VA-11 Hall-A and the Politics of Cyberpunk

VA-11 Hall-A and the Politics of Cyberpunk

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

VA-11 Hall-A and the Politics of Cyberpunk

Julián Carrera 

December 2019

Every shift at the VA-11 Hall-A bar starts with bartender Jill’s nightly line: “Time to mix drinks and change lives.”

The regulars at the bar, which is located close to the slums of Glitch City and endearingly referred to  as “Valhalla,” include a sentient robot AI, a hacker, a wannabe macho, the CEO of a newspaper, a cat-girl, a live-streamer, a disembodied brain, and a delusional art critic.

Jill talking to live-streamer Streaming-Chan.

Taken during gameplay on Nintendo Switch.

 

These personalities, and more, crop up during a normal playthrough of Sukeban Games’s visual novel, VA-11 Hall-A (2016). Subtitled “Cyberpunk Bartender Action,” VA-11 Hall-A is, according to the game’s website, “a booze ’em up about waifus, technology, and post-dystopia life.”

I have written previously about the characteristics of a “visual novel, which relies heavily on the use of choice-making moments, points in the narrative where the flow of the story stops for the player/reader to make a decision and alter how the story plays out. VA-11 Hall-A has the same mechanics, but hides it under drink-making.

So, for example, if a character asks for a drink that is sweet (taste-wise), cold (on the rocks), and big (with double the normal ingredients), the game runs different checks to see if the drink the player makes in the drink-making interface is A) sweet, cold, and big; B) sweet and big, but not cold; C) sweet and cold, but not big; D) sweet, but neither cold nor big; or E) neither sweet nor cold nor big. The drink made will have to fall under one of these 5 categories, and the character’s dialogue will be different depending on which category that is.

Virgilio, the delusional art critic.

Taken during gameplay on Nintendo Switch.

While that explanation clears up the “Bartender Action” part of the subtitle, it doesn’t acknowledge the “Cyberpunk” aspect that makes up most of VA-11 Hall-A’s aesthetic choices. Mechanically, the game is a visual novel; aesthetically, it belongs to the cyberpunk genre of science fiction, particularly as interpreted in Japanese anime, which places VA-11 Hall-A next to films and manga like Akira (manga, 1982–1990; film, 1988) or Ghost in the Shell (manga, 1989–1990; film, 1995) and anime series like Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995–1996) and Cowboy Bebop (1998–1999). Though the label of “cyberpunk” is wide enough to fit space mercenaries, the supernatural, biblical references, and giant robots, the core of cyberpunk usually lies on a depiction of the dark aspects of life and the struggle of living in high-tech worlds, with a particular interest in city life. This is not to say that the stories they tell are somehow base or unrefined, rather, they are grittier in their depiction of what dystopian life looks like.

Sei, a “Valkyrie,” Glitch City’s military police. Her looks are inspired by Rei Ayanami from Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Taken during gameplay on Nintendo Switch.

Some of the films and anime I have mentioned, though focused on life’s struggles, ultimately dramatize large major societal issues: Akira, for example, depicts Neo-Tokyo’s social and class problems through the rise of the cult of Akira in response to constant police repression, while Neon Genesis Evangelion presents angels, massive alien creatures hellbent on destruction, and giant EVA units, the colossal robot suits used to fight them, highlighting the deteriorating mental state and relationships of its protagonist, Shinji. There is often something inherently abnormal about characters like Akira’s Tetsuo and Kaneda, Cowboy Bebop’s Spike, or Evangelion’s Shinji, Rei, Asuka, or Misato —but that’s what makes them special and interesting to the viewer. They are not “normal” people, but often the fate of a city (or even the world) lies on their shoulders.

Jill’s apartment and news about Glitch City.

Taken during gameplay on Nintendo Switch.

