My Own Personal Key of the Twilight

In many ways I owe .hack//G.U. for my involvement in games blogging.

I’ve spoken before –everyone has– about the games that influenced me, and to be sure, there were a decent handful which made a particular impression and I could say I “owe” my current career path to. But .hack//G.U. is, for once, a direct case of cause and effect.

Sure, growing up a Sega person rather than a Nintendo person left a few bitter war scars in the wake of Sega’s withdrawal from the console business. Lunar: Eternal Blue was my first taste of rich characterization and even richer localization. NiGHTS into dreams found me just as I was reaching a troubled adolescence. And everyone has written their two cents on Final Fantasy VII by now, including me, so I won’t bore you with their repetition.

But it was the precise confluence of .hack//G.U. and film school that has led me to this present moment. Allow me to set the stage.

It is early 2007. I am rounding off my second quarter at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television. I share a one-room studio with a randomly assigned roommate I have failed to forge a connection with in any way. As a gift to myself over Christmas, I bought a small 13″ TV and a PS2 slim, and then proceeded to merrily ignore her as she had me, plowing through towers of screaming office workers in Katamari Damacy and trying my hand (and completely failing) at Metal Gear Solid 2 for the first time.

The entirety of my personal living space for my junior year of college.

On the school side of things, I’m in classes for film editing and digital effects. I feel like I’m just treading water at this school, and keep debating dropping out. I have to decide on a senior concentration soon. Most of my cohort are going into film production, but I feel less than confident in my actual directorial skills. Yet screenwriting, documentary, and all the other department specializations don’t appeal to me either. Critical Studies is not even on my radar: I’ve developed a dismissive attitude toward “conventional” academic analysis, perplexing my professors and T.A.s even further as I am apparently damned good at the stuff. One paper I wrote the previous semester on Michael Haneke’s Cache was praised as journal-worthy, but that only irritated me. To 2007-me, the greatest thing was, and had always been, accessibility, and there was nothing accessible in all the academic writing I had worked through.

Then came my History of Broadcasting class. I haven’t successfully managed to watch television since high school, so I went into the course treating it as just another required class for the degree I wasn’t sure I was getting. But I discovered that I actually found the subject of broadcast history thrilling, especially the early 50s, when America’s exploding middle class found this strange new tube in their homes, and all the accompanying moral panic, superstition, and paranoia that generated. In this vein, my professor assigns us an excerpt from Jeffrey Sconce’s Haunted Media, “The Outer Limits of Oblivion.”

The article, and indeed Sconce’s book from which it is derived, describes how early genre television like The Outer Limits used the television format to express then-contemporary anxieties about the power and possible danger of television. He refers to 19th century spiritualism and its adoption of telegraphy and later telephony as mechanical devices which somehow tapped into the spirit world. He compares this to Outer Limits episodes and other television and film which treat the TV as yet another entry point into the ether, or an alternate dimension, or hell, or outer space, depending on the plot this week. Television technology was new and with newness came fear about how it actually worked, or what it could potentially do.

Then, on top of this, Sconce and to a more persistent extent my broadcasting history professor drive home another lesson: old media always seems to criticize newer media. So it is that we developed a canon of films dedicated to criticizing or even demonizing television: Face in the Crowd, Network, Poltergeist, Videodrome, The Truman Show. This continued long after television itself stopped airing content about how television screens were a gateway to the netherworld, and it’s only recently, and I think understandably, segued into films which mythologize and demonize another kind of portal. Think The Net, or Pulse. It needn’t be realistic, it just needs to prey upon your uncertainty.

As someone who was nagged all the time as a teen by parents who were sure all the friends I was making online were scam artists and predators (because surely those are in abundance on NiGHTS fan boards), I relate immediately to Sconce’s descriptions of television as a mysterious, potentially dangerous technology– particularly in the era of its introduction. You couldn’t know for sure what the internet could do, or down what rabbit holes it might lead you.

At the same time as I’m reading this article, I’m also playing the first volume of .hack//G.U.. The .hack series has always basically been a digital ghost story. The games put you in the role of a Japanese student playing an online game called The World which, at the very least, is pretty grindy and repetitive, and at the worst, can kill you– specifically because there’s a little ghost girl flying around inside it, the AI daughter of the game’s dead designer, and then there are some other malevolent programs and… you get the gist.

The franchise is a textbook example of transmedia, in that in addition to the games there are multiple anime series, novels, comics, and all of that. I’m sure it’s gotten even more complicated in recent years. What I find more interesting, however, is how the patchwork storytelling of the .hack franchise is backed up by the design of the games themselves. You are actually playing in first person as the player of a third-person MMO, and time not spent in The World is spent on your desktop, corresponding with people over email, reading news articles and browsing forum threads. In a way it’s kind of like an ARG without other people.

We overuse the term immersion in games but .hack is really a case where I feel fully submerged in the game’s systems, if only because they are several layers deep by the time you’re participating with in-game minigames inside the game you’re running from your desktop which is actually run off a PS2. And then on top of even that, the game has you venturing behind the visual layer of The World, the MMO everyone is playing, to debug what’s really going on behind the scenes. And what’s going on is that this game played on the ether is killing people.

