Two Minute Game Crit – Drama and Composition

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Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit and I am Stephen Beirne.

Final Fantasy VII was a masterclass in storytelling. We’ve no shortage of dramatic, epic, expensive games these days, so the fact that a game might have Themes isn’t so unusual now as it was in 1997.

But what makes Final Fantasy VII so impressive, even by today’s standards, is how it related the drama through its broader composition, such as: its recurring motifs of a combined heaven and earth; the use of space and geometry to differentiate wealth from poverty; and the precariously attuned relationship of nature and technology.

One of my favourite things about it, though, is how it ties in themes of identity and existentialism.

There’s tons of scenes we could use to sample this but the best is probably this one here, during Cloud’s flashback to the Nibelheim Incident. Sephiroth‘s having a crisis of identity, and he locks himself in the library of the Shinra mansion while he researches his origins.

The way this scene is shot tells us that the farther he goes through the corridor, the deeper he delves into his past, and the more it affects his perception of his identity. Even though he’s kept centred on-screen, his stature diminishes, and he’s obscured by all the books piling after him.

When Cloud returns to check on Sephiroth, his whole demeanour has changed. The shot of the library’s corridor is repeated but now with reversed connotations. He strides right up to the camera, and takes a dominant position in the foreground, making good use of the Futch angle. There’s nothing this time to clutter him from view, and his trajectory brings him out from the diminished place of his existential crisis to this point here, large and emboldened.

The symmetry tells us a lot about his dramatic change in character, so this shot serves as a nice reference for when Sephiroth became a villain.

This is also matched in other structural ways on either side of the scene, like changes in his speech patterns and combat behaviour. Whereas before he used to revive people, after leaving the Shinra mansion…


There’s no doubt he’s a villain at this point.

So the next time you come across a story-focused game, have a think about its composition and how it reflects its drama.

Kanoguti’s Walking Mesmerize

Kanoguti's Walking Mesmerize

Words and artwork by Stephen Beirne. This piece is community funded. If you enjoyed this article, please support my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron. 

Kanoguti’s Walking is the quintessential walking simulator—sorry, phantom ride. The core conceit is you must oblige yourself to move through the length of a straight, linear corridor in search of meaning, granted through a number of less tangible avenues than is usual for a medium predicated on make-believe.

To this end, Walking slightly resembles titles like Sophie Houlden’s stripped-down The Linear RPG. It’s similar in that you walk a line in lieu of a corridor but differs by its message being more conspicuous to a wayward player. The Linear RPG flaunts the language of RPGs, but not their mechanics, to elicit what many read as a critique of the genre’s modern degradation. It stays aloof and above its kin while allowing the presence of structural similarities, seeming enough like an RPG to remind us of its generic subject matter without becoming it intricately.

Both videogames engineer their messages through reductionist sentiments; they have the luxury of drawing on oceans of precedent to form the basis of communally available metatextual foundation. While Sophie Houlden uses this embedded self-reflection to perform genre reference and (potential) satire, Kanoguti chooses instead to make the player the burgeoning subject matter.

Walking uses only two buttons in mutual exclusivity: one to move forward, and one to crane your neck around to look behind you. Releasing the latter button turns the camera back to its default direction, so you’ll never be able to spin on your heel and head off right the way you came. This initially jars against what we might expect from this sort of videogame: strict restrictions on our trajectory confine and repel, denying us the core appeal of wandering in Proteus or exploration in Bernband.

As a mechanic ‘looking back’ is a novelty, and as we adjust our mental model to fit these unexpected parameters, a curiosity. Why do I have the ability to look around if my path can’t be altered? Why would I want to re-examine the length of the corridor I’ve only just trod? What is ‘looking back’ for? It seems a thing-in-itself, the option to look back the way we came. Juxtaposed against the conventional ability to look around freely in games far and wide it’s ambiguously suggested as a statement, perhaps on all we take for granted, perhaps on the inexorable march of time.

There are a few motifs shared among Kanoguti’s videogames and software, many of which I can’t link directly but you can find here, that illustrate an interest in patterned structures. Sokoe Nobotte and Repeating Stories cycle us upward in space and forward in time before reversing to their origins in tumultuous climax. Evird3D speeds us down an eternal road to rack up a score; Watching fixes us in place while spying on a man creeping away and crashing towards us. Paradise MV hypnotises us with loops of geometry and music, while Re-SMP invites us to make our own loops.