It would be easy to imagine VA-11 Hall-A as following in their footsteps, but it doesn’t. Rather than portraying the events that put a city or the world at large in danger on-screen, VA-11 Hall-A confines all action to the VA-11 Hall-A bar and Jill’s apartment. It’s not that nothing happens in Glitch City; in fact, there’s a lot going on: riots, military repression, the authoritarian power of a megacorporation, illegal bike races. But the game’s interests lie beyond the subjects that typically occupy cyberpunk fictions: it presents a different aesthetic of storytelling, more down to earth, less interested with large-scale problems and more interested in questions of survival and labour.

Jill’s problems are not related to stopping the destruction of the world, or to saving her friends from massive threats. Rather, her role is to help the people who come into the bar by talking to them and making them drinks, which helps her make money to pay her rent, utilities, buy new things, and keep from losing morale or motivation. As a result, VA-11 Hall-A advocates for an approach to games that deemphasises the wide scale of cyberpunk narratives in order to focus on a more localised story that is, like most visual novels, character-driven due to its reliance on conversation and dialogue. This change from the norm of cyberpunk resonates in interesting ways: there are no earth-shattering crises in VA-11 Hall-A, but every character that walks up to Jill at the bar has an interesting story to tell, and the frequency with which they visit the bar with different stories to tell makes them endearing. Their problems are relatable, even when it delves into the weird, like Dorothy’s existential dread at being a sentient robot; the characters feel real, relatable. Though the story is simple, everything adds up to make these characters feel alive, it makes the player/reader want to mix drinks and change their lives.

Julián Carrera is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi.
This article is part of an on-going series about video games and visual novels. Previous pieces make a case for the relevance of video games to the literary; investigate a video game retelling of Hamlet through Ophelia’s eyes in the game Elsinore; analyse dialogue conventions in Oxenfree, describe the nature of the visual novel, and take a closer look at one particular example, Bury Me, My Love, which tells a story about the global migration crisis.
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The Aesthetics of Dialogue in Oxenfree

The Aesthetics of Dialogue in Oxenfree

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

The Aesthetics of Dialogue in Oxenfree

Julián Carrera 

December 2019

Horror cinema has given us a wide collection of scares, from the fear of murderers to the fear of the unknown, passing through iconic films like Poltergeist, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween.

Out of the five examples I have listed, four belong to a particular subgenre of horror known as teenage horror, which is focused on telling its stories involving teens in one way or another, with perhaps its most visible representative being the teens of Camp Crystal Lake from Friday the 13th. To this list of teenage horror, one must add a member from another genre: Night School Studio’s 2016 visual novel, Oxenfree.

While Oxenfree takes inspiration from slasher teenage horror, it adds a paranormal twist to the formula while keeping an 80’s aesthetic.

Taken during gameplay on a PC.

Oxenfree is a weird video game to put next to these films. On the one hand, it takes inspiration from these movies, though these movies are solidly considered to be slasher-style horror while Oxenfree fits a more paranormal style of horror. And yet, there are similarities to be found. Oxenfree starts with a group of teenagers staying overnight illegally at Edwards Island, a decommissioned military base turned into a tourist attraction. As the night goes on, the story delves into the paranormal as Alex, the game’s protagonist, and Jonas, her stepbrother, tune into something on a cave with a pocket radio. Had the paranormal been substituted for a slasher, Oxenfree’s Edwards Island would have everything to be another Camp Crystal Lake.

The cast of Oxenfree, from left to right: Jonas, Ren, Alex, Nona, and Clarissa. An odd group of friends with weird social dynamics brought to light by Jonas, the newcomer.

Taken during gameplay on PC.

           But what, exactly, is Oxenfree? I called it a visual novel earlier, but this is not usually how the game is categorised. It is categorised as an adventure game, next to the likes of LucasArts’s Grim Fandango (1998), Amanita Design’s Machinarium (2009), and Sierra’s/The Odd Gentlemen’s King’s Quest franchise (started 1980, latest release in 2016). And yet, the label of “adventure” does not quite fit Oxenfree. Adventure games typically rely on solving puzzles, particularly using items: as players explore the world of the game, they find items that they can use to solve puzzles elsewhere. While Oxenfree has its own puzzles, they do not rely on item-collection. It is worth pointing out that, in recent years, the adventure genre has de-emphasised collecting items in favour of free-form exploration, particularly with the boom of so-called “walking simulators” like The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home (2013), Campo Santo’s Firewatch (2016), or Giant Sparrow’s What Remains of Edith Finch (2017), as well as non-item-driven adventure games like Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods (2017). Where Oxenfree diverges from adventure games is in its reliance on dialogue.

