Arrrrrunthrough of some thoughts on oceans and videogames

(This was written for Critical Distance’s Blogs of the Round Table, August/September 2017.)

(Content warning: discussion of in-game suicide)

When I was casting about (and the nautical metaphors begin) for something to write for the Blog of the Round Table topic of the Ocean, two figures jumped to mind. First, the ocean itself: something that appears at a glance to be calm, but beneath, is tumultuous, chaotic. And second, the shipwreck, an intention gone disastrously awry, a journey incomplete. In what follows, I’ll chart out what that means for my writing about games, sail into some examples of what these figures mean in literature, and finally,  release anchor with examples of how those same figures are expressed in games. (If you want to jump ship and voyage straight to sections two or three, that’s between you and your own dotted line of travel.)

The Personal

This is my first BotRT post, but far from my first attempt at one. I’ve tried to compose them previously, but always set them aside in favor of more research, or screenshots, or play time before I try to write on the subject of the month. And then one thing slides or another, and the result is that nothing gets done at all. Likewise, this blog is littered with the skeletons of topics that never went anywhere–the promised extra posts on Pillars of Eternity, or the deathtrap, or Final Fantasy V, or never published posts on You Must Build a Boat, Marvel Puzzle Quest, Sorcery!, Steamworld: Dig. And again, the same holds true for my academic writing. I spent a full year researching horror film, literature, and game studies, for what wound up being a 15 minute 8:30 am conference presentation attended by fewer people than I have fingers on my two hands. And that’s one of the success stories, because at least something made it into the public view.

Shipwreck may seem like a harsh metaphor for a lifetime of writing, but that’s how it feels sometimes, that I’m stuck on the figurative desert island, surrounded by the innumerable hulks of shipwrecked, never-realized ideas. I’m a meticulous, detailed researcher; I’m saying that not to brag, but to establish my frustration, that I chart out these fantastic voyages, but spend so much time on the charting that nothing ever finds its berth.

So, let’s try something different. Instead of long, dedicated research, let’s try the blog equivalent of a game jam. There’s a theme, there’s a time limit, there’s a goal. I have a few hours this afternoon, I have an essay collection about the representation of the ocean in British lit, and I have a lifetime of experiences playing games. Let’s put that all together and see if we can plot a trip that isn’t slapdash but focused–a clear destination instead of a journey without end.

The Research

I should say that this is a subject area I know absolutely nothing about. While I have a smattering of British literature under my belt–hard to get an English degree without it–nothing I’ve looked at strikes me as particularly relevant to oceanic musing. I know about 18th century rake heroes, 19th century ecocriticism, and the literary history of Kent (which is technically by the sea, but I don’t recall that coming up) but nothing about oceans. Everything I’m about to say comes from a quick flip of Fictions of the Sea: Critical Perspectives on the Ocean in British Literature and Culture edited by Bernhard Klein, and the entirely glancing approach I’m taking means that the results are about as reliable as a SparksNote wiki.

Looking through the table of contents, two essays jump out, the book ends of the collection. It begins with James Muldoon’s “Who Owns the Sea?” and ends with Patrizia A. Muscogirui’s “Cinematographic Seas: Metaphors of Crossing and Shipwreck on the Big Screen (1990-2001).” I vaguely recognize Muldoon’s name, and I’ve already indicated an affinity for shipwrecks, so those two seem like the right places to start.

Muldoon’s essay, as the title suggests, is an investigation of ocean ownership, particularly in terms of how that issue has been considered historically. The question of sea sovereignty is essentially a question of what nations had the right to impose levies on ships and legal right to defend trade routes, through violence if necessary. In particular, as Muldoon relates it, in the 17th century, Hugo Grotius argued that the most basic value of nations is that anyone can travel anywhere as long as they did so peacefully. Now, he was a lawyer for the East India Company at the time, so he had a vested interest–the company was contesting the Pope’s right to support the Portuguese claims to the East Indies by claiming that a “natural law” that trumped the Pope. The arising counter argument was that nations could legitimately claim sovereignty–especially fishing stock–for the areas of the ocean that were close to controlled land. (For example, the English claimed the entire North Atlantic under the argument that Ireland and North America were “close-ish.”) Muldoon concludes the essay with the notion that we’re moving away from Grotius’ notion to a more restrictive model, that “Fisheries must be allowed to rebuild, exploitation of the seabed must be controlled, and societies that engage in practices abhorrent to western humanitarian sensibilities must be forced to conform” (24-25). In the interest of expediency, I’m gonna just move on, but that last clause kinda jumps out, huh?