Some of these thread what could be described as elements of horror to affect a sense of disruption inside their composition. Like Walking, Mortuary recalls more common systems of first-person perspective games while withholding the archetype as a whole: we can look freely at the boxed enclosure of a doll’s face but are unable to move, forcing us to writhe in witness as it melts to nothing. Although our powerlessness is important here, we are not stricken as passive due to all that we lack; rather, the act of looking, and our role as witness, is heightened to superluminal through our own raised self-consciousness.

While this runs counter to much conventional thought on the relationship between player and videogame, I should note that it works for Kanoguti because they swing us between the two states of sublime and superluminal by keying into the therapeutic nature of repetitious behaviour.

In allowing our minds to wander during a routine task, we grow self-suggestive and lull into a daze. Jolting us back into alert with a shock (a jump scare or unexpected twist) provokes us to become hyper self-aware[1]. We blush in realisation at our self-involvement—perception of ourselves as filtered through how we are seen by others. Trapped under another’s gaze, we’re reminded of being fundamentally perceptible creatures.

This is what Walking does extravagantly.

You play, anyway, and soon you grow accustomed to the hallway’s unpredictable and frightening nature. As your feet rhythmically beat out the steady crunch of a gravel path, the two-button layout maybe endears itself. Autonomy falls away behind you. You relinquish the old desire to turn and change directions, slowly mesmerized by the disturbing flow of music and imagery.

Dead in front of you, the flash of a white face stops your tracks. Trick of the mind? The walls themselves flutter through a ménage of now-familiar wallpaper—wisping clouds, human outlines—such that you’d drifted beneath the lip of consciousness. That brief white flick could have been the brow of a cloud, could have been a disappearing texture, could have been, could have been…

You resume on your path, now recalling the other thing allowed of you. A good hard look behind confirms nothing to be seen. Uncertainty in your vision seeds paranoia, turning back to glance across your shoulder every few feet now. The repeated stopping and starting achieves little except to impede progress, so you peter out that behaviour to make good your travel down the corridor. But the seed sits heavy in the pit of your gut, and every couple of minutes you remember to look back the way you came.

A monster is facing you. Impossibly tall, its head brushes the ceiling; its arms gradually end in long, curved claws stretching down below its waist; a small face cracked by a playful smile. It stands still, dormant, patiently watching.

You’re afraid to blink, afraid to move, until you decide, it seems, the monster is content just to survey for now. But still you can’t move because you’re facing the wrong way. As you unfreeze the muscles in your neck, you calm yourself into a course of action. It plays with you; do you play back and test the waters? See how you can affect its presence. See if you can exert some control.

You release the button and slam it again to catch the monster in an act. It’s gone. Nothing there now but the empty space of the corridor and the impenetrable curtain of shadow beyond. But it was there, you know with absolute certainty. You didn’t imagine this one. And it’s still there, inside the gloom. Haunting you. Stalking you. The daydream is shredded. Under its gaze you’re irrevocably changed.



[1] In the language of phenomenology, ‘pre-reflective self-consciousness.’ Calling it by this name is akin to using a ouiji board to summon the ghost of Wank Academia, so I’ve relegated this trivia to a footnote.

Two Minute Game Crit – Exoptable Money


This video is community funded. To support my work and help me make more of these, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.


Hello, I’m Stephen Beirne, you can find me in longform at Normally Rascal.

Here’s a game called Exoptable Money made by someone named Wertpol. The premise is, you’ve come across this mysterious box that churns out money – not an ATM though – and you’ve taken it home to have it do just that and make you rich.

It is the best staring-at-a-box-making-money simulator that I’ve ever played.

You can spend your money on upgrades to have it produce more money, and then things like sapphires and other unlockable things and a cat which pops up onscreen and when you hover over the cat it loves you.

Sometimes when you make a purchase you receive a letter from a couple of interested parties… who are all bastards. They’re just interested in your money. All things considered, you might not be surprised to hear it’s a game about capitalism.

Wertpol’s made another game more recently called Presentable Liberty, which is also about capitalism. You’re imprisoned in an empty cell with nothing to do but you’ve got these penpals who write you letters and tell you about the world, and gradually send gifts to help you stave off the boredom.

Before long I got this weird sense of the cell as this kind of familiar, cosy space while also being frustrated with all these shite gifts, coupled with my penpals’ paper-thin infatuation with me. Like they’re only there to endear my incarceration and flatter my ego. But their efforts to placate me made me hollow and angry.