An example of the dialogue choice-making mechanic in Oxenfree. Notice the static and the warping, too.

Taken during gameplay on PC.

This is not to say that adventure games do not have dialogue, they do, but it is dialogue of a different kind. Think, for example, of a game like Grim Fandango. It fits the object-oriented model of the adventure genre, but it has an abundance of dialogue. The main character, Manny, will say his thoughts about whatever the player interacts with. It will not be uncommon for the player to have more than 3 dialogue choices with every character Manny speaks with. Sometimes these conversations have some relevance to the puzzles, so, for example, in the beginning of the game, Manny needs a driver. A mechanic offers his help, but needs a signed form from the boss. So the player needs to get the form and the signature. Most of the dialogue, however, could be considered world-building: it does not add much to the game itself, but it helps players understand its world.

Despite having other game mechanics (like puzzle-solving and relatively free movement through the island), the core of Oxenfree lies on picking what to say from choices given to the player/reader, which puts the game, at least on a mechanical level, within the realm of the visual novel, a form that abandons most mechanics in place of dialogue. Instead of using other mechanics to progress through the game and using dialogue to establish the game’s world, visual novels turn the game into dialogue and text. The player/reader clicks through dialogue boxes to read the story without much input, but eventually the flow of the narrative stops, and the game offers different choices for the player/reader to make, and the choice has repercussions on how the story plays out.

 Oxenfree puts a twist on this system: it does not stop for the player/reader. Dialogue choices appear and, given enough time, disappear, making silence the result of not picking. The player/reader, then, has to be engaged with the narrative to know what to say, or if they should say anything at all. The stipulation in the realism of dialogue, however, does not take away from Oxenfree’s state as a visual novel, since the mechanic of the choice-making moment is still there. Silence, though not made visually evident, is also a choice available to the player/reader, and it turns the default state of not picking into a viable option. The time constraints make Oxenfree’s dialogue mechanic more like a conversation. Instead of being faced with dialogue boxes that wait for the player/reader to finish reading, Oxenfree is voice-acted to make it more real. Likewise, instead of pausing the narrative to choose certain dialogue options from time to time, Oxenfree is relentless in how many dialogue choices are given to the player, having the opportunity to interject or respond frequently. The stipulation on the realism of conversation makes Oxenfree feel more like a film, particularly those it takes inspiration from.

An example of the screen glitching.

Taken during gameplay on PC.

I want to return to this point now to bring up a formal feature of Oxenfree: glitching. Whenever the ghosts (Entities? Beings?) of the island show themselves, the screen shows visual glitches to signify that something is wrong, but they are not the glitches one would expect in a 2016 game: rather than showing more modern glitches like those in a visual novel like 2017’s Doki Doki Literature Club (which I briefly talked about in a previous article), which has character sprites breaking and turning into a mess of black squares and bits and pieces of other sprites, backgrounds distorting into computer errors, a simulation of a computer crashing, or sound files corrupting. Instead, Oxenfree relies on outdated glitches like static and warping. The game as a whole is interested in anachronistic depictions of technology, from instant photographs to pocket radios, passing through mentions of atomic bombs. Oxenfree hides most of its backstory on optional events, but it still retains its focus on a more film-inspired form of dialogue mechanic.

This article is part of an ongoing series about video games and visual novels. Previous pieces make a case for the relevance of video games to the literary; investigate a video game retelling of Hamlet through Ophelia’s eyes in the game Elsinore; describe the nature of the visual novel, and take a closer look at one particular example, Bury Me, My Love, which tells a story about the global migration crisis. In the next article, we will continue to analyse the limits of the visual novel as a form through an analysis of Sukeban Games’s VA-11 Hall-A.