Oh sure, it technically puts them in comas. But there is a persistent threat of these comatose The World players actually dying, the longer their souls are trapped in this online game. Their physical bodies get weaker and weaker, and meanwhile their consciousnesses go farther and farther afield, possibly even get locked up and tortured by those malevolent programs I mentioned.

This actually happened in the case of .hack//G.U.‘s protagonist, Haseo, who has blocked out memories of when he played an earlier version of the game as a child in which his avatar, Sora, effectively gets crucified and then rather violently decompiled. So you’re playing as a trauma victim, something that is never directly addressed unless you read and watch all the secondary media, but it makes the ensuing events, so chock full of ghost kids, sentient viruses, mainstream-distilled psychoanalysis and even a zombie version of the previous games’ protagonist, match up pretty well with the schlocky sci-fi/horror fare to which it pays homage.

Ultimately, to put it briefly, the .hack games are about the dangers of the digital, both when it acts as a portal and when it acts as a mirror. The World, and by extension online activity in general, is dangerous because it threatens to sweep us out to sea, away from the ‘real world.’ And it’s dangerous because once we’re lost in that ether, the truly dangerous thing is ourselves. All of this strikes me as a fascinating parallel with what Sconce is writing about with respect to early television and The Outer Limits.

In that instant, it clicks for me. I have to write about this. I have to write about how .hack//ROOTS, the anime prequel series to G.U., uses strings in its soundtrack to evoke a frontier vibe, recasting the MMO as the new Wild West. I need to write about how .hack echoes anxieties we –or perhaps, at least, our parents– have about online gaming. I need to write about why an offline, single-player game would choose to criticize MMOs in such a way. I want to bring in Janet Murray‘s prescription for kaleidoscopic storytelling in how it communicates a narrative across media. I… what’s that? Textual analysis is passe? And what is this “synergy” thing you keep talking about? And “narratology”? And “ludology”? I– hrrrrgh.

And that is the story of how I set out to write the ultimate textual analysis of .hack and got sidelined into doing a paper on audience cultures. Which is all well and good. I don’t regret going in the direction I did, although I wish I’d done my research a little better so I didn’t head out into the wilds of media criticism after my graduation with terms better suited for 1997 than 2008. At the time, UCLA was not adequately equipped to guide someone in its film program to explore the field of games studies– heck, no one in the department had heard of it. Now UCLA has an actual game lab. That arcade backpacker you saw weaving through the crowds of E3 and IndieCade this year? That’s the product of my alma mater. Apparently I graduated a few years too early.

Photo source: Gamasutra

But, I think, I also graduated at exactly the right time, considering not only the economy downturn but also the rise in popularity of critics like Yahtzee (Ben Croshaw), MovieBob (Bob Chipman) and L.B. Jeffries (Kirk Battle). Recently, I took part in an interview with Culture Ramp’s Luke Rhodes, where we discussed 2007/2008 as watershed years for games criticism. From my perspective, I told him, this was simply the mainstreaming of things I’d been elbows-deep in from the moment I connected that dot between an article on genre television by an author at Northwestern and the weird, kind of awkwardly executed little JRPG on my tiny TV.

“It was like a ball of glowing light in my hands,” I told one of the incoming juniors of my program at the start of my senior year, when I explained how Sconce’s book had informed my decision to pursue Critical Studies as my degree concentration. “It just came flooding off the page.”

In .hack, there is a recurring MacGuffin called the Key of the Twilight, an item which can apparently debug The World, unlock hidden dungeons or bosses, grant wishes, that sort of thing. By the third volume of .hack//G.U., it’s abundantly clear that the Key of the Twilight is not an actual thing, but an ideal a person holds forth– something toward which the striving is the entire point.

My underclassman, on hearing what probably sounded like a moment out of Dragonball Z to him, smiled in a faintly sad sort of way. “Well, I hope someday I get a moment of inspiration like that,” he said, possibly out of charity as I’d oversold the whole thing. Oh well. I’ve come to accept that I often have these moments of realization much later than many folks, and that late is still better than never.

I keep meaning to go back to .hack//G.U. and do a proper analysis, not the least because I have one of the localizers following me on Twitter, and he’s twice made the open offer to help me out with whatever materials and recollections he can provide. Mostly, the thing stopping me from taking him up on this is time. Between work and Critical Distance, I put in about 60 hours at the computer each week, and it’s difficult to stare at a screen longer than I absolutely have to these days (though thankfully I’m not restricted to a 13″ SDTV anymore).

I do want to get to that point where I can give the games that second look, though. Firstly because I believe you can find the most interesting examples of cultural inflections of anxiety and imagination buried within that which is easiest to dismiss. And secondly because I owe it to these games for bringing me to the point where I understood that.

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  • Rachel Helps (@Rachel_Helps)  On 10.21.12 at 7:32 pm

    “I wish I’d done my research a little better so I didn’t head out into the wilds of media criticism after my graduation with terms better suited for 1997 than 2008.”

    seriously! I felt the same way after I did some more research into games research… the downside of having older professors I guess.

    • Kris Ligman  On 10.21.12 at 7:40 pm

      It’s the one really tragic part of positioning a program as a collection of media studies generalists rather than specialists: games studies is a fast-growing field and doesn’t really bother to send the humanities an updated sheet of definitions each year! :P I didn’t get a really solid education in current games studies discourse until after I’d left UCLA.

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