Patrizia A. Muscogiuri’s “Cinematographic Seas: Metaphors of Crossing and Shipwreck on the Big Screen (1990-2001)” looks at the metaphoric purpose of shipwreck in Titanic, Mediterraneo, and the Truman Show, arguing that each case shows the wreck as a break away from a patriarchal society.  Muscogiuri briefly touches on Waterworld’s “morality adrift” approach and the shipwreck as a shocking break from society in Castaway before getting down to business. Unlike most versions of Titanic, Cameron’s version, she argues, focuses on agency over fate, which makes its critique of the repressive Edwardian class system more effective, and grants Rose her own agency to make her life anew after the crash. Mediterraneo, I gather, is a film about Italian soldiers who crash onto a Greek island during World War II, and the enmity between countries is soon forgotten in favor of new social configurations. For anyone familiar with The Truman Show, the implications of the shipwreck metaphor in that case should be obvious: Truman lives a life of artifical normalcy, but his escape to the sea and subsequent wreck of a voyage gives the potential for something new. The sea and shipwrecks, she concludes, provide a metaphorc escape and potential for resistance against hegemonic regimes.

The Games

Let’s go with one major game for each research topic, and see what we get.

Most of the games I can think of that feature ocean travel prominently tend to depict it as a wilderness, and frequently a wilderness more barren than that found on land; I suppose that correlates somewhat to Grotius’s notion that the ocean is free for all use. I’d argue that in games, however, it’s more the case that the player’s sovereignty is paramount. I think it was in Henry Jenkins and Mary Fuller’s “Nintendo and New World Travel Writing” where I first came across the idea that videogame space functions as a space to work out colonialist fantasies, of taming a virgin territory without fear of displacing any “real” inhabitants.

That’s kind of the way ocean travel is depicted, though it’s less taming than survival.  I suppose Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker is the gold standard for such ocean travel, though I’ve never played. Instead, my touchstones are Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Suikoden IV. What I remember most of them, especially the latter, is how frustrating ocean travel was, how irritating it was to cross long distances and even more irritating to go up against random encounters I didn’t want. It conveyed the isolation and labour of ocean travel, a sense of a sovereign individual against the forces of nature (or the designer’s version of nature), but it’s not an experience I’d like to repeat.

However, I’ve more recently played a game that speaks more directly to the historic nationalism on the seas that Muldoon discusses: Paradox’s Endless LegendIt’s basically a 4X game with fantasy twists. In the original game, ocean travel was permitted, but wasn’t particularly interesting–it was just an obstacle between you and something you wanted. The land was divisible into regions that could be conquered and held, but the ocean was different, formless, resourceless. One of the expansions (Tempest, I think) changed all that–now, a new race called the Fomorians were raising sea fortresses and causing trouble. Ocean regions could now be held just like land regions, which brings them closer in line to the “adjacent territory” counter to Grotius.

And yet there’s a significant difference too. Unlike land-based cities, fortresses don’t produce units. Whatever ships or armies you have defending them have to be sailed there and garrisoned. And that’s not cheap–ocean travel is slow, and ocean vessels expensive, so it takes time and resources to hold. I usually play 4X games on a very low difficulty because I’m terrified of failure, but even then, my fortresses changed ownership much more frequently than cities. Whether it’s deliberate or not, I’d say that Endless Legend’s approach to ocean territory echoes the real world’s, that there’s this slippage between free open space and sovereign territory, that being on the ocean is marked out as different from dwelling on land.

On the shipwreck side of things, there are again a lot of games that come to mind. Survive! Escape from Atlantis is a boardgame that’s perhaps less a shipwreck than an island wreck, as you compete with other players to get your units off the island as it sinks. Muscogiuri mentions that the more traditional approach to shipwrecks is to see them as fated results of hubris and human error, and there’s probably some of that implied here, as you  compete against the other survivors, up to and including controlling sharks to gobble them up. Shining Force’s shipwreck has nostalgic value for me, but mostly I remember skipping out of watching a football game to have just a few more hours to play it rather than anything significant. Again, Suikoden IV has a shipwreck bit, which is truly bizarre; without getting too derailed by it, it’s almost a parody of the subversion Muscogiuri identifies, in that it grants you a chance to break away from the game’s main plot and narrative, but by trapping you in an endless, low option life simulator.

The game I’d really like to focus on, though, is Final Fantasy VIand how it both works with and against Muscogiuri’s shipwreck metaphor. Halfway through FFVI, the unthinkable happens, in a plot move that still seems audacious to me: the heroes lose, utterly. Jester villain/mad clown Kefka goes from lunatic henchman to omnipotent god and destroys the world. The heroes escape the immediate threat, but in the resulting airship crash (admittedly, also not a shipwreck), everyone is separated. So there is a massive break in the existing social structure, as the empire dies with the emperor, but it’s replaced with a new world order that’s no order at all–just Kefka’s nihilistic chaos.