Julián Carrera is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi.
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Can Literature Survive Twitter?

Can Literature Survive Twitter?

FILM AND NEW MEDIA

Can Literature Survive Twitter?

Ria Golovakova

November 2019

Plato can rejoice: writing has finally caught up to speech.

Back in 370 BCE, the Greek philosopher lamented in his dialogue Phaedrus that written words “stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent.” In contrast to a live speaker, the author of a text is unapproachable. As a reader, you only have the words to go by, and “if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever.” If you want to express a criticism, the author needs to be there to support her writing, as “alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.”  Except not anymore—social media has changed that dynamic.

Photo courtesy of freestocks.com

Authors are everywhere, and they want to talk to their readers: much like asking a question after a speech, a reader can now close the book and tag the author on Twitter, sending her all the pressing questions that the reading inspired. If the ending was unsatisfactory, the writer can be pressed to disclose more information. If a side-character was popular, the reader can request a spin-off or at least extra tid-bits about the character’s life. If the premise was controversial, the writer can be made to acknowledge the criticism. Roland Barthes is irrelevant—the author is no longer dead.

In 2017, Andrew O’Hagan wrote in The Guardian that “writers thrive on privacy, not on Twitter, and so do readers when the lights are low,” and he lamented that the new Internet age has destroyed any notion of a “private life” outside the screen. He also wondered about the writer’s role in this digital landscape: “what if she didn’t unplug when confronted with the new fictionalities but inscribed herself into the web and reported back?” I propose to answer that question with the case study of a very Internet-active author: J.K. Rowling.

An example of
J.K. Rowling’s infamous tweets.

Photo courtesy of freestocks.com

The writer behind the beloved Harry Potter franchise has taken a particular liking to Twitter. In fact, she has now become a running internet joke (or meme) for her notorious use of the platform to add to and augment the series’ canon. She has posted answers to fan questions that drastically changed the interpretation of her books or contradicted them entirely, with claims that Albus Dumbledore was actually homosexual or that Hermione Granger wasn’t white. In an article for WIRED, Emma Grey Ellis claims “at this point, Rowling herself seems to be running with scissors, ready to slice up your childhood.” She compares this behavior to the culture of fan-fiction, which has exploded since the early 2000s on Internet forums and has been particularly active in the Harry Potter fandom. But Ellis recognizes that Rowling’s interventions “seem as remote and unnatural as bad fanfic,” because they do not respect the internal logic of her original stories.

Still, consensus holds that Rowling’s statements are canon because they are made by the original author. In a paper titled “The ghost of JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the ur-fan,” Dion McLeod and Travis Holland suggest that such intervention forces the fans “who wish to read the texts through the dominant authorial lens established by Rowling” to “reinterpret the meanings they had previously found in the texts.” The paper in fact proposes a new way to look at the reader-author relationship, where Rowling becomes “the ur-fan.” In this role, she interacts with the fandom in a way that a fanfiction writer might, but she is given precedence because of her status as the original author of the text. This way, her interactions with the series become a gray area of not-quite-text and almost-canon.

These blurred boundaries suggest that the text is no longer the whole story, even with authors who are less active on social media than Rowling may be. There has been a rise in authors who either started out as popular social media users or who became more successful as writers because of their social media followings, such as John Green or Rupi Kaur. Of course, one can argue that all of the authors discussed so far do not write literary fiction, and that more mainstream pop fiction may lend itself to social media interactivity. But to me it seems short-sighted to assume that the authors of highly literary works could not be interested in the possibilities that Twitter brings. The dynamic between readers and writers is now fundamentally different, and even those writers who do not appear on social media do so as a conscious decision, which becomes part of their branding.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Even if a writer is not on Twitter, some of his or her readers will be. Ellis speculates that “the future of storytelling is likely something more participatory and inclusive,” with readers actively involved in creating and interpreting literature in ways that were not possible in the past. Fan fiction, interpretive theories, analysis video essays, speculative fan art, inspired original fiction, discussion boards: readers can gather in multitudes of digital spaces and mold their favorite works as they please, potentially toppling down the author’s superiority and making literature a two-way street instead of a sermon.

