Critical Switch

Critical Switch is hosted by Austin Howe who is posting audio essays on games through this bandcamp. with guest appearances from other critics of note such as Zolani Stewart, Solon Scott, Heather Alexandra, and Devon Carter.

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Track Name: Zolani Stewart - F-Zero and The Language of Space

Welcome everyone to Critical Switch, the games criticism audio show by Austin Howe and myself. My name is Zolani Stewart, and it is good to be back!

There was no episode a couple of weeks ago. My computer blew out, the circuits were burnt, and it was done. But through help people in space I operate in, in this community, I was able to afford a new one. So I'd like to extend a thank you to everyone who contributed to that fund, and who shared my fund, you are the reason this sill exists!
And I also want to thank you,for continuing to listen to this show, you are the reason Austin and I do this, and your support is invaluable. If you would like to throw money at the show, you can do so at patreon, or you can share this with others in your internet space, and get us more listeners.

Today, I want to talk about F-Zero, Nintendo's retired racing series. It had a run from the super Nintendo right to the Nintendo Gamecube, with a slew of GBA and DS sequels, and then it just kind of cut off. And I want to use F-Zero, and some other games, to talk about Space as Narrative, which sounds a bit gimmicky, but it'll allow us to talk about how space has a progression similar to how a traditional narrative does, and what videogames do with this.

I'm going to mostly talk about F-Zero X, which was the Nintendo 64 sequel that came out in 1998. I'd say it's probably the best game in the series, and I think it's most applicable to what we want to talk about. It's also my personal favourite, but who cares, right? F-Zero X is a good example because you find its rhetoric in the ways it constructs its space and the ways it allows you to move through it. The game is not very diagetic, which means it is not descriptive, it doesn't spend a lot of time summarizing things through text, there's not a lot of text in the game, people aren't saying things, there's no dialogue. So what makes F-Zero what it is happens through its mimesis, which is a weird term, we could just say action instead, it's a lot easier, that F-Zero X happens through action, through objects in space that move and perform and do things. Not just objects but settings too, the way they're constructed and what they represent are right in front of us for us to engage with. So we can say that F-Zero X spends less time describing, more time enacting.

We can think of the action as just the racing parts themselves, and the descreptive elements as happening before and after every race. So before you start a race, you'll get a little preview of the track that will show you the model, and the name, and it'll also a really interesting one-sentence description with every track, and I really like that becuase it helps us conceptualize these very abstract settings, it gives us an idea of what the hell we're actually racing on. And then of course there's the back end of the race, where we find the scoreboards. We normally don't think of scoreboards as being diagetic, there are no scoreboards in books, but they are, they're descriptive elements that give us a specific kind of feedback through metrics.

So we see how the diagetic pieces are sort of padded onto both ends of the action. It moves from the descriptive, into the action, and back into the descriptive. It's the structure of an F-Zero race. And just like a piece of writing, like an essay that has an introduction, a body and a conclusion, we how F-Zero X is also using different forms of feedback and presentation to bring us into the experience, and then lead us out of it. So having a structure is important to F-Zero, especially because it doesn't have plot, it doesn't run on a narrative, so it needs other ways to pace itself and communicate its tone and its setting. And I think with that, we can move into the action itself.

So there's a language of space, right. And like how we see literature using words, and then structures those words to communicate certain ideas, and direct the experience, space also has a language, and it has structures and devices it can employ to create an experience, without ever needing a plot. So we'd be compelled to ask what the language of space actually implies. And I could do a whole episode on that, but to be brief and basic: When we make abstract painting, we don't want to make a white painting, because white paintings are boring, so we fill it with stuff, we put color on it. Colors are objects. And those objects dictate the space around it, and its their relationship with other objects that makes the piece what it is. The relationship between line and color, boundaries and space, are one of the prime conflicts in abstract art. In videogames, we don't want to walk around in infinite voidspace all day. Like the white painting, it gets old so we put objects, and boundaries to dictate the space, and, just like a piece of writing, to give the space a rythm, to give it a tone, a mood, a pace when we engage and move through those spaces.

So if we want to name some devices and structures used by the space: A room, a hallway, a door, a set of stairs. We can think of these as the building blocks, because they can be a lot of things. I normally think of a stairs as thing which stretch time outward, they're sort of intermediaries. Hallways as sort of anticipatory devices that build anticipation, but these can be a lot of things. Doors are interesting, because a Door contains the future. A door is a climax (x2). We open a door wondering what's going to be behind it. In literature the climax contains the dramatic question, the big question of the story. Will sally ask jenny out to the dance, will robert survive the car crash, will rouge x topaz be canon? And then the quetion is solved, we find out that RxT will no be canon, and the story resolves, where Zolani must resort to fan art for eternity. So we open the door to solve the big question, and what do we find? We find a dead body, or room of treasure, or nothing at all, so it's a big twist. And this is why doors are always very dramatic tools. I just wanted to give an example of what I meant.

In F-Zero X, every track is like a piece of work, like a piece of abstract sculpture. They're like literal works of art! They're named, and subtitled, and neatly placed in different groups. They feel like works because they're all so varied? They're using the same base ideas and tools to create different pieces. And they literally are, it's all built in the same track-making engine, you can get a mod of it. And like pieces, they have a progression, changes in tone and style. But they're not pieces of writing, they're not pieces of music So as a last example, we can pick one of these pieces to make our final point. So we can pick Fire Field.

The ramp is its chorus. The ramp is the most important part of this piece that we can call Fire Field. The whole space revolves around that ramp. After you get back off of it you're just building back up to it again. So it's the big show of it, Fire Field wouldn't be anything without that ramp, it'd just be a flat circle of a track. Just like if you take a musical piece that was built with a chorus, and take the chorus out it feels like its' building towards nothing.

So I guess thinking about F-Zero X this way, makes it a little more interesting, and hopefully makes it easier for us to appreciate what it's doing. It's important that we're able to think about the ways a game goes over ideas without a plot, it's important we're able to gauge different kinds of languages, when games aren't spelling it all out for us. And I think that thinking about space as a language helps us do that. If we want to be good art critics lol, we have to be able to understand the details of a work, and read the languages of aesthetics that apply to us. [tent]. And I hope today has helped you do that, and I hope you learned something! Because that concludes this episode.