One Piece, One Piece: World Seeker, and Introspection – Unfocused Commentary
Videogames are an interesting medium with a contentious name. Some videogames provide players with open spaces for them to navigate and explore. Other videogames let players create their own rules. Others still are virtual representations of board games or real life games, while a large number of videogames are stories that players navigate through. Some videogames even have little, if any, components that anyone could recognize as a game. Indeed, videogames can sometimes be games and other times they can be gameless stories, but they are always something that the player (another contentious term as sometimes the player is more of a reader) experiences. For the past few years, I have dedicated my time researching the rhetoric and composition of games. I have presented and published on games as rhetorical texts, and my focus has always been, to borrow a trope from literary studies, “the game itself.” Indeed, I have a book coming out later this year on the composition of games – one of a three part series, and what Reviewer 4 said was “a magnificent text that brings closure to the Bogost / Ensslin era of game studies.” So, having done everything I set out to do with regards to what videogames are, I turned my gaze inwards to engage in a bit of much needed introspection and asked myself: how do videogames make me feel? This question can be interpreted in two ways. First, it can be taken as “what are the processes by which videogames make players feel?” I’m not too concerned with that question (yet). Instead, I asked it in its second sense: what are the feelings that videogames elicit from me when I play?
Indeed, the results are as variable as there are games. When I played Tetris Effect I felt somehow exhilarated and relaxed at the same time, whereas playing One Piece: Pirate Warriors 3 just made me feel fun (whatever that is). Final Fantasy XV made me reflect on narrative and storytelling and on character relationships, while Detroit: Become Human made me question the nature of humanity. Different videogames have made me feel different things, but those feelings have always been, to some extent, consistent with the game’s design. The opening moments of Heavy Rain want to make the player feel stressed out and, eventually, sad, and it succeeds at doing so. The Pokemon games want players to feel the need to collect Pokemon – to put the player in that “Gotta’ Catch ‘em All” mindset, and indeed that it what I feel whenever I play a Pokemon game. But this last weekend I realized something… off… when I was playing One Piece: World Seeker.
World Seeker is an open world One Piece game where players control Luffy as he runs around the island helping the islanders, aiding his nakama (pirate friends), and fighting the Marines. The controls are serviceable enough, and the fight controls and strategies are easy to learn but difficult to master. Traversal can be interesting, and if the game had been released before Spider Man I would be in love with it. The Gomu Gomu No Rocket and the UFO move that let him fly around the island are a fun traversal method, but one that is by far outclassed by Spider Man’s similar web-swinging mechanic. The battles are fine – Luffy can take on 5 to 10 enemies at a time and some of the stronger enemies require strategy and patience to defeat – but that’s not a major spectacle after playing Pirate Warriors and seeing Luffy use the same moves to take down hundreds of characters. On top of that, the cities seem deserted and the crafting system is mostly pointless. As I played the game, I kept thinking “this is fine” – and that is the main crux of the game. It’s at best a B – game. The story, however, was fairly interesting.
Luffy and crew went to the Sky Prison because of some sort of treasure. Luffy infiltrated the prison while his crew did recon in the island that supports it – an island where the Marines are mining gems that can be used as a weapon. Luffy screws up and just barely escapes the Sky Prison, and upon landing on the island below he discovers that his nakama are scattered throughout the island. Some of them have been captured by the navy and others are helping the islanders. As Luffy sets off to rescue / reunite with his crew, he discovers that the islanders are split. There is a pro Marines faction and an anti Marines faction. On top of that, the island has become a pirate gathering place and Germa 66, the Admirals, and the Revolutionary Army are converging in the island. The daughter of one of the former leaders, an anti Marines leader and the sister of the Sky Prison warden, asks Luffy for help in rallying the islanders and getting them to stop hostilities between each other, and while helping her Luffy uncovers a plot to use the island’s gems – gems whose power rivals that of the Legendary Weapons – to subdue the world’s governments and destroy the Celestial Dragons.
If none of the previous paragraph made sense, that’s fine. The story is written for fans of One Piece, and as such it works really well. As I played, I found myself wanting to see more of the story. The more I played the more I wanted to see Luffy and his nakama learn more about the island and uncover the plot.
However, as I played, I also found myself wishing that I didn’t have to play. I wanted to skip all battles, traversal, upgrades, and exploring. It all seemed like a chore. I wasn’t playing the game for the game, I was playing it for the story.
This was an odd feeling, because when I watch One Piece, the anime, I don’t care about the story. When Luffy went to Skypea, I didn’t care about God Enel’s back story or his henchmen’s tragic past. I didn’t care that Gan Fall was previous god, and I only cared that there was some kind of revolution between Wiper’s forces and Enel only in so far as it allowed for fighting.