Rudy Rucker’s science fiction novel Software presents a model of evolution that resonates with this  discussion. Within the story, the creator of “boppers” (intelligent and self-conscious robots) Cobb Anderson, realized that “no one can write a bopper program … they’re too complicated” but one might not have to. Instead, he “set a thousand of simple AI programs” loose, with “fitness tests” that mirrored natural selection, and mutation when “all the surviving programs were randomly changed.”

Twitter reminds me of this software battle ground, where readers instead of AI programs are all set loose and compete for likes and retweets with their contributions to a fandom. Authorial intervention or other unexpected events, as well as the simple changing make-up of users, serve the role of mutation to the general landscape. Individuals build their ideas off of each other, creating complex systems of theories and interpretations that none of them could have come up with alone. As a public forum, the internet has created a growing network the creations of which are more than the sum of its parts.

The future of literature may be in trusting the crowd and the community. After all, genuine fans tend to want the best for the books they enjoy and their engagement may increase the value of the text more than the isolation of a static book ever could. Perhaps literature has now become the new Athenian assembly, after all. If Plato saw it, maybe he would not criticize writing as much as he did.

 

Ria Golovakova is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. She is interested in exploring and writing about the many manifestations of modern culture and how the forces that shape society today may differ from those of the past.

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What are Visual Novels?

What are Visual Novels?

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

What are Visual Novels?

Julián Carrera 

November 2019

If one takes a market approach to the term, a visual novel is a video game. They are packaged as video games, they are sold in the same digital and retail stores as video games, they are advertised as video games, and they look like video games.

And yet, there is something odd about them: though they are video games, there is not a lot of “game” going on in them. Granted, “video game” itself is a blanket term for an abundance of different genres and different games played on computers, but even within that spectrum, the visual novel still sits at an odd place: the main allure of the visual novel is not to play it; rather, it is to read it.

A take on the visual novel,
from Doki Doki Literature Club!

Taken during gameplay on a PC.

So what are visual novels? Their lack of gameplay mechanics makes them hard to think of as games, but the addition of interactivity, visuals, and other form-specific tools make them not entirely fit literature, either. Looking through literary or game studies academia proves this, too: neither of these fields has done extensive work on the visual novel.

Another take on the visual novel, this time depicting the characteristic choice-making moment of the form, from Bury Me, My Love.

Taken during gameplay on a
Nintendo Switch.

To get some basics down: visual novels are a digital form, meaning they run on computers. Although many visual novels tend to add other forms of gameplay, the core gameplay mechanic is that of the choice-making moment: at certain times, the narrative flow will stop and options will appear, giving the player a choice to make, as whatever decision they take will alter the flow of the story. Onscreen, a common approach is to have a character in front of a background, with a dialogue box at the bottom of the screen showing narration, inner monologues, or dialogue pertaining to any of the characters on-screen. This approach is not the norm, however, as many visual novels take different approaches (like the screenshot from Bury Me, My Love above). The dialogue box, when it is used, can be a tension-building tool, given the fact that it mostly changes when clicked, and what limited text it shows allows for a form of enjambment where the player must click to progress. Like other video games, visual novels have save files where players can store their progress to resume at a later point or go back to in case they did not get the desired result from a choice; in a similar way, players/readers will often play through a story line then replay the visual novel from the beginning to make different decisions and get different results.

A choice-making moment in Oxenfree, a game that, although usually considered part of the adventure genre, shares the game mechanic of the choice-making moment.

Taken during gameplay on PC.

Even though visual novels are built around this specific choice-making moment, the form allows for variations of gameplay that either go beyond that or modify it in some way. The fluidity of the form, as it were, is a fluidity in categorisation. Video games are usually categorised in terms of genre, but the lines between genres are, at best, blurry. Visual novels themselves came into being out of the early form of the American text-based adventure game, yet they are not conceived of as adventure games.

