Recently, we had the opportunity to interview the people from With a Terrible Fate, a group of video game analysts who delve deeply into video game history and storytelling to make sense of how video games manage and portray storytelling. They had a lot of interesting answers, many of which give great insight into video games beyond the scope that many other video game enthusiasts dig into. Due to the length of the interview, its entirety is not written here. If you’d like to read the entire interview, head on over to With a Terrible Fate’s site to check it out.
How did With a Terrible Fate begin?
With a Terrible Fate is still a young site, so some of you may not have heard of them yet. They create and write very intricate and detailed video game theories and analysis. The website first started as a blog in 2014 around the time Majora’s Mask 3D was announced. Founder Aaron Suduiko stated, “I started studying philosophy in college at the same time that Nintendo announced its plan to remake Majora’s Mask for the 3DS. Dan, a friend of mine from high school, remarked to me that Majora’s Mask was ‘the most important video game of all time.'” That remark would become stuck in Aaron’s head, and, as he was deep into philosophy at the same time, he began connecting the two and playing with the idea of finding out what was philosophically interesting about Majora’s Mask’s story.
“I originally conceived of With a Terrible Fate as a way to prove that Majora’s Mask’s storytelling really was philosophically interesting.”
Aaron continued, “I originally conceived of With a Terrible Fate as a way to prove that Majora’s Mask’s storytelling really was philosophically interesting: I spent three months — the time from the remake’s announcement to its release — analyzing virtually every aspect of the game’s story in an effort to better understand what makes it such a compelling work of art.”
This would lead to two discoveries Aaron would make. The first was that Majora’s Mask wasn’t the only game with a unique way of storytelling; it was virtually every video game that was doing this, and these very games were advancing video game storytelling in ways that weren’t yet fully understood. The second discovery was that it wasn’t just philosophy at play in video games; instead, many academic fields of study had insights and the special stories to share with us that only a medium like video games could tell. These two fundamental discoveries would be what shaped With a Terrible Fate into what it is today.
Aaron explained that “in order to turn With a Terrible Fate into a space where everyone could analyze the storytelling of video games, I started publishing other people’s work on the site. The site also started analyzing games beyond Majora’s Mask, starting with my work on the role of the player in Xenoblade Chronicles. This would lead to a team of people who shared the same mission: to give everyone new tools for understanding and appreciating the storytelling of video games.”
What is a canon? Why build one?
When someone mentions the word “canon” in a franchise-based context, many will immediately jump to the well-known definition of the word: a collection of games, books, movies, etc., that are accepted as official part of the franchise. However, With a Terrible Fate’s definition of the word is a bit different. Yes, they use the word “canon” in its common-known context, but they also have a different definition. The WaTF team have a common goal of creating a video game canon –one that essentially “construct[s] the syllabus for a course on the ‘Great Books’ of video games,” as Aaron explained.
This differs from saying that Ocarina of Time is canon because it’s the basis for the entire Zelda timeline, as many first-timers to WaTF’s philosophy might confusedly assume, but that’s not the case entirely. Aaron explains that “we’re asking which video games have made crucial advances to the storytelling craft of the medium, and what exactly those advances were.”
With such a way of thinking, you might ask yourself what the benefits of creating a video game canon might be. Aaron and his team responded, “The benefits of establishing a video-game canon are fourfold. It establishes reference points for better thinking about our relationship to video games as a medium, it gives us functional standards that we can use to better assess the quality of video games, it provides a more precise analysis of the special elements of video-game storytelling, and it imparts a better understanding of what video games can do that other storytelling media can’t.”
There are already many established canons for other mediums, like books, but storytelling in video games is different. Dan explains that “video games put the player in the driver seat.” This interactivity is not a part of any other medium, so “because video games have a great deal to offer that no other medium can, they should be examined on their own,” Dan continued.
Building the video game canon
With a Terrible Fate is exploring the idea of a video game canon in an article series titled “Now Loading… The Video Game Canon!” When the series began, they established three goals:
- Establish an ‘in-between’ stage of analysis — The articles are full of analysis. They begin with first impressions that are then refined. Dan put it simply, “Now Loading was an idea we had to bridge the gap between first impression and deep, critical analysis.”
- Create a reference guide to the great video-game works — Dan said it was “prudent to create a reference guide that provides some basic information” and that, “if someone hasn’t played a particular game, they could turn to Now Loading.”