On the other hand, there is a sense that there’s something new happening, because the first character we return to is Celes. Celes has been a plot-relevant PC for much of the game at this point, and NPC for longer than that. She’s the Empire soldier who learns the error of her ways, and a love interest for Locke. Which is to say, she’s not just some random character, but up to this point of the game, the main focus has been Tera and her story, so returning to the game with control over Celes rather than Tera or Locke signals a shift.

What follows is a bit of play almost as infamous as the game’s opera house sequence: Celes is stranded on this desert island with her foster grandfather Cid, and looks after him when he falls ill. Feed him fast fishes, and he recovers; feed him slow fishes, and he dies. The end result is the same: Celes leaves the island, reaches the new mainland, and you start on a “bringing the band back together” grand tour to defy Kefka, and in that much, much later confrontation, you get the new, more hopeful society that Muscogiuri is referring to.

But man, the tone of that first step can be radically different.  Either way, it starts off on a negative footing. Cid, ever the charmer, greets Celes with this tidbit:
CID: Since that day, the world’s continued its slide into ruin. Animals and plants are dying… The few others who washed up here with us passed away of boredom and despair.
They then pledge to be each other’s family, and Cid falls ill about one speech bubble later. Rescue him, and he reveals that he’s been building a raft, and urges Celes to go find her friends. She does, and promises to return. (Apparently it’s a one person raft.) On the illness route, Cid fears he’s not long for this world, and says his greatest fear is Celes living alone on the island. He dies, and a distraught Celes takes herself to the nearby cliff.
CELES: Those others who were here… when they were feeling down they’d take a leap of faith from the cliffs up north… perked ’em right up! Everyone’s gone… Even LOCKE, who promised to watch over me… The world’s slowly ebbing away…”

And she throws herself off the cliff.

A short time later, Celes washes onto the shore, and a seagull wakes her up.
CELES: Phew… Why did you nurse me back to health? Did I ever ask you to help me?!” (She may not be talking to the seagull here.) Luckily for her, the gull is wearing a bandanna that she identifies as Locke’s; knowledge that her boo is still potentially alive is enough to galvanize her. Celes returns to the cabin and finds Cid’s death letter, which tells her of the raft in the basement, and sets off, again, to find her friends.

I’ve gone over this scene in such detail in an attempt to relate just how impactful it was. I would have been early or mid teens when I first played FFVI, and I had no idea about fast fish or slow fish. It’s dark material for a game–I think you’d be hard pressed to find a scene like it anywhere in the 16-bit era. I think the whole scenario counts as a shipwreck, in the sense that it’s all about about taking away everything Celes and the player felt familiar, and have grown accustomed to. It eventually hits that renewal that Muscogiuri refers to, but only by stripping away everything that Celes is–her hope to find Locke and the others is literally the only thing left in her life at that point. Why include the split at all? The suicide is clearly the more dramatic of the two (and we could go off on a whole tangent on the portrayal of suicide in videogames), and it’s the more likely for the unknowing player to reach, given that the slower fish are easier to catch.

But if that’s the case, why include the happy version at all? Well, if it’s not there, then it’s a fated moment, beyond the player’s control. There, the outcome isn’t fated so much as hidden. It’s very close to a cheap gotcha moment, punishing the player for actions they didn’t know had meaning. Maybe it signals that the player, like Celes, is being stripped as well, that the intention has been separated from the outcome, and they may still be playing, but they’ve lost control. Notably, the last major branching choice was also a life or death one that the player didn’t know the potential outcomes for, the decision on whether or not to wait as the timer ran out on the floating island, not necessarily knowing that remaining is the only way to rescue Shadow. What does it mean to place two plot choices in a row on the player while withholding what’s at stake? Maybe there’s something of the nature of the shipwreck there, that it requires abandoning certainties.

Or maybe the game has two cheap gotcha moments.


I think that brings me to a conclusion. There are many more games to talk about: the way early Dragon Quest VII creates a sense of utter isolation through islands. The underground oceans of Sunless Sea. Childhood memories of playing Sea Route to India (like Oregon Trail, but wetter). And to my utter pride, I made it the entire post without mentioning BioShock. …Dammit.

I don’t know if the observations here are particularly interesting. I don’t know if the readings helped, or if I just talked about the games I wanted to anyway. I just know that I wrote something, and that’s enough for now.

Any port in a storm.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s