A still from VA-11 Hall-A, a visual novel that hides the choice-making moment behind a drink-making mechanic. Notice the anime aesthetic.

Taken during gameplay on a Nintendo Switch.

I have pointed out that the origin of the form is the American text-based adventure game. Visual novels, however, are mostly made in Japan. Their history evolves from American adventure games into Japanese adventure games (a genre heavily marked by puzzle-solving mechanics), passing through a style that used different manga-style frames and dropped the puzzle mechanics to focus on narrative, becoming what it is today.

This article is part of an ongoing series about video games and visual novels. For further reading on visual novels, read this article on Bury Me, My Love. To read up on larger theorising of video games as literary, you can read these articles about a retelling of Hamlet through Ophelia’s eyes in the game Elsinore and a general discussion of literariness in video games.

The previous articles talk about Doki Doki Literature Club! And Bury Me, My Love, yet there are two visual novels here without articles: Oxenfree and VA-11 Hall-A, which will be covered at length in future articles as an attempt to better understand, through examples, what a visual novel is.

Julián Carrera is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi.
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Retelling Hamlet in Elsinore

Retelling Hamlet in Elsinore

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

Retelling Hamlet 
in Elsinore

Julián Carrera 

October 2019

Elsinore, Golden Glitch Studios’s retelling of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, starts on a familiar note, dramatizing a version of the play’s second scene. Instead of starting at the court, however, the game starts with Ophelia, near a pond. Polonius is asking for her help convincing Claudius, the present king of Denmark, to speed up the process for Laertes to leave. He wants to ask for the king’s blessing, but Claudius is busy discussing the risk that Fortinbras poses to Denmark. 

Ophelia sets the gears in motion by getting Gertrude to tell Claudius, and Laertes is given the blessing to leave. The day goes on. At night-time, Laertes, Polonius, and Ophelia get together to say a final goodbye before Laertes departs in the early morning. Once all is said and done, Ophelia goes to sleep. A horrible nightmare unfolds before her eyes: a ghost, a play, an uncovered murder, a madman, and herself in a pond, drowning.

The dawn of the first day: Hamlet in Ophelia’s room. Taken during gameplay on PC.

After her nightmare, Ophelia finds Hamlet in her room, speaking about the murder of his father. After this, he bolts out of the room, apologizing. The plot of Hamlet then goes on as it usually does, but some things are different at first sight, mostly in casting choices and the gender swap of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. On a deeper level, however, some things have changed. No longer is there a troupe of actors playing “The Murder of Gonzago.” Instead, there is a one-man troupe, led by a familiar character: Peter Quince, leader of the rude mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Peter Quince introducing himself. Notice his face. Taken during gameplay on PC.

Everything, at least during the first “run” of the game, plays out as it normally does. There are some more characters present, like Irma the cook and Lady Brit, Queen Gertrude’s lady-in-waiting, but apart from that, not much different happens. Quince puts on a one-man show of “The Murder of Gonzago” using masks, Hamlet kills Polonius, and Ophelia dies. However, she does not drown. Rather, at one point during the first run of the game, a hooded figure appears and, for no apparent reason, kills Ophelia. She then wakes up, only to find Hamlet in her room, once again speaking about the murder of his father, and once again bolts out of the room apologizing. Ophelia is trapped in an endless cycle that inevitably ends with her death and the deaths of the people who always die in Hamlet.

Ophelia has met with a terrible fate, and Quince somehow knows about it. Taken during gameplay on PC.

Something, however, is rotten in the state of Denmark. Time is looping, and it seems that no matter what is different in Elsinore, Ophelia always dies. On top of that, Quince seems to know much more than he is showing. No one else notices the oddness of time, and yet Ophelia can influence what happens every time.

Most —if not all— pieces of journalism about Elsinore end up comparing it to the film Groundhog Day, and with good reason: both are narratives that rely on the constant repetition of the same day (or, in Elsinore’s case, the same four days) to tell their story. While this comparison seems to have at least some ground, I think the comparison is not entirely accurate. Elsinore seems to be more akin to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, not because of any similarities in gameplay, but taking inspiration in repetition.

