Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. You’ve just started a new job, and it seems like all your training and schooling that you may have gone through before didn’t quite prepare you for the specific expectations that you are faced with in this new environment. Perhaps you’ve been working somewhere for awhile and either a new project or a new set of responsibilities makes you think that you really don’t have it quite as together as others think that you do. Perhaps you’ve felt like each test or trial that you go through in your life is accomplished through good luck, like you’ve managed to roll a natural 20 every time that it’s mattered. Whichever of these sorts of situations applies to you, there is something in common: the feeling that at some point, someone is going to figure out that you are not the person you’ve advertised yourself to be and that you really aren’t qualified to be doing the thing that you’re doing.
Anxiety has been something that I have had to deal with throughout my life. It was there even before I knew what anxiety was, or that it wasn’t something that everyone felt, or even what the full extent of my reactions to it could even be. I’ve written about it before, but I wanted to include it specifically in this series of articles and explore it in a different way than I have in the past. In my previous article about anxiety, I wrote about why games are a common coping mechanism for those who experience it. In this series, I wanted to approach things from a different point of view. Here, I will be examining how games can be used to show someone who has not experienced this kind of anxiety directly what goes into those feelings and thought processes, and how those of us who do experience it develop coping mechanisms and manage the things that happen in our lives.
It is no real secret that anxiety is becoming a greater and greater issue in modern society; yet it is something that not many people who haven’t experienced it are able to fully comprehend. It goes beyond simply being worried about something, and beyond even the idea of something bad happening in the future. Anxiety is a combination of mental and physical reactions that can make a person paralyzed in the face of a real or imagined crisis. Oftentimes, those of us who are experiencing extreme anxiety are faced with the difficult choice of dealing with what is going on in the present or stockpiling our resources (whether mental, physical, or emotional), to deal with whatever the next crisis will be. It doesn’t even matter if we are unaware what the next crisis is, we just know there is going to be one.
It can be said that the stories that we experience are one of the primary things that allow us to grow as humans, because they let us experience things that are outside of our direct base of knowledge. This is the reason I think that video games can be a very important narrative tool. When playing a narrative-driven video game, not only is the player reading about an experience, that player is directly involved in interacting with the experience. The best games, then, are the ones that can craft a narrative that is personally and directly relevant to a subject and can give a player insight into other experiences and points of view.
It is fitting, then, that one of the first articles that I write about this is on the subject of empathy. It is widely theorized that people achieve a greater sense of empathy with others when they have read stories told from other viewpoints. Empathy, as a trait, can be defined in this sense as the ability to care what is happening to another person to such an extent as to be able to emotionally connect to that person and relate to what they are going through oneself. Empathy for others is a large part of how humans have connected to each other throughout history; if one individual can know even a part of the pain of another, that individual becomes more invested in the removal or prevention of that pain, after all.
Optimism is not easy. This is something that most people don’t really think about. Most would consider optimism to be the default state of a person who has not seen enough of the world to know any different. There is a reason, after all, that the word ‘childlike’ is usually placed before the word and used to describe a state of naivetè that comes from inexperience. It is assumed by a great many people nowadays that once a person sees the world for ‘what it really is’, that person will, at the very least, shift from a perspective of ‘glass half full’ to ‘glass half empty’.
This manner of thinking is shown in video games a lot. As games strive to be a more ‘mature’ medium for storytelling, the settings and stories can, in a lot of cases, become very grim. Not that games are the only representation of these attitudes; dystopian fiction has enjoyed quite a run of success, and film has in recent years taken to deconstructing childhood heroes and showing their dark sides.
It’s refreshing, then, to experience a plot that shows that optimism is not solely a naive reaction, but can be a mature and informed choice that affects the way one views the world. And it is even more refreshing that this depiction of ‘intentional’ or ‘pragmatic’ optimism comes from a game that is in a great many ways a throwback to the same era of gaming that brought so many other evolutions to the kinds of stories that are acceptable in the medium.
[This article contains minor spoilers for the games in the Zero Escape series. I have, however, kept them vauge enough that they will only make sense if you’ve played the games.]
Let me tell you a story.
One day, a woman went running down a path that she had traveled many, many times in the past. This path has a fork in it, and normally this woman takes the right hand fork. This day, the woman sees a snail in the road, and in order to avoid it, she makes the split-second decision to take the left hand path instead.
This story is told by the character Zero in the third game of the Zero Escape series, Zero Time Dilemma. The story does not have a good ending, because in fact, ten minutes after this choice, the woman is dead. One choice destroyed her. That, in fact, is the point that Zero is trying to make here. One choice, no matter how inconsequential it seems at the time, can destroy us.
I know what you’re going to say: “Greg, you write about Final Fantasy a whole lot.” You would be right. I do write about it a whole lot. I think about it a whole lot, probably moreso than most other series. The fact is that I credit Final Fantasy as the reason I’ve always been into games. Sure, Legend of Zelda may have been my very first game, but it was Final Fantasy that hooked me, and Final Fantasy II (which, I would later find out, was the fourth game in the series) that solidified the hold that games have had on my life. It was just pretty amazing to me that a game could have a story to it, and I mean a real story with characters and interpersonal conflict.
So, I have this friend. We’ll call her ‘Lauren’, because, well, that’s what her name is. She plays a lot of video games, and plays a lot of music from a lot of video games, and is generally very enthusiastic about them to a degree that borders upon indescribable. She tends to criticize video game plots and characterization and themes because let’s face it, no matter how far video games have come in the past couple years, there have been just as many steps backwards. And besides, if one loves a thing, one should criticize it in the interests of making it better. I guess what I’m saying is, when Lauren recommends a game, I tend to listen to her because she puts a great deal of thought behind her recommendations. So, when she recommended that I play a little indie game by the name of Undertale, I paid attention.
I know, I know, I said I wasn’t going to write about games that were popular and that everyone already knew about. And here I am, writing about a game that everyone has at least heard something about in the past couple of months. But here we are.
I’m sure that anyone who reads this site, other sites, or has been on the internet at all in the past few days knows that there have been some pretty negative things that have been happening in the video game industry. I feel like there have been a great many other people who have been a great deal more personally affected by these things than I have been, and those people do a much better job of addressing the situation than I ever could.
So, I’m going to do the only thing I feel that I can do. I would like to list, briefly and in no particular order, the things related to video games that have made me and others happy, and which I think are positive things happening in the industry right now. Some of these things involve games I intend on reviewing at some point, and some of them are just observations I’ve made in the past month-ish.
There is a piece of advice that anyone who writes anything for the internet is given, at least once and usually multiple times: ‘Don’t post anything personal, they’ll eat you alive if you do’. And, thus far, with very few exceptions, I’ve stuck to that. I keep my personal stuff more or less offline, mostly because I don’t want to risk over-sharing. However, this time, I’m going to break that rule just a little bit so that I can talk, briefly, about my experiences with video games and anxiety disorder.
So, I have this friend. We’ll call him ‘Jeff”, because, well, that’s what his name is. He plays a lot of video games, and he usually finds some manner of fault with roughly 95% of them. Most of that fault is with the plot, because let’s face it, while video game plotwriting has come a very long way, it is oftentimes still lacking when compared with books and such. So when Jeff recommends a game to me based on the strength of its plot, I take notice. I take a lot of notice. Even if that game is something I may not ordinarily have picked up.