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Extra Life


Brett Massé

Role playing games challenge philosophies of identity

There are innumerable layers of you, of who you are and what makes you unique from others. The complexity of an identity is as vast as the entire sea of electrons in existence. Who are you? Is it the sum of your parts? Is it what you hide or what you show?

There’s a hum coming from the TV and it’s harmoniously vibrating with the theme music of “Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen” on the Super Nintendo. The glow from the TV is softening the edges of the room, desaturating the color from the wood paneling on the walls and the offending mustard tint of the unrealistically proportioned couch. The song continues to loop as Angie is staring at the screen, contemplating something.

“Ogre Battle” is a Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) set in a fantasy world. Fans of the band Queen will recognize the title as being a mashup of two songs from Queen’s second album. JRPG fans will recognize it as an enormous, seemingly never-ending game with an absolutely savage grind more brutal than the original “Pokemon.” You play as the hero and fight in a confusing war against an abusive government, leading a “liberation army.” The plot is thick with interpersonal dynamics and power plays. Each decision, your alignment towards good or evil, who you recruit and who you kill, all play into your character and the outcome of the game’s ending. The beginning is especially weighted with consideration as you choose your name, gender, and other characteristics. You even sit through a tarot card reading, pulling randomly from a deck, catching glimpses of your fate.

Angie tells me this is always the hardest part of the game for her, deciding a name, shaping your protagonist. You aren’t required to take this much time when building any character, and I have typically just used the default name and stats to get the game going. It’s far easier to look to someone else to tell us who we are or who we need to be. For me it was always more comfortable to be Luigi, Tails, or whatever secondary character so long as someone else was making the bigger decisions.

Angie is an only child who had very loving, but frequently absent, parents. She credits a lot of the alone time for helping her shape a sizable self-awareness. This is different from the constant hearsay and reflections of yourself from others. Such methods of looking to others to define who we are feel comfortable and easy but are false representations! The kind of self-image you develop by conforming around others is not originating from you, but rather from what people say you are. Your level of self-awareness becomes transparent when you are shaped by what others have created for you. It’s incredibly difficult to see this, however, because there is no place more insecure than when we are standing alone. It feels much safer to hang the responsibility of our identities on something other than ourselves.

For the hero to serve Angie’s purposes and be someone new and different, she has to sit and consider who she, herself, is. The only way that she will sense growth in herself or a change of heart is by seeing all aspects of herself, including all the undesired details. Is she the kind of person that would want to lead a revolutionary army or find smaller joys in the day-to-day? If she finds complacency to be more aligned with what she wants, then perhaps her character ought to be similar so she can journey with that character through change. If she is feeling vengeful and angry, perhaps her character ought to be aggressive and forceful so that she can have an outlet for such feelings.

My furrowed eyebrows are starting to give me a headache. Seeing that it’s just a video game with a pretty straight-forward script, I suggest that she just go with whatever comes to mind so she can finally start playing and eventually beat the game. There’s a pause, long enough for me to know that’s definitely not going to happen. Finally she says, “That is not the point. I do not want to beat the game because I can. That is like arguing with someone just so you can be right.” From my perspective, it’s a story that you play through, assuming a role. But Angie disagrees. She continues, “If I wanted to just experience a feeling, I would play that way, but I am not comfortable with accepting another person’s opinions as my own. This game is allowing me to make my own opinions and they are just as valuable in this world. I am allowed to not have an opinion, too, and no one will fault me for it.”

I started playing a new game recently and it’s going to take forever to get through it because now I’m constantly wondering what’s coming from me and what’s coming from the default character. I’m wondering if I’ve been playing the game the writer’s way, or my way.

Brett Massé is currently playing “MirrorMoon EP” by Santa Ragione.