The Happy Mask Salesman from Majora’s Mask. Notice the similarities to Quince.

Taken from the listing for Majora’s Mask on Nintendo’s website.

Majora’s Mask has the player relive the same three days over and over while making progress in different parts of the game every time, under the premise that, at the end of the final day, the moon will crash on the fictional land of Termina and kill everyone, unless the player can do something about it. It is this game that Elsinore seems to draw the most from, considering the nature of the time loop and the knowledge the player accumulates as they go. Quince acts as a sort of guiding figure, giving the player hints on what to do, similar to the Happy Mask Salesman from Majora’s Mask, who starts the player’s quest to, first, retrieve what was stolen from them, and then to retrieve Majora’s Mask, an artefact that was stolen from the Happy Mask Salesman. The most important connection, however, seems to lie in Majora’s Mask Bombers’s Notebook, an object the player can get that shows a timeline of all characters the player can interact with: it shows when the player can do things to help characters, it shows meetings, and it shows windows of opportunity. Elsinore takes this interface and turns it into a timeline that shows the player what things have happened, what events will happen, and in what window of time they will happen, letting the player keep track of their current time cycle. As players play more and more, and cycles occur again and again, Ophelia gets more and more information to try to save everyone and stop whoever is murdering her. Whenever a new cycle starts, Ophelia keeps everything she learned from previous cycles, allowing the player to try different things.

Elsinore interprets the story of Hamlet in different ways, and it takes liberties with the play, taking elements from many of Shakespeare’s plays and putting them in Elsinore Castle. So, for example, Horatio jokingly flirts with Ophelia saying, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” There is a small text the player can find, called “8 Signs Your Nobleman Might Be Treacherous,” a piece of flavour text poking fun at characters from Shakespearean plays like Brutus (“Stay indoors on March 15 if possible”), MacBeth (“Even the most heartening prophecy can’t revive this relationship”), Othello (“Stay away from pillows”), and Hamlet himself (“Sometimes he tells you to get to a nunnery. […] Send this uncouth boy sulking back to university!”) In other cases, characters travel through plays, not just Quince, but Othello, too.

A screenshot showing Othello speaking to Ophelia.

Courtesy of the game’s website.

Elsinore is full of multiple possibilities and endless retellings of Hamlet. In my own gameplay, during the second cycle, Ophelia lets Hamlet know that she overheard Claudius’s confession of murder at the altar, which gives Hamlet an incentive to kill Claudius before even staging “The Murder of Gonzago.” This change, of course, comes with its own set of problems.

All in all, Elsinore gives players an entrance into the world of Hamlet through Ophelia and gives them a chance at changing the play’s story. Though it is just a bit over 400 years of Shakespeare’s death, the bard’s stories are still produced and worked on, with love letters to the works, like Elsinore, still being produced.

Julián Carrera is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi.
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Migration in Bury Me, My Love

Migration in Bury Me, My Love

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

Migration in Bury Me, My Love

Julián Carrera 

August 2019

Your phone rings. It’s a text message. “Majd …” it says. It is from your wife, Nour. “Do you remember the time we visited Harasta with Adnan and Qamar?” A few seconds later, an image appears on your phone: the ruins of a city, half-standing, through the window of a car. After Nour sends the image of the ruins of Harasta, the messenger layout rises, revealing three options of emojis: a disappointed one, a surprised one, and one with X eyes.

Bury Me, My Love, a video game by The Pixel Hunt, Figs, and ARTE France, follows Nour as she leaves Syria to find a better life in Europe. The player is cast as Majd, Nour’s husband who stays in Homs, and must communicate with Nour through the game’s WhatsApp-like interface. As Nour moves on her way to Europe, she must make decisions, often turning to Majd for reassurance or opinion. The play aspect of Bury Me, My Love thus relies on making choices. Alhough the action of choosing which emoji to send seems at first to be inconsequential, the choice may end up profoundly affecting Nour’s journey.

A still from Bury Me, My Love on the Nintendo Switch, taken during gameplay.