- Structure the articles in an engaging way to promote conversation — They sought not only to write articles anyone could enjoy but also to write articles in a format anyone could copy. Dan suggested, “If someone reads my article on The Legend of Dragoon, say, and doesn’t agree with my decision to leave it out of the canon, they can easily write a response piece in the same format.”
When asked when the canon will be complete, Dan hopes that it will never be at that point. “If we ever feel as if we’ve ‘completed’ the video game canon, then we have ultimately failed in what we have set out to do,” he explained. “A huge issue with other academic canons is their rigidity and unwillingness to accept new arguments or different points of view.” As they build the video game canon, Dan and Aaron are encountering that same issue and others, notably, “personal experience.”
“If we ever feel as if we’ve ‘completed’ the video game canon, then we have ultimately failed in what we have set out to do.”
Because video games are an interactive medium, each player’s personal experience is “just as important to analyze as the story, gameplay, or visuals,” Dan explained. Their goal is not to turn down other’s opinions; they seek to start a conversation. In this way, no game is ever completely off limits. The discussion can return to any game as new experiences are explained. Dan concludes that completing the canon would mean “the end of the discussion.”
Hardware can change the story
The canon of works is not the only topic that With a Terrible Fate covers. One notable article suggests that the Nintendo Switch has the potential revolutionize the players’ relationship with characters and avatars in video games. When asked for details, Aaron explained that this idea was originally explored with the Nintendo 3DS, “The seeds for that article about the Switch came from my original work on Majora’s Mask. While I was waiting for Majora’s Mask 3D to come out, I wrote an article speculating about how Majora’s Mask’s story might change by being represented on the portable console of the 3DS. (Later, when I analyzed Majora’s Mask 3D after its release, I concluded that the change in console does indeed change the story.)”
It is an interesting concept. We often think about how advances in hardware or radical new ideas, like the Wii in 2006, can change how we play, but the features and limitations of the hardware may also influence the stories that can be told.
Because the Nintendo Switch is both a traditional console and a handheld, Aaron suggests that it has the ability to establish new relationships between the player and the avatar, the game’s world, and even other players of the same game. Aaron includes possible examples of this new relationship in his article.
“A video game’s story is not identical with its plot”
Aaron also explained how this concept is at the heart of every piece of content they publish. “In order to fully understand and appreciate the storytelling of video games, you need to analyze video games holistically. A video game’s story is not identical with its plot: everything from music to user interface to hardware is a part of the cohesive story that a gamer experiences when she plays through a game.”
See With A Terrible Fate in person at PAX East
A small group of Zelda Universe team members were in attendance at the With A Terrible Fate panel at PAX South in January 2018. We had no idea what to expect when we arrived, but we left impressed! So, it’s no surprise that their team will also be at PAX East next week, but this time they have three panels!
Thursday: “Can Fan Fiction Teach Us About the Official Zelda Timeline?”
The first panel on Thursday is about their ongoing series, the “Hero of Time Project.” Two of their analysts are working on writing analytic fan fiction. That is, a fan-written video-game story intended to fill the gap between Majora’s Mask and Twilight Princess, but also to provide an entirely new way of understanding the Zelda series. The panel will discuss the concepts of fan fiction and analytic fan fiction and the motivations behind the project.
Thursday: “Which Games Belong in the Video Game Canon”
The second panel on Thursday focuses on the topics we discussed in the interview: their ongoing series “Now Loading… The Video Game Canon!” This panel is similar to what our team saw at PAX South. During the first half, they will elaborate on canon-centric issues: what is it and why do we need it? The second half of the panel is an open discussion with the audience about whether or not a particular game belongs in the canon. Attendees will vote, live, to discuss one of ten games. Portal was discussed at PAX South, and they are excited to see where the conversation goes at PAX East.
Friday: “Sequels, Series, DLC: How Games are Changing Storytelling.”
On Friday, four members of the With A Terrible Fate team will explore how video game storytelling is evolving. For example, many video games are now telling stories episodically. The team will explore how these new tactics are changing the storytelling. The presentation has three parts exploring popular games: Dark Souls III, The Legend of Zelda series, and Okami.
If you’d like to read the rest of this interview, head on over to With a Terrible Fate’s site!
Joshua Lindquist also contributed to this project.