I see some people writing how they got this profound human connection out of these penpals’ correspondence and it’s like Jesus Christ ye are probably the same people who fell in love with Yorda from Ico. They’re not characters, they’re morphine drips.

Anyway, in Presentable Liberty you’re the capitalistic idea of a consumer, whereas in Exoptable Money you’re a capitalist yourself, making money in order to be able to make more money and all that

Initially it’s great, living the fantasy of having money just trickling in and becoming richer and richer. After a while, sitting there watching cash falling out of the box becomes kind of hypnotic, the flapping of notes and the clinking of coins forms a melody together with the slow, entrancing background music.

And the game goes on and on until making money loses its fantasy and aesthetic appeal. But there’s still things to unlock so you keep plugging away joylessly, buying things to make more money to buy more things to make more money.

I won’t spoil it but there’s an exact moment when you know you’ve lost a bit of your soul in the pursuit of boundless riches. It gets more and more gruesome until by the end everything’s destroyed and your transformation into a capitalist is complete.

So support me on patreon!

I’m Stephen Beirne and you can find me at these places. Thanks for watching.

Detestable Presentable Liberty

Detestable Presentable Liberty

Words and artwork by Stephen Beirne. This piece is community funded – if you enjoyed this article and would like the header image for a wallpaper, please support my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron. 

Spoilers for Presentable Liberty, a game by Wertpol. You don’t have to have played it before reading on but it’s well worth your time.

Speaking to Abnormal Mapping on the devastation capitalism wrecks on labourers forced to exist in its spaces, Lana Polansky says of a friend working in the games industry:

“He said to me verbatim, ‘I know I sold my soul to the devil for a decent paycheque.’ […] I said to him, you know, I have no job stability and I had to fight tooth and nail to get a decent income. After four or three years of working I had to fight for an additional year to busk for the money I have now. But at least I have my freedom. I have no stability and no benefits.”

This came in context of, among many things, the banjaxed atrocity that was Assassin’s Creed Unity, and its predecessor Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag’s modern day setting of Abstergo Entertainment, alluding to Ubisoft as a soulless totalitarian videogame company. Both were regarded by the larger games press with all the detachment of a contented dilettante, unable to connect their subtext and inoperability with the working conditions that inspired the end result.

On Unity’s release, many folks were more interested in lamenting ‘patch culture’ than in calling for labour unionization, despite the clue being in the title. As examples go, it is just one raindrop in a torrent. I have to indict myself in this too, because we are a culture bred to consume simply in order to fulfil ideals of consumerism. There’s no time to consider the human cost of our purchases; we must feast. Continue reading

Final Fantasy VII: Camera and Composition – Part 3

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition Part 3

[This piece was first published exclusively to patrons at Final Fantasy VII: Camera and Composition – Part 3. What was originally an excerpt of the piece here has been edited to contain the whole text as of 11th February 2015. If you like what you see and wish to support my writing while gaining access to patron-exclusive articles (one per month) and artwork, zoom on over to Patreon and sign up as a patron.]

All throughout the story of Final Fantasy VII, Sephiroth taunts our hero Cloud over deep-seated uncertainty of his identity. Cloud is a puppet, a military goon, a freelance nobody. He is a lost child, a second-hand personality, a repressed psyche. Although Cloud tries to overcome it, he eventually crumbles under the truth of it all. And then he builds himself back up, by acknowledging these factors of his existence as a part of reality he simply must accept.

But Sephiroth is above this. He considers himself a transcendent being, the only one on the planet of true significance, the only one real. Sephiroth’s bliss is his folly.

In previous articles on Final Fantasy VII’s composition, we examined how its form is dedicated to the task of communicating its many interlocking themes. We saw how visual symmetry can signify the spiritual harmony of a scene’s key inhabitants, and how the past looms large on our heroes’ trials to come. We noticed the subtle ways Cloud’s identity becomes a subject of doubt and distance for us as players. And we met a great big dragon.

Now we’re knee-deep in the Nibelheim Incident. Cloud, Sephiroth, Tifa et al are ready to hike up to the Reactor on the nearby mountaintop, where they hope to discover what has been causing a sudden boom in monster attacks. We’ll find out soon how all these threads are drawn together in beautiful compositional affect. Continue reading