Some choices are more consequential than picking emojis: should Nour stay in Damascus and wait for a bus to Beirut, or go to Aleppo to try to cross the border to Turkey; join a refugee march that will walk from Serbia to Hungary, or spend what limited money she has to take a train instead. There are also some more light-hearted choices, like Majd telling Nour he remembers his mom’s way of fixing a zipper or he doesn’t. Sometimes, the player can choose between dialogues and emojis, showcasing the different approaches to one single situation that can alter how the story plays out. The last way that Majd can respond to Nour is by taking a picture and sending it to her, though the points where Majd sends a picture are limited, and there is no choice to be made: only the picture can be selected, but there is a small minigame where the picture must be focused. In instances where there is no choice to be made, Majd texts on his own. Since the player interacts when there is a choice to be made, it seems that taking pictures is more of a formality to give the player agency beyond words and emojis.

Bury Me, My Love’s interactive method of storytelling places it within the genre of the visual novel, a form characterized by the player’s control over the story through available choices. Thus, players read through the story and are then prompted to pick an option, making decision trees a defining feature of the genre. Bury Me, My Love, however, does not provide the sort of visuals one would expect from a “visual novel” (compare, for example, the still image of Bury Me, My Love with that of Ace Attorney shown below).

A still from Ace Attorney, Capcom’s popular Visual Novel

Courtesy: ace-attorney.com.

It would be more accurate to call it interactive fiction like one of its inspirations, the game Lifeline, in which the player receives a message out of the blue. It is from an astronaut, lost on a strange moon after their ship crash-lands. After a first introduction to what happened, the astronaut says their name is Taylor (it is never specified whether Taylor is a he or a she). From there on, it is the player’s role to help them survive and find out what happened. Given the decision tree, however, there are multiple endings to Taylor’s story. A handful of them result in death, a couple result in survival, and fewer yet result in answers to the questions Taylor has about what happened. Though both Bury Me, My Love and Lifeline feature an interface made to resemble texting and rely on an abundance of choices to move the game forward, the one aspect that Bury Me, My Love borrowed the most from Lifeline was its use of time. In Lifeline, the player gets messages from Taylor on a real-time (or pseudo real-time) basis: if Taylor is doing something, they won’t reply until they can get in contact again.

Bury Me, My Love uses this same concept of (pseudo) real-time to its advantage to add realism to Nour’s journey. Sometimes, the player must wait a couple minutes. Sometimes an hour. When she’s sleeping, eight to ten. There is a point in the game the player can reach where Nour goes silent for almost three whole days. By limiting Nour’s responses on a timed basis, the game shows the power that comes from being in contact and the anxiety that comes when a loved one goes silent.

A still from Lifeline, taken from the game’s listing on the Play Store.

Apart from Lifeline, another inspiration for Bury Me, My Love is the article “Le voyage d’une migrante syrienne à travers son fil WhatsApp,” published in Le Monde by Lucie Soullier and Madjid Zerrouky. The article tells the story of Dana, a Syrian refugee whose journey from Damascus to Germany is chronicled through Dana’s WhatsApp conversations with her family. “Bury me, my love” (from the Arabic phrase of affection and endearment تقبريني يا حبي) is what Dana’s mom tells her for good luck. Both Dana and Lucie Soullier are part of Bury Me, My Love’s editorial team, though the game aims to tell a variety of stories about Syrian refugees. The website for the game states:

“Our two main characters, Nour and Majd, are fictional. They do not exist, or rather, they exist collectively. They are a multitude of men, women, and children. Dana, her mother, her brother-in-law… as well as thousands of others who flee their country —or watch their relatives flee— all in hopes of finding a better life in Europe.”

The story that Bury Me, My Love tells, paired with the way it tells it, shines a light on how the movement of people works in the cases of forced migration by focusing not just on those who left, but also telling the story of those who stay behind. Bury Me, My Love challenges conceptions of what stories video games can tell while giving the player an experience to learn that is not often presented in the medium.

Julián Carrera is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi.
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LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

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