When watching the anime, I really didn’t care about the story behind Water 7 or whatever was happening there with Cipher Pol 9, and the only story beat I cared about when they went to rescue Robin was that Robin wanted to live. More recently, I got incredibly annoyed at the 20+ episodes detailing Luffy’s childhood with Ace and Sabo (this could have been done in 3 – 4 episodes), and even more so with the still-ongoing story recaps. The most annoying thing about the Whole Cake Island Saga? Mama’s background story. A close second? Katakuri’s trauma. When watching the anime, I really didn’t want any story development. Instead, I wanted to see the action.
Fights in One Piece are really cool. Even though Dragon Ball has more spectacle, One Piece has more of a sense of urgency. Even though there is SOME power creep, it’s not too bad. They went from Captain Morgan (a strong dude with an axe for a hand) to Literally God of Lightning in 300 episodes, and after Enel (whom Luffy beat only because he was made of rubber, and even then it wasn’t a total victory) the other enemies didn’t seem as threatening for a while, yet they still managed to be threatening enough to make the viewer wonder “how will Luffy get out of this one?”
The thing about Luffy is that he doesn’t always win. That’s what makes him a cool hero. He always survives, but he doesn’t always win. We saw this when he fought Pigeon Guy – Luffy went all out and the whole thing ended in a tie. He survived because of luck and soda. Even though he barely beat Don Flamingo, there were several episodes where it wasn’t sure he would win. Against Katakuri, Luffy “won” because he had someone to carry him out of the mirror zone, but realistically he tied against Katakuri. And ultimately he lost against Mama – he rescued Sanji (his goal) but he still failed to take her down, which was his stated goal during the Fishman Island saga.
Unlike Kakarot who always wins, Luffy has tied or lost often. Sometimes, his brother is killed in front of him and he can do nothing. This kind of stress is what makes the battles in the One Piece anime so compelling. And this is why more often than not I wanted the series to skip the storytelling and go straight to the action.
Now here’s the interesting observation.
Anime is a visual media whose capacity for storytelling has been explored extensively both by practitioners and scholars alike. The medium is all about encouraging the viewer to sit and consume the story passively. On the other hand, videogames are an active medium. Although not as thoroughly researched as anime, we know that the purpose of videogames is, more often than not, to make the player engage in some kind of action. Videogames – at least videogames like World Seeker – are supposed to favor action over storytelling.
But there I was feeling conflicted. I wanted more story from my interactive game-focused medium and more action from my passive visual narrative focused medium. What can we call this feeling?
After speaking with a colleague for a while (thanks Andrew!) he reminded me of ludonarrative dissonance – the concept that sometimes the story of a game and the rules of play are at odds with each other – and how I expand that concept in my own book. In my book, I refer to ludovisual dissonance (when visuals and play are at odds – for example, violent mechanics with colorful happy visuals as is the case with McDonalds The Game), narratovisual dissonance (not exclusive to games, when the narrative and aesthetics are at odds, as is the case with Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared), and their “harmony” counterparts (when the elements work with each other instead of being at odds). He then suggested that I introduce a new variable into the equation: ludo-player dissonance.
I haven’t fully thought through the concept, but I think it harkens back to the whole “the only way to win is to not play” meme from Spec Ops: The Line. Games make demands on players – this is something that has been well documented. Sometimes, players don’t take those demands well and they disengage, they stop playing, they finish the game because of the sunk cost fallacy but don’t enjoy it, etc. Whatever the case, even though the game is telling the player “play me” the player feels like they don’t want to. That’s a similar effect to what I felt when playing World Seeker. It’s not that I didn’t like it, I did it was an ok game. It’s not that it wasn’t fun, it was to some extent (though not as fun as Spider Man). It just felt like it could do with a lot less game and a lot more story. Likewise, the One Piece anime might suffer from narrato-viewer dissonance – it wants to tell a story, but the viewer just doesn’t care.
Now, when I started this post I said that I would do some introspection, and that’s what makes this concept interesting (to me at least). My comments about how One Piece is X and World Seeker is Y are by no means an objective assessment. As I discussed with my colleague Andrew, whether a player / viewer / reader feels any kind of -player dissonance is a variable with almost as many possibilities as there are people. You see, dear reader, while it’s simple enough to figure out the story of a game and then contrast that with the mechanics, visuals, and aural design (ok it’s not easy and indeed it requires training and/or experience, but it’s something that can reliably be proven), figuring out what the player feels is a far more gargantuan task. When it comes to rhetoric, there’s a whole theory dedicated to thinking about these things that overlaps with empirical research: reader response theory / research.
Perhaps inquiries player-response is in the future.
Posted on June 22, 2019, in Film Commentary, Video Game Commentary and tagged anime, dissonance, harmony, luffy, one piece, one piece world seeker, video games, world seeker. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.