather than condemned by the criterion of traditional drama, it also insists that the player, at least for the duration of the game, suspend their own understanding of the dramatic, fray its boundaries, and allow the game's potent camp sensibilities to become interwoven. I should note that, while I think this is a genre that shows a lot of promise, I don't want all game stories to be like Metal Gear Solid, as surely as I don't want all film stories to be like Spider-Man. Moreover, I certainly don't want to see the "genre" label applied as a catch-all defense against bad writing in video games. This can be particularly dangerous when the bad writing is also writing we enjoy - witness Castlevania: Symphony of the Night's "Die, monster!" introduction, which ought not ever be construed as anything other than a humorous relic to be appreciated with a giggle and a smirk.
What I hope is that gamers, while still holding the medium's storytelling to high standards, can acquire some context for their appreciation of a series like Metal Gear Solid or Xenosaga or Final Fantasy. One might survey the prevalence of camp in video game storytelling and conclude that it is frozen in permanent infancy. But whether the writing is infantile or not, it is missing the point entirely to judge it by the same criteria one would a Kubrick film or Shakespearian classic - or even the latest generic drama that Ebert reviews favorably. The giant robot-centered camp drama just might have established itself as its own breed, rather than high art's kid brother.